The Meaning of Wizards in ‘Rings of Power’

Warning: This post contains spoilers for the season finale of The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power.

The Meaning of Wizards in 'Rings of Power'

The season one finale of The Rings of Power contained two major reveals. The first was the identity of Sauron. It turns out it was Halbrand all along, and there were many clues along the way. The other was the revelation that the Stranger is not the Dark Lord but—as many fans suspected—a wizard.

The three witches from the land of Rhûn in the far east track down the Stranger thinking that he is Sauron. Servants of the Dark Lord, they intend to bring him east and teach him to wield his powers. That turns out to be a grave mistake.

With the help of the kindhearted harfoot Nori, the Stranger realizes that he is good, not evil. As the witches attempt to kill Nori and her harfoot friends, the Stranger rounds on the witches and battles them. After seeing his power they realize that he is not Sauron but an istar, a word that translates to wizard. “I am good,” he declares and banishes them to the darkness from whence they came.

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There are five wizards in J.R.R. Tolkien’s lore—which spans The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion, and a number of other stories and myths—and the show has yet to reveal whether The Stranger is one we’ve seen onscreen before like Gandalf or Saruman or whether he’s one of the mysterious Blue Wizards that Tolkien mentions in his writings. One line in the season finale heavily hints that the Stranger is indeed our beloved Gandalf. But there are compelling reasons to think that line could be a red herring.

Here’s everything you need to know about Tolkien’s wizards, and a closer look at who the Stranger might be.

What does istar mean?

As the Stranger explains to Nori in the show, istar means “wise one” or “wizard.”

The wizards in Middle-earth are technically Maiar or primordial spirits who are sent to Middle-earth by the Valar and tasked with aiding the fight against Sauron. They’re largely instructed to help guide the people of Middle-earth toward victory in the fight against the Dark Lord, rather than taking him on directly.

When the istari first arrive to Middle-earth, Tolkien writes they’re almost like newborns in men’s bodies. They have to learn everything for the first time—hence the Stranger’s memory loss.

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Who are all the wizards in Tolkien’s lore?

Tolkien wrote about five wizards: Gandalf the Gray, Saruman the White, Radagast the Brown, and two unnamed Blue Wizards.

You probably already know about Gandalf the Gray, the wise and kind wizard, friend to hobbits, who was among the fellowship of the ring. He defeated a Balrog. He saved everyone’s butts at Helm’s Deep. He’s awesome. We love him.

Saruman the White we do not like quite as much. Though he started out as a well-intentioned wizard, he was corrupted by the palantir, the globe that shows what could pass in the future, and fell under the sway of Sauron. He also committed the gravest sin a Tolkien character can—he cut down a whole lot of trees to build his tower and orc army.

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Radagast the Brown appears briefly in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. He’s a big fan of wild animals and could speak to birds. Gandalf describes him as worthy and honest, though Saruman considers him a fool. Radagast is unwittingly tricked by Saruman to lure Gandalf to Saruman’s tower. There, Saruman traps Gandalf. In the books, it’s Radagast who sends the eagle to save Gandalf from Saruman’s clutches, though the character doesn’t appear in the film version. Radagast then essentially disappears from the story.

We don’t know much about the Blue Wizards. They are known as Pallando (also known as Rómestámo, which translates to “East-helper”) and Alatar (also known as Morinehtar, which translates to “Darkness-slayer”). Tolkien wrote contradictory stories for these wizards, but we know that they journeyed to the far-east after they arrived in Middle-earth to battle Saruman in the lands where he raised his army. Their fates are unknown.

What are the clues that the Stranger may be Gandalf?

The Stranger has done and said several things this season that harkened back to Gandalf’s actions in J.R.R. Tolkien’s books and Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings film adaptations.

When he first arrives on earth, the Stranger whispers to lightning bugs asking them to help recreate a constellation from the sky. Gandalf, you may recall, whispered to a butterfly to call one of the eagles to help him escape the clutches of Saruman in Jackson’s movies.

The Stranger also seems to have a deep affinity for trees. Gandalf—and all good characters in Tolkien’s books—are environmentalists who love trees and hate people who hurt trees. Crucially, Saruman and all evil characters (including the three witches who fight The Stranger in the final episode of The Rings of Power) absolutely love burning down forests. The fact that the Stranger is able to restore a burnt tree to life and put out damaging fires again might suggest he’s Gandalf.

And if you had any doubt that the Stranger is a good wizard, not a bad one, he comes right out and says so during the finale. When the three witches realize that this man is not Sauron, one of them says, “He’s…” and he quickly replies, “I’m good.”

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Plus, the Stranger and Nori bond quickly and set off on a journey to the eastern lands together in the finale for season 1. If this wizard is Gandalf, the fact that he was saved by and fought alongside a harfoot when he first arrived in Middle-earth could explain why Gandalf is so fond of hobbits, descendants of the harfoots, and often travels to the Shire to visit them.

Perhaps the biggest indication that the Stranger is Gandalf is that as soon as he learns to speak in full sentences, he immediately begins rattling off Gandalf-isms. In the finale when the Stranger and Nori set out on their journey and puzzle over which direction to go, the Stranger says, “There’s a sweet smell on the air this way. When in doubt, Elanor Brandifoot, always follow your nose.” If that line sounds familiar it’s because Gandalf says the exact same thing to the hobbit Merry in The Fellowship of the Ring.

It’s also a classic Gandalf line. He loves to call hobbits by their full names and utter puzzling yet whimsical truisms. Even if the Stranger doesn’t wind up being Gandalf, the actor Daniel Weyman is certainly paying tribute to Ian McKellen’s performance as Gandalf in Jackson’s movies.

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Could the Stranger be Saruman?

That is definitely still possible. Remember, Saruman was or at least masqueraded as a good guy for a long time before he broke bad and allied with Sauron. Gandalf was shocked when Saruman revealed his evil intentions.

And we’ve definitely seen the Stranger wield evil magic as well as good. Those lightning bugs die after the Stranger speaks to them indicating some darker power. And though he cured the tree, he also broke a branch that almost killed Nori. It’s possible despite his declaration that he is good that The Stranger could be a more morally ambiguous character.

Could the Stranger be a Blue Wizard?

According to Tolkien’s writing, Gandalf and Saruman didn’t arrive in Middle-earth until the Third Age. Since The Rings of Power is set in the Second Age, this would suggest that the Stranger is definitively not either of those wizards. That said, the show has fudged the timeline a bit already so that its human characters aren’t dying every two episodes while the drama between the immortal elves and Sauron unfolds.

But let’s assume that this man is not Gandalf or Saruman. Who could he be? Likely he’s one of the two Blue Wizards who did arrive on Middle-earth in the Second Age. Not much is known about these magical beings except that they traveled to the far east, where Sauron hid out for awhile and convinced the men there to do his bidding. The army he marshals in The Lord of the Rings includes men from the far east.

At the end of season one of The Rings of Power, the Stranger and Nori set out for Rhûn, a land in the far east. The Stranger has a memory of a constellation that will lead them there. They also learn that the three magical beings who have been stalking the Stranger also come from Rhûn. Servants of Sauron, they mistook the Stranger for the Dark Lord and tried to bring them back to their land, but the Stranger defeats them. Still, it does seem the Stranger’s fate to head to Rhûn and fight dark forces there, just as the Blue Wizards did.

In his outlines of Middle-earth’s history, published in Unfinished Tales and The Peoples of Middle-earth, Tolkien first says that the Blue Wizards failed to stop Sauron and became the leaders of a magical cult. But later, he suggests that they did actually succeed in helping to hinder Sauron’s rise to power. If the Stranger is a Blue Wizard, it has yet to be seen which version of their story the show will choose to pursue.

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Why did Nori find The Stranger?

The harfoot Nori suggests in the second episode of the series that stumbling upon the Stranger was fate. She may be right. In a throwaway line, Nori’s friend Poppy reminds her that she once nursed a baby eagle back to health. Eagles are messengers of the Valar. (Recall that eagles save Gandalf from Saruman and rescue Frodo and Sam from Mount Doom.)

Nori’s kindness toward the eagle may have signaled to the Valar that she would watch over the wizard when he arrived on Middle-earth and help him see that he was a force of good, not evil.

Why did the three witches think the Stranger was Sauron?

The show doesn’t really explain why these three zealots from the east know so much about magic or how they even heard about the Stranger. But they seem convinced he’s Sauron returned.

They’re not totally off-base. The Valar created a class of beings called the Maiar to shape the world. Technically, the the istari are Maiar, as is Sauron. The wizards’ powers are more limited than Sauron’s, but they are all magical.

What’s up with the magical staff?

Tolkien’s wizards carry staffs that help them wield their magic. Though the Stranger lands on Middle-earth without such an instrument, he truly comes into his power when he takes a staff from one of the witches and banishes all three zealots back to the dark using its power. The tool, however, disappears as well. It’s likely we’ll see this wizard gain his own staff in season 2.

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