About the Istari - An Explanation of their background.
The Istari, more popularly known as 'wizards' in J. R. R. Tolkien's Middle-earth, are the center of many questions and wonderings of many Middle-earth readers. What were they? Where did they come from? How many were there? These are all questions that I hope will be answered here. Keep in mind that this is a revised essay (as of Sept 23 2003) and so any of the comments listed below that predate this revision will probably not make any sense to the current reader.
The Encyclopedia of Arda's entry for the Istari:
So the Istari were a group of Spirits who originated as members of the ancient Ainur, the first beings whom Eru created. When the Ainur entered into Middle-earth, the mightiest of the Ainur became known as the Valar, the Powers, and with them came many lesser beings, like in mood to certain members of the Valar, and they were called the Maiar, the people of the Valar. Most, if not all, of the Maiar fell in with different members of the Valar and went in their train, and were like in mood to them.
The order of Wizards, the Maiar who came to Middle-earth after the first millennium of the Third Age. Of these, five came to the northwestern regions; Saruman, Gandalf, Radagast, Alatar and Pallando.
Now after the Fall of Númenor, and the remaking of Arda, the Third Age began with the Fall of Sauron, and the loss of the One Ring. But again the Valar again took thought for Middle-earth, for they loved even the Eldar who still remained, returning at whiles into the West, to the Isle of Eressëa, ere they should fade, and the Valar would help them, seeing that Sauron indeed had not perished, and his shadow was arising again in the dark forests beyond the Misty Mountains. But the Valar would never again seek to move the Children of Ilúvatar again by force, or come and lead them, for those fruits led to great loss of the Eldar, who they loved, and caused much sorrow through the actions of Fëanor and his kin, and all those Noldor and Sindar and Men who fell under the Doom of Mandos. Therefore, the Valar, after Manwë's long consultation with Eru, decided that help would be sent back into Middle-earth in some of their own high order, but these 'emmisaries' should not seek to govern the Children, or become lords in the hither lands, but were to guide and move those Children who were left to great deeds, urging them ever on against the darkness of Sauron, which would otherwise have overpowered them, and defiled even further the Realm of Arda.
Then they sent their emmisaries forth, after one-thousand years had passed since the beginning of the Third Age, and they came in the guise of Men, but many men mistook them for members of the Eldar, with whom they indeed often consorted, but they were not so, nor were they of the race of men, but of that race of the people of the Valar, the Maiar. Each member was denoted by color, and they also carried each of them a staff, from which some of their power seemed to come. The number of these wizards is unknown, but of the chief there were five, and few of the Children indeed later learned of their origins, after the departure of the Ringbearers and the last memory of the Elder Days. They came in shapes weak and humble and were bidden to advise and persuade Men and Elves to good, and to seek to unite in love and understanding all those whom Sauron, should he come again, would endeavour to dominate and corrupt.
The word Wizard is a translation of the Quenyan word istar and the Sindarin word ithron: one of the members of an 'order,' as they called it, claiming to possess, and exhibiting, eminent knowledge of the history and nature of the World. But the Heren Istarion or 'Order of Wizards' was quite distinct from the wizards and magicians of later legend; they belonged solely to the Third Age and then departed. When they first appeared Men saw them seldom and heeded them little, but as the shadow of Sauron began to grow and take shape again, they became more active, and sought ever to contest the growth of the Shadow, and to move Elves and Men to beware of their peril.
And so there was a council of the Valar, summoned it seems by Manwë, at which it was resolved to send out three emissaries to Middle-earth. There it was decided that these messengers must be mighty, and peers of Sauron, but that they must forgo might, and clothe themselves in flesh so as to treat on equality and win the trust of Elves and Men. But this would imperil them, dimming their wisdom and knowledge, confusing them with fears, cares, and wearinesses coming from the flesh. And so Manwë, Aulë, and Oromë each chose a representative.
For Aulë the Smith went Curumo, and his hair was raven black, and he was held to be the chief of the order, and the most powerful, even by the others of his order and the even among the Eldar. He had a fair voice and semblance, and most of those that heard his voice believed what he said, so that all other sounds were harsh and uncouth. Curumo later became known more commonly by the name of Saruman by Men and Curunír in the elvish language, both of which mean 'Man of Skill,' for the Istari revealed their true names to few, but used such names as were given to them. Being of the people of Aulë he was also skilled indeed, especially in works of hand, but this eventually brought him unto his ruin, which many of the people of Aulë did. But this was because of Melkor Morgoth, who marred Arda, for from Aulë's people also came Sauron, who became Morgoth's greatest lieutenant, and later took up again his evil practices and leadership, and was only less evil because he had for some time served another, and Aulë made the race of dwarves, who slew Elu Thingol and estranged the Elves from their races for thousands of years, and also Aulë was the teacher and beloved friend of the Noldor, who later brought the Doom of Mandos upon Beleriand which was destroyed, but Aulë himself was not like these, for he submitted all that he did and accomplished before Eru, and was not jealous of his peers, nor did he wish to be lord, as Melkor did, but he took joy in his makings and loved his creations. Saruman came first of the Istari to the shores of Middle-earth, and he was of noble mien and bearing, and he was clad in white. Long he wandered in the East of Middle-earth, and he was later the head of the White Council of Elves and Men against the growing darkness of Mirkwood, but he eventually was given the keys of Orthanc, the tower of Isengard, which was near the forest of Fangorn and the plains of Calenardhon, which was become Rohan, and Isengard guarded the passage between Eriador and Gondor. He was given the key by the Steward of Gondor, and this tower was a device of Gondor, when they were newly come from Númenor, and were at the height of their power. Saruman later became aged and his hair and beard became white, but there was still to be found traces of dark hair within his beard by those who saw him last.
For Oromë the hunter went Alatar, and of him little is known, for he went into the east of Middle-earth with Saruman, and never came back, and his fate is unknown. From him many cults may have sprung that outlasted the darkness of Sauron in the far east, and even in the New Lands which were made when Arda was remade. Some hold that he was ensnared by Sauron, and became evil, but there are also some who say that Alatar still carries out the purposes of Oromë, which few have known, for Oromë knew the far reaches of Middle-earth more than any other. But in the end Alatar failed in his original mission, to aid the Children against Sauron, so he comes into no tales of the Eldar. But it may be that he and another did aid those people against Sauron, for from the East attacks came upon Gondor, before the War of the Ring, and but for Alatar these attacks may have been more deadly then they became, and Gondor may have perished.
Lastly, for Manwë Súlimo went that Maia who was called Olórin. But he did not wish to go into Middle-earth in the beginning, for he said that he feared Sauron and did not account himself very high among his adversaries. Olórin's name derives from the Quenyan word olori meaning 'dreams' for he dwelt often in the forests of Lórien and though he loved the Elves, he walked among them unseen, or in form as one of them, and they did not know whence came the fair visions or the promptings of wisdom that he put into their hearts. But Olórin dwelt often in the halls of Nienna, and there learned much pity and sorrow. But it is commonly thought that he was of the people of Manwë and Varda, for Manwë loved most the Vanyar, and Olórin was a lover of the Eldar that remained, explaining Manwë's choice. For Olórin is a High-elven name, and must therefore have been given to him in Valinor by the Eldar, or be a translation meant to be significant to them. Olor is a word often translated 'dream,' but that does not refer to most human 'dreams,' certainly not the dreams of sleep, for the Eldar did not sleep as do Men, which we saw much in Legolas Greenleaf. To the Eldar it included the vivid contents of their 'memory,' as of their 'imagination.' It referred in fact to 'clear vision,' in the mind, of things not physically present at the body's situation. But it refers not only to an idea, but to a full clothing of this particular form and detail. But Olórin was indeed considered the wisest of all the Maiar which distinguishes him further into the people of Manwë.
Olórin consorted most with the Eldar in Middle-earth, thus earning the name Gandalf from the Men of the north, which means 'Wand-elf' for they mistook him even for one of the Eldar, even though he had a long grey beard, and appeared as an old man, alone of the Istari. By dwarves he was called Tharkûn, which means 'Staff-man' and in the south he was called Incánus, which evidences his journey there, although this name only means 'alien' in the tongue of the Haradrim, and so he may not have been there for long, for the name also translates into 'North-spy' which shows that he was probably not welcome there. And so was he the third of the messengers of the Valar, although Varda said 'not the third' which Curumo heard and remembered. For he loved not Mithrandir, for so was Gandalf called by the Eldar who remained in Middle-earth which means 'grey wanderer' for his color was grey. Saruman taunted Gandalf and made play of his habits, for Gandalf was loved the most by the Eldar, especially Galadriel who wished Gandalf to be head of the White Council, rather than Saruman, and she was one of the greatest and wisest of the Eldar. But Gandalf refused the position, and he had no abiding place, as did his peers. For he always wandered and was wayworn, and went to and fro like the wind, and his raiments were ruddy. He came last to Middle-earth of the Istari, and was their welcomed by Círdan, who gave unto him one of the three Elven-rings, Narya, the Ring of Fire, for Círdan, who was old even among the Eldar, saw further than any other in Middle-earth, and he divined in Gandalf that he would need the Ring to waken the fires in the hearts of many, but when Saruman later learned of this, it angered him even more, and reminded him of the words of Varda.
It is said that Alatar took Pallando, his friend, who may also have been of the people of Oromë, and together they were known as the Ithryn Luin, the 'Blue Wizards,' for such was their raiment. Pallando journeyed always with Alatar, and departed with his friend into the east and shared in that fate and does not come into any more tales.
Before the departure of the Istari from Aman, Yavanna waylaid Curumo, and bade him take a representative for her. And Curumo did this, begrudgingly, and took with him Aiwendil, whom Yavanna had chosen, whose name meant 'friend of birds' who was later known as Radagast, which was the Adûnaic name for 'tender of beasts.' He wore brown and eventually took up his abode in the southern reaches of Greenwood the Great which had become known as Mirkwood, and later as Eryn Lasgalen after the destruction of Dol Guldur. There he became friends with Beorn and the woodmen east of the Misty Mountains. His house was called Rhosgobel, and it lay between the Carrock and the Old Forest Road. Little was he accounted by those who wrote the histories of those times, especially Saruman, who referred to him as foolish, and a simpleton, for he scorned him, and did not wish to bring him as he had feigned to Yavanna. But Radagast's final fate is unknown, for he fell from his path and purpose, and stayed with the animals and growing things of Yavanna, maybe carrying out her purposes still.
By some it is said that the Ithryn Luin, the Blue Wizards Alatar and Pallando were also called Morinehtar and Rómestámo, 'Darkness-slayer' and 'East-helper.' For it is said that these other two came much earlier than the rest, at the same time probably as Glorfindel, when matters became very dangerous in the Second Age. But unlike Glorfindel, who was sent to aid Elrond and was pre-eminent in the war in Eriador, their task was to circumvent Sauron: to bring help to the few tribes of Men that had rebelled from Melkor-worship, to stir up rebellion, and after the first fall of Sauron to search out his hiding, but in this they failed, and they were to cause dissension and disarray among the dark Easterlings. It is said that they must have had very great influence on the history of the Second Third Ages in the weakening and disarraying the forces of the East, who would otherwise outnumbered the West during these Ages. If this is true, then Gondor and Rohan may have been saved by these twain, for they barely survived the attacks from the East that did appear, whereas if full might had been thrown against them they may have perished, but this is not known for certain.
Indeed nothing more is known of the Ithryn Luin, for they were known only to have existed by Saruman, Gandalf, and Radagast, which would further evidence the coming of the Blue Wizards in the Second Age, unnoticed by the Elves who were busy with Sauron. But it is said elsewhere that Curumo was the eldest and he came first, and alone, and after him came Radagast and Gandalf, and others of the Istari who went into the East of Middle-earth, and do not come into these tales.
Of these five, only Gandalf remained true to his purpose, for Alatar and Pallando were gone into the east, and Radagast paid no heed to the darkness, and Saruman himself became enslaved by the Enemy. For he, after settling in Orthanc, found one of the Palantíri of Fëanor, of which the men of Númenor had been given, and so were brought into Gondor and Arnor by those faithful of Númenor. But now Saruman gazed into that seeing stone of Orthanc, which may have been forgotten when he was given the keys, or held of little value to the Stewards any more than an heirloom, and was ensnared by Sauron, who also had obtained the stone of Minas Ithil, by turning the Orthanc-stone to his, and turned Saruman to evil. For Saruman was the most knowledgeable of the White Council in ring-lore, and he began to search now himself for the One Ring of power, for he wanted to become a Power himself, and rule over Middle-earth in Sauron's place. And he it was who bred orcs with Men and played many other foul parts in the War of the Ring, pressing the Men of Rohan and destroying their sons. But he was ousted, by the Sheperds of the Trees, the Ents, who he had forgotten, for his orcs destroyed their forests and their flocks of trees, and so they came against him, unseen, and they destroyed Isengard, and his army. Afterwards he retreated to the Shire, which he befouled, and was there slain by his twisted servant, and was never seen again. In Orthanc was found the Elendilmir which was lost with Isildur, and so it is guessed that Saruman found the remains which brings into thought terrible things, for who knows what Saruman may have done with Isildur's remains if he did find them?
But Gandalf remained true, as has been said, for his work ever drove the Children against Sauron, who was defeated and vanquished, and so Gandalf alone of the Istari returned to the West with the Ringbearers whom he had loved, most of all the Halflings of the Shire. He it was who took most notice of the Shire and the Hobbits, and he smoked like they did but perfected it and he loved the little people. It was this love that brought him into the friendship of Bilbo Baggins of Bag End who found the One Ring, and so the Ring was destroyed by Bilbo's heir, and Sauron perished.
It is said that in later days, some of the Faithul of that time thought Gandalf to be the last appearance of Manwë himself, before his final withdrawal to the watchtower of Taniquetil, and that Gandalf's mentioning of the name Olórin which he had in the West was, according to this belief, a mere adoption of an incognito, a mere by-name. But there was no truth in this matter, for Manwë will not descend from the Mountain until the Dagor Dagorath, and the coming of the End, when Melkor returns. To the overthrow of Morgoth and the War of Wrath was sent his herald, Eönwë, and to the defeat of Sauron would he not then send some lesser, but mighty spirit of the angelic people, one coëval and equal, doubtless, with Sauron in their beginnings but not more? Olórin was his name.
So the Valar achieved the destruction of Sauron from afar through Gandalf, for though he was to move the Children, he perished in battle with a Balrog of Morgoth, a demon of the Elder Days, and was sent back as the White, even as Saruman would have been, for Saruman broke the white light, and took on many colors before his end. But Gandalf was seen riding forth upon his white steed, and could not be dimmed, and thus he drove on against the darkness and helped in its defeat, and in the restoration of the great Kingdom of Men.
Note: The original essay here revised was first published on Tolkien Online Saturday, December 22, 2001 at 6:27 PM