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While (I think) there is no argument over the Istari being originally Maiar - are they still Maiar? Did they cease being Maiar when they incarnated themselves?

Clarification: many official (e.g. UT) and unofficial (e.g. wiki) sources say that they were Maiar, but not that they are Maiar. Are Saruman, Gandalf and Radagast still Maiar even in the third age?

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    I think it is most accurate to say they are "between" Man and Maiar; their identities remain intact (if not remembered), but with certain externally imposed (read, by Eru) limitations that a "normal" Maiar would not be subject to. Presumably, each would be (upon their permitted return) be stored to their original state. Whether any aside from Gandalf ever did so is unclear. (Saruman certainly did not, at least not immediately--who knows what penance he could be allowed over time?--, and the status of the others is unknown.)
    – chepner
    Aug 25, 2019 at 16:44
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    I want to say "yes", because Tolkien never told us how a Maia could possibly stop being one; and there is a passage in the Ainulindalë that guarantees that they are what they are as long as the World exists. But any answer either way depends on precising what a "Maia" is, precision that Tolkien didn't provide. And so this is opinion-based.
    – Spencer
    Aug 25, 2019 at 17:16
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    @Edlothiad Actually, "The Istari" directly contradicts that. CT says "We must assume that they [the Istari] were all Maiar". I can be a human (cf. Ainu) and an employee of Company X (Maia) and a network engineer (ithron) all at the same time.
    – Spencer
    Aug 25, 2019 at 17:53
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    @Edlothiad Maybe instead of saying “no they were Istar”, you should have just said “they weren’t Maia”, then, since the former clearly doesn’t imply the latter Aug 26, 2019 at 0:01
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    I must add that the LotR Fandom Wikia is not as reliable an online source as Tolkien Gateway, the latter which citates most of its claims.
    – Voronwé
    Aug 26, 2019 at 10:35

3 Answers 3

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Yes, undoubtedly. You're misinterpreting the word "were." When Christopher Tolkien wrote "they [the Istari] were all Maiar" the use of past tense refers to the time during which the story occurs; it doesn't mean that they underwent a change of kind.

As far as we know change of kind isn't possible. It would certainly require the direct intervention of Eru. (As occurred when Aulë created the Dwarves.) Tolkien is quite clear that men cannot achieve immortality by setting foot in Aman. Half-Elves are allowed to choose "under which kindred they shall be judged." It's never said that they become a member of their chosen race. The closest would probably be Luthien, who gave up immortality to share Beren's fate (that is, death). The "shared fate" wording is important; Luthien died but she did not become human. There is also, perhaps, the question of orcs. Tolkien originally envisioned them as Elves that had been twisted and corrupted by Morgoth but moved away from that idea later. He never settled on their origin.

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  • I should include citations, I know. I don't have my books handy. Feel free to edit this answer to add them if you have the requisite permissions. Aug 26, 2019 at 21:54
  • Luthien died before she made the choice (in fact, the choice was part of the reason she was permitted to return to Middle-earth). "Becoming human" is really more a spiritual change than anything else; Elves and Men are biologically the same.
    – chepner
    Aug 26, 2019 at 23:41
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    I agree with this. Had CT meant the Istari had stopped being Maiar he would have used the past perfect ("had been") instead of simple past ("were").
    – Spencer
    Aug 26, 2019 at 23:50
  • @chepner – When I said that Lúthien died I meant that her spirit left Arda in the manner of Men's spirits. (As opposed to death meaning disembodiment and eventual rebirth, in the manner of Elven spirits.) As for biology, Elves and Men are obviously compatible but I don't recall anything in Tolkien's writing saying (or even implying) that they were the same. Aug 27, 2019 at 14:07
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    @MichaelCarman Letter 153: "Elves and Men are evidently in biological terms one race"
    – OrangeDog
    Nov 17, 2023 at 10:07
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You must have gone to the Elves for advice, for the answer is both "no" and "yes".

No, they are not Maiar because they lack essential traits of the Maiar. In the Silmarillion, it says:

With the Valar came other spirits whose being also began before the World, of the same order as the Valar but of less degree. These are the Maiar, the people of the Valar, and their servants and helpers.

and

Now the Valar took to themselves shape and hue; and ... they took shape after that manner which they had beheld in the Vision of Iluvatar, save only in majesty and splendour. Moreover their shape comes of their knowledge of the visible World, rather than of the World itself; and they need it not, save only as we use raiment, and yet we may be naked and suffer no loss of our being.

Therefore with the Valar came other spirits whose being also began before the World, of the same order as the Valar but of less degree. These are the Maiar, the people of the Valar, and their servants and helpers.

This strongly suggests that the Maiar also could "walk unclad" and take to themselves "shape and hue". We also know that Sauron could do so and that he was a Maiar. Yet it seems pretty clear that neither Gandalf nor Sauruman could.

So they, therefore, were not Maiar at least while they were embodied in Middle-earth.

But also, "yes" they were still Maiar: We know so little of the nature of the Valar and Maiar that an equally consistant and reasonable answer is that they were Maiar who accepted, for a time, a diminution of their power, but were still Maiar. Is not a human who for a time wears a blindfold still human even though suffering a significant diminution of power?

Ultimately, the answer depends on details of the nature of the Maiar and the Istari that we simply don't know.

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Yes, undoubtedly Tolkien implies they still were Maiar, even if there's no direct quote to prove they were. Consider:

We know Gandalf was physically capable of feats no human could accomplish.

From The Return of the King, Appendix B, "The Tale of Years" (All cited dates are Third Age):

3019

January 15 The Bridge of Khazad-dûm, and fall of Gandalf.

January 23 Gandalf pursues the Balrog to the peak of Zirak-zigil.

January 25 He casts down the Balrog, and passes away. His body lies on the peak.

Gandalf pursued and fought the Balrog for eleven days, inclusive of end points. He dies at the end, but doesn't die along the way. I shouldn't imagine he and the Balrog spent their lunchtimes at the Zirak-zigil Cafe, or napped in their cubicles. There's no indication of food, water, or rest. To answer the question, he keeps going without all that. We can conclude he feels the hunger, and thirst, and fatigue, but needing to relieve them doesn't enter in to it.

The fight clearly must have been Maia vs. Maia, hand to hand, uncloaked.

Based on these facts we can deduce that Gandalf's spirit, his ëalar, can, when pressed, fully take over his body, which is that of a Man, real and not feigned.

If that isn't an Ainu's capability vs. a Man's I don't know what is.

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