In The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, Gandalf is seen falling from the Khazad-Dum Bridge to his supposed death. But he was later resurrected and brought back to complete his task of guiding Middle-earth to freedom in The two towers. When he finds the Three Hunters: Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli, he hisses very loudly (almost like some sort of magical call) and a majestic white horse appears. Gandalf calls this horse Shadowfax and says he is “the lord of all horses”. He also says the horse has been his friend “through many dangers”.
This is the introduction to Shadowfax, but it’s not the first time Gandalf has been riding a horse. When Saruman imprisoned Gandalf above Orthanc in Isengard, Gandalf was able to hypnotize a moth with an incantation to send a message to the Eagles for help. Gandalf traveled to Rohan, where King Theoden offered Gandalf a horse as long as he left afterwards (as he was suspicious of him). This is when Gandalf first met Shadowfax, as he is the horse that Gandalf chose. He then tamed the horse, went to The Shire, then headed for Rivendell at a much faster speed than a normal horse. Gandalf and Shadowfax parted ways and Shadowfax returned to Rohan.
The next time Gandalf and Shadowfax met was when he and the Three Hunters needed transportation, and Gandalf demanded the return of Shadowfax. Viewers can hear Legolas briefly explain what type of horse Shadowfax is and why he is able to run so fast and carry so much weight. Legolas said, “He’s one of the Mearas, unless my eyes are fooled by a spell.” Fear of Legolas lets viewers know that this is no ordinary horse. When Gandalf and Shadowfax reunite The two towers, they accompany each other for the rest of the trilogy.
Mearas are wild horses that are stronger, faster, and smarter than any other horse. Shadowfax originally belonged to the king, but none of the Rohirrim could tame him because he was too wild. Shadowfax is said to have a silvery gray coat in the sun, but at night it is barely visible, hence perhaps its name. What made Shadowfax “the lord of all horses” was his ability to understand human speech and his super speed (which was faster than the wind). In Tolkien’s work, “fax” meant “mane”, and therefore Shadowfax meant Shadow Mane.
King Theoden officially offered Shadowfax to Gandalf shortly after his return as Gandalf the White, and because the two were inseparable after that, Gandalf became known as The White Rider. Prior to Gandalf’s return as White, Theoden was reluctant to give Shadowfax. After all, the kingdom of Rohan was named because of their horses. Gandalf spent two days chasing Shadowfax (when he was still Gandalf the Gray) twenty miles through the fields so he could catch and tame him. Gandalf probably chose this horse because he recognized it was one of the Mearas, and he knew he had to get to Rivendell quickly.
Gandalf sacrificed both days because the Mearas were so fast, and he was able to cover six hundred and twenty miles in just a few days. It is not seen on screen, but Gandalf was actually chased by the Nazgûl as he rode Shadowfax for the first time, but was able to go north to keep the Nazgûl away from Frodo and the Ring. Shadowfax was not only very strong (able to carry both Gandalf and Gimli a great distance without stopping) and fast, but he was also said to be very brave. Shadowfax, unlike other horses, could take on the Witch-King without fleeing. He was the only horse that could do it.
Gandalf and Shadowfax had been through enough together that when Gandalf sailed the White Ship from Gray Havens, Shadowfax accompanied him west to the Eternal Lands. Shadowfax comes from a long line of great horses, a descendant of Felaróf who was a descendant of Nahar. Like Shadowfax, Nahar’s coat was white in the sun, but shimmering silver at night with golden hooves. Felaróf was also white and the first of the Mearas. The lineage of Shadowfax is the reason the horse has become so strong and intelligent.
Mearas are said to be long-lived horses, but in real life the New Zealand horse that played Shadowfax in The Lord of the Rings sadly passed away at the age of twenty-five in 2014. He was one of two horses that played Shadowfax.
MORE: The Lord of the Rings: Why Are The Hobbits Such Good Protagonists?
Gandalf is a great and mighty wizard, but he is hardly seen using his magic throughout the trilogy. Is there anything preventing him from using it?
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