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Where does Gandalf and Saruman come from?

The wizard Gandalf plays a central role in both The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. Apparently, there is an entire order of wizards in the universe, but we are only given the names of two others, Saruman and Radagast. People who master magic are, of course, well known from both the Middle Ages and the Renaissance in the guise of wizards and witches. 

In Nordic literature, we find the Danish chronicler Saxo Grammaticus (1200). He tells us about Oller, who could cross the oceans using a bone engraved with spells. In a wider context, the most famous wizard from medieval literature is Merlin. He served as sage and advisor to the legendary English King Arthur. In Tolkien’s universe, however, the wizards have their origin in the divine order.

The model for Gandalf is therefore more likely found in Norse mythology in the form of Odin, the king of the gods. The sagas refer extensively to Odin’s use of magic. For example, it is reported in Lokasenna (from the Poetic Edda) that Odin travelled among humankind as a wizard. He comes and goes frequently with his own agenda – just like Gandalf.

Snorri Sturluson’s Heimskringla from the early 13th century states directly that Odin was a magician. The saga even refers to a magical duel between Odin and a certain Gylfi, just like Saruman and Gandalf’s duel using magic in The Lord of the Rings.

Saruman The White
Saruman The White. Photo: Stine Netman - The National Museum of Denmark
Radagast. Photo: Stine Netman - The National Museum of Denmark
Gandalf The White.
Gandalf The White. Photo: Stine Netman - The National Museum of Denmark