The characterization of Gandalf has parallels with that of Odin. Firstly, the physical appearance of Gandalf is similar to Odin’s form as Vetgam, the Wanderer. The first description of Gandalf’s physical appearance appears in The Hobbit. He was described as “…an old man with a staff. He had a tall pointed blue hat, a long grey cloak, a silver scarf over which a white beard hung down below his waist, and immense black boots”(24, The Hobbit).
The color symbolism, in the “silver scarf” and “white beard”, represents a spiritual presence and power, because silver usually represents riches and wealth whereas white symbolizes innocence and purity, especially in religion; the color symbolism supports the characterization of Gandalf as being considered as almost a Godly figure throughout Middle Earth, which makes sense because originates from Valinor, the heaven within the Middle Earth.
In Norse mythology, Odin’s form of is presented in Odin and The Well of Knowledge: “His eyes scorned the world around him, hidden deep in the enveloping folds of his dark cloak, a white beard bristled down his neck, and he clutched his craggy staff for support. No longer did he bear the glistening golden armor, nor wield his fearsome spear, his great steed had deserted his side” (Jones).
The similarities in the syntax and diction in which both authors describe the respective characters can be seen- for example, both authors describe the characters as being old and emphasize the presence of a dark-colored clock, a beard, and a staff. Furthermore, the fact that both Odin and Gandalf share these features, as well as being characterized as rather old and weak, illustrates that they are physically similar.
Therefore, there is a similarity in not only the style with which the characters are introduced but with the physical appearance themselves. The comparison of Gandalf to Odin, in terms of physical appearance, also extended beyond the text and to Tolkien himself. In a letter that Tolkien wrote, he discusses how he disagrees with an illustration of Gandalf that was sent to him because Gandalf was drawn as “… as a figure of vulgar fun rather than the Odinic wanderer that I think of”(“107”). His use of the word “Odinic” supports the claim Gandalf’s physical appearance was considered to be based on Odin. However, some Tolkien critics argue that the appearance of Gandalf was inspired by a famous painting entitled Odin the Wanderer, by Georg Von Rosen—
Figure 1 (“Gandalf”), opposed to the actual figure from the Norse myths. Likewise, Tolkien could have also used “Odinic Wanderer” as a colloquial term. Whether or not Tolkien actually read the myths, the textual examples illustrate that the physical characterization of Gandalf closely resembles Odin’s form of Vetgam. Secondly, the interaction between Gandalf and birds helps to support his characterization analogous to Odin.
In The Hobbit, Gandalf is able to gain help from Roäc, an ancient raven, by having him serve as a messenger between Thorin’s Company, who are Gandalf’s group of travelers, whilst they are on a quest to defeat Smaug, a dragon. Similarly, Odin has two ravens, Huginn and Muninn, who also act as his own messengers (Kneale).
Furthermore, another character notes Gandalf’s strong relationship with the Lord of the Eagles: “The wizard and the eagle-lord appeared to know one another slightly, and even to be on friendly terms. As a matter of fact, Gandalf, who had often been in the mountains, had once rendered a service to the eagles and healed their lord from an arrow-wound”(182, The Hobbit). This quote demonstrates that Gandalf has a relationship with the Eagles as a result of helping them to heal a wound. In addition, to go into more detail, the origin of the eagles is explained in the Silmarillion: the Eagles have descended from Valinor to help those on Middle Earth. Eagles are also featured in relation to Odin because they usually are a symbol of pride, honor, and he is a ruler (“Norse Mythology”). When Odin was trapped by a giant, Suttung, he turns into an eagle in order to escape to Asgard, the Norse planet of Gods (“The Deeds of Odin”).
In Lord of the Rings, a similar situation takes place when Gandalf escapes Sauron by jumping off a tower onto the back of an eagle. Justin Aptaker argues that in this scene, in which Sauron also exclaims “So, you have chosen death!”, “[these] eagle[s] can be thought of as an angel of sorts…Gandalf has actually chosen life. He is flying. True, he is being carried by the eagle, but symbolically he is flying” (CITE). Therefore, although Gandalf does not turn into an eagle, he can be considered as if he is one because he “is symbolically flying”. Likewise, Tolkien’s eagles have wings that are “able to bear them through the three regions of the firmament, beyond the lights of heaven to the edge of darkness” (162, The Lost Roads and Other Writings), similar to Odin’s eagle form because he is able to return to Asgard.
Lastly, the character arc and development of Gandalf is similar to that of Odin. In the Lord of the Rings, Gandalf becomes trapped by a monster, Balrog (add description about what Balrog represents); he famously sacrifices himself and allows the rest of his companions to escape and exclaims, “You shall not pass!” (The Fellowship of the Rings).
Later in the novel, however, he is able to return from his death and he explains how: “There I lay staring upward, while the stars wheeled over … Faint to my ears came the gathered rumor of all lands: the springing and the dying, the song and the weeping, and the slow everlasting groan of over-burdened stone. And so at the last Gwaihir the Windlord found me again, and he took me up and bore me away.”(102, Two Towers).
The use of the symbolism of the “stars” acknowledges the involvement of some celestial or Godly presence; Gwaihir is considered to be the Lord of the Eagles from Valinor, as argued by by Robert Forester, and thus illustrates that Gandalf was saved by Gods (cite). When Gandalf returns, he appears as Gandalf the White.
To understand the context, in Middle Earth, the distinction of “the White” characterizes him as being of a higher power because the White Wizard is the head of the White Council, the council of Wizards, and it also means that he has a higher level of knowledge. Furthermore, Gandalf’s physical appearance has now changed:“… His hair was white as snow in the sunshine; and gleaming white was his robe; the eyes under his deep brows were bright, piercing as the rays of the sun; power was in his hand “(95, The Two Towers).
Again, the white color symbolizes purity or godliness. The heavenly diction, such as in “gleaming white” works to support the claim that Gandalf the White is a godly figure, thus making him comparable to Odin. Likewise, the metaphor of comparing Gandalf’s eyes to “the rays of sun” illustrates that he might possess some form of elemental power, like Odin. In Norse mythology, in the story of Hávamál, Odin sacrifices himself by hanging off a tree for nine days because he wanted to gain more knowledge. Odin, like Gandalf, returns in a new form in which he has more knowledge, which is similar to this form of Gandalf the White.
However, the concept sacrifice can be seen in a range of different religions, such as Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, which is similar to how Gandalf appears in a heavenly form (Kreeft). Therefore, it is true that Gandalf is similar to Odin in his sacrifice, but it follows a plot that is visible in other religious mythologies and the initial intentions for sacrifice are different.