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The truth about Gandalf

A look at the origin, powers, death, and rebirth of a mysterious-but-beloved character

Gandalf in close up in Bilbo’s house in the shire in Fellowship of the Ring Lord of the Rings Image: New Line Cinema
Susana Polo is an entertainment editor at Polygon, specializing in pop culture and genre fare, with a primary expertise in comic books. Previously, she founded The Mary Sue.

The theatrical version of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy clocks in at nine hours and 18 minutes, yet there’s so much of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings that was left on the cutting room floor.

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.

That’s a good thing. Movies and books are different beasts, and the former can only support so much exposition. The lack of an origin story didn’t stop audiences from falling in love with Ian McKellen’s Gandalf, who studied Tolkien himself in perfecting his award-winning performance, fixing himself in the hearts of millions of fans. Gandalf, the wise, mercurial, mysterious, and occasionally terrifying wizard is arguably more the face of the Lord of the Rings franchise than Frodo, its hero, or Aragorn, its long-lost king.

The real power of McKellen’s performance is that you believe wholeheartedly in Gandalf. But his role in the movies is still full of ambiguity. Is he, like, human, or what? What happened when he died? What’s the difference between Grey and White? What can wizards do, anyway? And who appointed Saruman president of wizards?

I can provide answers to all these questions, because I’m a giant Middle-earth nerd who thinks The Silmarillion is a more enjoyable read than The Lord of the Rings, and pillaged Tolkien’s Unfinished Tales to enhance the accuracy of my own Lord of the Rings Twitter account. Read on for everything you were always afraid to ask about everyone’s favorite weed-smoking magic grandpa.

Is Gandalf human? Can anyone be a wizard?

No. And also, no.

Gandalf is a divine spirit clothed in a mortal form. In Middle-earth parlance, he’s a creature known as a Maia (plural: Maiar). The Maiar are sort of like demigods, in that they serve a higher order of godlike beings, the Valar. And they’re sort of like angels, in that they are fully divine in origin (not half-human, like a lot of Greek demigods) and can change their form at will.

Other Maiar who appear in the Lord of the Rings movies include Saruman, Sauron, and the Balrog. (Yes, the monster and Gandalf are the same species.) Also, Elrond’s great-great grandmother is a Maia — his family is very complicated.

The Valar, Middle-earth’s cohort of caretaker gods, retreated from the world thousands of years before the time of The Lord of the Rings, and they took all of their Maiar with them. But, in the Third Age (that is, sometime after Isildur got his hands on the Ring in the prologue of the Jackson movies), Sauron began to amass power again. And since the Valar nearly had to destroy the world to stop Sauron the last time he rose to power, they decided to send some emissaries to Middle-earth to make sure he was kept in check this time around.

Gandalf and Saruman walk the gardens of Orthanc in The Fellowship of the Ring.
Gandalf the Grey and Saruman the White in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.
Image: New Line Cinema

So with the blessing of Middle-earth’s creator god, the Valar assembled a large group of Maiar to secretly send to Middle-earth. Those emissaries were known as the Istari, and the Valar sent five particularly high-ranked ones — Tolkien calls them “chiefs” — to the northwest of Middle-earth in particular, because that was deemed the place where it was mostly likely that Men and Elves could be rallied to oppose Sauron.

Those five Istari were Saruman the White, Gandalf the Grey, Radagast the Brown, and the two “Blue Wizards.” Those two went east of Mordor and were never seen again, and Tolkien declined to give them names or even explain what happened to them, since it had nothing to do with the War of the Ring.

Tolkien also never quite settled on all the details of what Gandalf was like as a Maia before he died. But we do have some hints from his notes, as compiled and published by his son and archivist, Christopher Tolkien. It seems clear that Gandalf’s Maia name is Olórin, and possibly that he was reluctant to take up his Istari responsibility and was the last of them to arrive in Middle-earth.

If wizards are gods, why do they all look like crusty old dudes?

Radagast the Brown stands in the forest looking confused in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Radagast the Brown in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.
Image: New Line Cinema

By the time the Valar were sending their Istari emissaries out, Middle-earth had already suffered through several waxings and wanings of its two great Dark Lords, and you could say that the Valar had seen the error in leading Men and Elves to expect gods to solve their problems instead of sorting them out themselves.

So, instead of being sent in their full divine majesty, capable of taking whatever form they wished, the Istari were fixed in the forms of unremarkable old men. This forced them to better understand those whom they were sent to protect, but it had the drawback of making them corruptible. It dimmed their power, and subjected them to mortal fears and worries — but that would be worth it to gain the trust of Elves and Men.

That was important because of another rule that was placed on the Istari: They were forbidden to use force or fear — Sauron’s favorite tools — to dominate Men and Elves. No bending societies under their rule, no political scheming or hoarding of power, even to accomplish honest goals. They’d have to get people to trust them instead.

“In shapes weak and humble [they] were bidden to advise and persuade Men and Elves to good,” Tolkien wrote in an essay on the Istari published after his death, “and to seek to unite in love and understanding all those whom Sauron, should he come again, would endeavor to dominate and corrupt.”

Most people in Middle-earth who ran into a wizard had no idea that they were interacting with an angelic being — but there were a few powerful individuals who figured it out, like Elrond and Galadriel.

How did Gandalf get one of the elven rings?

Galadriel displays her elven ring, worn on the middle finger of her white hand, in The Fellowship of the Ring.
Galadriel holds up her right hand, with the elven ring Nenya on her middle finger, in The Fellowship of the Ring.
Image: New Line Cinema

It is not mentioned in the movies, but just in case you’ve heard about it from some Lord of the Rings nerd, yes, Gandalf has one of the three elven rings.

He got it from an elf, naturally.

The three bearers of the elven rings are Elrond and Galadriel, who you know from the movies, and Cirdan the Shipwright — who appears on a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it basis. Cirdan’s domain was the Grey Havens, the coastal launching point of all the elven boats going West to the elven afterlife/homeland (which itself would take a whole post to unpack, but stick around and maybe we will).

As the guardian of that location, Cirdan got to meet all the Istari as they arrived in Middle-earth, and he gave his ring to Gandalf for three reasons. One, he liked Gandalf better than any of the other Istari. Two, he foresaw that Gandalf would face “great labours and perils.” Three, he wasn’t doing much with it anyway. He lived about as far away from Sauron as you can possibly get without leaving Middle-earth, and he wanted the ring to be on the hand of somebody who was actually going to need it.

What even are Gandalf’s powers?

Gandalf (Ian McKellen) atop one of the eagles. Image: New Line Cinema

Tolkien never really elucidated the specific powers of wizards. After all, it’s not like he was building a cohesive game system or writing a series of novels about a wizard school. He didn’t have to.

But it seems that there are some things all wizards can all do. They all use staffs to focus their magic, for example. Gandalf and Radagast can both speak to animals; Gandalf and Saruman both have some level of ability to mystify using only their voice. And being a wizard seems to come with some power over the physical world around you, as when Gandalf orders a door to stay shut in Moria, summons light, or shatters Saruman’s staff simply by commanding it to.

But it also seems like wizards have specialties. Tolkien says that the Valar deliberately did not mandate that the Istari work together, and in part chose them for their different and separate powers and inclinations.

In the books, Saruman was known for the power of his voice to beguile and convince, as well as for his “great skill in works of hand” — his inventiveness. Radagast the Brown, who was featured in Jackson’s Hobbit movies, became distracted from the Istari mission by his obsession with Middle-earth’s beasts and birds, much to the exhaustion of his colleagues Gandalf and Saruman. (Ultimately, Tolkien says, Gandalf the Reluctant Maia was the only one of the many Istari who remained faithful to the Valar’s goals.)

Gandalf’s specialty was fire. Which might seem odd for a guy whose biggest magic moments in the movies involve summoning great white beams of light or fighting another wizard with invisible waves of force.

To Tolkien, Gandalf embodied the fire of creation in the forge, the fire of warmth in the hearth, and the torch fire that keeps the darkness at bay. “Warm and eager was his spirit (and it was enhanced by the ring Narya),” Tolkien wrote in his Istari essay, “for he was the Enemy of Sauron, opposing the fire that devours and wastes with the fire that kindles, and succours in wanhope and distress.”

It’s a connection that explains why a demigod would take so much enjoyment from making fireworks for hobbits.

What happened to Gandalf when he died?

Gandalf is resurrected, white haired and naked in The Two Towers. Image: New Line Cinema

When Gandalf died, his divine being left his set physical form, and about 20 days later, he was returned to life. “Darkness took me;” he says to Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli in The Two Towers, “and I strayed out of thought and time, and I wandered far on roads that I will not tell. Naked I was sent back — for a brief time, until my task is done.”

He was re-embodied and sent back to Middle-earth by an entity or entities who gave him his task in the first place — either the Valar, or Middle-earth’s supreme creator god himself, Eru Ilúvatar. And, of course, he was sent back changed.

In his essay on the Istari, Tolkien stated that it took each Istari some time to learn mortal ways after they arrived, which might account for Gandalf’s memory lapses just after he was resurrected — and for how Gandalf the White is more formal and disconnected than his previous incarnation.

Why did Gandalf turn white?

To a generation of folks who grew up on Avatar: The Last Airbender or Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers, or heck, even the coded lightsaber colors of Star Wars, it’s tempting to assign the same kind of weight to the color language of Tolkien’s wizards. But from his own writings, it’s clear that Tolkien’s color connotations were personal, rather than universal.

If Gandalf’s speciality is fire, you’d think he’d be a red wizard, but Tolkien wrote that Gandalf’s gray robes and hair represented the color of ash that concealed his divine fire, just as his wizened form concealed his identity as a Maia. In his essay on the Istari, Tolkien linked Gandalf’s white robes and hair to fire as well, saying he was “clothed then in all white, and became a radiant flame (yet veiled still save in great need).”

Tolkien didn’t say much about what white represented for Saruman, though we can infer a few things about what taking on Saruman’s color meant for Gandalf. But let’s get one thing straight first: Saruman is “the White” for only a few chapters of The Fellowship of the Ring. The moment he does his big villain reveal to Gandalf, he also reveals a change of wardrobe.

As Gandalf tells the Council of Elrond:

“I am Saruman the Wise, Saruman Ring-maker, Saruman of Many Colours!”

I looked then and saw that his robes, which had seemed white, were not so, but were woven of all colours, and if he moved they shimmered and changed hue so that the eye was bewildered.

“I liked white better,” I said.

“White!” he sneered. “It serves as a beginning. White cloth may be dyed. The white page can be overwritten; and the white light can be broken.”

“In which case it is no longer white,” said I. “And he that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.”

It might be worth mentioning here that even Tolkien’s own biographer, Humphrey Carpenter, felt the need to comment on how boring his clothing was. Even for an Englishman and an English professor, Tolkien dressed to be forgotten, partly as a conscious rejection of the academic philosophy of aestheticism. According to Carpenter, among Tolkien’s only indulgences once he came into all the money from publishing his books was to buy the occasional brightly colored waistcoat to go along with his drab suits. Tolkien genuinely felt that boring colors were more noble than flashy ones.

It’s also important here to remember that although we know him as a villain, Saruman’s reputation as the wisest of the Istari was based on thousands of years of behavior. He’s one of the most prominent of The Lord of the Rings’ many examples of how even the most principled people can be corrupted by fear and disillusionment.

So, when Gandalf becomes “the White,” it’s about showing that he’s here to take Saruman’s place and make up for Saruman’s mistakes. “Yes, I am white now,” Gandalf tells Gimli. “Indeed I am Saruman, one might almost say, Saruman as he should have been.”

For Tolkien, Gandalf’s and Saruman’s white robes may also have connected them to the color of starlight, which is a big force for magical protection in Middle-earth — think of Sam forcing Shelob to cower before Galadriel’s light. One of the biggest things that the Valar did for Middle-earth was to bring light to it, through the stars, sun, and moon (and, at one point, some special glowing trees). Protecting, fighting over, or maintaining the light of the Valar is a big recurring theme in The Silmarillion.

Sending Gandalf back as Gandalf the White, “a radiant flame” in a dark time, is a Big Valar Mood.

What was Gandalf always smoking?

Everybody who smokes in The Lord of the Rings smokes pipeweed. It’s supposed to be tobacco. It’s tobacco.

It’s tobacco.

“But what if ... heheheh ... it wa—” I cannot stress enough that Tolkien’s own biographer devoted a whole chapter to enumerating all the ways in which he was exceptionally boring, even for a professor of Old English at Oxford who was raised during the Victorian era.

You can think pipeweed is whatever you want. Tolkien meant it to be tobacco.

Why is this so complicated?

doctor strange casting a green glyph in Doctor Strange Image: Marvel Studios

Gandalf is not the kind of wizard we get from other wizard-involved stories, like Dungeons & Dragons, Harry Potter, The Magicians, Diane Duane books, or even Marvel Comics. In The Lord of the Rings, wizards aren’t men who study magic, or people born with magical talent; they’re not human, they’re not strictly mortal, and they’re the same species as Sauron himself, which is to say, they’re kind of angels.

And it’s even more complicated because wizards were never supposed to be a part of Middle-earth. Technically, they were retconned in, comic book style.

We think of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings as a single coherent narrative these days, but Tolkien never imagined continuing the story of Bilbo Baggins when he wrote The Hobbit as a fairy tale for his children. The true creative work of his life would be The Silmarillion, the mythological epic of world-building and romance that he had begun before his children were even born.

The publishers who’d seen the success of The Hobbit thought that a multi-thousand-year history of Elves and Men (and only Elves and Men) was too different to serve as a satisfying sequel. It wasn’t until Tolkien was about a dozen chapters into writing his Hobbit sequel that he realized he could set the entire story after the events of The Silmarillion, turning the project into an excuse to play around in his pet universe, Middle-earth.

There was only one problem, which, for Tolkien, probably felt like an irresistible puzzle: He’d have to find a way to reconcile all the weird stuff in The Hobbit with the extensive and exquisitely balanced world-building he’d done for The Silmarillion. That weird stuff included but was not limited to: Hobbits, trolls, giant talking eagles, whatever Gollum was, and, of course, old men with magic powers.

In a very literal sense, the author would spend the rest of his life in pursuit of this goal. Most of what we know about the origins of the wizards comes from unfinished posthumously published work in The Silmarillion, and from other books of Tolkien’s notes and essays compiled and annotated by his son. In some cases, what we have is really just a note Tolkien wrote in the margins of a student paper as he read it, and we have no way of knowing if it was an idea he later discarded.

Due to the nature of how Tolkien’s books were licensed for film, screenwriters Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, and Fran Walsh were prohibited from using content from books other than The Lord of the Rings. And while it’s fun to explore the unfinished nooks and crannies of Middle-earth in Tolkien’s writing, leaving things vague certainly didn’t stop people from falling in love with Gandalf on screen. In a time when studios are obsessed with origins, it just goes to show that you don’t necessarily need one to make the face of a franchise.


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