Why Tolkien’s Wizards Work More than Magic

by Mar 6, 2019

An organizational board on which I serve faced the pressing need to stretch already-thin resources of money, personnel, time, and energy. We needed to produce a plan to course correct, and I was tasked with leading the way. (I know, lucky me. Right?!) Ours was a desperate situation, and honestly, I felt overwhelmed.

In what seemed like the eleventh hour, an idea dropped on the table. Eureka! That sudden spark of an idea led to others sharing their bright ideas. A strategy started shaping up beautifully. The concepts gelled. Our fresh-thinking, future-oriented proposal eventually met with resounding favor and hearty acceptance.

I found myself asking, “From whence came that sudden stroke of insight, such a seriously helpful concept?” 

You know what I’m talking about if you are an artist who’s ever felt stuck. The clay just won’t move. The picture will not emerge on the canvas. The words fail to flow. Yes, you know creator’s block. Then suddenly, you find your missing inspiration. And voila! The piece emerges, magnificent! After the fact, you say, “From where in the world did that come?”

Athletes know the phenomenon. An underdog competitor has only known failure after sorry failure. Then finally, she shockingly wins. With great puzzlement she asks: “Why now? And how? Deep down, that victory seemed like something more than dumb luck. I wonder!?”

In Middle-earth, such breakthroughs often arrived suddenly and wonderfully. And they often came through the marvelous work of wizards. At first glance, we might assume it was all mysterious magic. The flash of a glowing staff. Or insight from peering into crystal Palantíri. However, Tolkien assigned even bigger roles, more skillful methods, and far-reaching responsibilities for his wizards.

In his famous letter to Waldman, Tolkien makes a unique distinction: “Nowhere is the place or nature of ‘the Wizards’ made fully explicit. Their name, as related to Wise, is an Englishing of their Elvish name, and is used throughout as utterly distinct from Sorcerer or Magician.” [1]

Our beloved professor supplied this insight as footnote to his contextual explanation of the Third Age and the hobbits’ world-politics. He explained Gandalf’s unique behavior upon leaving the Hobbit in order to handle the Necromancer. In the Wizard’s leaving, the Hobbit was forced to gather courage, learn to travel on his own two furry feet, “and become in his mode heroic.” Gandalf certainly influenced him with wisdom for the journey, but now the Wizard’s departure actually elicited more from the developing Bilbo.

Something more than magic

With this letter’s special note, we gain a heavy hint that Tolkien had something deeper than fantastical magic in mind for his Wizards, especially Gandalf. In the Legendarium, wizards deliver wisdom. Present-day adventurers do well to enjoy the pizzazz and flash that at times accompany wizardly behavior. Such story elements are fun, indeed. But let us also recognize there is almost always something more significant afoot. Beyond the occasional magic, Tolkien had even more important, wisdom work in mind.

What does wizardly wisdom truly entail? Is it simply good advice—sage counsel—or might it convey something greater? Clarity comes by time traveling once again into the dusty recesses of The Silmarillion. In Valenquenta, “Of the Maiar,” we read: “Wisest of the Maiar was Olórin. He too dwelt in Lórien, but his ways took him often to the house of Nienna, and of her he learned pity and patience.” Later tales enlighten us that Olórin was indeed Gandalf (and Mithrandir, and a host of other names depending on his locale and the Age). [2]

Notice he was the wisest, and yet he was ever-learning. Tolkien’s wisest Maiar was crafted to learn deep character qualities like pity and patience. In this same Silmarillion scene, Tolkien says: “Of Melian much is told in the Quenta Silmarillion. But of Olórin that tale does not speak; for though he loved the Elves, he walked among them unseen, or in form as one of them, and they did not know whence came the fair visions or the promptings of wisdom that he put into their hearts.”

Tolkien was specifying: Gandalf is not explicitly spelled out in the Silm tales. But make no mistake; he is there, very much present. The wizarding Maiar held out-of-sight sway and had behind-the-scenes influence on the Elves. In their hearts—that inner realm of character development and choice—Gandalf prompted them with fresh ways of seeing and positive doses of wisdom. Take special note of why: “he loved the Elves.” At times he even walked in Elven likeness. His promptings and his secret presence spoke to their hearts, developing their character with greater wisdom.

First-age wizardry

Armed with such next-level understanding of wizard work, I grew curious. (And such curiosity got the best of me.) Just where might we uncover such influence on the Elves in The Silmarillion? I believe that one such place is found immediately after the Kinslaying and the Doom of the Noldor.

Then Fingolfin seeing that Fëanor had left him to perish in Araman or return in shame to Valinor was filled with bitterness; but he desired now as never before to come by some way to Middle-earth, and meet Fëanor again. And he and his host wandered long in misery, but their valour and endurance grew with hardship; for they were a mighty people, the elder children undying of Eru Ilúvatar, but new-come from the Blessed Realm, and not yet weary with the weariness of Earth. The fire of their hearts was young, and led by Fingolfin and his sons, and by Finrod and Galadriel, they dared to pass into the bitterest North; and finding no other way they endured at last the terror of the Helcaraxē and the cruel hills of ice. Few of the deeds of the Noldor thereafter surpassed that desperate crossing in hardihood or woe. [3]

Highlight three words: valour, endurance, and hearts. It’s stunning to contemplate what transpired. Just prior, Fëanor seized the ships out of fear of the “terror of the Helcaraxē.” He deemed sailing to be the safer option, because “there none yet had dared to tread save the Valar only and Ungoliant.” Now in desperation—yet with courage and perseverance—this other group of Elves made the treacherous crossing.

From where did such valour, endurance, and “fire of their hearts” emerge? How did they experience such a breakthrough? I will propose it came from none other than the wise, albeit unseen, wizardry of Olórin.

You may ask: on what basis do you postulate such an influence? Did you notice one very familiar Elf? Yes, young Galadriel appeared right here in the First Age. She was one of the daring ones who successfully crossed the icy Helcaraxē. Her formation and revelation of character included valour and endurance. This is beautifully, blatantly in keeping with what Tolkien described as part of the wizards’ work. Once again, his letter to Waldman enlightens us: “It appears finally that [Wizards] were as one might say…guardian Angels. Their powers are directed primarily to the encouragement of the enemies of evil, to cause them to use their own wits and valour, to unite and endure.” [4]

Such linkage of lingo—valour, endurance, and hearts—lends strong likelihood to the Wizard’s encouraging influence, most definitely. And there’s even more reason to see Gandalf’s character-building wisdom at work.

Of wizards, wisdom, and wonder

Later tales reveal long-term affinity and familiarity between Galadriel and Gandalf. Time travel again to the Third Age. The Company arrived in Lórien and encountered both Lord Celeborn and Lady Galadriel. The beauty and majesty of their tree-top chamber were stunning.

Mighty dwarf Gimli experienced his own breakthrough moment. The discovery created a beautiful resolution to the long-term animosity between elves and dwarves. We read: “And the Dwarf, hearing the names given in his own ancient tongue, looked up and met [Galadriel’s] eyes; and it seemed to him that he looked suddenly into the heart of an enemy and saw there love and understanding. Wonder came into his face, and then he smiled in answer.”

Here we find another remarkable “wonder moment.” For Gimli, it brushes close to eucatastrophe, for we read: “He rose clumsily and bowed in dwarf-fashion, saying: ‘Yet more fair is the living land of Lórien and the Lady Galadriel is above all the jewels that lie beneath the earth!’” What a stunning discovery and a high-value statement, especially coming from a dwarf’s mouth.

During the conversation regarding Gandalf’s demise in Moria, Galadriel reminisced: ‘Needless were none of the deeds of Gandalf in life.’ And she proceeded to spotlight his wise ways. ‘Your quest is known to us,’ said Galadriel, looking at Frodo. ‘But we will not here speak of it more openly . . . you came to this land seeking aid, as Gandalf himself plainly purposed. For the Lord of the Galadrim is accounted the wisest of the Elves of Middle-earth…’ She was praising Celeborn’s wisdom, while creating an undeniable link to Gandalf’s influence in their lives. In fact, she went on to explain: ‘I it was who first summoned the White Council. And if my designs had not gone amiss, it would have been governed by Gandalf the Grey, and then mayhap things would have gone otherwise. But even now there is hope left.’ [5] Thus, Galadriel demonstrated the Wizard’s long-term influence, a personal realization of the ripple-out impact of wisdom.

Such character connection and wizardly impact masterfully align with final pages in The Silmarillion’s “Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age.” Tolkien explains that “in that time was first made the Council of the Wise that is called the White Council, and therein were Elrond and Galadriel and Círdan, and other lords of the Eldar, and with them were Mithrandir and Curunír.” The White Council was also dubbed the Council of the Wise. From age to age, both seen and unseen, wizardly wisdom was working far more than marvelous magic.

What’s your thing?

Some people are passionate about cats, or cars, or knitting, or golf. Some of us have a thing for coffee that borders on obsession. (Speaking for a friend, of course.) With such “things,” we delight in growing our knowledge, our creativity, and courageous acumen. While Tolkien was certainly multifaceted in his beloved themes, we can confidently assert: One of Tolkien’s strongest “things” was wisdom.

During this season of life, I am motivated to join Tolkien and make wisdom one of my own passionate pursuits. Will you join me in making wisdom your thing? Consider these three potential wisdom endeavors.

Escape into wisdom.

Life gets icy, confusing, dicey, tempting, and downright difficult. The ancient Hebrew collection of wise sayings urges readers to “Get wisdom” and to “seek it like silver and search for it like hidden treasure.” [6] When we prioritize wisdom, we join dwarves and hobbits on a serious adventure. Peter Kreeft observes: “That is the highest function of fantasy: truth, insight, understanding . . . It helps us to escape into wisdom.” [7] As you read Tolkien’s Legendarium, thoroughly enjoy the gorgeous green and magical surprises. Then also be on the lookout for the wisdom. Watch for those deeper places where Tolkien’s characters encounter the wisdom of Wizards. Then contemplate your own ways to apply such character formation.

Entertain angels.

Recall how Tolkien likened the Wizards to angels. It’s an intriguing comparison, since the core task of historical-biblical angels was to be messengers. The funny thing about classic angels and Tolkien’s angelic wizards is that they tend to show up when you least expect them. Or they influence people and events, totally sight unseen. (Don’t both descriptors sound like Gandalf?) These factors proved true for Elves like Galadriel and the rest of the Children of Ilúvatar in the First Age. Humans and halflings along with elves and dwarves found it to be true in the Third Age.

For Children of Ilúvatar in Middle-earth and now in Present-earth, you cannot control when The Wise show up. But you can intentionally choose to travel with wise people. An old adage says, “Walk with the wise, and become wiser; Run with fools, and ruin your life.”

Even young Gandalf kept learning. During the First Age, he visited Nienna to develop pity and patience. Tolkien’s wisdom certainly involves conceptual knowledge, but it also involves real-time, everyday applicational skills. There’s action to take as a result of characters’ heart change.

I am stirred to explore personal applicability: On my own current wisdom quests, how am I still seeking to develop character qualities of merciful compassion and persevering patience? In each of my life realms, am I still hungry? Am I eager to keep learning and developing?

We might each ask ourselves, “Am I seeking greater wisdom by surrounding myself with wise people? And am I watching for those times when extra-wise, sage, wizarding types surprisingly show up? I can be open and curious enough to gather for coffee, meals, and meet-ups with new people. I need to be receptive and hospitable. Yes, discernment is always essential, but I should be hospitable with people from different realms. After all, “some have entertained angels unawares.” [8]

Be “hearty” on your quest.

Tolkien’s characters are rich with character formation on their adventuresome journeys. They are not simply static heroes and villains. They morph and change. As they tread the paths, caverns, and mountaintops, they are largely formed through the catalyst of wisdom. Even as they face outward challenges, they are being shaped on the inside, deep in their hearts.

And of course, such intersection of life’s circumstances with character formation is the stuff of divine providence. Michael N. Stanton reminds us:

The world of Middle-earth is providentially guided . . . These shadowy powers are not identified in the text, but Tolkien tells us in Appendix A that the Valar, the ‘Guardians of the World’ (III; 390; 351), are watching over the fortunes of the denizens of Middle-earth . . . Here in the Third Age, they manipulate to an extent, but they intervene mostly through agents such as the Istari, the wizards. [9]

Such insights prompt us to be open to wisdom’s origin. Don’t forget how The Silmarillion explains that Maiar like Olórin are of the same order as the Valar. Both have their origin in Ilúvatar. Hence, they are of divine origin, and so is their wisdom.

Where do we begin seeking wisdom? We might join Galadriel and the other elves of the First Age and let our hearts grow even more fiery with valour and endurance. After all, courage and patient perseverance are great heart realms where we all need growth. And divine providence delights to supply such encouragement. 

This whole business of wizardly wisdom and character formation is why on his deathbed Thorin said to Bilbo: “There is more in you of good than you know, child of the kindly West. Some courage and some wisdom, blended in measure.” And it’s why after Bilbo sang “Roads go ever ever on,” Gandalf exclaimed: “My dear Bilbo!” he said, “Something is the matter with you! You are not the hobbit that you were.” [10] His character had been transformed.

Now you are ready for the next time you wonder, “Where in the world do you suppose that spark of innovation, such success in the face of obstacles, or those ingenious ideas originated?” Perhaps you’ll recall the work of wizards. And maybe, just maybe you’ll say, “How stunning that Providence sent wisdom my way!”

1. The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, 159. 2. The Two Towers, 329.

3. The Silmarillion, 98-99.

4. The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, 159.

5. The Fellowship of the Ring, 421.

6. Proverbs 2:4 and 4:5 in The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.

7. In the Foreword of David Rowe’s The Proverbs of Middle Earth, iv.

8. Hebrews 13:2 in The Holy Bible.

9. Hobbits, Elves, and Wizards: Exploring the Wonders and Worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, 45.

10. The Hobbit, 301 and 313.

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