Author’s note: The outline of the possibilities in this story is given in Tolkien’s notes on the Istari in the Unfinished Tales – although happily the little that is written there was how I had already imagined it. For those unfamiliar with some of the words and names Olorin is the original name of Gandalf. Curumo is Saruman, and Aiwendil is Radagast the Brown.
The circle was hushed after Manwe’s words. All eyes were on Olorin and he felt his mouth go dry. When he eventually spoke each syllable was measured and low, as if his mouth was unwilling to let the words out.
“My lord,” he said. “I am your servant, and you can send me where you will. But in truth, I do not wish to go to Middle Earth. Not for any lack of love I bear to the Eldar or other peoples, and not from unwillingness to work for the healing of the world. Nothing gives me greater pleasure than to see someone’s harms or sorrows cleansed and hope return to their heart.” He shook his head and lowered his eyes.
What is it then?” Manwe asked.
“I fear Sauron,” said Olorin steadily, his eyes still downcast. “I have always feared him – not just for his evil alone, but also his capacity to draw others into his web. He was a deceiver long before he revealed his support for Morgoth, and he is strong and cunning in the ways and works of Middle Earth, which I am not. It is a great responsibility to bear, and I fear to fail.”
“All the more reason for you to go,” said Varda, speaking for the first time. She had sat beside Manwe, silent until now, watching each of the Maiar in turn and considering them. Her voice was soft as the mists that gathered about the shoulders of Taniquetil on cool mornings, yet her words had a quiet authority that all accepted. She spoke, and it was so.
Now she looked on Olorin with compassionate eyes. “You speak of failure – of inability. But you do not know the full limits of your strength, and it is greater than you perceive it to be. Doubt will not be your master.” Olorin bowed his head.
“It is settled, then,” said Manwe. “Three of our number shall be sent forth to Middle Earth: Curumo, Alatar and Olorin. It will not be an easy road. Eru has forbidden the use of great force, and you are not to rule over the people or make yourselves lords in their midst – even though you are of greater lineage and power than they. Your natural form will be spirit no longer, but you will be clothed in permanent bodies in the same way as men, elves and other races.”
Curumo broke in at this point. “My Lord Manwe,” he said, his voice confident and deep. “If we are to remain in the body, then surely we will be subjected to all the pains and mischances that the passage of time can have on the body? Could we not be killed, just as happens to the peoples of Middle Earth?”
Manwe nodded. “That is indeed so,” he said, and there was a murmur of disquiet among those present. Alatar looked concerned, but Olorin’s face remained impassive. Curumo frowned.
“Where then, would we go if we died?” he asked. “To us is not granted the gift of Men, to go beyond the confines of the world to a place only Eru knows. And the Halls of Mandos are not for our kind. What would be our fate?”
“I cannot see all things,” said Manwe after a moment’s pause, “but this I do know: if you are slain doing the work to which you have been called your spirit will return home here, to Aman. If you do not remain true to your task, I cannot tell where your resting place will be.”
Curumo lifted his chin. “Let it be so,” he said proudly. “We will not fail Eru and this council in the task they have set, and in the responsibility they have placed upon us.”
Inclining his head, Manwe dismissed the council, asking the chosen three to begin preparations for their departure.
“They will be great upon Earth, even though they will not seek greatness,” he said quietly to Varda, who sat still beside him as the Mahanaxar began to empty. “Curumo is the most powerful of the Maiar that remain among us; Alatar is a mighty choice to accompany him; and I am glad that Olorin has been willing to go as the third.”
“He is not the third,” Varda replied softly. “And he will not prove to be so, I am sure of it.” At the edge of the Mahanaxar, Curumo caught her quiet words as he withdrew from the circle, and frowned.
The gulls wheeled and circled on the breeze that blew along the eastern shores of Aman. Olorin sat high above them in Ilmarin, the home of Manwe and Varda, waiting to speak to them one last time before his ship departed for the havens that lay on the north-western coast of Middle Earth.
His compatriots were long gone, each with a staff that would attest to his powers, if needed. Alatar had taken along Pallando, a junior Maiar, as friend and helper to them both. He and Alatar had clothed themselves in blue, while Curumo – as the elder of the group – had chosen to wear white.
Also gone was Aiwendil, a Maia of Yavanna – the maker of the Trees and mistress of all living things. She had spoken to Manwe of her desire to have one among the Istari – for so Manwe had called them – whose special task it was to care for the birds, the beasts and other living things. Aiwendil did not have great power, but he had wisdom over the things of the earth, and Manwe had agreed to let him go.
It had now been many weeks since Aiwendil’s departure and still Olorin had tarried. Eagerly he had re-read all the histories of the earth, paying special attention to the works and evils of Morgoth and Sauron, the hurts they had caused and the conflicts they had created among their enemies. There would be no lack of work for him to do, he thought wryly as he closed yet another book that was full of the woes and sorrows of Middle Earth.
Now, at last, it was time for him to go. He had chosen to remain clothed in grey but his form had changed from a younger to an older man, tall and bearded with a straight staff made of ash. His eyebrows were still bushy, but now the colour had changed to a dark grey streaked with silver. And unlike Curumo and the others, he had a hat – blue, pointed and broad-brimmed. It sat beside him on a carved white chair as he stood, elbows propped on the high sill, and looked out upon the sea route he would soon take.
It felt strange, this new form, but Manwe had been right to insist upon it: as older men in Middle Earth the advice of the Istari would be respected and revered more – particularly among Men – than if they had maintained the youthful visages they showed in Aman. How Iarwain will laugh when he first sees me, thought Olorin, and that brought a smile to his face.
“Olorin?” He started at the sound of a familiar voice – a voice whose lilting tones he had not heard for many a year. Melian had entered the high room so quietly he had not heard her approach. He turned. She stood close to him now, smiling with that tinge of sadness that had remained with her ever since her elven husband Thingol had been slain in the first age of Middle Earth. After his death Melian had discarded her body and returned in spirit across the sea to Aman, broken and sorrowful. It was now rare for her to take up her body and walk among her brothers and sisters, thought Olorin, and he wondered what had caused her to do so.
“It’s nice to see you smile,” she said at last. “It is all the harder to face a difficult road ahead when it is not of your own choosing. I wish Manwe had asked you about this journey privately, instead of before us all where you had to lay your feelings bare.”
“You were there?” said Olorin in surprise. “I did not see you… I did not feel your presence.”
“I have found ways to conceal myself,” she said simply. “It is not that I do not bear a great love for my Maiar brothers and sisters and for the elven folk, but in these days I wish more than anything to just be… and be alone.”
Olorin nodded. It was this very need for solitude and contemplation that had kept him away so long from this place – the bright centre of Aman. “You live in Lorien’s gardens; I know that,” he said. “Sometimes there is a faint scent on the breeze that reminds me of you when the world was young.”
Melian smiled again, and this time it was as of old: the face of the unspoiled, wise and beautiful one to whom his heart had turned in the twilight, long before the rising of the Sun. Yet she had chosen elsewhere, and he had not been bitter. It was Eru’s wisdom that a seed from her body should be planted into Middle Earth, and grow into one of the great lineages of that world. Did they not all look up each night and marvel at the star of Earendil, who had reached Aman with the help of her daughter’s granddaughter? And now Earendil sailed through the skies with a silmaril bound to the prow of his ship, to the joy of all.
“The kings of Númenor, Gondor and Arnor also have that lineage,” Melian said softly, and Olorin realised that his thoughts had been open to her – as they ever were. She took his hand, now gnarled with the age that Manwe had seen fit to place upon it. “My dear friend,” she said. “Varda saw truly. You were the last chosen for this task, but you are not the last in strength or wisdom.”
Olorin shook his head. “Do not say such things! I have fought a long battle against my temper and my pride – do not reawaken them now.”
“Pride will never conquer you,” she replied, “although – and here her mouth curled into a little smile – “I do not think any amount of time at Nienna’s window will ever completely cure you of your temper.”
He laughed – a quick bark of amusement – and thumped his newly-acquired staff on the window seat before him. “How well you know me,” he said, still chuckling. “I will spend all my life trying to master my temper, I fear.
“But come -” he continued, motioning to Melian to sit – “you did not appear to me for the first time in a millennium just to make me laugh at myself, although it does me good.” He sat down beside her, his eyes deep and dark under his brows as he looked at her. “You have something to ask of me. Is that not so?”
“It is,” she replied, and drew a clear green stone from a soft pouch at her waist. As she held it up, and it flashed and flickered in the morning light, Olorin noticed that the sun seemed to shine from it, rather than through it. It was as if the dawn of creation had been captured within its shining shell.
“This stone,” said Melian, “is a gift to Middle Earth from the Valar. This is the Elessar.”