The Blue Wizards are a mystery of Middle-earth. There isn't much out there about who they are or what they do. But there are just enough glimpses out there to pull together a fascinating story – a story that we start to dig into in this episode.
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Hi. Welcome to the Halfling. I’m your host, Jaron Pak, and this is Episode 19: The Mysteriously Awesome Blue Wizards.
It's great to be back. I promise I put the break to good use. I spent it writing an insane amount of content about the “Rings of Power” show, both for my day job and for this show, as well. The promotional material for “Rings of Power” has had an interesting response, so far, but I’m hopeful we can all at least enjoy the experience as we pick it apart and dissect how it handles its adaptation. Either way, we’ll continue to dig into the source material here, both for confirmed characters and events as well as potential ones that would be fun to see adapted.
After the kind-of-break, I’m ready to pick up my mic and start broadcasting again as we buckle in for the last few months before the new show airs. Before I fully get going though, I do need to do a little housekeeping really quick about the consistency of new episodes going forward. Up until now I’ve tried very hard to keep on a weekly schedule, but the truth is, this summer is a little crazy for me, both with work and my personal schedule. As we get closer to the show premiering, there are going to be an increasing number of weeks where I just won’t have the time to create something. With that in mind, I’m going to shift to a new release format. I’m going to continue to try to release episodes as often as possible, but there will be inevitable breaks from time to time. I’ll try to give you a heads up when that’s going to happen. I’m also going to try to release each series of episodes close together — ideally without any breaks. I hope that makes sense, and I’m excited to continue digging into Tolkien lore with all of you guys.
Okay. Now that that’s done, back to the more important stuff. During the break, I had one request, in particular, that piqued my interest the most: hearing more about the Blue Wizards. In my recent interview with the Tolkien Professor, we talked for a while about the identity of the mysterious man in the fire — the fireman. The burning man? Okay, anyway. Strang pop culture references aside, the sight of a dude who presumably just shot through the sky like a firecracker crawling around in a pit of fire was one of the oddest scenes in the first “Rings of Power” trailer. Everything else tracks with me. You’ve got Elves in the woods. A gorgeous seaside city of men. Beautiful panoramic landscape shots (hello New Zealand). And then…fireball guy. What’s up with that?
There are kind of similar things that happen in other areas of Tolkien’s works. Creatures “descend from heaven” and wizards can conjure fire and stuff. Usually, this supernatural activity is reserved for creatures like the Valar, the Maiar, and occasionally an Elf or two. There’s also one clear point in a previous Tolkien adaptation that has to do with engulfing fire. Remember that scene in the extended edition of “The Return of the King” when Saruman shoots, like, a literal fireball out of the end of his staff at Gandalf? — Don’t get me started on the misrepresentation of wizarding powers in Jackson’s version of Middle-earth …wizard duel, anyone? — Anyway, even though I think Tolkien never would have had wizards walking around shooting power blasts and fireballs at one another, in Peter Jackson’s version of events, they do. And I actually think that’s a very important point here. Why? Because, in the minds of viewers, we’ve already seen a “fire man” before in the form of Gandalf the wizard being struck by a fiery projectile …and not dying. Not even burning. Just kind of being there, cloaked in power, and clearly able to treat physical fire as if it’s nothing of consequence.
This has led to the suggestion that the man in the fire could be a few different, Gandalf-adjacent kind of people. The first one, and my personal favorite, is that it’s Sauron. That explanation just makes too much sense to ignore. He’s a fugitive hiding from justice when the show begins, and the thought of a spiritual being panicking and then flying at warp speed through the sky only to fall in a fiery wreck makes a lot of sense.
Then again, it could be someone else. And that’s where we get the topic for this episode. Others have wondered if the fella we see in the fire is none other than one of the two mysterious Blue Wizards. Even if their Tolkien activities are just a passing interest, most Middle-earth fans have heard of these guys. There are five upper-case “W” Wizards in “The Lord of the Rings.” They’re not the same as a sorcerer from Hogwarts (more on that in a bit). Instead, the five Wizards are angelic beings sent from the Blessed Realm with specific physical limitations, like the whole shriveled old man body thing.
We see three of these Wizards during “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit” stories. Gandalf is in both and plays a critical role throughout. Saruman is only in “The Lord of the Rings,” but again, he’s got a major part to play. Radagast is only mentioned in “The Hobbit” book, but he plays a bigger part in the on-screen story. He also shows up in “The Lord of the Rings” books for a hot second, although that was cut from the movies.
And then there’s the two Blue Wizards. They're briefly mentioned in one spot in the text, and that’s it. The reference I’m talking about takes place in “The Two Towers” book when Gandalf is putting Saruman in his place as the two peers debate in the middle of a water-logged Isengard. Saruman gets upset with Gandalf and, at one point, lashes out at the wise old wizard by accusing him of wanting to control everything. The insult is more reflective of Saruman’s own misplaced ambitions than anything else, but in the process, he tells Gandalf that his fellow Istari wants to have the rods of the Five Wizards. In the the book “The Peoples of Middle-earth” the reference is labeled as a “piece of private information.” It’s deep cut insider data that’s known only to the Wizards themselves.
And that’s it. That’s the only time that Tolkien lets it slip that there are more than a few wizards out there. At least, that’s all that was present in the actual stories when “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings” were published. Over time, though, we got more info. There’s a smidgeon of information tucked away in the appendices of “The Return of the King,” and then a not-so-big chunk of additional data was slowly released by Christopher Tolkien in various books after his father died.
Okay, so there isn’t much out there on the Blue Wizards, but as is the case with so many of these deep dive characters that we cover on this show, if you pull everything together — as I’ve done to make this series — you can actually get a pretty cool picture in your head about who the Blue Wizards are. In order to do that, though, we need to start by covering what a Middle-earth “wizard” is, in the first place.
I’ve gone over this explanation many times in writing and in conversations, but as I wrote this episode, I realized that I don’t think I’ve actually addressed the Middle-earth wizard misconception on “The Halfling” yet. It’s an oversight that I intend to rectify right now.
So, there are several areas of Tolkien’s writings that describe the Wizards, including an entire essay on them in “Unfinished Tales.” We’ll be going over all of this in the next few episodes, but before we get too far into the weeds, let’s start with the explanation that comes right out of the appendix of “The Return of the King.” This is the area of the source material that the show is allowed to work from. In fact, showrunner J.D. Payne has already explained that the show only has access to the following: “The Fellowship of the Ring,” “The Two Towers,” “The Return of the King,” and “The Hobbit.” That’s it. That may not sound like much — and it really isn’t. Especially for a Second Age show. I mean, most of those books are about stuff that happens at the end of the 3,000-year-long Third Age. There are a few mentions of historical events and people that take place during those stories, but it’s a pretty underwhelming body of data, to say the least. There’s one part of that collection of books, though, that is critical to making the show work: the appendices included at the end of the “The Return of the King.” We regularly benefit from those precious endnotes on this show. Oh, and by “end notes,” I mean the almost 150 pages of additional content, listed out in six appendices from A to F. So this isn’t, like, a 10-page final thought or epilogue. Yeah, there's a lot of stuff packed into the pages, too. Super dense. Not your average easy-reading kind of thing. Out of all of that text, there’s one line tucked into the corners that reads like this, “When maybe a thousand years had passed, and the first shadow had fallen on Greenwood the Great, the Istari or Wizards appeared in Middle-earth. It was afterwards said that they came out of the Far West and were messengers sent to contest the power of Sauron, and to unite all those who had the will to resist him; but they were forbidden to match his power with power, or to seek to dominate Elves or Men by force and fear.”
Okay, there’s a lot to unpack here. The first thing that I wanna do is follow up on the fact that these guys are upper-case “W” Wizards. They’re not men mastering magic arts or dabbling in the demonic. That isn’t just a cutesy, family-friendly spin on the group, either. Tolkien even addresses the double meaning of his “wizards” with the traditional use of the word. In “Unfinished Tales” we read that the translation of his Quenya word “Istari” to wizard in the common speech “is not perhaps happy, since the Heren Istarion or ‘Order of the Wizards’ was quite distinct from the ‘wizards’ and ‘magicians’ of later legend…” He adds that the primary connection between the two versions of the word is their shared accumulation of wisdom and knowledge.
In comparison to the more evil version of wizards, though, Tolkien’s order of Istari only exists in his world in the Third and possibly the Second Ages. That’s it. And very few people even know that they exist in the first place.
There are two primary wizards out of this bunch. There’s Gandalf, also called Mithrandir, which means “the Grey Pilgrim,” and Saruman or Curunír, meaning “the Man of Skill.” Radagast is a third wizard. When we first meet him, Gandalf refers to him as his cousin in “The Hobbit.” However, that line of reasoning is quickly retconned, and by “The Lord of the Rings,” he’s simply one of the five wizards. Radagast is the one that, at one point, lives in his home, called Rhosgobel, which is located on the edge of Mirkwood. His color coordinated cognomen is Brown, so he’s Radagast the Brown, and he loves animals. Too much, in fact. He’s described as abandoning his focus on Elves and Men and paying too much attention to birds and beasts. His name is even said to translate from Númenórean to mean “tender of beasts” — although Tolkien also says later on that the name is technically uninterpretable. Either way, Gandalf refers to Radagast as “a worthy wizard, a master of shapes and changes of hue; and he has much lore of herbs and beasts, and birds are especially his friends.” Saruman also derisively refers to Radagast as a bird-tamer and “The Hobbit” movies went so far as to make him a ludicrous character with rabbit-pulled transportation and literal lines of bird poop — bird poop — running down his head. Okay, resist, Jaron. Resist. No bunny trails here. Pun intended. Stay on track. We’re here to talk about the Blue Wizards. Not Radagast’s woeful misrepresentation on screen.
Okay, so there are these three main wizards that we hear about all the time. And then there are the two blue ones that we hear nothing about. They’re not traditional wizards, but a unique set of beings that exist at a specific time and in a particular place. But that still doesn’t tell us who these five dudes are. What does it mean to be a Middle-earth Wizard? What is this upper-case “W” kind of being? Tolkien had quite a few scattered thoughts on that one, too, and when you rake them all together, you get a pretty cool picture.
First off, before we get too far from the headcount business, I need to point out that there are most likely just five Wizards out there. But it does say in the book “Unfinshed Tales” that the number is technically unknown and that the five that we are aware of came to the northern parts of Middle-earth specifically because there was the most hope of stopping Sauron in that region. The text specifically references the might of the Elves and Númenóreans in that area as the major hope of resisting the Dark Lork. So we only hear about five wizards — and barely at that, the real count is more like three wizards with two blue ones tossed in to beef up the total. But technically speaking there could be more of them out there somewhere, which is something I would be remiss to fail to point out. It’s a pretty cool thought, too, especially considering what these guys are …which I’m about to tell you.
As far as the five specimens that we’re aware of are concerned, we aren’t just talking about random wanderers. The Wizards of Middle-earth are angelic beings. They’re spiritual in nature — even though they’re operating in an incarnate form. And here’s the critical part about understanding what these guys are. They aren’t just “old man look alikes.” In “Unfinished Tales,” we get an entire essay on the Wizards, which is titled by their Elvish name: The Istari. In the precious few pages of that essay, Tolkien explains that the wizards were sent from the Blessed Realm — by the Valar and with the consent of Illúvatar, remember, that’s God in Middle-earth. They’re packaged up in fleshly bodies and sent overseas as a way to resist Sauron when the Dark Lord starts stirring again after his defeat at the end of the Second Age — the whole Isildur cutting the One Ring from his hand business.
Okay, so the Wizards are these superpowered spiritual beings who have spent countless time living in a heavenly realm far away in the Western regions of the world. Great! When the wizards get to Middle-earth, though, they aren’t overpowered beings ready to duke it out with Sauron, spirit-a-spirit. In fact, based on that little paragraph we read from “The Return of the King,” they aren’t allowed to fight him directly at all — and if you’re wondering why, just look at what happens to Saruman when he breaks bad and tries to usurp Sauron’s role as dictator-in-chief. Instead, the Wizards are locked up with all of their heavenly wisdom into their iconic frail old bodies. In Tolkien’s words, they’re “clad in bodies as of Men, real and not feigned, but 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.” He adds a bit later that they were supposed to use these forms to humbly advise and persuade rather than dominate and rule over the enemies of Sauron.
So, even though they have the longevity of Elves, they have these wrinkly old-man bodies and long beards. They’re really a middle-point between immortal Elves and very mortal Men. It’s kinda cool, since they’re supposed to help both of those groups. Anyway, it also says that they arrive looking old and their physical bodies age very slowly. So, even then, we’re talking about immortal beings in slowly aging bodies. It’s a super unique situation.
They’re also not in any hurry. Not at all. Like, really, not at all. They initially spend their time wandering around, picking up information and generally acquainting themselves with Middle-earth from the perspective of their active yet old Mannish bodies. The text also talks about how their knowledge is partially compromised in their new forms and they need to relearn many things. As they gain more Middle-earth experience, they become better equipped to support the enemies of Sauron.
The way that they do this varies from one wizard to the next — on purpose, too. And that’s where we’re going to pick up the story next time. We’ll go over the kind of crazy origin of the Istari and then chart the course of the Five Istari — with a particular focus on our two topical characters: the Blue Wizards.
All right, that’s it for now. Until next time, friends.