Beyond Middle-earth: the least of these

"Gandalf" | Art by DiscoveringArtWorld. Used with permission.

“And last came one who seemed the least, less tall than the others, and in looks more aged, grey-haired and grey-clad, and leaning on a staff.”

“And being sent back from death for a brief while he was clothed then in white, and became a radiant flame.”

Unfinished Tales

Even the smallest can change the course of the world.

This theme of “the last shall become first” is central to The Lord of the Rings. Usually it’s the Hobbits who come to mind—those humble creatures who took on the great evil of Sauron (and, in Frodo’s case, the literal burden of the Ring). But there is another, perhaps less obvious, character who embodies this theme: Gandalf the Grey.

Gandalf was the last of the Order of the Istari, Maiar spirits who were sent from Valinor to aid in the fight against Sauron. There were five of them: Saruman the White, the head of the Order, Radagast the Brown, the two Blue wizards, and Gandalf. They appeared in Middle-earth around year 1000 of the Third Age. Though Sauron had been defeated at the end of the Second Age, the Valar realized that he would one day rise again. So, they sent emissaries with the sole purpose 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 endeavour to dominate and corrupt,” (UT, 503).

Without Gandalf acting as the humble adviser, there would have been no victory.

The Valar intended the Istari to take the form of old men so that they would be seen as equals among Elves and Men. Their bodies were mortal, and so they were capable of feeling pain and emotion, and of being killed. They were also capable of err.

I’ve noticed that Gandalf seldom uses magic, usually only in cases of an emergency. This seemed odd to me until I leanred that the Istari were actually forbidden to reveal their true selves “in forms of majesty,” or to seek to rule the wills of Elves and Men with displays of power. They were forbidden to match Sauron’s power with their own (UT, 506).

I think the Valar were wise in their ruling. Fighting power with power has the potential to lead to Mutual Assured Destruction, in which the attacker and defender try to out-do each other until they are both utterly annihilated. Or, one power will try to supplant the other and, if successful, become the new tyrant to defeat. Both cases only lead to more war and destruction.

Saruman opted for the second path when he tried to take Sauron’s power for his own. He turned to the Magic of Machine by bulldozing the natural world and seeking to dominate others; we see this in Saruman creating his own army of Uruk-hai and cutting down the trees of Fangorn Forest.

We also see this in the persuasive power of his voice, like in this scene, when Gandalf, in the company of Théoden, Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli, Merry and Pippin, approaches him after the destruction of Isengard. In the book Saruman tries much harder to enthral Théoden and the Rohirrim: “O worthy son of Thengel the Thrice-renowned! Why have you not come before, and as a friend? Much have I desired to see you, mightiest king of western lands… still I would save you, and deliver you from the ruin that draws nigh inevitably… Indeed I alone can aid you now,” (TT, 223). For a moment it seems to work; the Riders find themselves agreeing with Saruman’s words and it isn’t until Gimli grumbles something that the spell is broken.

Saruman’s failure isn’t just that he was unable to take power from Sauron, but that he forsook his original purpose of aiding the peoples of Middle-earth the moment he decided to take that power for himself.

But Saruman’s downfall becomes Gandalf’s success. Gandalf was a truly humble character. He wandered the earth instead of establishing a home somewhere for himself. He gathered no wealth, did not want power or praise, and did not want others to hold him in awe. But when Saruman turned to evil, the situation became too grave and something was needed to counteract him. And so, when Gandalf made the ultimate sacrifice for his mission when he died at the Bridge of Khazad-dûm, he was returned to life with more power and became what Saruman should have been:

Even the smallest can change the course of the world.

“’Saruman!’ he cried, and his voice in power and authority. ‘Behold, I am not Gandalf the Grey, who you betrayed. I am Gandalf the White, who has returned from death. You have no colour now, and I cast you from the Order and from the Council.’

He raised his hand, and spoke slowly in a clear cold voice. ‘Saruman, your staff is broken,’” (TT, 229).

Gandalf is the only one of the wizards who succeeded in the original task given to him (even Radagast failed when he retreated to the forests and his love of birds and beasts). Frodo carried the Ring to Mordor, and Aragorn fulfilled his destiny to become king, but without Gandalf acting as the humble adviser, even when he possessed great power, there would have been no victory. Without Gandalf, the world would have fallen into ruin.

Kyla Neufeld

Kyla Neufeld

Staff Writer at Area of Effect
Kyla is a poet, writer, and editor. She writes about various sci-fi and fantasy series, and is interested in the intersections between geek culture, feminism, and social justice. She lives in Winnipeg with her husband, the Sith Lord, and her daughter, the Nazgûl child.
Kyla Neufeld