Gandalf the Grey; Olórin

(Tolkien's Arda)

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 himself.3

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, Gandalf was reborn, becoming "Gandalf the White", and rising to meet the destiny long appointed for him: to be the chief architect of Sauron's Downfall.

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 to boot.

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 in Gandalf."11

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....

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...


  1. Not Wizards specifically by function, but perceived as such by the inhabitants of Middle-earth
  2. Appendix B to the Lord of the Rings
  3. The Complete Tolkien Companion, pp. 265-266, from which some of this essay has been adapted
  4. Letters, no 156, p. 201
  5. The Two Towers, p. 113, being LotR, Book Three, Chap. V.
  6. firmly linking Gandalf of LotR to Olórin of the Valaquenta
  7. Lord of the Rings, pp. 696-697, ed. unk.
  8. Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age, p. 367 of The Silmarillion
  9. UT, p. 395
  10. Letters no. 200, p 259
  11. UT, p. 395
  12. 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.

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