The Wise Old Man:

Gandalf as Archetype in The Lord of the Rings

by Jason Clarke
December 9, 1998

Home > Maiar > Istari > Gandalf > The Wise Old Man

(Note: Author is a fellow Tolkien fan, although not a member of the Valar Guild.
Essay written for a class taken at Harvard U., about Gandalf in the context of Jungian archetypes)

In the very beginning of the first chapter of The Lord of the Rings , a character is introduced as "an old man driving [a
cart] all alone. He wore a tall pointed blue hat, a long grey cloak, and a silver scarf. He had a long white beard and
bushy eyebrows that stuck out beyond the brim of his hat" (Tolkien, 1: 45). "This was Gandalf the wizard, whose fame
was due mostly to his skill with fire, smokes and lights. His real business was far more difficult and dangerous"
(Tolkien, I: 46). As I re-read this passage in preparation for this essay, I was struck by the unassuming way the
character is introduced; the intrigue inherent in the last part of the quotation particularly interested me, the way the
figure suddenly changes from a stock character-a "wizard" whose talents may be limited to fireworks-to someone with
a secret life, a hint of much more behind the "grey cloak" and the "long white beard." The text of this introduction is
representative of the character of Gandalf himself, entirely unassuming at first, but suddenly hinting at an unknown fount
of power and wisdom.

Gandalf, a central character in J.R.R. Tolkien's famous work, is an example of an archetype, as defined by Carl Jung.
To understand what an archetype is requires, at least, a brief explanation of Jung's method of psychological analysis.

Like Sigmund Freud, Jung divides the mind into the conscious and unconscious. The conscious mind (or ego, though
this word's definition is slightly different under Jung than Freud) is, of course, all our active thoughts and actions; the
unconscious, initially classified by Freud as merely "the gathering place of forgotten and repressed contents" (Jung 3), is
divided by Jung into the "personal" unconscious and the "collective" unconscious. The personal unconscious is the
"superficial" unconscious of Freud, composed of personal experiences of the individual; the collective unconscious, a
deeper layer, is not "individual but universal. It has contents and modes of behaviour that are more or less the same
everywhere and in all individuals" (Jung 3). The "contents" of this collective unconscious are known as archetypes.
These archetypes, deeply hidden from the conscious mind, are nevertheless expressed again and again, according to
Jung, in any form of creative expression, including religion, literature (particularly myths and fairy tales), and art.

Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings is brimming with archetypes, especially those that recur often in fairy tales. An entire
book has been devoted to the subject-The Individuated Hobbit, by Timothy O'Neill, to which I refer anyone
interested in more than just Gandalf. While O'Neill does spend part of a chapter on the wizard, he spends more time
on Gandalf not as an archetype of the "wise old man" (which will defined later) but as a metaphor for the process of
individuation. The purpose of this essay is to examine more closely the character of Gandalf and the "wise old man"
archetype he embodies.

Gandalf, like the other characters mentioned above, conforms to a visual and mythic (if particularly European)
stereotype of a "wizard." He usually appears (among humans) as an old man, approximately fifty or sixty years old,
with a long beard and clothed in robes, often wearing a hat. Like many wizards in fairy tales, Gandalf is in actuality a
supernatural being who has chosen to take on human form. He takes an interest in the affairs of the earthly, or human,
world, another common aspect of the "wizard" image. In general, Gandalf attempts to be a positive force in
Middle-earth, keeping a delicate balance between "good" and "evil" forces, or insuring the safety and security of
"good" people and their world.

Gandalf's principal role in The Lord of the Rings is that of an advisor. He is well-versed in all sorts of esoteric
knowledge, speaks the language of every sentient race, and is friends with nearly everyone (except, of course, those
on the side of the Enemy, Sauron). He is far older than he looks, having been on Middle-earth for nearly a thousand
years. He is, in actuality, a Maia, which in Tolkien's pantheon equates roughly to an "angel" or "archangel." Thus he
ages very slowly, "only by the cares and labours of many long years" (Tolkien, Unfinished Tales 406). Though he is
not the central character, by the end of The Lord of the Rings it is clear that the downfall of Sauron and the success of
the West would have been entirely impossible without his work; as Aragorn says of the wizard, "he has been the
mover of all that has been accomplished; and this is his victory" (Tolkien III: 274).

The "victory" that Jung envisions is the process of Self-realization, or individuation. This process, the creation of the
Self, is the ultimate goal of psychological development. When individuation is achieved, the conscious and unconscious
minds are in tandem, and the soul is at peace. Gandalf's archetypal role helps the individual along the path to
individuation in the context of a fairy tale. The greatest hurdle in this process is the confrontation with the shadow-the
individual's alter-ego, the "Mr. Hyde," a collection of animalistic or base tendencies and desires left over from our
previous evolutionary stages. This confrontation can be quite traumatizing to the psyche, but these "base" or "evil"
tendencies must be faced and understood, rather than stifled or repressed. With his "Dark Tower" in the middle of the
dark land of Mordor, with his single-minded determination to corrupt or destroy everything in Middle-earth, and
especially with his virtual non-existence as anything beyond a vague (but powerful) negative force, who better
personifies the shadow than Sauron? The purpose of archetypes is to provide a context by which the shadow can be
confronted without great trauma to the psyche; as O'Neill notes, perceiving the shadow directly "is not a comforting
experience" (O'Neill 37). So just as Gandalf confronts Sauron through intermediaries such as Aragorn, Frodo and
Théoden, the conscious mind-the ego-confronts the shadow through archetypes such as Gandalf. However, the
objective is "not the destruction of the shadow, but rather its recognition, since the shadow is a necessary part of the
whole" (O'Neill 37). While it may be argued that Gandalf's sole purpose is to destroy Sauron, there certainly seems to
be no indication that the Fourth Age following Sauron's downfall would be an everlasting utopian period; when he
warns Aragorn that he will soon leave, Gandalf adds, "the burden must now lie upon you and your kindred" (Tolkien
III: 278).

While all the archetypes work in some way toward the goal of individuation, those particular to Gandalf include the
"wise old man," which is the "archetype of wisdom and power" (O'Neill 37), and the "spirit," closely related to the wise
old man, and sharing many of its qualities. Jung never actually refers to the wise old man as an archetype in and of
itself. Rather, he states that " is the figure of a wise old man who symbolizes the spiritual factor" (Jung 215).
O'Neill, on the other hand, ignores the name "spirit" and simply calls the archetype the "wise old man." For the
purposes of this essay, the two archetypes can be considered one and the same; like O'Neill, however, I feel that the
term "wise old man" suits Gandalf better than Jung's slightly more amorphous "spirit."

The wise old man is understood as "the personification of the voice of age-old past in man as expressed in the deep
unconscious" (Progoff 236). Jung describes the role of this archetype as often appearing "when the hero is in a
hopeless and desperate situation from which only profound reflection or a lucky idea-in other words, a spiritual
function or an endopsychic automatism of some kind-can extricate him" (Jung 217). Since the hero cannot, for various
reasons, succeed in his task, the needed knowledge comes in "personified thought, i.e. the shape of this sagacious and
helpful old man" (Jung 218). Ultimately, the knowledge from this old man will lead not only to the success of the
conscious task-winning the maiden, conquering the witch, regaining the kingship-but to the individuation of the hero

In The Lord of the Rings, Gandalf's role as the "wise old man" is greatly expanded. While one of his goals is indeed
helping the hero of the novel-the heir to the throne of Gondor, Aragorn-regain his rightful kingship, the wizard's main
role is being the engineer of Sauron's defeat. Returning the king to his throne is just one of a nearly endless list of
sub-goals that stems from or follows Sauron's downfall. Many of these goals-the restoration of Aragorn, the
rejuvenation of Théoden, the cowing of the wicked Saruman, the defeat of Sauron-can be viewed as literary
representations of successful individuation.

The counsel the wise old man provides however, according to Jung, comes only after the hero has made a step toward
individuation. The first thing the wise old man does is "ask questions like who? why? whence? and whither? for the
purpose of inducing self-reflection and mobilizing the moral forces" (Jung 220). This is the way in which Gandalf sets
almost all of the great forces in The Lord of the Rings in motion.

There are many examples of Gandalf using this Socratic method of psychological advancement. The first-and one of
the most important-comes in persuading Bilbo to leave his ring, the One Ring and most important element in defeating
Sauron, to his nephew Frodo (who would eventually bring it to Mount Doom to be destroyed). The Ring latches on to
its holder, makes them greedy and avaricious for it, and so Bilbo has an extremely difficult time letting it go. He tries to
make himself believe that it's the right thing to do: "Here it is in my pocket...Isn't that why shouldn't it stay
there?" (Tolkien I: 55). Bilbo is unable to face the shadow, to confront his unconscious feelings of avarice for the Ring.
Frodo sees this shadow in himself years later, when Bilbo asks to look at the ring: "To [Frodo's] distress and
amazement he found he was no longer looking at Bilbo; a shadow seemed to have fallen between them" (Tolkien I:
280). But while Bilbo is struggling to leave the ring for Frodo, Gandalf asks him, "I think, should leave it
behind. Don't you want to?" (Tolkien I: 55). The wizard eventually becomes exasperated: "Go away and leave it
behind. Stop possessing it" (Tolkien I: 57); but "Gandalf's role as adviser involves direct commands as well as helpful
suggestions" (Spivack 80). Bilbo struggles for some time more, but never does Gandalf touch the envelope with the
Ring, until Bilbo makes a concentrated effort to put it down. His hand jerks back and drops it (foreshadowing Frodo's
ultimate failure to physically destroy the Ring himself, without Gollum's intervention), but at that point Gandalf is able to
intervene, and places the envelope on the mantelpiece. Bilbo is briefly angry, but then "it gave way to a look or relief
and a laugh" (Tolkien I: 58). Bilbo faces his shadow and just barely beats it, but he does succeed; however, it is only
with the gentle but persistent suggestions of Gandalf and the wizard's timely intervention once the Ring has been
dropped, that allows Bilbo to free himself of the Ring's control.

An even more powerful instance of Gandalf's role in bringing about self-individuation is in the rejuvenation of Théoden,
king of Rohan. Théoden, who has been corrupted by the influence of a spy named Gríma (nicknamed by Gandalf
"Wormtongue"). By the time of Gandalf's arrival, the spy has persuaded the king to imprison his noble son, Éomer, and
unconsciously allow Saruman, Gandalf's "evil twin" and Gríma's employer, to run Rohan by proxy (through Gríma).
Théoden sits miserably in a dark, dank hall, and is "so bent with age that he seemed almost a dwarf" (Tolkien II: 138).
Under Jungian theory, until self-individuation arises, either the ego or the shadow is in dominance, in "a state of
disequilibrium...the phenomenon of one-sidedness" (O'Neill 30). Usually, the ego is in dominance, projecting a
"persona" which "meets the expectations and restraints of social pressure" (O'Neill 25). This was the case with Bilbo;
despite his struggles with his dark side, he was still a generally pleasant person. However, Théoden has been so
corrupted by Gríma that his shadow has taken control of him; he insults Gandalf, telling him "troubles follow you like
crowswhen I heard Shadowfax [Gandalf's horse] had back riderless, I rejoiced at the return of the horse, but still more
at the lack of a rider" (Tolkien II: 138). In this situation, Gandalf cannot aid Théoden until he silences Gríma with magic
(Gríma is very clearly a manifestation of the "trickster" archetype, but a discussion of such is outside the boundaries of
this essay). Once this figure has been removed, Gandalf begins to question Théoden to self-realization: "Do you ask for
help? ...Counsel I could give, and words I could speak to you. Will you hear them?" Once again, Gandalf refuses to
coerce or bully his subject.

This situation is extremely similar to that of a fairy tale analyzed by Jung, where an old man comes across a boy who
has run away from a cruel master. The old man informs the child that "you can no longer turn back. Now that you have
run away, you must seek a new home. I can take no further care of you, but I will give you some good advice for
nothing" (Jung 218). The old man has "expressed no more than what the boy, the hero of the tale, could have thought
out for himself[the boy] has to rely entirely on himself" (Jung 218). This realization "will give him the necessary
resolution to his actions" (Jung 219); then the old man can "begin his good advice" (Jung 219).

Théoden, however, does not come to the realization of his situation immediately. Slightly more intervention is needed;
Gandalf takes the king out into the sunlight and fresh, open air. This "common sense therapyled one critic to describe
[Gandalf] as a role-model for the psycho-therapist" (Spivack 80). Théoden notes that "it is not so dark here," and
Gandalf advises him to "cast aside your [staff]" (Tolkien II: 142). Soon, Théoden is standing straight and tall; the
influence of Gríma has been removed, and the sunlight and fresh air has returned clear thinking: "Dark have been my
dreams of latebut I feel as one new-awakened" (Tolkien II: 142). His ego has returned from its repression, but the
shadow has spent enough time in control that the two have come together: Théoden has achieved individuation. He can
now recognize Gríma as the "trickster": "'Your leechcraft ere long would have had me walking on all fours like a beast'"
(Tolkien II: 146). He is rejuvenated, and soon he is leading his soldiers into battle. Gandalf has succeeded once again
in his role as the wise old man.

But Gandalf would be a rather boring figure were he simply to fulfill the role of the wise old man archetype time and
again throughout The Lord of the Rings. Part of the way Gandalf's character is defined and made original is in his
departures from his archetypal role; these are the scenes that stand out in the mind of the reader. Ask any fan of The
Lord of the Rings (myself included) for Gandalf's memorable scene, and you will almost always be get the same
answer: his confrontation with the Balrog.

In this scene, Gandalf confronts a demon, an evil Maia bent on his destruction. Rather than telling Aragorn how to
defeat the monster or some other form of counsel, Gandalf stands alone, brandishing his sword against the beast. They
clash; Aragorn and several other heroes rush to aid Gandalf, but he destroys the thin bridge he and the Balrog are
standing on and plunges into the depths, his last words yet another bit of advice: "'Fly, you fools!'" (Tolkien I: 393).

This scene, and its immense popularity (immortalized in several paintings, most memorably by John Howe) illustrates
the powerful status archetypes have in our minds. While Gandalf, like Merlin or any other wizard, certainly exudes
potential for magical power, his struggle-and ultimate success-with the Balrog is entirely unexpected. Combat with
monsters is traditionally the work of heroes like Beowulf or knights like Lancelot; but before the Balrog, Gandalf
seems "grey and bent, like a wizened tree before the onset of a storm" (Tolkien I: 392). Rather than dispersing his
magical power as knowledge to the heroes of the tale, Gandalf here uses it directly; the archetype bypasses its role in
expediting individuation through confrontation with the shadow, and confronts the shadow itself. The appeal comes
from the hope that one's problems can be solved in this manner: a force, an archetype will step in and confront the
shadow for us.

Obviously, this is not the path to individuation. The Istari-the order of wizards to which Gandalf belongs-were ordered
by their god-like lords, the Valar, never to "reveal themselves in forms of majesty" (Tolkien, Unfinished Tales 406).
Such a direct intervention by an archetype is a breach of conduct, and cannot go unpunished; thus, Gandalf is killed in
his struggle with the Balrog, though he slays his enemy as well. Here the author must step in: Gandalf is still needed in
the novel, and so he is returned to Middle-earth through unknown means. This problematic departure from the
archetype, while providing an extremely exciting scene and making Gandalf a much more memorable character, also
created the plethora of Christ-related readings of Gandalf's death and resurrection in its pat resolution.

Like all things, however, Gandalf does come to a final resolution. In his last (chronological) appearance in the work of
Tolkien, Gandalf is still spouting advice: "'Well, here at last, my friends, on the shore of the Sea comes the end of our
fellowship in Middle-earth. Go in peace! I will not say: do not weep, for not all tears are an evil'" (Tolkien III: 347).
His role is over; the shadow has been pushed away; Mordor will be acclimated to the rest of Middle-earth. The
fictional world of Tolkien has been individuated, and the result is the Fourth Age. This age will be dominated by
humans, while the world of fantasy-Elves, superhuman heroes, Balrogs, dragons, and even hobbits-will fade away, no
longer having to play its role: to populate the collective unconscious with archetypes. But Gandalf, with his powerful
representation of the wise old man, starkly outlined by his brief departure from his archetypal role, has played his part,
and played it well.


Jung, Carl The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious Princeton: Princeton UP, 1975

O'Neill, Timothy R. The Individuated Hobbit: Jung, Tolkien and the Archetypes of Middle-earth Boston: Houghton
Mifflin Company, 1979

Progoff, Ira Jung's Psychology and its Social Meaning New York: Dialogue House Library 1985

Spivack, Charlotte Merlin: A Thousand Heroes with One Face Lewiston: Edwin Mellen Press 1994

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Lord of the Rings 3 vols. New York: Ballantine Books 1965

Tolkien, J.R.R. Unfinished Tales New York: Ballantine Books 1988

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