Gandalf the Procrastinator
As with many of Tolkien’s characters and ideas, Gandalf grows backwards and larger as the stories featuring him develop. Closely examining his inner motivations, though, reveals a multi-layered personality with more going on than it might first seem. His attributes, positive and negative, mould the story of the Third Age as it comes to us.
At first, Gandalf was just a picture on a postcard that Tolkien claimed to have encountered while on holiday in Switzerland in 1911 (the postcard, Der Berggeist ‘the mountain spirit’ later proved to be based on a painting by the German artist Josef Madlener and dates to the late 1920s), but like much in Tolkien’s imagination, this simple old man soon began to link up with older and deeper matters.
Gandalf is certainly a character worthy of exploration. When we first meet him as readers in The Hobbit, written in the 1930s, he appears as an old man with a staff. He had a tall pointed blue hat, a long grey cloak, a silver scarf over which a white beard hung down below his waist, and immense black boots.
In the course of what is his first adventure for us, we see Gandalf do many things. He blows glowing smoke rings that move around a room at his direction, and is remembered for fantastic fireworks displays. He creates blinding flashes and other pyrotechnics to distract the goblins of the Misty Mountains, aiding the dwarves in their escape from that stronghold, and later turns pine-cones into flaming missiles that throw hot sparks and start fires that do not easily go out. He is also able to come and go from the presence of Thorin and Company without being noticed. Later we see his proficiency with fireworks again at Bilbo's Farewell Party. When the Fellowship is attacked by Wargs in Hollin, Gandalf speaks words of power to inflame the trees on the hillock where the company had camped and is also able to start fires under blizzard conditions, creating light of varying intensity for the journey through Moria. We get a glimpse of what appears to be another level of power when he speaks a word of ‘Command’ to secure a door against what turns out to be a Balrog of Morgoth, and he’s also able to break the Bridge of Khazad-dûm. When angered or aroused for battle, he seems able to grow in height and assume a terrifying aspect.
The climax of his strength in the first part of The Lord of the Rings, though, is his fight with the Balrog of Moria. He kills it, though it also seems to kill him. Then something very unusual happens -one of the most unusual occurrences in The Lord of the Rings and in the whole history of Middle-earth when it is viewed as a single event: Gandalf is ‘sent back’ to Middle-earth as Gandalf the White, possessed of some kind of greater power and even a limited degree of clairvoyance. In this renewed state, he is able to break Saruman's staff with a spoken command, demonstrating his authority to throw the treacherous wizard out of the order to which they both belonged. This resurrection signals a fundamental change of character and direction, as we shall see.
Throughout these adventures, Gandalf is described as quick to anger, equally quick to laugh, and possessed of a deep wisdom. In The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings we are not told of his origins or true nature -Tolkien expects us to accept Gandalf for what he is, and he so closely captures our arechtype of the Wizard, the wise old man with a stick, that we do so unquestioningly for the duration of the story. It’s only later that we learn that some of his qualities might be derived from experiences he had in Valinor: his care for all creatures of good will, his strong sense of pity for the weak, a veiled power, usually revealed in his eyes, which appeared deep and wise.
As readers we see only the end chapters of a long history in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. To view those adventures in perspective, and to gain true light about Gandalf as a layered character, we should go back to the beginning and examine the evolution of him as a being in his own right. And when we do, we find some interesting revelations about him and his innermost motivations.
Gandalf, originally called Olórin, was created by Ilúvatar before the Music of the Ainur, which brought the world as we know it into being. He was amongst the Ainur who entered into Eä, the universe, and became one of the Maiar of Manwë, Varda, Irmo and Nienna -it is from Nienna that he supposedly learns pity and patience. In this capacity, he walks unseen amongst the Elves, placing fair visions amongst them to help them be wiser. Initially he is, then, an angel-like spirit, working to ease sorrows and encourage wisdom. This goes on for much of the First and Second Ages, as far as we know, which already places Gandalf at well over 4,000 years old by the end of his time on Middle-earth, depending on which timeline is consulted. Most of this time, though, he has spent in the Blessed Land, far from travail or conflict.
A thousand years of Third Age passes before the Valar choose five emissaries from among the Maiar to go and help the peoples of Middle-earth. Manwë selects Olórin, who, at first, does not wish to go, fearing Sauron. But Manwë gives this as the reason why he should go.
Take note, then, that at the root of Gandalf’s quest is fear -fear of Sauron in particular. We are not told exactly why -but Sauron is a fellow Maiar, an angelic being who chose to follow Morgoth at the beginning. We will see that this back-off underlies most of Gandalf’s plans and actions throughout his long mission, and by the end we will be able to surmise its essence.
The timing of the arrival of the Istari (Curumo, Aiwendil, Pallando, and Alatar, the other four ‘wizards’) is also noteworthy from a narrative point of view: one thousand years into the Third Age, the One Ring, the source of much of Sauron's power, is still missing somewhere in Middle-earth. This is also the exact moment that the Necromancer moves into Mirkwood.
Olórin, submitting to the will of Manwë, makes his reluctant journey from Valinor to Mithlond in that year, then, T.A. 1000. These concurrent happenings are the narrative beginnings of the events of The Lord of the Rings, representing as they do the coming together of a newly-formed antagonist, the Maiar Sauron, and his opposite number, the Maiar who fears him, Olórin. On this grand scale, Gandalf is the protagonist, and his central motivation is his terror of his enemy.
Like the other Wizards, Gandalf takes the shape of an old man, robed in grey, and journeys about as a wanderer and counsellor. But he is particularly welcomed to Middle-earth by Glorfindel, an old friend from Valinor, on a similar mission against Sauron, and Círdan the shipwright, who possesses Narya, one of the Three Elven Rings of power. It is Círdan who, narratively speaking, sees the protagonist in Olórin, despite his appearance as a bent and aged old man, and gives him Narya with a promise that it will support and aid him in his labours.
As though motivated by his fear from the beginning of his sojourn in Middle-earth, Gandalf does not then go east nor does he take up a single permanent residence, but restricts himself to wandering in the West of Middle-earth, as far away from Mordor and Mirkwood as possible, where the remnants of the Dúnedain and the Eldar continue oppose Sauron from a distance. Elves come to know him as Mithrandir, the Grey Pilgrim, while the men of Arnor name him Gandalf, which becomes his most common name.
It becomes clearer about fifty years after Gandalf’s arrival in Middle-earth, that some kind of evil entity resides at Dol Guldur in Mirkwood. No one knows for certain what this entity is, but it’s interesting to note that Gandalf fears that it might be his own personal nightmare, Sauron himself. The key point, though, is that he doesn’t do anything about it. As a matter of fact, Sauron has the upper hand throughout most of the history of the Third Age -Gandalf seems only able to react to what he does, rather than act against him causatively, as we shall see.
Over the next two centuries, for example, the evil, whatever it is, continues to grow: orcs multiply in the Misty Mountains and elsewhere; the Witch-king, the mightiest of the Nazgûl, builds a fortress in Angmar and wages unceasing war against the Kingdom of Arnor; Moria and Minas Ithil fall under a shadow; and wars, plagues, and catastrophes take place across Middle-earth. Gandalf eventually confronts his worst fears and goes to Dol Guldur in 2063 but the entity known only as the 'Necromancer' withdraws. Gandalf doesn’t pursue him.
After that, the evil fades and there are about four hundred years of relative calm known as the Watchful Peace. From Gandalf’s perspective, it appears that he has had a personal triumph: his enemy, if that’s who it was, has fled before him.
It’s a false victory, however. The Nazgûl use it to prepare for Sauron's return in 2460. The Wise react to this new threat by forming the White Council three years later. Galadriel, bearer of one of the Three Elven Rings and mighty among the Eldar, wishes Gandalf to be the chief of the Council, but he refuses, claiming that he does not wish to live in one place or lose his independence. This could be the decision of someone motivated by fear, who feels the need for a quick getaway. Saruman takes the leadership of the White Council, heralding trouble down the line. In rejecting the authority and power which might have led him to confront Sauron personally, Gandalf has again failed to follow through, and arguably has created future problems for himself and for many others.
During his wanderings in Eriador, the wizard meets and befriends the Hobbits in their isolated country, The Shire. During the Long Winter of 2758 he comes to their aid and witnesses and admires the pity and courage of that humble people. Perhaps at this point he has the seeds of an idea: if Sauron is to be finally defeated, can it somehow be through the quiet courage of the Hobbits? When seen in this light, Gandalf’s interest in the halfling race takes on a new dimension.
Gandalf maintains a role on the edges of things, consistently avoiding confrontation with Sauron. At some point after the year 2845, King Thráin II, a dwarf of the royal line of Lonely Mountain, disappears on journey to Erebor, and it is Gandalf who looks for him, entering the abandoned city of Khazad-dûm. In 2850, his quest leads him once more to Dol Guldur, where he finds Thráin in the dungeons. Thrain gives Gandalf his last possessions, a map and the key to Erebor. Most importantly, though, Gandalf finds his darkest dread is real: the Necromancer is no Nazgûl – it is Sauron the Maiar, gathering the remaining Rings of Power and possibly searching for his lost One Ring.
This is the moment, Gandalf must have thought, when Sauron must be confronted and defeated. He doesn’t dare confront Sauron himself, though -the wizard escapes from Dol Guldur and returns to the White Council, urging them to attack Sauron while the One Ring is still lost and Sauron's power incomplete. But it is Saruman, in command of the Council due to Gandalf’s earlier reticence, who sways the Council against this, saying that the One Ring long ago rolled from Anduin to the Sea.
Elrond Half-elven confides privately in Gandalf that he has a foreboding that the Ring will be found, and that the war to end the age is coming, dreading that it would end in darkness and despair. The seed of an idea that Gandalf had about a century earlier is then given voice for the first time, when the wizard tries to encourage Elrond, saying that there are many ‘strange chances,’ and that ‘help oft shall come from the hands of the weak’. This remark is almost a premonition -it certainly seems as though there is more to it, when seen in context.
It’s noteworthy too that Gandalf consistently seeks others to act as a via between him and the one he fears. This lack of desire for a direct confrontation has now created a further peril, unbeknownst to the wizard: Saruman wants the One Ring for himself and is secretly searching for it along the banks of river Anduin.
Gandalf, withdrawing from the front lines again