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