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- "Do not meddle in the affairs of wizards, for they are subtle and quick to anger."
- ― Gildor Inglorion, "Three is Company"
The Wizards of Middle-earth, also known as the Istari in Quenya and the Ithryn in Sindarin, were a small group of beings outwardly resembling Men but possessing much greater physical and mental power.
They were of the Maiar, spirits of the same order of the Valar, but lesser in power (Sauron himself was one of the most powerful of the Maiar), sent by the Valar to help and assist the peoples against Sauron. While many were sent out, only five are known to have been sent to the north. Their Quenya names were Curumo, meaning "Skilled One"; Olórin, meaning "Rememberer", "Dreamer", or "Thinker"; Aiwendil, meaning "Bird-friend"; Pallando and Alatar.
They came to Middle-earth roughly around the year 1000 of the Third Age. It seems that each was assigned with a colour for his clothes, white being indicative of the chief. Two of them were blue. It is not known if the colour had a special meaning concerning their rank, abilities or nature.
The wizards already appeared old when they entered Middle-earth. They were deliberately "clothed" in the bodies of old Men, as the Valar wished them to help the inhabitants of Middle-earth by persuasion and encouragement, not by force or fear. However, they aged very slowly, but yet could still be slain. Thus, they were, physically speaking, "real" Men, and felt all the urges, pleasures and fears of flesh and blood. While in this form, although immortals by age, their physical form could be destroyed by violence — thus, Gandalf truly dies in the fight with the Balrog, but is "reborn" as his mission is not yet complete.
Very few of Middle-earth's inhabitants knew who the Wizards really were; the Wizards did not share this information. Most thought they were Elves or wise Men (Gandalf represents this interpretation, meaning Wand-elf, because the Men who gave him the nickname believed he was an Elf). They attracted few questions due to their gentle nature and dislike of direct interference with other people's affairs. In spite of their specific and unambiguous goal, the Wizards are nevertheless capable of human feelings; thus Gandalf feels great affection for the Hobbits. On the flip side, they could feel negative human emotions like greed, jealousy, and lust for power. It is hinted in the essay in Unfinished Tales that the Blue Wizards (see below) may have fallen prey to these temptations.
Two of these, the Blue Wizards, went into the East and do not come into the stories of Middle-earth. Their Quenya names were Morinehtar, Darkness-slayer and Romestamo, East-helper, respectively (in Unfinished Tales their names were Alatar and Pallando). The other three were called Saruman, also known as Curunír; Gandalf, or Mithrandir; and Radagast.
Saruman originally had the greatest power of the five Istari and was the head of the White Council. In the year 2759 of the Third Age, he was invited by the rulers of Gondor and Rohan to settle in Isengard. Saruman was learned in the lore of the Rings of Power, gradually becoming corrupted by the desire for the Rings and by Sauron's direct influence on him through the palantír of Orthanc. Eventually he became ensnared in Sauron's power, and assisted him in the War of the Ring until he was defeated by the Ents and Gandalf, who broke his staff and cast him out of the White Council. Saruman's death came at the hands of his servant Wormtongue in The Shire, after the destruction of the One Ring.
During the War of the Ring, it was Gandalf who led the Free Peoples to victory over Sauron. He also defeated Saruman. After the destruction of Sauron, Gandalf left Middle-earth and went over the Sea, 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 (though Treebeard informs Merry and Pippin that they landed in the Grey Havens from across the Great Sea 2,000 years ago, little else is revealed in the narrative). In a certain point, Pippin seems to wonder what his friend Gandalf really was, and notices that it was the first time in his life he did 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.
Some have objected to The Lord of the Rings because it features wizards, which can mean a 'caster of spells.' However, Tolkien's Istari were not wizards in that common sense of the word, but rather more like 'wise men' or even 'messengers.' Tolkien, a lifelong philologist and devoted Catholic, deliberately used the word wizard, as it connoted 'wisdom' and conveniently conveyed to the reader the 'other worldly' powers of the characters. These sentiments were best worded by Tolkien himself in the first paragraph of the essay The Istari in the Unfinished Tales:
Wizard is a translation of Quenya istar (Sindarin ithron): one of the members of an "order" (as they call it), claiming to possess, and exhibiting, eminent knowledge of the history and nature of the World. The translation (through suitable in its relation to "wise" and other ancient words of knowing, similar to that of istar in Quenya) is not perhaps happy, since Heren Istarion or "Order of Wizards" was quite distinct from "wizards" and "magicians" of later legend; they belonged solely to the Third Age and then departed, and none save maybe Elrond, Círdan and Galadriel discovered of what kind they were or whence they came.
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