Comparing Gandalf with other wizards and their spells: fireballs, healing, magic items creation, teleportation, etc.

Gandalf seems much more sword oriented than spell oriented. Were the ideas of a wizard not consolidated at the time of writing or is Gandalf a lot more powerful than he seems to be?

My theory is that Tolkien started to advance the idea of a Wizard, before Gandalf we had only a few famous, Merlin, e.g.

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    I don't have the sources with me at the moment, but we do see Gandalf "casting spells" several times (especially around Eregion-Moria) which seem quite powerful yet almost taken for granted. I would argue that it's his mission directive that limits his open use of magic rather than a lack of power. – Travis Christian Jan 15 '14 at 17:25
  • @RodrigoGurgel: do you have specific other wizards in mind? – Paul D. Waite Jan 15 '14 at 17:33
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    @Matt I did not vote either way, but I have some guesses... I believe I saw one downvote before some rather significant edits were made. The other two may simply be because the question has a theory as the premise (that Gandalf triggered the literary evolution of the idea of a wizard) that some users may disagree with (and your excellent answer helps show that the theory is flawed). – Beofett Jan 15 '14 at 19:05
  • @Beofett For context, my edits were indeed to help out on the English front. I left the theory because it seemed important and could be addressed if it was a false premise. – DampeS8N Jan 15 '14 at 19:54
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    I dinged it for the reason that's mentioned at the start of @TravisChristian's comment - there are plenty of examples of Gandalf "casting spells" in the books, including creating fire, lightning bolts, embellishing the Bruinen flood, door opening and shutting, a "word of command", etc. As a result the question appears to be asking about a situation that doesn't even exist. – user8719 Jan 15 '14 at 20:43

Gandalf was not a wizard, per se.

Keep in mind that this is a "history" that Tolkien is "translating" from "source texts," and it's likely that "wizard" was the closest translation for what Gandalf actually was: a Maiar, as an Istar. Seeing as the etymology of "wizard" derives more from the idea of wisdom, or knowledge than from mysticism, this fits more in keeping with the mission of the Istar as counselors, guides, and teachers. To be sure, they were not human and as such were able to do things that humans were not, such as draw upon the power of Anor or Udun.

It is useful to distinguish both the magic of Middle Earth from the magic of Harry Potter, and to distinguish between the spiritual attributes of the creatures in Middle Earth from the natural attributes of creatures and materials in Middle Earth. The magic of Harry Potter is a great deal more bizarre and obvious, even technical. The "magic" of Middle Earth is much more subtle, innate, and spiritual. The spiritual attributes of a creature can be fairly spectacular, such as the transformed physical appearance of the Balrog (which was also a Maiar, like Gandalf) or Gandalf's ability to resist said Balrog; or those spiritual attributes can be somewhat more subtle or mundane, like a hobbit's resilience, or a man's lack-thereof.

Think of it a little like the difference between a skilled mechanic fixing a car versus a very clumsy person trying to fix a car. They might both know how to fix it, and they might both get the job done, but one of them will seem more "lucky" or "favored" than the other, and the results of the mechanic's work will be better. The "magic" in Middle Earth is, in fact, more spiritual than knowledge, but it is similar to the innate ability of a person who is "just naturally" mechanically-minded. Having Gandalf in your party when you're stealing treasure from a dragon, might be a lot like having a very skilled and experienced mechanic on your team when you're trying to restore a car: things just seem to go better, even though there's no incantation or fire-circle.

Furthermore, there are materials that have attributes, for which the only secret is knowledge, rather than innate power. Similar to modern steel, if you know how to make it, it doesn't really matter who you are.

In short, I don't think we can compare Gandalf to "the way we think of Wizards today." He was a whole 'nuther critter. Just like the transition that vampires have undergone since Stoker, the idea of "wizards" has radically and fundamentally changed since Tolkien, so even though the word might be the same, I think the idea is too different to compare. It'd be like trying to compare the "magic" that a mechanic performs in turning a broken car into a fixed car, with the "magic" that a cow performs in turning grass into... not grass. They're just very different things.

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    @Matt Excellent answer! A question of specificity. though: has our idea of Wizards changed since Tolkien, or was Tolkien reaching back farther into medieval lore for a vision of Wizards that had already faded into history by his time? Would a person from the 1930s be more familiar with Gandalf wizards or Dumbledore wizards? – Nerrolken Jan 15 '14 at 18:10
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    @AlexanderWinn, Merlin seems pretty similar to Dumbledore, IWC modern writers are the ones reaching farther back. But even then, Tolkien isn't so much reinventing wizards as he is trying to describe something real that seems like it comes from fantasy. IMO, the literary and cultural charm of Tolkien comes from his ability to re-describe magic as something much more accessible in the real world, akin to Chesterton. I.e. there IS magic IRL, we just don't see it because we think magic is supposed to be spectacular. Gandalf is different from Merlin because Gandalf is more real than Merlin. – Matt Jan 15 '14 at 19:31
  • +1 But I would add there's no such thing as "what we think of wizards today". There are as many wizard archetypes and powers as there are works of fiction, and each archetype is pretty different from each other. Gandalf is no more similar to an D&D wizard than to a wizard from Earthsea. (My guess is that the OP is thinking of D&D wizards who cast fireballs and such). – Andres F. Jun 8 '17 at 16:44

I will try to answer this to the best of my limited knowledge and abilities.

The way I see this question is that it has three separate parts. I will try to answer them, one by one.

You asked: Does Gandalf have very limited powers compared to what we think of wizards today?

I don't exactly know what you mean to say by this as most of the things that Gandalf did (or Tolkien have him do) are reused by other wizard characters in literature today. If Tolkien got it from somewhere else, he reshaped it and reused it in an entirely different and modern way which made it unrecognizable or "hard to spot" as it were in it's true origin. Tolkien reused many of the items and things that wizards in literature and stories did in the past, but he reshaped it into a more realistic form.

If we were to compare Gandalf to Harry Potter (or any other magician or wizard) or J.R.R. Tolkien to J.K. Rowling (or any other writer), we would probably end up in a discussion. Personally, I don't think the two are comparable as I wouldn't think to compare LOTR to any other kind of literature or any other kind of literature to LOTR.

Having said this let me try to portrait Gandalf as a Wizard in today's day and age.

The Istari (Men called them Wizards) took the form of Men, but possessed much greater physical and mental magic power. For over 2,000 years, Gandalf worked most faithfully against the rising powers of evil in Middle-earth.

As we can clearly see from this statement, Gandalf wasn't a man, but another more powerful being than a man. Other Tolkien ripoffs portrait the magicians/wizards as men. Thus, making Gandalf more powerful than them from the very beginning of their creation. Men cannot take forms, some do with magic, but we know that Maiar can and have taken many forms and shapes even as other beings or entirely other creations. Men (magicians/wizards) only took the form of an animal, through magic, by learned magical practices or spells. Gandalf lived more than 2000 years, which magician in other fantasy literature lived this long?

Gandalf was not just powerful, but also the wisest of the Maiar (note - not just all of the Istari (known to us as Wizards), but also all of the Maiar). Men know him as Gandalf, but he was first known as Olórin, his first Maiar name.

In the terms of the race of Maiar, Istari (Wizards) is merely a culture and a way of life. I see it as mister Tolkien invented a whole other concept of magic that depends on the forces of the being itself, while also depending on the forces of nature and the doings of good or evil by that being. Gandalf was the first magician/wizard that did good in literature, all the others before him did corrupted, bad and evil deeds with magic for their own enrichment, greed. They did the filthiest kinds of (black or other kind of) magic and wrong doings towards their fellow man or animal (or other being). Gandalf was the first one in literature (to my limited knowledge), the first one to only do good deeds for the well being of the world he was placed in, the purest of them all. As you may recall, he didn't even want to touch The One Ring spawned by black magic and who knows what else, in fear of what it might do to him, in fear of corruption. He only died (as a man, in his retaken man form) fighting another Maiar, and was brought back, for a brief time, to continue his journey/mission of ridding the world of evil again.

You asked: Comparing Gandalf with other wizards spells: fireballs, healing, magic items creation, teleportation, etc.

Gandalf the wise they called him, for he was the wisest of them all. Gandalf used his wisdom first and foremost, then his physical force - being his body, his staff, sword and finally his spells. Wisdom was his strongest weapon, he wielded it like no other magician/wizard.

In The Hobbit, Gandalf used a lightning strike on an orcish horde, which came out from his staff. There we have the lightning strike spell.

Also in The Hobbit, he made the pine cones catch fire with a spell, and used them as a throwing weapon. Hence a fireball.

Also in The Hobbit, Gandalf used his voice to mislead orcs. Could we call this and alteration of his voice or a ventriloquism spell, I will leave it up to you.

Both in LOTR and The Hobbit, Gandalf spawned a light orb on top of his staff to light the way for Bilbo's company (in The Hobbit) and the Fellowship (in LOTR), I guess that we could call this a illumination spell intertwined with an enhancement spell. He also does a similar thing by blinding the foes at the gates of Minas Tirith (from the movie), as we could call this a blinding spell or a beam spell.

In the same place he used a spell and stopped Balrog from crossing over, using his own body as a shield with a spell and chanting the Flame of Anor.

When Gandalf was fighting Saruman in Orthanc, he used his staff and his body to push him back and cause him physical pain - presumably outside and inside of his body, even his internal organs. We can resort to some magical psychokinesis/telekinesis here.

Gandalf healed the main eagle Gwaihir the Windlord, we can resort to healing skills, powers or spells here. We could also say that he had something to do with his second life as Gandalf The White, or being brought back from the dead.

We may also add some sort of a charm spell used towards Shadowfax, his horse, and maybe even some of the great eagles.

Dual-wielding a staff and sword, was first used by Gandalf and not other magicians/wizards. The sword Glamdring, was only in his use after he found it in the troll cave and not before.

As far as magic item creation goes. We could say that gandalf enhanced his staff by magic on occasion, and also the Glamdring sword to an extent when needed, as in the case of the Balrog incident.

Teleportation (to my limited knowledge) is always done with the aid of something, not just a simple spell. Sometimes it is done in the form of a portal or gate. In the case of Gandalf - well, what kind of book would LOTR have been if Gandalf had teleportation means of his own and then used them to teleport himself (they wouldn't need a Fellowship) or even the sole Ring past the Eye of Sauron and every orc and creature inside Mordor into the fires of Mount Doom?

(note: there are many more, but I cannot recall them all now)

You asked: Gandalf seems much more sword oriented than spell oriented. Were the ideas of a wizard not consolidated at the time of writing or is Gandalf a lot more powerful than he seems to be?

I think the answer lies a few lines back in this answer, but I will attempt to answer the second part of this third and final question.

Keep in mind that Gandalf (in man form) as Gandalf the White had far more powers which we don't know about; as the story came to an end and we didn't find out.

I apologize, but I cannot recall any single mage/magician/warlock/wizard (in literature, game or other form) who only used spells and nothing else - spawned/replicated food, teleported to who knows where, flew all over the place without the aid of a dragon, a gigantic eagle, or other being. I cannot recall a single one that didn't eat and relied entirely upon himself, his own being for food, existence and protection. It is known that all wizards use wands, staffs and swords. One might consider them as light weapons to carry but also as powerful tools and weapons in the hands of magicians/wizards. Wizards/magicians are also known to use their fists for striking with, or casting spells or even as psychokinesis/telekinesis aid.

These are all tools that Gandalf used along with his own head, his wisdom and knowledge of all things he acquired as a living being and a traveler through his life(s). For him, wizardry and magic was more than just a means to an end, it was a deep cultural act, but also a heavy responsibility towards all beings, an appropriation towards doing good.

Hope this answered your question(s).

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There's been a fair amount of comparison of Gandalf to wizard from RPGs. The most article might be Gandalf was only a Fifth Level Magic-User!. The article claims that while Gandalf was very powerful in LoTR, he wouldn't stack up well against most modern RPG wizards.

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  • Do note that RPG wizards are not "what we think of wizards today" either -- specifically, D&D wizards were more or less inspired by the works of Jack Vance and his Dying Earth stories, but they are not the only kind of wizard and certainly not the most common. I think the original question itself is flawed. – Andres F. Jun 8 '17 at 16:48

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