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The 5 known Istari wizards all had different colors (Saruman the White, Gandalf the Gray, Radagast the Brown and two blue ones, with the later changes of Gandalf to white and Saruman to 'many colors').

Is there a (preferably in-universe) explanation for the reason/symbolism behind the specific colors? The Wikia article linked above doesn't list any.

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I always assumed that Radagast was the Brown, because he was kind of a tree-hugger. – Sam Oct 19 '11 at 15:47
I just want to point out how you contradict yourself by saying they all had different colors, but there were 2 blue ones. – Zikato Oct 19 at 13:28

4 Answers 4

up vote 27 down vote accepted

I found the "Valar color alignment theory" intriguing, so I decided to do some research (it helps to have a PDF version of the professor's works). Unfortunately, the Silmarillion does not corroborate and even contradicts this theory.

For example, the color grey is not associated with Manwe or Varda anywhere in the Canon, but with other Valar such as Nienna:

And Nienna arose and went up onto Ezellohar, and cast back her grey hood, and with her tears washed away the defilements of Ungoliant;

and Estë:

Estë the gentle, healer of hurts and of weariness, is his [Irmo] spouse. Grey is her raiment; and rest is her gift.

As for the color white, the only passages where this color is mentioned in association with the Valar is:

At times he [Ulmo] will come unseen to the shores of Middle-earth, or pass far inland up firths of the sea, and there make music upon his great horns, the Ulumuri, that are wrought of white shell;

He [Orome] is a hunter of monsters and fell beasts, and he delights in horses and in hounds; and all trees he loves, for which reason he is called Aldaron, and by the Sindar Tauron, the Lord of Forests. Nahar is the name of his horse, white in the sun, and shining silver at night.

Telperion [created by Yavanna] was the elder of the trees and came first to full stature and to bloom; and that first hour in which he shone, the white glimmer of a silver dawn, the Valar reckoned not into the tale of hours, but named it the Opening Hour, and counted from it the ages of their reign in Valinor. (also by Yavanna: Nimloth, the White Tree of Númenor)

A reference to white that has "conflicting interests" as it refers to snow (of which Iluvatar himself said it was the joining of the works of Ulmo and Aule):

Taniquetil the Elves name that holy mountain, and Oiolossë Everlasting Whiteness, and Elerrina Crowned with Stars, and many names beside;

As for the color blue, there are references to Manwe and Varda, but not to Orome:

His raiment is blue, and blue is the fire of his eyes, and his sceptre is of sapphire, which the Noldor wrought for him;

It is told that even as Varda ended her labours, and they were long, when first Menelmacar strode up the sky and the blue fire of Helluin flickered in the mists above the borders of the world, in that hour the Children of the Earth awoke, the Firstborn of Ilúvatar

There are no references to brown in the Silmarillion.

The only color association that the Silmarillion somewhat validates is therefore Gandalf by his association with Nienna - it is stated she wore a grey hood. Given that Gandalf was her student, this might have some relevance to his title.

So I did some further digging, and found another possible relation - the etymology of the color names in Quenya and Sindarin:

White: from the root *glân, (S and Q) originally meaning pure. However, I don't believe the word pure implies Saruman (who's original name Curunir translates as cunning) but to the White Council he preceded. The White Council was formed to challenge Dol Guldur, the lair (dol) of the Necromancer (guldur), literally "perverted or evil knowledge". It therefore stands to reason that the name White Council was chosen not for the color, but the implied purity of knowledge protected by that council.

Grey: *mith(S), Gandalf was called Mithrandir, Grey Pilgrim, by the Eldar.

Blue: The Blue Wizards Pallando and Alatar are called the Ithryn Luin because it is said they arrived in Middle-earth by boat dressed in sea-blue (luin). However, luin stems from lhun, which also means boat.

Brown: no translation for Radagast is provided by Tolkien. However, a possible root for the name may be the Old English rudugást, meaning brown spirit.

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I always assumed that Gandalf was known as Mithrandir because he wore grey, and not the other way around. – Adele C Dec 22 '11 at 16:42
As mentioned, Gandalf's color is the only one that can be linked to a Vala he was associated with in some way: Nienna. I just added the etymology for completeness. – Gulhir The Grey Dec 22 '11 at 17:45

An in-universe reason for the colors may be that each Istari's color reflect which Vala he was aligned with.

Saruman - Aulë

Gandalf - Manwë

Radagast - Yavanna

Alatar - Oromë

Pallando - Oromë

This theory is supported by the fact that both Alatar and Pallando (the two Blue Wizards) are aligned with the same Vala.

Another reason (and my personal interpertaion when I read the book) could be that the colors had to do with rank (either official or symbolic). The three wizards featured in the Lord of the Rings trilogy are Saruman the White, Gandalf the Grey, and Radagast the Brown. It could be argued that these colors be ranked based on their "purity" and therefore relative power. When Saruman declared himself as Saruman of Many Colors, he was claiming to have ascended beyond White which characterized his arrogance. Similarly, when Eru intervened to restore Gandalf's life, Gandalf was "promoted" to White. Gandalf the White later claims that he is "Saruman as he should have been".

I suspect that The Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales may have more detail on this subject.

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"when Eru intervened to restore Gandalf's life" - that's interesting, I always assumed that the Valar resurrected G, but now that I think about it, they probably didn't have power over life and death. – Raven13 Oct 19 '11 at 16:23
@Raven13 - From the reference on wikipedia: In Letters, #156, pp 202–3, Tolkien clearly implies that the 'Authority' who sent Gandalf back was above the Valar (who are bound by Arda's space and time, while Gandalf went beyond time). Tolkien clearly intends this as an example of Eru intervening to change the course of the world. – Origami Robot Oct 19 '11 at 18:00
There's certainly not a lot more detail there. A little, but not a lot. – Sean McMillan Oct 20 '11 at 13:47
The mapping seems quite strange - why would Aule 'the smith' and creator of dwarves be associated with white? Why would Manwe, lord of skies and described as dressed in blue, cause the associated wizard to be grey? – Peteris Aug 21 '14 at 9:41
Excuse my ignorance, but wasn't Gandalf aligned with Nienna? – Django Reinhardt Aug 21 '14 at 17:40

I think their color has less to do with Valar and more with their work in Middleearth.

  • Saruman is white because he's the head of the order - white being the "pure" color. See e.g. roman-catholic Pope. Later it's revealed that his cloak is actually multicolored, i.e. that he has fallen and betrayed, that he is a liar.

  • Gandalf's grey to me symbolizes his humility (grey can be seen as an old and dirty white) and also characterizes him as a portent of bad tidings (Láthspell), grey being the color of storm clouds. Later he of course acquires the white of rebirth, purity and possibly as a leader of Istari.

  • Radagast's brown shows his connection with earth and things living and growing in Arda.

  • Alatar and Pallando - I don't know, but perhaps it's because of their vanishing in the distant lands, in "blue yonder" (e.g. remote mountains look bluish).

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You had me until Alatar and Pallando. – Django Reinhardt Aug 21 '14 at 17:37

Actually the only Istari whose original color can be said to derive from his time as a Maiar, is Gandalf. It is flashed on the color he wore when the Istari were being chosen.

From "Unfinished Tales":

But two only came forward: Curumo, who was chosen by Aulë, and Alatar, who was sent by Oromë. Then Manwë asked, where was Olórin? And Olórin, who was clad in grey, and having just entered from a journey had seated himself at the edge of the council, asked what Manwë would have of him. Manwë replied that he wished Olórin to go as the third messenger to Middle-earth...

There may be another reason though. It could be because ash is grey in color. And so the grey of his robes is analogous to ash clothing the fire he has within him. As stated from this passage in "Unfinished Tales":

Warm and eager was his spirit (and it was enhanced by the ring Narya), for he was the Enemy of Sauron, opposing the fire that devours and wastes with the fire that kindles, and succours in wanhope and distress; but his joy, and his swift wrath, were veiled in garments grey as ash, so that only those that knew him well glimpsed the fire that was within.

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