Are the staves that the Istari wield made of anything unique or are they made from normal wood and given magical properties by their user?

  • Gandalf's and Radagast's staffs are made of wood. Saruman's staff is made of steel. – Valandil Aug 5 '15 at 18:11
  • I honestly think that the staffs are a means of focusing the magical power of the Istari, much like the rings of power do for the elves and Sauron. And whilst without them they would not be as powerful (not able to focus their magic as strongly) they can still perform basic magic and or posses superhuman abilities. In regards to Gandalf being trapped with his staff, perhaps his promise to not use his full powers was what kept him from escaping from Saruman, and instead used a simple signal to the eagles as an s.o.s. – Scottx125 Apr 18 '16 at 13:07

The only place in LotR where any reference is made to what a wizard's staff may be made of is Frodo's poem in Lorien:

an old man in a battered hat
who leaned upon a thorny staff

"Thorny" here certainly suggests that the staff is of wood.

It is wrong, I think, to imagine a wizard's staff as having specific magical properties. True, there are many instances in LotR where it may seem so: Gandalf's lighting of wood on Caradhras ("he thrust the end of his staff into the midst of it"), his entry into Meduseld ("The staff in the hand of a wizard may be more than a prop for age"), and, of course, "Saruman, your staff is broken" are just some examples. Gandalf's demand that "you will first surrender to me the Key of Orthanc, and your staff" is also suggestive of the same.

However, that's just not the way things work in Tolkien. Gandalf's staff was broken on the Bridge of Khazad Dum but yet he managed to fight and kill a Balrog:

Thunder they heard, and lightning, they said, smote upon Celebdil, and leaped back broken into tongues of fire.

This was almost certainly a description of Gandalf's own magic; compare with the description of the Nazgul's attack on him on Weathertop:

As Frodo lay, tired but unable to close his eyes, it seemed to him that far away there came a light in the eastern sky: it flashed and faded many times. It was not the dawn, for that was still some hours off.
'What is the light?' he said to Strider, who had risen, and was standing, gazing ahead into the night.
'I do not know,' Strider answered. 'It is too distant to make out. It is like lightning that leaps up from the hill-tops.'

And to confirm that lightning-type effects are a sure sign of it being Gandalf, let's look at what happens when he rescues Faramir:

...it seemed to Pippin that he raised his hand, and from it a shaft of white light stabbed upwards.

Based on this, it's definite that Gandalf doesn't actually need his staff for magic; in the Khazad Dum example he doesn't have it but yet achieves much the same effect.

So now we get into speculation, and what I'm going to speculate is that a wizard's staff in Middle-earth is not a D&D-type "magic item" but rather a sign of authority, a symbolic prop. By breaking Saruman's staff Gandalf actually did far more; he disconnected him from his origins in Valinor, he cast him out from the Order, and the breaking of the staff was just an outwardly visible manifestation of that.

Of course there is still a lot left unanswered. Why did Gandalf thrust his staff into the wood on Caradhras? Don't know. Why did Gandalf ask for Saruman's staff before breaking it? Don't know. Why did Saruman taunt Gandalf about wanting "the rods of the Five Wizards"? Don't know. In the end this is just a matter that Tolkien left unclear and unanswered.

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    +1 I fully agree with you the emphasis should be placed on the staff being symbolic. At most a wizard's staff can help him to focus, but when Gandalf tells Saruman that his "staff is broken", I understand it to mean "you're formally expelled from the order". – Andres F. Nov 9 '13 at 18:19
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    Is it possible (or specifically written anywhere), that, similar to the rings, the wizard transfers some of his powers to his staff? It doesn't necessarily mean that anyone can use it to the same effect, but it has some powers which the wizard uses to focus his efforts to a specific point or in a specific direction, and he can use these powers more easily with the staff than without it. – Zottek Nov 9 '13 at 22:09
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    @Zottek - Written nowhere as far as I'm aware. It is a common theme in Tolkien, but I'd doubt if the wizards did it, because it's something that Tolkien only wrote about the evil dudes doing (Melkor with the world, Sauron with the Ring). Great line of speculation though. – user8719 Nov 9 '13 at 23:45
  • Can you also comment on why it seemed that Gandalf needed his staff in Rohan. Aragorn specifically makes sure he is not parted from it when they enter the Theoden's hall: "You would not part an old man of his walking stick" [paraphrased]. – Möoz Jan 14 '15 at 22:01
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    Also, in the same passage it says "He [Hama] looked hard at the ash-staff on which Gandalf leaned."; so it definitely does look like it's made of [Ash] wood. – Möoz Jan 14 '15 at 22:04

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