J.R.R. Tolkien's Gandalf and Saruman in the tradition of Shakespeare's Prospero

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2005

21 Pages, Grade: 2,7



1. Introduction

2. The sources of magic
2.1. Wisdom
2.2. Power from the heavens
2.3. Magical equipment

3. Black vs. White Magic
3.1. The two sides of Prospero
3.2. Saruman vs. Gandalf
3.3. Gandalf and Saruman in the tradition of Prospero

4. Effects of magic
4.1. Nature
4.2. People
4.3. History

5. Conclusion


Primary literature

Secondary literature

1. Introduction

The figure of the wizard can be considered as one of the most interesting characters in modern fantasy literature. Normally, wizards are seen as old, wise men, with long beards, robes and staffs who have great knowledge about the world and its history due to long studies and books. However, there are a few ancestors of the wizard as he is seen today: in Arthurian legends you can find Merlin and in Shakespeare’s plays Prospero is the great wizard. In creating Prospero Shakespeare conjured an image of the wizard, traces of which can still be found in modern literary figures. As Prospero can be seen as “providing one of the basic templates for the figure of the wizard”[1] it is interesting to the similarities between wizards like him and wizards in modern fiction.

In the novel The Lord of the Rings J.R.R. Tolkien describes two wizards who settled the image of the modern wizard in the reader’s mind: Gandalf and Saruman. As “Gandalf became a cult figure in the late 1960s”[2] his opponent Saruman cannot reach his popularity. However, the two wizards show the two sides of magic between which a wizard can choose: good versus evil. In the novel the wizard plays “a crucial, super-heroic role”[3] and thus the wizard is manifested as a basic of fantasy literature.

Taking into account that Prospero’s character has good and bad attitudes in Shakespeare’s The Tempest it is interesting to examine the relationship between him and his descendants Gandalf and Saruman as the embodiments of good and evil. Three main aspects will be analysed: the sources of the three wizards’ magic, where their power is situated; how to evaluate the use of magic, whether it is good or bad; and in which way the magic is manifested in the outer world.

Some abstractions should be considered in analysing Prospero, Gandalf and Saruman: Gandalf and Saruman are known by many names; however, I use Gandalf and Saruman as the most famous and most used names, too. Moreover, the three wizards represent one prototype of wizard: the one who is educated and who uses magical powers. However, in today’s fiction there still exist other kinds of wizards who draw their power from other sources, for example, the Wizard of Oz who “is a charlatan who has arrived in the magical country of Oz by balloon”[4].

2. The sources of magic

2.1. Wisdom

Concerning Shakespeare’s play The Tempest, the main source of Prospero’s magic can be seen in the power gained by long studies: wisdom. However, with Prospero’s studies a problem arises. When Prospero started to gain wisdom and to grow in knowledge, he committed the failure which led to the loss of his dukedom. He himself states that “Prospero the prime duke, being so reputed / in dignity, and for the liberal arts / without parallel; those being all my study, / the government I cast upon my brother”[5] (1.2.72-75).

Only the exile on the island provides the background and the opportunity for Prospero to bring his power into effect and to gain the knowledge of real power. On the island he has the possibility to act as a magus of the Renaissance – he gains power over nature. He overpowers Caliban and Ariel; the figure of Caliban representing the earth and nature as can be seen in the statement of Trinculo: “What have we here – a man or a fish? – dead / or alive? A fish, he smells like a fish” (2.2.24-25). Caliban is more connected to nature than to humanity. In Ariel’s case, Ariel is the spirit, the impersoning of Prospero’s knowledge as he “seems to be as much a reflection of his master’s disembodied artistic intelligence as a distinct personality”[6].

2.2. Power from the heavens

Karol Berger claims that the “Florentine Platonist[…], Marsilio Ficino”[7] creates a concept for the magical influence of the sublunar world by the heavens. “The medium through which those influences are transmitted is spirit”[8]. The studies of the wise men in the Renaissance – like Kopernikus or Kepler – are concerned with the examination of nature and also with cosmology.[9] As Prospero is a wise man of the Renaissance, he has the knowledge about cosmology and he can build up “the connection of natural agents”[10]. Thus, in having Ariel, Isis, Ceres, Juno and Nymphs under his command, Prospero can be seen as someone who uses his knowledge about nature to channel the heavenly powers in order to reach his personal or even higher aims.

This possibility to channel greater powers of heaven in order to fulfil a special task can also be seen in the origin of Gandalf and Saruman: they belong to the race of the Istari who were sent by the Valar and following the command of Eru, the creator-god of Middle-earth.[11] As the evil Sauron arises again, the good god Eru sends the Istari to Middle-earth in order to “amend the errors of old”[12]. This shows the relation between Gandalf’s and Saruman’s heavenly magic and the power Prospero gains by having the command over the spirit Ariel. However, Gandalf and Saruman show more similarities to Ariel, as they are the emissaries sent by a heavenly creature. Ariel is the heavenly creature which is under Prospero’s power. This supports the godlike picture of Prospero which is drawn throughout the play.

In Prospero’s case the comparison between the wizard and a god is the example for the Renaissance idea “that human knowledge resembles God’s in its capacity to comprehend the universe and to turn that knowledge into transforming power”[13]. Prospero is the master on his island and commands over supernatural powers – thus he has achieved the power over nature itself. Some of Gandalf’s godly powers are named by himself when he fights against the balrog on the Bridge of Khazad-dûm: “I am a servant of the Secret Fire, wielder of the flame of Anor.’”[14].

In addition to the similarity between Ariel and the Istari – Saruman and Gandalf – arises the question about the origin of Gandalf: in an essay edited by Christopher Tolkien about the Istari he offers a fragment of his father about Gandalf in which it reads that “it is said that in the later days (when again the shadow of evil arose in the Kingdom) it was believed by many of the ‘Faithful’ of that time that ‘Gandalf’ was the last appearance of Manwë himself”[15]. Manwë is the chief of the Valar who are similar to an arch-angelic race of Tolkien’s world. There is no proof that Gandalf really was meant to be the god coming down to earth. However, as Tolkien offers this statement it is possible to see a hint of godliness in the figure of Gandalf – as in the figure of Prospero.

2.3. Magical equipment

Another source for Prospero’s magical powers is his equipment as they are the symbols of his wisdom: in act 5 he claims that he will break his “staff” (5.1.54) and he will drown his “books” (5.1.57) and he casts magic in his “magic robes” (5.1.). The robes can also be seen as a symbol of Prospero’s nobility.

As wizards in Shakespeare’s time are to be seen as wise old men, the staff may seem to show Prospero’s age, because a young man does not need a staff. Another aspect of the staff is the idea of a sceptre which adds to the idea of the noble wizard. The books are the basis of every study which Prospero did in his younger years, as he claims that “in dignity, and for the liberal arts / without parallel; those being all my study” (1.2.73). He stops to do magic by dropping these instruments of power. Prospero needs his instruments to do magic and thus the magic is somewhat given to him by worldly entities, too.

Gandalf appears in robes, too, as it is described when he arrives at the Shire:


[1] Pringle, David (ed.) The Definitive Illustrated Guide to Fantasy: From the legend of King Arthur to the magic of Harry Potter. London: Carlton, 2003, p. 223.

[2] Ibd., p 211.

[3] Pringle, David (ed.) The Definitive Illustrated Guide to Fantasy. p 211.

[4] Ibd., p. 221.

[5] Shakespeare, William. The Tempest. (ed. by Stephen Orgel). Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. (=World’s Classics): the following quotations from The Tempest will be marked in the text.

[6] Hunt, John S. “Prospero’s Empty Grasp.” Shakespeare Studies. Vol. XXII. Ed. Leeds Barroll 1994, p. 297.

[7] Berger, Karol. “Prospero’s Art.” Shakespeare Studies: An Annual Gathering of Research, Criticism, and Reviews. Vol. X . Ed. J. Leeds Barroll III 1977, p. 232.

[8] Ibd., p. 232.

[9] Cf. Kunzmann, Peter, Burkard, Franz-Peter, Wiedmann, Franz. dtv-Atlas Philosophie. 11th ed. München: dtv, 2003, p. 93, 95.

[10] Orgel, Stephen: “Introduction.” The Tempest. by William Shakespear (ed. by Stephen Orgel). Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. (=World’s Classics), p. 20.

[11] Cf. Tolkien, J.R.R. “II The Istari.” Unfinished Tales of Númenor and Middle-earth. (edited by Christopher Tolkien). London: HarperCollinsPublishers 1998, p. 503.

[12] Ibd., p 503.

[13] Hunt. “Prospero’s Empty Grasp“, p. 280.

[14] Tolkien, J.R.R. The Fellowship of the Ring: Being the First Part of the Lord of the Rings. London: HarperCollinsPublishers, 1993, p. 429.

[15] Tolkien, Christopher. “Istari.“, p. 511.

Excerpt out of 21 pages


J.R.R. Tolkien's Gandalf and Saruman in the tradition of Shakespeare's Prospero
University of Trier  (Fachbereich II Anglistik)
The Tempest and Its Followers
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ISBN (Book)
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... eine vergleichsweise oirignelle Arbeit vorgelegt, die eine Reihe interessanter Einsichten enthält.
Shakespeare, Tolkien, Gandalf, Saruman, Lord of the Rings, Herr der Ringe, Prospero, Tempest, Wizard, Magic, Renaissance, Fantasy, Middle Earth
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Magister Artium Christoph Höbel (Author), 2005, J.R.R. Tolkien's Gandalf and Saruman in the tradition of Shakespeare's Prospero, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/143838


  • Christoph Höbel on 1/23/2010

    ... eine vergleichsweise originelle Arbeit vorgelegt, die eine Reihe interessanter Einsichten enthält.

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