“Go back to the shadow!” A grey-swathed figure threatens, tiny compared to the fiery beast that looms above him. Dramatic music swells in the background, building up the tense moment as you instinctively lean closer to the screen. “You shall not pass!” Gandalf cries, splitting the narrow rock bridge with his staff in a move that sends the monster tumbling to the depths below. In that moment, Gandalf the Grey’s most iconic words were captured on screen in the Lord of the Rings. Beloved for years by fans, the wizard Gandalf the Grey serves as a vital figure to both plot and characters in J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic masterpiece, as seen through his background, strengths and weaknesses, struggles in life, and his personal choices.
Both in books and in the movies, Gandalf is portrayed as an elderly man with a flowing silver beard, wooden staff, and grey cloak. He enjoys smoking, learning about and visiting hobbits, and is very accomplished in fire magic. He can be a kindly confidant to his friends, a fierce warrior to his foes, or a tactful diplomat to possible allies. As author Louis Markos states in his book On the Shoulders of Hobbits, “Gandalf, though he can be as serious and grave as a desert monk, is filled with a life and gaiety that is infectious.” Altogether, the wizard is as complex and multi-faceted as a precious diamond, reflecting the light differently depending on how you look at it.
Gandalf’s age is unclear, though it is known he and four other wizards (collectively called the Istari) came to Middle-Earth at the beginning of the Third Age (Tolkien, Return, 403). Gandalf is actually a Maia, which is a sort of lesser angel from Tolkien’s “heaven”: Valinor, the Land to the West. There, he was known as Olorin, the first in a long list of names he was to be called in the future (Tolkien, Silmarillion, 22). He was also the wisest of the Maia. He and the Istari were selected by the fourteen Valar (the “gods”) to go to Middle-Earth and teach men in all that was right and good.
These powerful beings were instructed to disguise themselves as old mortal men and not to use their strength for evil or to garner respect. Unlike others of his kind, the grey wizard does not often use his power, saving it for necessity and preferring the mortal weapons of his staff and sword. Reportedly, Gandalf was the only Istari to stay true to his mission and quietly fight against evil. This steadfastness later earned him the reward of returning to his home in Valinor. There he would be the only Istari to return.
Gandalf, though a “hidden angel”, has a human’s strengths and weaknesses. He is wise and strong, though adversaries often jump to the conclusion he’s merely a frail old man (a fact he uses to his advantage at times). Indeed, becoming unassuming and using words rather than power to “change the hearts of men” makes up a part of his mission. His elder position makes him the ideal candidate for a sort of mentor to the protagonists, especially Frodo. The wizard however, can have a short and irritable temper when provoked, causing him to forsake propriety for bluntness in a way that hurts rather than helps his cause.
Inversely, Gandalf selflessly puts the Fellowship before his own safety, going so far as to die fighting a monstrous Balrog to allow the others time to escape. Granted, he is later “brought back” to life by the Valar, but the intent of his actions still stands strong. Gandalf’s faults and virtues are often the result of and magnified by his personality. His thoughtfulness and habit of thinking things through lead to the sacrificial acts he later performs. He suffers imprisonment for refusing to turn to evil, though he would have gained even greater power by doing so. Clearly, Gandalf’s various strengths and weaknesses all contribute to his human persona.
Most of Gandalf’s peculiar traits can be traced back to his intended purpose on Middle-Earth and the various struggles he faced. He endures numerous battles with minions of the Dark Lord Sauron, even at one point facing the dreaded Nazgûl, the Nine Ringwraiths. Saddled with such an important mission, (freeing Middle-Earth from Sauron’s grasp) also naturally effects his interactions with those around him. Gandalf’s stress and concern of the deplorable state of Middle-Earth is oftentimes the root of his abrupt mannerisms and outbursts. Pleasantries can fall to the wayside when you’re trying to assure the safety of the world.
Indeed, the struggles and trials of Mithrandir (as the wizard is known by the Elves) stretch into all facets of his life. Gandalf juggles being a friend and counselor to the oblivious hobbits, while still protecting their little land of the Shire from outside harm. He wrestles with the White Council (a group of wise Istari and Elves) and his superior Saruman, attempting to discern the real enemies from true friends. He is the driving force behind the uprising against Sauron, working for over two thousand years to accomplish his goal (Foster 200). Without question, Gandalf’s internal and external struggles help shape him into Tolkien’s character we know and love.
The Grey Wanderer’s choices also result in some interesting outcomes, impacting the whole course of the upcoming Fourth Age along the way. His decision to befriend Aragorn, the heir to the throne of Gondor, leads the reluctant man to take back his rightful crown in a moment of political unrest. His choice to accompany Bilbo on his infamous quest set in motion the entire events of Lord of the Rings. Even deciding to sacrifice himself to the Balrog allows the protagonists to grow and mature as leaders throughout the course of the story. Obviously, Gandalf’s personal choices affect both the plot and the other main characters.
It’s been over sixty years since Gandalf first appeared in Tolkien’s famous fantasy, yet the character remains as popular today as it was then. Whether it’s captivating audiences on the silver screen or holding a reader spellbound in the thralls of the book, the wizard has left his mark in our hearts and minds. As seen through his background, strengths and weaknesses, struggles in life, and personal choices, Gandalf stands as an essential character for the other protagonists and the entire story. Just as the Balrog “shall not pass,” Tolkien has ensured that we also “ shall not forget” either Gandalf or the epic story behind him.
Foster, Robert. “G.” The Complete Guide to Middle-Earth: Tolkien’s World From A to Z. New York: Ballantine, 2003. 200. Print.
Kalanit, Liraz. “Gandalf by Sir Ian McKellen Review.” Lord of the Rings:. Lord of the Rings Fanatics Networks, n.d. Web. 08 Nov. 2015.
Markos, Louis. “Temperance and Tobacco.” On the Shoulders of Hobbits: The Road to Virtue with Tolkien and Lewis. Chicago: Moody, 2012. 76. Print.
Tolkien, J. R. R., and Christopher Tolkien. “Valaquenta.” The Silmarillion. New York: Random House Group, 1977. 22. Print.
Tolkien, J. R. R. “Apendix B.” The Return of the King: Being the Third Part of The Lord of the Rings. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1965. 403. Print.