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.
Perhaps one of the most obvious questions in the LOTR trilogy is why Gandalf doesn't just take care of Sauron himself. After all, Sauron is also a Maiar, although a fallen one - so why not just wipe him off the map? Beyond the obvious fact that this would make for a pretty boring plot line, Tolkien actually does offer a pretty good explanation.
Gandalf is not necessarily a wizard in the traditional sense, and what powers he does have are constrained. In Appendix B, "The Tale of Years," of The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien explains:
When maybe a thousand years [of the Third Age] had passed, and the first shadow had fallen on Greenwood the Great, the Istarior Wizards appeared in Middle-earth. It was afterwards said that they came out of the Far West and were messengers sent to contest the power of Sauron, and to unite all those who had the will to resist him; but they were forbidden to match his power with power, or to seek to dominate Elves or Men by force and fear.
As this often overlooked passage makes clear, Gandalf and his fellow Istari were never intended to act as saviors who fix everything with a bunch of flashy magic; they were meant to be guides who could aid mortals during impossible missions.
In battling the Balrog, Gandalf perishes along with the creature. In The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers he is resurrected because he has yet to complete his mission. When he returns, he's a bit foggy and disoriented until he is whisked away by a great eagle and given the white robes that Saruman was stripped of due to his betrayal. The passage reads, "Then darkness took me, and I strayed out of thought and time, and I wandered far on roads that I will not tell... Naked I was sent back - for a brief time, until my task is done. And naked I lay upon the mountain-top. There I lay staring upward, while the stars wheeled over, and each day was as long as a life-age of the earth."
Though Gandalf returns as arguably one of the most powerful beings in Middle-earth, his mission remains the same. The ultimate defeat of Sauron isn't his task to complete alone. Instead, he is sent as a helper to those who oppose the dark force and he restricts his powers accordingly.
Take now this Ring... for thy labours and thy cares will be heavy, but in all it will support thee and defend thee from weariness. For this is the Ring of Fire, and herewith, maybe, thou shalt rekindle hearts to the valour of old in a world that grows chill. But as for me, my heart is with the Sea, and I well dwell by the grey shores, guarding the Havens until the last ship sails. Then I shall await thee.
Narya exists mainly to give the wearer courage and stamina, shield them from remote observation by the wearer of the One Ring, and protect them from the ravages of time. Gandalf also claims to be the wielder of the Flame of Andor, which may explain why he can fire light beams. Though Narya probably helps Gandalf on his mission, he doesn't outwardly seem to rely on its magic.
Though Gandalf is all about destroying the ring, he's also wise enough to understand that he's not exempt from its temptations. At one point, Frodo even offers the ring to Gandalf but he refuses to take it. Gandalf's powers are restricted and he's aware that things could go horribly wrong if they were no longer controlled.
"With that power I should have power too great and terrible. And over me the Ring would gain a power still greater..." he says in The Fellowship of the Ring. "Do not tempt me! For I do not wish to become like the Dark Lord himself. Yet the way of the Ring to my heart is by pity, pity for weakness and the desire of strength to do good. Do not tempt me! I dare not take it, not even to keep it safe, unused. The wish to wield it would be too great for my strength. I shall have such need of it. Great perils lie before me."
Gandalf wisely fears that if he were indeed an all-powerful wizard, the outrage he feels toward evil could quickly transform into vengeance.