Gandalf the Grey – Tolkien’s Apostolic Archetype

2 08 2008

(Warning: If you don’t enjoy fantasy you probably want to skip this post.)

Ever since my friend Luke Crook forced my to read The Lord of the Rings in 7th grade I’ve been enamored with the character of Gandalf.  What is it about him that resonates so deeply with me?  As I’ve been studying the nature of apostolic ministry I continue to be struck by the similarities between Gandalf’s role (and the role of the 5 wizards) and the developing biblical picture I’m getting regarding God’s apostles.

Here are a few parallels:

“The Wandering Wizard” – Gandalf is itinerant and insists on building up other groups but being beholden to none.  He takes REAL responsibility for his role in providing guidance and strategy without settling down in any one place (the flaw of Saruman).  In the Silmarillion there is an interesting narrative about the White Council (Elrond, Galadriel, Gandalf, Saruman etc.).  Galadriel wanted Gandalf to be the leader of the White Council but Gandalf refused because “he would not be subject to any summons”.  He will not be rooted to one institution because it would interfere with his ability to serve many (this also must be true of apostles) which leads to my second point.

“Servant of the Secret Fire” – My favorite scene in The Fellowship of the Ring is when Gandalf faces the Balrog of Morgoth.  Gandalf is already visibly shaken by being hit by a counter spell at the tomb door and suddenly Legolas cries out Ai! Ai! A Balrog!  And you know when the powerful, wise, hundreds-of-years-old elf freaks out you’re in serious trouble.  But when Gandalf faces off with the Balrog on the bridge he tells the creature “I am a servant of the Secret Fire” and the second I read that for the first time I was entraced.  Tolkien has amazing literary restraint.  He tells you very little about the history of Middle-Earth but just enough to give his works a sense of almost endless depth and history.  Now I’m a big enough geek to read Tolkien’s other books and notes and I know that Gandalf was sent by the Valar to Middle-Earth to counter the growing threat of Sauron.  But Gandalf’s self-identity as a servant of something secret and unseen by those who knew him is exactly the kind of self-identity needed for an apostle.  Apostles are not superstars they are servants of the unseen Kingdom of God, not building fortresses like Saruman but on the move, tirelessly serving and building up the forces of God’s people to face their enemy which leads to my final point.

“Stormcrow” – Gandalf was given the name Stormcrow by some because his arrival always seemed to be perfectly timed with a season of war of either expansion or defense.  Likewise God’s apostles often arrive to shake up foundations and move God’s people forward which can be unsettling for those who are desperately trying to defend the status quo.

There are many others but I thought I’d list a few and expose my hopeless geekdom for public display once again.



9 responses

2 08 2008

Excellent posts. There are certainly some Christ-like allegories as well, him being “brought back to life;” his miraculous powers. You can find such allegories throughout Tolkien’s work.

3 08 2008
Drew Goodmanson

Love it. You totally scored some geek points!

3 08 2008

“Blessed are the geeks, for they are taking over the Earth.”
-The Message

15 08 2008

Oh, it’s the Geeks, how blessed are the Geeks! Well that’s nice, cuz they’ve had an ‘ell of a time.

24 08 2008
josh knoechel

i’ve said this a hundred times but never to you. whenever i explain you to someone i always do it in the same way:

“he’s incredibly wise and has really deep convictions. he would be overpoweringly intimidating if he wasn’t so geeky. but that is where his true power lies because it is so disarming.”

especially through the sonship SFL i’ve come to realize that Jesus did not have a magic lens that He used all the time to look into people’s hearts. certainly, the Spirit revealed things to Him and He used it (the woman at the well) but i think that most of the time he was just really good at reading people because He had such a good understanding of the human heart and condition. so now i wonder if Jesus had some kind of disarming element of His own that gave Him insight into specific people because they let their guards down. maybe Jesus was a big nerd.

8 11 2008
Lord of the Rings.

That was brilliant! You obviously love The Lord of the Rings as much as I do!

17 01 2009
Paul Helms

I stumbled upon your website through Google Reader… I am really interested in much of what you say, and must say that I’ve had the same thoughts about Gandalf as you, though I am glad you wrote it out.

grace and peace to you brother!


6 12 2010
Lord of Magic

Very good analysis! Two other points that I also love:

First, the contrast between Gandalf and Aragorn(as seen by Gimli and Legolas in Fangorn) and between Gandalf and Denethor(as seen by Pippin) Gandalf is presented as old and wizened in both descriptions, but in this weakness is a great power.

Second, Christopher Tolkien published a lot of his father’s notes. In one of them was a scene depicting the Valar choosing and sending out the Maia who would be the 5 wizards. Gandalf(Olórin is his real name) is the only one chosen who shows reluctance to go to Middle Earth, but it is because of this reluctance that he is chosen. And after being asked, he does go willingly. God doesn’t always choose the willing to do His work.

Pax et Bonum

22 02 2013
dries van beusichem

somewhere in his letters ( it was the letter to Robert Murray in nov 1954 Tolkien wrote that Gandalf was an incarnate angel ( see also the Silmarilion where gandalf is described as one of the Maia…spiritual beings that resemble Bodhisattva’s They incarnate on earth with a mission to help humanity and the other sentient species

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