What are Gandalf's powers?

  • Gandalf is a wizard. He is also the Tolkien equivalent of a mortal angel (if I understand what the Maiar are correctly.) What are his powers though? Specifically what magics does he use in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings? I assume he is a great and powerful wizard but I can't think of a single magical thing that he does that sticks out in my mind as showing his great power. He does fight a Balrog but it's a completely unseen battle. His wand glows and he speaks to eagles and telepathically with elves but that seems like minor magic to me. Grey or White what has he done?

    Edit: Adding a link to a previous question that addresses specific uses of power. How is Gandalf the White a "significantly more powerful figure" than Gandalf the Gray?

    He smote a Balrog. Even left undescribed, I don't think you should understate that act. He died. And returned. That's also some powerful mojo. He is a great wizard because he is subtle.

    @JohnO I'm not disputing that Gandalf is a great wizard. I definitely couldn't take on a Balrog and get reborn that's for sure! It's just I always consider him one of the greatest wizards even though I can't think of any what I would call real magic or spells that he does. His feats that he performs seem to be a combination of knowledge and basic powers rather than displays of any kind. I'm just trying to find out why he is one of the top wizards in my mind when he doesn't actually do much magic.

    "When you do things right, people won't be sure you've done anything at all." --Galactic God Entity, Futurama

    You say in your second sentence *...mortal angel*. He's immortal - *Maiar, like Elves, are immortal, but are essentially beings of pure spirit.*

    @spiceyokooko I said mortal because he is killed and reborn. So even though his essence or soul is immortal his body can be destroyed.

    Reborn, reincarnated, but with much greater power than he possessed before, which I beleive is pertinent to your question. He became Gandalf the White and wielded much greater power.

    I'd say rather than he is an immortal being incarnated in a mortal physical body.

    @spiceyokooko From what I understand though this had nothing to do with his own powers. It was more of an intervention by Eru.

    @KevinHowell There's no canon evidence that Gandalf was reincarnated, reborn or sent back by Eru.

    @spiceyokooko It's come up on here a few times; he was sent back by _someone_ with extra power, he didn't resurrect himself.

    @Izkata Why do you believe he wasn't able to do it himself? Any references, citations etc for this? He also recovered with Galadriel, a hint there perhaps?

    @Izkata good link I'm going to add it to the body of my question.

    @Izkata I'm not convinced by *it had to have been...* myself, but you can believe it if you like :) I like to deal in **fact** not suppositions or opinions.

    @spiceyokooko Letter 156, where dlanod was quoting from, was _written by Tolkien himself_.

    @spiceyokooko From wiki "In Letters, #156, pp 202–3, Tolkien clearly implies that the 'Authority' that sent Gandalf back was above the Valar (who are bound by Arda's space and time, while Gandalf went beyond time). He clearly intends this as an example of Eru intervening to change the course of the world." You don't have to call him Eru but it's assumed it's Eru.

    @Izkata it's not certain from my reading of the LOTR in several editions what actually happened with Gandalf, whether he died or what. Gandalf himself never mentions it, merely that he has effectively no recollection.

    @KevinHowell I did some further research on this and I'm happy to accept the view that *the Authority* refers to Eru Illuvatar.

    Death makes his brights brighter. Most people just die.

    He is the only wizard Voldemort ever feared..

    """"When you do things right, people won't be sure you've done anything at all." - Galactic God Entity, Futurama" - Thaddeus" - corsiKa" - Michael Scott

    Being the coolest guy on Middle-earth.

    He **can** believe it's not butter.

  • Since Tolkien wasn’t really trying to write a story, but rather give England what he saw as a lost history, I’d like to offer up how Gandalf’s wisdom is demonstrative of magic as seen by the ancient view of magic. Tolkien had great difficulty defining magic when asked to define the boundaries of Faerie, but based on his writings about Gandalf and what he was able to say about Magic, (plus his insistence on using the Old English Spelling of the word) it is easy to see his concept of Magic more closely matched those of the Ancient World where Magic was the "Great Work" or the work of the "Wise."

    In ancient days when people really believed in magic and magical beings such as witches and wizards, there weren’t really “great powers” and spells like we see in so many fantasies and fictions today. In fact, the word magic stems from a title that used to be used for people that practiced Zoroastrianism and could read the stars for signs. The three wise men that brought gifts at Jesus’ birth are also referred to as the three Magi.

    Magic came from knowledge of the world. Early wizards, druids, shaman, witches, priests, etc. often knew some chemistry or mechanics (this was the showy part of being a temple priest—mixing the right chemicals and using the right mechanics to make the people think they'd seen signs of the power of the Gods) and had some skills we wouldn’t consider magic at all today. Even Gandalf’s “spells” that he casts and items like his fireworks are related to this aspect of ancient magic.

    Magical peoples were usually the religious leaders and were seen as leaders in that sense. Some of them were seen as able to talk to, or raise the dead, some were seen as prescient, and others were healers—it depends on the culture you look at.

    By the Middle Ages, magic was seen as having two distinct forms, although there was more of a focus on evil and sorcery (the daemonic form of magic) within the church, belief in natural magic by the people as a way to find healing and protection also remained. Casting coins into wishing wells, Patron Saints and many of our "superstitions" are hold overs from this time. The magic that remained acceptable to all but the most staunch Christians remained rooted in use of natural elements (In northern Europe, particularly in relation to water - wishing wells and healing powers). Additionally, many Christians of the common classes still practiced some “magical rituals” and the Church even placed its holidays near pagan holidays and rolled pagan practices into Church practices (to some extent) in order to help in converting the general populace.

    Tolkien’s wizards are in keeping with early Medieval and ancient tradition. They can read signs in nature—see and understand things that others can’t, make predictions, wield magical objects (staffs, rings, and Palantir), once in a while make something appear to have happened that is miraculous to everyone else (spells), and lead and “talk to nature”—communicate with moths and eagles and in Saruman’s case the corvids of Middle Earth.

    Ancient wizards were guides mostly and seen as the highly educated. Gandalf clearly fills that role, and does so with superb skill. He takes hints and clues, a suspicion grows and he heads to the library to confirm it. He is able to read signs of things to come, knows the right words to say (not just when it comes to spells but to ease fear and encourage, knows when not to say something. He is seen as a wise man and followed as one.

    If you read Arthurian legend from before the twentieth century, you will generally find Merlin to be no greater in his capabilities. They wield the magic of earth, but not necessarily for the purposes of entertainment or convenience the way the wizards and witches in say, Harry Potter, Disney’s Sword in the Stone and other more modern works depict.

    Likewise, Saruman is able to use his closeness to nature to affect the weather, but as he forgets his bond with nature, nature actually turns on him. Treebeard is that much more incensed by Saruman’s destruction because he is a wizard and should know better how to treat the nature around him.

    Radagast is the most perfect of Istari in regard to demonstrating closeness to and power in channeling nature for his benefit (though he is less perfect in demonstrating leadership over mankind and academic types of wisdom—leading to his failure).

    The “spell” Gandalf uses to break the bridge and prevent the Balrog from annihilating the entire fellowship by the way, is one of his least wizardlike moments in the series, when magic is looked at in this way (although I’d have to agree with previous posters it shows him to be pretty powerful with twentieth century thoughts on magic too). The ancients would have seen that moment as his requesting aid from the gods. The bridge-breaking would have been the doing of a god, not the doing of a wizard. Of course, since it is, in fact, fiction, Gandalf does have a few powers an ancient shaman wouldn’t have had as listed by others here.

    I usually don't award an answer this quickly but, I believe your answer addressed the issues I was having the best.

    Also another thing that I like about your answer is that it reminded me that Middle-Earth is in a state of decay as far as magic is concerned.

    Note that Tolkien explicitly says that Radagast failed in his mission, though.

    Even today when people call other people "a wizard" for fixing a computer or car problem, cooking a great meal in less than ideal circumstances, etc., they are using it in this same sense -- a "wizard" is a person who has power over something which most find complicated or mysterious (for most of history that was nature).

    A great answer, but it contains a big mistake/misinformation. "Through the middle-ages, witches and wizards were considered to be more able to wield magical objects, (...) and had a closeness to and understanding of the Earth (and the gods within it)". Not at all. If you talk about the middle ages, witches were seen as getting their power from a pact with evil, and not from the understanding of nature. And, in the middle ages, there was no such thing as "The Earth and the gods within". Maybe in other cultures at the same time it was, but "middle ages" generally refers to Europe.

    @balancedmama 'but rather give England a lost history' could your rephrase or remove that please, it's quite insulting to English people

    @APaleShadow I have read once that Tolkien was facinated by a period of history in a particular culture's past, But I am not sure if that was anglosaxon or not. Some reference on seeing a big epic battle that either may have happened in England but the records were lost, or did not happen in England but feels like a missing part of history. I think this was from an AE documentary about tolkien in honor of the peter jackson movie LOTR.

    @APaleShadow. Creating a mythological past for England was *precisely* Tolkien's intention.

    @balancedmama: Christianity and paganism might have been practiced together for some time at the very beginning for a few generations, but that means early middle ages. Not the later half of it.

    @vsz parts of it became blended in with the religion. For example, spreading rose petals at a wedding is a hold-over from a ritual regarding the fertility of the bride. Some practices were still in place and not all pagans simply vanished - they may have gone into hiding but it didn't just go away. Healers came to have names related to medicine instead of magic as another example. While astrology was outlawed by the church it was still practiced. Perceptions on exactly how magic worked changed during this era for certain but not has distinctly as you indicate.

    @APaleShadow - What does it matter that it's insulting if it's true? The answer remarks on how Tolkien perceived developments and attitudes in turn of the century English society and how that influenced his writing. It's not a claim that England has no history. And I think Brits are smart enough to see the difference. If, however, you have some substantive insights to add regarding Tolkien's outlook and inspirations, please do share.

    Good answer. A good example of twentieth-century fantasy handling magic in the way described in Le Guin's Earthsea Trilogy, which is all about balance and order.

    Comment from a pedant...we are not sure how many Magi there were...they brought 3 gifts (gold frankincense and myrrh) but we never get a count of how many there were.

License under CC-BY-SA with attribution


Content dated before 6/26/2020 9:53 AM