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Who were the Istari?

From: Nate Gershaneck

The origin of the Wizards is never really made clear within the Lord of the Rings, and there has been some debate about just to what race they belong. However, there is a chapter dealing with them in the book Unfinished Tales, and a great deal of Tolkien's intent is presented within the chapter "The Istari," which most people are unaware of.

A note by Tolkien (Unfinished Tales, page 394), dated by his son as probably coming from 1972, right before Tolkien died, basically states right out their origins and purpose.
We must assume that they [the Istari] were all Maiar, that is persons of the 'angelic' order, though not necessarily of the same rank. The Maiar were 'spirits', but capable of self-incarnation, and could take 'humane' (especially Elvish) forms... Now these Maiar were sent by the Valar at a crucial moment in the history of Middle Earth to enhance the resistance of the Elves of the West, waning in power, and the Men of the West, greatly outnumbered by those of the East and South. It may be seen that they were free each to do what they could in this mission; that they were not commanded or supposed to act together... and that each had different powers and... were chosen by the Valar with this in mind.
When Eru created the world, he sent fourteen of the greater members of his spiritual choir (the Ainur) to guide and protect the world and its peoples. Many lesser spirits went as well, to serve as helpers and servants. The greater spirits became known as the Valar, while the lesser were termed the Maiar. The Wizards gained their power through being supernatural beings who had predated the creation of the world. Another note in Unfinished Tales (page 395), about Gandalf specifically, says:
It was believed by many of the 'Faithful' that 'Gandalf' was the last appearance of Manwë himself... But I think it was not so... To the overthrow of Morgoth he sent his herald Eonwë. To the defeat of Sauron would he not then send some lesser (but mighty) spirit of the angelic people, one coeval and equal, doubtless, with Sauron in their beginnings, but not more? Olórin was his name. But of Olórin we shall never know more than he revealed in Gandalf.
The text after this is an etymological analysis of what "Olórin" means, and the significance of the name, and what it says about Gandalf's character. Throughout this section, though, which was one of the last sections to be composed, Gandalf (and I would infer by extension all the Istari) are Maiar. There is also an isolated mention of the name "Olórin" in the Silmarillion, where he is referred to as being a Maiar who frequently visited (the Valinorean) Lórien.

One last interesting piece of evidence comes from a brief narrative of a council of the Ainur (printed on page 393 of Unfinished Tales), which is incomplete and had illegible pieces, but which clearly demonstrates the messengers to be of that class of being, and the also sheds some light on the purpose given the Wizards when they were sent to Middle Earth.
It was resolved to send out three emissaries to Middle-earth. 'Who would go? For they must be mighty, peers of Sauron, but must forgo might, and clothe themselves in flesh so as to treat on equality and win the trust of Elves and Men. But this would imperil them, dimming their wisdom and knowledge, and confusing them with fears, cares, and weariness coming from the flesh.' But two only came forward: Curumo, who was chosen by Aulë, and Alatar, who was sent by Oromë. Then Manwë asked, where was Olórin? And Olórin... asked what Manwë would have of him. Manwë replied that he wished Olórin to go as the third messenger to Middle-earth... But Olórin replied that he was too weak for such a task, and that he feared Sauron. Then Manwë said that was all the more reason why he should go...
The narrative goes on to tell how Curumo (Saruman) takes Aiwendil (Radagast) at the pleading of Yavanna, and that Pallando is brought by Alatar as a friend. With Olórin added to the mix, the total of five Istari mentioned in the appendix to the Lord of the Rings is reached. The meeting in question is intriguing because it demonstrates a possible origin for Saruman's contempt of Radagast. Also made clear is the reason why Gandalf refrained from using his power to persuade people like Denethor to listen to him: it was forbidden (which made Saruman's failure all the greater).

Defining something in Middle Earth is difficult, because technically nothing besides the Lord of the Rings is final. However, since Tolkien's writing in this section, being as late in his life as it was, probably represented the last opinion he developed of the issue of Wizardly origins, it seems fair to announce: the Wizards were Maiar.

On this page you can read about things that I don't have enough material to make whole section or couldn't decide where to put some texts.
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