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Gandalf - The Mentor

 Yesterday was Lord of the Rings Day. Every January, we sit down for an entire day and watch the three Lord of the Rings films back-to-back. And that's the extended versions. It's a perfect way to spend a January Saturday, when Christmas is over and before the gardening season truly begins and you feel bad for being inside!

I thought yesterday, as I was crying at the Fellowship of the Ring, that I would do a blog post about Boromir and how he's actually a pretty awesome character. Then I thought, when I opened Blogger to write, that all of the Fellowship play important roles, and there's someone there who would appeal to everyone.

So, in this 9 part series on characters, let's take each of the Fellowship and discuss the role they play in the story. What's their character arc? What's their purpose? You never know - it might teach us a thing or two about designing our own characters.

WARNING: This contains spoilers. Obviously!

The first one we're going to look at is Gandalf...the Mentor Character.

Gandalf sees his role as bringing people together. It's him who pairs Frodo and Sam up - a friendship which neither of them could have survived without. He's a wise old man - he always seems to understand what the consequence of his actions will be, and Tolkein can manage this convenience-character-trait because Gandalf isn't just any old man. He's thousands of years old. I suppose that, with that amount of time on Earth, you do begin to predict what might happen. It's a tricky plot device to negotiate, to have somebody who always knows what's best, but there are a couple of ways that Tolkein still keeps things spicy!

Firstly, Saruman. A goodie (Gandalf) must always have a baddie (Saruman) who is more powerful than them. Otherwise, Gandalf could just go zap and all his problems would be sorted. It's made extra exciting because he thinks Saruman is his friend and so he's caught off his guard when he realises what Saruman's up to.

Secondly, the balrog. Same point about Saruman really, but Tolkein had to put in the balrog as a way to get Gandalf out of the way. You see, the problem with mentor characters, is that, if they stick around, the main character can't reach their full potential. This is the reason why mentors tend to die in books and films. If they're always available for the main character to fall back on, how is that character going to develop?

Of course, like many fantasy authors, Tolkein couldn't keep this character dead. He came back...albeit different. It's something about fantasy - the prospect of having a character come back from the dead is just too tempting. does Tolkein ensure that Gandalf's (improved) power doesn't hold back the other characters? He sends him off with one of the Fellowship whose character arc does not involve strength. We'll get there later, but it doesn't matter that Pippin has Gandalf there all the time, because his role in the story in entirely different. (But, just to prove my point from earlier, when things get really bad, Pippin goes and finds Gandalf who sorts everything out).

Good Character Traits

  • Gandalf the Mentor is very wise, using his great knowledge of the world to influence his decisions.
  • He is also loyal. When faced with an impossible enemy, he still chooses the losing side because it is good.
  • He likes a simple life. I actually really love how he is with the Shire. It's like his favourite place to go on holiday because things are so simple and ordinary there. There are no orcs to contend with, and the worst thing about the place is the complacency.
  • He's handy in a tight spot! Not only is he wise, he's also pretty good with a sword.

Bad Character Traits

  • Saruman says that Gandalf does not hesitate to sacrifice those closest to him. Well, he might hesitate a bit, but this comment actually has some truth to it. Frodo tries to give him the ring, but he refused it and demanded that Frodo kept it. Out of what? Fear.
  • Gandalf, like so many mentor characters, is a great big grump. He doesn't always understand that not everyone has his experience and, while he loves hobbits, he tends to have a bit of a moan about them. Especially where Pippin is concerned.
  • Gandalf (also a good mentor trait!) keeps things to himself. I know it's different in the book, but in the film, he decides to keep the balrog a secret while asking Frodo if he wants to go through Moria. Not a great decision, Gandalf! Gives us all the facts please.

For a character arc, I would say Gandalf's is probably the least developed. Perhaps this is because he's been around for so long, but he doesn't change much (apart from dying and coming back stronger!) throughout the series. He's still has the same good points and bad points. This is often the case with the mentor character. They stay much the same throughout the story, either because they are stuck in their ways, or that they die early on!

So, Gandalf's character is basically the mentor role in any book. Okay, so not all mentors are thousands of years old and can wield magic, but they generally have the same outlook on life, and the same role to play! And they tend to die!

Who would you like to hear about next? The other 8 members of the Fellowship are:



  1. Great analysis of Gandalf.

    As you say, the always wise character can be hard to work with. I once read advice that it's sometimes better to have the wise advice come from a bad character because that complicates things. Tolkien, of course, manages the mentor wonderfully anyway.

  2. He's very much the "Merlin" of the cast - a grumpy, older figure who has little patience for those not as wise as himself. And like Gandalf, Merlin keeps crucial bits of knowledge to himself, like the fact that he knows he will be betrayed and locked away by Nimue (and proceeds to let this happen!).
    I would vote for Boromir's analysis next, but only for the Sean Bean-factor! 😁


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