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By Thomas Wheeler

One of the great literary classics of fantasy -- some would say the greatest literary classic of fantasy, and they might well be right, is THE LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkein. Within these pages, Tolkein created the incredible world of Middle-Earth, populated by hobbits, dwarves, wizards, elves, orcs, and more, and set one small hobbit named Frodo Baggins off on a quest in this tragically war-torn world to destroy a dangerous ring that had come into his possession, and put an end to the plans of the evil Sauron.

The story was so epic in nature, it seemed a natural for movies. And yet at the same time, many considered the story too epic, too fantastic, to be successfully converted into motion picture form and still be respectful to the source material.

It finally took director Peter Jackson, no small amount of New Zealand scenery, hundreds of actors, costumers, set designers and builders, and some of the most modern and innovative filming and special effects techniques available, to finally bring the Lord of the Rings trilogy to a cinematic reality that truly, properly reflected the epic scale of the trilogy. Jackson finally managed what many had thought was impossible. Create a motion picture trilogy that followed Tolkein's epic classic and brought it to the movie screen as closely as possible.

But there is a fourth book. A prequel. Initially, Jackson said he didn't want anything to do with it. Need it be said, filming the trilogy was an exhausting procedure. But somewhere along the way, Jackson relented. And so, we have a second trilogy to enjoy, because somehow, Jackson is managing to get three movies out of this single, well-known volume.

The book is THE HOBBIT, and it chronicles the adventures of a hobbit, one Bilbo Baggins, as he reluctantly joins a band of dwarves as they seek to reclaim a treasure stolen by a dragon named Smaug, and eventually regain their homeland. I don't think I'm giving away any long-held secrets here by saying that along the way, Bilbo comes across the Ring that sets the stage for the later trilogy.

The Hobbit has been adapted for the visual medium before. Rankin-Bass, apparently taking a break from its stop-motion animated Christmas specials, produced an animated incarnation of The Hobbit in the mid-1970's, and it was a remarkably well-done tale, featuring an impressive voice cast, and some amazingly-rendered traditional animation, rich in detail and as epic in scope as you could ask a cartoon to be. Although the story was certainly shortened for time, it successfully presented the basics of the tale with a grandeur that was quite remarkable.

No doubt, however, that Peter Jackson's live-action version is that much more impressive, utilizing the same methods and locations as were used for his Lord of the Rings trilogy. And CGI technology has had a decade of improvement, for that matter.

No great surprise, there is an action figure line for the first movie, officially known as THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY. What is surprising is that the action figure line comes from a company that I've never heard of. Granted, a new company did need to be found, since the company that produced action figures for the Lord of the Rings movies, Toy Biz, sadly no longer exists. But whoever heard of "The Bridge Direct" before now? Certainly I hadn't. They're apparently a rather small company with offices in Florida, and that's about all I can tell you about them. One has to believe that these Hobbit figures are their first foray into action figures.

I decided to see what the figures were all about. The company is producing two scales of Hobbit figures -- roughly 4" and 6". That's an intelligent move on their part, since that seems to be the two major scales, give or take a bit, of most action figure lines these days. The 4" scale gives you compatibility with such lines as Star Wars, Marvel Universe, and G.I. Joe, while a 6" line sets you well alongside the likes of Masters of the Universe, DC Universe, and the WWE -- you know, just in case you want Sheamus to beat up a Goblin.

I decided to stick with the 4" scale line, since I do have a generous number of figures in this scale, including samples from other movies, like Indiana Jones and Pirates of the Caribbean, and have acquired several figures from the line to date. This review will take a look at one of the most prominent characters in all of Tolkein's Middle-Earth tales, not just from The Hobbit, but from The Lord of the Rings as well -- the wizard known as GANDALF THE GREY.

Let's have a somewhat more extensive look at the history of the story, and of the character, and then we'll have a look at his action figure.

The Hobbit was first published on September 21, 1937, to wide critical acclaim, being nominated for the Carnegie Medal and awarded a prize from the New York Herald Tribune. The Hobbit follows the quest of home-loving hobbit Bilbo Baggins to win a share of the treasure guarded by the dragon, Smaug. Bilbo's journey takes him from light-hearted, rural surroundings into more sinister territory. The story is told in the form of an episodic quest, and most chapters introduce a specific creature, or type of creature, of Tolkien's Wilderland. By accepting the adventurous side of his nature and applying his wits and common sense, Bilbo gains a new level of maturity, competence and wisdom. The story reaches its climax in the Battle of Five Armies, where many of the characters and creatures from earlier chapters re-emerge to engage in conflict.

Encouraged by the book's success, the publisher requested a sequel. As Tolkien's work on the successor The Lord of the Rings trilogy progressed, he made retrospective accommodations for it in The Hobbit. These few but significant changes were integrated into the second edition. Further editions followed with minor emendations, including those reflecting Tolkien's changing concept of the world into which Bilbo stumbled. The work has never been out of print.

Bilbo Baggins, the titular protagonist, is a respectable, conservative hobbit. During his adventure, Bilbo often refers to the contents of his larder at home and wishes he had more food. Until he finds a magic ring, he is more baggage than help. Gandalf, an itinerant wizard introduces Bilbo to a company of thirteen dwarves. During the journey the wizard disappears on side errands dimly hinted at, only to appear again at key moments in the story. Thorin Oakenshield, the proud, pompous head of the company of dwarves and heir to the destroyed dwarven kingdom under the Lonely Mountain, makes many mistakes in his leadership, relying on Gandalf and Bilbo to get him out of trouble, but he proves himself a mighty warrior. Smaug is a dragon who long ago pillaged the dwarven kingdom of Thorin's grandfather and sleeps upon the vast treasure.

The story involves a host of other characters of varying importance, such as the twelve other dwarves of the company; two types of elves: both puckish and more serious warrior types; men; man-eating trolls; boulder-throwing giants; evil cave-dwelling goblins; forest-dwelling giant spiders who can speak; immense and heroic eagles who also speak; evil wolves, or wargs, who are allied with the goblins; Elrond the sage; Gollum, a strange creature inhabiting an underground lake; Beorn, a man who can assume bear form; and Bard the Bowman, a grim but honorable archer of Lake-town.

Gandalf tricks Bilbo into hosting a party for Thorin and his band of dwarves, who sing of reclaiming the Lonely Mountain and its vast treasure from the dragon Smaug. When the music ends, Gandalf unveils a map showing a secret door into the Mountain and proposes that the dumbfounded Bilbo serve as the expedition's "burglar". The dwarves ridicule the idea, but Bilbo, indignant, joins despite himself.

The group travel into the wild, where Gandalf saves the company from trolls and leads them to Rivendell, where Elrond reveals more secrets from the map. Passing over the Misty Mountains, they are caught by goblins and driven deep underground. Although Gandalf rescues them, Bilbo gets separated from the others as they flee the goblins. Lost in the goblin tunnels, he stumbles across a mysterious ring and then encounters Gollum, who engages him in a game of riddles. As a reward for solving all riddles Gollum will show him the path out of the tunnels, but if Bilbo fails, his life will be forfeit. With the help of the ring, which confers invisibility, Bilbo escapes and rejoins the dwarves, improving his reputation with them.

And I don't really want to reveal much more than that. Don't want to spoil the movies for anyone who's not entirely familiar with the story.

As to the character of Gandalf, here we have one of the few characters that carried over into both The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Gandalf appears as a wizard, member and later the head (after Saruman's betrayal and fall) of the order known as the Istari, as well as leader of the Fellowship of the Ring and the army of the West. In The Lord of the Rings, he is initially known as Gandalf the Grey, but returns from death as Gandalf the White.

In Valinor, Gandalf was known as Olórin. As recounted in the "Valaquenta" in The Silmarillion, he was one of the Maiar of Valinor, specifically, of the people of the Vala Manwë; and was said to be the wisest of the Maiar. He lived in the gardens of Irmo under the tutelage of Nienna, the patron of mercy. When the Valar decided to send the order of the Wizards to Middle-Earth in order to counsel and assist all those who opposed Sauron, Olórin was proposed by Manwë. Olórin initially begged to be excused as he feared Sauron and lacked the strength to face him, but Manwë replied that that was all the more reason for him to go.

Gandalf the Grey was the last of the Istari landing in Mithlond. He seemed the oldest and least in stature of them, but Círdan the Shipwright felt that he had the highest inner greatness on their first meeting in the Havens, and gave him Narya, the Ring of Fire. Saruman later learned of the gift and resented it. Gandalf hid the ring well, and it was not widely known until he left with the other ring-bearers at the end of the Third Age that he, and not Círdan, was the holder of the third of the Elven-rings.

Gandalf's relationship with Saruman, the head of the Order, was strained. The Wizards were commanded to aid Men, Elves, and Dwarves, but only through counsel; it was forbidden to use force to dominate them—an injunction Saruman disregarded.

"The Quest of Erebor" in Unfinished Tales elaborates upon the story behind The Hobbit. It tells of a chance meeting between Gandalf and Thorin Oakenshield, Thráin's son, in the inn of the Prancing Pony in Bree. Gandalf had for some time foreseen the coming war with Sauron, and knew that the North was especially vulnerable. If Rivendell were to be attacked, the dragon Smaug could cause great devastation. He persuaded Thorin that he could help him regain his lost territory of Erebor from Smaug, and so the quest was born.

Later, Gandalf arranged, and frequently accompanied, a band of 13 dwarves and the Hobbit Bilbo Baggins to reclaim from Smaug the Dwarves' lost treasure in Erebor. To the quest, Gandalf contributed a map and key to Erebor. It was on this Quest of Erebor that Gandalf found his sword, Glamdring, in a troll's treasure hoard, and that Bilbo found the One Ring, in a chance meeting with the creature Gollum, though at the time Gandalf thought it was a lesser ring.

After escaping from the Misty Mountains pursued by Goblins and Wargs, the party was carried to safety by the Great Eagles. Gandalf then persuaded Beorn—who did not like uninvited guests or dwarves—to house and provision the company for the trip through Mirkwood.

Gandalf left the company before they entered Mirkwood, saying that he had pressing business to attend to. He turned up again, however, before the walls of Erebor disguised as an old man, revealing himself when it seemed the Men of Esgaroth and the Elves of Mirkwood would fight Thorin and the Dwarves over Smaug's treasure. The Battle of the Five Armies ensued when hosts of Goblins and Wargs attacked all three parties. After the battle, Gandalf accompanied Bilbo back to the Shire, revealing at Rivendell what his pressing business had been: Gandalf had once again urged the Council to evict Sauron, since quite evidently Sauron did not require the Ring to continue to attract evil to Mirkwood. Then, in an event only briefly described in The Silmarillion, The Hobbit, and The Lord of the Rings, the Council "put forth its power" and drove Sauron from Dol Guldur. Sauron, however, had anticipated this and withdrew as a feint, only to reappear in Mordor.

Tolkien discusses the characteristics of Gandalf in his essay on the Istari, which appears in the work Unfinished Tales. He describes Gandalf as the last of the wizards to appear in Middle-earth, one who: "seemed the least, less tall than the others, and in looks more aged, grey-haired and grey-clad, and leaning on a staff". Yet the Elf Círdan who met him on arrival nevertheless considered him "the greatest spirit and the wisest" and gave him the elven Ring of power called Narya, the Ring of Fire, containing a "red" stone for his aid and comfort. Tolkien explicitly links Gandalf to the element Fire later in the same essay:

"Warm and eager was his spirit (and it was enhanced by the ring Narya), for he was the Enemy of Sauron, opposing the fire that devours and wastes with the fire that kindles, and succours in wanhope and distress; but his joy, and his swift wrath, were veiled in garments grey as ash, so that only those that knew him well glimpsed the flame that was within. Merry he could be, and kindly to the young and simple, yet quick at times to sharp speech and the rebuking of folly; but he was not proud, and sought neither power nor praise... Mostly he journeyed unwearingly on foot, leaning on a staff, and so he was called among Men of the North Gandalf 'the Elf of the Wand'. For they deemed him (though in error) to be of Elven-kind, since he would at times work wonders among them, loving especially the beauty of fire; and yet such marvels he wrought mostly for mirth and delight, and desired not that any should hold him in awe or take his counsels out of fear. ... Yet it is said that in the ending of the task for which he came he suffered greatly, and was slain, and being sent back from death for a brief while was clothed then in white, and became a radiant flame (yet veiled still save in great need)."

Sir Ian McKellen portrayed Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings film trilogy. The make-up and costumes were based on designs by John Howe and Alan Lee. At the time he was cast, McKellen had never read any of Tolkien's works, but he quickly developed his knowledge of The Lord of the Rings. For the first film, McKellen was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. He has returned to the role for the Hobbit trilogy.

So, how's the figure? Really outstanding. I am not the only collector who has been amazed that this previously unknown company called The Bridge Direct has entered the action figure field with such incredible products.

Gandalf is one of the tallest figures in the Hobbit line. Gandalf appears as human, so this makes sense. That is, he is clearly not a dwarf, elf, or hobbit, so he has a definite height advantage. The figure stands 4-1/4" in height, and that's without the hat. Compare that to Thorin Oakenshield, the most prominent dwarf in the movie, whose figure stands 3-3/4", and Bilbo Baggins, essentially the title character, who's only 3".

The facial likeness is superb. It really looks like Sir Ian McKellen, as Gandalf, of course. The expression is appropriately stern, the details painted with great precision. Gandalf has long, white-gray hair and a beard, and this has been sculpted with considerable detail, and painted most impressively.

Gandalf dresses in a long, dark gray robe, that hangs down to his feet, and has billowing sleeves. He also has a gray scarf. One might think this wouldn't be much to work with from an action figure standpoint, especially given the more complex and ornate wardrobes of many of the other characters in the movie, but The Bridge Direct found a way to make Gandalf as impressive as everyone else in the line.

The robe has been very elegantly sculpted, with a slight "flow" to one side, but not enough to make it really look pre-posed. But it does allow for there to be more detail in the folds of how the robe drapes down on Gandalf's form. The entire robe has been given a fabric-like texture to it, molded right into the plastic. There is a thick hem at the base of the robe, and just enough slight painted detail to bring out the texture of the robe without making it look weathered or dirty.

In addition, Gandalf has the aforementioned scarf, as well as a belt around his waist, which is brown in color with a silver buckle, very neatly painted, and a second belt, dark blue in color, which also holds the sheath for Gandalf's sword. Hey, he may be a wizard, but he's not stupid. If you're going into an area that's likely to result in battle -- be armed.

Gandalf's feet are shod with brown boots, complete with nicely detailed laces, and he is wearing brown, fingerless gloves on his hands.

Naturally, Gandalf has his hat. This is a wide-brimmed gray hat that comes to a point, which is set back somewhat. Interestingly, the hat doesn't have the same fabric-like texture as the rest of Gandalf's wardrobe, but perhaps it's meant to be made from some other material.

The hat is a separate piece, and despite a very precisely sculpted hole on the underside that is intended to line up very well with the headsculpt, it doesn't stay put terribly well on Gandalf's head. For those of you who feel that Gandalf just doesn't quite look right without his chapeau, I would recommend a few drops of carefully placed glue.

Gandalf comes with two other accessories. First among these is a long staff, designed to look like a wooden walking staff. Measuring 4-5/8" in length, it's actually taller than Gandalf himself. It's neatly sculpted with substantial detail.

Then there's Gandalf's sword, around 2-1/4" in length, mostly silver with a blue handle, and while not as ornate as some of the other cutlery seen in the movie -- and the toy line -- it's still something you wouldn't want to be on the wrong end of, and it's nicely made and detailed.

Now we come to the tricky point of the Gandalf figure -- the articulation. Technically, the Gandalf figure is fully poseable. He does have complete legs underneath the robe, and is wearing gray trousers (just thought I should clarify that point). However, the robe is obviously a significant hindrance to the leg articulation. Gandalf isn't going to be posed sitting or running.

But really, what else could be done? I suppose The Bridge Direct could have made the lower part of Gandalf's robe out of fabric, but I personally think that would've looked good. Fabric costume pieces just don't really work in this scale. I've long held the opinion that for fabric costume elements to look at all decent, an action figure has to be at least eight inches in height. Even fabric capes struggle at anything much smaller, although the Super Powers line managed to get away with it in the 1980's.

But it wouldn't have worked here. The Bridge Direct was clearly trying to craft the best-looking figures they could, and they certainly succeeded. And they also succeeded in crafting some action figures with impressive articulation. That one of those figures has a little trouble because of his wardrobe is simply something we'll have to accept, since there really wasn't an agreeable alternative.

As it is, Gandalf is fully poseable at the head, arms, elbows, wrists, waist, legs, and knees. The elbows and knees also have swivels built into them.

So, what's my final word? I'm very sincerely impressed. Certainly Peter Jackson has crafted another amazing trilogy of movies to enjoy, based on Tolkein's original adventure in Middle-Earth, and The Bridge Direct has surely made a name for themselves by turning out an abundantly impressive toy line. All of the figures are superb. 4" scale, 6" scale, hobbit, dwarf, wizard, whatever. All of the high points that I have related regarding the Gandalf figure in this review apply to all of the others as well. The Bridge Direct has very much earned the interest and accolades it is receiving for this line, and I congratulate them for it.

And if you're a fan of The Hobbit, either in literary or cinematic form, then you're definitely going to want to round up some of these figures, and certainly Gandalf is one of the major players throughout Tolkein's universe.

The GANDALF THE GREY figure from THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY definitely has my highest recommendation!