When writing The Hobbit in the early 1930s Tolkien gave the name Gandalf to the leader of the Dwarves, the character later called Thorin Oakenshield. The name is taken from the same source as all the other Dwarf names (save Balin) in The Hobbit: the "Catalogue of Dwarves" in the Völuspá
. The Old Norse name Gandalfr incorporates the words gandr
meaning "wand", "staff" or (especially in compounds) "magic" and álfr
"elf". The name Gandalf is found in at least one more place in Norse myth, in the semihistorical Heimskringla
, which briefly describes Gandalf Alfgeirsson, a legendary Norse king from Eastern Norway and rival of Halfdan the Black.
The name "Gandolf" occurs as a character in William Morris' 1896 fantasy novel The Well at the World's End
. Morris' book is a multi-part 'magical journey' involving elves, dwarves and kings in a pseudo-medieval landscape which is known to have deeply influenced Tolkien.
The wizard that was to become Gandalf was originally named Bladorthin. Tolkien later assigned this name to an ancient king who had ordered some spears from the dwarves.
Tolkien came to regret his ad hoc use of Old Norse name, referring to a "rabble of eddaic-named dwarves, ... invented in an idle hour" in 1937. But the decision to use Old Norse names came to have far-reaching consequences in the composition of The Lord of the Rings; in 1942, Tolkien decided that the work was to be a purported translation from the fictional language of Westron, and in the English translation Old Norse names were taken to represent names in the language of Dale. Gandalf, in this setting, is thus a representation in English (anglicised from Old Norse
) of the name the dwarves of Dale had given to Olórin in the language they used "externally" in their daily affairs, while Tharkûn is the (untranslated) name, presumably of the same meaning, that the dwarves gave him in their native Khuzdul language. Tolkien explains this in his Guide to the Names in The Lord of the Rings
(1967) to prospective translators.
In a letter of 1946 Tolkien stated that he thought of Gandalf as an "Odinic wanderer
". Other commentators have also compared Gandalf to the Norse god Odin in his "Wanderer" guise—an old man with one eye, a long white beard, a wide brimmed hat, and a staff.