The being known in Middle-earth as 'Gandalf' was in fact an embodied spirit who had existed before the making of the World. One of the lesser Ainur known as Maiar, he descended into the World with the Valar in its earliest days. Of his doings in those most ancient times we know nothing; we first hear of him after the Valar settled in the Western land of Aman.
Olórin in the West
In Aman he dwelt in the gardens of Lórien, the Vala who governed dreams, but also often travelled to the halls of Nienna (while other sources also connect him with Manwë and Varda). After the coming of the Elves to Valinor, the being who would become Gandalf acquired a name in the Quenya language: Olórin, a name connected to dreams and dreaming (or the Elves' equivalent experiences). Described as one of the wisest of all the Maiar, he also had a special concern for the Children of Ilúvatar. In Valinor he would move among them unseen - as the spirits of the Maiar were able to do - and prompt the Elves or inspire them to wisdom.
As it became clear that a Shadow was arising again in Middle-earth during the Third Age, the Valar determined to send three emissaries to lead the peoples of the mortal lands against the rising darkness. Two of the Maiar accepted the summons: Curumo (known in Middle-earth as Saruman) and Alatar. Manwë himself called for Olórin to join them as a noted friend of the Eldar, and reluctantly Olórin agreed. (In the event five emissaries were sent: these three were joined by Aiwendil (Radagast) and another Maia, a friend of Alatar, named Pallando.)
These five each took on a form of flesh in the appearance of an old Man, losing much of their native knowledge and power in the process, and took ship across the Great Sea to Middle-earth.
There are hints that Olórin had visited Middle-earth long before this fateful voyage, to lend his help to the Elves and Men in their war with Morgoth in the First Age. Almost nothing is known of these earlier visits2 - if indeed they occurred at all - but his arrival with his fellow Maiar at the Grey Havens in the Third Age would have a far greater impact on history.
It was in or about the year III 1000 that the vessels carrying Olórin and his companions crossed the Sea out of the West. They told few of their identities or their mission in Middle-earth, but among those few was Círdan the Shipwright, master of the Grey Havens and bearer of the Narya, one of the Three Rings of the Elves. So impressed was Círdan by Olórin's evident wisdom and purpose that he granted the Ring of Fire to the newcomer to aid in the work against the stirring Shadow. Meanwhile, to the peoples of Middle-earth Olórin and his companions appeared as Men, already aged but barely growing older as the years passed.
According to some histories, Olórin bore a gift with him out of the West, the green stone known as the Elessar. This he presented to Galadriel, it was said, as a token that the Valar had not forsaken Middle-earth, and a presage of the coming of the Elessar of Gondor (an event which still lay some two thousand years in the future). It should be noted that other sources flatly contradict this account, and it is quite possibly apocryphal.
Over the long centuries that followed Olórin travelled back and forth across Middle-earth, or at least its northern and western parts, seeking to learn more of the peoples he visited, and to build a defence against Sauron. It was during this time that he acquired new names from the peoples he encountered. From his grey raiment and his wide-ranging travels, the Elves came to know him as Mithrandir the Grey Wanderer. Meanwhile the Dwarves named him from the long staff he carried as Tharkûn, 'staff-man', and for the same reason the Northmen chose a name meaning 'Elf of the Wand': Gandalf.
It was as Gandalf that Olórin played his most important roles in Middle-earth's history, both alone and as part of the Council of the Wise. He brought Bilbo Baggins into the Quest of Erebor, an action that led to finding of Sauron's One Ring, and he also helped the White Council to drive Sauron himself out of Dol Guldur. Finally he played a pivotal role in the War of the Ring, bringing about the final defeat of the Dark Lord. (For a fuller account of Olórin's doings in this Wizardly guise, see the entry for Gandalf.)
When at last Middle-earth had been freed from the threat of Sauron, Gandalf travelled back to the Grey Havens, where he had landed in Middle-earth some two millennia earlier. There he boarded the White Ship and departed from Middle-earth, returning to his ancient home the West and to his former existence as Olórin.
It should be mentioned that there is a very small chance that even the little we know about Olórin's background is simply false. In a note reproduced in Unfinished Tales, Tolkien briefly explores the possibility that Olórin was actually an alias for none other than Manwë the Elder King of Arda. According to this idea, Manwë chose to make one last journey into Middle-earth before finally retiring to his halls on Taniquetil to await the Last Battle. The guise he chose for this journey, according to this version of events, was that of a humble Maia, Olórin.
This idea was said to come from the 'Faithful' of an indeterminate later period, apparently some troubled time in the Fourth Age. It is interesting that Tolkien doesn't simply reject the notion, but says 'I do not (of course) know the truth of this matter ... [b]ut I think it was not so.' (Unfinished Tales Part Four II, The Istari) and goes on to raise what are essentially theological objections. It seems from this that we can be very nearly certain that Olórin was not secretly the chief Vala Manwë. Nonetheless this remains a tantalising possibility, if an exceptionally unlikely one.
'Dreams' is really an inadequate translation of olori, but there is nothing in English that comes close to this concept. To the Elves, memory and imagination presented a mental image that had the clarity of reality - it is to these clear perceptions that the word olori actually refers.
A brief discussion of Olórin's visits to Middle-earth in the First Age appears in the late essay Glorfindel in volume 12 of The History of Middle-earth. There it is mentioned that he explored the doings of Elves and Men not only in Beleriand, but also farther afield. We're told that he 'became acquainted' with these people, which is ambiguous, but seems to suggest that he took on a form that allowed him to interact with them, rather than remaining an unseen spirit.
Nothing more is known on this subject. Tolkien finished this brief aside with the words '...nothing is said of this', but then amended this to '...nothing has yet been said of this'. This suggests that he did mean to expand on the subject, but no further writings on the topic appear to exist.
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