I’ve heard literary scholars claim that Gandalf, the mighty wizard of Lord of the Rings, is merely a reinvention of Merlin, who in turn evolved out of wise old figures in the epics. When this sort of discussion comes up at SF and F conventions,whether or not people agree about his origins, they will go on to agree that the Gandalf figure dwindled to a stereotype in far too many novels of the seventies and eighties, in which his every action became so predictable that he was little more than a talking (and sometimes ambulatory) signpost, there to explain data to the heroes (amid heartening advice couched in New Age aphorisms) and sometimes to shove the plot from coupon to coupon.
When I first read Lord of the Rings at age fourteen, Gandalf was interesting as a person. I believed he enjoyed ordering meals at Butterburr’s inn, and smoking a pipe and shooting the breeze with Bilbo before setting off magical fireworks to please hobbit kids. Tolkien gave him frivolous business as well as important business, gave him personal motivations, such as his struggle with Saruman; it was those very human and understandable elements that made his apotheosis so tremendously effective for me.
It surprised me when the first versions of bearded old wizards bearing magical staffs showed up in fantasies during the seventies. Surprised, and pleased for a time, because I thought that the familiar elements would extend my deep pleasure in Middle Earth. But as years and books went by, I discovered a sense of disappointment if a story seemed to have a Gandalf-analog, a Frodo-analogue, hobbit-analogues, orcs and dwarves and Nazgul-like critters on the evil team; I knew this story already, and I liked Tolkien’s version better, especially when the Gandalf figure never seemed to change, except maybe to get more powers as reward for his going along. That awe-inspiring apotheosis had become another plot coupon.
But that was my reaction. In later years I discovered that those analogues worked for a lot of readers, including readers who later went back after being exhorted to read LOTR, and found Gandalf boring and predictable. They preferred the white-bearded magical-staff-wielding guy in their favorite quest fantasy.
That caused me to wonder how much of my own Gandalfian resonance related back to him being utterly new, both in presence and actions, when I first read LOTR; though I’d read T.H. White’s Once and Future King at age twelve, Gandalf did not seem like Merlin except that they were both mages. Yet another reread of LOTR furnished a renewed appreciation for the profoundly effective insights Tolkien had to offer through characters such as Gandalf, insights I did not find in the analog stories whose authors apparently were influenced enough by LOTR to regard its basic structure as the ur-story, the only one that could be told.
Gandalf as inspiration functioned for these other writers and readers. Cliché! scoffs someone, and someone else points out that even clichés have meaning, or they wouldn’t stay in use. They function as shorthand, even if they aren’t as inspirational as the prototype that became the cliché.
So my next question was, does that mean that archetypes are actually prototypes? Figures like Gandalf, and Merlin, fulfill such a powerful story function that they form the imaginary landscape in a young writer’s mind, so he or she cannot imagine a quest story without such a figure. This is how those Gandalf figures became a stereotype. They move the story briskly along in anticipated directions—and we should never underestimate the power of anticipation in reading. As established previously in the discussion of spoilers, some readers really, really like knowing where the story is going, because we sure can’t know what tomorrow will bring, in real life.
So where do these figures, whether archetype, prototype, or stereotype, get their power? As usual in any exploration of human ideas, theories begin to fork along paradigm boundaries. On one hand we’ve got Joseph Campbell, who neatly reduces all human myth to a male monomyth (women being, as he said, ‘too busy’ to tell stories), and behavioral and humanistic psychology, which tidily boils down art and endeavor to animal instinct or brain chemistry.
The other branch is often said to begin with Carl Jung, though the Jungian psychoanalyist Clarissa Pinkola Estés maintains that that insights into archetypes and the psyche were preserved and handed down by indigenous people worldwide, they being the original archetypal theorists. Which is one of the reasons why pursuit of this particular branch can appear to be as messy as the Campbellian approach is tidy, as it pokes its tendrils into various cultures and disciplines, including some that are not always acknowledged as disciplines.
But Jung wrote about archetypes for the western worldview, so it’s easy to start with him if one has a western educational background. Redefined in English, Jung’s archetypes can be called innate universal psychic dispositions that form the substrate from which the basic themes of human life emerge. Their purpose? Jung thought that archetypes heavily influenced the human life cycle, propelling a neurologically hard-wired sequence which he called the “stages of life.” Each stage is mediated through a new set of archetypal imperatives which seek fulfillment in action; in youth one seeks one’s identity, to make a place in the world—which historically gave us a lot of angry young men out seeking to achieve or to destroy, the first half of Campbell’s monomyth—and (if he survives that first stage enough to age) in later life the urge to separate oneself from humanity reverses, and one seeks meaning in community, whether that’s limited to family or open to universality or spirituality.
From there it’s a short arc to transpersonal psychology and archaeology . . . for some. Let’s not get into woo, many will say with rational and civilized calm. We humans are just organisms that put on clothes and make markings for each other; we eat, fight, mate, and die. End of story. Maybe, but when I first stood before petroglyphs painted on rock in Utah some 200,000 years ago, and saw those symbols above and around the human figures—and the figures that were not quite human, but distinct from the animal figures—I thought, maybe that is not the end of story, because here we are in this skeptical 21st century, and our fiction is just as full of magic and mythological elements as those ‘primitive’ rock paintings. Would Gandalf be nearly as memorable if he didn’t have that staff to crack upon the ground, and cause the heavens to shake?