“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.