Symbolism Behind Gandalf: The Background
English 101, a requirement for this particular religious university. An attractive female professor taught the class, barely older than her students, and a complete fantasy nerd. What does she give for her students to research and debate about? Either The Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter, asking which contains stronger meaning and symbolism.
Students were required to make a five minute speech about their chosen topic, and answer any questions which their fellow students had about their speech.
Symbolism Behind Gandalf: The Set-Up
First day of speech and debate, and a teenager, as sweet and shy as she was tall and lanky, took stage. She influenced nobody. Her audience, whether action-driven The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) fans or geeky, wanna-be-a-wizard Harry Potter fans, already had their minds set. And she was too hesitant and receding to sway anyone.
What did she argue? According to her research, and according to her religious parents and teachers from her high school years, LOTR far outdid Harry Potter in everything good and right. The Boy Who Lived dealt in nothing good, for it developed from Wicca.
Symbolism Behind Gandalf: The Question
I could hardly stomach her judgment on Harry Potter. To say something to bring her down felt like a necessity, not a personal inclination. So, being the even-more hesitant and shy Harry Potter nerd, I posed her the one question that I could think of as a flaw in her argument:
“If anything with wizards and magic is so distasteful and disreputed, then why did J.R.R. Tolkien include wizards in his Middle Earth?” The hesitance in my voice didn’t match the swelling anger in my heart, and I waited with bated breath.
Symbolism Behind Gandalf: The Answer
Miss Tall and Lanky seemed afraid when I raised my hand. But, when she heard my question, some confidence filled her person. Effusing sweetness and gentleness, she answered:
“J.R.R. Tolkien didn’t write in the wizards to represent magic and witchcraft. The wizards actually symbolized God’s angels. Does that make sense?”
Symbolism Behind Gandalf: The Reality
At the time, I merely mumbled in agreeable understanding, seething in my heart at having failed to defend Harry Potter. But now, having finished the Harry Potter series, and having set it aside for several years, my interest in the Inklings and their works piqued. C.S. Lewis might have started me in studying theology, but J.R.R. Tolkien and his symbolism now appears in a new light to me.
Miss Tall and Lanky had argued a beautifully true and honest point, regarding J.R.R. Tolkien and his use of symbolism. Her faith at that age allowed her to see it, whereas at that age I was still lost and unable to see. But, please don’t just take my word for it. Let’s look at how Gandalf spoke and behaved within the first two chapters in The Fellowship of the Ring.
Symbolism Behind Gandalf: The Strong, Yet Subtle, Meaning
Take the small speech from Gandalf, as he tried to comfort Frodo about holding the One Ring. It’s meaning struck me as plainly as a child throwing her toy at me. But J.R.R. Tolkien explained it in better words in The Fellowship of the Ring:
‘Behind that there was something else at work, beyond any design of the Ring-maker. I can put it no plainer than by saying that Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker. In which case you also were meant to have it. And that may be an encouraging thought.’
Gandalf spoke the above words to Frodo, as Frodo lamented over having hold on the most dangerous thing imaginable. The indication of a stronger, more powerful force is now clear to me, as it had been clear to the other student all those years ago. And its subtlety, based on the alludence to naming the good force, more clearly indicates something real in J.R.R. Tolkien’s world, such as his belief in the holiness in Christ Jesus and His power over all things.
Symbolism Behind Gandalf: The Final Conclusion
Gandalf seemed to represent God’s angels in other ways in these first chapters of The Fellowship of the Ring. His watching over Frodo’s well-being represents guardianship. His roaming Middle Earth to help find answers to present oddities much represented to me how God’s angels roam the earth to help humanity fight the evil forces. And more examples will appear later in the series showing the symbolism behind Gandalf.
Ultimately, the other student was mostly right in her argument, at least in regards to the symbolism in The Lord of the Rings. Seeing as she had never read Harry Potter, she remained in the dark to that series’s great qualities. But, as my readers and I go through J.R.R. Tolkien’s most popular series, I hope to be able to learn and share more about the hidden meaning behind the text.
*Title picture as seen in Peter Jackson’s The Fellowship of the Ring, found at Movie Screencaps.com.