The Lord of the Rings and relevant sequels/ prequels wouldn’t be quite what it is without the beloved Gandalf. Gandalf, who was predominantly known as Gandalf the Grey, would be the guiding light along the dark winding paths of the young adventurers, offering priceless advice, magical assistance, and timeless wisdom. But why did Gandalf the Grey turn White? Who sent him back?
It was the decision of Eru to send Gandalf back as White with much more power, so he could fulfill his purpose of opposing and defeating Sauron.
In a surprising turn of events, Gandalf would later reappear as Gandalf the White, after a fight with Balrog, far more powerful and radiant than ever before. But, why exactly did he turn white? The answer to this lies in the culture and hierarchy of Istari, and the history of Gandalf’s life prior to the events of The Lord of the Rings and even The Hobbit. He was gifted his new image and power directly from The One and sent back.
Gandalf the ‘Angel Incarnate’
Tolkien refers to Gandalf as an angel incarnate, as he was a Maia created by Eru Ilúvatar, the creator of angels and the universe. When he arrived in Middle-earth, the Maia who was then known as Olórin took the shape of an old man in grey robes to disguise his true nature and limit his power while on Earth.
He acted as a wandering wizard and counselor, known as Mithrandir, the ‘Grey Pilgrim’, along with many other names from various cultures. The men of Arnor named him Gandalf for ‘the Elf of the Wand’, and this became his most commonly used name over time.
What happened after Gandalf died?
“Then darkness took me, and I strayed out of thought and time, and I wandered far on roads that I will not tell… Naked I was sent back – for a brief time until my task is done.” – The Lord of the Rings, The Two Towers
The above quote is telling of both where Gandalf went after he died, as well as the fact that this experience is not strange to him. Gandalf had taken multiple forms throughout his life. It was stated that he was, in fact, there at the very beginning of time.
It’s possible that when he died, his spirit did not follow the path of a wizard or mortal, but the path of an angel. He returned to Valinor where he came from, where his spirit was revived and strengthened by Eru Ilúvatar himself.
This spiritual journey would have reverted him back to his original form at the very least, tearing open his consciousness and allowing every aspect of his very being to flood his mind. There is really no telling what effect this would have had on his spirit, but it would have completely changed his perception of life, the world, and his purpose.
His human body had perished, but his immortal soul had not. This resulted in Gandalf being reincarnated in a newly strengthened body with white hair, gifted by The One – the only being within the Lord of the Rings universe that could have twisted the threads of fate in this way.
There are others in the Lord of the Rings that have the ability to restore life, but his body had not been retrieved and restored. Gandalf the Grey did indeed die, after which his spirit left. He was literally sent back to Middle-earth with a new body.
He was returned to the mountain where he died with nothing but his sword and ring beside him. Three days after he had been sent back, he was found by Gwaihir, who was sent by Galadriel to find him. Once carried to Caras Galadhon in Lothlórien, he was fully healed, given a white staff, and clothed in white robes.
Gandalf the White’s Purpose
Once being reincarnated as Gandalf the White, he becomes far more powerful than he had ever been, with his strength and abilities overshadowing those of Saruman. Given that Saruman had neglected his role when he became an ally of Sauron, this role was left empty.
White is the symbolic color for good, holiness, and light. Since Sauron’s color is black, the symbolic opposition between the colors is understandable. White was also symbolic of the head of the order.
It was the decision of Eru to send Gandalf back to fill this role and fulfill his purpose of defeating Sauron. This is what allowed Gandalf to shatter Saruman’s staff and take his place as the rightful head of the Istari and the Order of Wizards.
Gandalf the White was sent back in the form of an enhanced Istari, one more powerful than any other to have walked Middle-earth. That is not to say he was entirely invincible. Even in this form, he was still limited in power, wisdom, and strength. He was simply granted the ability to reveal more of his inner Maiar power.
The supremacy of this form is seen as he discloses his real power at will when he battles foes, and when he drives back the Nazgul with white light from his hand. He does not use his staff for this, as his magical staff is no longer the main source of power, he is.
Another indication of this is the fact that Saruman had been the most powerful of the Istari out of the order. This would have required a drastic alteration in power, and since Eru had decided to send him back to finish the job, it makes sense that he would have been sent back to Middle-earth with the maximum amount of ammo.
The reincarnation of Gandalf the Grey as Gandalf the White was a massive plot twist for The Lord of the Rings storyline. A happy ending would certainly not have been achieved if Gandalf’s return had not happened.