One. Sort of. He might come back though.
Tolkien was a master of worldcrafting. A person that Seth and I hold in high esteem and, I think, for good reason. His work, however, does not necessarily hold up to our naturalistic scrutiny. Maiar are these angelic beings in Tolkien’s mythology, Balrogs are Maiar, Gandalf is too. One is a big old fiery boy with an arsenal of fiery whips, swords and a set of scary wings, Gandalf has a stick and is good at fireworks. Gross oversimplification, I know, but bear with me. Even if we accept that Gandalf has a great deal of power, and he does, it just seems like an old man going toe to toe with a fire demon is implausible. Even when you take Gandalf’s victory and resurrection into account you then have the reckon with Sauron, also Maiar, and the Witch King, not a Maiar, both being demonstrably stronger face to face.
My point isn’t that Tolkein was inconsistent but rather that his world had moving parts we didn’t see. Part of the reason Gandalf doesn’t let his hair down from his pointy grey hat is that it’s simply not his job. He wasn’t sent to go pound Sauron into the ground he was sent with other, slightly different, purposes in mind. In fact, two of the wizards (blue wizards) buggered off East (like WAY East) immediately on arrival and I suppose Radghast was busy combing bird nests out of his hair. And don’t even get me started on Tom Bombadil who appears to have near limitless power within his context.
This is mythic Worldbuilding, a common theme that Seth and I return to in the podcast. The question isn’t ‘which is stronger’ but ‘what are they here to do?’ Is this task within their remit? Apparently the Balrog wasn’t even necessarily aligned with Sauron, he was chilling in that mountain minding his own business when a powerful magical artifact came wandering in. Gandalf, the Balrog, Sauron, and Tom Bombadil’s motivations all seem opaque and, at times, frustrating to us because we don’t see the bigger picture. The War of the Ring is not really Tom Bombadil’s problem, he’s quite happy with his life as is, thank you very much. The point in Tolkien’s writing is that there actually is more going on than we see. It’s mythic, it inspires wonder and that’s why we love it.
Stay tuned for more writing from the WorldCraft Club as we explore worldbuilding and the crafting of fictional settings to inspire your creativity.
We’re happy to host guest blogs on here whenever we can, it gives James a break and let’s other people contribute their ideas. Let us know if you have a worldbuilding concept or strategy to get off your chest, we’d love to hear it.