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Solely from reading questions and answers here, I've learned a lot about the lore of Middle Earth, mainly to do with Maia, Valinor, Aman, Eldar, etc...

According to this answer, Gandalf is a 11,000+ year old spirit that came from Valinor to Middle Earth to help mankind fight against Sauron.

As someone who's only seen the movies and not read the books, I just assumed Gandalf was a 60-ish year old wizard. I don't think his origin is mentioned in the movies, maybe when he dies and comes back as Gandalf The White, it's suggested he's more than just a regular wizard, but I definitely never got the impression he was an ancient spirit.

Is the fact Gandalf is an ancient spirit from Valinor ever mentioned in the LOTR trilogy or The Hobbit novels and is just excluded from the movies?

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    It's in The Silmarillion, which is not part of the trilogy, and therefore no part of the movies. – Mr Lister Mar 26 '15 at 12:00
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    He's clearly more than 60, as he is old in the events of the Hobbit, and still old 70 years later during the events of LoTR. – Daniel Roseman Mar 26 '15 at 12:15
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    He's established as ancient in the movie too. Specifically, in the movie "The Two Towers" Gandalf says: "Three hundred lives of men I’ve walked this earth and now I have no time" en.wikiquote.org/wiki/… – Abulafia Mar 26 '15 at 13:01
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    @Daft - personally, I think you're doing yourself a disservice by only seeing the movies. The movies are fantastic, but the book is even more... fantastic..er. – Omegacron Mar 26 '15 at 14:08
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    There is no such thing as a "regular wizard" in Middle Earth. – Kyle Strand Mar 27 '15 at 16:03
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This is a surprisingly interesting question.

How much could have been in the movies?

Gandalf's origin is hinted at in the Appendices:

When maybe a thousand years had passed, and the first shadow had fallen on Greenwood the Great, the Istari or Wizards appeared in Middle-Earth. It was afterwards said that they came out of the Far West and were messengers sent to contest the power of Sauron, and to unite all those who had the will to resist him; but they were forbidden to match his power with power, or to seek to dominate Elves or Men by force and fear.

They came therefore in the shape of Men, though they were never young and aged only slowly, and they had many powers of mind and hand.

The Return of the King Appendix B: "The Tale of Years" (ii) The Third Age

Obviously this is still pretty vague, but it tells us two important things1:

  • The Istari came out of the West, which is basically Elvish Heaven
  • They're not Elves, Men, or Dwarves (or anything else we've seen in the books), but something else entirely; something that can change form

There are a few other winks and nudges throughout the series, like Gandalf's line at the Balrog:

'You cannot pass,' [Gandalf] said. The orcs stood still, and a dead silence fell. 'I am a servant of the Secret Fire, wielder of the flame of Anor. You cannot pass. The dark fire will not avail you, flame of Udûn. Go back to the Shadow! You cannot pass.'2

Fellowship of the Ring Book II Chapter 5: "The Bridge of Khazad-dûm"

But these are clues that can't be deciphered within these four texts. There simply isn't enough available information for the movies to draw any firm conclusions about Gandalf's true nature.

Why didn't this make it into the movies?

Well some of it did; see Gandalf's confrontation with the Balrog, which survived mostly intact in the film. As has been discussed a lot on this site (here, for example), the Tolkien Estate only sold off the film rights to The Lord of the Rings and its Appendices, and The Hobbit; any material from The Silmarillion or Unfinished Tales would have resulted in a swift lawsuit.

The fact that Jackson had the rights to the Appendices is pretty important; it's what let include the Sauron subplot in The Hobbit trilogy, for instance3.

However, it seems to have been a deliberate move of Tolkien's to exclude the true nature of Wizards from the text. In a Letter 153, when discussing Treebeard, he writes:

[Treebeard] does not know what 'wizards' are, or whence they came (though I do, even if exercising my subcreator's right I have thought it best in this Tale to leave the question a 'mystery', not without pointers to the solution).

The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien 153: To Peter Hastings (Draft). September 1954

It's hard to argue that this was a bad decision, narratively. Trying to explain what Gandalf actually is would introduce a lot of unnecessary complexity to the book, and with The Lord of the Rings Tolkien really was trying to write a story, not a mythology.

It makes sense to exclude from the movies for a similar reason; your average movie-goer isn't going to know who Eru Ilúvatar is, or what a Maia is, and you shouldn't expect them to.

As Abulafia points out in a comment on the question, there's at least one hint that Gandalf is more than he seems. In The Two Towers, when he leaves Edoras to find Éomer, he remarks:

Gandalf: Three hundred lives of men I've walked this earth, and now I have no time.

The Two Towers (2002)

While this line doesn't unambiguously identify him as a supernatural being, it does at least suggest that he's not human.

At least one hint at Gandalf's otherworldly nature made it into the movie, when he discusses with Pippin about death4:

Pippin: I didn't think it would end this way.

Gandalf: End? No, the journey doesn't end here. Death is just another path. One that we all must take. The grey rain-curtain of this world rolls back, and all turns to silver glass... then you see it!

Pippin: What? Gandalf? See what?

Gandalf: White shores. And beyond: a far green country, under a swift sunrise.

Return of the King (2003)

The way Ian McKellen plays this scene suggests to the audience that Gandalf remembers this place he's describing, which is evidently Aman. This is more of a hint for fans of the books; as jpmc26 points out in comments, if you're not familiar with Gandalf's nature this just sounds like a memory of his own recent death.


1 I'm deliberately oversimplifying these points; the greater Tolkien canon tells us quite a bit about the nature of Wizards, but this information is stricly including sources that would have been available to Jackson and Co. i.e., what we can determine from the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit books.

2 If you're curious about what this means, there are some excellent answers here

3 Determining whether this was a good thing or not is left as an exercise to the reader.

4 As Eric Lippert points out in comments, Gandalf's lines here are lifted from narration in the book; this description appears twice in Lord of the Rings, first when Frodo has a dream in Tom Bombadil's House:

That night they heard no noises. But either in his dreams or out of them, he could not tell which, Frodo heard a sweet singing running in his mind; a song that seemed to come like a pale light behind a grey rain-curtain, and growing stronger to turn the veil all to glass and silver, until at last it was rolled back, and a far green country opened before him under a swift sunrise.

Fellowship of the Ring Book I Chapter 8: "Fog on the Barrow-Downs"

And again at the very end of the trilogy, when Frodo leaves Middle-Earth:

And the ship went out into the High Sea and passed on into the West, until at last on a night of rain Frodo smelled a sweet fragrance on the air and heard the sound of singing that came over the water. And then it seemed to him that as in his dream in the house of Bombadil, the grey rain-curtain turned all to silver glass and was rolled back, and he beheld white shores and beyond them a far green country under a swift sunrise.

Return of the King Book II Chapter 9: "The Grey Havens"

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    Cheers Jason, appreciate the answer. – Daft Mar 26 '15 at 12:22
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    TL;DR - He's an angel in human form. – Omegacron Mar 26 '15 at 14:11
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    @Lexible - not too sure about that: "In Cuiviénen sweet ran the waters under unclouded stars, and wide lands lay about, where a free people might walk." – user8719 Mar 26 '15 at 14:50
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    @KSmarts In fairness, Aragorn and Arwen do get married in the text. The Appendices just elevate that relationship above "Okay, you're the King now so you get the girl. Which one? Ummm....how about...that one?" – Jason Baker Mar 26 '15 at 15:34
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    An interesting point about that particular final quote you give is that Gandalf does not say that at all in the book; rather, that's the description of Frodo's prescient dream when he is in the house of Tom Bombadil. – Eric Lippert Mar 27 '15 at 17:21
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It isn't directly stated but the hints are there, mostly at the end and appendix. It gets elaborated on in "The Istari" chapter of Unfinished Tales.

As for Lord of the Rings: When Gandalf lists his names one is:

Olórin was my name in my youth in the West that is forgotten.

Then there is the mention of the Wizards arriving on ships from the West in the year TA 1000 (over 2,000 years before the events of Lord of the Rings), and that Cirdan, the master of the Grey Havens seeing who they were, and recognizing where they came from, chose to give one of the Elven Rings. And of course Gandalf's true nature is the only reason he gets on the ship in the end. He is not an exception like the Ringbearers.

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    Very interesting, thanks! – Daft Mar 26 '15 at 12:05
  • Where in LotR does that quote from Gandalf appear? – LarsH Mar 26 '15 at 20:45
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    "Olórin I was in my youth in the West that is forgotten", The Two Towers, "The Window on the West", page 353. (First reference in this page en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gandalf) – Guntis Treulands Mar 27 '15 at 10:22

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