Gandalf the Procrastinator
Revisiting a post written many years ago, which has also since appeared in the Inner Circle Writers' Magazine - it's about one of Tolkien's most famous characters, but explores him in a unique way...
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 the 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 to 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, visits the Hobbits in the Shire occasionally, taking part in their parties where he impresses young Hobbits with his fireworks and his stories about dragons, goblins and princesses. He develops a reputation for encouraging eccentricity amongst the Hobbits, and is held ‘responsible for so many quiet lads and lasses going off into the Blue for mad adventures’. Is he in fact trialling some kind of plan to send a Hobbit off on a quest?
If so, it’s around this time that he meets his prototype: a relatively adventurous Hobbit named Bilbo Baggins.
Meanwhile, Smaug the Dragon has destroyed both the Kingdom under the Mountain and the town of Dale, and Gandalf fears that Sauron might use the desolation around Erebor to regain the northern passes in the mountains and the old lands of Angmar. Gandalf knows that the Dwarf lord Thorin plans to battle against Smaug, but judges that this will not be enough. In 2941, Gandalf happens across Thorin while staying the night in Bree. Thorin feels an uncharacteristic urge to seek out Gandalf, who becomes intrigued, for he feels he needs to speak to Thorin as well. They agree to travel together.
In their conversations, Gandalf’s possible plan to use a Hobbit to defeat his personal enemy starts to takes effective shape: here is a perfect opportunity to ‘test the mettle’ of Hobbits under ‘battle’ conditions. It is very clear in The Hobbit that it is Gandalf who selects Bilbo for this task, against the better judgement of the dwarves at first: the wizard ‘has a feeling’ that a Hobbit should be involved, and convinces the reluctant Baggins to become a burglar for Thorin. Is he actively testing his plan, which better explains the otherwise odd recommendation he makes to the dwarves to use Bilbo? Gandalf then accompanies Thorin and Company to Rivendell and beyond and is instrumental in saving the travellers's lives from several calamities.
From the wizard’s point of view, though, this is an interesting journey in more ways than one. Quite early on, he discovers the ancient sword Glamdring (about which more here), and kills the Great Goblin with it. The sword will save his own life in his greatest physical battle later. It is also during this time that Bilbo obtains the One Ring, the key to the defeat of Gandalf’s arch-foe, though the wizard doesn’t recognise its exact nature at first.
Gandalf’s long journeys around the North start to pay off: he and his companions are rescued by the Eagles, whose King owes the wizard a favour; Gandalf’s knowledge of Beorn helps the dwarves’ adventure move forward. But he then leaves the dwarves himself to do the thing that he has so long seemingly put off doing: he journeys to the White Council and manages to persuade them to attack and drive out the Necromancer from Dol Guldur.
Directly confronting and attacking Sauron has been something he has procrastinated with for almost two thousand years at this point. Why would he seek to act now? Yes, the whole White Council is spurred on by Saruman’s secret fear that Sauron may reach out and discover the One Ring before Saruman himself does, and yes, Gandalf is thus encouraged by their full support. But why does he throw himself into conflict at that point, when he has put it off for so long?
Two answers spring to mind: he feels a boost in confidence now that he is acting on his half-formed plan to cultivate a Hobbit as a full solution, even though the details haven’t yet consciously fallen into place; and he is wearing Glamdring, a sword of ancient lineage, which has loaned him courage, perhaps. Fate seems to be on his side, moreso than at any point since he arrived in Middle-earth. The Necromancer is consequently driven from Dol Guldur.
Thorin's quest is successful: Erebor is retaken and Smaug is killed. Gandalf returns to the area, brimming with confidence -he sorts out the complex politics that have arisen and sees that he has accomplished his immediate goal, the destruction of Smaug, who could have been used to disastrous effect by Sauron. A large number of Orcs and Wargs have also been killed in the North, removing threats to Rivendell and Lothlórien. As at the time of the Watchful Peace 900 years earlier, there has been a triumph.
But again there is no follow-through. ‘Driving the Necromancer from Dol Guldur’ isn’t a completion of his mission orders. And it is this lack of follow-through which prolongs the problem of Sauron.
Ten years after this attack, in 2951, Sauron declares himself openly in Mordor and rebuilds the Barad-dûr. The White Council meets for one last time in 2953 -two whole years later- to debate the Rings of Power, but Saruman, whose influence over the other members is largely due to Gandalf’s own reticence five hundred years earlier, claims to have knowledge that the One Ring has been lost in the Belegaer. Saruman, jealous and afraid of Gandalf, then sets spies to watch all his movements. If Gandalf had acted instead of reacting when offered the leadership of the Council centuries before, Saruman would not have been in this position.
Meanwhile Sauron begins reassembling his forces for another war against the West. Easterlings from Khand and beyond the Sea of Rhûn, joined by men from Harad, reinforce his stronghold in Mordor; orcs, trolls, and other foul beasts multiply while he searches the Anduin for any sign of his precious One Ring. Gandalf, at least partially aware of all this, must wonder whether he is ever to be free of his nemesis. A few years later in 2956 he meets Aragorn, the hidden Heir of Isildur, and soon becomes friends with him. Here at last is someone with the same deep character motivation: a fear of Sauron. Indeed, Aragorn has much in common with the wizard: the completion of their lives’ work can only be accomplished by Sauron’s destruction, and yet to both this seems an impossible task.
Having no clear plan of attack, Gandalf reverts to his former pattern of withdrawing and trying to find a means of dealing with Sauron indirectly. With his subliminal idea still at work in his mind, he visits the Shire frequently, especially his friend Bilbo Baggins, and his younger cousin, Frodo, and notes Bilbo's unusual youthfulness, despite the hobbit’s advancing age. Gandalf recalls the deceit Bilbo used in originally claiming the One Ring for his own and sees that Bilbo is now very preoccupied with it. On the one hand, this behaviour arouses Gandalf’s suspicions; on the other, it revitalises his plan. He convinces Bilbo to leave the Ring for Frodo, but makes sure that he is present at the moment of handing over. This is so that he can make a judgement both about the power of the Ring -and about the resilience and persistence of the Hobbits. If this transition of ownership of a Ring of Power, unheard of amongst other races, can actually be pulled off, Gandalf’s fledgeling scheme has a chance: he has a Ring-bearer, a weapon with which to defeat Sauron once and for all, without he himself having to directly confront the Lord of the Rings.
A search for Gollum and study of ancient records later confirms this plan: the Ring is none other than the One Ring. If it can be destroyed, the purpose for Gandalf’s presence in Middle-earth will have been accomplished and his arch-enemy will have been defeated. And all through someone else.
Confirming his fears about the Ring also confirms his plan’s feasibility. He returns to the Shire and advises Frodo to leave as soon as possible, promising to return before a farewell party for Bilbo in autumn of that year (3018), and to escort him to Rivendell. Gandalf also tells Frodo about the creature Gollum, to which Frodo exclaims that he should have been killed. Gandalf speculates -perhaps again with some kind of foreknowledge of the future- that Gollum will have a part to play before the end. He then sets out to seek the advice of Saruman, supposedly still the head of his order.
Why does he feel the need to ask Saruman what to do? Again, Gandalf is giving someone else the responsibility of making decisions in the conflict with Sauron. It serves Gandalf’s inner fears well that Saruman is the Head of the Order -it means that Gandalf can always refer any important decision. Unfortunately for him, at their meeting, Saruman reveals his desire for the One Ring, offering to his ‘old friend and helper’ that they take the Ring for themselves and seize power from Sauron. Gandalf rejects this with horror -this is an even worse nightmare for him: if he takes the Ring, he not only prevents Sauron’s defeat, he almost becomes his nemesis. Imprisoned by Saruman on the pinnacle of Orthanc, Gandalf is rescued by his friend, Gwaihir, chief of the Eagles, but now knows that he must return quickly to the Shire, as Frodo (and the Ring) are in double danger from both Sauron's Nazgûl and now Saruman's treacherous desire for power.
Gandalf speeds to the Shire on the stolen Shadowfax, no doubt pondering his own condition: he no longer has any kind of ‘shield’ between him and Sauron, the Maiar who terrfies him. With Saruman’s treachery, the responsibility for Sauron’s defeat is fully his own. It is a low point for the old wizard. Fortunately, Frodo has already left and is with Strider, the suspicious Ranger. But for Gandalf this is a hope which far exceeds his expectations: his plan is going forward in others’ hands. He heads for Weathertop, where he is assaulted at night by the Nazgûl, but escapes to Rivendell, where he welcomes Glorfindel, Aragorn and the hobbits upon their arrival several days later, Frodo being sorely wounded but still in possession of the Ring. So far, so good, for the wizard’s perilous plan.
The Fellowship of the Ring is now formed; the two thousand year mission is starting to accumulate resources and a direction, but has to now overcome obstacles which have arisen due to the wizard’s own long procrastination. To avoid Saruman, Gandalf decides to take a southern route to the Redhorn Pass and there to cross the Misty Mountains near Caradhras, traversing the mountain range and avoiding Isengard. This attempt fails due to a terrible storm, leaving only the dreadful option of Khazad-dûm. The creature who haunts the labyrinth, Durin’s Bane, catches up to the group at the Bridge of Khazad-dûm where Gandalf realizes what it is: a Balrog of Morgoth, a servant of the first dark lord.
But this is an interesting encounter on many levels: Gandalf is not afraid of the creature as such, though he is weary. In a spectacular display of bravery that is the closest the story reaches towards myth, he confronts the demon, breaks the bridge and leaves the Balrog to fall into the seemingly bottomless chasm. But he is dragged down by its whip; he and the Balrog fight in the bowels and deep places of the world for two days and nights. Using his last measure of strength to slay the creature, Gandalf then dies, sacrificing himself to save the Fellowship. Though this all happens ‘off stage’ and is related later to the Fellowship as a flashback, it nevertheless shows that the wizard isn’t frightened of battle, or pain, or even death as things in themselves: Gandalf is no coward.
It’s only Sauron that he fears, apparently.
Why should this be the case? Balrogs are fearsome; death is also terrible. We can only speculate, but perhaps the Maiar that walked the universe before the world was made isn’t afraid of monsters or of death, but of becoming like his fellow Maiar, Sauron. The Ring’s seductive power has a more possessive and intimate hold over Gandalf because through it the wizard could take on Sauron’s mentality directly -hence it is even more deeply feared and rejected. If we see Gandalf as a protagonist, then being offered the One Ring, heart of Sauron’s power, is as close as he comes to confronting his antagonist.
Death would have been a legitimate excuse for Gandalf to leave the field of battle: as far as we know, the spirits of the Maiar survive bodily death and we presume that they return to Valinor. The details of what actually happens are wisely hidden from us as readers of The Lord of the Rings. All we know is that, as the sole emissary of the Valar in Middle-earth, Gandalf is granted the power to be more of a Maiar when he returns to Middle-earth after death. We have to assume that the choice to return was his. Who knows what counsels took place in Manwë’s halls in the Blessed Land? Perhaps Olórin was given a pep talk and shown that so far his inactions had lengthened the conflict. We can only surmise that he was persuaded to come back and confront his fear.
Gwaihir bears his reborn body to Lothlórien, where he is clothed and replenished, and given a new staff by Galadriel. He soon learns that Frodo and Sam have left the Fellowship and are attempting the quest of Mount Doom alone. This is another key point of choice: he makes the judgement that Frodo is beyond his assistance now. Is he still motivated by the same old fears, still seeking indirect ways of dealing with Sauron, still reticent to become openly confrontational? Or is this a new Gandalf, willing to forthrightly take on his foe?