In the Lord of the Rings books we see Gandalf the White breaking Saruman's staff by just talking, a feat that couldn't be realized by Gandalf the Grey (IIRC Tolkien said this himself when talking about the difference between Gandalf the White and the Grey).

In the movies we see the Witch king breaking Gandalf's, but this doesn't happen in the books.

So my question is, what are the rules for breaking a staff? Who can break whose staff?

  • 1
    With regards to the witch-king and Gandalf see here (and there are no "rules", cause it's a movie)
    – The Fallen
    Commented Jun 19, 2014 at 0:10
  • @SSumner, "there are no 'rules'" Sure there are...or there can be. They're in-universe. Commented Jul 22, 2014 at 20:42
  • What I meant was, because it's a movie, it's less about the background and more about the presentation
    – The Fallen
    Commented Jul 23, 2014 at 0:57
  • 5
    Anyone who goes into the staff break room. Ba-doom tish.
    – Valorum
    Commented Jan 4, 2017 at 12:58

2 Answers 2


In the books, it is very heavily and even directly implied that the breaking of another Wizard's staff is both a show of another Wizard's authority and a symbol of the 'bad' Wizard's expulsion from both the order and the Council.

In The Two Towers, Gandalf says to Saruman (Houghton Mifflin, paperback, p. 569):

...'Behold, I am not Gandalf the Grey, whom you betrayed. I am Gandalf the White, who has returned from death. You have no color now, and I cast you from your order and from the Council.'

He raised his hand, and spoke in a clear cold voice. 'Saruman, your staff is broken.'

Bearing this in mind, Gandalf was specifically given power and duty in the book as part and parcel to his resurrection to cast Saruman out of his order and the Council and part of that power included the hand-in-hand destruction of Saruman's staff.

However, if one recalls back to The Fellowship of the Ring where Gandalf led the Fellowship across the Bridge of Khazad-dûm, Gandalf's staff broke when he slammed it into the bridge to break the bridge... which coincided with his later death as Gandalf the Grey. As such, the breaking of his staff was his own doing - an immense show of his power and, given what happened to him later, perhaps an 'exhaustion' of that power similar to the 'take away' of Saruman's power by Gandalf the White later on.

  • 4
    And note that Gandalf defeated the Balrog after breaking his staff; it wasn't necessary for him to have his staff intact at all.
    – user8719
    Commented Jun 19, 2014 at 6:33
  • 1
    Does this self-breakage of the staff occur in the movie? It's been years since I've read the books, but I just watched FoTR last week and I don't remember that detail (or rather I remember it not breaking).
    – TylerH
    Commented Jun 19, 2014 at 13:34
  • 2
    @TylerH: No, in the movie the staff remains intact but he drops it when the Balrog's whip pulls him down into the chasm. He later catches Glamdring in mid-air while falling, but we never see the staff again.
    – Omegacron
    Commented Jun 19, 2014 at 17:04
  • @Omegacron I don't think that fact (never seeing it again) is related to whether it broke or not. To me, a staff is part of your status as much as your power. That is to say, Gandalf the Grey's staff was only suitable for a Grey Robe. He needed a new staff when he became Gandalf the White regardless of whether his old one was intact or not.
    – TylerH
    Commented Jun 19, 2014 at 17:07
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    @TylerH Late but.. there are a lot of problems with that scene. Examples include: Gandalf is wise enough to not reveal where the One Ring; it's Radagast who tells Gandalf about the Nazgûl (at Saruman's bequest); Gandalf doesn't tell Frodo he's going to see Saruman; that duel is an invention of the film; Saruman doesn't take Gandalf's staff; Saruman doesn't reveal the palantír (in The Two Towers it is Gríma who inadvertently reveals it to them). Not to mention Radagast in the book has his friends (birds, beasts) look out for news so the moth is an invention too. Probably forgetting others.
    – Pryftan
    Commented Sep 10, 2017 at 13:18

It is a quick visual metaphor for magic user A having dominating power over magic user B. In the case of Gandalf over Saruman, presumably this was granted by the powers that sent him back to show his 'official' assumption of head of the order.

In the movie, it is a fast way to show that Gandalf wasn't going to win a fight versus the Witch King, which is why the dramatic arrival of the Riders of Rohan was so key.

  • 2
    The Witch king versus Gandalf scene in extended version must be with out doubt the scene i hate the most. In the books, from my perspective, Gandalf is never below the nazgul, the fight simply doesn't happen because Pippin leads Gandalf away from the figth to save Faramir. Commented Jun 19, 2014 at 9:04
  • If Gandalf was able to kill Nazguls, why didn't he spend FOTR just wiping them out? LOTR is full of messages that direct physical power isn't how things should be judged.
    – Oldcat
    Commented Jun 19, 2014 at 16:18
  • Gandalf the Grey is able to hold off several Nazguls at weathertop either by raw power or from being able to use strategic position. Galdalf the White may never shows strength or might against the King of Angmar, or any nazgull, but also never is showed that he is less powerfull than him. I never said Gandalf the White would destroy him (something i believe he would, but is only is speculation and my opinion)... I wrote "Gandalf is never below the nazgul". Commented Jun 19, 2014 at 16:38
  • He contended with them, and they left, just as when the White Rider rode to Osgiliath, but it was not a fight to the finish for either side. Just a skirmish. The Black Riders were after the Hobbits, not the wizard, and had the Morgul Blade working. To me, I just don't see power as a fixed number. At that moment of Triumph, entering the Gates of Minas Tirith with Sauron focussed, Darkness might have won a physical contest. Gandalf arranged for the Riders of Rohan to arrive to erase the moment and break the spell.
    – Oldcat
    Commented Jun 19, 2014 at 16:45
  • Given how Gandalf Sailed West with the Elves at the end of the story (in both book and movie), it can be implied that - like the Elves - his 'place' in the story wasn't necessarily that of an 'active participant'. Rather, he was a helper - much the same way that the Elves were. Elrond was conflicted by how much he should participate because his 'time' had come (Age of Elves was fading, hence, Sailing West). Given Elrond's previous wartime experience, his expertise - like Gandalf's - would have been greatly appreciated. But it wasn't his time... just like it wasn't Gandalf's, either.
    – Aith
    Commented Jun 22, 2014 at 6:40

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