Gandalf: From Staff-Elf to Maia

How the evolution of Gandalf’s character mirrors the development of Tolkien’s story

“Gandalf! If you had heard only a quarter of what I have heard about him, and I have only heard very little of all there is to hear, you would be prepared for any sort of remarkable tale.”  [1]

Though J.R.R. Tolkien is often accused of creating characters that lack depth, upon further consideration, it is difficult to pick out a major character in The Lord of the Rings trilogy that qualifies as “shallow.” If such a character were to be selected, however, Gandalf would be perhaps last on that list. From the moment he is introduced in the opening pages of The Hobbit, he is a complex and mysterious figure – he comes and goes on mysterious business, never reveals all that he knows, and says barely anything about himself. In the course of The Lord of the Rings and the Unfinished Tales that follow, his role grows and changes exponentially. Yet despite the changes and development his character undergoes throughout the course of the series, despite the new information that is revealed about him, he remains very similar to his first appearance; he is still a character shrouded in mystery. The vast expansion of his personality as a Maiar demonstrates just how little the reader knows about the figure who was named Mithrandir.

Yet what the reader does not know in many ways actually illuminates that information that is available. It can perhaps never be known exactly who Gandalf was. But what can clearly be seen is the large-scale evolution of a character throughout four major novels and other appendices. It is obvious that he plays a far more prominent role in Tolkien’s works as time goes on – the Gandalf of The Hobbit holds far less of a place in the story than Gandalf the White does in The Return of the King – but it is not only his importance to the story that grows. Gandalf’s personality changes, his power expands, and he is given a mission, a purpose that makes him vital to the survival of a good Middle Earth.

However, the change and development observed in Gandalf throughout the course of Tolkien’s writings on Middle Earth (both the unfinished drafts and those in novel form) are interesting not only for an examination of his role in Middle Earth, but also for Tolkien’s writing process. Gandalf’s evolution as a character provides an excellent demonstration of how Tolkien’s most popular works on Middle Earth evolved from a bedtime story told to his children to a legendary epic and example for fantasy writers to come. To borrow the title of C.W. Sullivan’s article, Tolkien’s tale “grew in the telling.” [2] The tale of a hobbit developed into a tale of Middle Earth, and as the narrative expanded far beyond what was originally planned, Gandalf’s character blossomed as well. Yet what is so ingenious about such development is despite the enormous expansion of Unfinished Tales, Tolkien manages to rewrite his own story and character, yet still keep both story and character perfectly in line with The Hobbit.

As he was originally created in The Hobbit, Gandalf is a very simple character. Although many have noticed the wizard’s resemblance to Merlin of Arthurian legend, his function, particularly in The Hobbit, is much more in line with Odin, the chief god of Norse legend. It is not a comparison that comes to mind at once, mostly due to the view of Odin as an all-powerful, all-seeing deity, the god of battle – an image that does not seem at all similar to the mysterious wandering wizard Gandalf. [3] Yet it is hard to argue Gandalf’s resemblance to a Celtic character when his name in fact appears in Norse literature – in The Catalogue of Dwarfs from the “Voluspa” of The Poetic Edda. Gandalf is just one among many names in the list that were appropriated for use in The Hobbit. [4] While Tolkien left the species unchanged for many of the names, he thought that Gandalf was a curious name to show up in a catalogue of dwarves: the root -alf or -alfr is usually taken to mean elf. Tolkien took gandr to mean “wand” or “staff” and came to the conclusion that a “wand-elf” or a “staff-elf” was not necessarily an elf, but a wizard. [5] While Gandalf’s personality is not identical to Odin’s, his physical appearance is quite similar to that of the Norse god. Though Odin can see all from his high seat in Asgard, when he chooses to journey into the realm of men, Midgard (or middle earth), he goes disguised. [6] In the Volsunga Saga, he appears as a man “very tall and grey with age,” with a long beard and a “mottled cape that was hooded.” [7] At other times, he is described as carrying a staff and wearing a hood and a large hat, a description that couldn’t be closer to Gandalf’s first appearance, as an “old man with a staff,” who had a “pointed blue hat, a long grey cloak, a silver scarf over which a white beard hung down below his waist, and immense black boots.” [8]

Not only does Gandalf’s outward appearance correlate with the disguise that Odin takes when he is in the Middle Earth of Norse mythology, but the part he plays is similar as well. Tolkien admitted that he saw Gandalf as an “Odinic wanderer,” not only in sight, but in action. [9] In The Hobbit he is for all intents and purposes, a tool. His function is to upset Bilbo’s comfortable life and urge him out the door into his adventures. Throughout the story he disappears from time to time on unknown business, always turning up unexpectedly when he is most needed to rescue Bilbo and the dwarves from whatever situation they have gotten themselves into this time, a narrative tool that is almost too convenient. Though Odin’s appearances as an old man in the Volsunga Saga are not rescues – at one point, he grants Sigmund a sword and later gives his son Sigurd a horse – he still provides crucial fodder for the story in an eerily expedient manner. [10] Both Odin in the Volsunga Saga and Gandalf in The Hobbit are devices – they appear expressly to make things happen, and then slip away. There is also a mutual sense that they are mysterious, powerful figures, yet Gandalf’s power or his important business does not really matter that much. Bilbo may be “a little fellow in a wide world,” and his “adventures and escapes” might not have been “managed by mere luck, just for [his] sole benefit,” but in the end it is about Bilbo’s story; about Bilbo’s, not Gandalf’s, tale of there and back again. [11]

Yet Gandalf’s next appearance is quite different – both for his character, and for the story itself. In The Fellowship of the Ring stakes have obviously been raised – the scope of the story has expanded immensely, from the adventures of one small individual to the wars and quests to save an entire world. But the story’s magnitude was not always so vast. When Tolkien began writing in 1937, he intended to produce what his publishers and readers were clamoring for – a hobbit sequel. Accordingly, the first draft of “A Long-Expected Party” bears few similarities to the version readers are familiar with. It is brief, and consists of Bilbo’s 72nd birthday party, whereupon he announces that he is leaving to get married because his wealth from his adventure has run out, and the reader is informed that this story is not, in fact about Bilbo, but one of his descendants. There is no mention of Frodo or the Ring, and even Gandalf fails to make an appearance. [12] As Tolkien himself admitted, many years later, he “had no conscious notion of what the Necromancer stood for… in The Hobbit, nor of his connexion with the Ring.” [13]

It would take Tolkien many drafts to make the connection, and many more years to realize the vastness of the tale. Bit by bit, it began to expand and develop, and as the story changed, so did Gandalf. From an old friend of Bilbo’s who comes back to offer fireworks at his birthday party he changed into the serious, worried wizard who sat by the fireside in Bag End telling Frodo of the dangerous One Ring. [14] He slowly discovered that this story was going to be far larger than the sequel he had been intending to write. As Tolkien himself phrased it: “I met a lot of things on the way that astonished me.” Perhaps the surprise that was the “most disquieting of all [was that] Saruman had never been revealed to me, and I was as mystified as Frodo at Gandalf’s failure to appear on September 22.” [15] Tolkien’s early explanations for Gandalf’s disappearance, which involve variations on being trapped by Black Riders in a mysterious “Western Tower,” feel feeble even as notes to himself. [16] Yet perhaps what is most telling is that Tolkien feels a need to explain Gandalf’s disappearance – a sharp departure The Hobbit where he slipped away on his own business quite regularly without causing a major disturbance. Though Gandalf’s identity was by no means yet certain, he was without question no longer a catalyst, but a character vital to the story.

If Gandalf’s development as a character is an indicator of the evolution of Tolkien’s story, it is clear that the story took an enormous leap forward when Tolkien finally stumbled upon what would become the real reason for Gandalf’s disappearance – the discovery and creation of Saruman. It was in the fourth version of the Council of Elrond that the full tale of Gandalf and Saruman first appeared. [17] In Saruman, not only did Tolkien provide Gandalf with additional exposition, but he created an excellent foil. As Marjorie Burns points out, Tolkien’s simplified characters can often “leave the reader feeling that reality has been sacrificed in the name of clarity.” One of his most common methods of solving this problem was to “link ideal characters with specific negative ones, thereby suggesting a darker, underdeveloped shadow side.” [18] Saruman was Tolkien’s first attempt at this technique, and it is interesting to note that though a wizard of Gandalf’s order, he was from his first inception a traitor to Sauron, a powerful and cunning wizard whose jealousy was his downfall. [19] He provides a perfect mirror to Gandalf, the wizard who exercised his power seldom and who refused the Ring when it was openly offered to him. For although Gandalf the Grey is much wiser and more powerful than the Gandalf of The Hobbit, he is not by any means invincible. He is often unsure of his own power and knowledge, and hesitates for long years to act on his suspicions about Bilbo’s ring. He is detained by Saruman for many days; he is worn down in Moria, and is confronted by the Balrog. In each of these episodes, he displays great wisdom, power, strength, and courage. Yet in the end he too falls – but in a manner quite different from Saruman.

It is in the beginning of The Two Towers that the parallels with Saruman are brought into greater prominence. When Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli meet Gandalf in the woods of Fangorn, they are convinced he is Saruman – for indeed, they had seen Saruman the previous night, wandering as an “old man hooded and cloaked, very like to Gandalf,” as Eomer had described. [20] But he is no longer the same man – or even the same wizard – who guided them through Moria. As Merry points out, he is different, but it is hard to see exactly how, for “he can be both kinder and more alarming, merrier and more solemn than before.” [21]

But one thing that is clear is the expansion of his power – his strength and majesty have clearly grown exponentially upon his return. He spends less time counseling others and more time acting on his own. He frees Theoden from Wormtongue’s clutches, confronts Denethor’s authority, breaks Saruman’s staff, orchestrates the outcome of the battles at Helm’s Deep and the Pelennor Fields – all actions that Gandalf the Grey would not have dared to do. Such deeds almost seem more characteristic of the grand sweeping gestures that Saruman the White might have done in his days of power. But now that former great wisdom and power that Saruman had is irrelevant. For though both Gandalf and Saruman have fallen, there is a crucial difference in the manner of their falls. Saruman fell in pursuit of the Ring, in greed and jealousy. Gandalf sacrificed himself to fight the Balrog to give the Fellowship a chance to escape, for the conflict against Sauron to continue, for the Ring to be destroyed. Tolkien implies that somehow, because of his sacrifice, that Gandalf was able to come back from the dead. As Gandalf says himself, “Indeed, I am Saruman, one might almost say, Saruman as he should have been.” [22]

The implication that Gandalf has taken Saruman’s place has enormous significance for Gandalf’s capacity within the story. In The Fellowship of the Ring, he may have been immensely old and perhaps the wisest at the Council of Elrond, but he was still very human, and became worried and worn down, as the rest of us do. He had power, but was often very humble about it, choosing not to use it except in difficult situations, and often disguising it, such as the power contained within the fireworks he created for Bilbo’s birthday party. He was the leader of the Fellowship until his death, yet to be the leader of a small, ragged company traveling in secret was a position Saruman, even in his most enlightened days, would have hardly accepted – he would have considered it would have been beneath him. When he returns as Gandalf the White, such a position is in a way also beneath his new self – but for different reasons. He would have gladly ridden with Aragorn through the Paths of the Dead, or led Frodo into Mordor – alternative paths with less glory than becoming the reigning authority in Minas Tirith – but he could not have. In his new, more powerful incarnation, he would have been a danger to the secrecy of both those journeys. As a more powerful figure, it was Gandalf’s fate, in a way, to take the more conventional path to war, to assist and direct events in Minas Tirith – to keep that city the center of Sauron’s attention so that everyone could have a little more time; time for Theoden to muster up the Rohirrim, time for Aragorn to counter the Haradrim sailing up the river, time for Frodo to reach Orodruin.

Despite the fact that Gandalf does little actual fighting, he has become much more of a warrior than he was earlier. He is the general of Middle Earth; he alone sees that “the board is set, and the pieces are moving.” [23] Here, his resemblance to Odin is alluded to, yet not as an old wanderer, but as a war god. Both are fighting to forestall the end of the world – whether Ragnarok or the victory of Sauron – and both come out to fight as themselves only at the last battle. [24] Gandalf the White is powerful enough to confront the agents of Sauron, yet only does so once: to rescue Faramir. The other display of a warrior’s power comes when

"He alone is left to forbid the entrance of the Lord of the Nazgul to Minas Tirith, when the City has been overthrown and its Gates destroyed – and yet so powerful is the whole train of human resistance, that he himself has kindled and organized, that in fact no battle between the two ever occurs: it passes to other mortal hands." [25]

He is ready to face the Witch-King, but because of the arrival of the Rohirrim, he does not need to. Despite the greater and more assertive role he has taken in his new incarnation, it is still only a greater role at need. His lack of direct participation in the physical fights that make up the War of the Ring suggests that this is not his battle. The fight belongs to Eomer and Aragorn, to Eowyn and Imrahil, to the people of Rohan and Gondor, fighting to preserve their own lands from evil. Gandalf will only take up arms when he must. And therein is the most important difference between the character of Gandalf and Odin. Though both of them are fighting to forestall the end of the world, and only present themselves as a warrior at the final battle (Ragnarok and the Battle of the Morannon, respectively), their motives are very different. Odin, though he can be gracious, favorable, and he ultimately leads the fight against evil in Ragnarok, he is in many ways a fickle, untrustworthy god, one who often acts for personal gain and not for the greater good – as his attempts to prevent the cooing of Ragnarok clearly demonstrate. Gandalf knows that a final battle is inevitable, but knows that “victory cannot be achieved by strength of arms” and that the most they can hope for is to “give the Ring-bearer his only chance, frail though it may be,” and give up hope for themselves. [26] He is making a magnificent sacrifice, a sacrifice that, just as in Moria, is not merely a sacrifice for the Ringbearer. It is a sacrifice to make up for the betrayal of Saruman. It is a sacrifice for the future of a good Middle Earth.

His unflinching determination to make such enormous sacrifices reveals that not only is there more to Gandalf than meets the eye, but that there is more to Gandalf than perhaps could ever be seen or guessed. Pippin wonders how old Gandalf is, and “then he thought how odd it was that he had never thought about it before… What was Gandalf? In what far time and place did he come into the world, and when would he leave it?” [27] Pippin’s musings, though seemingly trivial, introduce the crucial idea that Gandalf is not from Middle Earth. And here is one of the first signs of the fourth and final stage of Gandalf’s character, one that would take him far beyond his deeds in Middle Earth, and even beyond Middle Earth itself.

Pippin is, after all, right to ask “what” Gandalf is. For though the reader knows that Saruman and Radagast are also wizards, it has never been explained what a wizard is. They are not men and are not elves, as is clearly evidenced by Gandalf’s return. Tolkien, incidentally, ran into the same problem: he wanted Gandalf to reappear, but wasn’t sure how he could come back from what appeared to be a certain death. The first sign of what was to become Gandalf’s later grand origin was from a page of notes, with the simple thought: “Wizards = Angels.” [28] Though his origins are explained in great detail in Tolkien’s writings published by his son after his death, there is very little in the trilogy to explain it. Perhaps the most illuminating sign is Gandalf’s comment soon after his return in The Two Towers: “I was sent back – for a brief time, until my task is done.” [29] He did not say that he came back from the dead. He was sent back. But sent back by whom? Who can thwart death and send him back, if there is no God in Middle Earth? And what exactly is his task?

The tale is told, appropriately enough, in Unfinished Tales. The Valar, the Norse-like gods of Middle Earth, sent five Maiar, angelic beings, to Middle Earth around the year 1000 of the Third Age. They came in ships from Valinor, the Blessed Realm beyond the seas, and were sent with an express purpose – to counter Sauron’s possible second rise to power. Though they were mighty beings of spirit, they disguised themselves in the forms of aged men. They were emissaries of the Valar, and so they

"were forbidden to reveal themselves in forms of majesty, or to seek to rule the wills of Men or Elves by open display of power, but coming in shapes weak and humble were bidden to advise and persuade Men and Elves to good, and seek to unite in love and understanding all those whom Sauron, should he come again, would endeavour to dominate and corrupt." [30]

There were five Istari sent to Middle Earth: Saruman, Radagast, two unnamed Blue Wizards, and Olorin, known as Gandalf by men. But out of the five, only Gandalf succeeds. Angelic beings are just as prone to weakness, corruption, and downfall as men are – Morgoth was a member of the Valar and Sauron was a Maiar – and perhaps more so, once they take the forms of men. In Moria, Gandalf was sacrificing himself for the Fellowship, for Saruman and his wrongs, and for his task in Middle Earth, since all he knew “at that moment [was that] he was the only person who could direct the resistance to Sauron successfully, and all his mission was in vain.” By “giving up personal hope of success,” he is granted another chance, another body, with greater wisdom and power as befitting the graver situation. He alone “fully passes the tests” and continues to pursue the task given to him by the Valar. [31]

The effect of the creation of the Istari upon Gandalf’s character cannot be understated. Though Tolkien may have had some idea of Gandalf’s angelic beginnings when he wrote his return, the enormity of the idea does not begin to unfold until The Return of the King. Though Pippin is unsure about what Gandalf is, and where he came from, he does not doubt what he tries to achieve. “All worthy things that are in peril as the world now stands, those are my care… For I also am a steward. Did you not know?” [32] His stewardship is not of one land – it encompasses all of Middle Earth. The Third Age was his age. He “was the Enemy of Sauron,” and with Sauron finally defeated, it is “no longer [his] task to set things to rights, nor to help folk to do so.” [33] When he boards the ship at the Havens to sail back into the West, it is not only because he came from Valinor that he earns his passage – but because if not for him, there likely would not be a good Valinor to return to. Sending the Istari to Middle Earth was not only the Valar’s attempt to ensure that Sauron would not rise again, it was an also apology for past wrongs, a commitment to Middle Earth in the future, a promise that they would not ignore the struggles of its peoples in another age. “By enduring of free will the pangs of exile [from Valinor] and the deceits of Sauron, [the Istari] might redress the evils of that time.” [34]

With an established identity and a confirmed purpose, Tolkien is not just developing Gandalf’s character further – he is radically changing it, almost rewriting it, both literally and metaphorically. In hindsight he claimed that “if you wanted to go on from the end of The Hobbit I think the ring would be your inevitable choice as the link. If you wanted a large tale, the Ring would at once acquire a capital letter, and the Dark Lord would immediately appear.” [35] But as is quite obvious, a tale so large was not always Tolkien’s intention. The Necromancer, previously a mere dark wizard whom Gandalf and the White Council had expelled from the south of Mirkwood is revealed in The Fellowship of the Ring to have been Sauron all along, and he was not defeated, but “only feigned to flee, and soon after came to the Dark Tower and openly declared himself.” [36]

A further example of Tolkien’s revision of his own story lies in a passage that did not make the cut of publication, but appears in Unfinished Tales, where the Quest of Erebor is told from Gandalf’s perspective. The most startling aspect is the way in which it portrays the events of The Hobbit, so familiar and central to the readers, in such a marginalized light. Gandalf was, in reality, not overly concerned with hobbits or dwarves, but with Sauron, emerging and gaining strength in Mirkwood. His possession of the map and key to the Lonely Mountain, given to him by the dying Thrain, Thorin’s father, ninety years before, was a mere accidental collection. His meeting with Thorin at Bree was “a chance-meeting, as we say in Middle Earth,” and his selection of Bilbo as a burglar was mere luck. [37] Yet for all its chance, it turned out to be a key element in the War of the Ring, for without a secure North held by the Men of Dale and the Dwarves of the Lonely Mountain, victory on the Fields of the Pelennor might not have been possible – not to mention the crucial finding of the Ring by a certain hardy hobbit.

But what persists through all these changes – the developments in Gandalf’s character, the growth in his importance, the revisions to the story – is Gandalf’s image. No matter the color of his robes, he will always be Mithrandir, the Grey Pilgrim. He may be one of the Istari, a Maiar, an angel, but he never ceased to be “an old man in a battered hat / who leaned upon a thorny staff.” [38] As time progressed, as the story grew, as Gandalf’s character developed, Tolkien gave him a larger, deeper, and more meaningful role in Middle Earth. However powerful he becomes, he is still, even at the end of the trilogy, the wandering wizard who gently influences events. However regal he looks in the darkest hour, after the fall of Sauron on the journey back to Bree he is still the same old simple Gandalf who smokes pipe-weed and chats with Butterbur. In the Fellowship, he tells Frodo that “Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker. In which case you were also meant to have it.” [39] After the destruction of the Ring, he admits “and I might have added: and I was meant to guide you both to those points.” [40] Oddly enough, whether it was “meant” – or destined, or ordained – by some higher authority or whether Gandalf acted on his own does not change the matter. He’s still, in essence, his old self, the same Gandalf that readers knew and loved.

It is surprising that despite the huge development that Tolkien’s story went through, despite the great extension of its breadth, it is still effective. The designation of a minor character, a mere device in The Hobbit, as a manipulator, the chief architect of the events in The Lord of the Rings, has the potential to push the credibility of the story too far, the potential to completely backfire. But it doesn’t. It works. By making Gandalf one of the Istari, by assigning him the indirect fight against Sauron, achieved through aiding and influencing the peoples of Middle Earth, Tolkien brings the story full circle, connecting events so remote as those in The Silmarillion back to The Hobbit again, making them fit together seamlessly. His tale did grow in the telling. But certainly did not grow out of proportion. Gandalf is not only an indicator of how Tolkien’s tale grew over time, but also a demonstration of his masterful storytelling. Though at times it seemed like the two stories could never be reconciled, Tolkien brought them together in such a way to make it seem as if they had never been separated. The transformation and yet concurrent changeless nature of Gandalf’s character is, if nothing else, a true testament to Tolkien’s brilliance.

“I didn’t think it would end this way.” 
“End? No, the journey doesn’t end here. Death is another path, one that we all must take. The grey rain curtain of this world rolls back and all turns to silver glass. And then you see it.” 
“What, Gandalf? See what?” 
“White shores. And beyond, a far green country, under a swift sunrise.” 
“Well, that isn’t so bad.” 
“No. No, it isn’t.”   [41]