Gandalf versus Sauron: Angels at War

Photo by Kevin Shirley

The High Fantasy Track welcomed Constance G.J. Wagner, Tolkien scholar and long-time participant in the track, and Laura Grabowski of to discuss the roots of the conflict between the two great Maiar on Friday at 10AM in the Marriott L401-403. Moderated by Jim Wert, the session engaged a standing-room only crowd in a consideration of these characters, their development, and resolution in the Tolkien legendarium. As they examined the arc of each across the Three Ages of Middle Earth, a recurring set of themes emerged: the nature of opposites and the power of free will.

The panel’s fundamental goal was to highlight and discuss the differences between these two rivals. They were, as both Grabowski and Wert pointed out, opposites. In fact, the Istari (Gandalf, Saruman, Radagast, meaning wizards) were sent to Middle Earth as not just oppositional figures, standing against Sauron, but to inspire and support those who “would oppose” him. As part of this oppositional structure over the arc of time, the panelists pointed to a related character dimension. While Sauron was, for most of the three ages, active, Gandalf was passive. Even in the first age, while not actively pursuing his own ambitions, Sauron acted in support of those of Melkor/Morgoth. In fact, when discussing the evolution of the characters in Tolkien’s second age of Middle Earth, Wert wondered out loud why Olorin (one of Gandalf’s many names) was “MIA?” Even more, he asked “why did it take so long for the Valar to decide to send some folks to challenge the growing threat of Sauron?” Here that notion of the active versus the passive really stands out. Sauron in the Second Age is a “Sorcerer of awful power” who, among other things, seeks to build a “dominion of torment.” These are the days when Gandalf was missing.

In the Third Age, the oppositional nature of these characters played out in a battle over the control of Middle Earth. Grabowski points out that had the Istari remained true to their original charge and purpose they would have been in a better position to battle Sauron. Such was not to be the case as Saruman was corrupted and Radagast became distracted. Wert pointed out that even Gandalf had doubts about his ability to match up against Sauron, whose sole focus and drive was total domination. Grabowski powerfully described the oppositional nature of these two in the Third Age when she discussed the difference between minions and allies. Sauron had minions whose individuality, will, drive, and even identity were subsumed to the power and will of their Darklord. Gandalf, on the other hand, forged allies and alliances built through consensus, common cause, and shared sacrifice. While Sauron’s force of minions was simply the “sum of its parts,” Gandalf’s alliances were greater than the sum of theirs.

Driving all of this, however, was the fundamental role of free will. While the Maiar were fundamentally servants of the Valar, all had different attributes and inclinations. What’s more, they all had free will. Whatever the disposition, these lesser spirits made choices and decisions that directed their destinies. Near the panel’s conclusion, Wert pointed out the that fundamental to Tolkien’s worldview was the relationship between Providence and Free Will. They worked together and complimented one another. As a mythic creator, Tolkien’s view on this actually echoes that of another great creator: Homer. A similar question arises in that universe as well: What is the relationship between fate/destiny and Free Will? Here as well, Homer’s heroes have attributes and inclinations that don’t necessarily control them but contribute to the choices they make. The heroes choose and exercise their will, which in turn directs the course of their lives.

“Gandalf v. Sauron” was an intriguing start to the track’s Friday programming. Constance Wagner will be presenting again on “The Underworlds of Middle-earth” as well as on “Libraries in High Fantasy” in the High Fantasy Track this Sunday.

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