At the start of The Hobbit, Gandalf is introduced as an old travelling wizard who does simple magic tricks such as making fireworks. As we learn more about him we realise he is more than this - he is immensely knowledgeable, knows people in high places, has been around a long time and is involved in major plans to rid the world of evil. By the end of The Lord of the Rings, Gandalf is the chief advisor to the group leading the fight against Sauron, the Dark Lord who threatens to enslave the world.
Although Gandalf can do magic, he rarely does so. He nearly always uses his sharp wits and vast knowledge to extricate himself from difficulties, although it has to be said that he tends to get into tricky situations on a regular basis. Theoden accuses Gandalf of being a 'stormcrow', an evil presence that always arrives just before some bigger trouble. Gandalf replies that he 'comes only to bring aid in time of need'.
Gandalf looks like an old man. He wears grey clothes, a silver scarf and a blue pointy hat with a wide brim (what we would call a 'wizard's hat', although in Tolkien's world he is the only wizard we see wearing one). He has a big white beard and enormous bushy eyebrows - so long that they stick out from under the brim of his hat. Although he looks old and carries a staff which he leans on, he stands tall and is very nimble and strong when he needs to be. He has no problem climbing trees, has great endurance and can speak in a very loud voice.
Gandalf looks disreputable and hangs around with the common people in inns, drinking and smoking. He loves to debate great issues with friends, but always likes to have the last word. While he has a generally optimistic outlook, he has a grim sense of humour. He can be gruff and irritable when people are being stupid, but is genuinely kind if people are in trouble - throughout The Hobbit he quietly encourages Bilbo, who feels out of his depth, while berating the dwarves for their lack of faith in him. He frequently gives out to Pippin, 'young fool of a Took', but takes him into his personal care after his horrific experience with the Palantír.
It becomes clear in The Lord of the Rings that Gandalf is very old indeed - he's been wandering around Middle Earth longer than anyone, man or hobbit, can remember. The immortal Elves know that Gandalf is at least 2,000 years old, so he is not a Man, in Tolkien's sense of the word. He is not an Elf either - although he appears to be immortal, he doesn't retain the youthful look of the Elves. He is in fact a different order of creature altogether. He is a Maia, an elemental spirit that has taken human form. Other Maiar that we encounter in the books include the Balrog of Moria, Melian the mother of Luthien in The Silmarillion, and Sauron himself. There's also a chance that Tom Bombadil and his wife Goldberry are Maiar, although this is far from certain1.
In the course of the journey in The Hobbit, the party come across a troll's treasure hoard. Both Gandalf and Thorin acquire swords. Gandalf's is called 'Glamdring', the Foe-hammer. It had belonged to Turgon, the King of Gondolin, back in the First Age. He keeps it with him throughout the stories after that, although he rarely uses it. In The Lord of the Rings, he is unwelcome in Rohan, the land of the Horse Lords. He is told by the king to take a horse and leave. He picks the best horse in the land: Shadowfax is white, speedy and intelligent. Later, for services rendered, the king makes him a proper gift of the horse.
We are told in The Silmarillion that wizards could talk with the beasts and with the birds, but the only example we get of Gandalf doing this is when he talks with the eagles. Bilbo can talk with the eagles too, so they clearly speak in normal language.
Despite being a wizard, Gandalf does very little magic. In The Hobbit, we are told he:
- made fireworks for the Old Took's Midsummer's Eve parties
- made a set of magic diamond studs2 that would stay attached until the owner said a special word
- blows magic smoke rings which can change colour, move around, hide behind objects on the mantelpiece etc
- speaks in various voices to confuse some trolls
- produces light from his staff
- sets fire to some pine cones with a strange fire that isn't easily put out
With the exception of the diamond studs and the ventriloquism, all these are to do with fire - Gandalf has a particularly affinity to fire and smoke. He smokes a pipe, a habit he has picked up from the hobbits, and likes to surround himself in big clouds of smoke.
In The Lord of the Rings, he adds a few more examples of magic:
- more fireworks, at Bilbo's birthday party
- he fights the Ringwraiths on Weathertop in a fire display that looks from a distance like lightning. He also shoots lightning up into the sky later on at an airborne Ringwraith.
- he sets fire to some logs
- he uses magic to close a door in Moria, but a stronger magic from the other side opens it again
- he fights a Balrog and wins, although he is killed in the process
- he strips the spell of confusion from the mind of King Theoden
Again most of Gandalf's magic is fairly low-key, and is nearly always associated with fire. There are very definite limits to his power: he is unable to free himself from Saruman's prison on the top of Orthanc. He says he is a match for a few of the Ringwraiths but would not be able to stand up to all nine together. He fights and defeats the Balrog, but dies in the process - a draw, then. And neither Gandalf nor anyone else alive is a match for Sauron.
We learn at the end of The Lord of the Rings that Gandalf is the guardian of one of the three Elven rings. Although not an Elf, he was given the ring by its original guardian, Círdan the Shipwright, who has seen him arriving from over the sea and knows who has sent him. Círdan thinks that Gandalf will make better use of the ring than he himself could. The ring is called Narya and it is the Ring of Fire (the other two being Air and Water). It is probably because of this that the wizard's magic is so often based on fire, although it is possible that he was originally a fire spirit similar to the Balrog before he took on a human body.
The Five Wizards
In The Hobbit, Gandalf is just a wizard. We assume that there must be plenty of wizards, since there are lots of other strange things we don't get in our world today - Dwarves, dragons, Elves and so on. But we find out in The Lord of the Rings that there are only five wizards.
Saruman3 is described by Gandalf as 'the chief of my order'. We meet Saruman later in the story. Gandalf also describes a meeting with a third wizard, Radagast, 'one of my order'. We are never told of the other two wizards, but Saruman uses the phrase 'the rods of the Five Wizards', so we know there must be five.
Some writings by Tolkien on the subject of wizards were published after his death by his son Christopher Tolkien in Unfinished Tales. He tells us that the Wizards, known by the Elvish name of Istari meaning 'wise ones', came from across the sea and were sent to fight evil. Tolkien's Powers of the World, the Valar, are like archangels or Greek gods - super-powerful creatures who can take any shape they like and with magic enough to shape continents. They have been instructed to look after the world and the creatures in it, but they are wary of interfering too much, as all their previous attempts to guide the actions of Men and Elves have led to disaster and tragedy. So they have removed themselves from Middle Earth to Valinor, a land far across the Western Ocean. Since Sauron is a Maia, the Valar choose five Maiar and send them to Middle Earth to help the fight against him. They are instructed not to use raw power against him, but to influence Elves and Men in their fight against evil.
The wizards do not work together as a team, but each one uses his own skills independently. Saruman is very good with mechanisms. We'd call him good at science and technology. Radagast is a specialist in nature - he can talk with birds. Gandalf is described in one account as the wisest of the wizards. His main skill appears to be getting to know people, finding out what concerns them and knowing how to influence them. While Saruman enforces his rule by domination, Gandalf gets his way by persuasion - by the end of The Lord of the Rings, all the forces of good are working together in a plan devised by Gandalf to counter the forces of evil. The remaining two wizards, referred to in one account as the Blue Wizards, and in another by the names of Alatar and Pallando, went into the East as soon as they arrived in Middle Earth and were never heard from again. We can assume they failed in their mission, since Sauron was strong in the East. Saruman also failed, being overcome by the desire to dominate and rule. Radagast, although not actually evil, seems to be rather ineffectual, leaving only Gandalf of the five to fight against Sauron.
Near the start of The Hobbit we learn that Gandalf entered the dungeons of the Necromancer in Dol Guldur in southern Mirkwood and 'only just escaped'. We later learn that the Necromancer is none other than Sauron himself. The White Council, a group which includes both Saruman and Gandalf, drives the Necromancer from Mirkwood, but he returns to his stronghold in Mordor.
Gandalf the White
Gandalf dies while fighting the Balrog, but he returns again. This is one of the features of Maiar. Their spirit can live without a body to support it. So when Gandalf dies, his spirit wanders by many paths, but eventually he is sent back - we can take it that the Valar are sending him back to complete his work.
This rebirth is something that also happens to Sauron - he has already 'died' three times before the events of The Lord of the Rings. In the form of a giant wolf, he was killed by Huan the Wolfhound. He dies for a second time when the island of Numenor sinks into the sea. The third time is when Isildur cuts off his finger with the Ring on it. Each time Sauron returns he appears more evil - at the start he could easily change to any shape. By the end he was trapped in the form of a dark, evil-looking man, and despite having abandoned his body and formed another one, still had only nine fingers (according to Gollum who was interrogated by Sauron himself).
Gandalf also was changed by his rebirth. He appears to have forgotten a lot, as if many years had passed for him, although it was only a little over a month for his companions. His inner spirit now shows through, causing him to appear to glow slightly at times. And he now wears white rather than grey.
Gandalf has many names, and they are all ones which have been given to him by the people he encounters. The Elves call him Mithrandir, the Grey Pilgrim, and the people of Gondor also refer to him by this name. The name 'Gandalf' itself is used by hobbits and the men of the north. Tolkien didn't invent this name, but took it straight out of an ancient Norse poem, Völuspá of the Elder Edda. In that, it is the name of a dwarf, alongside many of the names of the dwarves we meet in The Hobbit. Tolkien invented the fictional etymology 'wand elf' for the name, something a man might call a wizard who is clearly magical and carries a magic staff.
Gandalf also tells us, as reported by Faramir, that he is called Tharkûn by the Dwarves, Incánus in the South, and was Olórin in the West that is forgotten (the land of Valinor).
The Departure of Gandalf
Gandalf was sent to Middle Earth to fight Sauron. When the Ring is destroyed and Sauron is defeated, Gandalf doesn't actually utter the immortal words 'my work here is done', but he makes it quite clear. He spends most of the time now laughing; clearly his former grimness was caused by the strain he was under. He also indulges in a bit of botany, finding a sapling of the White Tree of Gondor on the mountain behind Minas Tirith. This is a sign that the kingdom is once again blessed and is going to recover.
Gandalf departs from Middle Earth on the same ship as Elrond, Galadriel, Bilbo and Frodo. He takes with him the Elven ring, Narya, which has lost its power now that the Ruling Ring has been destroyed. His last act before leaving Middle Earth is to arrange that Merry and Pippin should be there to accompany Sam home, so that he should not be lonely on the road.