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I was reading Unfinished Tales, and I was reading the part about the Istari and came across this.

The essay on the Istari just cited thus tells much about them and their origin that does not appear in The Lord of the Rings (and also contains some incidental remarks of great interest about the Valar, their continuing concern for Middle-earth, and their recognition of an ancient error, which can not be discussed here)

To what exactly is this ancient error referring to?

Was it letting Sauron stay in Middle-earth after the War of Wrath?

Not defeating Melkor a lot sooner than they did, which allowed his evil to spread?

Or not helping heal Middle-earth after the War of Wrath?

2 Answers 2

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D, none of the above

The ancient error is touched on slightly earlier in the chapter, clarifying that they mean appearing in forms of majesty amongst the Children of Iluvatar as opposed to using secrecy (the Istari)

And this the Valar did, desiring to amend the errors of old, especially that they had attempted to guard and seclude the Eldar by their own might and glory fully revealed; whereas now their emissaries were forbidden to reveal themselves in forms of majesty, or to seek to rule the wills of Men and Elves by open display of power, but coming in shapes weak and humble were bidden to advise and persuade Men and Elves to good, and to seek to unite in love and understanding all those whom Sauron, should he come again, would endeavour to dominate and corrupt.
Unfinished Tales - Part IV, II: The Istari

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  • Gandalf appeared to play a little fast and loose with this restriction when he confronted Bilbo over the Ring. His statement "Then you shall see Gandalf the Grey uncloaked." is at least threatening not to keep his nature secret and he clearly stopped fully hiding his power. Commented Jan 31, 2018 at 7:43
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    @ForrestVenable, debatable. I don't see it as Gandalf revealing his majesty as opposed to his "mysteriousness", also the grave matter of the ring was slightly more serious, as that was the key to the Istari success.
    – Edlothiad
    Commented Jan 31, 2018 at 7:44
  • He gets described in similar terms as the Balrog, who has no reason to hide his power. scifi.stackexchange.com/questions/13403/… Commented Jan 31, 2018 at 7:48
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    @ForrestVenable I'm aware of Gandalf's descriptions, nor am I denying his ability to rise to a level of his former "power"/"majesty". I however fail to see the relevance of the comment. Gandalf was capable of expressing his power, he was however bidden to advise and persuade, and had indeed come in a weak and humble shape. His power (to some extent) still existed. I, however, believe that answer is hyperbolic with regard to the passages, Gandalf seeming to grow is not the same as him certainly growing, one must remember this is Frodo recounting the situations at a later time.
    – Edlothiad
    Commented Jan 31, 2018 at 7:57
  • I would still put the unchaining of Melkor high up on the list.
    – Spencer
    Commented Apr 8, 2018 at 22:17
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D, none of the above, appendix:

Further error was torturing the physical world that they, the Valar and Maiar, built using raw materials supplied by Eru, so badly during the War of Wrath that Beleriand, home to many Elves, Dwarves, and Men, sank beneath the waves. Revealing themselves in forms of majesty (see Unfinished Tales: The Istari) so much as to cause such a catastrophe (no "eu") was another aspect of the ancient error they wished to avoid repeating.

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