The author J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-Earth saga known as Lord of the Rings is unquestionably one of the most iconic fantasy works in literature. Many characters used in the tale have become iconic, with one wizard standing above them all, Gandalf.
Pretty much every modern fantasy work, from George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire to Andrzej Sapkowski’s The Witcher, cites Tolkien as a guiding influence for world-building, characters, and plot lines. Tolkien paid intense attention to detail, creating not just his own mythologies but his own languages for the stories he wrote.
However, Middle-earth itself emerged not from an elaborate quest for literary fame, but instead from stories he told his four children at bedtime.
J.R.R. Tolkien wrote his first Middle-Earth set novel, The Hobbit, Or, There and Back Again, partially for his kids. However, Tolkien rejected the idea that it was solely a children’s story, despite the marketing of the book. Instead, The Hobbit and its sequel trilogy, The Lord of the Rings, reflect universal themes and character arcs that resonate with people regardless of age.
Tolkien himself once said:
Children aren’t a class. They are merely human beings at different stages of maturity. All of them have a human intelligence which even at its lowest is a pretty wonderful thing, and the entire world in front of them.
In the novels, as well as in his collection of Middle-earthen lore known as The Simarillion, the characters also grow up and mature. They have a guide to help them do so: Gandalf the wizard.
Creating GandalfTolkien, ever the nerd for ancient epics and mythology, took Gandalf’s name from Old Norse. The name means “staff elf,” and, well, fits the character in a very literal way. However, Gandalf was not the wizard’s original name! In actuality, Tolkien initially named the dwarf Thorin Oakenshield “Gandalf,” only to change it later.
Gandalf’s original name was Bladorthin, a name Tolkien then reused for a king of Middle-Earth.
In the story, Gandalf himself goes by a number of names, such as:
- Mithrandir (to elves)
- Tharkûn (to dwarves)
- Gandalf (to humans, hobbits, and those in the north)
- Icánus (to those in the south)
- Olórin (to those in the west)
In addition to Tolkien’s literary creation, Ian McKellen’s portrayal of Gandalf in Peter Jackson’s acclaimed The Lord of the Rings film series has undoubtedly influenced how fans see the character. However, McKellen actually based his portrayal of Gandalf on Tolkien’s own mannerisms and character.
For his work in The Fellowship of the Ring, McKellen earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor in a Supporting Role. He also later reprised the role in Jackson’s trilogy based on The Hobbit.
Who Is Gandalf?According to Tolkien’s Unfinished Tales, the supreme being Eru Ilúvatar created Gandalf, then Olórin, as one of the Maiar, or eternal spirits. The Valar, or eternal ones who work under Eru Ilúvatar, see Sauron rising to power in Middle-Earth.
In response, the Valar send several Maiar to Middle-Earth to guide everyone who opposes Sauron. Gandalf, then known as Olórin, is among them. Olórin and his fellow Maiar become wizards and are known as the Istari.
While on Middle-Earth, the Istari adopts the disguise of elderly men in hopes Middle-Earth’s inhabitants would be more inclined to listen to their wisdom. It works. Middle-Earth defeats Sauron in the First Age, and again in the Second.
However, the Second Age’s defeat leaves the One Ring in the world. A thousand years pass and Gandalf continues to wander Middle-Earth. He suspects Sauron of plotting a return and turns out to be correct.
What does Gandalf the Guide do?
Gandalf’s Role In The Hobbit
Gandalf kickstarts adventures for the hobbits of the Shire. When the novel begins, he’s been friends with Bilbo Baggins for a number of years. Knowing several dwarves need a guide for a mission, Gandalf paints a secret symbol on Bilbo’s door without his knowledge to lure the dwarves there.
Bilbo, like any hero, is at first reluctant to follow the call to adventure. Not to worry, though: Gandalf packs a supply of Bilbo’s favorite tobacco to comfort him on the journey.
Gandalf leads the party at first, but eventually departs, claiming urgent business in the South. Although initially anxious, Gandalf’s departure paves the way for Bilbo to emerge as the hero Gandalf’s always known he could be. Bilbo proves instrumental, as he overcomes several challenges, and the dwarves begin to think of him as their leader.
Gandalf isn’t gone forever though.
He reappears right before a climactic Battle of the Five Armies. He then takes Bilbo back to Bilbo’s home in the Shire. There, Bilbo muses about how prophecies sometimes come true. Gandalf then states one of the main themes of the novel:
Why should not they prove true? Surely you don’t disbelieve the prophecies, because you had a hand in bringing them about yourself? You don’t really suppose, do you, that all your adventures and escapes were managed by mere luck, just for your sole benefit? You are a very fine person, Mr. Baggins, and I am very fond of you; but you are only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all!
In this quote, Gandalf points out Bilbo’s importance in the grand scheme of the world. At the same time, he points out Bilbo’s smallness in the grand scheme of the world.
The Fellowship Of The Ring: Gandalf The GreyIn The Hobbit, Bilbo finds the One Ring. When The Fellowship of the Ring opens, Bilbo gives the Ring to his nephew Frodo. Gandalf the Grey, a friend of Frodo’s as well, grows concerned about the Ring. He leaves for seventeen years and returns to warn Frodo that it is indeed a Ring of Power, and Sauron will be after it unless it is destroyed.
Much like in The Hobbit, Gandalf seems to be set up as a mentor figure, and he is. However, nothing goes according to Gandalf’s plans. He promises to join Frodo and his three hobbit friends (Samwise Gamgee, Pippin Took, and Merry Brandybuck) on their journey from the Shire to Rivendell. Yet Gandalf never shows, and the hobbits set out on their own.
Gandalf doesn’t join the four hobbits because he turned to the wrong friend for advice. Saruman the White, another wizard, betrays Gandalf and sides with Sauron. He holds Gandalf prisoner for a time, but our favorite wizard eventually escapes. Gandalf reunites with the hobbits at Rivendell, where the “Fellowship of the Ring” forms.
Led by Gandalf, the Fellowship also contains the four hobbits, an elf (Legolas), a dwarf (Gimli), and two humans (Aragorn, the heir to the throne of Gondor, and Boromir, the son of the steward of Gondor).
Tragically, Gandalf doesn’t lead the Fellowship for long. When trekking underground through the mines of Moria, the Fellowship encounters a Balrog. Of course, a Balrog was once a Maiar like Gandalf, but became corrupted and turned into a monster. To save the others in the Fellowship, Gandalf sacrifices himself.
The Balrog drags him into the abyss, and the Fellowship assumes him dead.
The Two Towers: Gandalf The WhiteWhat would any good fantasy story be without a resurrection?
In Gandalf’s absence, the Fellowship splinters. Boromir dies, Pippin & Merry are captured, and Frodo & Sam set off on their own to destroy the Ring in the fires of Mount Doom. Gandalf encounters Legolas, Gimli, and Aragorn as they track Merry and Pippin, revealing himself as an upgraded wizard: he’s now “Gandalf the White.”
He then helps the people of Rohan and atones for his own mistakes. While the Fellowship may be split, Gandalf acts as a balm that brings people together. He casts Saruman’s possessive spirit out of Rohan’s king, Théoden, and thereby helps heal the bond between Théoden and his nephew Éomer.
Gandalf also sets out to find another of Rohan’s alienated warriors, Erkenbrand. He brings him to the Hornberg fortress in Helm’s Deep just in time to save Rohan from Sauron’s forces. (In the movies, Éomer and Erkenbrand are combined into one character.)
Even when Gandalf is not present, he still influences those who know him. Frodo itches to murder Gollum, a creature tormented and molded into a monster due to the Ring, but chooses not to because of Gandalf’s advice to him in The Fellowship of the Ring.
When Frodo expresses that it is a pity Bilbo didn’t kill Gollum, Gandalf says:
Pity? It was Pity that stayed his hand. Pity, and Mercy: not to strike without need… I daresay he [deserves death]. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends.
Here, Gandalf reminds Frodo, as he once did Bilbo, that his place in the world is neither to be under nor overestimated.
The Return Of The King & Gandalf’s EndingGandalf continues to lead battles in The Return of the King. However, he finds himself facing difficult choices. During a battle for Gondor, Gandalf chooses to rescue an unconscious Faramir from being burned to death by his own father in despair. Yet because of Gandalf’s rescue, he is unable to save Théoden, who is killed in battle.
Again, the idea that Gandalf has a very important place in the world, yet cannot control everything, comes into play.
When the Ring is destroyed (thanks in no small part to Gollum), Gandalf decides that it is time to leave Middle-Earth. He tells the hobbits that they are able to handle the world themselves. When he departs for the West (where he’s never been), he’s accompanied by the Elves and by Frodo, who has not been able to recover from his journey to destroy the Ring.
The Theme Of TrustThat’s Gandalf’s role in the main plot of the story. However, you might want to know what about Gandalf as a character, right?
Let’s first look at what themes he explores.
Gandalf’s character explores both the value and limits of trust. While Gandalf intended to accompany Frodo throughout his journey, his misplaced trust in Saruman delayed him. However, just because trust may sometimes be misplaced doesn’t mean trust is for fools.
In fact, the delay caused by Saruman helps prepare the hobbits for their journey. For example, Frodo starts without a guide and ends without one after Gandalf’s fall in Moria.
At the end of the story, Gandalf sailing away and leaving Middle-Earth’s inhabitants on their own shows his commitment to trust. He may not always judge correctly, but even when he places his trust in the wrong person, others can help right it in the end. Where he lacks or stumbles, others can provide.
This theme of trusting others is reinforced by Gandalf’s repeatedly bringing people together despite past rifts. Hobbits and dwarves. Théoden and Éomer and Erkenbrand. Gondor and Rohan. Denethor and Faramir. People need each other to defeat evil.
The Theme Of PowerGandalf also struggles with his need for control. His arc is about choosing between control, power, and trust. This makes Gandalf a fascinating foil for not just protagonists like Frodo, Bilbo, and Aragorn but also antagonists like the Balrog, Sauron, and Gollum.
Both the Balrog and Sauron were once Maiar, like Gandalf. When the Balrog drags Gandalf into the abyss, he accepts that he cannot come out alive simply because he wants to. He has no power. Ironically, it is this choice to give up an illusion of power and control that helps Gandalf survive.
Tolkien noted in a later-published letter that:
It was a humbling and abnegation of himself in conformity to ‘the Rules’: for all he could know at that moment he was the only person who could direct the resistance of Sauron successfully, and all his mission was vain. He was handing over to the Authority that ordained the Rules, and giving up personal hope of success.
Of course, Sauron’s insatiable hunger for power and ultimate control is precisely what drives him to conquer the world. Despite facing similar temptations, Gandalf giving up control for the sake of his friends’ survival and overall well-being shows what makes him different from Sauron.
Additionally, it is Gandalf’s awareness of every creature’s capacity for change that helps save the world. He tells Frodo that he should not decide who lives or dies. Even though Gollum probably won’t (and indeed doesn’t) change, he may still impact the world in a positive way.
In the end, this is true, because Gollum’s greed saves Frodo from his own corruption by the Ring.
What Gandalf’s Arc Hinges On: ChoiceGandalf might be a beacon for good, but he’s only that because he chooses to be. He is capable of bad choices, but is also thereby capable of learning and growing.
Growth, learning, choice: all of these are key aspects of what it means to be human.
Gandalf’s wizardry aside, his human form still limits him. He cannot save “both” Faramir and Théoden in the Siege at Minas Tirith. He cannot heal Frodo from all he has gone through. Plus, he cannot force Gollum to make better choices. As he himself notes after the Siege at Minas Tirith:
It is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succour of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule.
Humanity comes with limits, but that’s a good thing. All we can do is choose for ourselves.
Gandalf’s Archetypes & AllusionsCritics and fans interpret Gandalf’s character in a number of ways. Tolkien himself compared Gandalf to a mythical angel. Tolkien also said Gandalf was an allusion to the ancient Norse god, Odin. Yet these are not the only ways to interpret the character.
Despite Tolkien’s stated distaste for allegory, many note the clear Christian influence in his world-building. Gandalf’s being sent as a mediator between the supreme and those on earth, his sacrificial death and subsequent resurrection, his role as a symbol of hope and light, and his eventual departure from the world are all elements of the Christian beliefs about Jesus Christ.
Considering Tolkien’s staunch religious beliefs, it is not surprising that many see Gandalf as a Christ allusion. Heck, Tolkien used to have religious debates with the author of The Chronicles of Narnia series, C.S. Lewis. They’d argue over Christian theocracy, which even influenced Lewis’ writings. J.R.R. managed to convert his friend to Christianity eventually.
If analyzed through Carl Jung’s literary criticism, Gandalf fits the “Wise Old Man” archetype. This is a fatherly wizard who protects and encourages the youth. The Wise Old Man is a key part of a protagonist becoming more adult and truly themselves.
The Wise Old Man also correlates to other literary theories. In Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey structure, Gandalf fits the role of the mentor. Of course, the mentor almost always suffers a death (even a temporary one) to allow the mentee to stand on their own.
Other examples of a combined “Wise Old Man” and mentor archetype include Harry Potter‘s Albus Dumbledore and Star War‘s Obi-Wan Kenobi.
Gandalf The AlchemistBoth the Hero’s Journey and Jungian criticism draw on the mythical process of alchemy, a common storytelling structure in fantasy. Lord of the Rings follows an alchemical structure almost perfectly, and one of the primary characters through which it does this is Gandalf.
Physical alchemy is a mythical process based on the goal of creating a philosopher’s stone that can refine objects into better versions of themselves (mythically, it turns them into gold). It can also create the elixir of eternal life. In literature, the characters transform into the best versions of themselves.
In fantasy, characters are often rewarded with a resurrection, many children, or some other symbol of eternal life.
Gandalf is both the alchemist, or the one helping guide the others towards their ultimate versions of themselves, and one transforming himself. The three main stages of alchemy are Black (Nigredo), White (Albedo), and Red (Rubedo), and the transition from phase to phase is often marked through death.
For example, in Harry Potter, Sirius Black dies, followed by Albus Dumbledore. Lastly, by Harry’s own death in the presence of Rubeus Hagrid. Black is associated with earth, White with water, and Red with fire and air.
In the books, Gandalf the Grey dies deep in the earth (underground) as the Black Death. He returns as Gandalf the White. In the end, he departs for the Undying Lands wearing a ring called Narya on his finger.
Narya is a ring of power like the One Ring, but unlike the One Ring, Narya was never corrupted. For those unaware, Narya is associated with fire and a red stone. Gandalf travels to a land where he may never die, a reference to the elixir of life.
Wizards, Maiar, & HumansGandalf might be a wizard and an immortal being, yet he serves as a guide for not just the characters, but the readers as well. His wisdom applies not just to the story, but to life as a whole. We as people might not battle orcs or climb Mount Doom, but we grow, learn, and make choices every day. Compassion remains an important guide.
However, the wisest of Gandalf’s advice is to remember our place in the world.
Not as Gods wielding power, lest we turn into megalomaniac control freaks like Sauron, not as insignificant creatures, and not as people who condemn others. Instead, we must be those who choose compassion. We can’t solve every issue, but when we face difficult choices, we can make them and make some difference.
That’s human, magical, and heroic enough.