In this biweekly series, we’re exploring the evolution of both major and minor figures in Tolkien’s legendarium, tracing the transformations of these characters through drafts and early manuscripts through to the finished work. This week’s installment, by special request, takes a look at some of the more obscure aspects of the beloved and mysterious wizard Gandalf.
Gandalf is, without a doubt, one of J.R.R. Tolkien’s most iconic characters. The wizard’s good-hearted, grumpy, mysterious persona has influenced more than a few modern wizards (we won’t name names), and few who have encountered him, whether in Middle-earth or in our primary world, leave the experience unchanged. While he doesn’t seem to be a common favorite among younger readers (check out Luke Shelton’s work on readers’ experiences with The Lord of the Rings for more info), Gandalf tends to make an impact on adults, who find themselves drawn to his dry wit, his gruff kindness, and his commitment to doing what needs to be done and saying what needs to be said regardless of consequences. And in the wake of Ian McKellan’s masterful portrayal of the old wizard in Peter Jackson’s adaptations…well, suffice it to say that Gandalf has quite a legacy.
If we turn around, looking in the other direction, we can see the wizard’s past. Critics generally agree that JRRT was inspired by a couple of important mythological figures: Gandalf is, in one sense, an important Christ-figure in the story, but he’s also a creative reincarnation of Odin, the Norse All-father, and also of Väinämöinen, the singing, spell-casting wizard of the Finnish Kalevala. But of course, Gandalf—or Mithrandir, or Olórin—isn’t simply a sum of those few parts.
He makes his first appearance in Middle-earth by walking up to Bag End on a beautiful morning, poised and ready to ruffle some Hobbit feathers. The character is relatively simplistic in The Hobbit, but it’s here that we get the bones of who Gandalf will become. He’s secretive, a bit bossy, and has an unfortunate tendency to disappear suddenly, reappearing quite out of the blue and usually with impeccable timing. JRRT only loosely explains these absences; Christopher Tolkien notes that at that point they were little more than plot devices contrived to leave the dwarves and Bilbo on their own (The Lost Road, hereafter LR, 25). Gandalf’s propensity to dash off with no warning only comes to life with The Lord of the Rings, when we learn that he and the White Council were dealing with the Necromancer—the enemy, Sauron, returned from his first defeat.
Gandalf’s characterization gradually gains depth as JRRT developed the plot of The Lord of the Rings. As the danger of Sauron and his Ring become more pronounced, more deadly, so too the wizard’s power and gravitas. In the early drafts, Gandalf retains much of his wry humor from The Hobbit—he once comments that he and Tom Bombadil don’t quite get along because the latter is from an older and more sedate generation (The Return of the Shadow, hereafter RS, 214). He arranges Bilbo’s departure as a “resounding jest” (RS 87), and later assures Bingo (Frodo’s predecessor in the drafts) that if he “find[s] Lobelia sneaking around [… he’ll] turn her into a weasel” (RS 247). “‘Taking care of hobbits is not a task that everyone would like, […] but I am used to it,'” he announces as he agrees to accompany the quest to Mount Doom (RS 406).
As the story itself sobers, however, much of Gandalf’s humor is stripped away, replaced by a severity, a hidden power, that seems to be directly tied to his role as the great enemy of Sauron. In fact, in a 1958 letter criticizing a screenplay he had recently received, JRRT wrote: “Gandalf, please, should not ‘splutter’. Though he may seem testy at times, has a sense of humour, and adopts a somewhat avuncular attitude to hobbits, he is a person of high and noble authority, and great dignity” (Letters 271). In 1954, soon after the full publication of The Lord of the Rings, JRRT wrote that Gandalf and the other wizards were sent to “train, advise, instruct, arouse the hearts and minds of those threatened by Sauron to a resistance with their own strengths; and not just to do the job for them. […] Gandalf alone fully passes the tests” (Letters 202).
It’s obvious that by now, we should understand Gandalf as much more than he ever seemed in The Hobbit; suddenly it’s clear why Gandalf chooses to slip away so often, leaving his companions to fend for themselves. He is bound to a higher and more complex task than those about him, and furthermore he is under an obligation (presumably part of his instructions from the Powers) not to “do the job” assigned to others, even if they are strikingly less powerful and don’t comprehend the enormity of what they’re facing. I suggested this much in my piece on Saruman. That wizard’s problem was impatience: he insisted on bending the wills of those about him to a certain end, which was quite the wrong way to go about things, even if that end was good and just. In that regard Gandalf’s ability to take his hands off the reins when and where it’s needed is his greatest virtue. He may suggest and advise and train and teach, but he at least attempts to leave room for other decisions and opinions.
But he also knows when to take control of a situation, and does so unflinchingly. Some of Gandalf’s most memorable moments are initiated by the wizard putting everyone and everything to the side and revealing his incomparable power. Of course, that doesn’t render him infallible, despite the fact that he “himself would say he was ‘directed’, or that he was ‘meant’ to take this course, or was ‘chosen’. Gandalf was incarnate, in [?real] flesh, and therefore his vision was obscured: he had for the most part (at any rate before his ‘death’) to act as ordinary people on reason, and principles of right and wrong” (The Peoples of Middle-earth, hereafter PM, 283). This passage fascinates me because it insists that we not overestimate Gandalf’s capabilities as a divine emissary. If we were meant to focus on just how powerful he was, I expect we would have been given more information about why, how, and from where he was sent to Middle-earth. We would get consistent reminders about his status throughout The Lord of the Rings. Instead, the wizard’s past and purposes are obscured, and his bursts of unbelievable power infrequent. Indeed, no one in the Fellowship apart from Aragorn appears to realize that he’s anything more than an old man with a few tricks up his sleeve.
And Gandalf clearly wants it this way. One of the greatest passages describing him comes from Unfinished Tales:
[H]e was the Enemy of Sauron, opposing the fire that devours and wastes with the fire that kindles, and succours in wanhope and distress; but his joy, and his swift wrath, were veiled in garments grey as ash, so that only those that knew him well glimpsed the flame that was within. Merry he could be, and kindly to the young and simple, and yet quick at times to sharp speech and the rebuking of folly; but he was not proud, and sought neither power nor praise, and thus far and wide he was beloved among all those that were not themselves proud. Mostly he journeyed unwearyingly on foot, leaning on a staff; and so he was called among Men of the North Gandalf, ‘the Elf of the Wand’. For they deemed him (though in error, as has been said) to be of Elven-kind, since he would at times work wonders among them, loving especially the beauty of fire; and yet such marvels he wrought mostly for mirth and delight, and desired not that any should hold him in awe or take his counsels out of fear. (UT 374-375)
This passage illustrates best of all Gandalf’s ability to do his work in humility. He’s a flame of hope, but doesn’t burn with ostentation until it’s absolutely necessary. He conscientiously resists the accumulation of power—which, incidentally, is why Saruman’s accusation (that Gandalf wants the keys of Barad-dur, the rods of the Five Wizards, etc.) is so ludicrous. The few Hobbits who have taken the time to know him hold him dear because he is “merry” and “kindly,” and because “he would at times work wonders among them” for “mirth and delight.” And I would wager that Gandalf loves Hobbits because they are simple, grounded, and don’t pretend to be more than they are.
What Gandalf keeps well hidden, of course, is that he is one of the Maiar and a spirit of power peer with Sauron himself. It’s unclear which of the Valar he served; one table associates him with Manwë and Varda (UT 377). Another, more interesting passage, places him in company with Irmo, Lord of Dreams:
And wise was Olórin, counsellor of Irmo: secret enemy of the secret evils of Melkor, for his bright visions drove away the imaginations of darkness. […] In later days he dearly loved the Children of Eru, and took pity on their sorrows. Those who hearkened to him arose from despair; and in their hearts the desire to heal and to renew awoke, and thoughts of fair things that had not yet been but might yet be made for the enrichment of Arda. Nothing he made himself and nothing he possessed, but kindled the hearts of others, and in their delight was glad. (Morgoth’s Ring, hereafter MR, 147)
We should note first of all that though Gandalf is himself a sort of spirit of fire, and indeed possesses Narya, the ring of fire, “nothing he made himself.” In other words, he isn’t a craftsman or sub-creator like Fëanor or Melkor, both of whom are also described as spirits of fire; he is more interested in persons than in artefacts (UT 389). Gandalf ignores the path of craftsman entirely, and instead is a “counsellor” and “secret enemy.” He gives dreams of hope and resistance that drive away despair.
I don’t wish to offer a final judgement about which Vala Gandalf actually served, because the texts aren’t clear. However, we can learn quite a bit about Gandalf from the passage quoted above. It lends new significance to the wizard’s healing of Théoden, for example. In this context we might read Gríma Wormtongue as the voice of self-loathing, doubt, depression, despair. He whispers to the king, telling him to give up and to give in, convincing him to sit in shadow, believing he has nothing to offer his people. Gandalf appears and brings with him “bright visions [that] drove away the imaginations of darkness,” and so rescues Théoden.
Gandalf’s last words on the shores of Middle-earth only confirm this role of counselor and giver of hope. As the Guardian of the Third Age he prepares to return to Valinor with its close—accompanied, we learn, by his dear friend Shadowfax, who has also fought well and run his course (Sauron Defeated, hereafter SD, 123). “Go in peace!” he tells Sam, Merry, and Pippin. “I will not say: do not weep; for not all tears are an evil” (LotR 1030). Again, even as his work is finished and he goes at long last to his reward, he speaks words of comfort.
We might close appropriately, I think, with a beautiful epithet that succinctly sums up Gandalf’s gracious presence in the tales of Arda: “He was humble in the Land of the Blessed; and in Middle-earth he sought no renown. His triumph was in the uprising of the fallen, and his joy was in the renewal of hope” (MR 203).
Megan N. Fontenot is a dedicated Tolkien scholar and fan who loves, almost more than anything else, digging into the many drafts and outlines of Tolkien’s legendarium. Catch her on Twitter @MeganNFontenot1 and feel free to request a favorite character in the comments!