Why Did Gandalf the White Fight With a Sword Instead of Casting Spells?

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Answer by Thomas Snerdley:

The reason Gandalf frequently used a sword was not because he was a Maiar spirit, but because he was an Istar.

Around the year 1000 of the Third Age, the Council of the Valar chose an unknown number of Maiar spirits to oppose Sauron in Middle-earth. The five whom Tolkien names—Curumo/Saruman, Aiwendil/Radagast, Olórin/Gandalf, Alatar/Morinehtar, and Pallando/Rómestámo—as “chiefs” of their order formed the Heren Istarion, or “Order of Wizards.” Each individual member was known as an Istar (Quenya: “wizard”); the plural form was Istari.

The Council of the Valar imposed two significant limitations upon the Istari that eventually contributed to the reason that Gandalf used a sword: First, the Istari were “forbidden to reveal themselves in forms of majesty, or to seek to rule the wills of Men or Elves by open display of power.” Second, the Istari’s Maiar spirits were “clad in bodies as of Men, real and not feigned, but subject to the fears and pains and weariness of earth, able to hunger and thirst and be slain; though because of their noble spirits they did not die, and aged only by the cares and labours of many long years.”

Additionally, the Istari wanted to conceal their divine origins from Sauron in order to avoid attracting his malevolent attention. So they carried wooden staffs (also referred to as “wands” and “rods”) that they used as camouflage on the rare instances when they exerted Maiar power in the form of casting “spells.” This may have helped the Istari, at least for a while, blend in with other human “sorcerors” in Middle-earth.

As it turned out, encasing Maiar spirits in mortal bodies proved to be a dual strategy for the Valar.  

On the one hand, Gandalf was able to enjoy the sight and sound of fireworks, to luxuriate in the nicotine rush of smoking pipe-weed, to use his mortal hands to fashion magical and mundane artifacts like fireworks and the Old Took’s self-fastening diamond studs. But like the other Istari, Gandalf also came to understand the limitations and temptations of weak, mortal flesh.

Gone was Gandalf’s innate Maiar ability to seamlessly change forms as he once did in Valinor, where he inspired the hearts of the elves. Now he had to fear being slain by the servants of evil. 

For several millennia, while Sauron laid low after his defeat by Elendil and Gil-galad, that wasn’t a big deal. But things began to get downright hazardous when Sauron rebuilt his power at Dol Guldur. Gandalf had a very narrow escape from Sauron’s dungeons … this probably awoke in him the realization of his mortal body’s lethal vulnerability. 

So Gandalf did what you or I or anyone else in a similar perilous position might do: He weaponed up and got himself a sword. 

But not just any sword. Ganadalf came into possession of the ancient elvish blade Glamdring (Sindarin:  “Foe-hammer”). Befiting the sword of Turgon of Gondolin, High King of the Elves of Middle-earth, Glamdring was a white and gold sword that “shone with a cold light, if any Orcs were near at hand” and had a beautiful ruel-bone (ivory) scabbard and a jeweled hilt.

And it’s a darn good thing Gandalf had Glamdring at the Bridge of Khazad-dûm because the Balrog of Morgoth was carrying a giant sword with which he tried to kill him:

… still Gandalf could be seen, glimmering in the gloom; he seemed small, and altogether alone: grey and bent, like a wizened tree before the onset of a storm.  

From out of the shadow a red sword leaped flaming.

Glamdring glittered white in answer.

There was a ringing clash and a stab of white fire. The Balrog fell back, and its sword flew up in molten fragments.

Bearing Glamdring, Gandalf slew numerous minions of evil, including the Great Goblin of the Misty Mountains, while concealing his Maiar nature.

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