With The Hobbit being filmed in NZ and Dr Who in a midyear break, I thought why not write about the two. So this is my take on how JRRR Tolkien’s Gandalf is very much analogous to that Doctor from Gallifrey.
Olórin also called Mithrandir and Gandalf and is an Istari. He is, in the Middle Earth pantheon of peoples, gods and monsters, a demi-god and also, a bit like Buddha, a higher being who instead of just existing in a state beyond, returns to Middle Earth to help it. He is an emissary of the gods – he was sent as the great enemy of Sauron. He has a human form that can be killed or corrupted, but is essentially immortal and takes the form of an old, wise man. He also has the ability to survive death, and in a way regenerate (his persona differs from before his experience with the Balrog to afterwards).
He is the archetypal wizard and counsellor. He and his kind spend their time ensuring balance in the world, between nature and people and between good and evil. His fellows are capable of corruption or can choose to be less engaged with worldly affairs of the peoples of the world. There is a hierarchy amongst the five of them. They pick specialties to exercise their wisdom. Gandalf is the Grey and the last to arrive in Middle Earth, is seen as the second wisest member and is concerned with Elves. Sauruman is the White and the head of the order and is concerned with study, knowledge and power and humans. Gandalf, a being of interaction and intelligence, leads by example and uses his knowledge to help. He can be impatient and quick to anger, but also immensely kind and good hearted and far-sighted. He arrives when he is needed and like any counsellor often brings bad news, or advocates methods to do good by making a mess (anything from advising open war to getting hobbits to light fire beacons). He is also a healer and uses special tools (his staff, his sword, his psychic abilities, communication with animals, reads and speaks many languages).
The Doctor is a Timelord from a far away world… he is a visitor in the rest of the universe, not an emissary as such, but a kind of a counsellor with special tools and abilities he uses for good. Indeed, if he is an emissary he is unaware of it, but the Tardis seems to always send him where he is needed. He has a human-like form that can be killed, but also possesses the ability to re-generate, making him essentially immortal compared to the average human being. He has lived for hundreds of years and his true name is hidden. He can be impatient and quick to anger, but also immensely kind and good hearted and far-sighted. He arrives when he is needed and like any counsellor often brings bad news, or advocates or uses methods to do good by making a mess (anything from advising open war to blowing up schools). He is also a healer and uses special tools (his sonic screwdriver, Tardis, psychic paper, psychic abilities, ability to speak every language, read minds). His people, when around, were like him but sometimes prone to corruption (The Master, Rassilon). His fellows made a choice to be less engaged with the affairs of universe and set themselves as observers, which contrasts to the Doctor being a Timelord of action and interaction in the affairs of the peoples of the universe. There is a hierarchy amongst them but it is kinda irrelevant as most of the time The Doctor is either beyond their reach or they are stuck in the Time War. The Master is also considered to be more intelligent than the Doctor. The Timelords maintain certain laws within the universe, and with all of them gone bar one, the universe is ‘much less kind’.
What I would like to discuss is the concept of the messenger. They’re always bringing news. Usually it is pretty bad (everything from the end of the world is nigh and the biggest fight ever is coming, to I can’t dance with you or I broke my sonic screwdriver or I’ve run out of South Farthing weed).
As beings who are essentially always trying to do good, sometimes their help and advice is not generally welcome. They are the presages of doom and while they always bring the help, it gets pretty scary and dark in the meantime and usually there is death and mess involved too. Hence the nicknames and legends surrounding them. Gandalf is Stormcrow as he is always riding on the wings of bad news, just ahead of the storm. The Doctor is the On Coming Storm to the Daleks since often he is their destroyer, but he is also known as a great and feared warrior to allies and enemies alike. Merely reading about him (in The Library) or hearing him can stop opposing armies. To their enemies they are destroyers but so to, to their friends and allies, who also see the destruction around them as well as their immense capacities for good. They also see their likeness in their greatest enemies: Sauruman and The Master.
When River attacks the Doctor at the end of Demon’s Run what she is doing is identifying the flaws of the peoples who see him. He can’t help being who he is, and at the same time, even his greatest acts of good have the power to terrify his allies and hurt his friends, just like Gandalf with the Rohirrim, Denethor and even the Hobbits. Opposing armies claim they know he is not a god or a trickster but he may as well be for how he is perceived and like the Mouth of Sauron, scoffing at Gandalf, still always underestimate him. River is aware of how reality differs from perception and so is the Doctor, but he is also capable of manipulating how he is seen, just as Gandalf does (with multiple names and identities and powers – especially when he is confused with Sauruman) and when he challenges them he understands their fear and in fact invokes it.
Yet they’re nothing if not kind. This is contrasted against their most brilliant enemies, who are smarter, more powerful, more ancient and merciless (Sauruman and The Master). They ‘are not kind’. Of course The Doctor and Gandalf counsel war, or defence and also running away, and they expect or lead people to expect of themselves great things. They are catalysts for action. Rory sees this clearly when he tells the Doctor he’s dangerous because he makes people want to help him. Gandalf is the same, he doesn’t tell Frodo to take the ring, but he is there, and refuses to take it for himself and counsels compassion for Gollum when others would have him killed. And to their friends and allies, they are worth the danger and the monsters.
In the end, both mercurial ancient men are too clever by half, blessed and cursed for being who and what they are, but so necessary for order and balance in their worlds. And thus, written how they are, they call upon the stuff of fairytale and legend, which goes some way in explaining their iconic status and enduring popularity.