UTH #1: The Story of Gandalf and Magneto

written by David Steffen

This article is based in the idea of UTH (Universal Transitive Headcanon); if you are not familiar with the concept you can read more detail about it here.

From our perspective, most people in our world and time view Gandalf the Grey (and his second persona as Gandalf the White) as one of the greatest heroes of Middle Earth (i.e. The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, etc), in part because of the incredible portrayal of the legendary character by Sir Ian McKellen. Time and again Gandalf learns of a great threat to peace and life as people know it and he races ahead to forewarn those in danger to give them time to prepare a defense. Yet, Gandalf is known by another name by many people of that time and place that gives us a sense of the skewed perspective of those very same people he has saved: Storm Crow. Because, wherever Gandalf visits, a wave of chaos and death is surely following closely behind. And, while this is certainly true, many people confuse Gandalf’s role in the proceedings; Gandalf is not the cause of the chaos and death. With no Gandalf, entire kingdoms and their residents would have been wiped off the map in quick succession without forewarning to defend themselves. Gandalf has certainly saved many thousands of lives many times over, yet he is often blamed for those who didn’t survive despite his best efforts.

It is no wonder, then, that even after saving most of the then-known world from the evil power of Sauron yet again, that Gandalf would become embittered and, not only take on an entirely new persona of Eric Lensherr/Magneto (X-Men, X2: X-Men United, etc), but turn his back on his prior methods and many of the people he had fought to protect. No longer would he spend his efforts protecting a populace that as a whole despises and blames him. He may have been emboldened to change tactics by the modern rise of more people like him–in the times of The Lord of the Rings he was a rarity, only a handful of superpowered people like him, but by the time of the X-Men timeline there are multiple organized teams with their own agendas and with more superpowered people revealing themselves every day. As we saw in X2: X-Men United when Professor X uses Cerebro to target all mutants on the planet, there are multitudes more that are hidden in the population who perhaps do not even know that they have powers, or perhaps have just managed to keep it a secret from most. Perhaps in the time of The Lord of the Rings, a similar number of people have powers, but have not had the opportunity to develop it, or they manifest in ways that are taken for granted by those around them, but in any case the number of evident superpowered people has greatly increased from one film to the next.

Where Gandalf once depended on the support of the Fellowship of the Ring, Magneto now depends on the support of the Brotherhood of Mutants. Having revived from death at the hands of the Balrog and saving the entire population of the world from the evils of Sauron, and finding the world just as unwelcoming to him and to people like him as ever, he is back and is determined to establish a world where people like him can thrive without the blame and persecution of those who view them as different: “We are the future, Charles. They no longer matter”.

Gandalf/Magneto, among his more flashy talents, has a keen eye for new recruits, as we see in X2: X-Men United as he snipes Pyro from the X-Men team using Pyro’s insecurities and animosity toward Ice Man as a wedge. We see the start of his yearning for brotherhood with others of his kind with his befriending of Bilbo in The Hobbit, and then Frodo in The Fellowship of the Ring. At the beginning of each of their stories, Bilbo and Frodo seem fairly quiet and unspectacular people among a local population full of quiet and unspectacular people. But, especially in Frodo his skill at recruiting is never stronger. Without the Hobbits in general, and perhaps Frodo specifically, the battle against Sauron would surely have been lost. Frodo’s pleasant and calm demeanor is but an aspect of his supernatural resilience and resistance to the forces of outside corruption. Gandalf himself is susceptible to the mind control of Sauron: “Do not tempt me! For I do not wish to become like the Dark Lord himself.” But Frodo carries the One Ring to the brink of its destruction, farther than any other individual may have carried it, even if in those final moments his resolve finally crumbled (though thankfully the deed was still carried out!). Of course, Boromir’s betrayal shows that Gandalf is not infallible in his recruiting skill–his recruiting is a high-stakes gamble–the world would have been lost if he had not found a mutant with an appropriate power to counteract the Dark Lord Sauron’s powers, but the flip side is that when this gamble went wrong it tore apart the Fellowship of Nine.

Before we see Gandalf in the guise of Magneto rising to notoriety at the head of The Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, he has found a way to use technology to conquer his greatest fear: the fear of mind control, using a specially crafted helmet that shields him from telepathic influence. If he were to face Sauron again, he would be more prepared. He has also focused on some of his abilities to the loss of many others–can you imagine how much simpler most of the battles of Middle Earth could have been with the powers that Magneto has developed over metal? Every orc’s blade turned against them, a battle could be over in seconds with no survivors to tell of it! It’s no wonder that he focused so much of his power in more recent years on honing that skill to perfection.

As we see the resurrection of Gandalf the Grey into Gandalf the White, it is explicit that Gandalf is not bound by the same laws of mortality as the rest of us. One component of this great character’s life that is a matter of fierce debate is the debate of the other chapter of his life involving a quest for resurrection as Asparagus, aka Gus the Theater Cat (Cats) who joins with the others at the Jellicle Ball to determine which one of them will be reborn.

My personal interpretation of the Gus/Gandalf ordering is that his time as Gus the Theater Cat tells of the later years of his long and storied life. It’s only natural for him to take on a role in the theater, considering how skilled he had shown himself to be by then to take on different roles. And in his role of Gus we finally see spelled out how his earlier resurrection may have worked, although it seems that significant details must have been left out in the telling in both the books and the movies.

Although strong rules dictates certain parameters around a Jellicle Ball, it turns out that these rules are more customs than laws. Gandalf defeated the Balrog and earned his own resurrection by calling an impromptu Jellicle Ball as they fell from the Bridge of Khazad-dûm. Gandalf the Grey and the Balrog took their turns pleading their case for why each of them deserved resurrection in musical form. Of course with only the two of them, they could not fairly judge themselves in this case, so a higher power had to step in to make the choice. It turns out that Gandalf wishing to return to the surface and save everyone from the Dark Lord was more convincing an argument than whatever the Balrog could come up with in the heat of the moment when it had been expecting this confrontation to be a literal song and dance. Or perhaps it was Gandalf’s performance that made the difference rather than the contents of the argument itself, and thus inspired his later life in theater, as theater had saved his life and allowed him to finish his greatest work. One can imagine that the Balrog’s performance probably had a great deal of shaky rhymes and trailed-off sentences and circular logic, and the Balrog died for its failure.

It’s unclear why Tolkien skipped the musical nature of this sequence, considering The Lord of The Rings books are basically musicals anyway (count the number of songs in their pages and tell me I’m wrong). But why skip the most striking musical number? Perhaps Peter Jackson also skipped this musical sequence as a nod of deference to Tolkien, but the continued lack of a musical adaptation of the Gandalf/Balrog Jellicle Ball sequence is simply a travesty that I hope will some day be rectified! (preferably soon enough that Sir Ian McKellen may reprise his role!)

Gandalf’s breaking of custom may also have something to do with why Gus failed to secure resurrection at the later Jellicle Ball. He had already earned his chance at another life, and under a Jellicle Ball whose legitimacy could be called into question, and here he is at another one making the case for yet another life? So, this last chapter of his life was a quieter one, where others elsewhere wee fighting the battles that save the world.

Universal Transitive Headcanon (UTH): A Metafiction Framework Proposal

written by David Steffen

I would like to propose some terminology for a particular type of headcanon that can be applied across many media, though centered around actor-based media like movies and TV based on actor-transitivity and character-transitivity: the Universal Transitive Headcanon (UTH). This proposal will be the basis of a series of posts that I intend to write analyzing movies, books, comics, and other media through the UTH.

For those who are not familiar with the term, “headcanon” refers to an unofficial interpretation of a work of fiction, which may or may not have any support in the source material, but which are not part of the official canon as defined by the source material.

Once a work of fiction goes out into the world, the creator no longer has complete control over it. The beauty of this is that fans can find their own interpretations whether or not the creators actually agree with those or not, and those interpretations can have an incredible life of their own even when (as the vast majority of the time) they are not considered by the creators to be canonical–they are officially not official.

The foundational concepts of the Universal Transitive Headcanon are:

  • Actor-Transitivity: Every character played by a single actor is part of the same continuity. For example, this would dictate that Darth Vader and Mufasa are part of the same character story.
  • Character-Transitivity: Every actor that plays a single character is part of the same continuity, as well as in non-acted media like comic books. For example, this would dictate that Adam West’s Batman is part of the same continuity as George Clooney’s Batman, as well as the Batman of comics and cartoons.
  • Multiple-Layer Transitivity: A continuity connection need not be limited to one transitive step. By this premise, it becomes to possible to, for example, examine how Beetlejuice and Edward Cullen are part of the same character story. Because: Michael Keaton played Beetlejuice, Michael Keaton played Batman, Robert Pattinson played Batman, Robert Pattinson played Edward Cullen.
  • Acting as Themself: If an actor plays Himself/Herself/Themself in a work of fiction, then by that extension the actor themself is part of their UTH, and so everything extending out from their acting roles is autobiographical. This may also imply that, for instance, one actor is the secret identity of another actor.
  • Disregarded Factors: Particular details that make contininuities difficult or impossible to correlate may be disregarded as necessary to make a unified narrative–such as differing character appearances, different family structures, different countries of origin, simultaneous or out-of-order timelines, or the fact that multiple characters combined by the continuity have canonically died (I’m looking at you, Sean Bean).

Future posts will further explore the possibilities of the Universal Transitive Headcanon for metafiction storytelling!