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Gandalf the Blight: Is Middle-Earth's Bearded Charlatan Even Really a Wizard?

Aloysius Slim By Aloysius Slim Published on November 2, 2016
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Gandalf is one of the of the few constants across both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. The imposing silhouette of the tall, robed wizard is a stabilising influence on the chaos of the mass of dwarves in The Hobbit, just as he is an imposing authority figure in the face of the bickering of the Fellowship of the Ring. We’re told that Gandalf is more than just a wizard, he is one of the Maiar, the guardian spirits that watches over the world.

But what if all of that is wrong? What if Gandalf isn’t the force of nature he’s made out to be? What if Gandalf is just a mad old man who wears a pointy hat and a robe, and runs around telling everyone he’s a wizard? We understand that this might seem like an outlandish suggestion, but it’s definitely borne out by the text. 

When you really think about it, can you remember the times that Gandalf actually uses magic in The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit? If you're like us, you've already realised that there are relatively few examples of Gandalf’s sorcery to draw on. More interesting still, those few examples are almost all related to a few key elements.

In The Hobbit, when Bilbo and his dwarven friends are stuck in the treetops and surrounded by wargs, we see one of the first of Gandalf employing practical magic, 

He gathered the huge pine-cones from the branches of the tree. Then he set one alight with bright blue fire, and threw it whizzing down among the circle of the wolves.

If you read The Hobbit before The Lord of the Rings, this seems like an excellent piece of magic. After all, the fireball is a tried-and-trusted staple of wizards everywhere; it’s usually the first meaningful spell learned in any sword and sorcery novel. At around the same time, Gandalf uses some impressive lighting effects to produce blinding flashes to help get Bilbo and the dwarves out of trouble. 

By the time of The Fellowship of the Ring, we learn that Gandalf enjoys a reputation for manufacturing excellent fireworks, as well as for “his skill with fires, smokes, and lights.” This seems only natural, given what we’ve already seen about his fireballs, but fireworks aren’t the only magic that we see of Gandalf in the opening chapters. 

Gandalf’s dominion over smoke is important. While it is mentioned only in passing in the book, it is established early in The Fellowship of the Ring, in which we're told that the long years have not diminished the wizard's liveliness or his love for blowing smoke rings, as illustrated in figure one, below.

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Fig. 1: When the end comes, the ships will come to take the elves East to the Vape Nation.

When Gandalf joins Frodo and the elves on their trip to the grey havens, we are informed that,

As he turned and came towards them Frodo saw that Gandalf now wore openly upon his hand the Third Ring, Narya the Great, and the stone upon it was red as fire.

For any of our readers who have made it this far who are not yet steeped in Tolkien lore, Narya’s name is drawn from the "Nár," which is the Valar word for fire. If there could be any remaining doubt, it is also referred to as, "The Ring of Fire." As you might expect, the ring gives its wearer dominion over fire. 

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A tired-looking Gandalf openly wearing Narya the Great.

All of this might seem innocuous enough, until you consider Gandalf’s most heroic act in The Lord of the Rings. If you were to ask the average fan to name the single most spectacular action performed by the wizard over the course of all three books, there’s almost no doubt as to which moment you’d recount.

That’s right, Gandalf defeated the Balrog! A monstrous creature from deep below the stone and rock of Khazad-dûm. Truly, he must be a powerful wizard to have achieved such a feat, and yet, if you examine the descriptions of the Balrog, there is a very different conclusion to be drawn from the encounter.


It came to the edge of the fire and the light faded as if a cloud had bent over it. Then with a rush it leaped across the fissure. The flames roared up to greet it, and wreathed about it; and a black smoke swirled in the air. Its streaming mane kindled, and blazed behind it. In its right hand was a blade like a stabbing tongue of fire; in its left it held a whip of many thongs.
First, let's not have any misunderstandings; the Balrog is a terrifying beast, truly something to be feared. After all, we see how afraid of it everyone seems to be. That said, Gandalf turns to face the beast alone and tells the rest of the fellowship to run.
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Fig. 2: The Balrog, composed entirely of smoke, flame, and shadow.

The most direct and obvious interpretation of this is the most popular one; Gandalf recognises the threat to the fellowship and, knowing how vital their quest is, risks his own life to ensure their escape. However, there is an alternate hypothesis.

What if Gandalf, through the subtle manipulation of his powers over fire, light, and smoke, created the illusion of the Balrog to frighten away the goblins that pursue the fellowship through Moria. Then, in a moment of tremendous personal weakness, Gandalf realised that the horrifying creature he had created could also serve as the perfect excuse to duck out on some of the most unpleasant portions of the quest, including the long walk through the Dead Marshes (particularly unpleasant if you’re wearing a robe).

Indeed, when the Balrog apparently drags Gandalf into the abyss, no one is there to see him fall. Instead, all the reader is told is that, 

The fires went out, and blank darkness fell.

Could it be that Gandalf simply muted the summoned flames of the Balrog and hid himself from the fellowship, safe and out of harm's way? This might sound like a stretch, but we are not alone in our suspicions.

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Fig. 3: Gandalf, seen roaming the shire, smoking the halfling's weed.

When the hobbits journey brings them to meet Faramir, they inform the men of Gandalf's "death" in Moria. On hearing the news, Faramir, who was once a student of Gandalf, reacts in an interesting manner,

Mithrandir was lost!’ said Faramir. ‘An evil fate seems to have pursued your fellowship. It is hard indeed to believe that one of so great wisdom, and of power – for many wonderful things he did among us – could perish, and so much lore be taken from the world. Are you sure of this, and that he did not just leave you and depart where he would?

It seems almost surprising that Faramir would suggest such a thing. If Gandalf were the upstanding wizard he has led us all to believe, surely the idea that he would die to save the hobbits wouldn't be so outrageous. Moreover, if Gandalf were all he claimed to be, do we really think that Faramir would suggest that he would leave "and depart where he would?" It might sound like a stretch, but there are other elements of Gandalf’s character that support the theory. 

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Fig. 4 When next we meet Gandalf, he's had a chance to shower and bring his robe to the dry cleaners... all while the hobbits slog through the marshes.

Consider the fact that the whole quest to destroy the ring is happening while Sauron rises to power instead of years earlier when the ring would have been comparatively easy to fling into Mount Doom. It seems almost ridiculous that Gandalf could have lived through the War of the Last Alliance, then later hear about Bilbo Baggins’ ring and not be reminded of the powers of Sauron’s ring.

Moreover, Gandalf admits that he had long suspected Bilbo's ring might be something more sinister. The wizard specifically tells Frodo that he had watched Bilbo for 80 years(!), waiting for signs of the ring’s effects on the elder hobbit,


And the years passed. Yes, they passed, and they seemed not to touch him. He showed no signs of age. The shadow fell on me again. But I said to myself: “After all he comes of a long-lived family on his mother’s side. There is time yet. Wait!”

Are we really to believe that Gandalf, a great and wise wizard, didn’t see this coming? 

There are two more likely possibilities:

  • Gandalf knew what was happening with the ring the whole time, and was simply too afraid or too lazy to do anything about it. In his reluctance, he allowed Sauron to effectively return to Middle Earth before he eventually gathered his nerve and... asked Frodo to deal with it.
  • Gandalf suspected that the ring was dangerous, but convinced himself that it was probably nothing to worry about. For those who cling to the idea that, as rival wizard Saruman reminds us, Gandalf's mind has been "clouded" by his "love of the halfling's weed," this is a pretty compelling argument. It constructs a world in which Gandalf is essentially an alright guy, but complacent.

Let's run with the second option for now, because it ties in to our earlier point about the Balrog. If Gandalf's mind is as "clouded" as Saruman suggests, is it possible that the wizard hallucinated the Balrog? 

Consider Gandalf's extreme age. The man has been wandering around Middle Earth for two-and-a-half thousand years since the first defeat of Sauron. That’s an awfully long time to develop an instinctive, perhaps even subconscious command over the ring that lends him power over smoke and flame. If the dark recesses of his mind were to throw up some horror, it seems reasonable to suppose that Gandalf’s subconscious could conjure it through his ring of power.

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Fig. 5: Is this the face of millennia of wisdom, divinity distilled into physical form, or the face of a hapless boob with a magic ring that lets him control fire?

All of this might seem odd, but it makes a bit more sense if you read Gandalf as the well-meaning-but-ultimately-sort-of-useless burnout of the Istari order. Furthermore, if you consider the text as a whole in the light of that version of Gandalf, it takes on a new meaning. What if Gandalf isn’t the stern authority figure that he tries to paint himself as?

The Lord of the Rings is very much the story of its peoples and their failings. Consider the failings of the races of Middle Earth. Where the elves are proud, the dwarves greedy, and men ambitious, the hobbits' great sin seems to be complacency. They have things pretty good in the Shire; it’s a hospitable place, with good soil and everything they could reasonably want. Are the hobbits really the people you’d task with carrying a ring of tremendous power and politely ask them to destroy it? At the very least, they wouldn’t be your first choice...

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Fig. 6: Above, left to their own devices, Gandalf & Pippin Go to Whitecastle.

Of course, it fits with a Gandalf who has a rough idea that giving the ring to men probably wouldn't help, giving it to be dwarves would get it lost, and giving it to elves would be catastrophic. Still, this is a Gandalf who frankly isn't all that interested in doing a bundle of admin to get the ring into the hands of those best suited to destroying it. Instead, Gandalf the burnout just asks the hobbits to go for a walk with it and then half-heartedly commits to walking with them.

What if the real reason the eagles didn't bring the ring to Mount Doom was because Gandalf had honestly forgotten about them.

What is perhaps most disappointing about this interpretation of Gandalf is that it’s not even as though his true nature as an underachieving wizard is hidden from us. After all, when Gandalf is first revealed to Saruman in his new splendour, his sole comment to Wormtongue is, 

“Gandalf the White? Gandalf the fool!”

Poor old Gandalf the fool. He's doing his best... better than those blue wizards at least.

Aloysius Slim spent his youth apprenticed to a cobbler. One morning, while mending a customer's shoe, he found that the sole had been padded with folded newspaper to keep the rain ... Show More

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tegthethird
First off, the ring. Narya is called the “Ring of Fire” primarily because its stone is a ruby, not because it really has anything to do with the element of fire. The other two Rings of Water and Air have stones of sapphire and adamant (i.e. diamond), respectively. The power of the Three is primarily that of preservation. Thus in The Silmarillion: “those who had them in their keeping could ward off the decays of time and postpone the weariness of the world” and “where they abode there mirth also dwelt and all things were unstained by the griefs of time.” The two greatest strongholds of the Elves in The Lord of the Rings, Rivendell and Lothlorien, are powerful because they each have one of the Three. This isn’t Captain Planet; there is no textual support to suggest Gandalf’s proficiency with fire and smoke (which he had in The Hobbit before Tolkien ever conceived the Three Elven Rings) comes from Narya. The closest any text comes to suggesting this is when the Elven lord Cirdan gives Narya to Gandalf and says “For this is the Ring of Fire, and herewith, maybe, thou shalt rekindle hearts to the valour of old in a world that grows chill.” Its power was primarily spiritual and its association with fire was metaphorical; Cirdan didn’t say “you have now unlocked the power of firebending.”To further dispel that illusion, most depictions of magic in Middle-earth as a rule are subtle. When Pippin asks if the cloaks of Lothlorien are magic, an Elf responds “I do not know what you mean by that. They are fair garments, and the web is good for it was made in this land. They are elvish robes certainly, if that is what you mean. Leaf and branch, water and stone: they have the hue and beauty of all these things under the twilight of Lorien that we love; for we put the thought of all that we love into all that we make.” The cloaks aren’t magic; the Elves are just so in tune with the natural world that they may as well be from a mortal perspective. Magic in Middle-earth is almost always expressed in terms of hierarchical spiritual power; this is supported by instances where Gandalf is flexing his magical muscle. His words are almost always declaratory: “You cannot pass.” “Your staff is broken.” Outside of The Lord of the Rings, in the Silmarillion there is a magical battle that is essentially a singing competition: “Thus befell the contest of Sauron and Felagund which is renowned. For Felagund strove with Sauron in songs of power, and the power of the King was very great; but Sauron had the mastery, as is told in the Lay of Leithian.” This isn’t Harry Potter; magic in Middle-earth doesn’t consist of people casting spells at each other. It runs deeper than that.Now, the Balrog. This is probably the silliest fan theory I’ve ever heard. Even if we were to accept the argument that Gandalf had extra special fire powers that he could exercise unconsciously to accidentally create the illusion of the Balrog (ignoring the fact that Balrogs appear elsewhere in Tolkien’s legendarium and conclusively exist apart from Gandalf’s imagination), the whole reason they were dealing with a Moria overrun with orcs in the first place was because the Dwarves had awoken a Balrog. This author is suggesting that Gandalf made up a Balrog in order to escape from orcs who were in Moria and able to pursue the Fellowship in the first place because of the Balrog that Gandalf supposedly just made up. This isn’t a theory expressed through ignorance like “why didn’t they fly the Eagles to Mordor?”; this is a theory that requires actually ignoring the plot of The Lord of the Rings.If Faramir was surprised that something could take out Gandalf (incidentally, Gandalf and the Balrog are both Maiar, beings on a similar level of spiritual hierarchy and therefore a pretty even match) and would ask “Are you sure of this, and that he did not just leave you and depart where he would?”, he wasn’t asking whether Gandalf was a coward, but was noting Gandalf’s modus operandi of always being on the move. “Gandalf Greyhame has need of haste. Ever he goes and comes unlooked for,” says Hama in The Two Towers. In the Silmarillion he is described as: “He wandered far in the North and West and made never in any land any lasting abode”. Gandalf’s Elvish name refers specifically to this quality: “Mithrandir” in Sindarin means “grey pilgrim.”The strongest argument the author has is Gandalf’s apparent lack of activity while Bilbo had the Ring of Power. A lot of time passes in the Third Age where the Council of the Wise does not act when they arguably should have. The timeline and series of events Tolkien came up to explain this is convoluted and outlined in the appendices and in "Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age" (involving a lot of disingenuous advice from Saruman to Gandalf and the Council of the Wise), and really was contrived to make the long delay consistent with the plot of The Hobbit (when Bilbo’s magic invisibility ring had not yet become the One Ring). But even this potentially interesting argument is wasted on the theory of a Gandalf complacent enough to sit around getting high for 2000+ years.[The “halfling’s weed” is not marijuana. It’s tobacco. Good grief (I blame Peter Jackson). Tolkien’s use of the word “pipe-weed” was his attempt to find a fitting linguistic alternative to “tobacco,” a word originating in the sixteenth century that wouldn’t have existed in Middle-earth (Tolkien as a philologist was very deliberate in his word choices). “Weed” as a slang term for marijuana was relatively new (probably less than a decade old when Tolkien began LOTR) and for the most part exclusive to American English.]Finally, the “foolish” choice to entrust the Ring to hobbits was exactly that. This was discussed at the Council of Elrond. Erestor says “What strength have we for the finding of the Fire in which it was made? That is the path of despair. Of folly I would say, if the long wisdom of Elrond did not forbid me.” Gandalf responds: “Despair, or folly? It is not despair for despair is only for those who see the end beyond all doubt. We do not. It is wisdom to recognize necessity, when all other courses have been weighed, though as folly it may appear to those who cling to false hope. Well, let folly be our cloak, a veil before the eyes of the enemy!” Elrond also says “neither strength nor wisdom will carry us far upon it. The quest may be attempted by the weak with as much hope as the strong. Yet such is oft the course of deeds that move the wheels of the world: small hands do them because they must, while the eyes of the great are elsewhere.” The obvious plan, the worldly plan, would be one of strength, would be to use the Ring against Sauron to topple him. But instead of giving the Ring to someone great and powerful (remember, Gandalf refused it), they trusted to “a fool’s hope.” That’s part of what makes the story of the quest to destroy the One Ring so enduring.

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