The Lord of the Rings

What Are Gandalf's Powers & Purpose: 'Lord of the Rings' Lore

By: Domonique Cox-Salberg

In the books and films, Gandalf is regarded for his mighty power, yet his occasional use of magic goes unnoticed by many, making it appear underwhelming or undefinable. However, taking a closer look at the text and the films, what Gandalf is capable of is unveiled and why he chooses not to use his power in the traditional commanding sense typically seen in similar figures across high fantasy that will be discussed here.

Quick jump to the following sections:

Gandalf’s Origins

But before we start, it is important to understand Gandalf’s kind. Which is more than an old man who knows spells, but a magical angelic being a part of the race Ainur (Maiar). He is immortal and can take on different forms, hence him being able to bodily die as Gandalf the Grey and return as Gandalf the White. He likely was sent back by the Valor, or Middle-earth’s supreme creator god himself, Illuvatar, as referenced in the Two Towers when he says, “I’ve been sent back, until my task is done.”

Subsequently, more subtle than coming back in a new form, Gandalf has powers of foresight and knows the fate of some things to come, if not all of the details. It is no accident he formed a connection to the Hobbits of the Shire and knew the critical role they and Gollum had to play before the end of good and evil, as he says. This is because Maiar’s are powerful spiritual beings who can see and exist on a different, more spiritual plane and sense things that others cannot.

His foresight may not necessarily be a power; nevertheless, it undoubtedly had a hand in the success of the Rings quest. Such as Gandalf’s ability to reveal the magical west gate of Moria—not even Gimli could see it; the seemingly hopeless attack on Mordor to win Frodo and Sam a clearer route to Mount Doom, or the wisdom to entrust Frodo with the Ring. 

Magic Graced from the Ring Narya

Then traveling back to the moment Gandalf arrived in Middle-earth, he was immediately gifted the magical ring Narya (one of the three elven rings of power) from Círdan, and thus more power. “Gandalf now wore openly on his hand the Third Ring, Narya the Great.” He was given Narya by Círdan the Shipwright because he believed that Gandalf had the highest inner greatness of all the Istari (Wizards). Since having the ring, it appears to have given him the power to encourage himself and others. This is what Círdan says when he gives the ring to Gandalf, “It will support you in the weariness that you have taken upon yourself. For this is the Ring of Fire, and with it you may rekindle hearts in a world that grows chill.”

Gandalf does not lose faith in desperate situations, which is infectious to everyone around him. It is not a power easy to measure, but it is noticeable. When Gandalf is among his companions, hope and a sense of direction are strongly felt. The second ability the ring gave Gandalf was profound power over fire. It is exemplified in several instances: how he uses his staff to light the way through Moria, throwing magical flaming pine cones down onto wolves, and standing firm against the Balrog, showing lots of fire resistance.  

Spells, Telepathy, and Telekinesis

Besides fire, Gandalf has recounted previously knowing over 200 different spells to open doors, the ability to change his appearance to seem taller and more imposing, telepathy, and telekinesis. When Gandalf tells Frodo in Rivendell that he knows exactly what happened to him because he could hear his thoughts suggest he is a telepath. Furthermore, his seemingly mental connection with Shadowfax being able to communicate with him from miles away or how when everyone is returning home at the end of the novel, Gandalf, Celeborn, Elrond, and Galadriel would talk to each other without speaking and correspond mind to mind is indicative of this ability.

Telekinesis, on the other hand, is displayed in several instances, especially notable in the films. As when Gandalf breaks Saruman’s staff simply by saying, “Saruman your staff is broken,” or when he struck Gríma voiceless when in Edoras (Two Towers), and the encounter between Gandalf, Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas in the forest. Mistaking him for Saruman, now Gandalf the White sends Gimli’s ax flying, Aragorn’s sword blazed into fire, and forces Legolas to fire his arrow into the sky.

These happenings and others mentioned in this discussion are only a few of the dozens of instances where Gandalf has shown a wide range of magical abilities and tremendous knowledge (using weapons like Clandering to shatter the Balrog’s sword), which make the mystery behind his powers to some people ever more baffling, and here is why that may be.

Why Gandalf’s Powers Are Hard to Define

Even though he is a Maiar being, it did not make him omniscient or all-powerful, which we saw during the Balrog battle. It proved he has a base level of power and innate abilities as a Maiar that very few figures in Middle-earth possess. The true mystifying thing, however, is how and when he chooses to use his magic. Think of how when Gandalf rides in to rescue Faramir from the Nazgul when he raised his hand, and light burst forth—the Nazgul gave a cry and swerved away, showing he prefers to practice magic in passive, non-combative ways.

Therefore, on several occasions, we witness Gandalf choose to drive enemies away or stall over traditional magic typical of modern fantasy. This may be because he seems to loathe using magic when considering a few key references, likely making his subdued approach intentional by Tolkien. Suggesting Gandalf partly does so because he understands it comes at a cost, is especially taxing, and it goes against his humble nature and interest despite having great power.

More Angel Than Wizard

He appears only to enjoy using magic when doing whimsical artistic embellishments with the fireworks or blowing smoke rings with Bilbo. Nevertheless, when push comes to shove, he only does what is needed. In that, he proved his modest approach can still achieve great things such as defeating Sauron, the Balrog, Witch King, and dragons to simultaneously solidify his powerful status among the beings of Middle-earth but in his unique way.

After considering the text and films, ultimately, Gandalf to me personifies a wizard whose focus was more the wise element of the term. And wise enough to know that magic is to be used sparingly—while also considering his nature—allows Gandalf to view magic as something used modestly to keep mortal creatures from seeing him as a god or divine messenger. Additionally, a figure to not lead them but guide and help, not rule.

That is a complication and trap Saruman falls for in his succession into pride, desire, and power over others, which eventually led to his demise. The Silmarillion and book appendixes go into more detail about the nature of Gandalf’s modest personality, who never forgot his mission in Middle-earth compared to Saruman. He does not covet anything and never loses sight of his mission to preserve life and oppose the forces which seek to destroy or subvert it. All while doing what he must to assist the beings of Middle-earth to peace and balance.

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