In the Two Towers movie, when Aragorn and company meet the newly reincarnated Gandalf the White, he has the following conversation with them

GANDALF VOICEOVER: From the lowest dungeon to the highest peak...... I fought with the Balrog of Morgoth. Until at last I threw down my enemy......and smote his ruin upon the mountainside. Darkness took me......and I strayed out of thought and time.Stars wheeled overhead......and every day was as long as a life age of the Earth. But it was not the end. I felt life in me again. I've been sent back...... until my task is done.

Why is Gandalf speaking like he is one of the mortal men? As a Maia, Gandalf's spirit or ëala is his primary form and therefore, after the destruction of his physical body, the ëala should have survived on and returned to Aman from where he originally came. We see it described this way in the cases of both Sauron and Saruman except that they don't return to Aman. That is, when their bodies die, their spirits rise out of the mortal remains and are "blown" away.

To the dismay of those that stood by, about the body of Saruman a grey mist gathered, and rising slowly to a great height like smoke from a fire, as a pale shrouded figure it loomed over the Hill. For a moment it wavered, looking to the West; but out of the West came a cold wind, and it bent away, and with a sigh dissolved into nothing. -Scouring of the Shire, RoTK

But Gandalf here doesn't remember the details of what happened after he died because he has just been reincarnated again. But that goes against much of what Tolkien thought about the Maiar. For a Maia, their spirit or ëala exists independently within the world and the physical forms they assume are just like clothes put on and cast off at will. But here, why is Gandalf talking like he was expecting his physical death to be the permanent end - "It was not the end. I felt life in me again"?

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    I believe that Gandalf is trying to keep it simple, for others to understand, you don't run around explaining math and physics to those who have no understanding of it. Commented Jan 28, 2017 at 21:56
  • 3
    I don't remember, didn't I tell you already?
    – Mithical
    Commented Jan 28, 2017 at 22:59
  • I'm not going to hammer this one, but I'll leave it up to the community to decide whether or not this is a dupe of scifi.stackexchange.com/q/94773/31051; they are quite similar, and highly related in any case Commented Jan 28, 2017 at 23:41

2 Answers 2


Wizards are Different

The Wizards aren't entirely like other Maiar. While you're generally correct that the Valar and Maiar aren't tied to a specific physical body, and therefore suffer the destruction of their physical forms the way we Incarnates suffer a torn shirt1, the Istari are called out as having been put into "real" bodies; Gandalf isn't merely a Maiar spirit who's robed himself in a physical form, he's been incarnated:

For with the consent of Eru they [the Valar] sent members of their own high order, but clad in bodies of as of Men, real and not feigned, but subject to the fears and pains and weariness of earth, able to hunger and thirst and be slain; though because of their noble spirits they did not die, and aged only by the cares and labours of many long years.

Unfinished Tales Part 4 Chapter II: "The Istari"

By 'incarnate' I mean [the Istari] 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 Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien 156: To Robert Murray, SJ (Draft). 4 November 1954

I tend to look at the matter this way: there is a being called Gandalf, and a being called Olórin. While related, the two are not quite identical; among other differences, Gandalf is capable of being killed in a way Olórin isn't. Even though the death of Gandalf doesn't destroy Olórin, Olórin can't simply bring Gandalf back to life; that's against The Rules.

So what happened to Gandalf when he died?

We don't know; Gandalf himself is unwilling to discuss it further (though I would dispute your claim that he doesn't remember; he's quite cagey on the subject):

Then darkness took me; and I strayed out of thought and time, and I wandered far on roads that I will not tell.

The Two Towers Book III Chapter 5: "The White Rider"

Some believe that Olórin left Eä altogether, and went to the Timeless Halls, though I disagree with that reading. Another possibility, and the one I favour, is that he returned to Valinor.

Unfortunately, Tolkien himself has no further insight to offer.

1 There are other complications to this highly generalized statement, but I'm not going into them here.

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    Well, "out of thought and time" strongly indicates he left Ea "whose life is Time" outright. Commented Jan 29, 2017 at 4:14
  • But Saruman didn't apparently show any difference from the other Maiar like Sauron when his physical death occured.
    – Valandil
    Commented Jan 29, 2017 at 7:12
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    From Letters: " 'Naked I was sent back- for a brief time, until my task is done'. Sent back by whom, and whence? Not by the 'gods' whose business is only with this embodied world and its time; for he passed 'out of thought and time'" seems hard to read any way other than him visiting Eru.
    – Shamshiel
    Commented Jan 29, 2017 at 12:57

I think there's two possibilities:

  1. Eru himself took Gandalf at the moment of his death, enlightened him further, and sent him back.

  2. Sauron and Saruman did go to the Void, and we didn't see Gandalf's spirit in the text, and it wasn't depicted in the movie.

In the case of (1), we have the following statement from Letters:

That I should say is what the Authority wished, as a set-off to Saruman. 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. When he speaks he commands attention; the old Gandalf could not have dealt so with Théoden, nor with Saruman. He is still under the obligation of concealing his power and of teaching rather than forcing or dominating wills, but where the physical powers of the Enemy are too great for the good will of the opposers to be effective he can act in emergency as an ‘angel’ - no more violently than the release of St Peter from prison.

Gandalf was not merely sent back, he was fundamentally changed; and before he could be enhanced or sent back, he was 'accepted'.

Tolkien then tells us explicitly that Gandalf left the World, and that it was Eru, not the Valar, who sent him back:

He was sent by a mere prudent plan of the angelic Valar or governors; but Authority had taken up this plan and enlarged it, at the moment of its failure. ‘Naked I was sent back - for a brief time, until my task is done’. Sent back by whom, and whence? Not by the ‘gods' whose business is only with this embodied world and its time; for he passed ‘out of thought and time’. Naked is alas! unclear. It was meant just literally, ‘unclothed like a child’ (not discarnate), and so ready to receive the white robes of the highest.

Though it is not stated, we could infer that when Gandalf 'strayed out of thought and time', that was part of Eru's miraculous intervention that changed him and brought him back to life, if indeed the spirits of the Ainur are not capable of leaving Time on their own, incarnate or not.

But there is some doubt whether or not Sauron and Saruman did leave the World or not. Sauron's death is described as you say: a great spirit appears in the air, and a cold clear wind from the West dissolves it away.

But on the other hand, in the Valaquenta, we are told this:

Among those of his servants that have names the greatest was that spirit whom the Eldar called Sauron, or Gorthaur the Cruel. In his beginning he was of the Maiar of Aulë, and he remained mighty in the lore of that people. In all the deeds of Melkor the Morgoth upon Arda, in his vast works and in the deceits of his cunning, Sauron had a part, and was only less evil than his master in that for long he served another and not himself. But in after years he rose like a shadow of Morgoth and a ghost of his malice, and walked behind him on the same ruinous path down into the Void.

Then Sauron did end up in the Void - assuming you interpret the Void to be the Void that exists outside the World, and not merely Middle-Earth. And if Sauron went, after the description of his death, it's not hard to imagine Saruman going too. Perhaps it is the fate of Ainur who have become otherwise totally 'bound' to the world and 'incarnate', whether wickedly, like Morgoth and Sauron, or with good purposes, like the Wizards.

Another interesting passage, from LotR, is this:

Get out, you old Wight! Vanish in the sunlight! Shrivel like the cold mist, like the winds go wailing, Out into the barren lands far beyond the mountains! Come never here again! Leave your barrow empty! Lost and forgotten be, darker than the darkness, Where gates stand for ever shut, till the world is mended.

At these words there was a cry and part of the inner end of the chamber fell in with a crash. Then there was a long trailing shriek, fading away into an unguessable distance; and after that silence.*

The Wights were probably the spirits of Men, but it seems that Bombadil literally expelled the Wight from Arda to outside into the Void, where "the gates stand forever shut, 'til the world is ended", and the process somewhat resembled the Wight being invisibly "blown away."

The trouble with that interpretation is, in Morgoth's Ring, when Tolkien re-cosmologizes the universe, he introduces us to some confusion: Elves and Men may write Void, thinking of the place outside Time, but that the actual referent may in fact be normal, empty space. The implication is also that the Ainur cannot leave the world no matter what without the intervention of Eru.

We read that he was then thrust out into the Void.(10) That should mean that he was put outside Time and Space, outside Ea altogether; but if that were so this would imply a direct intervention of Eru (with or without supplication of the Valar). It may however refer inaccurately * to the extrusion or flight of his spirit from Arda.

Now, the applicability of that statement is somewhat question - Tolkien never rewrote the whole of the Silmarillion and the Lord of the Rings to make sense within the re-cosmologized universe. But it is, perhaps, still something to keep in mind.

So ultimately, the answer is unclear, but I think the easiest and most parsimonious explanation is simply to take a wide view of (1) and say Eru did it, but I wouldn't rule out the idea that at that time in Tolkien's conception, embodied Ainur who died could indeed end up in the Void, and what we saw with Saruman and Sauron was in fact the immediate prelude to them ending up in the Void.

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    That's an Eru of the gaps argument. You don't know how something must have happened, so Eru did it! lol
    – Valandil
    Commented Jan 30, 2017 at 15:48
  • If the Wights were the spirits of Men, then Bombadil probably did no more than to break the magic that held them to Eä, which would have expelled them.
    – EvilSnack
    Commented Jun 7 at 2:59

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