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The Two Gandalfs

Updated: Jun 10, 2020

The title of this essay is not quite as apt as the titles of my earlier essays on the two Aragorns, Faramirs, and Treebeards. This is because Gandalf is already a pair: Gandalf the Grey and Gandalf the White. So should I have called this "The Four Gandalfs"? No, but, "The Three Gandalfs" would not have been inappropriate.

Ian McKellen's Gandalf the Grey is about ninety-nine percent perfect. The one point deduction is due to his indulgence of the hobbit kiddos as he's driving his cart into Hobbiton. As in the book, they clamor for fireworks. In the book, he tells the kids to "run away now! [...] You will get plenty when the time comes." But in the film he lets a few off, to the cheers of the children. There is a perfectly good explanation for this change, which is that we had barely met Gandalf at this point, and if he had refused the kids' request we may have judged him sterner than we ought to have. This fault therefore must be chalked up more to our own failure to appreciate the consistency of kindliness and withholding pleasures, than Jackson's preference for on-demand satisfaction of desire.

But, whoa, that ninety-nine percent. Seeing Gandalf the Grey come to life on the screen was for me a bit like Mr. Tighe in The Place of the Lion--you know, the devoted lepidopterist--who is granted a vision of the very Form of Butterfly, after all his long years of loving butterflies. Probably my favorite and certainly the most iconic Gandalf the Grey scene is his confrontation of the Balrog on the bridge of Khazad Dum. "I am a servant of the secret fire, wielder of the Flame of Anor. The dark fire will not avail you, flame of Udun! Go back to the Shadow. You shall not pass." It is so good, even my most pedantic inner geek cannot complain that in the book he says, "You cannot pass."

The next time any of the Fellowship will see Gandalf is when he returns as Gandalf the White, meeting Legolas, Gimli, and Aragorn in Fangorn forest, whom they mistake at first for Saruman. He tells his friends, "I come back to you now, at the turn of the tide."

And while the main events of The Two Towers involve terrible suffering, the tide does indeed seem to have turned: the Ents capture Isengard, and Aragorn leads the army of Rohan to victory over Saruman's orc-host, aided at dawn by the mysterious Huorn trees, and by Gandalf himself, who has fetched Eomer's exiled company. The threat of Saruman is neutralized and the free people of Middle Earth can now devote all their energy toward defeating Sauron.

Book Aragorn had said, after reuniting with Gandalf, that "The Dark Lord has Nine. But we have One, mightier than they: the White Rider. He has passed through the fire and the abyss, and they shall fear him." Gandalf surely would have agreed that he is mightier than all Nine of the Ringwraiths, for several reasons. First, as we learned back at the Council of Elrond, he had fought them all at Weathertop! There he faced them, at first during the day, and they fled in fear of his coming wrath. They returned at night, their home-turf, so to speak, and Gandalf had a harder time: he was "hard put to it" and was able to do just enough to hold out before escaping at sunrise. Second, just a few pages before Aragorn's expression of confidence in the White Rider, Gandalf himself had told Gimli: "Dangerous! [...] And so am I, very dangerous: more dangerous than anything you will ever meet, unless you are brought alive before the seat of the Dark Lord."No wonder Gandalf can say that his new advent really is the turn of the tide!

The films align, for a while, with these startling statements of Gandalf's power. One of the coolest cinematic depictions of Gandalf's Sauron-rivaling awesomeness is the scene in Return of the King when Gandalf rides out from Minas Tirith to shepherd home the soldiers retreating from the battle for Osgiliath. Three of the winged Nazgul are terrorizing the retreat; the men are terrified; it looks hopeless:

Bringing Pippin along for the ride is a nice touch. Impractical, but that's the point: this feat was magnificent but easy for the White Rider.

But what in hell happens after this? The film itself goes mad, overwhelmed by the power of evil. Look, we've known all along that the bad guys are really bad guys, who are also really powerful. But we've also known all along, because Tolkien has reminded us over and over again, that the bad guys are also subject to fear, doubt, and undermining their own aims by their lack of virtue. It's hard to be hellish, because the good is so good, and so powerful. Hell is of course rewarded for its hard work, gaining many victories and marring many good things. But the greatest powers in, or beyond, Middle Earth are not Sauron and his Nine Ringwraiths.

Cinematically this is a problem. Sauron is powerful but immobile, a fiery eyeball at the pinnacle of Barad-dur. He can't face off with Gandalf the White, because, well, he doesn't have a face. So it's hard to put Sauron's own agency on film. This, I think, is why the Witch-King is given such a bizarre power boost by the time we get to the Return of the King film. Remember, in the book, the Witch-King of Angmar is one of the Nine Riders: you know, those cloaked baddies whose horses sniff for Bagginses and Rings. He is the one who stabbed Frodo on Weathertop. He and his eight buddies together are afraid to fight Gandalf in daylight.

In the film, visually, there is nothing to suggest that its Witch-King is not also one of the Nine. But Gandalf says something which suggests otherwise:

He says that Sauron has "yet to reveal" his deadliest servant. Now, all Nine had already been revealed, all the way back in Fellowship. The inference then is that the Witch-King is not one of the Nine.

If he is not one of the Nine, but a Tenth wraith added to the films to personify Sauron's malevolence a bit better, then we can perhaps gain some sympathy for the way Peter Jackson portrayed the Witch-King's confrontation with Gandalf, of which more shortly. On this interpretation of the film, Aragorn's book-confidence that Gandalf is mightier than all Nine is consistent with the Witch-King's apparent power to overcome Gandalf.

But we aren't forced by logic to make the inference that he is not one of the Nine; after all, it could be that what Gandalf means here is that the Witch-King has not yet been revealed as he really is--that is, previously we've all thought of him "only" as one of the Nine, but he is about to be revealed as something much more terrible. This reading fits better with the overall visuals of the film, which imply that the Witch-King is but a Black Rider who gets a spooky helmet, huge mace, and winged beasty only when he is about to assume the role of field marshal. If we read the film this way, then we must infer that movie-Gandalf could not have taken on all Nine, as he did at Weathertop, that Aragorn would have been incorrect to say that Gandalf is mightier than all Nine, and that Gandalf would have been delusional to say that only Sauron himself is at least as dangerous as Gandalf--and, of course, in the films, Gandalf does not take them on, Aragorn does not say he could, and Gandalf never compares his danger-level to Sauron's.

Oddly, perhaps, here I would prefer it to be the case that the Witch-King is actually a Tenth, and much more powerful, wraith, than that he is a battle-ready member of the Nine. I'd prefer this to be the case because, despite the addition of a brand new character, it requires less overall revision to Tolkien's cosmology.

Here's what I mean. Tolkien undoubtedly wrote his novels under the bright shadow of the Boethian ideals that evil is but the privation of goodness, and that the wicked are always and everywhere weaker than than the good. It is this fundamental conviction in the superior might of goodness over evil--a conviction too profound to be confused for optimism (and Tolkien was most certainly not an optimist)--that makes sense both of the victory of the good guys, and the means by which they achieve victory. These means include, most obviously, the Halflings' successful quest to destroy the Ring, more important than the martial heroics of Gondor and Rohan, but also all the mistakes and incompetence of the bad guys: the in-fighting of orcs, the lack of trust between Sauron and Saruman, Wormtongue's revenge on his cruel master (first discarding the palantir and later slitting his throat), the needless provocation of the Ents and Huorns, the treacherous Ghost Army paying its debt by fighting the very Enemy once aided by their treachery, Gollum's decisive role in the destruction of his Precious, and, most important by far: Sauron's inability even to conceive the thought--until it was too late--that anyone might seek to destroy the Ring.

Galadriel's almost unbearably sad description of her life as fighting "the long defeat" is, in the end, bearable, because the defeat, however long, is not final. We knew the end in the very beginning: In the Ainulindalë, Tolkien's creation myth, Melkor rages out of tune just to hear the sound of his own voice (better to bray in hell than sing in heaven); but Melkor is always and everywhere under the thumb of Eru, the One, and Eru will have only good music: "And thou, Melkor, shalt see that no theme may be played that hath not its uttermost source in me, nor can any alter the music in my despite. For he that attempteth this shall prove but mine instrument in the devising of things more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined."

Gandalf, more than any other character in the book, is the emblem of this ultimate, and yes, theological, ground of Hope not only that the good will win out, but that it must win out. (Aragorn in fact calls Gandalf not only "captain" but "banner.") If this sort of Hope is to make any sense at all, pain and death must not be as bad as fear makes them, because the bad guys obviously can dish those out. But death is not the last word. Even for Men and Elves, death is not cessation of existence, and not even Manwë knows all Eru's plans for his Children. In Moria, Gandalf dies in battle with a great demon, roughly his equal in ontological rank, but he is twice victor, defeating his enemy and returning from the dead.

It may well be the case that Sauron could, in some fashion, kill Gandalf--not annihilating him but destroying the organic form of life he takes on as a wizard. Sauron, like the Balrog, is of the same ontological order as Gandalf. Perhaps Sauron would be better in magico-mental combat than Gandalf, since he has devoted more of his life to destruction than to preservation and growth. But it's hard to say. The point is, Gandalf is not only very good, he is very powerful. Obviously he is not all-powerful, but neither is Sauron. And, unlike Sauron, Gandalf has no weaknesses. He is an angelic spirit whose innate powers have been perfected by virtue, whereas Sauron is an angelic spirit whose powers have been ruined by malice. Imagine a very powerful fire which is not very smart. Now imagine a very powerful fire which is very smart. The first thing is Sauron and the second is Gandalf.

All of this metaphysical background is part of the pre-Modern, classically Christian worldview Tolkien embraced, and embraced as one who knows he is losing the battle of ideas. Even as his philosophical and theological convictions receded further and further from the minds of western intelligentsia, he wrote a book which has borne the seeds of that worldview in a form that ordinary people, like myself, could love--could love, and learn from, precisely because so many of the characters are so good that their actions on page can be enjoyed as icons, even when they are too great to be good at being mirrors.

So when Peter Jackson's Witch-King of Angmar bursts Gandalf's staff to splinters--the same staff he used to repel three Nazgul at once just a few minutes earlier--I see on screen an unforgivable perversion of the axiological framework of the story. Even worse than the splintered staff is McKellen's utterly broken, terrified, demeanor. "Do you not know death when you see it?" the Wraith had mocked. And movie-Gandalf looks like he has both seen it and known it. Even if you're not so keen on the Boethius stuff, you might still appreciate that even just at the level of character this makes no sense. What about Gandalf has given us any reason at all to think that, if faced with a foe more powerful than himself, and if going down in defeat, would cower in fear? This is just not Gandalf, neither Gandalf as character nor Gandalf as emblem.

From this moment on, until he charges into battle at the gate of Mordor, Gandalf is a broken man, hopeless and fearful, even as Aragorn at this stage of the film is hopeless and grave.

In this shrunken spirit movie-Gandalf rides to parley with the Mouth of Sauron. When the Mouth reveals Frodo's mithril coat, telling the lie that Frodo was captured and "suffered greatly at the hands of his host," Gandalf cowers yet again.

In fact the whole company has given in to despair, until Aragorn pulls off his head-chopping stunt. Mordor has, for the moment, won, and only the ignoble outburst of Aragorn takes the good guys back from the brink. Against all evidence, Aragorn defiantly shouts, "I don't believe it! I will not believe it!"

Well, why won't you, movie-Aragorn? You've been presented with very good evidence that your friend is dead and his mission has failed. I understand that you want to keep fighting, as you should, but you don't have any good reason to disbelieve the Mouth, given the evidence.

The book makes much better sense of the good guys' willingness to go on fighting in hope. Even as Aragorn is giving the Mouth his death-stare, Gandalf, like the good philosopher he is, finds the gaps in the Mouth's evidence.

Again, at first glance the evidence seems staggeringly good: the Mouth has Sam's dagger, Frodo's mithril coat, and a grey cloak and elven broach. "Anguished" is how the book described Gandalf's face as he reacts to these tokens and bids the Mouth to name Sauron's terms of surrender. Those nearby "did not doubt that he would accept."

But Gandalf keeps his wits, even in anguish. He knew full well that the mithril coat belonged to Frodo and the dagger belonged to Sam. Perhaps they were both taken. But then why is the Mouth referring only to one prisoner? The story does not add up. And so Gandalf probes. "What surety have we that Sauron [...] will keep his part? Where is this prisoner? Let him be brought forth and yielded to us, and then we will consider these demands."

"It seemed then to Gandalf, intent, watching him as a man engaged in fencing with a deadly foe, that for the taking of a breath the Messenger was at a loss." The Mouth gives a haughty reply, but Gandalf has already dispatched his opponent--not by cutting off his head, but by outsmarting him. Of course he cannot know, from the evidence, that Frodo and Sam live and are still on their way to Mt. Doom. But he can know that that the evidence does not support the Mouth's assertions and therefore that the Mouth is ignorant or lying or both. Gandalf casts aside his cloak, seizes his friends' things, and rejects Sauron's terms. Then follows the terrible battle in which Manwë's eagles help balance the fight long enough for Frodo and Sam (and Gollum) to finish their work.

Jackson's wilting Gandalf is a mockery of Gandalf. Cinematically, it might be defended by noting that it's an easy and powerful way of driving home the point that it really was all up to Frodo and Sam. If they failed, all would fail. What good then are magical staffs and sharp wits, legendary swords or crystal balls, if their use or disuse or abuse has nothing much to do with the outcome after all?

But this defense of Jackson's story fails to appreciate the importance of the supporting role which Aragorn, Gandalf, and the other Captains of the West provided by their self-sacrificial march to the Black Gate. After all, it is only insofar as Sauron perceives this army as a threat that he would be willing to empty his lands to fight it. Narratively, it has to weigh heavily on Sauron's mind that before his seemingly invincible gate ride up the heir of Elendil and a resurrected god of his own rank, to defy him. Here before him stand two certain signs that, whatever happens today on the field of battle, Sauron will eventually lose, as Melkor his mentor lost, and the Good he has long hated will turn all Sauron's plans for his own glory, to Its own. A bereaved Aragorn and a pusillanimous Gandalf cannot play this part. I do not like Gandalf's movie-weakness on narrative grounds. On philosophical and theological grounds, I find it, you guessed it, unforgivable.

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