EMISSARIES OF THE WEST
When Greenwood the Great fell under shadow at the beginning of the Third Age, the Valar sensed that Sauron had returned and was beginning to grow in power. However, they had long decided not to directly interfere in the lives of the denizens of Middle-earth, having been met with war and bloodshed when they had tried to lead the Eldar into the West during the Years of the Trees. Instead they sent messengers to Middle-earth to inspire Men and Elves to noble deeds, thus indirectly helping to ensure that they fulfilled their destinies.
With the consent of Eru, the Valar sent several Maiar – members of their own order “but of less degree” – known as the Istari (21). (Though they are more commonly referred to as “wizards,” Tolkien is careful to point out that his wizards are not the magicians we usually associate with the term; instead they are wise men or messengers.)
The Istari appeared in the forms of Men, “old but vigorous” (360), and although they were Maiar, in their human bodies they were “subject to the fears and pains and weariness of earth, able to hunger and thirst and be slain; though because of their noble spirits they did not die, and aged only by the cares and labours of many long years” (406). Likewise, their human bodies did not protect them from the temptations and corruptions which plagued the other denizens of Middle-earth: they “might even as Men and Elves fall away from their purposes, and do evil, forgetting the good in the search for the power to effect it” (407).
The exact number of the Order of the Istari was unknown, “but of those that came to the North of Middle-earth” during the Third Age “the chiefs were five” (406), and they were: Curúnir (Saruman the White), the two Blue Wizards, Aiwendil (Radagast the Brown), and Olórin (Gandalf the Grey).
WHO WERE THE ISTARI?
Curúnir (Q. ‘skillful one’; also called Curumo) was the first and eldest, and as such was named Chief of the Order (denoted by his white robes). “Great skill he had in works of hand” (406), having been the servant and helper of Aulë; in Middle-earth he was called Saruman (Rohirric, ‘man of skill’). He travelled East for a millennia and a half before returning to the West and settling in Orthanc. He became knowledgeable in the lore of the Rings of Power, and sought the One Ring for himself, so that he might bend all of Middle-earth to his will. His pride, arrogance, and jealousy made him easily malleable by Sauron, and the White Wizard was ultimately corrupted and failed in his task.
Following Saruman were the two Blue Wizards, whose names are not given, aside from Ithryn Luin (‘Blue Wizards’); occasionally the names Alatar and Pallando, or Morinehtar and Rómestámo, are attributed to them. Neither are their fates in Middle-earth known. In Unfinished Tales, Tolkien wrote that these two journeyed East with Saruman but did not return; “whether they remained in the East, pursuing there the purposes for which they were sent; or perished; or as some hold were ensnared by Sauron and became his evil servants, is not known” (407). In a letter dated 1958, Tolkien reiterated this belief, adding of their fall: “I suspect they were founders or beginners of secret cults and ‘magic’ traditions that outlasted the fall of Sauron” (418).
The fourth to arrive in Middle-earth, Radagast the Brown had been a servant of Yavanna, and was fond of all things Kelvar (fauna) and Olvar (flora), though his name Aiwendil suggests he was perhaps most fond of birds. In Unfinished Tales, it is noted that Yavanna forced Saruman to take Radagast with him, which was perhaps the reason the White Wizard was so scornful of him – openly referring to him as “simple” and “a fool.” Like the Blue Wizards, Radagast, too fell away from his purpose, becoming “enamoured of the many beasts and birds that dwelt in Middle-earth, and forsook Elves and Men, and spent his days among the wild creatures” (407).
Indeed, “one only remained faithful, and he was the last-comer” (407), Tolkien wrote of Gandalf (known in Valinor as Olórin). Associated with Nienna, who taught him pity, Gandalf was fond of the Gardens of Lórien (Irmo), and in this way learned much about the dreams of Men and Elves. He also had a fondness for the Hobbits of the Shire, but unlike Radagast and Saruman, he did not stray from his mission.
THE WHITE COUNCIL
It was Gandalf who sensed that the growing darkness in Mirkwood was more sinister than Ringwraiths; and in the year 2463 of the Third Age, the White Council was formed, consisting of Galadriel, Elrond, Círdan, Gandalf, and Saruman. Galadriel had hoped that Gandalf would serve as their leader (an offer which angered Saruman), “but Mithrandir refused the office, since he would have no ties and no allegiance, save to those who sent him” (361). And so Saruman was named as their leader.
When Gandalf visited Dol Guldur and learned that the Necromancer was, in fact, Sauron, he urged the Council to make a swift attack; but Saruman, hoping the One Ring would reveal itself as the Dark Lord rose back to power, counselled them to wait. But the more they waited, the more Saruman fell to temptation and plotted not only against his Order, but against the Enemy as well, seeking the One Ring for his own purpose. In the last meeting of the White Council (TA 2953), he asserted that the One Ring had been lost forever in the Belegaer. Soon after he took control of Isengard, which he fortified, and began to aid the enemies of his neighbours in Rohan.
THE FATE OF THE TWO WHITE WIZARDS
By now, Saruman had grown to fear and hate Gandalf, whom he suspected knew all about his traitorous plans. Making note of everything the Grey wizard said to him, he became aware of the Shire – a place which Gandalf frequently visited. The ever-suspicious White wizard assumed Gandalf was there for other purposes (when in fact, Gandalf as yet knew nothing of the location of the One Ring), and so sent spies to learn all they could about the Shire and its inhabitants. When Gandalf did learn that the One had been found, Saruman was the next to know (and given that ring-lore was his speciality, he begrudged Gandalf even more for knowing something he did not).
So he deceived Radagast, and sent him as his messenger to lure Gandalf to Isengard in TA 3018 with the promise of counsel; “he sought me in good faith, and so persuaded me,” Gandalf later recounted to Frodo upon their meeting in Rivendell (313). But it was this good faith that also turned Radagast into an unwitting rescuer of Gandalf, who was imprisoned atop the pinnacle of Orthanc after refusing to join forces with Saruman and the Enemy. Having called upon his friends, the Eagles of the Mountains, to send word of the Enemy’s movements, Gwaihir the Windlord found Gandalf and carried him away from Saruman, whose treachery was now fully known.
While Saruman busied himself with the fortification of Isengard and the breeding of an army to rival that of Sauron, Gandalf never strayed from his mission – even at great personal sacrifice. As the Company of the Ring made their way through the Mines of Moria, they were faced with a most fearsome enemy: a Balrog of Morgoth.
Although he was Maia in origin, in his Middle-earth body, a sacrifice was a sacrifice:
“[I]n his condition it was for him a sacrifice to perish on the Bridge in defence of his companions, less perhaps than a mortal Man or Hobbit, since he had a far greater inner power than they; but also more, since it was a humbling and abnegation of himself in conformity to 'the Rules' […] He was handing over to the Authority that ordained the Rules, and giving up personal hope of success” (Letters, #156).
Because of this sacrifice, he was sent back to fulfil his mission. Tolkien goes on to remind us that the Valar did not have the authority to send him back (thereby directly intervening): “He was sent by a mere prudent plan of the angelic Valar or governors; but Authority had taken up this plan and enlarged it, at the moment of its failure” (Letters, #156), which indicates that Gandalf was sent back by Eru Ilúvatar himself.
"Naked I was sent back – for a brief time, until my task is done. And naked I lay upon the mountain-top. … There I lay staring upward, while the stars wheeled over, and each day was as long as a life-age of the earth." (125)
He was taken to Lothlórien, where he was healed by Galadriel and clothed in white; and he was now called “Gandalf the White,” for he was the wizard Saruman should have been. It was in this new body that Gandalf was able to fully carry out his task, and ultimately influence all races – Men, Hobbits, Elves, and Dwarves – to play an important role in the Downfall of Sauron. Upon completion of his mission, he was granted access back to Valinor.
While Gandalf was rewarded for his faithfulness, Saruman met an ignominious fate. His plans at Isengard had been foiled by the neighbouring Ents, which had caused him to flee to the one place he still had power to control: the Shire. And yet, to his surprise, the Hobbits revolted and cast him out, and his cruel ways finally caught up with him. He was slain at the hand of his own miserable servant, Gríma Wormtongue, “and his spirit went whithersoever it was doomed to go, and to Middle-earth, whether naked or embodied, came never back” (408).
The Fellowship of the Ring, “The Council of Elrond”
The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, (#156)
The Silmarillion, p. 21, 360
The Two Towers, “The White Rider”
Unfinished Tales, “The Hunt for the Ring,” p. 365
Unfinished Tales, “The Istari,” p. 406-408, 415, 418