Gandalf the Grey; Olórin
Gandalf the Grey was one of the chief Istari, or Wizards1 of
Middle-Earth. He was known by many names: "Gandalf" to hobbits and
humans, "Mithrandir" ('grey-pilgrim') to the elves, and "Tharkûn" to the
dwarves. In reality he was Olórin, a maia Spirit of the Undying
Lands. Though a modest figure, aware of his own bounds and the dangers of
corruption, Gandalf became the greatest opponent of the Dark Lord
in the Third Age. The Great Powers of Arda, perceiving that great evil was rising in
the Mortal Lands (Middle-Earth), sent Olórin together with four other from
the Order of Wizards (the Istari, or Q. heren istarion) to assist
Middle-Earth in their war with Sauron.
To many people of Middle-earth, Gandalf the Grey was merely "just a
Wizard"--a vain, fussy old conjurer with a long beard and bushy eyebrows,
whose main skill was his uncanny and uncommon gift with fireworks. From
the mere superstition of the Hobbits we can see this dislike even festering
to the attitude of the the Men of Gondor, many of whom regarded him as
little better than a pest, a homeless vagabond, a meddler in affairs of
state and a herald of ill-news (c.f. Gríma Wormtongue in The Two
Towers saying "Lathspell I name him--ill news"). Yet the five Istari
who came to Middle-earth during the early Third Age were, in actuality,
messengers sent from Valinor to "contest the power of Sauron, and to unite
all those who had the will to resist him".2 Though they came from
Valinor to mortal lands in the shapes of aged Men; for they were Maiar,
in their beginnings Ainur to a lesser--though still potent--degree than
the Valar, whom they served. The other Istari were Saruman, Radagast,
Alatar and Pallando. One by one the others, being as corruptible as any
finite spirit given free will, fell into darker ways, but Gandalf was
triumphant. Yet while their powers were great, they were forbidden to
rerveal their true names or to use their full strength in direct conflict
with the Enemy. But the Mortal Lands of Middle-earth have always held great
perils for Immortals, whether Elves or Valar of Maiar; they could be slain
and they could be tempted and seduced away from their appointed tasks. At
least one of the great Istari fell from grace in such a manner (Saruman
the White), in circumstance grievous to Gandalf--who, while less proud, was
more wise and perceived the nature of the trap thus avoiding it
Gandalf was the real architect of the Ring Bearer's quest. By his wisdom,
Frodo was led to Mordor and there the Ring of Sauron was destroyed and
Sauron driven out into the same outer locked darkness that held his
master. Gandalf was also a tactician, instigating the downfall of Smaug,
and bringing about victories of the Battle of Five Armies, the Battle of
Helm's Deep, and the Battle of the Pelennor Fields. Gandalf also
single-handedly defeated the Balrog of Moria a task he himself was
unsure if he could manage.
In his fight with the Balrog on Zirak-Zigil or the Silvertine, Gandalf passed through, fire, earth, water and death.
Tolkien is quite explicit in his letters: "Gandalf really 'died', and was
changed: for that seems to me the only real cheating, to represent anything
that can be called 'death' as making no difference. 'I am G. the
White, who has returned from death.'"4
"...'Gandalf', the old man repeated, as if recalling from old memory a long
disguised word. 'Yes, that was the name. I was Gandalf.'..."5
"'Many are my names in many countries', he said. 'Mithrandir among the
Elves, Tharkûn to the Dwarves; Olórin I was in my youth in the West that is
forgotten6, in the South, Incanus, in the
North, Gandalf; to the East I go not.'"7
In such a death,
was reborn, becoming "Gandalf the White", and rising to meet the
destiny long appointed for him: to be the chief architect of Sauron
Like other Maiar, Gandalf (or maybe just Gandalf "the Grey") was not
infallible. In The Hobbit, Gandalf cannot read certain runes... Of
course, as Tolkien's story grew in its telling, the character was refined,
but still Gandalf is not a God (as neither are the Valar), e.g.
he does not realise that Bilbo's ring is The Ring.
As regards that specific point, however, there were a lot of magic rings in
the world. Sauron had made a lot of lesser Rings of Power that didn't
have much significance to them. Bilbo's Ring could have been one of them.
But, nevertheless, Gandalf's handling of the Quest for Erebor (which
ultimately became the journey of the Fellowship of the Ring) shows his
canny appreciation of power, dangers, and tactic. Gandalf knew that
Sauron was arising again. He also knew of Smaug the Dragon in Erebor,
and was afraid that Sauron would try to enlist the dragon in his forces.
Then along came Thorin Oakenshield, who was the rightful heir as "King
Under the Mountain" in Erebor (Lonely Mountain) that Smaug now held.
Thorin wanted to retake his home and kill Smaug. And Gandalf wanted to
make the world a safer place. When Gandalf heard his story, he realized that
Thorin could be a useful ally against the dragon.
At the end of the Third age, when all of Olórin's deeds were completed, he
departed from the Grey Havens and returned to the Undying Lands.
Ultimately Gandalf epitomises the real role of the Istari--not corrupted
or broken as Saruman came to be, but in their fullness--messengers of a
higher power, exercising compassionate wisdom to all. In short something
akin to loving kindness but with a measure of tactical insight thrown in
Of course Gandalf was aided by his possession of one of the Elven-Rings,
Narya--given him by Círdan, Lord of the Havens, to "rekindle hearts to
the valour of old in a world that grows chill"8--but still the
sheer magnitude of the power of maiar we glimpse of but a reflection of
that in the character of Gandalf. I prefer to think of Gandalf (whether
Grey or White) as a reflection of his true self, Olórin. In the Second and
Third Ages when shadow again rose in the Kingdom "it was believed by many
of the 'Faithful' of that time that 'Gandalf' was the last appearence of
Manwë himself, before his final withdrawal to the watchtower of
Taniquetil"9. However Tolkien, having
already revealed that Gandalf was attached to Manwë of old10,
makes us sure of Gandalf/Olórin's nature:
"...But I think it was not so. Manwë will not descend from
his Mountain until the Dagor Dagorath, and coming of the End,
when Melkor returns. To the overthrow of Morgoth he sent his herald
Eonwë. To the defeat of Sauron would he not then send some
lesser, (but mighty) spirit of the angelic people, one coëval and equal,
doubtless, with Sauron in their beginnings, but not more? Olórin
was his name. But of Olórin we shall never know more than he revealed
Wilt thou learn the lore that was long secret
of the Five that came from a far country?
Only one returned. Others never again
under Men's dominion Middle-earth shall seek
until Dagor Dagorath and the Doom cometh.
How has thou heard it: the hidden counsel
of the Lord of the West in the land of Aman?
The long roads are lost that led thither,
and to mortal Men Manwë speaks not.
From the West-that-was a wind bore it
to the sleeper's ear, in the silences
under night-shadow, when news is brought
from lands forgotten and lost ages
over seas of years to the searching thought.
Not all are forgotten by the Elder King.
Sauron he saw as a slow menace....12
N.B. This w/u is not intended to supercede or contest in any way with the 'Gandalf' ones, but instead to complement it as regard what was quintessentially "Olórin" about Gandalf. Plus I wanted to reproduce the Olórin poem...
- Not Wizards specifically by function, but perceived as such by the inhabitants of Middle-earth
- Appendix B to the Lord of the Rings
- The Complete Tolkien Companion, pp. 265-266, from which some of this essay has been adapted
- Letters, no 156, p. 201
- The Two Towers, p. 113, being LotR, Book Three, Chap. V.
- firmly linking Gandalf of LotR to Olórin of
- Lord of the Rings, pp. 696-697, ed. unk.
- Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age, p. 367 of The Silmarillion
- UT, p. 395
- Letters no. 200, p 259
- UT, p. 395
- Olórin poem, in The Istari, UT pp. 395-396
- Tyler, J.E.A., The Complete Tolkien Companion, 2002 Pan Books ed.
- Carpenter & Tolkien, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, 1995 HarperCollins paperback ed.
- Tolkien, Christopher (ed.), The Silmarillion, 1983 Unwin Hyman paberback ed.
- Tolkien, J.R.R., The Two Towers, 2002 HarperCollins film tie-in ed.
- Tolkien, Christopher (ed.), Unfinished Tales [of Númenor and Middle-Earth], 1982 Unwin Hyman paberback ed.