'Gandalf,' the old man repeated, as if recalling from old memory a long disused word. 'Yes, that was the name. I was Gandalf.'

Why wouldn't he remember being Gandalf right away? Why would Eru send him back with more knowledge and power but with losing some of his previous knowledge?

'Yes, you may still call me Gandalf.'

Why does he also give them permission to call him something he just recalled, a name he originally chose?

--this was edited (twice), not my original writing. I never stated he chose his own name.

I would also like to add if you bring up the time argument and that it would be harder for him to remember his name, why would he remember the Fellowship members names? Why would he remember his fight with the Balrog VERY CLEARLY?

  • 19
    Gandalf was a name given to him after he came to Middle Earth. His original name was "Olorin". In a way, when Eru returned him, he was sort of 'reset', so he may have not initially remembered his "life" in Middle Earth. It also took him a second because he had in a way been gone for what seemed like an eternity to him: "Darkness took me. And I strayed out of thought and time.". His several thousand years on Middle Earth would have felt like an insignificant amount of time compared to his trip, hence why he "forgot" his name.
    – Möoz
    Feb 1, 2016 at 23:54
  • 13
    It seems plain of the face of it that he did remember. It just wasn't at the forefront of his thoughts given that he had just spent days without measure outside of time. More important things to recall that what a few folks used to call him, right?
    – Lexible
    Feb 2, 2016 at 0:50
  • 11
    "Wand Elf" (Gandalf) also wasn't the only name given to him by the locals, nor the first. Some elves called him "the grey wanderer" (Mithrandir). Many of his local nicknames were essentially "bad news" or "trouble on two feet". Hard to keep track sometimes. Feb 2, 2016 at 3:33
  • 5
    Ever had a concussion, or similar trauma? It can take a while for memory to return, and sometimes some never do.
    – jamesqf
    Feb 2, 2016 at 6:00
  • 3
    I subscribe to the time-off comment. I think of it as akin to leaving stack-exchange for a couple months and coming back trying to remember your username and password. After getting a reminder I might say, "Yes, that was the password. It was xyz."
    – iMerchant
    Feb 3, 2016 at 2:33

3 Answers 3


The key is that Gandalf the White and Gandalf the Grey aren't quite the same person. The Gandalf that Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli knew died, and the being that came back was similar, but not quite exactly the same; as Tolkien writes in Letter 156:

Gandalf really 'died', and was changed: for that seems to me the only real cheating, to represent anything that can be called 'death' as making no difference.

The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien 156: To Robert Murray, SJ (draft). November 1954

He addresses this specific quote very obliquely later on in the letter:

The ‘wizards’, as such, had failed; or if you like: the crisis had become too grave and needed an enhancement of power. So Gandalf sacrificed himself, was accepted, and enhanced, and returned. 'Yes, that was the name. I was Gandalf.’ Of course he remains similar in personality and idiosyncrasy, but both his wisdom and power are much greater.

The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien 156: To Robert Murray, SJ (draft). November 1954

Also, as multiple people have noted in comments on the question, there's really no way of knowing how much time as passed from Gandalf's perspective. The chronological time between his death and his resurrection is only a couple of weeks1, but what actually happened to him is unknown. At the very least he reverted to his Maiar form, which would have ripped open his consciousness and completely changed how he perceived the world; at most, he left the physical world and spent "time" outside of Time itself. Neither possibility bodes well for him remembering insignificant details like his name.

Gandalf's name

The question make an interesting (and incorrect) assertion that I want to redress (emphasis mine):

Why does he also give them permission to call him something he just recalled, a name he originally chose?

Gandalf did not choose this name, it was given to him. We don't know the exact circumstances, but Unfinished Tales tells us as much:

[H]e journeyed unwearingly on foot, leaning on a staff; and so he was called among Men of the North Gandalf, "the Elf of the Wand". For they deemed him (though in error, as has been said) to be of Elven-kind

Unfinished Tales Part IV Chapter II:"The Istari"

In any event, it seems unlikely that he would call himself "Elf of the Wand," since presumably he knows he's not actually an elf.

1 Per Appendix B, he died on January 25 and returned to life on February 14, and was picked up by Gwaihir on February 17

  • 41
    In other words, he's not giving them permission to call him Gandalf: he's reassuring them that it's still appropriate to do so. Feb 2, 2016 at 1:10
  • 6
    I think saying that they "aren't really the same person" is an overstatement. Remember that Tolkien was Catholic, and therefore believed that Jesus had "died but was changed" when he resurrected as a precursor to Christians who will also resurrect in an "enhanced" and "much greater" form. Feb 2, 2016 at 6:44
  • 2
    @Mr.Bultitude: If Tolkien himself states that Gandalf the Grey and Gandalf the White are merily "similar", saying the two "are not really the same" is a fair assessment. Moreso, since a Catholic would probably agree that the Jesus at the cross ("father, why have you abandoned me?") and the Jesus after resurrection were "not really the same" either. As for whether Christians "will also resurrect", let's have time decide that one...
    – DevSolar
    Feb 2, 2016 at 10:36
  • 1
    @Mr.Bultitude It's a bit tricky, because on the one hand they're certainly more similar than, say, you and I are; on the other hand, they're very different in some fundamental ways. Personally, I'm prepared to make the oversimplification, if for no other reason than to avoid the philosophical debate of what makes a person a person Feb 2, 2016 at 15:21
  • 3
    Jason, the problem I'm having is that I don't see any evidence that that's language Tolkien himself would be comfortable with. @DevSolar, let's not discuss the merits of Christianity here; that was not even a little bit the point of my comment. But there is zero debate that to Catholics, the Jesus pre- and post-resurrection are the "same person," but that there are differences. The language Tolkien uses for the pre- and post-return Gandalf is compatible with pre- and post-resurrection language, which is why I don't think "not the same person" is accurate. Feb 2, 2016 at 16:01

I don't know about you, but if somebody asks me a question more complicated than "want coffee?" first thing after I wake in the morning, then I'm going to have trouble remembering the answer. Just a few hours of sleep is enough to turn my responsiveness into "Mrfgl? Djrmmgr."

Now imagine having died. How long would it take you to be able to remember which nickname is preferred by the other people in the conversation? Frankly, I've always been amazed that Olorin didn't respond with, "Uhhhhhhhhhhh... coffee!"

  • 2
    More likely "uhh...Longbottom Leaf..."
    – Spencer
    May 10, 2017 at 2:26

He says:

Darkness took me and I strayed out of thought and time. [...]

There I lay staring upward, while the stars wheeled over, and each day was as long as a life-age of the earth.

If you were to experience eons and eons of time, your memory that far back might be a little rusty too.

  • 1
    Hi, welcome to SF&F. Since the question was about the book, not the movie, I've replaced the movie quote with the equivalent quote from the book.
    – DavidW
    Dec 6, 2020 at 20:30
  • 1
    Note, too, that the second part of the book quote is after he was sent back, so not a description of his experience outside of Time.
    – chepner
    Dec 6, 2020 at 22:58

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