Look, we all get it. He’s based on Odin of Norse mythology. He’s good-natured and kind, and he’s also an otherworldly being with some macro concerns that are hard for mere mortals to conceive. But Gandalf the Grey had plenty of faults, and one of his biggest was withholding information from people to suit his particular plans.
Yeah, it all worked out in the end and Middle-earth was saved from darkness. But some communication would not have killed the guy.
1. You’re Heading to the Mountain to Reclaim Your Heritage, But I Really Just Need You to Kill This Dragon
A bunch of dwarves and their wizard pal show up on Bilbo Baggins’s doorstep, eat all his food, and propose to him. (Will you be our burglar?) They tell him that they must go to the Lonely Mountain to reclaim what is rightfully theirs, a kingdom full of treasure that was stolen by a great dragon. Their rightful king, Thorin, is kind of a pompous guy, but the point is sound; the dwarves are essentially a refugee people, driven from their homeland and their sovereignty by a greedy giant wyrm. Greed still causes too much trouble in the end, and also demands of reparations from the wood-elves and the people of Laketown; a giant battle ensues that leads to Thorin’s death, and brings an end to his baker’s dozen band of brothers, plus Bilbo.
But Gandalf was pulling for this little adventure to go down for one particular reason: the Lonely Mountain had a dragon problem. One that Gandalf didn’t want to see used for nefarious purposes. It’s never made clear whether Sauron would have had control over Smaug (seeing as Sauron was a lieutenant of Morgoth, the guy responsible for making most of the scary stuff on Middle-earth), or just have been able to convince him to join his side once he had amassed more power, but Gandalf was definitely concerned about having a great big dragon around to help the bad guys. So helping Thorin was largely a means to an end, one that he neglected to mention. Seeing as the aftermath of this adventure led to the deaths of Thorin and his kin, it would have been nice to bring up maybe once.
2. Being a Ring-bearer Won’t Stop Your Home From Becoming a Casualty
Nothing quite like telling a kid who’s just come of age to hold onto the most evil item in the world without really explaining what it is, then showing up seventeen years later and being like “Hey, so that thing I left here is maybe the most important item in the world currently and your location was compromised, so you should probably hightail it to elven territory.” Gandalf does his best to make it clear that the Ring does terrible things to its bearers. He almost prepares Frodo properly for the burden it will place on his soul. To be fair, it’s hard to communicate that sort of thing to a person who hasn’t really seen the kind of darkness Sauron is capable of raining down.
But Frodo and his hobbit compatriots sign up for this journey with one major caveat—they want to protect their home. They honestly believe that if they can defeat Sauron in time, the Shire won’t get hit in this war. And Gandalf doesn’t really disabuse them of that notion. Others do, certainly, particularly once Frodo looks into Galadriel’s fancy mirror. But it would have been nice of Gandalf to be a little more forthcoming in that regard. He’s closer to them than all the elves are and they trust him, so it might have been a little less jarring coming from him. After all, knowing that your home will inevitably be drawn into the fray is still a good reason to get out there into the world an do something about it.
3. Sorry I’m Acting Like an Ass, Being Resurrected Kinda Futzed With My Memories
You know when you die, but then you’re resurrected in a newer, fancier form? Gandalf seems to leave his compatriots in the Mines of Moria when they startle a Balrog into wakefulness, but the Valar (who are basically the gods of the Middle-earth) bring him back to life with an upgrade: He goes from being Gandalf the Grey to Gandalf the White, a promotion for him and an intentional demotion to old head of the wizard order, Saruman the White (because he’s been hanging out with the bad kids, making nastier soldiers and ripping up forests). While Gandalf’s friends are delighted to see him returned, they are a bit perplexed by his manner when he arrives. Namely the fact that he doesn’t seem to care much about any of them despite their previously ingrained bonds of fellowship.
Turns out being brought back to life makes you forget the previous one for a bit. But rather than making that clear from the get-go, Gandalf just goes around being full of purpose and utterly dismissive of his comrades. It would have taken him literally ten seconds to correct this. I understand that wizards are kinda the kings of brevity in all places where you wish they weren’t, but this would have prevented a whole lot of head-scratching and assumable hurt feelings. “Sorry, I don’t really remember you that well right now! Give me, like, a week. I promise I’ll care about you then.” Being dead is weird, coming back is weirder, but your friends are still your friends.
4. Peregrin Took, You Should Not Touch the Palantir BECAUSE IT’S EVIL
This one is pretty obvious because Gandalf even admits that he screwed up. He took the Palantir from Saurman and told Pippin not to look at it… but he gave no explanation as to why that would be important. None whatsoever. To Pippin. The baby of the group. The one he constantly decries for being foolish and clumsy and thoughtless. The member of the Fellowship who seems to distill all the hobbit potential for curiosity into one pint-sized package. And Gandalf just says “No don’t touch that thing because I said so.”
Really? It would have taken too many words just to say “Hey, this thing is super dangerous and will lead the enemy right to us.” Would it have been so hard to give Peregrin Took the tools he needed not to wreck everything? Fool of a Took indeed. Methinks the wizard doth protest to much and should maybe take a look in the mirror next time.
5. LOL After I Take This Horse, No One Else Will Be Able to Ride Him
We’ve established that Gandalf is a fan of doing his own thing without letting people onto his plans, but then there’s the matter of Shadowfax. You know. The lord of horses. The greatest equine in the history of Rohan and all its horse-riding peoples. Gandalf has a moment where he needs some help from King Théoden, and asks if he can borrow a ride for the next part of his journey. And Théoden is very chill about this request and kindly tells old Stormcrow that he can pick a horse and be on his way. So Gandalf picks the greatest of the lot without telling anyone that he plans to do so, and speeds away on the fly-est horse that Rohan has ever known.
It gets better, though. Because Gandalf isn’t a man, he’s a Maiar—essentially an angel in human form. (I am aware that it’s more complex than that, don’t @ me Tolkien fans.) And because he’s such a fancy, special guy, Shadowfax decides that mere humans are not good enough for him anymore. So not only did Gandalf broadly interpret Théoden’s offer by nabbing a horse that he should have respectfully let alone, but after he brings said horse back no one else can ride him. (Unless Gandalf asks him to. Really nicely.) Shadowfax is spoiled for riders now that he has been in Gandalf’s presence for long enough. You might as well give him the horse after that, which Théoden does, presumably because it’s easier than getting into a fight with an angel-wizard.
That’s kind of a dick move, Mithrandir.