The Comfort of Gandalf
I recently finished my annual ritual of watching the greatest cinematic trilogy of all time - Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings, in case it wasn't clear - and I thought I would hone in on my favourite character, Gandalf. And I don't mean my favourite character in LotR; I mean my favourite character from any piece of art, period.
It's not particularly well-explained in the films, but Gandalf is not a human. He is a Maiar - Tolkien's equivalent of angels - sent into the world to counsel and assist those who opposed Sauron. Maiar are able to choose which forms they take, and I always assumed that wizards took on the forms of old wise-looking men to appear trustworthy, friendly and intelligent to the likes of men and elves. What I love so much about Gandalf, though, is that despite his immense power and wisdom, he is imperfect, and prone to mortal shortcomings like forgetfulness, anger, fear and vices such as smoking. He's occasionally clumsy and bumbling, and I really like the idea that despite his divine origins, he's as much a part of the world as anyone else is. Unlike his peer Saruman, he doesn't lock himself away in a literal ivory tower, instead choosing to wander the world, befriending those in need, taking particular interest in the rather isolated and secretive race of Hobbits. His presence in almost every scene he's in is that of comfort and familiarity, and he has some of the greatest lines in the series. His first scene in The Fellowship of the Ring serves as an excellent summation of exactly the kind of person he is - he responds to Frodo's exclamation that he is late with a stern: "A wizard is never late, nor is he early. He arrives precisely when he means to.", before erupting into a fit of laughter and hugging his Hobbit friend. Gandalf has an important purpose on Middle-Earth, yes, but he's not above anyone, or too important to enjoy the small things in life.
"Saruman believes that it is only great power that can hold evil in check. But that is not what I have found. I have found that it is the small things; everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keeps the darkness at bay. Simple acts of kindness and love. Why Bilbo Baggins? Perhaps it is because I am afraid, and he gives me courage."
Both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are littered with quotes like that from Gandalf; and I feel in many ways he carries the heart of what those stories are trying to tell, and what meaning Tolkien was going for. He's the antithesis to the darkness of the world, and he provides comfort to those around him through his words and his actions. From conversations about what comes after death with Pippin, to leading the defences of Minas Tirith's city guard, he always says or does exactly what those around him need to see or hear.
Although Gandalf is a powerful swordsman and Wizard, it's ultimately his wisdom that ends up shaping the fate of Middle-Earth and resulting in the destruction of the One Ring, and by extension, Sauron. Although not presented in the films as pivotal scenes, there are a number of interactions between Gandalf and Bilbo (and later, Gandalf and Frodo) that indeed confirm that his wisdom led to the events that transpired to end Sauron's power.
Scene I, The Hobbit, An Unexpected Journey
Gandalf, Bilbo and the Dwarves find a troll-hoard containing a number of exquisite elven blades. Gandalf hands the smallest to Bilbo.
Bilbo: I can't take this...I have never used a sword in my life.
Gandalf: And I hope you never have to. But if you do - remember this. True courage is about knowing not when to take a life, but when to spare one.
Scene II, The Hobbit, An Unexpected Journey
Bilbo, wearing the ring he took from Gollum, has the opportunity to kill the creature. Masked by the invisibility of the ring and with his sword pointed at Gollum's throat, Bilbo lingers. Gollum turns around, and we see the fear and torment in his eyes. Gandalf's words are obviously heeded here, and Bilbo finds himself unable to end the creature's life as he pities Gollum, and escapes.
Scene III, The Lord of the Rings The Fellowship of the Ring
Gandalf and Frodo sit by a number of doorways in Moria, as they decide which path to take next. Frodo mentions he has noticed that they are being followed, and Gandalf explains that Gollum has been stalking them for a number of days.
Frodo: It's a pity Bilbo didn't kill him while he had the chance!
Gandalf: Pity? It was pity that stayed Bilbo's hand. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death and judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends. My heart tells me that Gollum has some part to play yet, for good or ill, before this is over. The pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many.
Frodo: I wish the Ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened.
Gandalf: So do all that live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us. There are other forces at work in this world, Frodo, besides the will of evil. Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, in which case you also were meant to have it. And that is an encouraging thought.
Bilbo heeding Gandalf's words and sparing Gollum ultimately result in Frodo and Sam being able to succeed in their quest, thanks to Gollum's help. They would never have made it to Moria without him, and I like to think that neither Frodo or Sam would have been able to cast the ring into the mountain were it not for Gollum's last-ditch attempt to grab it, which results in him falling in with it. Around all of the spectacle, horror, glory, war, love stories and adventures that fill Middle-Earth is a simple through-line of pity, mercy and courage which was orchestrated by Gandalf. And, whilst it's unfair to pin the entire success of the quest on Gandalf alone, I think things would have played out very differently were it not for that single initial line to Bilbo.
I think that the world could use more people like Gandalf, and we could learn a lot from the wisdom in his words. I try to remain optimistic about the world as a whole, even when it is becoming seemingly increasingly hard to do so. But it's characters like Gandalf that I find comforting and inspiring, and I am ever grateful to the likes of J.R.R Tolkien for dreaming up such a character, and for actors like Ian McKellen for such masterful performances of said characters.
I'll end this rather indulgent piece with a few of my other favourite quotes from Gandalf, and hope that you find them as amusing, inspiring, or hopeful as I do.
"He that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom."
"You're soldiers of Gondor. No matter what comes through that gate, you will stand your ground."
"End? No, the journey doesn't end here. Death is just another path, one that we all must take. The grey rain curtain of this world rolls back, and all turns to silver glass. And then you see it; white shores, and beyond, a far green country, under a swift sunrise."
"Courage will now be your best defence against the storm that is at hand."
"I will not say: do not weep; for not all tears are an evil."
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