Criticism, for all we elevate it, amounts to the imposing of a narrative on a work. It is a non-fiction encounter with a text, gussied up to a universal statement about its meaning. This is fine when it is acknowledged. Often, however, critical reads become a kind of low-effort meme, repeated without actual consideration. They are no longer encounters with a text, but ratification of someone else’s encounter. Then they merit nuking from orbit.
One of the widespread bad takes on Lord of the Rings, for example, is that Gandalf’s return from the dead in The Two Towers is a flaw in the work. This critique takes one or two, sometimes both takes:
- Gandalf’s return from the dead somehow “invalidates” his sacrifice in Moria.
- Gandalf’s return from the dead makes him a “Mary Sue” or an “ex machina”
These are easy to attack, by the exercise of restricting the definitions of these terms. For example, one can argue that since the Fellowship escaped from Moria, Gandal’s “sacrifice” achieved its goal, and therefore nothing that follows after really matters. By the same token, one can restrict “ex machina” to a very specific instance, being an unexpected occurrence, rather than a planned action of characters.
But all of this is nerdery. No one is persuaded by restricting or expanding definitions. It is the larger idea that matters. For many, coming back from the dead makes death meaningless (indeed, in Christianity that is the entire point). And a sudden salvation can have the effect of making the rules of the universe seem irrelevant. So let us embrace this problem, and argue that Gandalf’s death still matters, and his actions are appropriate to the story.
First, we must understand what Gandalf is. The Istari, or Wizards, appear to be man-shaped, and walk the earth like men. But in reality, they are celestial beings; angelic, selected by the lesser Gods to aid the peoples of Middle-Earth against the Shadow. Gandalf was not born; he was made by Illuvatar, the Supreme God. Death for him is different than it is for Elves and Men.
His Death and Resurrection reveals this, and in turn it reveals something important about the story: that the story has been going on for a long time. Many revelations point to this: the nature of Bilbo’s ring itself, the age of Aragorn and how he has been preparing himself, the nature of the Balrog. Everything that Frodo Baggins finds himself in has been going on for ages longer than anyone presently alive can know. The only entity, it seems, who was present when the Rings were forged is Sauron himself. Frodo, barely a grown hobbit, is utterly out of his depth. He needs wise and strong companions to help him through.
But then, in Moria, he loses the one he was most dependent on. Gandalf’s Death is the beginning of the Breaking of the Fellowship. They journey on under Aragorn’s leadership almost to the reaches of Mordor, but there all things dissolve. Boromir succumbs to the longing for the ring, and dies valiantly against a horde of orcs. Merry and Pippin are spirited away by the same orcs. Frodo and Sam cut off on their own. Aragorn and Gimli and Legolas make a fateful decision to follow Merry and Pippin, rather than the Ring-Bearer, who his now on his own.
The story itself becomes bifurcated at this point, Frodo chapters and Everyone Else chapters. When Gandalf emerges from death, it is not to Frodo that he appears, but Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas. The Ring-Bearer’s mission is essential. Everything else is secondary. Yet it is to the secondary mission that the ressurected Gandalf commits himself. This raises the question, of what Gandalf’s mission really is.
His resurrection is a revelation. Gandalf is not a man, but a Maiar named Olorin. He is equal in rank to Sauron himself. But he does not, and never has, ruled in Middle-Earth, amassing armies and power as Sauron has. His mission is rather to watch the Shadow and pierce its secrets, and to enliven the spirits of the Peoples of Middle Earth to resist. He cannot, as he said, bear the Ring. He cannot, as he said, battle Sauron directly. He can only give counsel, and slay orcs. He does so with alacrity and determination.
Gandalf, then, is the hand of the Valar, who cannot intervene directly in Middle-Earth. He serves as their representative, silently, behind the scenes, ever uncovering, ever on the move. He is ressurrected because his mission is not over yet, and for no other reason.
People refuse to get this because it’s subtle. Gandalf pops back up and goes about his business as if nothing happened, and people who absorb Rules of Fiction think this discordant. It would be, if Boromir resurrected, because Boromir is a man. Men do not come back from the dead, nor do elves, dwarves, or anyone else. Only Gandalf does, because Gandalf, a Maiar, cannot really die. Even Sauron does not really die; he only diminishes, curdles, sinks into shadow and mist. This is easily understood if you read the Legendarium in its fullness, but it is not spoonfed to the reader in dialogue, so many miss it.
Thus, Gandalf’s resurrection is in no way discordant with his actions or the narrative. He fights the Balrog to save the Fellowship; they are saved. He returns to rally the Rohirrim; they are rallied. He tries to counsel Denethor; Denethor is too far gone. He labors to hold the fort at Minas Tirith until help arrives; he succeeds. He is ever at his task, ever aiding the Free Peoples, willing to step into their battles, but always calling them against the Shadow. He is a Spirt of light in a world of darkness. You may stamp out the light, but it will return. The Gods wish it.