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Gandalf brandishes his sword and staff at the Balrog in The Fellowship of the Ring. Image: New Line Cinema

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‘You shall not pass’ is classic Gandalf, but his greatest line is key to Lord of the Rings

Peter Jackson and his collaborators knew when to push the fantasy and when to hold back

There are countless iconic lines from Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, but “You shall not pass” sits at the apex of the mountain (of Doom). Ian McKellen’s line reading is oft quoted in doorways, by annoying siblings, or simply when holding a big stick. It’s been parodied innumerable times. More than any other, it is the Gandalf line.

2021 marks The Lord of the Rings movies' 20th anniversary, and we couldn't imagine exploring the trilogy in just one story. So each Wednesday throughout the year, we'll go there and back again, examining how and why the films have endured as modern classics. This is Polygon's Year of the Ring.

Even McKellen has absorbed “You shall not pass” as is his public catchphrase, just as Leonard Nimoy and “Live long and prosper,” and Mark Hamill and “May the force be with you.” Which is fine. It’s fine.

The thing is: There is a better Gandalf line, one that has all the might of “You shall not pass” and more. It’s a display of the Grey Wizard’s uncanny power, it’s a moment for McKellen to flex his skills, and it’s a point of high tension for the audience. It’s Gandalf at his most puissant and most human. And deep inside of the line is the key to how Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, and Fran Walsh succeeded at adapting J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.

The affairs of wizards

The line in question is delivered early in The Fellowship of the Ring, before the adventure has even really begun. Bilbo has just returned from his surprise party disappearance, and he and Gandalf are discussing his old ring, with the wizard very much in favor of Bilbo leaving it behind for his nephew. Bilbo had planned to do that all along, but here in the moment he abruptly changes his mind. Gandalf’s pushing only agitates him until he finally makes a low accusation: Gandalf simply wants the ring for himself.

This produces an immediate change in the kindly old wizard, as he bellows Bilbo’s full name at him. The room darkens, a wind whips up out of nowhere, Gandalf’s voice grows sepulchrally deep as he calls out a warning:

“Do not take me for a conjuror of cheap tricks!”

Which is ironic, because this is the first time a new audience is shown that Gandalf is something other than a conjuror of cheap tricks. The scene isn’t the first time we see magic in the contemporaneous (i.e., not a flashback) Fellowship setting — Bilbo popped the Ring on only a few minutes earlier — but it is the first time we see magic being scary. Before a single Black Rider has set foot in the Shire, Gandalf transforms into a monster.

The back-and-forth ends with Gandalf at his most human, which is kind of the point. A line after the “conjuror” bit, the old wizard gives Bilbo a kindly “I’m trying to help you,” and a hug, patting his hair in the manner of a family member or intimate friend. This is the duality of Gandalf; everything you need to know about his character over all three movies, delivered in about 15 seconds.

It’s also one of the most literally translated moments in Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. First, as in the movie, Bilbo provokes Gandalf by implying that he desires the Ring. “But you won’t get it. I won’t give my precious away, I tell you,” he cries, and Tolkien writes “His hand strayed to the hilt of his small sword.”

Gandalf’s eyes flashed. “It will be my turn to get angry soon,” he said. “If you say that again, I shall. Then you will see Gandalf the Grey uncloaked.” He took a step towards the hobbit, and he seemed to grow tall and menacing; his shadow filled the little room.

Bilbo backed away to the wall, breathing hard, his hand clutching at his pocket. They stood for a while facing one another, and the air of the room tingled. Gandalf’s eyes remained bent on the hobbit. Slowly his hands relaxed, and he began to tremble.

“I don’t know what has come over you, Gandalf,” he said. “You have never been like this before. What is it all about? It is mine isn’t it? I found it, and Gollum would have killed me, if I hadn’t kept it. I’m not a thief, whatever he said.”

“I have never called you one,” Gandalf answered. “And I am not one either. I am not trying to rob you, but to help you. I wish you would trust me, as you used.” He turned away, and the shadow passed. He seemed to dwindle again to an old grey man, bent and troubled.

But what’s really remarkable about this tiny moment is how brilliantly Jackson brings a rather odd glimpse of Gandalf’s power to life — and how little he decided to push it to do so.

Subtle and quick to anger

Gandalf stands glowering in Bag End in The Fellowship of the RIng. Image: New Line Cinema

The effect is actually quite simple. Jackson doesn’t even push-pull on the lens. The lighting dips, the sound of creaking timbers is added the the audio, Howard Shore’s score plays some uneasy strings. A fan flutters the candles and Bilbo’s jacket. The rest is all on Ian McKellen.

He drops his voice into his chest and doesn’t even really raise his volume, aside from the first surprising bellow of “Bilbo Baggins!” He draws his shoulders back and lets his arms hang, lengthening his silhouette — growing taller-seeming without actually growing taller. He lets his sleeves fall over his hands, emphasizing his face and beard as the brightest objects in frame. His mouth hangs open at the end of the sentence, as if his body is merely a puppet for the being within it, or as an old man who has just given a great exertion.

From what I can tell, there’s no green screen effect that enlarges Gandalf against the frame of Bag End. There’s no detectable filter on McKellen’s voice. There’s no flare of wind and polar-reversed color on him as for Galadriel — even though Tolkien describes her turn in remarkably similar language:

She lifted up her hand and from the ring that she wore there issued a great light that illumined her alone and left all else dark. She stood before Frodo seeming now tall beyond measurement, and beautiful beyond enduring, terrible and worshipful. Then she let her hand fall, and the light faded, and suddenly she laughed again, and lo! she was shrunken: a slender elf-woman, clad in simple white, whose gentle voice was soft and sad.

The scene does a lot with a little, which was exactly Tolkien’s approach.

Magic and meddling

Our idea of what magic looks like has (like all cinema) evolved in part from theater. And in this case, from theatrical effects and the misdirecting aesthetic of stage magicians. Which is how Fellowship introduces Gandalf, with his fireworks that amuse young and old hobbits alike — a conjuror of cheap tricks!

Tolkien was trying to do something decidedly different. The magic wasn’t the point, in the way it would have been if Frodo had been a student at a wizard boarding school, or a surgeon-turned-superhero, or if he was the creation of a group of friends rolling dice to explore a dungeon.

And so in his stories the flashy stuff — making things go bang and disappear in a puff of smoke, the colorful costumes — that wasn’t real magic. The real magic was rare and subtle and strange.

It makes perfect storytelling sense that Boyens, Jackson, and Walsh would leap on this particular book moment to include nearly verbatim in the movie. It’s a transitional point in the script. Our homey hobbit characters are about to connect up with the dark history of Fellowship’s opening battle scene, and that transition will only work if the audience can viscerally feel that these small creatures are on the edge of something far more dangerous and strange than they thought.

The screenwriters’ brilliance is creating a moment that also does the extremely vital task of establishing what “real magic” looks like in Middle-earth and puts it in direct contrast to flashy “cheap tricks.”

Boyens, Jackson, Walsh would have known that their audience had a learned visual shorthand for cinematic magic, and there’s nothing bad or good about that shorthand. Film is a world in which what you see and hear is the only thing you get. Tolkien’s medium of prose allowed him to describe magic by how it feels, and that’s exactly what he did. Gandalf “seemed to grow tall and menacing,” Galadriel “stood before Frodo seeming now tall beyond measurement.”

By finding a way to visualize those feelings, and resisting the urge to do any more (perhaps because the production had already survived plenty of pushback), Boyens, Jackson, and Walsh made “Do not take me for a conjuror of cheap tricks” into a statement of purpose. One that went on to serve throughout the trilogy, from the smallest details of costumes to the biggest excesses of computer generated effects.

The Lord of the Rings trilogy believed in the power of Tolkien’s aesthetic to not only communicate his ideas, but to enthrall an audience. It’s a show of confidence, not only in the adaptation itself, but in the material its sourced from.

In other words, Boyens, Jackson, and Walsh believed in the magic.