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In the Middle-earth universe, there are a handful of wizards who work in various ways to fight evil. Out of universe, we know these wizards to be Istari, Maia who are in Middle-earth working to defeat Sauron, and we know this thanks to The Silmarillion which explains the origins of Middle-earth.

In universe though, I'd expect this sort of knowledge to be pretty rare. Do we know how rare it is? Who in Middle-earth knows that these wizards are Istari, and the ramifications of this? I'm not looking for a list of specific individuals here, I seek more a list of groups of people.

For example, I'd expect the Noldor who remain in Middle-earth to know what's up with the Istari, since it's part of their personal past. But do any dwarves know? Do any humans? What about the Rohan's royalty? The Stewards of Gondor?

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My guess is that at least the stewards of Gondor and the kings of Rohan are NOT aware of the true purpose of the Istari (and possibly, not even that they are Maia). Otherwise, why would they scorn Gandalf and call him "stormcrow" if they knew he was some sort of divine special agent sent by Eru himself to help defeat the biggest evil on Middle-earth? – Andres F. Dec 16 '13 at 19:39
The kings of Rohan had no idea. There's a somewhat dismissive statement in LotR that they didn't remember their own history of 400-500 years ago. (Sorry I can't recall exact quote.) Gondor was more familiar with the past but even here there's little evidence that they knew what the Istari were. Perhaps Denethor, or earlier stewards, armed with the palantir had some inkling. – TheMathemagician Dec 17 '13 at 11:49
up vote 40 down vote accepted

The only people (and yes, it's individuals, not groups) who are recorded as having known were Círdan, Elrond and Galadriel; from Rings of Power:

Even as the first shadows were felt in Mirkwood there appeared in the west of Middle-earth the Istari, whom Men called the Wizards. None knew at that time whence they were, save Círdan of the Havens, and only to Elrond and to Galadriel did he reveal that they came over the Sea.

The Istari essay in Unfinished Tales establishes that it was quite some time before Círdan even told the other two:

For they came from over the Sea out of the Uttermost West; though this was for long known only to Círdan, Guardian of the Third Ring, master of the Grey Havens, who saw their landings upon the western shores.

The name "Olórin" was, however, well-known in Gondor, per Faramir's statement in the Two Towers:

'Mithrandir we called him in elf-fashion,' said Faramir, 'and he was content. Many are my names in many countries, he said. Mithrandir among the Elves; Tharkun to the Dwarves; Olórin I was in my youth in the West that is forgotten, in the South Incanus; in the North Gandalf; to the East I go not.'

Although Tolkien notes that '"The West" here plainly means the Far West beyond the Sea, not part of Middle-earth; the name Olórin is of High-Elven form', it is not established whether or not those in Gondor had made the inevitable connection.

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Aragorn seems to understand who Gandalf is - at least as well as a mortal man can. – TheMathemagician Dec 17 '13 at 11:53

Like Jimmy Shelter said, Cirdan, Elrond and Galadriel knew.

Since Sauron himself is a Maia, he would know about the Istari's origin as well. Apart from them, the books do not make clear if anybody else knows. However, a few others, if not knowing who or what Gandalf was exactly at least probably knew that he was not man or elf:

  • Glorfindel. Not only did he slay a Balrog (who, according to some theories, might have been a fallen Maia) in the first age and then return to Middle-Earth again via the Undying lands; no, Gandalf had this to say about him when at the Council of Elrond:

In Rivendell there live still some of his chief foes: the Elven-wise, lords of the Eldar from beyond the furthest seas. They do not fear the Ringwraiths, for those who have dwelt in the Blessed Realm live at once in both worlds, and against both the Seen and the Unseen they have great power.

So he likely knew too.

  • Aragorn. He knows the lore very well and since Luthien - one of his ancestors - was a Sindarin elf whose mother was Melian the Maia an Aragorn knows the story of Beren and Luthien well and furthermore has for a long time been a close friend of Gandalf, he most likely knows about the Istari's origins.

  • Tom Bombandil. 'Nough said.

  • Treebeard. He calls the White Wizard "Young Master Gandalf" in TTT and was the oldest living thing in Middle-Earth (apart from Bombandil). He is probably the most unlikely from this list to know about the origins of the Istari since the Ents never had any dealing with the Valar or Maia. It might as well be that Treebeard never cared about who Gandalf really was and where he came from.

  • The Hobbits - at least Merry and Pippin - certainly did not know. At one moment (in TTT or RotR) Pippin (or Merry? difficult to hold those 2 apart) asked himself how old Gandalf actually was and where he came from. However, he never gets to ask.

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Good call on Glorfindel; one of Tolkien's theories that he experimented with was that Glorfindel returned to Middle-earth with the Istari, so he'd certainly know. I'm not too sure about Aragorn; I don't think a Man would fully understand exactly what a Maia was, and what being one meant, but that's personal opinion. – user8719 Dec 17 '13 at 16:24
True, Aragorn might not have understood it completely - but he most likely knew that Gandalf was some sort of divine being and not just an extremely powerful man or elf. – mort Dec 17 '13 at 16:54
Treebeard can definitely be said to not know exactly who Gandalf is; see Letter 153: "He does not know what 'wizards' are, or whence they came..." – user8719 Jan 3 '14 at 8:22

To further confirm what @DarthSatan said, another source from Unfinished Tales (Part II, "The Istari") explicitly says:

"...they belonged solely to the Third Age and then departed, and none save maybe Elrond, Círdan and Galadriel discovered of what kind they were or whence they came"

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