In our last episode with the Blue Wizards, we finally put all of the very scattered, dissonant pieces together. We explore this pair of characters' roles in Middle-earth, both as villains and as heroes. We also consider the major adjustment Tolkien made at the end of his life that could make their appearance in the "Rings of Power" show a real possibility.
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Hi. Welcome to “The Halfling.” I’m your host, Jaron Pak, and this is Episode 21: The Waffling Blue Wizards.
In the last two episodes we laid the groundwork for the two sea-blue wizards. We went over what it means to be an uppercase “W” wizard in Middle-earth and how they weren’t sorcerers or conjurers of cheap tricks. They were an elite crew of immortal Maiar who were put into incarnate bodies and sent to help the Free Peoples of the World resist the growing threat of Sauron.
While there isn’t a ton of information out there on the Blue Wizards, we did manage to dig up some juicy chunks of text that dug into how they were chosen to be one of the Five Istari — and we even saw that they may have been involved in a female-led, proto-wizard group called the Guardians who were assigned to protect the newly awakened Elves early in Middle-earth history.
All of that is fun stuff, but it really was just background for what we’re going to cover today. This is it, guys. This is the point where we actually hear what the Blue Wizards do. What part did Alatar and Pallando play in Tolkien’s stories? After all, we know that he didn’t just make up characters for no reason. And, as is clearly the case with the Blue Wizards, he didn’t just make them up to fix a plot point or move the story forward. In fact, when it comes to the the Blues, they literally have no impact on the story itself.
So, why are they in there, then? Let’s start to answer that question by heading over to “Unfinished Tales.” In the Istari essay that I’ve mentioned ad nauseum at this point, it literally sums up the Blue Wizards’ collective resume by saying, “Curunír was the eldest and came first, and after him came Mithrandir and Radagast, and others of the Istari who went into the East of Middle-earth, and do not come into these tales.” Yeah. Remember, Cúrunir is Saruman and Mithrandir is Gandalf. Radagast we know. So, they show up and we know what happens. And the other Istari? Yeah, they head east and aren’t involved. Full stop.
Fortunately, another segmented portion of Tolkien’s Istari notes gives us a little more about what they actual do. It reads, “Of the Blue little was know in the West, and they had no names save Ithryn Luin ‘the Blue Wizards’; for they passed into the East with Curunír, but they never returned, and whether they remained in the East, pursuing there the purposes for which they were sent; or perished; or as some hold were ensnared by Sauron and became his servants, is not now known. But none of these chances were impossible to be; for strange indeed though this may seem, the Istari, being clad in bodies of Middle-earth, might even as Men and Elves fall away from their purposes, and do evil, forgetting the good in the search for power to effect it.”
Pretty foreboding words for two characters whose Middle-earth fate swung wildly between two extremes over the course of Tolkien’s life. At least we get a bit more about what they did, though. In this version, we hear that they traveled into the Eastern regions of the continent with Saruman, which, say what now? So, the Wizard that ends up breaking bad and doing a complete 180 on his spiritually charged, world-saving commitments spends a bunch of time traveling with these guys? That’s not a good sign.
Then we hear that, while Saruman obviously comes back to the Western areas of Middle-earth, we just don’t ever see the Blue Wizards again. At least this time around, Tolkien spends some time actually guessing at their fate. He points out a few possibilities: 1. They stayed in the East and kept on doing their good, Valar-appointed work. 2. They just perished. Zip. Gone. 3. They’re ensnared by Sauron and become his servants — which, hey, if the Black Riders are that nasty and they’re just Men with super-powered rings, imagine how bad an enslaved Maiar could be. I would just say picture a Balrog — because they’re basically Maiar that turned to the Dark Side, but the truth is, we don’t ever hear of Sauron controlling one of them. If the Blue Wizards were enslaved by Sauron, that would mean that they would probably be a lot more like a Balrog — with the obvious exception that they’re in physical bodies.
Anyway, Tolkien ends with a little reminder that any of these are possible. He specifically highlight the fact that Wizards can stray from their path and do evil things, too.
Earlier in his writings, Tolkien clearly favored this darker ending for the Blue Wizards. In fact, in a letter in 1958 — just a few years after “The Return of the King” was published — Tolkien went into a little more detail about the possibly treacherous path that the mysterious wanderers may have taken. Now, at this early point he still didn’t even know what color these guys were. They were just the five guys that Saruman references in “The Two Towers.” He even explained that, at the time, he didn’t know much about them since they didn’t concern the story, which focused on the North West of Middle-earth. Okay. But then he goes and throws this foreboding line into the letter that “I think they went as emissaries to distant regions, East and South, far out of Númenórean range: missionaries to ‘enemy-occupied’ lands, as it were. What success they had I do not know; but I fear that they failed, as Saruman did, though doubtless in different ways; and I suspect they were founders or beginners of secret cults of ‘magic’ traditions that outlasted the fall of Sauron.” Yeah. Not good. So, in his early vision of the Blue Wizards, Tolkien basically thought they headed into the East and South in this case, to help the peoples — mostly Men and probably some Dwarves — who lived out that-a-way. He specifically refers to them as missionaries going to enemy-occupied lands. So, while Gandalf, Saruman, and Radagast help free people organize and resist the encroaching power of Sauron in the West, these guys are going into the belly of the beast. They’re traveling into places where Sauron is already top-dog.
And then we hear that, while these intentions seem heroic and epic, they probably failed. Tolkien feared — I love how he “fears” something that he’s literally creating it in that moment. It’s so Tolkien — anyway, he fears that they started secret cults and magic traditions. He even adds that these probably last longer than Sauron, who is defeated at the end of the Third Age. This leaves it wide open to assume that there could be more Maiar-driven evil dramatics after “The Lord of the Rings.” And there are even hints of that kind of stuff in the sequel to the trilogy that Tolkien started and never finished — but more on that fascinating piece of undeveloped literature in another episode.
Anyway, adding fuel to the “Blue Wizards are bad” fire is the fact that Tolkien repeatedly points out that only one of the Istari ultimately returns to Valinor away in the West — and that’s obviously Gandalf. We see him sail off in a ship with Frodo …and that’s it. It doesn’t state this for a fact, but this lack of a trip back heavily implies that the Blue Wizards somehow fail — or at least perish in their physical forms.
I do want to point out that this doesn’t mean they necessarily are evil. According to this reading, if only Gandalf returns, than even Radagast doesn’t go back in his physical form. Presumably, he falls short of his goal in this version of the narrative, but, based on everything I’ve ever seen, there’s no suggestion that he’s evil. Instead, it’s implied that he gets distracted from his goal and fails his mission.
Anyway, whether it’s through death, failure, or switching their allegiance and going off the rails entirely, the early version of the Blue Wizards consistently points to some kind of dark doom.
Okay, so that’s it. The Blue Wizards start good. They probably become evil. We never see them again. Very interesting. Thanks, Tolkien!
No. You know there’s more here, right? C’mon. I’ve been hinting at it all along. Besides, there’s still like half of this episode left. That’s because there’s another version of the story. And Tolkien wrote it. Yeah. We’ve got to check this out.
So, it turns out that, later in his life, Tolkien actual started rehabilitating the reputation of his infamously fallen, mysteriously underdeveloped Blue Wizards. In “The Peoples of Middle-earth” book, we get a very late draft of the Blue Wizards, and it turns out that Tolkien made a very real effort to explain how these guys actually succeeded in their original mission. They weren’t just “Sarumans in the East” who had failed in their Wizarding mission or, even worse, become cult leaders and actual sorcerers.
In this version of the events, the Blues actually play a critical role in nothing less than stopping Sauron himself. Tolkien starts this process in a very Tolkienish kind of way — by renaming them (or at least adding to their list of names). He calls them — and I’m gonna butcher this one — Morinehtar and Rómestámo, which mean Darkness-slayer and East-helper, respectively. Yeah, already much cooler.
He adds that “Their task was to circumvent Sauron…” so we’re also getting more strategic here. Remember, in the original thoughts about Wizards, they were largely left to come up with their own plans and strategies. In this more thought out version, they appear to have at least some kind of a backed out, 10,000-foot view strategy.
The reworked version also breaks this “task” of circumvention down into several items. For instance, they apparently help the few tribes of Men in the east who had rebelled from the worship of the original Dark Lord Morgoth, something referred to as “Melkor-worship.” They also stir up rebellion against Sauron’s allies and even try to figure out where Sauron is hiding after he loses the One Ring for the first time — even though they fail on that point. They're also described as causing chaos among the dark East and Tolkien goes so far as to add that “They must have had very great influence on the history of the Second Age and Third Age in weakening and disarraying the forces of the East… who would both in the Second Age and Third Age otherwise have … outnumbered the West.”
Okay, so this is a huge change, right? Instead of Blue Wizards who disappear, fail in their job, and may even end up captured by Sauron, in this version the Blue Wizards are literally described as having a critical, positive influence on the history of the Second and Third Ages. They do everything, from encouraging active rebellions against Sauron to disrupting his loyal followers to trying to find Sauron when he’s in hiding. Just to drive the point home, he adds that if they hadn’t done what they did, the armies attacking Gondor, Rohan, Lothlorien, and the rest of those guys during the War of the Ring would have been far too strong. Remember that massive army outside of Gondor? Yeah, we’re talking more than that.
The other thing worth pointing out — and this is purely me being subjective here — is that this could ultimately mean an upgrade for poor old Radagast. The Brown Wizard apparently doesn’t return to Valinor with Gandalf. But if the Blue Wizards were being rehabilitated, maybe he would have been, too. Maybe he was supposed to fill the role of an “animal whisperer” of sorts, you know? If that were the case, then you’d have some pretty clear roles for each of the Five Wizards. Again, more strategy. You’ve got Saruman, who’s the knowledge guy, the data cruncher, the walking encyclopedia. Then there’s Gandalf, the action man. He’s the executive who gets stuff done. Radagast works with the birds and the beasts — which we see more than once are a real force for good and evil in Middle-earth. And the Blue Wizards, oh I dunno, take on the entire East and South.
Seems logical to me. Of course, once the rubber hits the road, we see that Saruman’s knowledge goes to his head in the worst way possible. Radagast also wanders from the script, and the Blue Wizards may or may not have done so as well. But it’s fun to know that, as he got older, Tolkien was steadily angling toward a more positive view of the Wizards. Saruman is still a bad dude, obviously, but rather than all of the Wizards having those tendencies with the exception of Gandalf, we see a picture of Saruman’s evil being more of the exception to the rule.
The thing I’d love to know is if, at this later point, Tolkien would still agree that Gandalf was the only Wizard to return home. After writing that final version of the Blue Wizards, would he have had them somehow return home successfully? But, alas, that’s one of those things we’ll never get to know.
Okay, the last thing to cover here is how all of this can factor into Amazon’s show — and the answer is, in a lot of different ways. First off, we’ve got the timing issue. Initially, Tolkien explains that the Wizards all first appear around 1000 years into the Third Age. But… in “The Peoples of Middle-earth,” we get a fresh take on the timeline when it says that “The ‘other two’ came much earlier, at the same time probably as Glorfindel, when matters became very dangerous in the Second Age. Glorfindel was sent to aid Elrond and was (though not yet said) pre-eminent in the war in Eriador. But the other two Istari were sent for a different purpose.”
Guess what? That purpose isn’t stated clearly. So, yeah, what we’re seeing is that in his later writings, Tolkien had two Blue Wizards and Glorfinedl arriving in Middle-earth during the time of the “Rings of Power” show.
On top of that, while good ol’ Glorfy focuses on helping Elrond, the Blue Wizards are there for a mysterious, undisclosed purpose. We know that, in most cases, he had them going into the East and possibly the South — areas that “The Rings of Power” are already busily incorporating into their world. If you like the evil version of the story, these guys could show up in these regions with good intentions but ultimately turn to evil. If you like the later readings, though, well, they could play a critical yet unwritten part in the initial wars against Sauron. After all, in an interview with Vanity Fair early in 2022, showrunner Patrick McKay literally said that the driving question behind the production is “Can we come up with the novel Tolkien never wrote and do it as the mega-event series that could only happen now?” While I don’t particularly love the light-hearted approach to writing Middle-earth novels that even Tolkien didn’t do, I do think the Blue Wizards could be a perfect fit for an unwritten yet important part of the story. And if you’re looking for mega-event elements, what better than a Wizard to help get the fireworks going?
Again, this is just me spit-balling at this point, but maybe the old man with the antlers and the man in the fire that we’ve seen in the promotional footage are both wizards. Maybe they’re a pair of friendly Maiar who have arrived in the East and South of Middle-earth …maybe, just maybe. If that turns out to be true, you heard it here first. If not, well, we’ll leave a more fleshed out version of the story of the Blues for another day.
Alright. That’s it for now. Until next time, friends.