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Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings - history and powers explained

It's time to brush up on your Tolkien knowledge. Here's our guide breaking down Gandalf's history, powers and life during and after The Lord of the Rings.

Gandalf explained: Ian McKellen as Gandalf the Grey holding up a glowing staff

Who is Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings? No one can accuse J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic of lacking lore, so let’s break down one of the most important figures in Middle-earth and unpack all the secret facts about Gandalf.

Every Lord of the Rings fan knows that when it comes to picking the best Lord of the Rings characters of all time, Gandalf has to be on the list. Played by Ian McKellen in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy (aka: some of the best movies of all time), this wizard is downright iconic. However, if you aren’t a Tolkien expert with all the books memorized, there is tons of information about this powerhouse that you may have missed. Here is our guide giving you a complete run down on Gandalf’s history, journey through Middle-earth, and impressive powers.

Gandalf’s Early Life and Arrival in Middle-earth

Before he was known as the Wizard Gandalf, Gandalf went by the name of Olórin – one of the Maiar.

If you need a Tolkien refresher, the Maiar are divine spirits who helped the Valar shape the world. So, as you can guess, Gandalf is actually one of the oldest figures in the entire franchise.

He was created by Ilúvatar and was even at the beginning of time. However, during the First and Second Ages, he wasn’t a massive presence when it came to the grand scheme of Middle-earth history. From the brief accounts that we do have, thanks to the Silmarillion, we know that Gandalf spent his youth in Valinor serving under multiple Valar lords.

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Tolkien also clarified that Gandalf was considered to be one of the wisest Maiar and that he was one of the few divine beings who learned the concepts of pity and patience. During his younger years, Olórin’s habit of helping others developed as well. It was during this time that he grew a love for the Elves in Valinor and became interested in the rest of Ilúvatar’s creations. However, these peaceful years didn’t last.

As Sauron’s power grew during the Second Age, the Valar decided to send a group of Istari (selected Maiar who will become known as wizards) to Middle-Earth. The plan was to fight the dark powers not with warriors but in the form of guidance, with the Istari helping people towards the light. Olórin was one of the five chosen and (believe it or not) was nervous about his duty and afraid of facing Sauron.

But, eventually, he was convinced to leave the Undying Lands, and around TA 1000, Olórin arrived in Middle-earth, taking on the form of an elderly Man. He landed in the Grey Havens (also known as Mithlond). There, he was greeted by Círdan, the shipwright who would give Gandalf One of the three rings of power that belonged to the Elves — Narya.

Gandalf explained: Gandalf the Grey walking through the Shire

Gandalf’s early years during the Third Age

During the early years of the Third Age, Gandalf was a bit of a wanderer, befriending all folks and traveling around Middle-earth helping those in need.

It should also be noted that it was during these early travels that Gandalf received multiple names from the Elves, Dwarves, and Men. If you watch all the Lord of the Rings movies in order, you may have heard the wizard being referred to as Incánus in the South, Mithrandir for the Elves, or Tharkûn to the Dwarves. These are all valid names for the Maiar, but Gandalf (coined by the Men of Arnor) would become his most common title.

After a century of traveling, Gandalf and the rest of the Wizards discovered a dark presence coming from Dol Guldur in Mirkwood. A figure, dubbed the Necromancer, was discovered. Suspecting that the evil presence was actually Sauron, Gandalf went to Dol Guldur in TA 2063, but the Necromancer fled before Gandalf could uncover his secrets. This would mark the beginning of Gandalf looking out for Sauron, despite a period of peace (known as the Watchful Peace) throughout Middle-earth.

Gandalf explained: Gandalf the Grey standing in a wasteland

In TA 2460, things got exciting again as Sauron officially returned to Dol Guldur, causing Galadriel to form the White Council. Gandalf was a member of this council whose purpose was to direct the forces of the West in resistance to the shadow. Initially, Galadriel wished Gandalf to be the leader of the White Council. However, he turned down the gig, leading to his fellow wizard Saruman helming the group.

While nervous about Sauron, Gandalf continued his travels, where he first met the people of The Shire and befriended the Hobbits. However, he left once again, this time in search of the Dwarven King Thráin II – who had been taken by Sauron. During his search, he eventually returned to Dol Guldur, where he found Thráin in the pits and finally discovered that The Necromancer he had met sentries prior was, in fact, Sauron.

Gandalf reported his findings to the White Council, urging them to attack before Sauron could regain more of his strength and find The One Ring. Saruman declined to take action, though, a move which we would later learn was due to his own evil ambitions. So Gandalf was left to be in a constant state of concern, worrying about Sauron’s actions.

Gandalf explained: Gandalf talking to Saruman in The Fellowship

This worry would lead him to take an interest in the Dragon Smaug’s activities, which would lead to the events of The Hobbit. Knowing that the exiled Dwarf King of Durin’s Folk, Thorin II Oakenshield, planned to battle Smaug, the wizard set out to help. Worried the Smaug’s destruction would aid Sauron’s plans for total domination, Gandalf hired the Hobbit Bilbo Baggins as a “burglar” and assisted in the destruction of the winged evil beast. This would lead to Bilbo meeting Gollum and taking the One Ring for himself.

It was also during this time when Gandalf convinced the White Council to face Sauron in Dol Guldur – ridding the place of the Necromancer once and for all. However, despite the attack, Sauron escaped to Mordor, and his power still grew even without the Ring.

Gandalf explained: Gandalf and Frodo riding a wagon in The Shire during The Fellowship of the Ring

Gandalf during The Lord of the Rings movies

After his adventure with Bilbo, Gandalf took a great interest in the Baggins family and the Shire.

In fact, his Hobbit fixation was also noted by Saruman, who started sending agents to Bree and the Southfarthing to monitor the wizard. In TA 2956, Gandalf met Aragorn and found an ally in the fight against Sauron. He also met Frodo Baggins – Bilbo’s younger nephew.

On the subject of Bilbo, Gandalf had grown suspicious of his “magic ring” that the Hobbit discovered on their travels, noting its hold over Bilbo as well as how it maintained his youth. In The Fellowship of the Ring, we see Gandalf’s suspicions increase during TA 3001 when Bilbo prepares to leave the Ring for Frodo after his farewell party.

Gandalf explained: Gandalf smoking in the Shire with Frodo

After seeing Bilbo’s strange but violent reaction to leaving the One Ring, Gandalf set out to research if it was the lost Ring of Sauron. With Aragorn, he found and interrogated Gollum, and his fears were confirmed. Not only was it Sauron’s Ring, but Gollum had been captured by the Dark Lord’s forces and had revealed The Shire’s existence as well as the Baggins’ family name to Sauron. Gandalf raced to the Shire and told Frodo about Sauron’s Ring. He told the Hobbit to leave the Shire quietly and head to Rivendell.

Although he planned to escort Frodo on his journey, Gandalf decided to have a meeting with Saruman first to discuss his findings. However, Saruman betrayed him, revealing his own desire for the One Ring. Gandalf managed to escape Saruman, and after facing Nazgul by himself and racing about all over the place, he finally managed to meet Frodo in Rivendell as planned.

The White Council then decided to send a group on a mission to destroy the One Ring in Mount Doom for good – after Gandalf reported everything. Frodo is chosen as the Ring-bearer, and Gandalf chooses to join the Hobbit – officially becoming a member of the Fellowship of the Ring. However, Frodo and Gandalf were separated once again during the group’s venture into the ruins of Moria. There, Gandalf faced one of Morgoth’s Balrogs and fell into the abyss – causing Frodo to carry on towards Mordor without his help for now.

While Frodo continued his way to Mordor, Gandalf fought the Balrog for quite some time in the pit of the Mountain. However, the fight proved too much for Gandalf’s physical body, and eventually, he passed away after beating the monster. But Gandalf is a Maiar folks, and can’t die easily, so his spirit is sent back to the mortal plain, and he became Gandalf the White.

Gandalf explained: Gandalf fighting the Balrog in The Fellowship of the Ring

With a new form, wand, and a snazzy power-up, Gandalf found The Fellowship again, but Frodo and the other Hobbits were now separated from the group. He learned that Frodo was heading to Mount Doom with Sam only. Gandalf was still determined to help the Hobbit from afar and set out to face Saruman and his new Orc army before he conquered the kingdoms of Rohan and Gondor.

After freeing a brainwashed king, getting help from some Ents, and riding into battle himself, Gandalf defeated Saruman. And in a final knock-out move, the wizard also snapped Saruman’s staff. Gandalf then headed to Minas Tirith. There, he helped Gondor, firstly by fighting against Mordor’s invading forces and secondly by saving Faramir from his suicidal father, Denethor II, the Ruling Steward of Gondor. Talk about a busybody, am I right?

Gandalf’s battle efforts would continue as he organized the armies to launch an attack against the Morannon – drawing Sauron’s eye away from Frodo as he went to Mount Doom. The plan worked, and Gandalf’s efforts gave Frodo enough time to destroy the One Ring. After Sauron’s defeat, Gandalf mounted on Gwaihir the Eagle to rescue Frodo and Sam from Mount Doom – which had erupted after the Ring’s destruction.

And once everything was settled, Gandalf’s mission was finally complete. He was free to return home to Valinor, and so on September 29, 3021, he (along with Frodo and Bilbo) boarded the ship to the Undying Lands and left Middle-earth for good. (I’m not crying, you are!)

Gandalf explained: Gandalf the White fighting in Return of the King

What are Gandalf’s powers?

Gandalf has tons of powers and abilities due to the fact that he is a Maiar and holds a ring of power, too.

As a Maiar, he can control different elements and energies. He has always had magical abilities. However, he wasn’t super powerful until his resurrection as Gandalf the White. But, even when he was still Gandalf the Grey, he had a particular fondness for fire, crafting fireworks, and using streams of fire in combat.

This talent is complemented by the fact that Gandalf has the Ring of Power, Narya, aka the Ring of Fire. Narya gives Gandalf the ability to resist tyranny, domination, and despair, and also the “power of the sun.” However, magic aside, Gandalf’s most powerful ability is the one that resulted in him being chosen by the Valar in the first place to stop Sauron – his wisdom.

Through his guidance, Gandalf has saved lives, kingdoms, and Middle-earth time and time again. Finally, Gandalf is technically immortal as well. While his physical body can be killed, since he is a Maiar, his spirit can remain and influence those around him. So yeah, Gandalf is pretty much an unstoppable voice of reason.

For more on Middle-earth, here are our guides on the Rings of Power season 2 release date, everyone in the Lord of the Rings cast, and all the information about the new Lord of the Rings movie.

We also have lists of the best fantasy movies ever made and all the new movies heading our way.