Originally posted on JRR Tolkien Examiner on 6/2/09.
Tolkien 101 is a series of short articles designed to introduce new Tolkien fans to important characters, concepts, and vocabulary from the published works of JRR Tolkien.
If you were introduced to Tolkien’s works through Peter Jackson’s film trilogy, or if you are just curious about the background of Tolkien’s invented world (his “Legendarium”), then these articles are meant for you.
Although Tolkien’s fantasy novels are tales told by Hobbits, and tell the adventures of Hobbits, a case can be made that the real protagonist of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings is the wizard Gandalf.
Except for Elrond Half-elven, Gandalf is the only character who plays a key part in the events of both those novels and The Silmarillion. In fact, Gandalf is the prime mover, at first in secret and from behind the scenes, and later openly, of all the events of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. He shanghais Bilbo into the Quest of Erebor; he spurs the White Council into driving Sauron out of Dol Guldur; he discovers the true nature of The Ring and sets Frodo off into exile; he spurs the Rohirrim into war against Saruman, and later Sauron; and he leads the forces of the Men of the West against the onslaught of Mordor at the Battle of the Pelennor Fields.
The only major event he has nothing to do with is the Ents’ destruction of Isengard, although Gandalf would probably insist he was behind that as well.
But what are wizards? Who is Gandalf? And why is he able to return from the dead after he and the Balrog of Moria slay each other?
Gandalf is not a Man (that is to say, a human), nor is he of any other people of Middle Earth such as Elves or Dwarves. He is a Maia (plural Maiar), a kind of angel or lesser god, sent to Middle Earth from the divine land of Valinor in the Uttermost West. His name as a Maia is Olórin, and he is a student of the Vala (plural Valar) Nienna, an archangel or greater goddess. She is the goddess of pity, which in Tolkien’s view is not a negative, condescending emotion, but closer to empathy or compassion.
For reasons too detailed to go into here, by the Third Age the Valar have almost entirely forsaken the people of Middle Earth, and refuse to intervene against Sauron. But they decide to send five Istari, Maiar who will give up the greater part of their powers and take on the form of wizened old Men, to aid the peoples of Middle Earth against Sauron. The Istari are what is meant by “wizard.”
So Gandalf is the Maia Olórin, but he has voluntarily lost most of his powers and has taken human form. Unlike a Maia, he must eat and sleep, and he has to walk (or hitch a ride on an obliging Eagle, or steal one of the king’s horses) if he wants to get anywhere.
And he can be injured and killed. But when Gandalf the Grey is slain by the Balrog, his spirit returns to Valinor and becomes Olórin again.
But Gandalf is the only one of the five Istari actually working to defeat Sauron. Saruman had switched sides; Radagast barely made an appearance, and was replaced in the film trilogy with a moth; and the other two just disappeared. So the Valar send Olórin back with a new human body, as Gandalf the White, ready to defeat and replace the traitorous Saruman.
Although Gandalf does not have Olórin’s divine powers, he occasionally has useful intuitions – this is Gandalf calling on Olórin’s knowledge and perceptions, although in a very limited way.
When Gandalf boards the ship at the end of The Return of the King, he is returning to Valinor with Galadriel (who was born there), taking Frodo with him. Presumably, he will become Olórin again upon his return.
Gandalf’s actual “magical” powers are never clearly delineated. In Tolkien’s writings, magic is not something associated with wands, spell-books or mutilated Latin words (“Expelliarmus!”). Occasionally a sword, ring or troll’s purse will be enchanted, but magic is mostly associated with the Elves and their attempts to return he world to a primeval, pristine state.
We do know, from The Hobbit onward, that Gandalf has an affinity for fire and explosions. This may be because he is the secret wielder of Narya, the Ring of Fire, one of the three Elven Rings. He can’t do anything particularly flashy with Narya, without giving away to Sauron its location.
Gandalf goes by a number of names. Tolkien found the name Gandalf in the Prose Edda of Snorri Sturluson, where it is the name of a dwarf, despite the fact that it translates as “wand elf.” Gandalf’s most important name is Mithrandir, which means “grey pilgrim” in the tongue of the Sindarin Elves. He seems to be the first non-Hobbit to take up the smoking of tobacco, aka pipeweed, a practice that is later adopted by the Dúnedain and Saruman. .Blue Wizards, cosmology, Gandalf, Istari, Legendarium, magic, Maiar, Mithrandir, Nienna, Olórin, pipeweed, pity, Prose Edda, Radagast, Sindarin, Valar, wizards