The Evolution of Gandalf

By Gwydion Madawc Williams

Gandalf: From Bladorthin to Olorin

[This is the talk I gave on Sunday 20th September at Oxonmoot Online.[1]]

[Additions are enclosed in square brackets.  And some of the quotes I gave in a shorter form: I was timing myself and did not want to exceed the scheduled 20 minutes that gave time for questions.]

[All talks are planned to be made available on video, in due course.  Note that no one is paid for all of hard work done for the Tolkien Society.]

I will start with Pippin’s vision in Minas Tirith.  He is caught in the complex power-games between Gandalf and Denethor

“Pippin saw a likeness between the two, and he felt the strain between them, almost as if he saw a line of smouldering fire, drawn from eye to eye, that might suddenly burst into flame.

“Denethor looked indeed much more like a great wizard than Gandalf did, more kingly, beautiful, and powerful; and older. Yet by a sense other than sight Pippin perceived that Gandalf had the greater power and the deeper wisdom, and a majesty that was veiled. And he was older, far older. ‘How much older?’ he wondered, and then he thought how odd it was that he had never thought about it before. Treebeard had said something about wizards, but even then he had not thought of Gandalf as one of them. What was Gandalf? In what far time and place did he come into the world, and when would he leave it? And then his musings broke off, and he saw that Denethor and Gandalf still looked each other in the eye, as if reading the other’s mind. But it was Denethor who first withdrew his gaze.”[2]

Before we had the Silmarillion, a good guess would have been that Gandalf was a man who had inherited the wisdom of Numenor.[3]  Much as C S Lewis made Merlin in That Hideous Strength – which I have a low opinion of.

Tolkien may have intended Gandalf to be an ancient Numenorian wizard, at one stage in his evolution from the semi-comic figure in The Hobbit.  In that book, he seems younger and less knowledgeable than Elrond.  Both he and Thorin are upset that Elrond notices the moon-letters first.  And Tolkien says that he had not then decided that this was Elrond from the end of the First Age, rather than a descendant with the same name.

Inspired by a postcard picture of a mountain spirit, my belief is that Gandalf was initially imagined as a human wizard, like Artaxerxes in Roverandom.  Wizards in the fiction of the time were mostly either comic-good or evil.  Gandalf changed the standards by being heroic, and occasionally frightening.

From early drafts of the Hobbit, we know that the written Gandalf was at first named Bladorthin.  Thorin Oakenshield then had the name Gandalf, as many of you will know. 

Gandalf and the various dwarf names come from a list of dwarf names in the Elder Edda, as some of you will know. 

[The discarded name Bladorthin was never explained.  John D. Rateliff in his History of the Hobbit says it is ‘Gnomish’ and could be taken to mean ‘Grey Wanderer’, which is one of Gandalf’s later names.[4]]

Gandalf perhaps means ‘elf of the wand’: one of many indications that Norse legends did not make the sharp distinction between dwarves and elves that Tolkien chose.  That most later writers follow, though J. K. Rowling with her House-Elves has a radically different vision derived separately from folklore traditions.  She has marginal dwarves as comic creatures who sing Valentine songs dressed as cupids.[5]  She gives some of their traditional functions to her goblins, including a love of beautiful works of craft that they themselves make.  Tolkien’s Orcs also have craft-skills, but everything they make is ugly.

Norse and wider Germanic traditions are complex.  I’ve even seen it suggested by a credible authority that the Norse used the name ‘dwarf’ for underground craftsmen who were fully human-sized.  That the notion of them as short came later.  That’s from Neil Price’s excellent The Children of Ash and Elm, which I recommend for anyone interested in actual Norse history.[6]  Anyone who’s not got it already.

Price’s book tells us a lot about the Vikings as slave traders, as some reviewers have noted. [7]  Of course almost everyone had some form of slavery at the time, and from the oldest records we have.  Pre-invasion Celts in Britain sold slaves to the Roman Empire: we have a surviving chain to link six slaves as a kind of six-pack.  And in the early 12th century, Bristol was denounced for selling English slaves to Ireland.[8]

In the Dark Ages, most of Christian Europe also sold slaves to the much richer Islamic world.  Mostly their own poorer neighbours or war-captives, and sometimes castrating the males.  I don’t think Norse ever did castration as a regular practice.  I don’t know of it being mentioned anywhere, though Tom Shippey includes a gruesome variant in the fantasy novel One King’s Way.[9]  He’s there as co-author with Harry Harrison, under the pseudonym ‘John Holm’.

Norse raiders mostly captured women and children, and sold them on to whoever could pay.  DNA studies of the Icelanders show Irish origins, mostly in the female line.  Some wives, no doubt, since intermarriage happened among the petty Irish kings whose details are recorded.  But most sold as slave women, as Melkorka is in a later era in Laxdæla Saga.[10]

Melkorka definitely existed: she is listed in the highly reliable Icelandic Book of Settlements as the mother of a chieftain called Olaf the Peacock.  Her story was told in detail centuries after her time.  Told briefly to explain the importance of her grandson Kjartan, central to Laxdæla Saga.  The Icelandic Sagas are best thought of as historic novels.  Sometimes inaccurate when details can be checked.

Melkorka’s tale is almost the only voice we have from the mass of European Dark-Age slaves.  Heard because she was the abducted daughter of an Irish King.  Heard because her son Olaf was recognised by his Irish relatives and gained wealth and status in Iceland.

Her tale deserves to be better known.  It’s a nice corrective to the modern habit of thinking of slavery in terms of late -18th-century race-based slavery.  Found even in Doctor Who with The Doctor not correcting the concerns of a non-white female visitor to Shakespeare’s London.  The script-writers should have known better.

There’s a modern version of Melkorka’s story, separated out from the vastly complex human tapestry of the Saga.  Hush: An Irish Princess’ Tale by Professor Donna Jo Napoli.  Too romantic for my taste and I question her understanding of the era.  I may do something of my own – but that is enough of a meander from the main topic.  Except to say that Price also mentions unhealthy slave-worked industries making sails etc. for Norse ventures.  Similar to what Pagan Greeks and Romans had done earlier.  Similar to the gigantic New World industries which sucked in and mostly killed off black people sold from Africa by other Africans.

Tolkien knew a lot about the darkness of the actual Dark Ages.  He also chose to imagine an earlier and less corrupted era.  A time when only Orcs and evil humans would own slaves.

For The Hobbit, Tolkien decided for unrecorded reasons that Gandalf was no dwarf.  That he was there as a faded memory of the adventure that Tolkien tells through Bilbo’s eyes.  (Just as he recreated The Cat and the Fiddle for Frodo at Bree, ignoring alternative views such as that it is a riddling poem about sex.[11])

When Tolkien began The New Hobbit, Gandalf was always likely to be included.  But so were Tom Bombadil, Goldberry, and some monsters from the 1934 poem The Adventures of Tom Bombadil.[12] [13]  Chapters 4 to 8 centre on the poem’s characters.  They are excluded from dramatisations on radio or film, and are indeed a meander.  You might tell anyone who’s found the book too tough to leap in at chapter 2 and skip 4 to 8.  Hopefully going back to read them later.  I have details on my website.[14]

As many have noticed, Gandalf deepened when The New Hobbit morphed into The Lord of the Rings.  He became part of an Order of Wizards.  An Order headed by Saruman when Saruman was invented, but this was after the first draft of The Council of Elrond.  As many of you will know, he was initially held captive by a villain called Giant Treebeard.

When Saruman emerged, he became Gandalf’s superior, as he explains to Frodo when giving him the story of the One Ring:

“He is the chief of my order and the head of the Council. His knowledge is deep, but his pride has grown with it, and he takes ill any meddling.”[15]

Exposed as a traitor and defeated, Saruman appeals to Gandalf from their shared past:

“Are we not both members of a high and ancient order, most excellent in Middle-earth?”[16]

This would fit with them being heirs to Numenorian traditions.  One of many orders of wizards, probably along with some lone practitioners.  And a diversity of spells, in line with ancient legends.  Seeking to open the Moria door, Gandalf says:

“I once knew every spell in all the tongues of Elves or Men or Orcs that was ever used for such a purpose. I can still remember ten score of them without searching in my mind.”[17] 

But no human wizards are mentioned, apart from at least some of the Nazgul in their mortal lives, and presumably also Queen Beruthiel.  An early version when the Shadow of the Past chapter was called Ancient Histories speaks of them as “kings, warriors, and wizards of old’”.[18]

Saruman does of course accuse Gandalf of wanting “the Keys of Barad-dur itself, I suppose; and the crowns of seven kings, and the rods of the Five Wizards”.[19]  You can explain this away by saying he only counted the five Istari as real wizards. 

[There is indeed a suggestion of this in Unfinished Tales:

[“Wizard is a translation of Quenya istar … not perhaps happy … quite distinct from the ‘wizards’ and ‘magicians’ of later legend.”[20]

[But many things in Lord of the Rings seem to confirm the existence of actual wizards at the same time as Gandalf.  Not least Pippin’s notion that Denethor looked more like a wizard, which I quoted earlier.

[Unfinished Tales also has an explanation for why Saruman was chief:

[“We must assume that they [the Istari] were all Maiar, that is persons of an ‘angelic’ order, though not necessarily of the same rank.  The Maiar were ‘spirits’, but capable of self-incarnation…  Saruman is said … to have been the chief of the Istari – that is, higher in Valinorian stature than the others.  Gandalf was evidently the next in order.][21]

[That fits the Catholic theological notion of many grades of angel, shared by various other traditions based on the Hebrew scriptures.

[We are also told:

[“They were not commanded or supposed to act together as a small central body of power and wisdom; and that each had different powers and inclinations and were chosen by the Valar with this in mind.[22]]

[Tolkien also wrote a poem on the matter, which includes the unhappy suggestion that not only did the Blue Wizards fail to return, but likewise Radagast:

[“Wilt thou learn the lore    that was long secret
[“of the Five that came    from a far country?
[“One only returned    Others never again”.[23]]

[He might have remained as a nature-spirit within Middle-Earth, as Tom Bombadil did.  This would account for him appearing in actual history as ‘Radegast’, a good-natured Slavonic God.[24]

[He is also mentioned as missing from his home before the Fellowship sets out.  My own reading of this is that he was probably murdered by Saruman’s agents when they learned that he had misdirected Gandalf.[25]  But not before sending the eagles on a mission to help Gandalf and Saruman at Orthanc.  And since like Sauron he was ‘not of mortal flesh’, he might remain as a spirit.]

There was also a discarded idea that the Witch-King should be a renegade from the same order of Numenorian wizards that was once Gandalf’s backstory.  And was initially called the Wizard King:

“I am not overmatched, and yet still I am matched, for he was a member of our order before evil overtook him.”[26]

That makes it a very ancient Order, since the Rings were made in the Second Age, before the drowning of Numenor.  And speaking of ‘our order’ must mean that there were others.

Incidentally, nothing is said of how human wizards are trained.  Other tales mostly have very personal apprenticeship or an ancient book. 

I think Ursula Le Guin invented the idea of a school for magic.  Rowling probably re-invented it independently. 

Much more curiously, in Lord of the Rings there is no direct mention of anything like schooling for any purpose.  Sam can read because Bilbo taught him, and this is seen as odd and doubtful.  No schools for hobbits are included.  Just some metaphors from Merry and Pippin, that may mean no more than the firework dragon compared to an express train in A Long-expected Party.

All this suggests Gandalf and similar wizards as long-lived humans.  Even Faramir’s account of a passing reference to Olorin could fit:

“‘Many are my names in many countries,’ he said. ‘Mithrandir among the Elves, Tharkin to the Dwarves; Olorin I was in my youth in the West that is forgotten, in the South Incanus, in the North Gandalf; to the East I go not.’”[27]

Numenor was largely forgotten in most of Middle-Earth.  Or from what we knew then, there might be other drowned lands.

But the final form chosen by Tolkien had Gandalf as a being who only looked human.  He was one of the Maia, the immortal spirits already described in detail in the then-unpublished Silmarillion.  The version we have says:

“Wisest of the Maiar was Olorin…

“Of Melian much is told in the Quenta Silmarillion.  But of Olorin that tale does not speak; for though he loved the Elves, he walked among them unseen, or in a form as one of them, and they did not know whence came the fair visions or the promptings of wisdom that he put into their hearts.[28]

That dates to 1977, and demolished much older speculation.  And like Galadriel, he has no real role in the stories Tolkien had been working on for decades.  Yet it was clearly his view in the finished Lord of the Rings.  In an early letter – written when Lord of the Rings was finalised but only the first volume had been published – he says

“[Gandalf] was an incarnate ‘angel’ … an emissary from the Lords of the West, sent to Middle-earth, as the great crisis of Sauron loomed on the horizon. By ‘incarnate’ I mean they were embodied in physical bodies capable of pain, and weariness, and of afflicting the spirit with physical fear, and of being ‘killed’, though supported by the angelic spirit they might endure long, and only show slowly the wearing of care and labour…

“The ‘wizards’ were not exempt, indeed being incarnate were more likely to stray, or err. Gandalf alone fully passes the tests, on a moral plane anyway (he makes mistakes of judgement).”[29] [30]

What Gandalf says on his return indicates that he had been a pure spirit, and had lost focus while living in a body with human limitations:

“I have passed through fire and deep water, since we parted. I have forgotten much that I thought I knew, and learned again much that I had forgotten. I can see many things far off, but many things that are close at hand I cannot see.”[31]

But does that mean that he was one of the original beings sent by Illuvatar to create the world we know?  Much more moot.

I’d draw your attention to what he says about his fight with the balrog

“We fought far under the living earth, where time is not counted. Ever he clutched me, and ever I hewed him, till at last he fled into dark tunnels. They were not made by Durin’s folk, Gimli son of Gloin. Far, far below the deepest delving of the Dwarves, the world is gnawed by nameless things. Even Sauron knows them not. They are older than he. Now I have walked there, but I will bring no report to darken the light of day.”[32]

Older than Sauron, and apparently also older than Gandalf. 

This contradicts the standard view.  For instance the mostly-reliable Tolkien Gateway says:

“The Ainur existed before Arda was created. Maiar were angelic creatures of lower order than the Valar. Curumo and Mairon were powerful Maiar of Aule, until the latter fell and became Sauron.”[33]

Curumo was another name for Saruman. 

That Treebeards calls him ‘young Saruman’ would match the common belief in Middle-Earth that they dated to part-way through the Third Age, whereas Treebeard was presumably created along with other Ents during the First Age.  And after the elves: his poem about living creatures says:

“First name the four, the free peoples:
“Eldest of all, the elf-children;”

In the Silmarillion, we have Christopher Tolkien’s short version

“Even as the first shadows were felt in Mirkwood there appeared in the west of Middle-earth the Istari, whom Men called the Wizards.  None knew at the time whence they were, save Cirdan of the Havens, and only to Elrond and to Galadriel did he reveal that they came over the Sea…  In the likeness of Men they appeared, old but vigorous, and they changed little over the years, and aged but slowly…  Of these Curunir [Saruman] was the eldest and came first, and after him came Mithrandir and Radagast, and others of the Istari who went into the east of Middle-Earth, and do not come into these tales.”[34]

My belief is that Tolkien’s backstory shifted from the idea of several generations of Maia to all of them being angelic spirits present since before Creation.  But there was never full consistency.

In Tolkien’s early writings, edited by Christopher Tolkien as Lost Tales, we are told of a time when the world was dark but ‘Melko’ still in hiding:

“At that time did many strange spirits fare into the world, for there were pleasant places dark and quiet for them to dwell in.  Some came from Mandos, aged spirits that journeyed from Illuvatar with him who are older than the world and very gloomy and secret, and some from the fortresses of the North where Melko then dwelt in the deep dungeons of Utumna.  Full of evil and unwholesome were they; luring and restlessness and horror they brought, turning the dark into an ill and fearful thing, which it was not before  But some few danced thither with gentle feet exuding evening scents, and these came from the gardens of Lorien.

“Still is the world full of these in the days of light, lingering alone in the shadowy hearts of primeval forests, calling secret things across a stary waste, and haunting caverns in the hills that few have found: – but the pinewoods are yet too full of these old unelfin and inhuman spirits for the quietude of Elder or of men.”[35]

The worst of these might end up like the Silent Watchers at the Tower of Cirith Ungol, and perhaps also the Barrow-Wights,

Unlike in most other ways, Luthien and Shelob are both confirmed examples of the offspring of a spirit and a corporeal being.  There is no clear reason why spirits might not also wed each other and have offspring.  Or breed  outside of marriage, in the case of giant spiders.  Comic writers or cartoonists might try to imagine Ungoliant or Shelob doing some version of a marriage ceremony.

Bombadil would be an early Maia, and perhaps original.  Goldberry says that he ‘remembers the first raindrop’.  She herself seems to be much younger, perhaps daughter of another water-spirit.  [The original poem allows for no other understanding:

[“There his beard dangled long down into the water:
[“up came Goldberry, the River-woman’s daughter;
[“pulled Tom’s hanging hair. In he went a-wallowing
[“under the water-lilies, bubbling and a-swallowing…

[“’You bring it back again, there’s a pretty maiden!’
[“said Tom Bombadil. ‘I do not care for wading.
[“Go down! Sleep again where the pools are shady
[“far below willow-roots, little water-lady!’

[“Back to her mother’s house in the deepest hollow
[“swam young Goldberry. But Tom, he would not follow.”]

[His later capture of her and persuading her to marry him would probably not be acceptable if anyone comes to dramatize it.  Decidedly ‘rough wooing’.  Or you could say the Hobbit poem confused the facts: suit yourself.]

Incidentally, there is a similar concept in Peter Grant’s Rivers of London series,[36] done with both humour and thrills.  And with the river-spirit ladies much more powerful and less domestic.  I would recommend it.

No children of Istari are mentioned, nor any from Sauron.  But the possibility would be open for those doing Fan Fiction.  Istari would probably be forbidden, but all except Gandalf might plausibly lapse.

As I said, Gandalf changes from his initial version.  Of course he’s not the only one.  Tolkien built up Lord of the Rings by taking characters from works other than the Silmarillion.  You could even say he cultivated it organically.  Transplanting characters from other tales, as he describes Niggle doing for his great artwork.

In a work imagined first as The New Hobbit, Gandalf and Gollum re-appear in major roles and as themselves.  Gandalf deeper and wiser.  Gollum both worse and more pathetic, and without the elements of honour he had in the original version.  If you’ve read the republished First Edition, you’ll know he did intend to keep his word after losing the Riddle-Game.

Bilbo, while appearing on four separate occasions as himself, largely passes on his qualities to the four main Hobbit heroes:

  • Pippin gets his trickster qualities and his slowness to adjust to a life of adventure and danger. 
  • Merry gets simple courage. 
  • Both Frodo and Sam are his poetic heirs.
  • Frodo was intended as his social heir but Sam actually becomes this.  And Sam had been educated by Bilbo, which is significant. 
  • Frodo and even more Sam have a quality tested far more than with Bilbo – endurance in the face of suffering and probable defeat.

When noting these notions, I’d thought that there was no direct continuation of Smaug, the smooth-talking dragon.  But some of his qualities pass into Saruman, who as I said was not there originally.  The role might have been there in Giant Treebeard, had Tolkien kept that idea.

He noticeably keeps Sauron as grim and distant as he was as the unnamed Necromancer. 

Elrond remains a wise advisor removed from the action. 

Galadriel is a new invention later added to the older tales, as I have detailed in my chapter-by-chapter study of the book.[37]

Aragorn is the most complex, as many have noted.  He grows out of the heroic hobbit Trotter.  He is the conventional hero and lost heir, like Bard the Bowman.  He rises, like Beren.  Arwen repeats Luthien’s role as the bride needing a seemingly impossible task: an old theme.  But Arwen is a late idea – those who only know the film will be surprised at how little she does.

But for me, the biggest and the best transformation is Gandalf, in many ways the real centre of the tale.

Copyright © Gwydion M. Williams


[2] Book V, Chapter 1, Minas Tirith.

[3] More properly Númenor.  But I do not use accents or other diacritical marks.  In the past, I have all too often seen computer software turn them into something meaningless.
As to why this flaw exists, see

[4] The History of The Hobbit by John D. Rateliff, pages 52-3.  HarperCollins paperback 2008.


[6] Price, Neil; The Children of Ash and Elm: A History of the Vikings.  Allen Lane 2020

[7] See “The Little-Known Role of Slavery in Viking Society”,








[15] Chapter 2, Book I, The Shadow of the Past

[16] Chapter 10, Book III, The Voice of Saruman

[17] Chapter 4, Book II, A Journey in the Dark

[18] The History of Middle Earth, Volume 6, page 260 of the 1988 hardback edition.

[19] Chapter 10, Book III, The Voice of Saruman

[20] Unfinished Tales, page 388: The Istari.  George Allen & Unwin 1980.

[21] Ibid, page 394.

[22] Ibid, page 394.

[23] Ibid, pages 395-6



[26] The History of Middle Earth, Volume 8, page 331 of the 1990 hardback edition

[27] Chapter 5, Book IV, The Window on the West

[28] The Silmarillion, pages 30-31, 1977 edition.

[29] Letter 156.  Written 4 November 1954.

[30] Fellowship was published in June 1954.  The Two Towers on 11th November and The Return of the King in October 1955.

[31] Chapter 5, Book III, The White Rider

[32] Chapter 5, Book III, The White Rider


[34] Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age

[35] Book of Lost Tales part I, chapter. IV. The Chaining of Melko