So I am going to start this cage match by stating that I haven’t read The Lord of the Rings in over ten years. I’ve read all of the books twice, but the second reading was my reward to myself after I got my BA, and I haven’t felt the urge to read them since. So, my concept of Gandalf is mostly going to be based on Gandalf á la Ian McKellan, and who can argue with that? Probably a lot of you, but frankly I don’t give a shit.
I also haven’t read Harry Potter in a really long time, sort of. I read all of those books twice, as well, but also listened to up to book four on audiobook a couple years ago, so that has to count for something, right? As an aside, if you are ever feeling really shitty, listening to Harry Potter as narrated by Jim Dale is the best thing you could possibly do for yourself.
Anyways, let’s actually get down to this cage fight.
In my brain, when I initially conceptualized this wizard duel, I thought , “HEY. These wizards are kind of the same. They have long grey and/or white beards, and are wise. Same wizard, right?”
Except, not really, at all. So here is my evaluation of these two wizards and how they differ based mostly on the fact that I watch the movies while knitting booties for babies all the freaking time, and have read all of the books at least twice (but maybe not that recently.)
Also, in case you couldn’t tell, I’m drunk.
Let’s talk about magic. Does Gandalf EVER do any magic other than when he fights the Balrog?
(OK, I will acknowledge that Gandalf SMOTE HIS RUIN UPON THE MOUNTAINSIDE). +one million points for epic scale.
I mean he does call the eagles, so that’s pretty cool, and he also has that wizard duel with Saruman which he really, really loses, but mostly he is kind of like this really wise adviser. Which is so super helpful, I AM NOT TRYING TO UNDERMINE HIS HELPFULNESS. The Lord of the Rings without Gandalf would be fucking awful. But he basically doesn’t do (magical) shit other than fight the Balrog, give the rest of the fellowship a chance to show their valor, and then come back from the dead. He’s super threatening, and everyone seems scared of him, but you never see any super impressive magic. I mean, he doesn’t even really fight the Witch King of Angmar, that shit falls on Eowyn’s capable shoulders. God I wish I could have a threesome with her and her brother. They wouldn’t touch each other, just me.
I’m drunk, I should go home. I know.
OK, let’s talk about Dumbledore’s magic. For the first few books his magic is kind of gentle, like a crazy great uncle who’s had too many eggnogs at Christmas. But then in book five HE GOES CRAZY AND FIGHTS VOLDEMORT IN THE MOST CRUCIAL WIZARD BATTLE EVER (WHEN COMPARING THESE TWO BOOKS/LET’S BE HONEST, MOVIES). When I say he goes crazy that is not even true, because he’s totally casual the whole time. Not even stressin. Just fighting the dark wizard to end all dark wizards while he could basically be reading comics at the same time.
Then don’t even get me started on the inferi. I once was the only person on the desk the day that Summer Reading Club started, so I can totally relate to the feeling of standing on a rock and wielding a magic wand to beat back zombie hoards that just want to get stickers for their reading accomplishments.
Let’s just talk about how this is what Dumbledore does WHEN HE’S ON THE VERGE OF DYING.
Now let’s talk about the role these two wizards played during the protagonists’ heroes’ journeys. They are actually pretty similar in that they are trying to help their respective heroes (Frodo/HP) to come into themselves and grow as people. This is slightly more OK in the case of HP, since he’s a kid, but Frodo is like 30 so I guess Gandalf is helping him be less sheltered.
I’m sorry. I totally just downplayed Frodo’s importance. I want to state for the record that I fucking love The Lord of the Rings. I wouldn’t have read all the books twice if I didn’t. I realize that’s the nerd equivalent of telling a bunch of tattooed people I have a tramp stamp in terms of geek cred, but give me a fucking break.
Both wizards place an immense amount of trust in these unlikely heroes. Frodo has never left The Shire, and so is the last person anyone would expect to carry The One Ring to the flames of Mount Doom and save his entire world from being enslaved by a giant flaming eye. (I am going to pause and just acknowledge that I love The Lord of the Rings so much).
But Gandalf and Frodo don’t actually interact after his fight with the Balrog until close to the end of The Return of the King. Gandalf is kind of behind the scenes, doing shit to help Frodo succeed, but there isn’t any direct interaction between the two of them. Dumbledore has a much more hands on roll with HP’s development, but it’s still pretty hands-off. Let’s see if you can ride that bronco. He steps in when he needs to set some zombies on unholy fire, but mostly he lets Harry figure his own shit out and find his way to adulthood. Notice how I didn’t say “manhood?” That’s because gendered language is stupid.
Gandalf also gently nudges Frodo towards his larger destiny, and I think this is where their roles most align. Without Gandalf, Frodo would have never saved all of Middle Earth, and that’s a pretty big fucking deal. Without Dumbledore’s kind guidance, Harry likely would never have gotten to the point where he realized that he was a Horcrux. Both of these boy/actually adult men characters never would have saved their worlds without the help of these wizards. They are wizardly masterminds to the nth degree.
However. HOWEVER. The scale of these conflicts must be brought up. Gandalf has been fighting evil for countless years. When I say countless, I am referring to roughly thousands? Like I said, I haven’t read these books in years and I’m lazy and drunk. Dumbledore has been fighting the good fight for about…however old Harry is, plus some. This is significant. Both dark wizards seek genocide, so that’s at least a leveling field. Both dark wizards were able to escape corporeal death, so that’s another leveling field. However, when it comes right down to it, Gandalf is the mega-mind behind most of the battles with Sauron’s armies. The scale of the battle for Middle Earth versus the battle for, well, Earth, is way, way, WAY bigger.
So who is the most badass of these wizards? This is actually harder than I thought. I went into this article thinking Gandalf was the obvious winner, I think partially because I read The Lord of the Rings earlier in my life and so have a stronger affinity for that particular story. It’s more epic, more grand in scale. More literary and serious. However, as I wrote I reflected on the fact that, even though Gandalf fought the most metal of all opponents (the Balrog, in case you’re totally uninitiated), Dumlbedore actually did a lot MORE badass magic, as well as a lot more subtle spells throughout. They both play similar roles in our protagonists’ lives. But when it comes down to it….
Sorry. I love Gandalf, I love him so much, but can you IMAGINE what Dumbledore would be like if he had hundreds upon hundreds of years to hone his badassness? It’s not his fault that Voldemort only cropped up in his natural lifetime. The scale of the two conflicts actually makes it unfair. I’m pretty certain that an overachiever like Dumbledore would fucking kick ass and take names if he had THOUSANDS of years to refine his craft.
I’m so sorry, everyone, I really am. I even wrote Nikki an email wondering if I could make it a draw, because I love the two of these characters so desperately. But Dumbledore wins this imaginary battle. Feel free to set my writerly image on fire. I accept it, and I forgive you.