Gandalf is one of the most beloved of J.R.R. Tolkien’s characters, and has essential parts in both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. He is referred to by many names in both books. The elves call him Mithrandir, and various men may call him the Grey Pilgrim or the Grey Wanderer. When readers first meet him in The Hobbit he is called Gandalf the Grey.
In Tolkien’s world, wizards belong to an order, and are designated by color. The highest in the order of wizards is referred to as “White,” and Gandalf is one step below this in ranking. In The Hobbit and at the beginning of The Lord of the Rings Saruman is the head of the wizard order and is known as Saruman the White. Subsequently, he is cast from the order by Gandalf, after he reveals his association with the evil wizard Sauron.
Tolkien’s wizards are not as many might imagine them. Though mention is made of Gandalf using magic to light a fire, create light, or block a door with a spell, Gandalf tends to rely more on wits, wisdom, and physicality to fight most battles. Mention is made of Gandalf’s ability to create wonderful fireworks, but Tolkien focuses more on his wisdom than he does on Gandalf’s spells. Also, Gandalf is clad with a sword, which he uses quite deftly in encounters with Goblins and with the Balrog, a fiery demon.
The principle task of Gandalf is to defeat evil, and especially to ready himself and the world for the onslaught of Sauron and his armies. Though he resorts to violence when necessary, he primarily acts as counsel to the rulers of the kingdoms of men and of elves. In fact his counsel is rated very high by most rulers, though they may not always like what they hear.
An interesting occurrence in The Lord of the Rings has led many to relate Gandalf to Christ. When Gandalf fights the Balrog, he falls, and his company assumes him dead. After a long and painful fight in the bowels of the earth, Gandalf “strays out of time” but is sent back to help in the fight against Sauron. When he is resurrected, so to speak, he assumes the title of Gandalf the White, and at the end of Rings he joins the elves leaving for the Grey Havens, where he will have immortality.
His character clearly relates to Christ in other ways. He has no romantic attachments, always counsels for the most merciful path, and has sacrificed his entire life to bringing peace to men. However, he is more humanly depicted in his love of pipe weed, his sense of humor, and his ability to become very cross indeed, sometimes dealing harsh words to his companions. Gandalf has a mischievous and sly sense of humor expressing his love for not only the highest but also the common pleasures of humanity. Also unlike Christ, he does resort to violence as a necessary means of achieving ends, but does so with a sense of remorse or pity that violence must occur.
To the hobbits, a visit from Gandalf is always seen as an opportunity to hear tales from far away and indulge in a little bit of scandalous adventuring. Gandalf is viewed by some of the denizens of the Shire with great suspicion, but the young at heart and hobbit children always greet him with gladness. From the hobbits comes one of the great sayings about how to safely have dealings with wizards. Sam Gamgee's father, Gaffer Gamgee’s remark “Do not meddle in the affairs of wizards for they are subtle and quick to anger,” is oft repeated in The Lord of the Rings.