Gandalf’s powers, dying, and godlike backstory, defined by LOTR lore


The theatrical model of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy clocks in at 9 hours and 18 minutes, but there’s a lot of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings that was left on the slicing room flooring.

2021 marks The Lord of the Rings motion pictures’ 20th anniversary, and we could not think about exploring the trilogy in only one story. So every Wednesday all year long, we’ll go there and again once more, analyzing how and why the movies have endured as trendy classics. That is Polygon’s Yr of the Ring.

That’s factor. Films and books are completely different beasts, and the previous can solely help a lot exposition. The shortage of an origin story didn’t cease audiences from falling in love with Ian McKellen’s Gandalf, who studied Tolkien himself in perfecting his award-winning efficiency, fixing himself within the hearts of hundreds of thousands of followers. Gandalf, the sensible, mercurial, mysterious, and sometimes terrifying wizard is arguably extra the face of the Lord of the Rings franchise than Frodo, its hero, or Aragorn, its lengthy misplaced king.

The actual energy of McKellen’s efficiency is that you just consider wholeheartedly in Gandalf. However his position within the motion pictures continues to be stuffed with ambiguity. Is he, like, human, or what? What occurred when he died? What’s the distinction between Gray and White? What can wizards do anyway? And who appointed Saruman president of wizards?

I can present solutions to all these questions, as a result of I’m a large Center-earth nerd who thinks The Silmarillion is a extra pleasant learn than The Lord of the Rings, and pillaged Tolkien’s Unfinished Tales to reinforce the accuracy of my very own Lord of the Rings twitter account. Learn on for all the things you have been at all times afraid to ask about everybody’s favourite weed-smoking magic grandpa.

Is Gandalf human? Can anybody be a wizard?

No. And likewise, no.

Gandalf is a divine spirit clothed in a mortal type. In Center-earth parlance, he’s a creature referred to as a Maia (plural: Maiar). The Maiar are form of like demigods, in that they serve a better order of godlike beings, the Valar. They usually’re form of like angels, in that they’re absolutely divine in origin (not half-human like a variety of Greek demigods) and may change their type at will.

Different Maiar who seem within the Lord of the Rings motion pictures embrace Saruman, Sauron, and the Balrog. (Sure, the monster and Gandalf are the identical species.) Additionally, Elrond’s great-great grandmother is a Maia — his household is very difficult.

The Valar, Center-earth’s cohort of caretaker gods, retreated from the world 1000’s of years earlier than the time of The Lord of the Rings, and so they took all of their Maiar with them. However, within the Third Age (that’s, someday after Isildur bought his fingers on the Ring within the prologue of the Jackson motion pictures), Sauron started to amass energy once more. And for the reason that final time Sauron rose to energy the Valar practically needed to destroy the world to cease him, they determined to ship some emissaries to Center-earth to ensure he was saved in test this time round.

Gandalf and Saruman walk the gardens of Orthanc in The Fellowship of the Ring.

Picture: New Line Cinema

So with the blessing of Center-earth’s creator god, the Valar assembled a big group of Maiar to secretly ship to Center-earth. These emissaries have been referred to as the Istari, and 5 significantly excessive ranked ones — Tolkien calls them “chiefs” — have been despatched to the northwest of Center-earth specifically, as a result of that was deemed the place the place it was principally probably that Males and Elves might be rallied to oppose Sauron.

These 5 Istari included Saruman the White, Gandalf the Gray, Radagast the Brown, and the 2 “Blue Wizards.” They went east of Mordor and have been by no means seen once more, and Tolkien declined to present them names and even clarify what occurred to them because it had nothing to do with the Battle of the Ring.

Tolkien additionally by no means fairly settled on all the small print of what Gandalf was like as a Maia earlier than he died. However we do have some hints from his notes, as compiled and printed by his son and archivist, Christopher Tolkien. It appears clear that Gandalf’s Maia title is Olórin, and presumably that he was reluctant to take up his Istari duty and was the final of them to reach in Center-earth.

If wizards are gods, why do all of them appear like crusty outdated dudes?

Radagast the Brown looks confused in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.

Picture: New Line Cinema

By the point the Valar have been sending their Istari emissaries out, Center-earth had already suffered by a number of waxings and wanings of its two nice Darkish Lords, and you could possibly say that that they had seen the error in main Males and Elves to anticipate gods to resolve their issues as a substitute of sorting them out themselves.

So, as a substitute of being despatched of their full divine majesty, able to taking no matter type they wished, the Istari have been fastened within the types of unremarkable outdated males. This pressured them to raised perceive those that they have been despatched to guard, but it surely had the disadvantage of constructing them corruptible. It dimmed their energy, and subjected them to mortal fears and worries — however it might be price it to achieve the belief of Elves and Males.

That was vital due to one other rule that was positioned on the Istari: They have been forbidden to make use of drive or worry — Sauron’s favourite instruments — to dominate Males and Elves. No bending societies underneath their rule, no political scheming or hoarding of energy, even to perform sincere targets. They’d must get individuals to belief them as a substitute.

“In shapes weak and humble [they] have been bidden to advise and persuade Males and Elves to good,” Tolkien wrote in an essay on the Istari printed after his dying, “and to hunt to unite in love and understanding all these whom Sauron, ought to he come once more, would endeavor to dominate and corrupt.”

Most individuals in Center-earth who ran right into a wizard had no concept that they have been interacting with an angelic being — however there have been just a few highly effective people who figured it out, like Elrond and Galadriel.

How did Gandalf get one of many elven rings?

Galadriel displays her ring in The Fellowship of the Ring.

Picture: New Line Cinema

It isn’t talked about within the motion pictures, however simply in case you’ve heard about it from some Lord of the Rings nerd, sure, Gandalf has one of many three elven rings.

He bought it from an elf, naturally.

The three bearers of the elven rings are Elrond and Galadriel, who you already know from the films, and Cirdan the Shipwright — who seems on a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it foundation. Cirdan’s area was the Gray Havens, the coastal launching level of all of the elven boats going West to the elven afterlife/homeland (which itself would take an entire put up to unpack, however stick round and possibly we are going to).

Because the guardian of that location, Cirdan bought to satisfy all of the Istari as they arrived in Center-earth, and he gave his ring to Gandalf for 3 causes. One, he preferred him higher than any of the opposite Istari. Two, he foresaw that he would face “nice labours and perils.” Three, he wasn’t doing a lot with it anyway. He lived about as far-off from Sauron as you’ll be able to presumably get with out leaving Center-earth, and he needed the ring to be on the hand of any person who was really going to want it.

What even are Gandalf’s powers?

Gandalf (Ian McKellen) atop one of the eagles.

New Line Cinema

Tolkien by no means actually elucidated the particular powers of wizards. In any case, it’s not like he was constructing a cohesive sport system or writing a collection of novels a couple of wizard faculty. He didn’t must.

However evidently there are some issues all wizards can all do. All of them use staffs to focus their magic, for instance. Gandalf and Radagast can each communicate to animals, Gandalf and Saruman each have some stage of skill to mystify utilizing solely their voice. And being a wizard appears to return with some energy over the bodily world round you, as when Gandalf orders a door to remain shut in Moria, summons mild, or shatters Saruman’s employees just by commanding it to.

But it surely additionally looks like wizards have specialties. Tolkien says that the Valar intentionally didn’t mandate that the Istari work collectively, and partially selected them for his or her completely different and separate powers and inclinations.

Within the books, Saruman was recognized for the ability of his voice to beguile and persuade, in addition to for his “nice ability in works of hand” — his inventiveness. Radagast the Brown, who featured in Jackson’s Hobbit motion pictures, turned distracted from the Istari mission by his obsession with Center-earth’s beasts and birds, a lot to the exhaustion of his colleagues Gandalf and Saruman. (In the end, Tolkien says, Gandalf the Reluctant Maia was the one one of many many Istari who remained devoted to the Valar’s targets.)

Gandalf’s specialty was fireplace. Which could appear odd for a man whose greatest magic moments within the motion pictures contain summoning nice white beams of sunshine or combating one other wizard with invisible waves of drive.

To Tolkien he embodied the hearth of creation within the forge, the hearth of heat within the fireplace, and the torch fireplace that retains the darkness at bay. “Heat and keen was his spirit (and it was enhanced by the ring Narya),” Tolkien wrote in his Istari essay, “for he was the Enemy of Sauron, opposing the hearth that devours and wastes with the hearth that kindles, and succours in wanhope and misery.”

It’s a connection that explains why a demigod would take a lot enjoyment from making fireworks for hobbits.

What occurred to Gandalf when he died?

Gandalf is resurrected, white haired and naked in The Two Towers.

Picture: New Line Cinema

When Gandalf died, his divine being left his set bodily type, and about 20 days later, he was returned to life. “Darkness took me;” he says to Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli in The Two Towers, “and I strayed out of thought and time, and I wandered far on roads that I cannot inform. Bare I used to be despatched again — for a quick time, till my activity is finished.”

He was re-embodied and despatched again to Center-earth by an entity or entities who gave him his activity within the first place, both the Valar, or Center-earth’s supreme creator god himself, Eru Illuvatar. And, after all, he was despatched again modified.

In his essay on the Istari, Tolkien states that it every Istari a while to be taught mortal methods after they arrived, which could account for Gandalf’s reminiscence lapses simply after he was resurrected — and for the way Gandalf the White is extra formal and disconnected than his earlier incarnation.

Why did Gandalf flip white?

To a era of parents who grew up on Avatar: The Final Airbender or Mighty Morphin’ Energy Rangers, or heck, even the coded lightsaber colours of Star Wars, it’s tempting to assign the identical form of weight to the colour language of Tolkien’s wizards. However from his personal writings, it’s clear that Tolkien’s coloration connotations have been private, reasonably than common.

If Gandalf’s speciality is fireplace, you’d suppose he’d be a pink wizard, however Tolkien wrote that Gandalf’s gray robes and hair represented the colour of ash that hid his divine fireplace, simply as his wizened type hid his identification as a Maia. In his essay on the Istari, Tolkien hyperlinks Gandalf’s white robes and hair to fireside as properly, saying he was “clothed then in all white, and have become a radiant flame (but veiled nonetheless save in nice want).”

Tolkien didn’t say a lot about what white represented for Saruman, however we are able to infer some issues about what taking over Saruman’s coloration meant for Gandalf. However let’s get one factor straight first: Saruman is “the White” for only some chapters of The Fellowship of the Ring. The second he does his huge villain divulge to Gandalf, he additionally reveals a change of wardrobe.

As Gandalf tells the Council of Elrond:

“I’m Saruman the Smart, Saruman Ring-maker, Saruman of Many Colors!”

I regarded then and noticed that his robes, which had appeared white, weren’t so, however have been woven of all colors, and if he moved they shimmered and adjusted hue in order that the attention was bewildered.

“I preferred white higher,” I mentioned.

“White! “ he sneered. “It serves as a starting. White fabric could also be dyed. The white web page could be overwritten; and the white mild could be damaged.”

“During which case it’s now not white,” mentioned I. “And he that breaks a factor to search out out what it’s has left the trail of knowledge.”

It may be price mentioning right here that even Tolkien’s personal biographer, Humphrey Carpenter, felt the necessity to touch upon how boring his clothes was. Even for an Englishman and an English professor, Tolkien dressed to be forgotten, partly as a acutely aware rejection of the educational philosophy of aestheticism. In keeping with Carpenter, amongst his solely indulgences as soon as he got here into all the cash from publishing his books was to purchase the occasional brightly coloured waistcoat to associate with his drab fits. Tolkien genuinely felt that boring colours have been extra noble than flashy ones.

It’s additionally vital right here to do not forget that though we all know him as a villain, Saruman’s repute because the wisest of the Istari was primarily based on 1000’s of years of conduct. He’s probably the most distinguished of The Lord of the Rings’ many examples of how even essentially the most principled individuals could be corrupted by worry and disillusionment.

So, when Gandalf turns into “the White” it’s about exhibiting that he’s right here to take Saruman’s place and make up for his errors. “Sure, I’m white now,” Gandalf tells Gimli. “Certainly I am Saruman, one may nearly say, Saruman as he ought to have been.”

For Tolkien, Gandalf and Saruman’s white robes can also have related them to the colour of starlight, which is an enormous drive for magical safety in Center-earth — consider Sam forcing Shelob to cower earlier than Galadriel’s mild. One of many greatest issues that the Valar did for Center-earth was to deliver mild to it, by the celebs, solar, and moon (and, at one level, some particular glowing timber). Defending, combating over, or sustaining the sunshine of the Valar is an enormous recurring theme in The Silmarillion.

Sending Gandalf again as Gandalf the White, “a radiant flame” in a darkish time, is a Massive Valar Temper.

What was Gandalf at all times smoking?

All people who smokes in The Lord of the Rings smokes pipeweed. It’s purported to be tobacco. It’s tobacco.

It’s tobacco.

“However what if… heheheh… it wa—” I can not stress sufficient that Tolkien’s personal biographer devoted an entire chapter to enumerating all of the methods during which he was exceptionally boring, even for a professor of Outdated English at Oxford who was raised through the Victorian period.

You’ll be able to suppose pipeweed is no matter you need. Tolkien meant it to be tobacco.

Why is that this so difficult?

doctor strange

Picture: Marvel Studios

Gandalf is just not the form of wizard we get from different wizard-involved tales, like Dungeons & Dragons, Harry Potter, The Magicians, Diane Duane books, and even Marvel Comics. In The Lord of the Rings, wizards aren’t males who research magic, or individuals born with magical expertise; they’re not human, they’re not strictly mortal, and so they’re the identical species as Sauron himself, which is to say, they’re form of angels.

And it’s much more difficult as a result of wizards have been by no means purported to be part of Center-earth. Technically, they have been retconned in, comedian ebook fashion.

We consider The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings as a single coherent narrative nowadays, however Tolkien by no means imagined persevering with the story of Bilbo Baggins when he wrote The Hobbit as a fairy story for his youngsters. The true inventive work of his life could be The Silmarillion, the mythological epic of worldbuilding and romance that he had begun earlier than his youngsters have been even born.

The publishers who’d seen the success of The Hobbit thought {that a} multi-thousand 12 months historical past of Elves and Males (and solely Elves and Males) was too completely different to function a satisfying sequel. It wasn’t till Tolkien was a couple of dozen chapters into writing his Hobbit sequel that he realized that he might set the complete story after the occasions of The Silmarillion, turning the undertaking into an excuse to mess around in his pet universe, Center-earth.

There was just one drawback, which for Tolkien most likely felt like an irresistible puzzle. He’d must discover a approach to reconcile all of the bizarre stuff in The Hobbit throughout the in depth and exquisitely balanced world-building he’d achieved for The Silmarillion. That bizarre stuff included however was not restricted to: Hobbits, trolls, large speaking eagles, no matter Gollum was, and, after all, outdated males with magic powers.

In a really literal sense, the creator would spend the remainder of his life in pursuit of this aim. Most of what we all know in regards to the origins of the wizards comes from unfinished posthumously printed work in The Silmarillion and different books of Tolkien’s notes and essays compiled and annotated by his son. In some circumstances what we’ve is admittedly only a notice Tolkien wrote within the margins of a pupil paper as he learn it, and we’ve no manner of understanding if it was an thought he later discarded.

As a result of nature of how Tolkien’s books have been licensed for movie, screenwriters Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, and Fran Walsh have been prohibited from utilizing content material from books aside from The Lord of the Rings. And whereas it’s enjoyable to discover the unfinished nooks and crannies of Center-earth in Tolkien’s writing, leaving issues obscure actually didn’t cease individuals from falling in love with Gandalf on display screen. In a time when studios are obsessive about origins, it simply goes to point out that you just don’t essentially want one to make the face of a franchise.


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