Though his history and character are more fully explored in The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion, Gandalf remains a looming mystery in The Hobbit, a constant reminder that Middle-Earth is more vast and cryptic than Bilbo realizes. A powerful wizard, Gandalf generally prefers to keep his powers and motives closely guarded. He never reveals, for instance, why he chooses to help Thorin in his quest; he certainly has no interest in the treasure, and he leaves the company in Mirkwood while he goes to fight against the Necromancer. Something both inspiring and dangerous defines Gandalf’s character—he is an unshakable bulwark against evil, and yet he seems to have an enlightened, almost godlike knowledge of every person’s place in the world.

Gandalf’s sweeping, epic personality separates him from the vast majority of characters that commercial fantasy literature has produced in the decades since The Hobbit was first published. Though Gandalf can be viewed as the source of the stereotypical figure of fantasy wizard, Gandalf himself is more than just an old man with powerful spells and a pointy hat. Tolkien imbues Gandalf with a sense of heightened awareness, ensuring that Gandalf always knows more about what is happening than we do, even when the other characters are left in the dark.