Gandalf was promoted to a White wizard after his body was destroyed in the battle with the Balrog.

This was done mainly to replace Saruman as he had joined Sauron (or at least swayed significantly from his path as protector of Middle Earth) so it had already become a necessity to find a replacement by this time.

It is shown (in the movie at least, I am not sure about the book) that it was chance that they even met the Balrog, who just happened to be there, and it might even have been possible for them to out run it.

So if they had been able to outrun it, or had not stuck around long enough to meet him there in the first place, so that Gandalf did not have to get his body destroyed by fighting him, would he still have been promoted to the Head of the White Council?

  • 6
    No, because he'd still be alive and be Gandalf the Grey. Mar 16, 2014 at 7:29
  • 9
    If he'd chickened out, it would have had to be Radagast the White.
    – Oldcat
    Jan 28, 2015 at 1:28
  • For those who want to know if it was chance that Gandalf met the balrog, see scifi.stackexchange.com/q/141609/4918 "Was Gandalf “meant” to confront the Balrog?"
    – b_jonas
    Feb 12, 2017 at 14:08
  • His last performance review wasn’t great. “Spent 30 years researching the rings of power, yet failing to notice Sauron building an army. Got captured by your boss, and rescued by a butterfly. Chronic pipe-weed addiction.” Sep 19, 2018 at 12:17
  • If he'd chickened out, maybe he'd be Gandalf the Yellow.
    – RDFozz
    Sep 19, 2018 at 17:48

4 Answers 4


Probably not.

Tolkien's description of the outcome is most fully described in Letter 156, where we read:

For in his condition it was for him a sacrifice to perish on the Bridge in defence of his companions, less perhaps than for a mortal Man or Hobbit, since he had a far greater inner power than they; but also more, since it was a humbling and abnegation of himself in conformity to 'the Rules': for all he could know at that moment he was the only person who could direct the resistance to Sauron successfully, and all his mission was vain. He was handing over to the Authority that ordained the Rules, and giving up personal hope of success.

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.

So from this you can see that the promotion was a direct result of the sacrifice, and the sacrifice was necessary so that the "Authority" (i.e Eru) could intervene.

  • 15
    Heck, them encountering the Balrog might even be part of Eru's plans.
    – Ayrx
    Mar 16, 2014 at 12:42
  • 5
    Only problem with that idea (meeting the Balrog was part of Eru's plan) indicates a bit of predestination and abdication of free will. I am not certain Tolkien would have meant to imply that. Mar 17, 2014 at 0:47
  • 2
    @Thaddeus: If you look at how he wrote the 'song' origin myth, and how he would talk about the powers retaining foreknowledge, I don't think a little predestination would have been a problem. Mar 17, 2014 at 5:58
  • 3
    "And some have said that the vision ceased ere the fulfilment of the Dominion of Men and the fading of the Firstborn" - so even if it was pre-destined, Gandalf wouldn't have known (Eru would have, of course).
    – user8719
    Mar 17, 2014 at 14:48
  • 1
    @Thaddeus I don't think it's so much about predestination as it is a plan. Gandalf's sacrifice & return was a direct reference to the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. It's often been said that Jesus could have easily gotten himself out of the situation, but instead it was all part of the plan. Not meaning that it was locked in, but rather that it happening in some form was inevitable IF things went according to plan.
    – Omegacron
    Mar 19, 2015 at 16:12

As a fan of Tolkien and particularly of the Lord of the Rings saga, I always felt that the transformation of Gandalf the Grey into the White Wizard were influenced by Saruman's deviation from his role in the White Council.

When he abandoned the very nature of his power trying to rise to the highest levels of magic and created the need of a new figure as "The White Wizard".

  • yes. Though he might have been less inclined to take on the title rather than (just) the responsibilities.
    – jwenting
    Mar 17, 2014 at 9:09

I think a Doylist answer is more useful here...Tolkien wanted someone like Gandalf the White, he had Gandalf the Grey, but Gandalf the Grey from the Hobbit was too little, too limited. Not the strong and wise Maia he wanted, so he needed a scene to justify promoting him to something more powerful.

Plotwise, it was also necessary for Aragorn to take full responsibility for the Fellowship for a time, seemingly killing Gandalf accomplished that.

  • 5
    It also kept Gandalf from having to decide himself which way to go on at the falls. It would have been a lot more questionable for Gandalf to not go with Frodo to Mordor.
    – Oldcat
    Mar 17, 2014 at 18:29

I think swbarnes is onto something, but isn't saying it completely. Gandalf left the party at a critical point, just as he did in The Hobbit. I think this is Tolkien's way of saying "sometimes you can lean on your angel, and sometimes you have to go it without him". It's a literary tool, nothing more.

But, given the premise, Richard is right...the Valar sent the Istari, and entrusted (or was granted by the white council) certain powers...sending Gandalf back as Saruman's equal (but with more moral ground) was divine intervention.


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