Lord of the Rings: What Is an Istar?

Here's what you need to know about Istari and their history in Middle-earth.

The Nomad (Edith Poor), The Dweller (Bridie Sisson), and The Ascetic (Kali Kopae) surround The Stranger (Daniel Weyman) in the woods
Photo: Ben Rothstein/Prime Video

This Lord of the Rings article contains spoilers for The Rings of Power.

In The Rings of Power season finale, the young Harfoot Nori (Markella Kavenagh) and the Stranger (Daniel Weyman) are reunited. She and her Harfoot clan arrive in the Greenwood just in time to save him from the three evil mystics who believe the Stranger is Sauron. The sisters help him regain some memories and his ability to speak before realizing much too late that the Stranger is not their Dark Lord at all, but rather “the other, the Istar.”

The Stranger translates Istar as “the wise one” or “wizard,” and that is essentially what an Istar is. Istari are Maiar spirits sent to Middle-earth to aid the denizens of Middle-earth in the fight against Sauron. However, there are rules to what they can and can’t do. They are not allowed to challenge Sauron directly nor can they use their powers to rule over Middle-earth. Instead, they can only use their abilities and intelligence to help the other races unite and defeat Sauron on their own.

Five Istari were sent to Middle-earth. Saruman the White arrived first, is the leader of the Istari, and head of the White Council that opposed Sauron until he eventually betrays his fellow wizards and Middle-earth by aligning with the Dark Lord. Gandalf the Grey, whom many Lord of the Rings fans know and love from J.R.R. Tolkien‘s books as well as Peter Jackson’s film trilogies, is the only Istar to also become a ringbearer, and eventually becomes the leader of the Istari after uncovering Saruman’s betrayal. Radagast the Brown protects nature and generally tries to avoid conflict. Alatar and Pallando, the Blue Wizards, traveled far east to the land of Rhûn with Saruman to try and influence the people to fight against Sauron, but not much is known of their fate after Saruman returned west without them.

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Despite their appearance as old men, the Istari are far from frail beings. They possess magical powers greater than those of the Elves, using staffs to channel their power in times of need. Their powers include casting illusions, summoning lightning and firebolts, healing others, telekinesis, and even controlling the minds of other beings. Their staffs weren’t required for all magic use, but their powers do have limits without them. However, despite all of these fantastic abilities, the Istari were encouraged to only use their powers in times of crisis, instead relying on their intelligence and wisdom to overcome most challenges. 

Physical combat was also only to be used as a last resort by the Istari, even though they were incredibly skilled at hand-to-hand combat and weaponry. Gandalf was one of the few wizards to engage regularly in combat and fought alongside the Elves, Men, Dwarves, and Hobbits in many of the great battles of Middle-earth.

Even though the Istari can be killed, as evidenced by Gandalf’s run-in with a Balrog in The Fellowship of the Ring, they can also be brought back to life by the Valar (God-like immortal beings that are said to rule over Middle-earth). Gandalf was resurrected because the Istar’s task – helping the people of Middle-earth stop Sauron – was not yet complete. 

It’s unclear when exactly the Istar came to Middle-earth. In Unfinished Tales, Tolkien wrote that the Istar didn’t appear in Middle-earth until the Third Age, but in The Peoples of Middle-earth, he changed his mind and suggested the Blue Wizards began their mission in the Second Age after the forging of the One Ring. With the Stranger’s reveal in the season finale, The Rings of Power seems to be borrowing from the latter origin story.

While it’s not yet confirmed which of the five Istar the Stranger is, his peculiar arrival inside a meteor and his unique powers make more sense now (Gandalf is no stranger to dramatic entrances after all), and it will be interesting to see what he and Nori discover about his identity in season 2.

The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power is streaming now on Amazon Prime Video.

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