Want to hear an updated version of this post? Go to the Podcast page for the Gandalf Episode!
Whenever I’ve taught a Tolkien-related course, Gandalf immediately becomes a hot topic of discussion. Students range from questions about his origins to observations of his abilities, and whether or not he uses these abilities enough. One student this past summer was consistently vexed because they felt that Gandalf just wasn’t doing enough to stop the Nazgul and squash them once and for all. They were practically in conniptions when he rode out to meet them with a beam of light on Pelennor fields (Return of the King). “Why hasn’t Gandalf done that before? Has he been holding back this whole time?! What’s the point of his powers anyway?! What does he even DO?!” This led to a (slightly heated) discussion about Gandalf’s abilities, his connection with the Elven Ring Narya and what this Ring allows him to do, and his original directive from the Valar. One student responded with the following.
Gandalf’s job isn’t to save the world- his job is to guide the Men and the Hobbits to do it. Your teacher isn’t going to tell you the answer on a test, but they are going to show you how. That’s what Gandalf is doing.Brilliant Child
Oh, from the mouths of babes. This statement, I think, is the best summary of Gandalf’s role in Tolkien’s stories, and a perfect explanation of what kind of teacher he is. Many teachers in current fantasy literature operate from the classroom and show the hero the way that magic the sword, or their powers work. Gandalf, however, is not there to teach Frodo or Aragorn how to use magic or combat skills. He is there to put out the fires when an emergency occurs, but ultimately it is the residents of Middle Earth (Frodo, Aragorn, Eowyn, Theoden, and Faramir, to name but a few) need to be the ones to defeat Sauron, for they are the ones who need to live in Middle Earth peaceably, and ultimately thrive.
Gandalf operates similarly to a teacher who engages in classroom experiential learning. I describe the concept in more detail in my 2019 presentation at the Chestnut Hill Harry Potter Conference, but, in essence, the teacher acts as a facilitator while students try out the concept on their own. The teacher can provide guidance, pose questions, and offer hints, but ultimately the students work through the problem at hand with the information they are given and a little creativity, and they devise a solution. (For more information on how Hogwarts professors use experiential learning, you can watch my presentation in the link above or read my Teacher Features for Professors McGonagall, Flitwick, and Snape).
This, I think, is what frustrates my students when they encounter Gandalf. Many modern fantasy texts provide magic as the solution to problems, or at least a magical problem that needs a magical solution. In Harry Potter, there is always a perfect spell, curse, or potion that causes some kind of reaction, and oftentimes provides the happy-ever-after solution. Every curse or spell has some kind of counter curse, and Harry only needs to figure out what that counter is. In Marvel and DC publications, the superhero wins the day because they apply the right amount of power in just the right sequence and outsmarts, or physically beats to a pulp, the villain (Yes, this is a very reductive analysis and counterpoints can easily be made, but it’s a structure that seems to be on the surface of my students’ minds). But what my students don’t realize, at first, is that Tolkien doesn’t write stories about magic powers. Magic is just a vehicle, a pathway for events to occur. Tolkien writes about people, about heroes who must use their own strengths to save Middle Earth, not just from Sauron or Morgoth, but from their own hubris and failings.
Gandalf’s “good morning” is a fantastic microcosm of this concept. Bilbo has his own preconceived ideas of what “good morning” means, and assumes that Gandalf also operates from this schema. Shire Hobbits, as you may know, operate in a very closed, close-knit society, and anything outside of their norms is considered “queer.” Bilbo can’t conceive of Gandalf understanding “good morning” as anything other than a customary greeting. Gandalf challenges this notion by posing his famous retort.
What do you mean? … Do you wish me a good morning, or mean that it is a good morning whether I want it or not; or that you feel good on this morning; or that it is a morning to be good on?The Hobbit
This flummoxes poor Bilbo, which, of course, sets him up for his entire unexpected journey. Gandalf poses questions and places Bilbo and the Dwarves in difficult situations then leaves them to devise their own solutions. Bilbo, ultimately, must use his wits (with the help of a certain “magic ring”) to outsmart and out riddle Smaug, and Thorin must overcome his pride and greed in order to be the true King-Under-the-Mountain, if only for a short while.
The same notions occur in The Lord of the Rings, though the danger is far more complex this time. As an Istari and an emissary from the Valar, Gandalf’s task is to “advise and persuade Men and Elves to good, and to seek to unite in love and understanding all those whom Sauron, should he come again, would endeavour to dominate and corrupt” (Unfinished Tales). Gandalf is only able to accomplish this because of his choice to act as a wanderer, not because of his magic or ownership (or borrower-ship, I suppose) of Narya. Gandalf travels over the vast lands of the Wild, Eriador, and other kingdoms of Middle Earth, making connections with all of its citizens- Men, Elves, Dwarves, and even the seemingly “inconsequential,” ordinary Hobbits. Saruman and Radagast ultimately fail in their assignments because they close themselves to the outer world and focus on their own Lore (and where have the two Blues gotten to? Only Tolkien knows). Gandalf’s true power, therefore, is in the “human” connection (if you’ll pardon the expression). Gandalf brings Middle Earth together, whether it is through the stories told at the Council of Elrond (see what happens when everyone just talks to each other?), the Fellowship, or the Company of thirteen Dwarves and one burrahobbit.
The ultimate lesson that Gandalf teaches us all is to rely upon one another, to rely upon fellowship above power, strength, or greed. He encourages Frodo to take companions with him, but only if they can be trusted. Frodo cannot complete his journey or his task alone- my students will tell me time and time again that Frodo was only able to get through Mordor to Mount Doom because “Sam did all the work.” (Their words, not mine) Frodo wasn’t even able to complete his quest- ultimately, Gollum was the one who (though accidentally) cast the Ring into Mount Doom, but only because Frodo listened to Gandalf’s advice and musings about trust, pity, and trusting in his heart to show him the way forward. Gollum may not have been a trustworthy friend, but he was still granted fellowship for a short while, and that enabled him to be exactly where he needed to be at the right time.
I am coming with you at present, … But soon I shall not be. I am not coming to the Shire. You must settle its affairs yourselves; that is what you have been trained for. Do you not yet understand? My time is over: it is no longer my task to set things to rights, nor to help folk to do so. And as for you, my dear friends, you will need no help. You are grown up now. Grown indeed very high; among the great you are, and I have no longer any fear at all for any of you.“Homeward Bound”, Return of the King