White Beards of Power: A Comparison between Gandalf and Dumbledore

Essay 2012 4 Pages

Didactics - English - Literature, Works


Long Beards of Power

All mighty wizards we encounter in literature usually possess one feature that immediately indicates their status as powerful sorcerers to the reader: a long, mostly white (occasionally grey) beard. A wizard simply can’t be that powerful if he isn’t depicted as an old man – very old to be precise – with a beard so enormous that he can effortlessly tuck its end into his belt. This cliché of the wise old man with magical abilities derives to a large extent from the depiction of Gandalf the Grey in J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy novel The Hobbit and it’s even more famous successor The Lord of the Rings. The character of Gandalf became not only the iconic prototype for the description of wizards in literature but it influenced a whole genre, making Gandalf the uber-father of all wizards, on whose typical features many authors still rely on. This also counts for the famous headmaster of a certain school for witchcraft and wizardry. Invented more than half a century after The Hobbit, J.K. Rowling’s Albus Dumbledore from the Harry Potter -series heavily relies on the well-known image of how a versed magician has to act and look like. In fact he shares so many similarities with Gandalf that he could easily be mistaken for his a little less sarcastic younger brother. Not only do they share a striking resemblance concerning their outwards appearance, their temper and personality traits also resemble each other as well as their magical powers and their overall functions within the respective works they derive from.

The aspect which first comes to mind when one thinks about the two characters is their impressive and memorable appearance. Both are introduced right at the beginning of The Hobbit and Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone and get a very detailed description of their looks and attire. As the following citations show, long beards are obviously a serious must-have for wizards - may they reside in Middle Earth, Hogwarts or elsewhere: On the one hand we have Gandalf who is introduced as an ‘old man with a staff. He had a tall pointed blue hat, a long grey cloak, a silver scarf over which his long white beard hung down below his waist, and immense black boots.’ (Tolkien, 14) and on the other hand there is Dumbledore, who’s ‘tall, thin, and very old, judging by the silver of his hair and beard, which were both long enough to tuck them into his belt. He was wearing long robes, a purple cloak which swept over the ground and high-heeled, buckled boots.’ (Rowling, 12). Their outward similarities strike the eye. In fact there exists such a strong resemblance between those two that at first glance one might think that it is one and the same person who is being described here. They look like the typical image of how a child would imagine a wizard. Tall, thin, if not haggard, wearing a particular style of clothing and as already mentioned a long beard that indicates they are actually very old and thus very powerful. And powerful they are indeed since both characters are described as highly capable wizards, right from the start. The first thing the reader actually gets to know about those two is that they are extraordinary men. They are highly experienced in many things, very clever, and world-wise. And apart from that they are – of course – very accomplished when it comes to the use of magic. In fact they are in all probability the most versed wizards to be found in their respective fictive worlds. Tolkien and Rowling draw the reader’s attention to these special characteristics quite early in the stories. Although they don’t let their magicians show off their enormous powers to demonstrate what they are capable of right away, they describe their respective wizards in such a fashion that it instantaneously becomes an established fact that these men are really important and mighty indeed. This happens even before the reader actually gets in touch with them since at the time of this character establishment they are both still rather dark horses who need and get an introduction so the reader can unmistakeably comprehend right from the beginning who and what they are. Tolkien introduces the character of Gandalf as follows: ‘Gandalf! If you had heard only a quarter of what I have heard about him, and I have heard very little of all there is to hear, you would be prepared for any sort of remarkable tale. Tales and adventures sprouted up all over the place wherever he went, in the most extraordinary fashion’ (Tolkien, 14). ‘Gandalf, Gandalf! Not the wandering wizard who […] used to tell such wonderful tales at parties, about dragons and goblins and giants […]?’ (Tolkien, 16). Right from the start the reader knows that there is something to Gandalf: He is as mysterious as he is famous and surely something extraordinary will happen as soon as this man shows up. J.K. Rowling takes this to an even higher level when it comes to the description of Dumbledore as a person, apart from his short first appearance in the first chapter: ‘Albus Dumbledore, currently Headmaster of Hogwarts. Considered by many the greatest wizard of modern times, Professor Dumbledore is particularly famous for his defeat of the dark wizard Grindewald in 1945’ (Rowling, 77). Both introductions contain basically the same content and serve the same purpose: The reader is ought to know that Gandalf and Dumbledore are great and well-known magicians.



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University of Paderborn – Institut für Anglistik/Amerikanistik
white beards power comparison gandalf dumbledore



Title: White Beards of Power: A Comparison between Gandalf and Dumbledore