Academic journal article Mythlore

Gandalf and Merlin: J.R.R. Tolkien's Adoption and Transformation of a Literary Tradition

Academic journal article Mythlore

Gandalf and Merlin: J.R.R. Tolkien's Adoption and Transformation of a Literary Tradition

Article excerpt

IN A 1954 ESSAY, DESIGNED ORIGINALLY to provide an index of names for The Lord of the Rings, (1) J.R.R. Tolkien introduces Gandalf as the least of the Istari, the messengers from Valar:

[L]ast came one who seemed the least, less tall than the others, and in looks more aged, grey-haired and grey-clad, and leaning on a staff. But Cirdan from their first meeting at the Grey Havens divined in him the greatest spirit and the wisest; and he welcomed him with reverence, and he gave to his keeping the Third Ring, Narya the Red. (Unfinished 389)

As his modest and unassuming appearance both here and in the opening of The Hobbit suggests, Gandalf might appear at first to be little more than a rather eccentric, elderly traveler. But instead, as Cirdan divined and as the reader rapidly discovers, he is a "wandering wizard" (Hobbit 13), whom Tolkien specifically identifies, both in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, as a member of the wizard tradition. And yet, despite a number of striking parallels with Merlin figures from the past, Gandalf is no stereotypical wizard. In his portrait of Gandalf, Tolkien has drawn on earlier texts and traditions, particularly those featuring Merlin, but he has not done so formulaically. On the contrary, Gandalf tests the limits and moves beyond the expectations raised by many previous Merlin figures, especially in his use of magic, his association with women, his relationship to power, and his pedagogical strategies. Moreover, he does not share the ambiguity of many previous portraits of Merlin as a figure who, as Yves Vade notes, occupies an ambiguous space between good and evil. He is also quite unlike Merlin figures who have been portrayed as evil sorcerers, necromancers, and agents of deception, as, for example, in Jean Cocteau's Knights of the Round Table.

The relationship between Gandalf and the Merlin tradition has received little focused attention in critical studies. (2) I will argue that this connection is of far greater significance than has previously been recognized. Gandalf shares many attributes with previous Merlin figures, but he is by no means a carbon copy of previous exemplars. Instead, he is a unique creation through which Tolkien explores questions of absolute power and freedom of choice, questions that emerge all the more clearly against the foil of previous portraits. As Peter Goodrich has commented, "one of the most fascinating aspects of the literature on Merlin is its multiplicity and how it transforms the core details of his legend to create a panoply of mages who are remarkably varied" (Merlin: A Casebook [Casebook] 3). Tolkien's portrait of Gandalf aptly illustrates Goodrich's claim that Merlin is a seminal figure, the point of departure for creative explorations of the concepts associated with wizardry, "that nonverbal space of consciousness which is the spawning ground of new fictional creations in archetypal modes" (Romance of Merlin [Romance] xiii). But unlike many Merlin figures who are, as Goodrich notes, "recognizably the same" (Casebook 3), Gandalf draws on the Merlin tradition while transforming it in significant ways.

Tolkien does not mention Merlin in his novels and uses the more general term "wizard" to refer to Gandalf. However, the parallels noted by Ruth Noel to Mallory's Merlin strongly indicate Gandalf's connection to Merlin.3 But as I will argue, the connection encompasses much of the entire Merlin tradition. Since Merlin is the most ubiquitous wizard figure from medieval times until the present, he is certainly implied by references to wizards and wizardry. Goodrich emphasizes Merlin's central position in the wizard tradition: "No other wizard in western culture defines the occupation of magic as fully as Merlin, who from nonwizardly historical origins has developed over the centuries into the archetypal master of all arts and technologies" (Romance ix). Goodrich has emphasized seven primary roles frequently associated with Merlin figures: "Wild Man, Wonder Child, Prophet, Poet, Counselor, Wizard and Lover" (Casebook 2). …

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