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The Magic and Abilities of Gandalf


Not all those who wander are lost...
Oct 8, 2011
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The Magic and Abilities of Gandalf


In this brief article, I will catalog and describe the magical items and abilities of Gandalf the Grey and Gandalf the White as portrayed in the various books by J.R.R. Tolkien as well as the five movies currently featuring the character. This is the first of a two (maybe three) part article series. The next part will deal with the magic and abilities of Albus Dumbledore from J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” franchise; using information from the books as well as the movies.

Gandalf is one of the most famous and interesting wizard characters in modern fantasy fiction. His grandfather-like demeanor, his ancient wisdom, his value of love and friendship, his philosophical outlooks, and his command of powerful magic makes for one hell of a hero who is beloved by millions. I often find myself interested in crossover debates, especially those debates concerning who would win in a fight between two heroes or villains. In this case it’s Gandalf the White vs. Albus Dumbledore that’s peaked my interest. I’m really not sure who would win yet, so in order to organize my thoughts and lay out a clear map of their respective abilities, I’m writing these short articles. While it is perhaps more interesting and certainly more intellectual to compare and contrast these two wizards from literary or philosophical points of view, I’ve decided to be more superficial and focus on what 13 year old boys have been debating for years: In a neutral environment, in a fight to the death without the aid of other beings or creatures, who would win? In this kind of scenario I believe it is weapons and magical abilities that will ultimately decide such a contest, hence the focus of these articles.

It should also be noted that I’m considering the combined prowess of both versions of our beloved wizard: Gandalf the Grey AND his resurrected and far more powerful incarnation, Gandalf the White. Everything the Grey could do the White can do better. Alright, let’s get started and see how stacked the greatest wizard in Middle-earth really is.


Weapons and Items:

Glamdring (sword): Glamdring is an ancient Gondolinian blade once used by Turgon, King of Gondolin, most famous for its devastating power and battle results in the Fall of Gondolin. In the hands of Turgon, It slew so many orcs and goblins that it came to be known as the Foe-hammer by men and elves, and as the Beater by the Dark Lord's minions. It is a long and sharp double-edged greatsword of white and gold, possessing a jeweled hilt with an ivory sheath. It also contains esoteric elvish runes inscribed on it that very few can actually read. First used by the great elven king Turgon to slay orcs in a manner never seen since, and appearing to be just as dangerous in Gandalf's hands, it is assumed to be infused with some kind of magic that makes it especially apt at damaging orc and goblin-kind. It seems to have an extremely repulsive effect on nearby goblins, but it is not clear if this is the result of a magic spell or simply the result of its widespread reputation and long garnered hate and superstition from the orcs and goblins. It also glows brightly blue when orcs/goblins are near. Gandalf came into possession of this sword during the Quest of Erebor and used it the rest of his life until he left Middle-earth. He often uses Glamdring in tandem with his Istari Staff, making him a duel-wielding foe to be reckoned with in melee combat.


Narya, the Red Ring of Fire: Narya is one of the three elvish rings of power. Once belonging to Círdan the Sinda elf, the Ring of Fire eventually made its way into the hands of Gandalf the Grey as a gift when he first arrived in Middle-earth from Aman, the Undying Lands. Narya is infused with great magic, specifically endowing its wearer the power to 1.) inspire others to resist tyranny and despair, as well as to instill a passion for fighting for what’s right, 2.) make its bearer invisible (or at least hard to see) when necessary, 3.) give its bearer a resistance to the passage of time, and 4.) it is assumed to provide its bearer with an increased aptitude for, and defense against, fire magic.


Staff of the Istari: Gandalf is known to have used several staffs during his time in Middle-earth. His first (at least two) staffs, as Gandalf the Grey, were tall brown staffs resembling ornate trees with a jewel placed at its top. As Gandalf the White, he had an ashen staff bright white in color and containing a decorative lattice work design at the top. These staffs are magical implements used to help him focus his powers. It is quite unclear what effect being parted with one’s staff has on a wizard in Tolkien’s mythos. It’s not clear whether it is merely a tool of extension to one’s abilities, or if being without it keeps one from exercising certain powers (the latter is the general consensus). The staff is clearly shown to be of some substantial aid to Gandalf in his use of magical spells as well as being an effective fighting stick in combat. He is often seen duel-wielding his staff and Glamdring to great effect in melee combat. Beyond this, he also uses his staff as a walking stick (which like Yoda, he doesn't really need).

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Magical Abilities:

The limit on Gandalf’s magical abilities is not defined at all in the Tolkien mythos. As a Maia (a lesser god), he has many natural abilities that would seem impressively magical to all the mortal races, but he also had a great store of knowledge of more “mechanical” or “arcane” magic, worked through the study of spells and incantations, and especially aided through the agency of his staff. It is clear that he had far greater power, especially after his return as Gandalf the White, than he ever displayed in Middle-earth, but how far remains a mystery. It is also explained that Gandalf and the other Istari (wizards) were not allowed to operate in Middle-earth using their full power. When sent to Middle-earth to guide the mortal races to victory against Sauron, they were forbidden by the Valar to fight the peoples’ battles for them and as a result were prohibited from “opening up” anymore than was absolutely necessary. It is assumed that Gandalf and the other Istari are severely weakened by their mortal humanoid forms and can only channel their powers in a heavily diluted variety with the aid of their staff to help focus it. It’s unclear if the Istari were ever able to disobey the Valar (major gods) and open up their full power in their humanoid forms or not. If so, then Gandalf was indeed far far more powerful than he ever let on. As a Maia, he helped to create the world at the beginning of time and is naturally in possession of magical feats beyond anyone or anything in Middle-earth save Sauron himself.

Gandalf in all his forms is a servant of the Secret Fire (*divine), an abstract notion referring to the life force emanating the world and representing the essence of Eru Illuvatar, the supreme god in Tolkien’s mythos; it is comparable to something akin to the Holy Spirit in Christian philosophy or the Force in the Star Wars saga. He also claims to be the “wielder of the Flame of Anor” (*divine) which is not clearly explained. In the books, given what we do know about such terms, it probably means that he possesses the powers naturally ascribed to the powerful Maiar that he belongs to, as well as the benefits of being a servant of the Valar: the most powerful gods, and on the side of good. It could alternatively mean that as a certain kind of Maiar, he is especially imbued with the power of the Sun; as “Anor” means “sun” in Sindarin elvish. No matter what it ultimately signifies, it means he’s packing some serious metaphysical heat.

A wise intellectual, guardian, guide, and master strategizer and tactician, he demonstrates extensive knowledge of the land, history, languages (alive and dead), and cultures of Middle-earth and is in possession of an assortment of magical abilities from the very trivial to the dramatically essential. He produces his magic using a combination of uttering spells verbally, making gestures with his staff and hands, and by using his mind alone. It should also be noted that Gandalf the White is more powerful than Saruman the White, and it logically follows that anything Saruman could do, Gandalf the White could do at least slightly better. A few abilities mentioned below are credited to Saruman (and thus assumed to be within Gandalf the White’s abilities to perform as well) and I have noted those in the text below. Finally, when considering how dangerous Gandalf is, we cannot forget the utter mastery he has over the martial arts. His skills with swords and fighting sticks are the stuff of legends in Tolkien’s world. He is as deadly with a blade as he is with his magic; making him a fearsome warrior with mastery over many skills. His wisdom and knowledge of the natural and magical worlds coupled with his magical and non-magical combat abilities make Gandalf an ally to cherish and a foe to dread.

*Pulling from both books and movies, one can catalog (though not exhaustively) Gandalf’s magical abilities. To help label the different kinds of abilities he possesses neutrally, I will include Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition schools of magic descriptors in the list below (and some above) with an “*”

Trivial Abilities:

1. Blow magical smoke rings that can change color and shape and move in the direction he wishes. (*universal/alteration)

2. Create magnificent fireworks imbued with obvious magical properties. He can set them off using the fire from his staff or using his mind alone. (*universal/evocation/illusion)

3. Light things on fire using his staff, such as wood for warmth, and is able to create intense heat even in blizzard conditions. (*evocation)

4. Create light of various intensities atop his staff in order to illuminate the way in dark places. (*evocation)

5. Grow in height and dim/extinguish the lights near him when he is angered and take on a terrifying aspect producing a booming echoing voice that is clearly magical in nature. This ability appears to allow him to dim the light of the sun while outdoors and create winds. (*universal)

6. Put blessings on objects, people, and animals giving them slightly better odds in their endeavors using his “words of guarding and guidance”. For instance, when he blesses Sam’s pony in "The Fellowship of the Ring". (*divine)

7. The ability to appear and disappear, come and go, without making a sound or being noticed. It's assumed that his ring Narya assists him with this. In the second "The Hobbit" movie, it is shown that the Istari can actually teleport and pop in and out of sight for travel purposes. At one point in the film, Gandalf is shown creating a blinding stun light to use as a diversion to help him teleport/disappear when in danger. This teleportation ability is definitely a Powerful Ability, like in the section below. (*conjuration)

8. Using his staff to magically inscribe glowing runes on objects. (*universal)

Powerful Abilities:

9. Use magical kinesis in order to push, flip, trip, and levitate his enemies through the air using his staff. He can also grab distant objects by holding out his hand and magically pulling things toward him (done by Saruman) as well as psychokinetically cause physical things to happen in his immediate surroundings, such as close or open doors using his mind alone (done by Saruman). These abilities can be seen in his fight with Saruman in Orthanc. In the second "The Hobbit" movie, he is seen using his staff in order to create a very wide invisible kinetic barrier around several enemies which he uses to push them around. (*universal/evocation)

10. Speak to/manipulate animals like butterflies, moths, birds, eagles, and horses. It is possible that as Gandalf the White he possesses this kind of skill on the same level as Radagast the Brown (who was truly a master at this). (*universal)

11. Focus and charge lightening strikes into his sword Glamdring, allowing him to fight with a blade charged and glowing with powerful energy. (*evocation)

12. Use a magic echoing whistling technique to summon his magical horse, Shadowfax. His bond with Shadowfax is also indicative of something arcane. (*conjuration)

13. In addition to uttering powerful spells, he can also use counter-spells to deny the spells of others. He demonstrates this while passing across the Misty Mountains when he tries to counter Saruman’s verbal spell which is creating an avalanche. He also uses a counter-spell in the novel against the Balrog of Moria in order to keep shut a door the Balrog is trying to open with its own counter-spell. (*universal)

14. Create powerful lightening strikes to stun or kill his foes in great number. He demonstrates this in the book version of “The Hobbit” while in Goblin Town. (*evocation)

15. Create a blinding white light as bright as the sun around himself or shoot such a beam out of his staff. He creates a blinding white light around himself in Fangorn Forest when he meets Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas for the first time after his death. He also shoots a blinding beam of white light out of his staff against the flying Nazgûl, forcing them to flee, so that Faramir's company could retreat to Minas Tirith safely. He also uses it to stun the goblins in Goblin Town in the novel version of “The Hobbit”. (*evocation)

16. Create a massive shockwave knocking over, stunning, or killing anyone in his vicinity or causing great structural damage to the surroundings caught in the blast. This destructive blast is one of Gandalf's most devastating powers. Gandalf initiates this by raising his staff into the air and slamming it down onto the ground. He demonstrates this when he breaks the Bridge of Khazad-dûm as well as when he stuns the goblins in Goblin Town in “The Hobbit” movie. He’s also seen doing it in “The Hobbit” movie to break a boulder in order to revel the sun’s light, turning the trolls to stone. In the second "The Hobbit" movie, he is shown whipping his staff in the direction of a stone archway, creating a bright flash of light which destroys the structure causing the rocks to fall. (*evocation)

17. Create a powerful Istari Shield around himself protecting him from powerful blows. Gandalf can conjure up a bright spherical magic shield to protect himself from enemy attacks, for instance, when Gandalf defends himself against the Balrog's flaming sword. He’s also seen doing it in the extended version of “The Return of the King” movie when he shields himself from a fireball spell cast by Saruman atop Orthanc. This ability is impressively demonstrated in the second "The Hobbit" film, where he battles Sauron/the Necromancer in Dol Guldur. He creates a massive and extremely powerful Istari Shield that extends several meters in diameter. (*abjuration)

18. The use of powerful fire spells and pyrotechnics. Gandalf uses the power of fire in “The Hobbit”, to light pinecones in a multi-colored, hard-or-impossible to put out fire to throw at the wolves; he also uses fire in “The Fellowship of the Ring” to cast ablaze a bundle of wood to keep warm. He spoke a fire spell that set the woods on fire on the hillock the Fellowship was camping on when they were attacked by Wargs. He can also produce fireballs from his staff (done by Saruman) (*evocation)

19. He can magically secure or open doors using incantations and his hands or staff. (*universal/alteration)

20. The power of resurrection. While not directly responsible for it himself, he was resurrected by the Valar and made more powerful after his battle and defeat of the Balrog. Being a Maia, he can never truly die. (*necromancy/divine)

21. A limited amount of clairvoyance, which can be seen in the both the books and movies by his ability to peer into the minds of others, vaguely see actions in far off locales, and intuitively see the bigger picture behind what seem to be very small things, like Gollum’s role, and he can also divine the nature of enemies yet to be seen. In the second "The Hobbit" movie, he is seen telepathically communicating with Radagast the Brown. (*divination)

22. The ability to break wizards’ staffs using secret command words. (*universal)

23. Repel arrows shot at him and axes thrown at him using magic (by Legolas and Gimli for example). (*abjuration)

24. Cause metals to turn molten hot using his mind alone. This is seen when he makes Aragorn’s sword turn molten hot red in his hands in Fangorn Forest when he, Legolas, and Gimli mistakenly think he’s Saruman and attack him. (*alteration)

25. Speak verbal spells to enchant people. He also uses a verbal spell to keep Saruman from entering Orthanc in the novel. (*enchantment)

26. Change his voice in order to fool trolls or disguise himself. (*universal/alteration)

27. Has the power to dismiss other wizards from the Order, robbing them of their wizard powers. (*universal/alteration)

28. Increase or decrease his momentum while falling great distances as well as sustain little to no damage when hitting the ground from great heights. This is perhaps a weak form of flying. (*universal)

29. Channel his magic through Glamdring to be more effective when fighting the Balrog or other enemies. (*evocation)

30. Perform exorcisms on possessed people, as seen when he expels Saruman’s hold over Théoden’s body. He also has the ability to possess other people’s minds (done by Saruman). (*enchantment)

31. Create powerful illusions, as can be seen when he and Elrond flood the Ford of Bruinen and Gandalf creates the horse stampede illusion that tramples the Ringwraiths. He can also take on different physical forms to hide his identity (done by Saruman). (*illusion/transmutation)

32. Heal people near death or passed out using his hands and incantations. (*necromancy/divine)

33. Reveal areas hidden by powerful concealing magic using special incantations and his staff. He can create powerful expanding spheres of magic in order to break spells of concealment. (*illusion/evocation)

33. Probably a lot more.

If you know of anything I’ve missed, please put it in a comment so I can add it to the list. What do you think about Gandalf's powers? Who would win in an epic wizard fight between Gandalf the White and Albus Dumbledore? Now that you have some information on Gandalf, it’s time to start thinking about his opponent: the greatest wizard in Earth’s history. Dumbledore’s article can now be found here.

"Dangerous!" cried Gandalf. "And so am I, very dangerous: more dangerous than anything you will ever meet." - Gandalf the White

Gandalf the Grey vs. Sauron


Gandalf the Grey vs. Saruman the White


Gandalf the Grey vs. Balrog of Morgoth


Gandalf the White Curing Théoden, King of Rohan


Gandalf the White Repelling the Nazgûl


Gandalf the White vs. Saruman the White


Gandalf the Grey Using His Blast/Shockwave Spell in "The Hobbit"

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