Difficult Mage


Reading this humorous post about how the Fellowship of the Ring isn’t as heroic as we’re led to think got me thinking about one thing I found disappointing about The Lord of the Rings, which was how rarely Gandalf actually used his magic. Sure, he used it sometimes, but a lot of the time we see him fighting with a sword.

Why would a great wizard need to do that? Why not strike down your enemies with lightning, or turn them into cockroaches and step on them? Fantasy role-playing games, which obviously owe a lot to Tolkien, often don’t even let wizards use heavy weapons.

Mind you, in video games like the Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest series, I often have the wizards make physical attacks anyway, so as to conserve their magic power for when they really need it. Maybe that’s what Gandalf was doing as well. He was saving up his power for the boss fights.

When we take a look at Gandalf’s background, we find that although everybody calls him a wizard, he’s more or less a god. Yes, Tolkien was a good Catholic and made his fantasy land monotheistic, but an incarnated angel is more or less the same thing. And Gandalf and his fellow wizards were Istari, or angels sent to Middle-Earth to combat evil. Beyond that, however, there was obviously a lot of influence from Norse mythology in Tolkien’s work. Gandalf’s name, like that of some other characters, comes directly from the Völuspá. It means “wand-elf,” and is therefore appropriate for a wizard, although he isn’t an elf. In Tolkien’s world, an elf is something specific rather than simply a generic term for fairy folk, and Gandalf isn’t one of them. That’s probably for the best, though, as his elves often come across as stuck-up racists. Anyway, Gandalf owes a lot to Odin, and is even depicted as looking more or less the same, although Gandalf has two working eyes.

He’s the wise old wanderer who’s also a leader of warriors. It also seems to be the rule that an avatar of a god or other divine being can never use the full extent of his or her power, although I don’t know why. Well, okay, I know why for the sake of the story, but not so much from a logical perspective. That’s part of why I’ve never bought the idea of gods, I suppose.

Perhaps Gandalf’s main power is really that of persuasion. He manages to stop Bilbo Baggins from being corrupted by the One Ring, which has to be worth something. And he throws off Wormtongue’s control over Theoden of Rohan. If he’s really that great of a persuader, though, why doesn’t he take that power to the Orcs? Maybe he could have educated them so they didn’t all feel it necessary to join the military, hence reducing the size of Sauron’s army. Or would that be disrespectful of their culture? I don’t know. It is a pretty common complaint about Middle-Earth that the evil races, like Orcs and Trolls, are irredeemably evil. I know Terry Pratchett said he sympathized with these beings, and that was part of what led to him writing about a multicultural fantasy society in the Discworld series. Anyway, it’s hard not to like Gandalf, but it does strike me that he could have prevented some carnage by not being so stingy with his powers.

This entry was posted in Authors, Discworld, J.R.R. Tolkien, Mythology, Norse, Terry Pratchett and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Difficult Mage

  1. You bring up some good questions I’ve never thought about. Interesting take. But if you made him and his magic omnipotent…there would be no story.

  2. Bryan Babel says:

    The Istari (or Wizards) were sent to Middle-earth as “messengers sent to contest the will of Sauron, and unite all those who had the will to resist him; but they were forbidden to match his power with power, or to seek to dominate Elves or Men by force or fear.” Apparently this meant Gandalf could fight anything like Orcs or Balrogs that got in his way, but couldn’t or shouldn’t take the battle to them. It was Saruman’s trying to set himself up as a Power that was his fall.

    • Nathan says:

      That makes a certain amount of sense, but doesn’t quite explain WHY Gandalf was set up not to be able to take on Sauron directly. I guess it could have something to do with power corrupting, as it did to Saruman.

  3. Pingback: Creatures of Hobbit | VoVatia

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