The world of Arda is full of fascinating characters and creatures not found in other tales or mythologies or, in any case, not in the same form J. R. R. Tolkien envisioned them in his books. Owing to a well-developed system of languages, it was possible for the Professor to use precise words in his invented tongues, for example in Quenya or Sindarin, to name those characters whose identities it was not always possible to render accurately in English. In a letter Tolkien mused that he was “under the difficulty of finding English names for mythological creatures with other names”. He did it so as not to shower his readers with “a string of Elvish names”, but some interpretations were false, according to Tolkien himself. One of the most interesting examples of this is Istari or the Wizards.

Tolkien wrote in his letters and in the essay on Istari in The Unfinished Tales that he was not happy with the word “wizards” to refer to these characters. Why is that? The Quenya word Istari (singular Istar) means literally “those who know”. Its Sindarin equivalent Ithryn (singular Ithron) is interpreted as “the wise ones”, “those with knowledge”. In Tolkien’s Legendarium the characters who went under these names were incarnate beings (or angels, as Tolkien explains to make their nature clearer) who possessed great knowledge and wisdom. As it was mentioned above, Tolkien was not happy with the word “wizard” he had to use as a translation for the Elvish words. But, at the same time, it was also rather suitable. A look into the story of the word will help us see why.

“Wizard” is a rather old word, dating as far back as the beginning of XV century. It came from the word wys — “wise” and contains a noun-forming suffix  -ard. In early XV century the word was used in reference to sages or philosophers, but later, as the distinction between philosophy and magic was not very clear in Middle Ages, it also came to mean “someone with magic powers”.

This story explains the reasons why Tolkien found the word “wizard” unsuitable for his Istari on the one hand, but on the other hand felt that it was better than some other notions of a similar kind. In the minds of most readers “wizard” has a clearly magical connotation, as “someone with magic powers” is the sense the word is usually used in in tales, stories and books. This is absolutely not appropriate for Istari, because they were not of a magical kind, but belonged to the Maiar — angelic beings of a very high order, sent by the Valar from Aman to carefully oppose the ever-growing threat of Sauron. One of the special distinctions of Istari was their great wisdom as well as knowledge of the world history and nature. Though in their bodies of old men some of the powers of these Maiar were dimmed, being weighed down by the cares of the world a physical body is prone to, and they had to remember or learn some things anew when they appeared in Middle-earth, their wisdom and knowledge were still far greater than its most inhabitants had.

The suitability of the term “wizard” for Istari is explained first by the word’s clear distinction from other magician types as well as by its connection with “wise”. First of all, a wizard is clearly different from such notions as a sorcerer, a magus, an enchanter, a magician or a necromancer. All of these notions imply having supernatural abilities that can be used for evil purposes. This is a very negative thing in Tolkien. If he used any magical words to speak about supernatural abilities or characters that possessed them, it was usually about dark powers or evil purposes. For example, Sauron is called “sorcerer” in The Silmarillion and Grima Wormtongue refers to Galadriel as the Sorceress of the Golden Wood not without fear and mistrust — the view that seems to be shared by many in Rohan.

The connection of “wizard” with “wise” is another reason which makes the word suitable for Istari: it explains their nature accurately, as they are very much like sages. With the Maiar’s great knowledge and wisdom they were sent to Middle-earth to teach, advise, instruct, but do so subtly, without forcing or dominating the wills of others. Istari‘s shapes of old men also veiled their power as, being the Valar’s emissaries, they were forbidden to display it openly and in full. Out of the five Istari known to have arrived in Middle-earth, Gandalf manages this task better than the other four. As perceived by Círdan, he had the greatest power, though he was lesser in stature, and it was Gandalf who was able to use his wisdom in a good and careful way to everyone else’s advantage  — the art that he possessed when he still dwelt in Valinor and was known as Olórin:

[…] for though he loved the Elves, he walked among them unseen, or in form as one of them, and they did not know whence came the fair visions or the promptings of wisdom that he put into their hearts.

(Silmarillion, p. 22)

Nothing changed when he became Gandalf in Middle-earth. The wizard never sought power or dominion, but shared his knowledge joyfully and gladly, without asking for anything in return. He had a genuine interest in the inhabitants of Middle-earth, especially in the Hobbits, and he proved more far-sighted than many of the wise. In this he is a direct opposite to Saruman. Being originally considered the most powerful of his order, Saruman fell low and did so nastily, having become vain, horribly corrupted by desire for power and mastery over others.

Even though Tolkien did not especially like using the term “wizard” for his Istari, it describes them well as the ones possessing great wisdom and knowledge, thus pointing at their nature and also illustrating the usage of the word “wizard” in its early and now obsolete sense.

Works consulted:

  1. J. R. R. Tolkien – The Silmarillion (edited by Christopher Tolkien); HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 1999.
  2. J. R. R. Tolkien – Unfinished Tales of Númenor and Middle-earth (edited by Christopher Tolkien); HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 1998.
  3. H. Carpenter – The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien; with the assistance of Christopher Tolkien; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2012 (Kindle edition).
  4. Online Etymology Dictionary

Featured image: Ivan Shishkin – The Forest Clearing (Wikimedia Commons)

8 thoughts on “Those who know.

  1. The word “wizard” is never used by an Elf, as far as I can recall. I think it’s a convenient handle for us mortals, in case we ever start wondering why those guys have been around for generations. There must be some magic involved, and perhaps mortals probing too deeply into the source is undesirable.

  2. A great post as always Olga, thoroughly researched and knitted together wonderfully.

    I love how Istari translates to ‘those who know’, it’s a very clever design and works far better than simply ‘wizard’.

    “In early XV century the word was used in reference to sages or philosophers, but later, as the distinction between philosophy and magic was not very distinct in Middle Ages, it also came to mean “someone with magic powers”.” – I absolutely loved this section of your essay, even now in modern times we have lost the root meaning of the word ‘wizard’ and there are few outside the circle of history fans that think of wizards as wise men/sages. Most people immediately conjure up images of “someone with magic powers.”.

    1. Thank you so much, Josh!
      It was really interesting to look into the nature of this word and see how it works on the plane totally different from that we’re used to seeing it at. No wonder ‘wizard’ can also be used to refer to someone who has great skills in a certain sphere.
      I was fascinated to discover it! I remembered that being clever in the Middle Ages could label a person with a witch/wizard-tag, but I didn’t know that the word was so closely connected with it.

  3. Fantastic post! I love learnign more about the Istari, even things that are not secrets.
    It’s interetign that Tolkien didn’t like the word ‘Wizard’ to describe the Istari, but in the end he used it anyway. Didn’t he do the same with the word ‘Gnomes’? Only this one he had to finally drop because the usual meaning was too strong to be suplanted by his (more philological) use.

    Thanks so much for another wonderful post.

    1. Thank you!
      I guess he had no other alternative. Tolkien wished to use English translations for his Elvish words to make it easier for the general reader to read the book, and ‘wizard’ seems more suitable than many other words.
      Indeed! Now, when the Gnomes —> Noldor change has been mentioned not for the first time, I want to look deeper into the matter. Hope an essay will come out of this.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.