50

It is obvious that the common Hobbits (and men) knew nothing of the true nature of the Istari. When the Istari arrived in Middle-earth they were considered "strange elves" (as a matter of fact, Gandalf means "staff elf") or "strange men", wise, long-lived and mysterious, but the treatment that Barliman Butterbur or Denethor gave to Gandalf would have been very different from that which he actually received had it been known that he was a Maia.

But it is clear from the book that Frodo knew the true nature of Gandalf and Saruman. When the Scourging of the Shire, he refers to Saruman as:

someone of a race against which we would never have dared to raise our hand.

Is there any passage from Tolkien's books, or other writings, that allows us to know when this was revealed to Frodo (or Bilbo)?

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    What makes you think he didn't just consider wizards a "race" unto themselves,without knowing why they were as they were? – Zeiss Ikon Aug 14 at 13:30
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    @ZeissIkon Frodo is ostensibly the narrator of most of what happened in LoTR, so in the Red Book of the Westmarch he wrote down both the Silmarillion's mention of Olórin, as well as Gandalf's own statement that he was once called Olórin "in his youth in the West". – Spencer Aug 14 at 13:40
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    @BinaryWorrier But hobbits sometimes faced men violently in the past. In the same years of the Lord of the Rings, Bree's hobbits and men drove out the evil southern men. – Ginasius Aug 14 at 13:41
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    Note also the passage in RotK where Pippin suddenly wonders how much older Gandalf is than Denethor, and where he came from. – Daniel Roseman Aug 14 at 14:06
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    As far as I can recall, it's not 100% clear that Frodo had any knowledge of Maiar at all (beyond the fact that powerful beings like Sauron existed). So Frodo may not have even known that there was an order of beings like the Maiar to which wizards could belong. Bilbo probably did from studying at Rivendell after he left the Shire. – Ben Aug 15 at 1:27
100

It is unclear whether anyone even knew Gandalf was a Maia

...save Elrond, Círdan, and Galadriel themselves.


Word of God

Tolkien says this in the Unfinished Tales:

Wizard is a translation of Quenya Istar: one of the members of an "order" (as they call it), claiming to possess, and exhibiting, eminent knowledge of the history and nature the World. The translation (through suitable in its relation to "wise" and other ancient words of knowing, similar to that of istar in Quenya) is not perhaps happy, since Heren Istarion or "Order of Wizards" was quite distinct from "wizards" and "magicians" of later legend; 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.

Unfinished Tales, Part II, The Istari

Which would make sense. The Istari came in secret to Middle-earth, and no one (save the aforementioned trio) found out about that. And you may wonder how these three found out, when the Istari didn't tell anyone about their past.

  • Círdan

    The easiest to explain. He's the guy who's in charge of the Grey Havens, and is one of the wisest (and oldest) of the Elves remaining in Middle-earth. It's clear Círdan saw what Gandalf was, as he gives him Narya, one of the 3 Elven Rings – themselves being 3 out of the 20 Rings of Power – when Gandalf first arrives in Middle-earth (which is in itself a tell-tale sign of where he came from).

    "Take this ring, Master, for your labours will be heavy; but it will support you in the weariness that you have taken upon yourself. For this is the Ring of Fire, and with it you may rekindle hearts in a world that grows chill. But as for me, my heart is with the Sea, and I will dwell by the grey shores until the last ship sails. I will await you."

    The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Appendix B

  • Elrond

    Another one of the wisest Elves in Middle-earth, he's also the son of Eärendil, the only Half-Elven at that time ever to be admitted into Valinor. He's also been around for 3 Ages, albeit only for a little while having been born near the end of the First Age. He's also the bearer of Vilya, one of the 3 Elven Rings.

  • Galadriel

    Similar to Elrond, and Cirdan, Galadriel has lived in Middle-earth for 3 Ages, and she's far older than Elrond. The bearer of Nenya, and also knew what a Maia was - she was friends with Melian, the wife of Thingol who was a Maia.

So how did Elrond and Galadriel find out?

Elrond and Galadriel did not find out Gandalf's race by themselves. They were actually told by Círdan, who as explained above found out only because he was at the Havens when Gandalf arrived. I do feel that they would eventually have pieced things together and realised what Gandalf was. Galadriel herself had probably met a few Maiar during her time in Valinor. After a few centuries of not aging even Elves would begin to wonder what the Istari were, and probably only those who have been around long enough would be able to connect the dots.

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 Silmarillion, Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age


Other beings in Middle-earth

That being said, what about other beings in Middle-earth? Surely they too would have thought it strange to see this bearded old men outliving themselves (Men), or simply hanging around for so long (Elves).

Elves

We aren't told for certain what Elves knew of the Istari. Surely the Elven-wise may have at least guessed what the Istari were, but other Elves would probably not know for certain. Most of the Elves in Middle-earth were of the Sindar; those who had never been to Valinor, either because their ancestors stayed behind with King Thingol or because they were born in the Second or Third Ages. But the Elven-wise, at least may have had some idea.

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.

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, Book II, Chapter I: Many Meetings

  • Glorfindel

    It's likely Glorfindel knew. He returned to Middle-earth after his death in the First Age, and was wise enough to discern what the Istari were, as he himself was an emissary of the Valar. It's never stated however.

Men

It's said that Men mistook Gandalf and the other Istari to be of the Elven-kind. Which is itself incorrect, of course, but further reinforces my stand that no one really knew what the Istari were. Certainly not Barliman Butterbur, and not even Denethor.

Mostly he journeyed unwearingly on foot, leaning on a staff; and so he was called among Men of the North Gandalf, “the Elf of the Wand”. For they deemed him (though in error, as has been said) to be of Elven-kind, since he would at times works wonders among them, loving especially the beauty of fire; and yet such marvels he wrought mostly for mirth and delight, and desired not that any should hold him in awe or take his counsels out of fear.

Unfinished Tales, Part II, The Istari

It may be worthy to note that Gandalf also tells Faramir the name he took in Valinor: Olórin.

'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, Tharkûn to the Dwarves; Olórin I was in my youth in the West that is forgotten, in the South Incánus, in the North Gandalf; to the East I go not.'

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, Book IV, Chapter V: The Window on the West

Sure, Faramir was learned in the lore of Gondor and the history of his people. He's aware of the Blessed Land and those residing there. But he has never seen a Maia before, not unlike Galadriel, Elrond or even Glorfindel. He couldn't have known Gandalf was a Maia; all he knew is that he came from Valinor as a messenger.

Ents

Treebeard isn't too sure either, and himself a very old being. At best we have this quote, where he merely states what he knows about a Wizard: that Gandalf and Saruman are of that order, and that they came from Valinor. We can guess that the other Ents knew as much as Treebeard, if they cared to know.

‘Saru­man is a Wiz­ard,’ an­swered Tree­beard. ‘More than that I can­not say. I do not know the his­tory of Wiz­ards. They ap­peared first after the Great Ships came over the Sea; but if they came with the Ships I never can tell.

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, Book III, Chapter IV: Treebeard

Sauron himself

From The History of Middle-earth, Tolkien suggests that Sauron wasn't entirely sure what the Istari were, just that the Valar sent them as emissaries.

If he thought about the Istari, especially Saruman and Gandalf, he imagined them as emissaries from the Valar, seeking to establish their lost power again and 'colonize' Middle-earth, as a mere effort of defeated imperialists (without knowledge or sanction of Eru). His cynicism, which (sincerely) regarded the motives of Manwë as precisely the same as his own, seemed fully justified in Saruman. Gandalf he did not understand.

The History of Middle-earth: Morgoth's Ring (Book 10)

I'm sure he may have been able to piece things out: surely they weren't Men or Elves – and he himself was a Maia – but we're not told.

Hobbits

In general, Hobbits knew nothing more of Istari than Men did. They were perceived as just a "Wizard" so to speak.

That was Gandalf's mark, of course, and the old man was Gandalf the Wizard, whose fame in the Shire was due mainly to his skill with fires, smokes, and lights. His real business was far more difficult and dangerous, but the Shire-folk knew nothing about it. To them he was just one of the 'attractions' at the Party. Hence the excitement of the hobbit-children. 'G for Grand!' they shouted, and the old man smiled. They knew him by sight, though he only appeared in Hobbiton occasionally and never stopped long; but neither they nor any but the oldest of their elders had seen one of his firework displays they now belonged to the legendary past.

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, Book I, Chapter I: A Long-expected Party

  • Pippin

    Pippin wonders as well on what Gandalf is, but doesn't come to any better conclusion than any other Hobbit that hadn't borne any Ring of Power.

    Yet by a sense other than sight Pip­pin per­ceived that Gan­dalf had the greater power and the deeper wis­dom, and a majesty that was veiled. And he was older, far older. ‘How much older?’ he won­dered, and then he thought how odd it was that he had never thought about it be­fore. Tree­beard had said some­thing about wiz­ards, but even then he had not thought of Gan­dalf as one of them. What was Gan­dalf? In what far time and place did he come into the world, and when would he leave it?

    The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Book V, Chapter I: Minas Tirith

What people perceived the Istari were mainly depended on how much they already knew about the beings in Valinor. Most Men aren't aware, barring some Men who were learned in lore (Aragorn, Faramir and Denethor perhaps), and merely mistook the Istari as Elves. Elves on the other hand, perhaps had some inkling that the Istari were something else, but beyond that they wouldn't be sure, unless they had a deeper understanding like Elrond, Galadriel and even Glorfindel. Círdan himself knew because he was there at the Havens when the Istari arrived, even knowing that they came from Valinor, combined with his knowledge it makes sense he came to the (right) conclusion that the Istari were in fact Maiar.

To everyone else, they were just the "Wizards", another race in Middle-earth.


Conclusion

Addressing your quote:

[...] someone of a race against which we would never have dared to raise our hand.

The actual quote is:

'No, Sam!' said Frodo. 'Do not kill him even now. For he has not hurt me. And in any case I do not wish him to be slain in this evil mood. He was great once, of a noble kind that we should not dare to raise out hands against.'

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Book VI, Chapter VIII: The Scouring of the Shire

The Istari were known as Wizards to everyone in Middle-earth.

The term Wizard here refers to a separate race. In Middle-earth, there are Men, Elves, Hobbits, Dwarves and Orcs. "Wizard" to the folk of Middle-earth would fall under that category of "races".

To them, Wizard doesn't equal Maia. As aforementioned, no one except Elrond, Círdan, and Galadriel knew that the Wizards were actually Maiar. What people knew of Wizards were just that 1) They came from Valinor 2) They were of a different race. Both Barliman Butterbur and Denethor would have treated Gandalf differently had they known he was an angel of sorts. But they didn't. They only knew him as a Wizard, someone from Valinor sent to Middle-earth to help in the war against Sauron.

Same goes for Frodo (and Bilbo) I do not believe Frodo knew exactly that Gandalf was a Maia, just that he was of a nobler race than the rest. Frodo and Bilbo are Ring-bearers, and have greater insight, compared to Non Ring-bearers, in perceiving the things around them. This is evidently seen when Frodo notices Galadriel's ring, and isn't surprised either when Gandalf openly displays his ring at the end. They may not have known Gandalf was a Maia, but they at least knew he was of a more supreme race of being, because that's what Wizards were.

With this in mind, you could say that Bilbo and Frodo learnt that Gandalf was a "Wizard" from the start. By that time in the Third Age it would be common knowledge of what Wizards were: a supernatural race present in Middle-earth. But no one would be able to make the connection that the Wizards were in fact Maiar, or of the same race as Sauron, because they didn't know enough about the beings residing in Valinor.

And so Frodo and Bilbo never learn this, until they themselves arrive in Valinor at the end, whereas it's almost certain Gandalf would have told his friends more about himself by then. (Hat-tip to Buzz in the comments).


I will leave you with this quote, courtesy of Gildor.

"Do not meddle in the affairs of wizards, for they are subtle and quick to anger."

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    Bilbo, Frodo, and Sam probably did learn the truth about Gandalf's nature, once they had come to their final abodes in Tol Eressëa. – Buzz Aug 14 at 15:28
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    @MatCauthon : Yes but... The o/p is asking about Frodo and Bilbo. Granted, they knew more than your average hobbit-in-the-street, for Gandalf told them much that he told to no one else (except in so far as he explained matters at the Council of Elrond or in the chapter The White Rider). The word Maia is not used in LoTR, its use comes from the 1977 publication of The Silmarillion, so what the o/p is really asking is whether they knew what Gandalf is (i.e. of the same kind of being as Sauron), since the word he uses did not exist when the LoTR was published. – Ed999 Aug 15 at 15:31
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    @Ed999 Then the short answer to that would be no. Since Gandalf's race was never likened, explicitly, to Sauron's throughout the trilogy, Frodo and Bilbo would not have come to that realisation. Interestingly though, there are some things Gandalf says that foreshadows this relationship: ''Dangerous! And so am I, very dangerous; more dangerous than anything you will ever meet, unless you are brought alive before the seat of the Dark Lord" and "I am Gandalf, Gandalf the White, but Black is mightier still" which I perceive as Gandalf comparing himself to Sauron in terms of being another Maia. – Mat Cauthon Aug 16 at 12:18
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    “The man once wrote: Do not meddle in the affairs of wizards, for they are subtle and quick to anger. Tolkien had that one mostly right. I stepped forward, let the door bang closed, and snarled, "F**k subtle.” ― Jim Butcher, Changes – AcePL Aug 16 at 12:19
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    Worth noting that in some conceptions, Glorfindel arrives with (some of) the Istari. – chepner Aug 16 at 19:02
31

SHORT ANSWER:

I don't know if Bilbo and Frodo ever learned that Gandalf was a Maia.

LONG ANSWER:

In The Return of the King. Book Six, Chapter 8, "The Scouring of the Shire", Frodo says of Saruman:

...He was great once, of a noble kind we should not dare to raise our hands against. He is fallen, and his cure is beyond us; but I would still spare him, in the hope that he may find it.

The Fellowship of the Ring, Prologue, Note on the Shire Records, describes the original Red Book of Westmarch.

It was in origin Bilbo's private diary, which he took with him to Rivendell. Frodo brought it back to the Shire, together with many loose leaves of notes, and in S.R. 1420-1 he nearly filled its pages with his account of the War. But annexed to it and preserved along with it, probably in a single red case, were the three large volumes, bound in red leather, that Bilbo gave to him as a parting gift. To these four volumes there was added in Westmarch a fifth containing commentaries, genealogies, and various other matters concerning the hobbit members of the Fellowship...

...But the chief importance of Findegil's copy is that it alone contains the whole of Bilbo's 'Translations from the Elvish'. These three volumes were found to be a work of great skill and learning in which, between 1403 and 1413, he had used all the sources available to him in Rivendell, both living and written. But since they were little used by Frodo, being almost entirely concerned with the Elder Days, no more is said of them here.

So Bilbo wrote the original version of the The Hobbit, Frodo wrote the original version of The Lord of the Rings, and Bilbo translated into the Common Tongue and/or edited and/or wrote the original versions of most writings about the Elder Days such as the Quenta Silmarillion.

Frodo would have been the original author of The Two Towers, Book Four, Chapter V, "The Window on the West" with this dialog:

'The Grey Pilgrim?' Said Frodo 'Had he a name?'

'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; Olorin I was in my youth in the West that is forgotten, in the South Incunus, in the North Gandalf; to the East I go not.

Later Frodo returned to Rivendell and spent some time with Bilbo, and Bilbo gave Frodo his 'Translations from the Elvish'. If the Valaquenta that named Olorin as a Maia was among Bilbo's translations, and if Frodo read the Valaquenta during his first or second stay in Rivendell, and if Frodo's memory was as good as mine, he might have suddenly thought: "What! Gandalf's original name in the West is the same as the name of a Maia in the Undying Lands in the West! Does that mean that Galdalf and other wizards are Maia?"

And if Frodo ever asked Bilbo if Bilbo had heard of all Gandalf's names and mentioned Olorin, and if Bilbo's memory was as good as mine, Bilbo might have remembered a Maia named Olorin in the Valaquenta or other sources, and Bilbo might have told Frodo that Gandalf's original name was the same as that of a Maia. And they might have wondered about that.

But there is no proof that either of those events happened.

If any accounts of the wizards that actually say they were Maia from Aman were among the contents of the Red Book of Westmarch, they would have been written or translated by Hobbits so eventually some Hobbit or Hobbits believed the Wizards were Maia. But on the other hand it is possible that Tolkien found those accounts not in the Red Book, his main source, but in other sources available to him, and that no Hobbit ever believed or knew that Wizards were Maia.

Remember that The Fellowship of the Ring, Prologue, Note on the Shire Records, says:

This account of the end of the Third Age is drawn mainly from the Red Book of Westmarch.

This shows that Tolkien used other written and/or oral sources for The Lord of the Rings and maybe other writings, some of which might not have come through Hobbits, let alone through Bilbo or Frodo.

Bilbo gave his 'Translations from the Elvish' to Frodo when Frodo left Rivendell to return to the Shire. And Frodo would have had very little opportunity to read them on the trip before the confrontation with Saruman at Bag End. He was mostly riding all day and sleeping around a campfire all night. If Frodo read a book while riding, or for an hour or two each night around the campfire, that would have been unusual enough to be remembered and written down in The Lord of the Rings, I think.

It is quite possible that Frodo realized that Saruman, and thus Gandalf and the other wizards, were Maia almost immediately after saying that the Wizards were a very high order of beings.

SPOILER ALERT!!

Frodo had heard from those present at the battle outside the Black Gate what happened when the Ring was destroyed and Sauron defeated:

In The Return of the King. Book Six, Chapter 4, "The Field of Cormallen":

...And as the Captains gazed south to the Land of Mordor, it seemed to them that, black against the pall of cloud, there rose a huge shape of shadow, impenetrable, lightening-crowned, filling all the sky. Enormous it reared above the world, and stretched out toward them a vast threatening hand, terrible but impotent: for even as it leaned over them, a great wind took it, and it was all blown away, and passed; and then a hush fell.

Frodo was certainly told about that, and Frodo certainly learned that Sauron was a Maia.

As I remember, when sneaking into Mordor, Frodo and Sam talked about the story of Beren and Luthien, and noted that the light in the phial that Galadrial gave Frodo came from the Silmaril in the story of Beren and luthien. And Sauron was a character in that story. So it is possible that even Sam had heard Sauron described as a Maia, and had been told what a Maia was.

A few months after the overthrow of Sauron, Wormtongue killed Saruman, and then:

To the dismay of those that stood by, about the body of Saruman a grey mist gathered, and rising slowly to a great height like smoke from a fire, as a pale shrouded figure it loomed over the hill. For a moment it wavered, looking to the West; but out of the West came a cold wind, and it bent away, and with a sigh dissolved into nothing.

So sometime after first reading The Lord of the Rings, and before I ever read about Valar and Maia, I deduced that the Wizards were lesser members of the same class of highly powerful supernatural beings as Sauron - whatever type of supernatural beings that was.

Frodo could have done the same, and Frodo knew that Sauron was a Maia, so after Saruman's death a minute or so after Frodo said that Saruman was a member of a high order of beings, Frodo had the necessary knowledge to deduce that Saruman and Gandalf were Maia.

But of course having the necessary information doesn't guarantee making the deduction, and Frodo did not get one part of the necessary information until after he made the statement about Saruman being of a high order.

So considering everything, I don't know if any of the Hobbits ever learned that the Istari or Wizards were Maia, and I don't know if Frodo knew that the Wizards were Maia when he said:

...He was great once, of a noble kind we should not dare to raise our hands against. He is fallen, and his cure is beyond us; but I would still spare him, in the hope that he may find it.

Note: While writing this I once wrote "Biblo" instead of Bilbo, which seems rather appropriate.

See also here:

https://english.stackexchange.com/questions/295737/ol%C3%B3rin-i-was-in-my-youth-in-the-west-that-is-forgotten-what-is-forgotten1

And here:

Who in Middle-earth knows the Istari's origin?2

Added August 17, 2019:

This question: How well-known is the theology of Middle-earth, in Middle-earth?3

Has an answer from me that discusses the theological knowledge of Hobbits in general and protagonist Hobbits in particular.

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    The version of the quote you give here says "of a noble kind", not "of a race". It looks like the OP was paraphrasing rather than quoting. To me, this difference really makes it seem like the OP is totally misunderstanding the meaning of the quote. I don't take "kind" here as necessarily meaning race, but rather just "kind of person". especially because the reference is in the past tense. Saruman is not now a noble kind of person, but he was once; his race has not obviously changed, however. Frodo might describe Aragorn as being "of a noble kind", without meaning all humans are noble. – Ben Aug 15 at 1:39
  • I have added another link to a question where my answer discusses Hobbit knowledge of Middle-earth theology including Maiar. – M. A. Golding Aug 17 at 19:18

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