There are many things to like about Gandalf, but one that especially appeals to me is that he isn’t a wizard just because he was stolen away and adopted by wizards when he was a baby, or because another wizard bit him and sucked his blood, or some woman in a lake chucked a sword at him. He didn’t find a wizard-making charm. He’s a wizard because he learned to be a wizard. He studied.
And one of his most powerful wizardly talents is…he’s really, really good at archival research. When faced with a very difficult quandary, where does he go? The library! It’s a theme I’ve mentioned a few times over the years, both on my personal blog and even in a unit of the Alternate Worlds Course. To be a wizard, in a world where the massive collective brain is at your disposal, a key skill is knowing how to ask. You don’t need to know everything, you just need to know how to learn what you want to know (and to identify what you really do need to know, and what feeds you when you learn it). Sometimes that’s a lot tougher than just knowing would be.
(We can’t leave out the part about Gandalf’s teacher turning out to be totally obnoxious and evil, and Gandalf defeating him in the end. Doesn’t the student always have to defeat the teacher?)