The Istari were an order of Wizards that came to Middle-earth around 1000 Third Age from the West to help the free peoples against the rising power of Sauron. A lot of people will know individual members of this Order such as Gandalf and Saruman. There were five of them and in the end only one of them completed the job he was sent to do, while the other four seemingly failed. The Order of Istari were all comprised of Maiar, angelic-like beings that were servants of the Valar, and it was the Valar attempting to indirectly help the Humans. Elves, and Dwarves in their struggles against the Dark Lord of Mordor. This article will look at the Istari and who they were by first of all briefly discussing the cosmology of Arda (the World), and in particularly what were the Valar and the Maiar. Secondly I will identify the specific members of the Order (as well as I can as Tolkien didn’t say a lot about several of them) including their Maiar names and the names they were given when they were in Middle-earth, and in what order they arrived, and lastly I will discuss what the Istari did in Middle-earth and how they helped defeat Sauron. Though in the end at least one seemed to almost hinder this outcome rather than help.
Arda was created when the Ainur, who were angelic beings, sang it into creation under the prompting and direction of Eru or Ilúvatar (The One). Some of these Ainur decided to go down into the world to live and to help get it ready for the Children of Ilúvatar, the Elves and Men, who were placed in Middle-earth to wake at a later time. The Ainur who chose to go and live in Arda had to do it under the condition that their power would be contained and bounded within the World until the end. These Ainur were named the Valar and there were fourteen of them. With them came other spirits “of the same order as the Valar but of less degree” (The Silmarillion, p.30) and they were the Maiar, the servants and helpers of the Valar. The Maiar were of varying power. There was also one more Ainur who entered the world. He had sung discord into the theme of Creation and unlike the Valar, who wanted to help and guide the Children of Ilúvatar, he wanted to dominate them and be their king. He also claimed the whole of Arda as his own domain. His name was Melkor, later called Morgoth (Sindarin, ‘Dark Enemy [of the World]’) by the Elves, and he was the first Dark Lord. The history of the First Age of Middle-earth was the struggle of the Children of Ilúvatar against this dark power. He was eventually defeated by the Host of the Valar at the end of the First Age, though his lieutenant, Sauron, who was a powerful Maiar and also known as Gorthaur the Cruel, managed to escape the destruction of Angband and became a Dark Lord in his own right in the Second and Third Ages of the World. After being defeated at the end of the Second Age Sauron slowly regained power. His Ring had not been destroyed, so his spirit was still within the world and able to slowly recover. The Valar were aware that Sauron was rebuilding and they knew that the enemies of the Dark Lord would need their help, but rather than directly intervening in the affairs of Middle-earth they decided to be more subtle about it this time. Their solution was to send five Maiar to Middle-earth to give advice and help to all the free peoples who opposed Sauron. These Maiar were selected from servants of the Valar and sent to Middle-earth in the guise of Wizards.
Before the Istari arrived in Middle-earth they took the guise of old men who aged very slowly. Being incarnate their bodies were capable of pain, hunger, weariness, and able to be slain. Also being incarnate meant they could also be likely to stray, or err, from their mission. They were forbidden to unveil their full power, or to dominate the Children of Ilúvatar by force or fear. They were there to give advice and to unite all who opposed Sauron. The first to arrive was Curumo. He was the most powerful and the Head of the Order and wore white robes. The Elves named him Curunír (Sindarin, ‘Man of Craft’), while Men in the North called him Saruman. He was the servant of Aulë, the Smith of the Valar, who also created the Dwarves. Curiously Sauron was also originally Aulë’s servant before he was corrupted by Morgoth. The next to arrive were Alatar and Pallando. They were the servants of Oromë. Both wore blue robes and were known as the Ithryn Luin (Sindarin, ‘the Blue Wizards’). The fourth to arrive was Aiwendil who wore brown robes. He was the servant of Yavanna. He became known as Radagast. Another account has him arriving with Curumo, who wasn’t exactly pleased to have to travel with him. Last came Olórin. He wore grey robes and was the shortest and oldest looking of them. He was the servant of Manwë, the Lord of the Valar. He did not want to come as he thought he would fail. The Elves called him Mithrandir (Sindarin, ‘Grey-wanderer’), in the North he was called Gandalf, the Dwarves called him Tharkûn (Dwarven, ‘Staff-man’), and he was also known as the Grey Pilgrim. When he arrived, Círdan of the Grey Havens gave him the Elven ring Narya, the Ring of Fire, as he knew Gandalf would have greater need of it than he would.
So what happened once they got to Middle-earth? They all at first traveled around for quite some time to gain understanding. The Blue Wizards and Saruman traveled to the East, but only Saruman returned. He eventually took over the Tower of Orthanc at Isengard and there he studied the devices of Sauron, and lore of the Rings of Power. Radagast, being the servant of Yavanna, became enamoured of the flora and fauna of Middle-earth. For a while he settled in Rhosgobel, near the southern borders of Mirkwood. Gandalf dwelt in no place. He gathered neither wealth or followers, but traveled all over North Western Middle-earth befriending others in time of need and desired not that anyone “should hold him in awe or take his counsels out of fear” (Unfinished Tales, p.506). Saruman became “proud and impatient and enamoured of power sought to have his own will by force” (Unfinished Tales p.505) And so he fell. His study of Sauron’s devices and ring-lore led to his corruption. In the end his machinations were overcome and defeated and he was slain by his last remaining servant and his spirit wandered but never came back to Middle-earth or Valinor. Tolkien was never sure about what happened to the Blue Wizards. He wrote in a letter: “I think they went as emissaries to distant regions, East and South, far out of Númenórean range: missionaries to ‘enemy-occupied’ lands, as it were. What success they had I do not know; but I fear that they failed, as Saruman did, though doubtless in different ways; and I suspect they were founders or beginners of secret cults and ‘magic’ traditions that outlasted the fall of Sauron” (The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, p.280). Radagast forsook helping Elves and Men and spent his days among the wild creatures. However when he met Gandalf near the Shire and told him Saruman wanted to talk with him and to help, Gandalf told Radagast to send all messages to Orthanc from the birds and beasts, which Radagast presumably did. It was for this reason that Gwaihir came to Orthanc to deliver tidings and found Gandalf imprisoned on the roof of the tower, and so was able to rescue him. So in that way Radagast did help, albeit unintentionally. It was Gandalf who completed the mission the Valar sent them to do. The strategy on how to destroy Sauron was his (in consultation with people like Elrond and Aragorn). He also ensured the forces of Rohan and Gondor withstood assaults from both Isengard and Mordor and made sure that Sauron was fixated on Gondor so he wouldn’t notice that two Hobbits had crept into his land of Mordor to destroy his Ring, and thus by doing so destroying him too. But he did need help from the Powers. When the Fellowship was in Moria and encountered the Balrog (yet another corrupted Maiar) he took it on himself to save the others by sacrificing himself. He died but was brought back stronger than before. Tolkien writes: “The ‘wizards’, as such, had failed; or if you like: the crisis had become too grave and needed an enhancement of power. So Gandalf sacrificed himself, was accepted, and enhanced, and returned… Of course he remains similar in personality and idiosyncrasy, but both his wisdom and power are much greater” (The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, p.202).
As a side note there is a further mention of the Blue Wizards which Tolkien probably wrote in 1972, shortly before his death. There is a note that his son Christopher found very difficult to read but it stated the Blue Wizards came much earlier, sometime in the Second Age and it was the same time that Glorfindel chose to return to Middle-earth (death by Balrog seems survivable for some). He names the Blue Wizards as Morinehtar and Rómestámo (Darkness-slayer and East-helper). “Their task was to circumvent Sauron: to bring help to the few tribes of Men that had rebelled from Melkor-worship… They must have had very great influence on the history of the Second Age and Third Age in weakening and disarraying the forces of East… who would both in the Second Age and Third Age otherwise have… outnumbered the West.” (The Peoples of Middle-Earth, p.385). It doesn’t say what ultimately happened to them. As this note seems to contradict all the other material on the Wizards, such as all of them arriving in Middle-earth around 1000 Third Age, I have decided to discount this note for the purposes of this article.
Rather than directly intervening in the affairs of Middle-earth the Valar chose to send the Istari, emissaries from the West to unite the opposition against the Dark Lord. Five were sent but only one completed the task and returned to the West. Even though they were angelic beings, having incarnate bodies left them open to corruption, among other things, whether by being lost in nature or by hunger for power and domination over others, and so they failed. However Gandalf prevailed in the end, and by guiding others as he was supposed to do, managed to defeat the Dark Lord of Mordor. Ensuring Sauron joined his master Morgoth in the Void. Gandalf had little faith in himself at the beginning of the task that he could be successful, but both Manwë and Varda had faith in him. They would have known Gandalf had the skills and temperament that he needed. In the Valaquenta it says of Gandalf: “Wisest of the Maiar was Olórin. He too dwelt in Lórien, but his ways took him often to the house of Nienna, and of her he learned pity and patience… In later days he was the friend of all the Children of Ilúvatar, and took pity on their sorrows; and those who listened to him awoke from despair and put away the imaginations of darkness” (The Silmarillion, p.30-1).
Tolkien, J.R.R., The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Humphrey Carpenter and Christopher Tolkien, (Unwin Paperbacks, London, 1990)
Tolkien, J.R.R., The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, (HarperCollins Publishers, London, 1992)
Tolkien, J.R.R., The Peoples of Middle-Earth, edited by Christopher Tolkien, (Houghton Mifflin, New York, 1996)
Tolkien, J.R.R., The Silmarillion, edited by Christopher Tolkien, (George Allen & Unwin, London, 1977)
Tolkien, J.R.R., Unfinished Tales of Númenor and Middle-earth, Edited by Christopher Tolkien, (HarperCollins Publishers, London, 2000)
Tyler, J.E.A., The Complete Tolkien Companion, (Pan Books, London, 2002)