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Gandalf Doesn’t Really Do Much Magic At All, And We Can Prove It

Updated September 3, 2019 1.9k votes 402 voters 44.4k views11 items

List RulesVote up the most convincing evidence that Gandalf doesn't want to use his powers.

If you've ever watched or read The Lord of the Rings, you might have found yourself asking, "Why is Gandalf so weak?" The Hobbits, Elves, and other mortals who embark on adventures with the legendary wizard find themselves in plenty of situations where it seems a little Gandalf power could save the day. As it turns out, there may be a really good reason why Gandalf doesn't appear to use magic as often as he could. 

While wizards in the traditional sense are able to use their magic pretty much any way they want, Gandalf's backstory is a little different. To understand it, you need to know that the divine hierarchy of Middle-earth begins with Eru, who is the God and creator of Arda, the LOTR world. Beneath Eru, you have the Valar, who act as rulers of Arda. The Maiar, spirits as old as time, serve the Valar, and Gandalf is one of the Maiar selected by the Valar to descend to Middle-earth in the form of an Istar or wizard. Tolkien explains this in Unfinished Tales:

Emissaries they were from Lords of the West, the Valar... whereas now their emissaries were forbidden to reveal themselves in forms of majesty, or to seek to rule the wills of Men and Elves by open display of power, but coming in shapes weak and humble were bidden 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 endeavor to dominate and corrupt.

Tolkien makes it clear that Gandalf and the other Istari aren't really wizards of their own accord but divine, angelic beings on a mission. Their job isn't to go around performing miraculous feats of magic, but to help those who seek to oppose evil. That said, of the five Istari who were sent down, not everyone remains true to their cause. Gandalf does, however, which is why he sticks far closer to his companions from Middle-earth than Saruman, who uses his magic for evil. 

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  • 5

    He Lets Mortals Worry About Ending Smaug

    In The Hobbit, Gandalf unites Bilbo with a group of ragtag Elves and warriors for several missions. The first is to defeat the dragon, Smaug, because Gandalf knows there is a strong possibility that Sauron might use Smaug for evil. The second is to restore a stronghold of free people. Tolkien covers this in Appendix A of The Lord of the Rings:

    Among many cares he was troubled in mind by the perilous state of the North; because he knew then already that Sauron was plotting war, and intended, as soon as he felt strong enough, to attack Rivendell. But to resist any attempt from the East to regain the lands of Angmar and the northern passes in the mountains there were now only the Dwarves of the Iron Hills. And beyond them lay the desolation of the Dragon. The Dragon Sauron might use with terrible effect.

    Along the journey, however, Gandalf discovers that a shady character called the Necromancer actually is Sauron, himself. Rather than join Bilbo and his team on their quest to defeat the dragon, Gandalf is otherwise engaged in helping to drive away Sauron, who goes to settle on Mordor. Though he isn't around to help take on Smaug with his magic, things eventually turn out exactly as he had hoped. In the end, the dragon is not only slain, but Sauron is driven away, and the stronghold is once again established. 

    Appendix A reads, "But Dáin Ironfoot, his cousin, who came from the Iron Hills to his aid and was also his rightful heir, became then King Dáin II, and the Kingdom under the Mountain was restored, even as Gandalf had desired. Dáin proved a great and wise king, and the Dwarves prospered and grew strong again in his day."

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  • 6

    He Outwits The Stone-Trolls By Talking, Not With Magic

    In The Hobbit, Gandalf rescues Bilbo and his traveling companions when they're captured by a group of hungry trolls. Though Gandalf does indeed save his friends from becoming tasty troll treats, he uses his talent for impressions rather than any real magic. Gandalf knows that trolls may be big and ugly, but they're not all that bright. More importantly, he knows that sunlight can turn them into stone. 

    Rather than swoop in with his magical skills, he simply relies on his wit and impersonates the trolls in order to draw out the argument they're already having. Finally, he appears atop a cliff and announces, "The dawn take you all!" Sure enough, the rising sun peeps over the cliff seconds later and the trolls become troll statues. Not only was his tactic effective, it also suggests that wisdom can be just as powerful as magic. 

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  • 7

    His Best Party Trick Is Setting Off Fireworks

    When Gandalf first came across the isolated little people called Hobbits during his wanderings, he developed a soft spot for them. Appendix B of The Lord of the Rings documents him coming to the aid of the Hobbits during The Long Winter of 2758, a particularly rough time in the Shire when hundreds of Hobbits met their end by starvation. It is during this time Gandalf realizes that though the Hobbits might be small, their courage and resolve are not to be underestimated. He decides to visit the Shire as a recurring part of his annual adventures and sometimes drops in for the Midsummer-eve parties, where he orchestrates a fantastic fireworks display. 

    As magical as the fireworks are to the Hobbits, they are not particularly special. Gandalf is merely skilled with pyrotechnics. He makes all kinds of cool fireworks including "squibs, crackers, backarappers, sparklers, torches, dwarf-candles, elf-fountains, goblin-barkers, and thunder-claps." Some Hobbits speculate that his pyrotechnic skills go back to his possession of the Ring of Fire, or Narya as it's called, but either way, Gandalf's fireworks are a huge crowd pleaser. 

    Regardless of how much magic is involved in his interactions with the Hobbits, Gandalf becomes known as a friend who is "responsible for so many quiet lads and lasses going off into the Blue for mad adventures."

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  • 8

    He Leaves The Dwarves And Bilbo Without Any Form Of Protection

    Gandalf undoubtedly could have done more to help the Hobbits and Dwarves on their journey, yet he never really presents himself as the key to making any mission easy. This is less about exactly how much magic he is capable of and more about the reservations he has about using magic. After all, Gandalf's mission is to help those who seek to oppose Sauron, not to make it a walk in the part for them or hand them magical shortcuts.

    Tolkien spells out their role as helpers in The Silmarillion, saying, "But afterwards it was said among the Elves that they were messengers sent by the Lords of the West to contest the power of Sauron, if he should arise again, and to move Elves and Men and all living things of good will to valiant deeds." 

    While he's always there to help in whatever ways he can, Gandalf restricts himself from interfering with the lives of the mortals he interacts with on their quests.

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