The two primary races of Middle-earth, those created by Ilúvatar, are Elves and Men. And until quite late in the history of Middle-earth, the Elves were BY FAR the more significant of the two. They alone seemed capable of Magic, they performed most (by a wide margin) of the great deeds of the first few Ages, and even those Men of great renown, like Aragorn, are heavily implied to be so great because they are part Elven.

The accepted answer to this (Why does Saruman identify himself as a human?) question indicates that they WERE "human", in the sense of "given human form." But as a writer, it seems more natural for Tolkien to have made them Elven, since Elves were more prone to supernatural wisdom and subtle magic by nature.

So why did Tolkien choose to have the five Wizards appear to be Men? Was there any significance to making them non-Elven, or even unique and not like any particular race? Was there an earlier draft where they WERE Men (not just in shape but in lineage), or shared some special relationship with them? Was the exact nature of the Istari even decided by the time The Hobbit was published? Or was Tolkien just pulling on archetypes like Merlin and Prospero, and that naturally led to human-esque Wizards without any deeper significance?

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    Out of universe, I think it makes it more obvious that wizards are special. If they did seem to be elves, their magic might just seem elven, rather than wizardly. Commented Jul 2, 2014 at 10:23
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    Actually, and also in light of Jimmy Shelter's answer, I don't recall any passages in LOTR or The Hobbit which state that elves look any different than humans. The whole pointy-eared elf trope is something created after Tolkien, I believe. Commented Jul 2, 2014 at 10:48
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    @BolucPapuccuoglu "if you will need drawings of hobbits in various attitudes ... fattish in the stomach, shortish in the leg. A round, jovial face; ears only slightly pointed and 'elvish'; hair short and curling (brown)." JRRT - Letters #27, writing to Houghton Mifflin circa March-April 1938" Douglas Anderson wrote "In his notes on the stem LAS[1] from *lasse = 'leaf' and LAS[2] 'listen' (*lasse = 'ear'), Tolkien noted the possible relationship between the two in that Elven "ears were more pointed and leaf-shaped" than human ones." The Annotated Hobbit, Flies and Spiders (note 6) 1988 Commented Jul 2, 2014 at 21:59
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    The Valar performed pretty much all the deeds of the first few Ages (this is if you don't count the time before Arda was made in "Ages"). The elves performed most of the great deeds of the first few Ages of the Children of Illuvatar, plus a couple before that. There were a dozen or 2 Ages before the Elves awoke.
    – trysis
    Commented Jul 4, 2014 at 22:21
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    Well, there’s the precedent of Father Christmas, who looks like a bearded old human but is actually a beneficent, jolly old elf with a team of Christmas elves to help him build toys and to chase off the goblins when the North Polar Bear isn’t around. See The Father Christmas Letters, by Tolkien père.
    – tchrist
    Commented Jul 6, 2014 at 18:23

7 Answers 7


Wizards were primarily sent to guide all races towards the 'right' path. In general they could have been given any form (human, elven, dwarven, hobbit or anything else). The question was, which of those forms would be the one that every race trusted (otherwise it would be extremely hard to guide them). This immediately excludes forms like Hobbit or Ent simply because very few people are familiar with these creatures.

So we are left with Elven, Human and Dwarf-shape.

Why the human form is the best: it's the only form which is acceptable to Humans (because the wizards looked as if from their race), to elven (they did know the real nature of the wizards and were therefore much less likely to base their judgement on the body-shape of the wizards), to dwarfs (because they had regular dealings with humans and were therefore used to see and more importantly trust them)

IMHO the Human form is the result of 'Which form is the least hindering to guiding (all!) the people of Middle-Earth to the greater good'

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    re. the Dwarves: also don't forget that the Dwarves were explicitly mistrustful of Elves Commented Jul 2, 2014 at 9:45
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    Note also that there were apparently Maiar that were made in Orc-form, leading to the myth that Orcs were immortal. See scifi.stackexchange.com/questions/60548/… This is obviously a place where appearing Human would have been a detriment.
    – trlkly
    Commented Jul 3, 2014 at 17:42
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    @trlkly: Were capable to take on orc form, not were made in orc form. (When the Maiar came to be, there were no Orcs AFAIK.)
    – DevSolar
    Commented Jul 4, 2014 at 7:57
  • Only a few elves were actually aware of what the wizards really were (Elrond, Galadriel and Cirdan). Obviously these were important elves who could convince other elves to trust them, but the vast majority of elves did not know who the wizards really were. Commented Jun 24, 2018 at 16:34
  • Hobbits were men, just a particularly separated set of tribes.
    – Lexible
    Commented Nov 3, 2019 at 7:11

The Third Age was the time of the fading of the Elves and the beginning of the Dominion of Men (which officially begun at Aragorn's coronation); this is made clear by Gandalf's words on Mindolluin:

For the time comes of the Dominion of Men, and the Elder Kindred shall fade or depart.

The Dominion of Men was an event foretold as far back as the Ainulindale, with the words:

And some have said that the vision ceased ere the fulfilment of the Dominion of Men and the fading of the Firstborn...

So it makes sense that the Istari would use bodies of the dominant species.

However this is all moot as Tolkien has elsewhere established that Elves and Men are the same species. In the Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth he notes:

The existence of Elves: that is of a race of beings closely akin to Men, so closely indeed that they must be regarded as physically (or biologically) simply branches of the same race.

(My emphasis)

Therefore it doesn't actually make sense to distinguish between bodies of Men and bodies of Elves, because physically and biologically Men and Elves are the same. The differences are spiritual, and this would also be a difference with the Istari (rather than a Mannish or Elvish spirit, they have a Maiar spirit).

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    Well, one could say that the different branches of the Human race in our Earth come in quite distinct varieties, so if Elves differ from Men as much as East Asians, for instance, differ from South Africans, then it's still a distinctive enough difference. Commented Jul 2, 2014 at 12:09
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    @AvnerShahar-Kashtan - yup, that seems valid. Or like a Great Dane differs from a Jack Russell - just standard species variation. The same variation is noted in the Istari material in UT actually, so Saruman was tall and noble and black-haired, whereas Gandalf was old and bowed with age, the shortest of them all.
    – user8719
    Commented Jul 2, 2014 at 12:56
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    the shortest of them all - so Gandalf is Yoda?
    – Joe
    Commented Jul 2, 2014 at 15:08
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    @JimmyShelter I suppose, but the parallel seems interesting. Though off topic here I guess :)
    – Joe
    Commented Jul 2, 2014 at 15:57
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    @AvnerShahar-Kashtan - I'm not sure I fully agree with that (I tend more towards the arguments against cited in the linked essay in the accepted answer, and view the arguments for as being weak) but it doesn't really matter: pointy-eared Elves could still fall within normal species variation (we see it in dogs too). So the point (pun intended) is that Elves could be pointy-eared but despite that still be the same species as Men.
    – user8719
    Commented Jul 2, 2014 at 17:23

In addition to @cfrei89's excellent answer, it should be noted that the Istari first appeared in Middle Earth at around the year 1000 of the Third Age. By this time (as can be seen in The Tale of Years, Appendix B of The Lord of the Rings), Men were at the height of their power - Gondor will, in but 50 years, conquer southern Harad and be considered at the peak of its power. The Northern Kingdom of Arnor has split into Arthedain, Rhudaur and Cardolan, but these three Numenorian kingdoms still control the north, and the Kin-Strife of Gondor and the loss of Osgiliath are still many centuries away.

By contrast, the Elves have retreated from their prominence during the Second Age (not to mention the first), which is notable by their absence from the Tale of Years. In 1050, Greenwood the Great starts being referred to as Mirkwood, and its elves - like those of Lorien and Rivendell - hardly leave their borders, so that meeting them becomes a surprise. The Tale of Years describes the Third Age as:

[The] fading years of the Eldar. For long they were at peace wielding the Three Rings while Sauron slept and the One Ring was lost; but they attempted nothing new, living in memory of the past.

If the Istari came as Men, it is because they came at the Age of Men.

  • scifi.stackexchange.com/questions/46411/… would serve as a citation for your answer. Commented Jul 2, 2014 at 13:05
  • Which claim exactly do you want me to cite or strengthen? Almost all of my claims are derived from Appendix B of the Lord of the Rings, the Tale of Years. Commented Jul 2, 2014 at 13:07
  • You nailed it with your edit, that's the part I had to look up. For some reason, I had thought the Istari were older. Commented Jul 2, 2014 at 15:07

Why do Tolkien's wizards look Human, and not Elven?

Do they, really?

Keep in mind that there's in-universe evidence that at least some Men mistook the Istari for Elves, e.g. in the name Gandalf, which literally means "wand-elf", both in the Old Norse mythology from which Tolkien originally took the name, as well as, per his own word, in Middle-Earth itself:

"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) to be of Elven-kind, since he would at times work wonders among them [...]"

  — J.R.R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien (ed.), Unfinished Tales, "The Istari". (via Wikipedia)

As for the passage, also from Unfinished Tales, quoted in the answer you reference, I would interpret it somewhat differently:

"For with the consent of Eru they sent members of their own high order, but clad in bodies as of Men, real and not feigned [...]"

Note that Tolkien here writes "bodies as of Men", not literally "bodies of Men". I see this passage as perfectly consistent with my general impression that the bodies assumed by the Istari were, though generally humanoid in form and detail, probably not exactly like those of either Men or Elves (or of any particular subgroup of them) in appearance, yet similar enough to pass for either.

After all, as the other answers here note, Tolkien explicitly describes Men and Elves as being "physically (or biologically) simply branches of the same race." As such, there is no necessary contradiction in the Istari looking simultaneously both Human and Elven, as long as they did not bear any particularly noticeable physical features that would be strongly associated with either group.

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    In fact, Gandalf is explicitly described as "walking among [the elves] unseen, or in form as one of them", in the Silmarillion. There was a question about that a while ago Commented Jul 2, 2014 at 16:44
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    Interesting idea, but Tolkien noted (maybe in Unfinished Tales, but I'm not sure) that elves are beardless. Gandalf and Saruman have full beards, which would give them a distinctly "mannish" appearance. The "elf" element of Gandalf's name would be a metaphor meaning "magical, uncanny" rather than a literal statement that he is an elf. IIRC Tolkien noted that "Gandalf" could be translated as "elvish wight with a magic staff" in one of the LOTR appendices. Commented Jul 3, 2014 at 11:48
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    Did the "Men of the North" know what elves looked like? It says they called him that because of the way he behaved. Commented Jul 3, 2014 at 20:21

The 5 Istari were sent from Valinor to Middle Earth to monitor and, if found, then crush, any remainder of Melkor's army trying to pursue their master's aim.

To do so, they needed discretion. They don't care about being seen, but they have to not be uncovered. Since elves are, during the Third Age, very less numerous than men, and are immortal. Coming under an elf shape, doing great magic and crushing evil is bound to catch some attention.

And those elves, who you have no tracks of them before the moment they came to Middle Earth although they overmatch in power the elves who saw the upon the Light of the Two Trees in Valinor (whose a few only are still alive during the Third Age), will look very suspicious to the ennemy.

In my opinion, the point lies there. Elves are very easy to track, since they aren't many of them, a few of those have great powers to notice, and being immortal, those having their own "signature" are living for a long time since in Tolkien's work, the ower comes from the ancientness.

So, if you want to go underneath, a human is the best choice.

  • No that's not the way it is. It was to inspire the peoples to end the reign of Sauron (the poor wording is my wording). Melkor was already disposed of at this point and in The Silmarillion it's stated that the only way Sauron could be called less evil (though Tolkien did have a different idea of 'evil') is that for a time he didn't serve himself; this means that he did serve himself later on. That's made clear throughout. The Istari weren't meant to use their full strength and power. And elves are easy to track? I'm curious where you get that idea because it's suggested rather the opposite.
    – Pryftan
    Commented Mar 19, 2018 at 22:50
  • Think for example of the elves in Mirkwood hiding from the Dwarves and Bilbo. And they had their own paths. Maybe by keep track you mean recognise the differences but they were physically rather alike.
    – Pryftan
    Commented Mar 19, 2018 at 22:51

JRR Tolkien probably did not approach the question as you did, as from the logic of the world history of race creation, the character of a wizard was probably very close to him, in the form that it is told, as a central magic human shaped figure, that anyone could aspire to be. He probably had enough to think about regards elf scripts, casts, the planning of his story, to have devoted much time to the question of what race the wizard should be, the wizard being a good centre for the narrative, and being the most most powerful character in the book.

It is understood that the wizard is not strictly human, and the most information you get regarding this, is Tolkien's words regarding the origin of the wizards:

Gandalf was one of the five Istari sent to Middle-earth by the Valar in the Third Age. In Valinor he was known as Olórin. Gandalf was instrumental in bringing about the demise of Sauron in T.A. 3019, chiefly by encouraging others and dispensing his wisdom at pivotal times. Gandalf was originally robed in grey, and second to Saruman in the Order of wizards. After his fall in Moria, Gandalf returned to Middle-earth as head of the Order, robed in white. Gandalf was noteworthy for his keen interest in Hobbits.


The race of Men is the second race of beings created by the Supreme God, Ilúvatar. Because they awoke at the start of the First Age of the Sun, while the Elves awoke three Ages before them, they are called the Secondborn (Quenya: Atani, Sindarin: Edain) by the Elves. Men awoke in a land located in the far east of Middle-earth called Hildórien. Men were created after elves, but may have been created prior to the wizards.

In the Hobbit, the first description of Gandalf appeared:

...an old man with a staff. He had a tall pointed blue hat, a long grey cloak, a silver scarf over which a white beard hung down below his waist, and immense black boots.

Note that the Hobbit wasn't written entirely planning forwards to the later books. It is much simpler regards, world, history, etc, the later books are a more advanced vision.

  • Actually, while The Hobbit was written without plans for the LotR trilogy, it was a side-project while Tolkien was working on the full larger history of his world, much of which was later bundled and printed as The Silmarillion. As such, there was no planning ahead, but the history was (largely) there. The Hobbit was written purely from the simpler hobbit point of view, though.
    – Jasper
    Commented Jul 3, 2014 at 21:40
  • @Jasper Sure but the Istari were to help with defeating Sauron and I don't recall them being there during the Second Age; the First Age Sauron was Melkor's lieutenant but not himself a full on threat. So although the mythology was there (or at least the earlier versions of it) the Silmarillion was the First Age. As an aside technically The Lord of the Rings isn't a trilogy and The Tolkien Estate makes this clear and Tolkien suggested numerous times that he doesn't see it as a trilogy (and it caused problems for some readers because of the seeming disconnect).
    – Pryftan
    Commented Mar 19, 2018 at 22:56

Since LOTR is a fictional story, it may or may not follow stringent real-world logic.

None of the above answers points out that Tolkien may have wished the Wizards to be human. There are in-universe arguments for both races, and it's easy to construe more 'proof', but they might as well be human because of the author's preference.

This will be the least popular answer.

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    Welcome the Scifi.Stackexchange! Everything that happens in fiction happens, because the author wants it. I don't think Alexander Winn doubts that. The question is: Why did Tolkin wanted it that way?
    – Einer
    Commented Jul 4, 2014 at 10:11

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