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In the fiction of J. R. R. Tolkien, the Wizards of Middle-earth are a group of beings outwardly resembling Men but possessing much greater physical and mental power. They are also called the Istari (Quenya for "Wise Ones") by the Elves.:388 The Sindarin word is Ithryn (sing. Ithron).:448: "Istari" They were sent by the Valar to assist the peoples of Middle-earth to contest Sauron.:388
The wizards of Middle-earth were Maiar: spirits of the same order as the Valar, but lesser in power.:389 The first three of these five wizards were known in the Mannish tongues of the Lord of the Rings series as Saruman "man of skill" (Rohirric), Gandalf "elf of the staff" (northern Men), and Radagast "tender of beasts" (possibly Westron).:390–391 Tolkien never provided non-Elvish names for the other two; one tradition gives their names in Valinor as Alatar and Pallando,:393 and another as Morinehtar and Rómestámo in Middle-earth. Each wizard in the series had robes of a characteristic colour: white for Saruman (the chief and the most powerful of the five), grey for Gandalf, brown for Radagast, and sea-blue for Alatar and Pallando (known consequently as the Blue Wizards). Gandalf and Saruman both play important roles in The Lord of the Rings, while Radagast appears only briefly. Alatar and Pallando do not feature in the story, as they are said to have journeyed far into the east after their arrival in Middle-earth.:390
Tolkien gives multiple names for all of them. In Quenya Saruman was Curumo ("skillful one"), Gandalf was Olórin ("dreaming" or "dreamer"); and Radagast was Aiwendil ("friend of birds").:389–392 The Quenya names Morinehtar ("darkness-slayer") and Rómestámo ("east-helper") are given for Alatar and Pallando, though it is not clear which name goes with which wizard. Other names are noted in individual articles.
As the Istari were Maiar, each one served a Vala in some way. Saruman was the servant and helper of Aulë, and so learned much in the art of craftsmanship, mechanics, and metal-working, as was seen in the later Third Age. Gandalf was the servant of Manwë or Varda, but was a lover of the Gardens of Lórien, and so knew much of the hopes and dreams of Men and Elves. Radagast, servant of Yavanna, loved the things of nature, both Kelvar and Olvar. As each of these Istari learned from their Vala, so they acted in Middle-earth.
They came to Middle-earth around the year 1000 of the Third Age, when the forest of 'Greenwood the Great' fell under shadow and became known as Mirkwood. The wizards already appeared old when they entered Middle-earth. They were "clothed" in the bodies of old Men, as the Valar wished them to guide the inhabitants of Middle-earth by persuasion and encouragement, not by force or fear. They were forbidden to dominate the free peoples of Middle-earth or to match Sauron's power with power. However, they aged very slowly and were in fact immortal. Physically they were "real" Men, and felt all the urges, pleasures and fears of flesh and blood. Therefore, in spite of their specific and unambiguous goal, the Wizards were capable of human feelings; Gandalf, for example, felt great affection for the Hobbits. They could also feel negative human emotions such as greed, jealousy, and lust for power. It is hinted in the essay in Unfinished Tales that the Blue Wizards may have fallen prey to these temptations, though information published in The Peoples of Middle-earth seems to contradict this version of their history.
Although immortal, their physical bodies could be destroyed by violence—thus Gandalf truly died in the fight with the Balrog, beyond the power of the Valar to resurrect him; Eru Ilúvatar himself intervened to send Gandalf back. Similarly, Saruman was killed when his throat was cut by his own servant in The Return of the King. The Istari also carried staves, which seem to be tied to their ability to wield magic; when Saruman is defeated at Isengard, Gandalf in the same breath casts him from the White Council and breaks his staff (although Saruman retains somewhat the persuasive power of his voice).
The power of Saruman over the hearts and wills of men without the aid of his staff is one of the examples in Tolkien's world that brings the roles of the Wizards' staves in question. For not only was Saruman's staff broken, but another example is when Gandalf breaks his own staff on the Bridge of Khazad-dûm; Gandalf is able to slay the Balrog after he loses the staff, showing that an Istar's strength was not merely in his staff and his use of it, but in his spirit, evidence to their power being beyond that of mere conjurers.
Though the Valar intervened only rarely in Middle-earth, they sent the wizards as emissaries from Valinor because they had not forsaken the faithful Men and Elves of Middle-earth. In imposing the prohibition against using force to compel the Children of Eru, the Valar sought with the wizards to avoid repeating an ancient error. They had tried direct intervention in the destiny of the Elves in the Years of the Trees by leading the Eldar into the West, but this resulted in many bloody wars and confrontations. In the struggle against the Dark Lord, they hoped instead to help Men achieve their own destiny. Thus Gandalf and the other wizards were meant to use their great wisdom to persuade Men to courses of action which would achieve Men's own goals, rather than trying to dominate them, hence their power was ultimately restricted. Saruman failed in this when he tried to set himself up as a commander in opposition to Sauron, but Gandalf remained faithful to his charge.
The wizards landed at the Grey Havens in the North-west of Middle-earth, for the Valar felt that Arnor and Gondor, remnants of Elendil's old kingdom, had the greatest hope of mounting resistance against Sauron. Few of Middle-earth's inhabitants knew who the wizards really were; the wizards did not share their identities and purposes widely. Most thought they were Elves or wise Men; the name Gandalf, meaning "Wand-elf", reflects the belief that he was an Elf.
Saruman originally was the most powerful of the five and was appointed head of the White Council. In T.A. 2759 he took over the defence of Isengard with the consent of the Steward of Gondor, who gave him the key to Orthanc. Saruman was learned in the lore of the Rings of Power, and gradually became corrupted by desire for the Rings and by Sauron's direct influence through the palantír of Orthanc. Eventually he took the title "Saruman of Many Colours" and took robes to match. He assisted Sauron in the War of the Ring, biding time to secure the One Ring for himself, in order to supplant Sauron. But his plans and forces were thwarted by the power of the Ents. Gandalf broke his staff and cast him from the White Council. However, Saruman later invaded the hobbit lands of the Shire, ruling as a petty lord, but was eventually overthrown again by the hobbits. He was finally murdered by his servant Gríma Wormtongue.
During the War of the Ring, it was Gandalf who led the Free Peoples to victory over Sauron. He also became "Gandalf the White", and defeated the traitorous Saruman. After the destruction of Sauron's forces in front of the Black Gate at the mountainous borders of Mordor, Gandalf left Middle-earth and went over the Sea to Aman, along with the Ring-bearers and many of the Elves.
In the course of The Lord of the Rings, it is never made clear what exactly Gandalf and Saruman are. Treebeard tells Merry and Pippin that the wizards appeared after the Great Ships came over the Sea (ca. T.A. 1000, according to Appendix B, some 2,000 years before the time of The Lord of the Rings), but little else is revealed in the narrative. Riding with Pippin to Minas Tirith at the end of Book III, Gandalf ponders the ability of the palantíri to see into the past, and recalls events in Valinor from the Years of the Trees—though whether from his own memory is not clear. Later in Minas Tirith, Pippin wonders what Gandalf really is, and realizes that this is the first time in his life that he has done so.
The essay given in Unfinished Tales was originally begun in order to be included in the appendices of The Lord of the Rings, but was not completed in time. A more explanatory passage on the nature of the wizards is found at the end of The Silmarillion.
In Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit film trilogies, three of the Istari are featured as characters: Saruman (portrayed by Christopher Lee), Gandalf (played by Ian McKellen), and Radagast (portrayed by Sylvester McCoy). Gandalf mentions the two Blue Wizards in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, but comments that he can't recall their names; this is a nod to the fact that they went unnamed in both The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings. Due to alterations made to the timeline in The Hobbit films, it is Radagast who first discovers the presence of the Necromancer at Dol Guldur, and alerts Gandalf who in turn informs the White Council, including Saruman. Gandalf is quick to deduce the Necromancer's true identity, but Saruman is reluctant to accept that Sauron could have returned. At the behest of Galadriel, Gandalf and Radagast meet at the tomb of the Nine Kings of Men, and then travel to Dol Guldur. Radagast is then sent to take word to the White Council while Gandalf enters Dol Guldur alone, where he confronts and is captured by Sauron. The White Council arrived in force to rescue him, with Saruman, Elrond, and Galadriel confronting the evil there while Radagast took Gandalf to safety. Saruman later forbade pursuit of Sauron, feeling that their foe would never be able to rise again, while Gandalf and Radagast later took part in The Battle of the Five Armies.
As in the novels, Saruman later joined forces with Sauron, though he retained his white robes and was not shown to be seeking the One Ring for his own use. He and Gandalf are the only wizards featured or mentioned in the Lord of the Rings films, and for the most part go through the same experiences as in the novels. However, as seen in the extended edition of The Return of the King, Saruman is killed by Wormtongue atop Orthanc rather than in The Shire. The films place a greater emphasis on the connection between the Wizards' powers being manifested through their staffs: Gandalf and Saruman are visibly seen employing their staffs in their battle inside Orthanc, and Gandalf is rendered helpless when Saruman takes his staff from him. In a departure from the books, Gandalf's staff is shattered during his confrontation with the Witch-king.
- Essay on "The Istari" in Unfinished Tales.
- Index entries in Unfinished Tales.
- The History of Middle-earth, Vol. XII (The Peoples of Middle-earth), p. 384–385.
- In Letters, #156, pp 202–3, Tolkien clearly implies that the 'Authority' who sent Gandalf back was above the Valar (who are bound by Arda's space and time, while Gandalf went beyond time). Tolkien clearly intends this as an example of Eru intervening to change the course of the world.
- The Two Towers, Book III, "The Palantír", p. 204.