Seasoned D&D'ers are already aware that Middle Earth is a low-magic setting. But does Seligman's evaluation surprise you nonetheless?
In his article, Seligman lists all the occurrences of Gandalf's use of magic in the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings. I was rather surprised, once having seen all the relevant instances listed back-to-back, to notice that Gandalf relied very heavily on light and fireball-related spells. All in all, his abilities never require a character level beyond 5th.
How is it that a 2000 year-old Istari has only reached 5th level? Seligman offers possible reasons in his closing paragraph:
So how do we reconcile our intuition with the bare facts? Well, for one thing,...the universe of LOTR was magic-weak. It is easy to assume that it was run by “ a very tough DM” who rewarded experience so slowly that it would take 2000 years for a pseudo-angel to get to the 5th level, and 6000 years or so for an EHP to reach 12th. But it is still unsettling. I would rather place the blame on the scale we are using: the D&D magic system. It seems a more likely thing for Gygax and Arneson to misjudge the spell levels. So what can we do? Change the spell system, the experience system or the levels of the spells, or all of the above? What is your response?Well, the obvious response is that D&D is not supposed to be compatible with Middle Earth. There isn't anything broken about the rules system if it doesn't work with a specific setting that wasn't designed for D&D. He uses the word "blame" as if Gygax and Arneson screwed up. The D&D world is clearly not intended to be an equivalent to any other fantasy world. It is only derivative in the sense that it shares the most common elements of high fantasy -- monsters, spells, treasures, and such.
This issue does call attention to something I've always believed: That low-level adventures need not be boring. In fact, they're my favorite kind. Considering that level advancement is so slow in Middle Earth, we can assume that the events in the Lord of the Rings comprise a low to mid-level campaign; yet look at how rich a variety of action the characters experience. DMs, take note: If your low-level adventures are nothing more than kobold hack-fests, serving only to provide the XP needed to advance to more "interesting" levels, then you might want to audit your adventure writing methods. If Tolkien can place such weak characters in such epic-scale adventures, then we know the same can be done in D&D.
In fact, in D&D I've always been pressed for ideas when characters get into higher levels. Under the latest three rules revisions, the Challenge Ratings, while useful, become increasingly meaningless at higher levels.
So the lesson to be learned from this Dragon article is: Even low-level characters are way more powerful than average people. Provide an extraordinary gaming experience, and your players won't care what level their characters are.
Oh, and by the way: After 3e, we can more correctly refer to Gandalf as a Sorceror, since I don't recall ever noticing that he carried a spellbook. Perhaps a multi-class with druid or fighter. He does carry Glamdring, so either he wields it with a non-proficiency penalty or had some martial training. I would bet on the former.