8 November 2016
Introduction. Mithrandir. Olórin. Tharkûn. Stormcrow. Whatever name the people of Middle-earth knew him by, Gandalf was by all accounts an important part of Middle-earth’s battle with the forces of evil. However, even though he played a vital role, he was very discriminant in when and where he involved himself. He led a group of dwarves (and a hobbit) across Middle-earth, but abandoned them right when they were about to enter one of the darkest forests in Middle-earth, only to return just in time for a big battle. He led the Ringbearer from Rivendell to Moria and died right after getting them to the other side of a bridge, only to come back later as a completely new figure and again just in time for a big battle. Why does Gandalf seem to pick and choose when and where to help out?
Gandalf, in order to best fulfill his purpose for being in Middle-earth, only intervenes when he is needed the most. He seeks to assist and encourage the people of Middle-earth in defeating evil themselves rather than directly influencing history.
Who is Gandalf? Gandalf is a Maiar whose original name was Olorin, and he was considered one of the wisest of the Maiar. Olorin was under Manwe, the King of the Valar, and when the Valar decided to send some of their own to Middle-earth to indirectly defeat Sauron, Manwe sent Olorin as his representative. Olorin admitted that he was afraid of Sauron, and Manwe’s response was that was all the more reason to go. Olorin conceded and went with the other five representatives to Middle-earth.
On their arrival to Middle-earth, the representatives took mortal form. They became known as wizards, being old, wise, and very powerful. While the other wizards traveled further east into the heart of Middle-earth and settled down, Gandalf preferred to wander Middle-earth with no particular place to call home. He, along with with the other representatives, plus a number of Elven leaders, was a part of the White Council, a group of influential beings in Middle-earth joined together to defeat Sauron.
Wizard Powers. It is not clear what the wizards can do in terms of supernatural ability. As Maiar, they had the ability to change their appearance, such that they might appear as elves or as men; immortality, as they are spirits created by Eru Iluvatar before the Ainulindale was sung and the world created; and the use of various enchantments and spells, among other things. When they were sent to Middle-earth, their ageless appearance changed to that of old men. It is presumed that they either were not able to shapeshift, were were not allowed to, or never saw the need to, because there is no record of any of the wizards changing shapes while in Middle-earth.
It is interesting to note the stark differences between Tolkien’s wizardry and other fantasy wizardry. Frank P. Riga writes about this comparison in Gandalf and Merlin: J.R.R. Tolkien's Adoption and Transformation of a Literary Tradition. Merlin, as characterized by Edgar Quinet in 1860, is an all-powerful being who does not present human traits and with such great abilities like detailed foresight. Contrast this with Tolkien’s Gandalf, who, “...by contrast, is eminently human, with human failings and limitations. [...] Above all, Gandalf intentionally veils his powers and limits his use of magic so that he can act as a true teacher and counselor” (Riga 21). While Gandalf, as a Maiar, does have powers beyond the normal mortal man (and beyond that of the elves) his abilities do not makes up the entirety of his character.
Gandalf’s Task. A thousand years into the Third Age, Sauron appeared to be regaining power. The Valar, wishing to assist Middle-earth with making sure Sauron does not fully manifest, sent Maiar in mortal form as their representative. The Valar’s reasoning for sending representatives instead of going themselves is pretty simple; every time they intervene directly something goes wrong, and the world is changed drastically and irreversibly. As Tolkien records in the Unfinished Tales:
For with the consent of Eru they sent members of their own high order, but clad in bodies of as of Men, real and not feigned, but subject to the fears and pains and weariness of earth, able to hunger and thirst and be slain; though because of their noble spirits they did not die, and aged only by the cares and labours of many long years. And this the Valar did, desiring to amend the errors of old, especially that they had attempted to guard and seclude the Eldar by their own might and glory fully revealed; whereas now their emissaries were forbidden to reveal themselves in forms of majesty, or to seek to rule the wills of Men and 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 to seek to unite in love and understanding all those whom Sauron, should he come again, would endeavour to dominate and corrupt. (“Unfinished Tales” 406) [Emphasis added]
From the emphasised phrases, we can see that the Valar, while still willing to defend Middle-earth, decided that it was best not to intervene with their full supernatural power, and even to not intervene themselves (“Unfinished Tales” 406).
It was after this that they decided to intervene without intervening.They sent representatives of the Powers of the world who, while still having some of their supernatural powers available to them, would be take the form and feeling of old men. This was done to restrict them from intervening too much or attempting to rule the peoples of Middle-earth. Their goal was not to directly stop Sauron and evil from conquering Middle-earth, but rather to inspire, motivate, and unite the peoples of Middle-earth against the forces of evil and to help the people defeat evil themselves.
The representatives that the Valar sent to Middle-earth were called the Istari, and there were five of them: Curumo, known to men as Saruman, Also called The White, and the leader of the Istari; Aiwendil, known to men as Radagast, also called The Brown; Alatar and Pallando, also called the Blue Wizards, of whom little is known; and Olorin, known to men as Gandalf, also called The Grey, who appeared to be lesser and weaker than his counterparts.
Of these five, four were unable to complete the task that was given to them. Curumo gave in to the temptation of power and became a pawn of Sauron. Aiwendil became distracted by the nature and creatures of Middle-earth. Alatar and Pallando traveled eastward and were never heard from again. Only Gandalf resisted the temptations of the world and completed the task that was given to them.
Why did Gandalf succeed when the others failed? Gandalf never intervened more than he had to. Unlike the other Istari, he never settled down in one place or took up any permanent residences. When he did intervene, he made sure to act only when his intervention was absolutely necessary and only just enough to solve the conflict.
In The Hobbit, he saves Bilbo and the dwarves from Goblin-Town (a situation that they definitely would not have been able to get out of by themselves), but later on leaves them right before they are supposed to travel through Mirkwood Forest, although it was a journey he was confident they would be able to make with Bilbo in the party (The Hobbit 137). By leaving them, he made Bilbo the hero when the dwarves inevitably got themselves into trouble and someone had to get them out.
In The Fellowship of the Ring, he does not take the Ring from Frodo when it was offered to him freely. He does not accompany Frodo from Bag End to Rivendell. He does sacrifice himself while fighting the balrog because he knew that the balrog was a foe that the Fellowship could never defeat themselves. “‘Over the bridge!’ cried Gandalf, recalling his strength. ‘Fly! This is a foe beyond any of you. I must hold the narrow way. Fly!’” (LOTR 321).
In The Return of the King, Gandalf leads the remaining armies of Middle-earth to Mordor for a final attack, trying to give Frodo and Sam time to get to Mount Doom. After the Ring is destroyed, and trouble is brewing in the Shire, he tell the Hobbits he is not going to help them: “I am not coming to the Shire. You must settle its affairs yourselves; that is what you have been trained for. Do you not yet understand? My time is over: it is no longer my task to set things to rights, nor to help folk to do so” (LOTR 974).
In his article Maldon and Moria: on Byrhtnoth, Gandalf, and heroism in The Lord of, Alexander Bruce compares Gandalf response to the Balrog in Moria to the old English poem The Battle of Maldon. In The Battle of Maldon, The main character, Byrhtnoth, makes the end of himself and the other Anglo-saxons by allowing his pride to come before his people. Bruce argues that Tolkien made a direct parallel between Byrhtnoth and Gandalf at the Bridge of Khazad Dum, saying:
[...]Tolkien adapts the situation; he takes the occasion to ‘correct’ the behavior of the self-serving Byrhtnoth through the actions of the self-less Gandalf. [...] Though Tolkien critiques one aspect of "Maldon" through Gandalf's actions, elsewhere in The Lord of the Rings he celebrates the Germanic heroic code as so powerfully stated in the Anglo-Saxon poem. In a way, Tolkien takes the mixed message of "Maldon"--with its positive and negative exempla of heroic action--and shapes a unified presentation of heroic responsibilities in The Lord of the Rings. (Bruce 2)
He goes on to use examples from both stories to portray all of Gandalf’s actions as self-less; a distinct lack of “Ofermod”, or overconfidence, as Byrhtnoth had.
In everything that Gandalf did he never did to excess or for glory. While he did take many risks he never took any risks for personal gain, unlike Beowulf:
Tolkien offered Beowulf as an example to illustrate what constitutes "excess"--and what the wages of excess are. [...] At the end of the poem, Beowulf does exhibit the sin of excess when he personally challenges the dragon that threatens his land and people, the Geats. At that point in his career, Beowulf did have "responsibilities downward"; his entire people needed him alive as their lord and leader. But he ignored these responsibilities, gave in to excess, and gained victory only "by the loyalty of a subordinate," Wiglaf ("Homecoming" 22-23). And of course Beowulf dies and his leader-less people are shortly erased from history by Swedes, Franks, Frisians--the very tribes Beowulf had kept at bay. (Bruce 6)
By giving in to his temptations to do more than was necessary to complete his task, Beowulf fell and the people he was supposed to protect were defeated by their enemies. Gandalf, in only doing what was absolutely necessary, made it possible for people like Bilbo and Frodo to succeed and also prevented him from losing sight of his task, like the other Istari. Saruman lusted for power and resorted to consorting with Sauron, who he was sent to help Middle-earth to defeat, for it. Radagast fell into his love for the flora and fauna of Middle-earth and lost sight of what he was sent to Middle-earth to achieve. Alatar and Pallando just up and disappeared from history.
[...]Tolkien provides the figure of Gandalf at the bridge of Khazad-dum as a model of correct behavior. Gandalf understood his responsibilities. He had responsibilities "downward" to the Fellowship; they needed an opportunity to escape, and he fought to give them that opportunity. And on a grander scale he had responsibilities "upward" to the greater common good. Just as Byrhtnoth was bound to his lord AEthelred and to the security of England, so too is Gandalf the Maia bound to the Valar and to the security of Middle-earth. So Gandalf fought the Balrog not just for the Fellowship's benefit but for the benefit of all Middle-earth: the creature of evil formed by the ancient enemy Morgoth had to be destroyed. [...] What is clear from the scene on the bridge is that Gandalf faced the Balrog neither for fame nor heroism but out of his immediate need to defend the Fellowship, especially those who did not know the arts of warfare and should not be sacrificed, and out of his greater duty to fight against the forces of evil. (Bruce 6)
Although Gandalf’s actions were selfless he still could be considered the hero of the story. In Tolkien: A Look Behind The Lord of the Rings, Lin Carter suggests that Gandalf is the hero, the central character, because he is the only character that seems to know everything about everything. He knows about Treebeard, Tom Bombadil, and the Ring, and without his knowledge of these and other various details, the Fellowship probably would have failed its quest and the Ring would have found its way back to its owner.
Conclusion. Gandalf, as a Maia, has many supernatural powers. Although he has a lot of power, he prefers not to use it in favour of motivating and helping the people around him. While he might be able to better help the people of Middle-earth by using his powers more often, relying on his powers could open him up to corruption or lead him to believe that all he needs is more power to solve all of the problems he is facing (Ruud 10). He prefers to rely on what he can say to others rather than what he can do.
Gandalf, in order to complete the task given to him and his peers by the Valar, chose to intervene as little as possible, and when he did intervene, he did so in a way that was never excessive or flashy. By choosing not to settle down in Middle-earth or get too involved in any one part (though he always had a soft spot for the Shire), Gandalf was the only one out of the five Istari to succeed in their task to ensure the destruction of the One Ring and the defeat of Sauron.
Bruce, Alexander M. "Maldon and Moria: on Byrhtnoth, Gandalf, and heroism in The Lord of
the Rings (1)." Mythlore 26.1-2 (2007): 149+. Academic OneFile. Web. 29 Sept. 2016.
Carter, Lin. “Tolkien: A Look Behind The Lord of the Rings.” Ballantine Books, 1969.
Riga, Frank P. "Gandalf and Merlin: J.R.R. Tolkien's Adoption and Transformation of a Literary
Tradition." Mythlore 27.1-2 (2008): 21+. Academic OneFile. Web. 29 Sept. 2016.
Ruud, Jay. "The voice of Saruman: wizards and rhetoric in The Two Towers." Mythlore 28.3-4
(2010): 141+. Academic OneFile. Web. 29 Sept. 2016.
Tolkien, J.R.R. “The Lord of the Rings.” Houghton Mifflin, 1994.
---. “Unfinished Tales.” Ballantine Books, 1980.
---. “The Hobbit.” Ballantine Books, 1979,