A Wizard Is Never Late

A Mary GrandPré illustration of Dumbledore.

A Mary GrandPré illustration of Dumbledore.

“A wizard is never late, nor is he early, he arrives precisely when he means to.” – Gandalf in The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien

“‘Now, Harry, is your trunk packed?’ ‘Erm…’ said Harry. ‘Doubtful that I would turn up?’ Dumbledore suggested shrewdly.” Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling

For some reason, when I started reading Tolkien’s books I didn’t think Gandalf would impress me. I mean, come on – Dumbledore is the best wizard ever! Needless to say, I soon realized that Gandalf is amazing too. Who is better? I’m trying to figure that out by writing this.

But first I’ll introduce the wizards!

Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore (Grand Sorceror, Chief Warlock, Supreme Mugwump of the International Confederation of Wizards, Order of Merlin – First Class) is the Headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. He’s from the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling, about a boy named Harry who discovers he is a wizard.

Gandalf (the Grey, the White, Mithrandir, The Grey Pilgrim, Stormcrow) is one of the Istari, a group of five wizards who came from the West to assist Middle-earth. He’s from The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien, high fantasy novels about evil jewelry.

I’ll start by comparing their powers. Dumbledore can Apparate, or disappear and reappear at will. He’s so powerful he doesn’t need an Invisibility Cloak to become invisible. He defeated Grindelwald and dueled Lord Voldemort. Gandalf can create blasts that destroy entire legions and bright light that blinds foes. I think the two are evenly matched here – they’re even both experts on evil magical artifacts, like Horcruxes and the Rings of Power.

Gandalf the White (playing Whack-A-Steward).

Gandalf the White (playing Whack-A-Steward).

I’ve heard that “Gandalf is better at magic than Dumbledore because he has a staff instead of a wand.” This is ridiculous. The end result – magic – is the same, so does what they use really matter? As far as I can see the only advantage Gandalf has is that a staff can be used to hit people.

Power is about more than magic anyway, as both have pointed out. Dumbledore almost constantly reminds Harry that there are things, namely love, that are more powerful than magic. Lord of the Rings implies it – I love those slightly panicked looks film!Gandalf gives the hobbits when they talk about how they’ll definitely win just because they have a wizard on their side.

Sometimes what makes someone powerful is knowing what power would be too much. Gandalf could’ve easily used the One Ring to become the greatest sorcerer Middle-earth had ever seen but thank god he didn’t, because the Ring makes everyone evil in the end. Dumbledore could’ve continued to work with Grindelwald but thank god he didn’t because Grindelwald was a little crazy. At one point Dumbledore had two of the Deathly Hallows and could’ve taken the third (Harry’s Invisibility Cloak) – “together, they make one Master of Death”. Thank god he didn’t. So they tie here. Good job, guys.

Richard Harris as Dumbledore, films 1-2

Richard Harris as Dumbledore, films 1-2

Both wizards died but Gandalf came back from the dead and is sometimes considered the better guy. I disagree. While I love Gandalf and was happy that he returned as Gandalf the White, I think from a storytelling point of view it was a cop-out. Seriously. If you want readers to sob over the death of a beloved character, go ahead and kill that guy (or girl). Bringing them back because you realize the story can’t go on without them is lame. I think Dumbledore’s death was sadder because we knew him as well as his killer better (whereas Gandalf really starts to shine as the White). Finally, Dumbledore would point that, “After all, to the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure.”

I love seeing how characters interact with each other. Who’s the better role model? Whose relationships are more interesting? To be honest I don’t find Gandalf’s relationship with Frodo that interesting even in the films, so we can toss that out. I do love how Gandalf encourages Bilbo to come out of his shell, though. That’s not even a big part of The Hobbit because for most of it Gandalf’s off gallivanting around Middle-earth, but I still love it. I love how Dumbledore mentors Harry. He’s one of many father figures. Half-Blood Prince has my favorite Dumbledore/Harry scenes because I like how Albus thinks he’s mature enough to puzzle out Voldemort’s secrets along with him. I don’t think I’ll count this as Dumbledore being better, though, because I think I’m a bit biased. Frodo is OK but I like Harry more.

Even when I tried to figure out which wizard I liked better with other characters, I was still stuck. Dumbledore’s collaboration with Snape is amazing. Yes, I know it’s fictional, but they were brilliant to pull it off. On the other hand, Gandalf’s scenes with Denethor and Pippin are my favorite parts of the series. Gandalf as a mentor for Pippin is much more interesting than Gandalf/Frodo even though I think the latter is supposed to be more important. Gandalf doesn’t have many equals but Denethor is described as very similar and I think this is part of the reason they don’t get on well. (I love how snarky they are towards each other!)

Who’s more quotable? Dumbledore says, “Numbing the pain for a while will make it worse when you finally feel it.”, “You fail to recognize that it matters not what someone is born, but what they grow to be.”, and “Of course it is happening inside your head Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?” Gandalf says, “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”, “My dear Frodo. Hobbits really are amazing creatures. You can learn all there is to know about their ways in a month, and yet after a hundred years they can still surprise you.”, and “You shall not pass!” I do like quirky quotes and Dumbledore certainly has a lot of them.

On the left, Gandalf the Grey

On the left, Gandalf the Grey

What about their flaws? I think flawed characters make their books have fewer flaws because real people are flawed. I can’t quite forgive Gandalf for abandoning Thorin’s Company time and again in The Hobbit. I know he was investigating other things, but seriously? It’s not nice to drag a little hobbit along on an adventure and then disappear. Dumbledore can be selfish. He tried to unite the Hallows and become master of Death. He made mistakes too, thinking it was better to keep some information from Harry. When he did tell Harry about the prophecy, it was too late. So Dumbledore is more flawed but conversely that’s actually a good thing in my book. Perfect characters are annoying.

Gandalf beats Dumbledore hands down in the movies. Dumbledore was played by Richard Harris in the first two films but after he died, Michael Gambon replaced him. I haven’t seen the first two films once but from what I can remember, I wasn’t impressed. Harris’s interpretation was accurate to the books. He looked more or less like Dumbledore was described. It just felt like all the mechanics were there but Dumbledore’s quirky essence wasn’t.

Michael Gambon as Dumbledore, films 3-8.

Michael Gambon as Dumbledore, films 3-8.

Going by appearances only, Gambon was a fantastic Dumbledore. There’s just something about his eyes, his whole face really, that’s very expressive and that reminded me of the illustrations in the books. However, I HATE his acting. He’s said he didn’t bother to read the books which frustrates me because he messed up the character. Gambon’s Dumbledore seemed angry all the time, even when he’s supposed to be comforting Harry or Snape.

I was very pleased with Ian McKellen as Gandalf. He looks perfect for the part. I think he did a really good job showing Gandalf’s personality – at times stern, amused/amusing, intimidating, and wise. I’ve now run out of things to say about him but hey, that’s better than whining on and on about film!Dumbledore.

So what conclusion did I come to? Because they’re quite evenly matched, I think all I’ve really done is find more reasons to love both. I think people should spend less time trying to pick which of two things is “better”. Why pick one when you can have the good parts of both? Dumbledore and Gandalf are truly wonderful wizards. Perhaps not of Oz but nevertheless, both of their creators should be very proud of them.


About nevillegirl

Elizabeth. University of Iowa class of 2019. Triple majoring in English & Creative Writing, Journalism, and Gender, Women's, & Sexuality Studies. Twenty-one-year-old daydreamer, introvert, voracious reader, aspiring writer, and lesbian. Passionate about feminism, mental health, comic books, and cats.
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17 Responses to A Wizard Is Never Late

  1. Between Richard Harris and Michael Gambon’s portrayals of Dumbledore, I would ultimately pick Harris. I mean, he looked like Dumbledore and acted like Dumbledore for the most part, but I felt he was a bit too serious. The whimsical side to him just didn’t come into play that often. Gambon was better than Harris at acting the part of grave!serious!your-life-is-in-danger!Dumbledore, but yes, I did think he was pretty angry throughout the films. Example: ‘Did you put your name in the Goblet of Fire, Harry?’ Dumbledore asked calmly‘ In the movie, he was all ‘HARRY Y U ENTER THE TOURNAMENT YOU DIE NOW’
    But yeah, I’d pick Harris. He reminds me of the days when Hogwarts wasn’t threatening, when life outside of Hogwarts was wonderful, and when seeing the inside of the Great Hall filled you with awe and glee. Before the depressing stuff.

    I love Ian McKellen as Gandalf. He is just so awesome. He beats both Dumbledores, hands down.

  2. Artgirl says:

    Yes! You included Whack-a-Steward. Lovely name, by the way. That’s one of my favorite scenes in the movies. I love the movie versions of LotR (and I’m a bit of an Ian McKellan fangirl) but wasn’t as satisfied with those for Harry Potter. I love both the characters, though. Two of the greatest wizards of all time. And now I’m using sentence fragments. Like Suzanne Collins.

    • nevillegirl says:

      Mine too. 😀

      If the HP movies had been as long as those for LotR, they might’ve been decent. Peter Jackson is obsessive about including pretty much everything, but I’d rather have that than have the HP guys leave out half of Snape’s memories!

      • Artgirl says:

        At least Peter Jackson has read and re-read the books and the appendices and other Tolkien writings. His knowledge of those is pretty clear, even if he does change a few of things in the movies. I like that he really cares about the stories he’s directing, or at least, that’s how he’s come across to me. I don’t know much about the director for Harry Potter. And I agree, I would’ve loved to have seen all of Snape’s memories IN DETAIL.

    • nevillegirl says:

      I think he cares more about the quality and doesn’t worry about the quantity. I mean, the extended editions are four hours long each!

      I have a book about the HP films and it says there were four directors, which explains why they were so different and there sometimes wasn’t much continuity. In DH1&2 Sirius’ mirror suddenly shows up but it wasn’t even mentioned in OtP, for example.

  3. Charley R says:

    Personally I’ve always been on the Gandalf team, possibly because I felt Dumbledore’s turnaround in the last couple of books from ‘wise old mentor’ to ‘liar with squicky past’ happened a bit fast – I think there should have been more insinuation and foreshadowing on that front. It would have made the character more dynamic and interesting, I think.

    Also, on the Gandalf ‘resurrection’ front – he’s not mortal, and thus his reincarnation is due to his semi-divine status as one of the Istari (relatives of the Maiar, of which Sauron is one). Thus, he is ‘brought back’ in order to take Saruman’s place, as that is how the Istari work. I think Tolkien had the fall from the bridge in Moria for added dramatic tension – it got Gandalf away from the Fellowship long enough for them to break up, and gave them time to develop and do things without him always hovering over them (because let’s face it he’s a bit of a deus ex machina at times). Furthermore, his return is more dramatic and exciting for the reader when he DOES come back because it’s unexpected.

    Those are just my nitpicks, though – I agree with all the rest, hands-down!

    • nevillegirl says:

      I thought that was done well, but maybe it was just me.

      Oh duh, I forgot to include that he wasn’t mortal! Gandalf is practically the definition of deus ex machina; even when he comes back it’s like that. When Dumbledore died it was more dramatic because now Harry, the scrawny midget in glasses, had to figure out what to do. (Obviously he was helped a bit by Dumbledore, but it was neat how the old guy managed to do that from beyond the grave.)

      • Charley R says:

        A fair point, I will say. Each to their own, and there’s plenty of wizard love to go around. I still like Dumbledore, but Gandalf . . . you don’t get any more awesome than that.

  4. Andrea says:

    I can’t really choose…both Gandalf and Dumbledore are so epic. In terms of the movies, Ian McKellan wins, of course. Because he’s Ian McKellan. But I like Dumbledore so much, too, especially his relationship with Snape.

    Truth be told, I’m not the hugest fan of either Gandalf or Dumbledore. SNAPE IS MY FAVORITE. The end.

  5. matttblack42 says:

    “A wizard is never late, nor is he early, he arrives precisely when he means to.”
    This my excuse whenever I’m late to class.

  6. Pingback: Ten Past Posts About “Harry Potter” + One About J.K. Rowling | Musings From Neville's Navel

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