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Gandalf!

[http://www.quintessentialwebsites.com/lordoftherings/home/index.htm] No consideration of The Lord of the Rings would be complete, of course, without Gandalf.

Denethor looked indeed much more like a great wizard than Gandalf did, more kingly, beautiful, powerful; and older. Yet by a sense other than sight Pippin perceived that Gandalf had the greater power and the deeper wisdom, and a majesty that was veiled. And he was older, far older. 'How much older?' he wondered, and then he thought how odd it was that he had never thought about it before. Treebeard had said something about wizards, but even then he had not thought of Gandalf as one of them. What was Gandalf? In what far time and place did he come into the world, and when would he leave it?
I would prefer only to touch on these questions here, though, as Pippin found here in Book V Chapter 1 they are, once asked, not easily forgotten, and once the enquiry is begun, it is not easily avoided. Fortunately, there is one thing about the sources for Gandalf which we can say for certain, because Tolkien admitted it (Carpenter 1981, 119): Gandalf is an 'Odinic' character--one who is, in significant part at least, modelled on inn (literally, 'frenzied', often known by the mainland Scandinavian form of his name, Odin), the greatest of Old Norse Gods (the sir).

inn is a complex, generally nasty, figure. As an s ('(pagan) god', the singular of sir; the word survives in its English form only in old names like Oswald, 's-might, god-might'), he patronises wisdom, war and poetry. But it would be equally fair to say that he patronises magic, strife and incitement. He had a long life in literature both before and after the conversion of Scandinavia, earlier as a god and later either Christianised as a human king, hero or wizard, mistakenly worshipped; or an evil spirit or demon taking human form. Whatever the case, he usually appears in disguise, as a poor wanderer among men, seeking wisdom or profit, or making trouble as a guest; or, unexpectedly encountered by one of his favourites, giving help or advice. inn is full of paradoxes: he is the greatest god, the Alfr; but to move among men (to test his followers) and among the giants (to gain wisdom), he must continually take the part of the indigent. He needs the greatest warriors in Valhll ('the hall of the slain') ready to fight for the sir at the Ragnark, against the jtnar ('giants', cognate with Old English eoten, Middle English etayn which we have encountered above). Having raised these warriors to glory, he must kill them in their prime so as to bring them to Valhll. He is a dangerous god to gain from.

Gandalf too is a wanderer among men, with many identities, as we hear in Book IV Chapter 5:

'The Grey Pilgrim?' said Frodo. 'Had he a name?'
Mithrandir we called him in elf-fashion,' said Faramir, 'and he was content. Many are my names in many countries, he said. Mithrandir among the Elves, Tharkn to the Dwarves; Olrin I was in my youth in the West that is forgotten, in the South Incnus, in the North Gandalf; to the East I go not.'
Gandalf's words here echo the Eddaic poem Grmnisml ('the sayings of Grmnir')--Grmnir ('masked one, hidden one') being, of course, another name for inn (besides being relaterd to the Old English name of Grma Wormtongue). Imprisoned by King Geirrr on suspicion of being a fjllkunnigr mar ('wizard'), and being tortured over a fire, inn is aided by the king's son and rewards him by conveying to him some of his wisdom, through which his identity gradually becomes clear. At the culmination of the poem, in stanzas 46-48, inn describes his names:
[http://faculty.gvsu.edu/websterm/Norse.html] Htomk Grmr, . . htomk Gangleri,
I am called Mask, . . I am called Wanderer,
Herian ok Hjlmberi,
Warrior and Helm-wearer,
ekkr ok rii, . . ur ok Ur,
Known and Third, . . ur and Ur,
Helblindi ok Hr;
Hellblind and High

Sar ok Svipall . . ok Sanngetall,
True and Svipall . . and Sanngetall
Herteitr ok Hnikarr,
War-Merry and Hnikarr,
Bileygr, Bleygr, . . Blverkr, Fjlnir,
Weak-Eye, Flame-Eye, . . ?Evil-Deed, ?Much
Grmr ok Grmnir, . . Glapsvir ok Fjlsvir;
Mask and Masked, Maddener and Much-Wise

Shttr, Sskeggr, . . Sigfr, Hnikur,
Broadhat, Broadbeard, . . War-Father, Hnikur
Alfr, Valfr, . . Atrr ok Farmatr:
All-Father, Slaughter-Father, . . Atrr and Burden-God
eino nafni . . htomk aldregi,
by one name . . am I never called
sz ek me flkom fr.
since I fared among people.
A good many of inn's names might equally have been borne by Gandalf, and it is easy to see where many of Gandalf's characteristics come from.

inn's names here recall the Old Norse convention of characterising mythological figures by giving them meaningful names. Likewise, other characteristics of Gandalf were suggested to Tolkien by the name Gandalf itself, enountered above as Old Norse Gandlfr. This provides an excellent example of how Tolkien used his linguistic skills to develop and explore the possibilities of a character (or place, or race) through the associations of its name. Old Norse gandr meant 'magic'; in Modern Icelandic it means 'staff, wand'. Both are, of course, characteristic of Gandalf. lfr is the Norse cousin of Modern English elf. It is cognate with such words as Latin albus ('white'), and as such may have suggested Gandalf the White, the counterpart of Gandalf the Grey sent to Middle Earth after Gandalf the Grey's battle with the Balrog in the Mines of Moria. In Old Norse itself, the lfar seem[http://www.hum.ku.dk/ami/regius.html] to have been a fairly straightforward counterpart to Tolkien's Elves: a magical, human-like people living beyond the lands of humans (or in later folklore invisibly in the same lands). In such cases, lfar and their English counterparts Elves (Old English lfe) are usually viewed much as the Rohirrim view the Elves of Lothlrien--an otherworldly threat, liable to wield magic and enchantment. This tells us much about why Tolkien chose Elves as a translation of Quendi, but it is not obviously relevant to Gandalf. However there is also a convention in which the lfar are the companions of the sir. In this context, they are probably to be identified with the Vanir, who were a divine race alongside the sir. These philological associations of Gandalf with divinity suggest something about Gandalf too--'Not a name for a child of Men!', as Tolkien once wrote (Carpenter 1981, 182). (Much of this analysis relates to Alaric's own research on the medieval evidence about elves, but it seems that Tolkien came to similar conclusions on the basis of the same evidence, without publishing them.)

The fullest portrayal of inn occurs in the Eddaic poem Hvaml ('The sayings of High')--Hr ('High') being one of inn's many names. It is an obviously layered, rambling text with disparate origins, but for all that, and partly because of it, it is unsettlingly compelling. inn begins with wry proverbs on the life of the poet and the beggar, the duties of the host and the risks of spoiling one's welcome, as in stanza 30,

At augabragi . . scala mar annan hafa,
As a laughing stock (lit. eye-blink) . . a man must not hold another
. . tt till kynnis komi;
. . though on a visit (he should) come
margr frr icciz, . . ef hann freginn erat
many (a man) then wise seems . . if he isn't questioned
. . oc ni hann urrfiallr ruma.
. . and he gets, dry-skinned, to sit fast.
Gradually, the poem proceeds to more general proverbs, and thence weaves these threads into inn's accounts of failed seduction, and his self-prostitution for the mead of poetry; this is followed by a sequence of advice to a mysterious Loddffnir, mainly on the dangers of friendship, women and witchcraft; and finally inn's disjointed, disquieting stanzas on his own acquisition and knowledge of magic. inn emerges as powerful, wise (but often from his own mistakes), troublesome, despised; but, ultimately, on the side of Men against the jtnar, the chaotic, barbaric monsters which surround and perpetually threaten humanity:
[http://faculty.gvsu.edu/websterm/Norse.html] N ero Hva ml qvein, . . Hva hllo ,
Now are High's songs spoken, . . in High's hall
. . allrf ta sonom,
. . full-useful to mens' sons
. . rf itna sonom;
. . useless to the sons of jtnar;
heill, s er qva, . . heill, s er kann!
Fortunate, he who recites, . . fortunate, he who knows (how)!
. . niti, s er nam,
. . may it serve him who took it,
. . heilir, eirs hlddo!
. . fortunate, those who listened!

In much of this, of course, inn is as much the model for Aragorn--or perhaps more fittingly, Strider--as for Gandalf. ' "Strider" I am to one fat man who lives within a day's march of foes that would freeze his heart, or lay his little town to ruin, if he were not guarded ceaselessly', says Aragorn in Book II Chapter 2. Though both Aragorn and Gandalf are inordinately cleaned-up, they share may of inn's core features. And it is perhaps significant that, as with the Elves, when we get outsiders' views of the characters--like Barliman Butterbur's of Aragorn--they are much closer to our representations of inn than the characters deserve.

This reading helps to close the gap between Gandalf and inn. Underlying The Lord of the Rings, partly in the Silmarillion, partly in Tolkien's many other writings and letters, is the intriguing mythology of the Ainur, originally aspects of the being of the All-Father, Ilvatar. Among the Ainur are the Valar and Maiar, who went to E to help to fulfil the vision of Ilvatar. It has long been noted how skilfully Tolkien was able to create a mythology while maintaining (or even developing) an orthodox--and beautiful--Roman Catholic theology. However, the Valar and Maiar owe something to Norse mythology too--much as we would expect, given that the Odinic Gandalf seems likely to have been one of their number. Amongst other things, they did not, for much of the period described by the Silmarillion, dwell in a world on a different physical plane from our own, but on the same plane as Middle Earth. This cosmography is the same as seems to have existed in pre-Christian Germanic culture: the Old Norse Migarr ('Middle-enclosure'), the world of humans and linguistically (beside its Old English cognate Middangeard) the basis for Tolkien's Middle-earth was not sandwiched between sgarr ('s-enclosure') above and Hel ('Hell') below, but bordered by them as Tolkien's Middle-earth was at one time bordered by Valinor. As in the history of Middle-earth, men might try to travel from Migarr into the land of the Gods.

These comparisons show the rather deep-seated similarities between Tolkien's subcreated mythology and cosmography, and those of pre-Conversion Norse society. Moreover, they suggest that we may view Tolkien's mythology not only as working never to overstep the bounds set by orthodox Roman Catholic theology, but also to incorporate to a significant degree the bounds set by the earliest Christianisers of Norse pagan traditions. The deliberately ambiguous place of Gandalf and the other Istari ('wizards') both within Tolkien's subcreation and vis vis Catholic theology--Men or Valar? saints or angels? or neither?--would reflect the ambiguity inevitable in any attempt to reconcile the sir with Christian theology without stripping them of divinity. In their ignorance, Men in the history of Middle-Earth worshipped the Valar where they should have worshipped Ilvatar alone, just as men, according to some Christian Norse texts, wrongly worshipped inn. On the other hand, there was at least one among the Istari who was both like Gandalf, and, in the end, like the inn whom we know both from Hvaml and other Norse sources; and Tolkien never make it entirely clear what came of Saruman.

These are musings of which Tolkien, I fear, would not entirely have approved. But they at least show some of the ways in which looking at the languages and texts which inspired Tolkien not only shows his literary models, techniques and some of his aspirations, but suggests doorways through his extraordinary sub-creation can be explored.

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