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Gandalf is a wizard. He is also the Tolkien equivalent of a mortal angel (if I understand what the Maiar are correctly.) What are his powers though? Specifically what magics does he use in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings? I assume he is a great and powerful wizard but I can't think of a single magical thing that he does that sticks out in my mind as showing his great power. He does fight a Balrog but it's a completely unseen battle. His wand glows and he speaks to eagles and telepathically with elves but that seems like minor magic to me. Grey or White what has he done?

Edit: Adding a link to a previous question that addresses specific uses of power. How is Gandalf the White a "significantly more powerful figure" than Gandalf the Gray?

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He smote a Balrog. Even left undescribed, I don't think you should understate that act. He died. And returned. That's also some powerful mojo. He is a great wizard because he is subtle. –  John O Jan 8 '13 at 17:28
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"When you do things right, people won't be sure you've done anything at all." --Galactic God Entity, Futurama –  Thaddeus Jan 8 '13 at 17:40
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I'd say rather than he is an immortal being incarnated in a mortal physical body. –  Travis Christian Jan 8 '13 at 18:20
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@spiceyokooko From what I understand though this had nothing to do with his own powers. It was more of an intervention by Eru. –  Kevin Howell Jan 8 '13 at 18:24
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He is the only wizard Voldemort ever feared.. –  Sachin Shekhar Feb 2 '13 at 15:53

8 Answers 8

up vote 105 down vote accepted

Since Tolkien wasn’t really trying to write a story, but rather give England what he saw as a lost history, I’d like to offer up how Gandalf’s wisdom is demonstrative of magic as seen by the ancient view of magic. Tolkien had great difficulty defining magic when asked to define the boundaries of Faerie, but based on his writings about Gandalf and what he was able to say about Magic, (plus his insistence on using the Old English Spelling of the word) it is easy to see his concept of Magic more closely matched those of the Ancient World where Magic was the "Great Work" or the work of the "Wise."

In ancient days when people really believed in magic and magical beings such as witches and wizards, there weren’t really “great powers” and spells like we see in so many fantasies and fictions today. In fact, the word magic stems from a title that used to be used for people that practiced Zoroastrianism and could read the stars for signs. The three wise men that brought gifts at Jesus’ birth are also referred to as the three Magi.

Magic came from knowledge of the world. Early wizards, druids, shaman, witches, priests, etc. often knew some chemistry or mechanics (this was the showy part of being a temple priest—mixing the right chemicals and using the right mechanics to make the people think they'd seen signs of the power of the Gods) and had some skills we wouldn’t consider magic at all today. Even Gandalf’s “spells” that he casts and items like his fireworks are related to this aspect of ancient magic.

Magical peoples were usually the religious leaders and were seen as leaders in that sense. Some of them were seen as able to talk to, or raise the dead, some were seen as prescient, and others were healers—it depends on the culture you look at.

By the Middle Ages, magic was seen as having two distinct forms, although there was more of a focus on evil and sorcery (the daemonic form of magic) within the church, belief in natural magic by the people as a way to find healing and protection also remained. Casting coins into wishing wells, Patron Saints and many of our "superstitions" are hold overs from this time. The magic that remained acceptable to all but the most staunch Christians remained rooted in use of natural elements (In northern Europe, particularly in relation to water - wishing wells and healing powers). Additionally, many Christians of the common classes still practiced some “magical rituals” and the Church even placed its holidays near pagan holidays and rolled pagan practices into Church practices (to some extent) in order to help in converting the general populace.

Tolkien’s wizards are in keeping with early Medieval and ancient tradition. They can read signs in nature—see and understand things that others can’t, make predictions, wield magical objects (staffs, rings, and Palantir), once in a while make something appear to have happened that is miraculous to everyone else (spells), and lead and “talk to nature”—communicate with moths and eagles and in Saruman’s case the corvids of Middle Earth.

Ancient wizards were guides mostly and seen as the highly educated. Gandalf clearly fills that role, and does so with superb skill. He takes hints and clues, a suspicion grows and he heads to the library to confirm it. He is able to read signs of things to come, knows the right words to say (not just when it comes to spells but to ease fear and encourage, knows when not to say something. He is seen as a wise man and followed as one.

If you read Arthurian legend from before the twentieth century, you will generally find Merlin to be no greater in his capabilities. They wield the magic of earth, but not necessarily for the purposes of entertainment or convenience the way the wizards and witches in say, Harry Potter, Disney’s Sword in the Stone and other more modern works depict.

Likewise, Saruman is able to use his closeness to nature to affect the weather, but as he forgets his bond with nature, nature actually turns on him. Treebeard is that much more incensed by Saruman’s destruction because he is a wizard and should know better how to treat the nature around him.

Radagast is the most perfect of Istari in regard to demonstrating closeness to and power in channeling nature for his benefit (though he is less perfect in demonstrating leadership over mankind and academic types of wisdom—leading to his failure).

The “spell” Gandalf uses to break the bridge and prevent the Balrog from annihilating the entire fellowship by the way, is one of his least wizardlike moments in the series, when magic is looked at in this way (although I’d have to agree with previous posters it shows him to be pretty powerful with twentieth century thoughts on magic too). The ancients would have seen that moment as his requesting aid from the gods. The bridge-breaking would have been the doing of a god, not the doing of a wizard. Of course, since it is, in fact, fiction, Gandalf does have a few powers an ancient shaman wouldn’t have had as listed by others here.

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I usually don't award an answer this quickly but, I believe your answer addressed the issues I was having the best. –  Kevin Howell Jan 8 '13 at 18:53
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+1 This answer is simply wonderful. –  Andres F. Jan 8 '13 at 19:01
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Fabulous answer, I wish I could +10 it. –  Nathan C. Tresch Jan 8 '13 at 20:10
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Even today when people call other people "a wizard" for fixing a computer or car problem, cooking a great meal in less than ideal circumstances, etc., they are using it in this same sense -- a "wizard" is a person who has power over something which most find complicated or mysterious (for most of history that was nature). –  zipquincy Jan 8 '13 at 21:55
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@APaleShadow. Creating a mythological past for England was precisely Tolkien's intention. –  TRiG Jan 9 '13 at 10:32

A few examples that don't seem to be mentioned in other answers.

  • Gandalf helps Elrond to create the flood that sweeps away the Nazgûl:

    I added a few touches of my own … some of the waves took the form of great white horses with shining white riders; and there were many rolling and grinding boulders. (Many Meetings)

  • He somehow repels the Nazgûl from Weathertop:

    such light and flame cannot have been seen on Weathertop since the war beacons of old. (The Council of Elrond)

  • He knows a lot of spells for opening doors:

    I can still remember ten score of them without searching in my mind. (A Journey in the Dark)

  • He repels the Nazgûl outside the gates of Minas Tirith:

    It seemed to Pippin that [Gandalf] raised his hand, and from it a shaft of white light stabbed upwards. The Nazgûl gave a long wailing cry and swerved away… (The Siege of Gondor)

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Nice answer. This one will be difficult to beat. –  John O Jan 8 '13 at 22:11
    
Wasn't that last one because Nazgul went to fight off Rohirrim? –  DVK Jan 9 '13 at 2:03
    
@DVK: I think the last one was the rescue of the fleeing Faramir before the walls of Minas Tirith after being sent to recover Osgiliath from the advancing army of Mordor. –  Richard Jan 9 '13 at 10:29
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Indeed. Gandalf drives away the Nazgul that were pursuing Faramir, and later in the same chapter he faces the Witch King directly at the great gate. The Witch King withdraws when the Rohirrim arrive, and ends up picking a fight with a girl instead. –  Ian Thompson Jan 9 '13 at 14:19

Istari aren't really meant to be "wielders of magical power". They are meant as teachers/leaders/guides to Men and Elves.

As such, their main power is experience, wisdom and knowledge, and leadership abilities and networking powers (witness the Eagles) in Gandalf's case.


As far as overt displays of magic, the main one is probably Gandalf putting down Saruman when he broke Saruman's staff; and access to (and ability to use) magical items, such as his staff and Narya, one of the 3 Elf Rings.

He possessed some sort of ability to either foresee the future, or at lease sense "correct" choices, such as choosing a hobbit for the Dwarf party as a burglar.

All the additional magical powers that Gandalf had were mostly fire related (not clear if they were due to possessing Narya, the Ring of Fire, or role as "servant of the Secret Fire").

  • Fireworks at Bilbo's party

  • Pyrotechnics when dwarves were escaping Goblin-town

  • Burning the trees when attacked by Wargs in Hollin

  • Building fires in inclement weather (e.g. blizzard)

A slightly fuller if less structured list of powers can be found on Tolkien Gateway's Gandalf page.

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That is an interesting connection between his powers and fire. I had never thought of it that way. Even his defeat of the Balrog is a defeat of Shadow and flame. –  balanced mama Jan 8 '13 at 18:35
    
Great examples as usual DVK. I also never noticed his affinity for fire before. He is also a sort of smokey grey. I think you answered the question with great examples but balanced mama made some great points about what actually defined a great and powerful wizard at the time this book was written. Which is really the heart of my question. If you feel this is unfair let me know. And here's my PSA. I forgot that knowledge IS Power. –  Kevin Howell Jan 8 '13 at 19:04
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@KevinHowell - I can't in all honesty claim full credit. While I did notice that pattern when reading the books, the actual formulation came from Tolkien Gateway: tolkiengateway.net/wiki/Gandalf –  DVK Jan 8 '13 at 19:25
    
@balancedmama : Gandalf is actually wearing one of the three elven ring : Narnya, the Ring of Fire. So it might be not unusual that some of its powers are fire related. (Even though the ring power is to be used to "rekindle the fire in the heart of men" according to Cirdan, not necessarily in the literal fire sense). –  Xavier T. Jan 9 '13 at 9:46
    
@XavierT. I know, that was why it was interesting. Now that I've seen the connection made, it should have been obvious, but I'd never put a lot of thought into the "magic tricks" he does before, though I had connected how it may have helped with "rekindling the fire in the heart of men." and his success as an inspiration to Aragorn etc. . . . –  balanced mama Jan 9 '13 at 17:30

Gandalf possesed Power of the mind and ability to influence people and great wisdom.

Gandalf is the wisest of the Maiar. He was known as Olórin, who sometimes dwelt in the gardens of Irmo and was the pupil of Nienna, who taught him wisdom and pity, and of Manwë and Varda. When the Valar decided to send the order of the Wizards (also known as the Istari) to Middle-earth, Olórin was proposed by Manwë and Varda, in order to counsel and assist all those in Middle-earth who opposed the Dark Lord Sauron. Upon entrance in Middle-earth, Gandalf (Olorin) spent a good thousand or two years walking among the elves as a stranger and learning from them and teaching them. He later revealed himself as Istari, and has come to be known as the wisest of that order. He is the wisest and most powerful of the Five Wizards: although some have conjectured that Saruman was more powerful due to his pre-War position as head of the Wise, Tolkien wrote that Saruman knew Gandalf possessed the greater power and wisdom and hated him for it.(Appendix B: The Tale of Years, The Third Age, Year 2953).

Grey or White what has he done?

I think you're missing the point of Gandalf and appear to be looking for some kind of military prowess where he defeats his enemies through sheer magic. That's not Gandalf, Gandalf succeeds through wisdom.

  • Who researched and figured out the ring Bilbo had was indeed the One Ring? Gandalf.
  • Who identified the Necromancer in Mirkwood as Sauron and informed the White Council? Gandalf.
  • Who organised the fellowship into destroying the One Ring? Gandalf.
  • Who sacrificed himself, even though he was immortal when the Fellowship came under threat of the Balrog? Gandalf.
  • Who returned Theoden to his throne and threw out Saruman? Gandalf
  • Who came to the rescue at Helms Deep? Gandalf
  • Who orchestrated the destruction of Isengard and threw down Saruman? Gandalf.
  • Who organised the defence of Gondor in the absence of the Steward? Gandalf.

I could go on but I think you get the point thart Gandalf through his wisdom of knowing what to do was absolutely key in insuring the One Ring was destroyed and Sauron ultimately defeated. Even if it was done without any magic, sorcery or military prowess.

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"who researched"? "Who identified"? "Who organized"? OK, ok, we get it. Gandalf is Hermione Granger! –  DVK Jun 7 at 17:53

All the previous answers are very good but let's sum this up. The actual examples of his actively working power are:

  • Ability to conjure and control fire (including heating up objects and igniting them at distance), light (of varying intensity), smoke (glowing in many colours, scattering white sparks)

  • Control over water as seen in the flood wave of Bruinen.

  • Moving objects using the mind (Telekinesis) by using staff or gesture ("But Gandalf sprang up the steps, and the men fell back from him and covered their eyes; for his coming was like the incoming of a white light into a dark place, and he came with great anger. He lifted up his hand, and in the very stroke, the sword of Denethor flew up and left his grasp and fell behind him in the shadows of the house; and Denethor stepped backward before Gandalf as one amazed.")

  • Spells and blessings (shutting spell on the door of Mazarbul chamber and opening ones at the west gate of Moria, "words of guard and guiding" at Bill the pony, blessing on Butterbur's beer, Word of Command which seems like some special show of power to control material objects: "Then something came into the chamber - I felt it through the door, and the orcs themselves were afraid and fell silent. It laid hold of the iron ring, and then it perceived me and my spell. What it was I cannot guess, but I have never felt such a challenge. The counter-spell was terrible. It nearly broke me. For an instant the door left my control and began to open! I had to speak a word of Command. That proved too great a strain. The door burst in pieces.")

  • Explosive blasts capable of tearing up stone structure ("At that moment Gandalf lifted his staff, and crying aloud he smote the bridge before him. The staff broke asunder and fell from his hand. A blinding sheet of white flame sprang up. The bridge cracked. Right at the Balrog's feet it broke, and the stone upon which it stood crashed into the gulf, while the rest remained, poised, quivering like a tongue of rock thrust out into emptiness."

    "The tower behind was crumbled into dust, the window gone; the ruined stair was choked with burned and broken stone”’)

  • Lightning flash that kills instantly several goblins ("But not Gandalf. Bilbo’s yell had done that much good. It had wakened him up wide in a splintered second, and when the goblins came to grab him, there was a terrific flash like lightning in the cave, a smell like gunpowder, and several of them fell dead.")

  • Foresight abilities.

  • "White fire" the stream of light which drove out Nazgul (,,Like thunder they broke upon the enemy on either flank of the retreat; but one rider outran them all, swift as the wind in the grass: Shadowfax bore him, shining, unveiled once more, a light starting from his upraised hand. The Nazgûl screeched and swept away, for their Captain was not yet come to challenge the white fire of his foe…")

  • Telephathic powers ("You talked long in your sleep and it was not hard for me to read your mind and memory", communication of thoughts, inducing fear or strengthening courage, likely by the power of ring, mentally fighting the will of Sauron ,,I sat in the high place and strove with Dark Tower" trying to free Frodo's mind from Sauron's influence at Amon Hen, he was the voice that urged the hobbit to take off the ring, putting ,,fair visions and promptings of wisdom into the hearts of elves")

  • Unusual endurance, strength of body and speed (physically fighting with Balrog which is ,,stronger than a strangling snake", acting in ,,splintered second", ,,nimbly as a goat", ,,the old man was too quick for him", ,,Gandalf revealed the strength in him" while easily lifting Faramir's body, keen senses: ,,One sign of the change that he soon noticed was that he could see more in the dark than any of his companions, save perhaps Gandalf.")

The physical traits might be magical because his power comes from the spirit and the stronger the spirit is the more control over body it can exert (like in case of elves, their spirits have greater control over body than it is among Men).

The one of his abilities is probably also to make illusions to appear tall and menacing and move unseen, prevent from recognising his identity: "Gandalf! What veil was over my sight", use force of mind to paralyze people/or command them: ,,Gimli started and then stood still like stone staring...", ,,the others relaxed and stirred as if a spell had been removed", ,,Legolas bent bow slowly as if some other will resisted him", "'Come back, Saruman!' said Gandalf in a commanding voice. To the amazement of the others, Saruman turned again, and as if dragged against his will, he came slowly back to the iron rail, leaning on it, breathing hard. His face was lined and shrunken. His hand clutched his heavy black staff like a claw."

All this examples were performed in carefully chosen moments, usually Gandalf tries to restrain himself from using his abilities so to not assume direct control over others through such displays of power and instead inspire the inhabitants of Middle Earth to work things out for themselves, lending only his knowledge and wisdom through subtle advice.

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In addition to the other answers, Gandalf has power and terror that's quite similar to the Balrog, which may seem surprising on the surface, but when you think about it (they're both Maiar, after all) makes quite a lot of sense.

First let's look at the famous Balrog description again:

What it was could not be seen: it was like a great shadow, in the middle of which was a dark form, of man-shape maybe, yet greater; and a power and terror seemed to be in it and to go before it.

And here's Gandalf unveiled at the end of the siege of Helm's Deep (when he arrives with Erkenbrand):

There suddenly upon a ridge appeared a rider, clad in white, shining in the rising sun ... The White Rider was upon them, and the terror of his coming filled the enemy with madness. The wild men fell on their faces before him.

It's interesting that the Balrog is described in terms of darkness and shadow, whereas Gandalf is all brightness and light, but the power on display is undoubtedly the same (Gandalf's, in fact, seems greater).

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After the rebellion of Noldor, Valar intervene in the affairs of middleearth only once more to defeat Melkor and never again. Instead, they send forth their own agents -the Istari being among them-. Valar and the Istari (or good maiar in general) being good and benevolent identities, do not seek power for selfish ambitions, they try not to overshadow the children of Illuvatar too much and not to disturb Iluvatar's grand scheme in any way. That's why Valar contain their powers until the final moment of need and they forbid their agents to reveal themselves even close to their true (maia) forms. All agents of Valar shall have a mortal form be they male or female, elf or men. The Istari are disguised as old men yet there are many affirmations in the books that they may take another form if they choose to. To cut it short; the Istari are deliberately limited by Valar in terms of might and power. Being the only evil Vala and a rebel, Melkor and his maia minions (like Balrogs and Sauron) are not limited in such ways so they choose to take dark, fiery, terrible and usually supernatural forms.

Regarding Gandalf's powers (not spells), "he should not be taken for a conjuror of cheap tricks" and through him the ring would have "a terrible power". At many points it's hinted that Gandalf had inside him too great a power yet it was shrouded from the beholders "as if the sun was hidden behind a cloud" or that "his mirth could set whole kingdoms laughing". Comparing to Sauron as he is during the events in the story, Gandalf has the greater power in intelligence and wisdom. Sauron is maimed for losing his earthly form twice (first in the obliteration of Numenor, second by the hand of Isildur) and is wounded many times (once mortally by Huan) and above all, he had "horcruxed" the greatest part of his powers into the ring which he no longer possesses. Even then he's a force to be reckoned with and Gandalf wisely fears him greatly as he always did. Yet although Gandalf fears him, a confrontation between Gandalf the White and No-ring-Sauron hangs in balance as long as Sauron doesn't have the ring. Aragorn claims that Gandalf the white was more powerful than the 9 combined. And Gandalf claims that Sauron feared Aragorn for what he might become (a king). Gandalf the white also has a great will power enough to wrestle Sauron's prying eye and mind away from Frodo.

Putting aside politics and deep philosophy, let's satisfy the destructive side of your curiosity. Gandalf is a master of shapes and light. He can give form to certain elements, cause light blasts, light shield, spear of light, lightning bolt, some degree of healing, he can conjure force fields using his staff (his fight with Saruman in Orthanc, destroying the bridge in Khazaddum, holding Azog at bay, pushing enchanted Theoden in his throne, etc. etc.). He has the "far-sight" ability that enables him to see people and events telepaticaly from a great distance. He also has a telepatic connection with other ring-bearers. He's quite crafty with fire and most importantly he has the "word of command" spell which you witness him use when trying to counter Saruman's spell in Caradhras, dispelling Sauron's concealment spell in Dol Guldur, holding the door against Balrog, etc. Aside from being a master strategist and tactician, his greatest asset is his ring Narya. He challanges Balrog as "the wielder of the flame of Anor" which surpasses in strength "the flame of udun". Though it sounds like a metaphor in which the west challanges the east, actually Gandalf hints Balrog that he has "a secret flame" that despite all his might and power, the Balrog should turn away from. In all probablity, all Gandalf's powers related to flame might be originated from Narya. The ring is also his telepatic channel to other ring-bearers.

Anyone looking for god-like powers in a wizard should go read Dragonlance series and worship Raistlin Majere. Gandalf is a commander, a leader, a tactician, a servant and -only then- a wizard. That's the beauty of it all. Defeating your most terrible enemies with your intelligence, despite whatever powers they may wield.

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Much of this is from the movies but there's a good answer in there if you sourced a similar list of abilities from the books. You could either replace the movie stuff (most of which doesn't even exist in the books) with such a list, or add it as a second list, stating which list is from which source. –  Darth Satan Feb 4 at 20:35

Here is the passage from the Fellowship of the Ring where Gandalf displays some power against a pack of attacking wargs. This is the most impressive-sounding feat I am aware of. It goes along with other peoples answers about his affinity with fire, as well as a power of terror.

[Its night, they are gathered around a campfire, the wargs attack and now people are fighting...] "In the wavering firelight Gandalf seemed suddenly to grow: he rose up, a great menacing shape like the monument of some ancient king of stone set upon a hill. Stooping like a cloud, he lifted a burning branch and strode to meet the wolves. They gave back before him. High in the air he tossed the blazing brand. It flared with a sudden white radiance like lightning; and his voice rolled like thunder. 'Naur an edraith ammen! Naur dan i ngaurhoth!' he cried. There was a roar and a crackle, and the tree above him burst into a leaf and bloom of blinding flame. The fire leapt from tree-top to tree-top. The whole hill was crowned with dazzling light. The swords and knives of the defenders shone and flickered. The last arrow of Legolas kindled in the air as it flew, and plunged burning into the heart of a great wolf-chieftain. All the others fled."

Another more subtle, but probably more imporant power is the ability to kindle people's hearts as others have mentioned. He used this to cancel out the magical power of horror that the Nazgul were using against Gondor. It looks like without Gandalf there, no one would have put up a fight: [during the seige of Gondor] "The Nazgul came again, and as their Dark Lord now grew and put forth his strength, so their voices, which uttered only his will and his malice, were filled with evil and horror. Ever they circled above the City, like vultures that expect their fill of doomed men's flesh. Out of sight and shot they flew, and yet were ever present, and their deadly voices rent the air. More unbearable they became, not less, at each new cry. At length even the stout-hearted would fling themselves to the ground as the hidden menace passed over them, or they would stand, letting their weapons fall from nerveless hands while into their minds a blackness came, and they thought no more of war, but only of hiding and of crawling, and of death... Wherever he [Gandalf] came men's hearts would lift again, and the winged shadows pass from memory. Tirelessly he strode from Citadel to Gate, from north to south about the wall... And yet, when they [Gandalf and the Prince of Amroth who went with him] had gone, the shadows closed on men again, and their hearts went cold, and the valor of Gondor withered into ash."

Here is a passage about Gandalf from Unfinished Tales of Numenor and Middle Earth, in the chapter "Of the Istari[Wizards]" which talks of his use of "fire that kindles" in the sense of kindling hope etc.: "But the last-comer was named among the Elves Mithrandir, the Grey Pilgrim, for he dwelt in no place, and gathered to himself neither wealth nor followers, but ever went to and fro in the Westlands from Gondor to Angmar, and from Lindon to Lorien, befriending all folk in times of need. Warm and eager was his spirit (and it was enhanced by the ring Narya), for he was the Enemy of Sauron, opposing the fire that devours and wastes with the fire that kindles, and succors in wanhope and distress; but his joy, and his swift wrath, were veiled in garments grey as ash, so that only those that knew him well glimpsed the flame that was within. Merry he could be, and kindly to the young and simple, and yet quick at times to sharp speech and the rebuking of folly; but he was not proud, and sought neither power nor praise, and thus far and wide he was beloved among all those that were not themselves proud."

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