Oh yes, you’ve all heard of Gandalf, and I’m sure all of you fantasy writers dream of someone of his magical prowess in your own books (be warned, such ambiguous wizardry is a difficult beast to tame), but what is it about him that captivates readers of the Lord of the Rings? His seemingly boundless powers? His vociferous nature? His exquisite fireworks? Or is it something altogether more subtle? J. R. R. Tolkien’s spontaneously regenerating, sardonically witty wizard is worth a wonder over.
The Lord of the Rings is a story with considerably more focus on lore and war than creating character empathy – a story where, particularly in the novels, less focus is on character driven aspects of storytelling, and more to do with magical influence, good versus evil, remarkable journeys through wonderfully described lands, and referencing a mysterious and absurdly thorough history. J. R. R. Tolkien created a fantasy novel with the aim of mesmerising, fascinating, enchanting – all of which he mastered wonderfully. His characters are well crafted to suit the priorities of the fantasy epic, but they don’t draw our sympathy the way modern books tend to. I’m sure there are some readers who had an emotional connection with Frodo as he carried his dark burden to the fiery fissure upon Mount Doom, and with Sam, whose best friend began to turn unfairly against him, but these are a result of the situation they were in rather than their characters. Whilst reading, I felt worried for the sake of Middle Earth world more than the individuals we followed.
Gandalf is different, and I put forward that it is his presence in the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings which subtly pulls at our heartstrings most. In both stories, there are hobbits – simple folk with simple lives – like the majority of us, the fantasy readers. As in our world, there is belief that these quant beings (a belief which had to be coaxed out of Bilbo, but still existed) could cast aside the mundanity of their lives and do something extraordinary, for they felt they were truly different from their complacent neighbours. Oh how we all wish for that.
But there are so many doubters around at the start of our journey. Dwarves, elves, men, believe Bilbo, Frodo, Sam, Pippin and Merry should leave the extraordinary to the extraordinary; they didn’t believe, and even tried to deter the wannabe heroes.
Up steps Gandalf. The wizard who believes that those others see as ordinary can step up and do amazing things. He guides them, encourages them, reproaches them, worries over them, and makes sacrifices so that they may shine. Atop this, he seems to unconditionally trust them with tasks close to impossible. In Gandalf, we see the ultimate father figure, masked behind a tatty grey cloak and a hatful of tricks. Combine this emotional appeal with the mystery behind the abilities he possesses, his quasi-divine status in the world, and his ability to give death the middle finger, and a child-like wonder encompasses you. Gandalf is a character to aspire to, who will lead us hand in hand from nothing to everything, and yet as much as we want to know him, as much as we think we know him, he is forever mysterious.
By D. C. Ward.
Thanks for reading our third character profile here on Sentient Ink. We have two more from rival contenders to The Lord of the Rings for the greatest fantasy series of all time – Severus Snape from J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, and Tryion Lannister from George. R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire.