Gandalf should have stayed dead

I think one of the few flaws with LOTR, story-wise, was JRRT’s inability to kill off major characters. I guess he loved them too much, just as fans come to love them. But consider how powerful Boromir’s death was, and Gandalf’s fall. But then - Gandalf comes back. That was always my least favorite part of the book. Yeah, Pippin and the Plot need to get to Minas Tirith, and Gandalf did help a bit with Helm’s Deep - but the creative mind of Tolkien could have come up with alternatives. Sure I love Gandalf, & I would hate losing the image of him helping to crown Aragorn, or going off to see Bombadil after visiting the Inn at Bree. But dramatically speaking, he shouldn’t have come back.
Any thoughts?

I’m not a Tolkien scholar as others are here so I’m sure someone will come along to correct me. But the way I read it was that the only way Gandalf could become powerful enough to defeat Saruman was to become his better. He was only a grey magician; Saruman was white and thus his better. So, Gandalf had to defeat the balrog in order to advance to the next level where he would be bale to defeat Saruman.

Tolkien hated allegory in all forms (wink, wink) but in this respect, Gandalf was Jesus. Had to die and be resurrected from death in order to become the head of the Order. He is a kind of angel, so, mortality doesn’t really mean the same thing for Gandalf and his wizard pals.

Also, as a veteran of the Great War, Tolkien had too many friends who died. And stayed dead.

In the world he created, he wrote the rules…

Awesome OP/Title combo.

I have mixed feelings about Gandalf coming back.

On the one hand, it does seem like a cheap way to have the sacrifice without it really costing anything.

On the other hand, it’s through Gandalf dying and coming back that we realize he isn’t actually a human in the first place. LOTR is very vague about what he actually is, and I think some readers miss the intended implication and mistakenly think we just have a human who’s magically brought back to life. What we really should take away from it is that we have an “angel” in human form that can’t be killed in the conventional sense.

What other major characters did he bring back to life?


Which, in turn, gives a sense of scale to the Enemy.

Gandalf was a Maiar, and thus, in some ways couldn’t be killed. His body could be destroyed but not his essence. So, pretty much, this wasn’t a deus et machina at all, except that in a way he was a deity.

Besides Boromir we have Saruman, Theoden, Denethor, Gollum, Sauron, the Witch-king…

Presumably Saruman and Sauron are just permanently diminished rather than dead?

Yeah, Sauron’s not a good example of someone who stayed dead. He yo-yo’d between states more than Schroedinger’s Cat. However, as DrDeth points out, plenty of others did stay dead. I’ve gone back and forth on the narrative value of Gandalf coming back myself.

EDIT: And Saruman did die - it’s clear at the end that he is utterly dissapated - his spirit turns towards the west, and a good stiff wind blows him away, IIRC.

Hard to tell. It does seem that if your body dies then Eä makes a decision what happens. Note that in the case of Saruman, the mist looked like it wanted to go into the West, but was blown away by a wind.

Sauron’s form was also blown away by a great wind. Gandalf reckons in LotR:

From The Silmarillion, concerning Saruman:

We know that Elves pass to the Halls of Mandos if their body dies, and can return, but I can’t find anything to say what the equivalent procedure for a Maia (or Vala) might be. I suspect Dr Deth is right, and that sort of thing is handled outhwith the bounds of the world by Iluvatar, on a case-by-case basis.

(thanks to the LotR wikia for the quotes)

I kind of assumed Sauron and or Saruman are stuck in disembodied limbo until the Dagor Dagorath.

You can’t have the Battle of all Battles if the one side has no lieutenants, they have to show up somehow.

It might have been a more “natural” story without that miracle.

The same is true for how the unseen forces persuade Frodo to take the ring at the Council of Elrond. Even at the very end, when Gollum stumbles, there is a sense that the Valar are taking a hand.

To some of us, this diminishes the value of mortal striving. If we’re all just hand-puppets, then why keep up the pretense?

But Tolkien wanted to tell a miracle story. He wanted that shining moment of sheer awe when the three searchers behold the arisen Gandalf.

Tolkien wasn’t telling a humanist story (even though the Lord of the Rings is also nicely humanist in a lot of places.)

Gandalf’s resurrection? Deux ex Machina. But…Legolas and Gimli becoming friends and overcoming millennia of racial distrust? Beautiful.


My understanding is that Gandalf’s death is to resolve a potential plot-hole: why else would Gandalf let Frodo and Sam continue alone to Mordor? Some of this is covered in Christopher Tolkien’s History of the LOTR and I think I remember that part.

Nitpick: The Valar aren’t taking a hand-- They’re not subtle enough for that. The last time the Valar took a hand, the World got broken.