The Death of Gandalf

by Eonwe-(Valar)
April 26, 2002

Home > Maiar > Istari > Gandalf > Death 

    There has been debate concerning the death of Gandalf.  While we all agree that Gandalf, being a Maia spirit, was not subject to the same “permanent” death as the Children of Iluvatar (passing beyond the circles of the world to be with Him, or remaining in Aman until the Ending of the World) we do not all agree as to whether he experienced a physical death.  Some believe that Gandalf did indeed die a physical death as a result of his battle with the Balrog of Moria.  Others, however, believe that Gandalf did not die, but merely passed into a coma.  The evidence given in LotR, however, better supports the former point of view than the latter.
    The first evidence of Gandalf’s death is in his description of his battle.

    “The darkness took me, and I strayed out of thought and time, and I wandered far on roads that I will not tell.”
    “Naked I was sent back-for a brief time, until my task was done.  And naked I lay upon the mountain-top.”
    “I tarried there in the ageless time of that land where days bring healing not decay.  Healing I found, and I was clothed in white.”
 (Book 3, The Two Towers, "The White Rider")

    These passages can be interpreted to support both views.  According to the “coma” theory, Gandalf meant by the first quote that he passed into a coma.  The other two then tell how in the battle, Gandalf’s clothing was burned by the Balrog, and how after he awoke on the peak and was taken to Lothlorien his body was healed and he was given new clothing.  The “death” theory says Gandalf did indeed die after he threw down the Balrog.  His Maia spirit left his body and went to Aman, where he probably stood before the Valar to receive counsel and orders.  He was then sent back in spirit form (the purpose for the first use of “naked”) to re-inhabit his body that lay atop Zirakzigil without clothing (the purpose of the second use).  Gwaihir found him and bore him to Lothlorien, where his body was healed and he was clothed anew.  The dual interpretation ends here.
    The second piece of evidence is what Gandalf says to other people.  He tells Wormtongue at Theoden’s halls, “I have not passed through fire and death to bandy crooked words with a serving-man till the lightning falls.” ("The King of the Golden Hall") He then later tells Saruman at Orthanc, “Behold, I am not Gandalf the Grey, whom you betrayed.  I am Gandalf the White, who has returned from death.” ("The Voice of Saruman")  In both of these Gandalf specifically tells those listening that he has been through death.
    The final evidence in favor of Gandalf’s death comes from "Appendix B: The Tale of Years" at the end of The Return of the King.  I cite these excerpts:
    January 25:   He (Gandalf) casts down the Balrog, and passes away.  His body lies on the peak.
    February 14:  The Mirror of Galadriel.  Gandalf returns to life, and lies in a trance.
    November 3:  Battle of Bywater, and Passing of Saruman.  End of the War of the Ring.

    In the second excerpt, it says Gandalf  “returns to life,” which means that he had to have died.  After returning, he “lies in a trance,” in which he sees and hears the goings-on of Middle-Earth.  Also, the first and third excerpts both speak of “passing away.”  The first concerns Gandalf, and the third concerns Saruman.  At the end of Return of the King, Saruman dies.
    Here has been shown that Gandalf did indeed die after his battle with the Balrog of Moria.  He left his physical body, which constitutes death for those in Arda who cannot freely toss away this body (i.e. the Children of Iluvatar could not, and neither could the Istari, being bound by the Valar to those bodies).  He specifically says twice and to two different people (one of them Saruman, who is also an Istar, and thus would not need things put in “words he can comprehend”) that he passed through death.  Finally, the Tale of Years not only says that Gandalf returns to life, implying a return from somewhere, but also uses the same description for Gandalf’s death as it does for Saruman’s death at the hands of Wormtongue.  It is clear by all these clues that Gandalf did die, and that Tolkien intended for his condition after his battle with the Balrog to be considered death.

The Fellowship of the Ring
The Two Towers
The Return of the King

For further information on the Istari, their fate and their nature, see
Unfinished Tales, "The Istari"
The Silmarillion, "Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age"
The Valar Guild's Tolkien Encyclopedia, section Maiar, topic Istari
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