Tag Archives: Merlin

One Wizard to Rule Them All: A Comparative Analysis of Merlin and Gandalf


I’d like to share with you a recent research paper that I wrote for my Romance & Fantasy Literature class. I don’t consider myself a very good writer of research papers; I lean more towards creative writing (poetry, short stories, song lyrics, etc.), but I have to admit: I’m pretty darn proud of this paper. :) I really enjoyed researching this topic, and I’m quite happy with the way my final draft turned out. It’s certainly not perfect (and probably never will be), but it is–in my opinion–satisfactory. By the way, I’m not going to post my Works Cited page in this blog, but if any of you are interested in the sources, let me know. Enjoy! And thanks for reading.


Wizards. These mysteriously mischief, supernatural characters have fascinated readers and writers of literature for centuries. They appear in a number of different genres and formats; various books, movies, plays, and songs contain many examples of the all too familiar image: an old man with a long, gray beard, a pointed hat, and flowing, weather-worn robes who has the capacity to perform unnatural, science-defying feats that somehow end up making (or changing) history. And regardless of the genre or format in which he appears, he holds not only the power to perform magical acts, but also the power to satisfy and delight the reader, viewer, or listener. But where and when did this archetype begin, and why are people today so enamored by this magical old man? Perhaps the better question to ask is this: who is the original wizard? And what other manifestations of him currently exist in literature? The questions are many and also quite difficult to answer, but one can gain a significant amount of knowledge about the nature of wizards within the world of fantasy literature by specifically examining the various manifestations of Merlin the Wizard and J.R.R. Tolkien’s Gandalf. By analyzing their origins and the way in which they each use magic, one can discover common themes and brief answers as to why wizards have been, and still remain, a literary phenomenon.

Pinpointing Merlin’s exact origins is a tricky task because the character has undergone such enormous amounts of change over the course of time. Different writers have adapted his character to their personal satisfaction; however, a reoccurring version of Merlin that appears in both medieval and modern literature is that of an unkempt madman who dwells in the woods and babbles prophecies. The roots of this image most likely trace back to Celtic traditions. In the Oxford Guide to Arthurian Literature and Legend, Alan Lupack suggests that the babbling madman character is a derivation of the Celtic figure, Myrddin. Lupack describes Myrddin as “a historical person whose lord was killed in the battle of Arfdeyyd (c. 575) by his enemy, Rhydderch. Consequently, Myrddin, maddened and uttering prophecies, leads a life of exile in the Caledonian Woods” (329).

Geoffrey of Monmouth, a bishop of Wales who lived during the early 1100s (The Camelot Project), was most likely the first individual to introduce Merlin to the world of English literature. His version of Merlin is quite clearly an interpretation of Myrddin. Since Geoffrey’s introduction, various reincarnations of the character have made their appearances in both medieval and modern literature. He appears sometimes as “a prophet, a bard, an adviser, a soldier, and a lover” (Lupack 329). But perhaps his most prominent persona is Merlin the Wizard. And thus, readers sometimes assume that Tolkien’s Gandalf is simply a copy of Merlin. After all, Gandalf is a wandering old man who fits the physical description of Merlin, and, in addition, often speaks of things that lesser beings (Men, Hobbits, Dwarves, etc.) have a difficult time understanding—concepts and words that may come across to the untrained ear as mere babble. Nevertheless, one can argue that the differences between Merlin and Gandalf outweigh their similarities. Their birth/creation stories allow one to draw such a conclusion.

Merlin, according to Bulfinch’s Mythology, was born as the result of a union between two opposite beings. One being represented evil; the other, good: he was “the son of no mortal father, but an Incubus,” and his mother “was a virtuous young woman” (Bulfinch 296) (other sources identify her as a virgin). His creation, therefore, suggests a level of ambiguity; is he evil, good, or somewhere in between? Providing the answer to that question is quite difficult, and as later parts of Merlin’s life and actions reveal, one can never fully know for certain. Various authors who have “recreated” Merlin’s characters have emphasized multiple aspects of his nature, some focusing on his good or “redemptive” side, while others have chosen to focus on his darker side. But the common thread that repeatedly occurs in the lives of the different Merlin characters is this: that, regardless of his ambiguity, Merlin is “in all accounts, whether positive or negative, […] a figure who does not hesitate to use his often immense powers to achieve the cultural, social, and political ends he has envisioned” (Riga).

Gandalf’s origins and purpose as they relate to good and evil are much less ambiguous. One rather obvious reason for this is the fact that Gandalf remains the creation of one author; only Tolkien has ever written about the history, plans, and purposes of Middle-earth’s wizards (there are several). Therefore, the information that exists about Gandalf is much more consistent than the information about Merlin. A second obvious difference is the fact that Gandalf exists in an entirely secondary fantastical world—Middle-earth, whereas Merlin dwells on “earth.”

Additional, less obvious, but equally as important features distinguish the two wizards from one another. Tolkien reveals in both The Silmarillion and in the Unfinished Tales of Númenor and Middle-earth that Gandalf—though given the title “wizard”—is actually a timeless being belonging to an order of supernatural spirit-beings called the Istari. Unlike Merlin, whose beginning results from a physical, sexual union between an Incubus and a woman (he is a created being), the Istari do not have a specific beginning. The lineage of the Istari is excruciatingly complex. Tolkien writes in multiple sources (including The Silmarillion and the Unfinished Tales) that the Istari arrived on Middle-earth during the Third Age as emissaries of the Valar.[1] The point of the matter is the fact that they were sent to Middle-earth for a very specific reason: to help the Valar “amend the errors of old” (Unfinished Tales 389). Thus, Tolkien associates their overall purpose with the concept of good—not evil, nor within the gray spaces between good and evil—and eliminates the ambiguity that surrounds Merlin and his origins.

Why, then, do both characters possess the title “wizard”? Do their physical descriptions alone make them qualified for such a label? The Oxford English Dictionary defines “wizard” as: (1) “a philosopher, sage” and  (2) “a man who is skilled in occult arts.” Both of these definitions accurately characterize Merlin and Gandalf. Indeed, the two appear in literature as knowledgeable philosophers, and both of them possess skills in occult arts. Tolkien also addresses this issue in the Unfinished Tales. “Wizard,” he asserts, “is a translation of Quenya istar: one of the members of an ‘order’, claiming to possess, and exhibiting, eminent knowledge of the history and nature of the World.” He then reveals that the race of Men, because they did not fully understand the nature and purposes of the Istari and mistook them for Men, gave them (the Istari) their title: “Among Men they were supposed (at first) by those that had dealings with them to be Men who had acquired lore and arts by long and secret study” (388). So, according to the proper definitions, both Merlin and Gandalf qualify for their title. And yet, to say that the two characters are the same—that the latter is a carbon copy of the former—remains an inaccurate assertion.

The battle between submission to one’s destiny and free will and its relationship to the use of magic plays an important role in portraying the differences between the two wizards. In several adaptations of Merlin, including those of Geoffrey of Monmouth and Sir Thomas Malory, the character’s gift of foreknowledge and his ability to understand the future (his role as a prophet) gives him a strong incentive to use magic to bring forth the results that he desires from a particular situation.  Malory undoubtedly emphasizes this notion in his tale called “Merlin.” In the story, Merlin quite eagerly aids King Uther Pendragon, the king of England, in his lust-driven plot to be sexually united with Igraine, the wife of the duke of Tintagel, because Merlin understands that the union between Uther and Igraine will eventually result in the birth of Arthur, the future king of Camelot. And he does all of this through the use of magic (Malory 3-5). In other words, the fulfillment of prophecy is the highest item on Merlin’s priority list, and using magic to fulfill a given prophecy is, according to him, completely acceptable and justifiable. For Merlin, using magic is an instinctual response to any given situation, especially if the situation relates to a prophecy. Executing justice and doing what is wholeheartedly “right” are matters of unimportance to him. Destiny triumphs over morality.

Gandalf, on the other hand, because of the very nature of his being (as one of the Istari), cannot solely dismiss morality for the sake of destiny. He, unlike Merlin, exists solely on the “good” end of the spectrum; his ultimate purpose, as mentioned earlier, is to help correct the wrong that exists in the world (Unfinished Tales 389). But Gandalf does have the gift of free will. Unbound to prophecies, Gandalf has the option of choosing good or evil, and he repeatedly and deliberately chooses that which is good, even when that path is the less popular route. For example, in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, when Saruman (a fellow Istari who has given in to the persuasive powers of the Dark Lord Sauron) presents Gandalf with the opportunity to join with Sauron in his efforts to rebuild his kingdom of Mordor—a position that would temporarily elevate Gandalf (and Saruman) above the good forces that are opposing the power of the One Ring, Gandalf, being fully aware that the mission to destroy the One Ring may or may not succeed, still willingly declines Saruman’s offer. His decision eventually leads him to a period of imprisonment (Saruman holds Gandalf captives in his tower), but even after such an experience, Gandalf still chooses to side with good. His moral compass serves as his guiding light when it comes to decision-making, not his skills in magic. Gandalf does use magic when absolutely necessary, but it typically is not his instinctual inclination. Instead, he uses it as a last resort to accomplish that which needs to be accomplished. Frank Riga, in his article, “Gandalf and Merlin: J.R.R. Tolkien’s Adoption and Transformation of a Literary Tradition”, makes the argument that “Gandalf is thus more human than previous Merlin figures.”

At first glance, these two wizards appear to be exactly the same, or to at least have very minute distinctions that separate them from one another. Readers of fantasy fiction may assume that Gandalf is a modern-day translation of the medieval character of Merlin. However, upon closer inspection, one should be able to discern rather quickly that J.R.R. Tolkien’s Gandalf is extraordinarily different from the archetypal wizard. Though they share a number of characteristics, their differences are quite compelling. The two differ greatly in their origins: while Merlin’s roots (and, therefore, his purposes) stem from the marriage of good and evil, Gandalf’s roots and purposes come exclusively from that which is good. Their lives clearly illustrate that they differ in their decision-making skills as well. Though both possess similar powers and occult-related abilities, their reasons for using such powers are not always very similar. And thus, one can conclude that—despite the fact that Gandalf has a number of “Merlinesque” qualities and features—he is not simply a modern transformation of the seemingly ancient, original wizard.

[1] For more information on the Istari and the Valar—what/who they are, how they came to Middle-earth, etc., see The Silmarillion (“Of the Ring of Power and the Third Age” 343-366) and Unfinished Tales of Númenor and Middle-earth (VI; II 388-402).