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In the Middle Earth universe, "Wizards" are actually Maia, angelic or god-like beings who have taken mortal form (and accepted some Human frailties) to act as guides and advisors in the struggle against Sauron. They have specialties (or at least personal preferences), determined by their association to whichever Vala they serve. Within Middle Earth they appear as aged Men with long beards, wearing robes of colors which denote their rank.

And they each carry a staff.

wizards

Why? If they are, themselves, semi-divine beings, then presumably all their powers (even in the abstract way that magic works in Tolkien's universe) come from their own selves, rather than from any devices. I've never heard of any tales about the "forging of the staves," and no one seems to be able to gain greater power by taking them. (At least, no one seems to try, and Sauron would likely be seeking them if their powers were transferable.)

Broken or lost staves seem to be re-creatable, but at the same time, the loss of one seems to be significant for the Wizard who loses it:

  • In the movies, at least, Saruman is implied to have greater power when he takes Gandalf's staff and uses it along with his own during their fight in Orthanc, though that fight doesn't exist in the books. (Notably, this would indicate that a staff's power IS transferable, at least between the Istari.)
  • Wormtongue insists that the guards of Meduseld "take the Wizard's staff" when Gandalf arrives. Given that Wormtongue is in league with Saruman, he would presumably know whether this would have any effect on Gandalf's abilities, and he clearly thinks it would.
  • Gandalf makes a special effort to retain his staff when entering Meduseld, confirming that losing it would have an effect on his abilities.
  • Gandalf prominently declares "Your staff is broken!" when Saruman is defeated, as though it is an important, even ceremonial, act.
  • The destruction of his staff seems traumatic for Saruman, perhaps even somewhat painful from he way he gasps for breath.

broken

What is the function of the staff for one of the Istari? What does it allow them to do, that they would not otherwise be able to do? Is it a way of exercising their Maia-level abilities, when they are otherwise restricted to their mortal forms? Or are they a device crafted after the arrival of the Istari, sort of like the Rings, to expand and augment their natural magic?

What do we know about the staffs of the Wizards?

Note: I've read this question, which focuses on Gandalf's relative strength with and without the staff. This question is more general than that: what does the staff even do, and where do they come from?

marked as duplicate by DVK-on-Ahch-To, Null, Ward, Shevliaskovic, The Fallen Apr 7 '15 at 0:14

This question has been asked before and already has an answer. If those answers do not fully address your question, please ask a new question.

  • I took them to be more like a badge of office, although I can't remember any canon to support that (other than Gandalf breaking Saruman's staff when casting him out of the order). Frankly the movies played up the importance of the staff a lot – Jason Baker Apr 6 '15 at 19:03
  • There's nothing to answer this in the books. – Matt Gutting Apr 6 '15 at 19:13
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    @MattGutting I was hoping for something in the letters, prior drafts, short stories, etc. – Nerrolken Apr 6 '15 at 19:15
  • There might perhaps be something in the letters; I don't have immediate access to them. I don't see anything in prior drafts of the story (History of Middle-Earth); and I'm not aware of any Tolkien-authored short stories on the subject of Middle-earth. – Matt Gutting Apr 6 '15 at 19:17
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    "colors denote their rank"? unlikely – GEdgar Apr 6 '15 at 20:37
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Where did they come from?

We know that at least Gandalf arrived in Middle Earth with his staff; Unfinished Tales tells us as much (emphasis mine):

Of this Order the number is unknown; but of those that came to the North of Middle-earth, where there was most hope (because of the remnant of the Dunedain and of the Eldar that abode there), the chiefs was five. The first to come was one of noble mien and bearing, with raven hair, and a fair voice, and he was clad in white; great skill he had in works of hand, and he was regarded by well-nigh all, even by the Eldar, as the head of the Order. Others there were also: two clad in sea-blue, and one in earthen brown; and the last came one who seemed the least, less tall than the others, and in looks more aged, grey-haired and grey-clad, and leaning on a staff.

Unfinished Tales: "The Istari"

We know that at least Saruman had one, and it seems likely that the other wizards did as well; Saruman specifically mentions "the rods of the Five Wizards" shortly before Gandalf breaks his staff, and that seems like an odd comment to make if they didn't have them (although it's not impossible that he was speaking metaphorically). Whether they also came from Aman, or if they were fashioned later, is unknown.

We do know that they can be fashioned later, since Gandalf gets his new White staff in Lothlórien:

'Naked I was sent back - for a brief time, until my task is done. And naked I lay upon the mountain-top.

[...]

'Thus it was that I came to Caras Galadhon and found you but lately gone. I tarried there in the ageless time of that land where days bring healing not decay. Healing I found, and I was clothed in white.

The Two Towers Book 1 Chapter 5: "The White Rider"

Saruman also gets another staff, after he leaves Orthanc:

On the sixth day since their parting from the King they journeyed through a wood climbing down from the hills at the feet of the Misty Mountains that now marched on their right hand. As they came out again into the open country at sundown they overtook an old man leaning on a staff, and he was clothed in rags of grey or dirty white, and at his heels went another beggar, slouching and whining.

'Well Saruman!' said Gandalf. 'Where are you going?'

The Return of the King Book 2 Chapter 6: "Many Partings"

It's unclear if having it affects his power; both Gandalf and later Frodo suggest that Saruman has essentially no power left (more on that shortly), but we never see him try to use any power other than his hypnotic voice

What do they do?

This is very unclear, and somewhat self-contradictory, although the balance of evidence suggests some link between the power of a wizard and their staff.

In an answer to a related question, DVK summarizes some of the inconsistencies. Basically, nearly every time we see a wizard performing magic, he uses a staff. On the other hand, Saruman doesn't take Gandalf's staff when he imprisons Gandalf in Orthanc, something that seems like a critical oversight if the staff is critical to doing magic.

It's notable that Saruman is very de-powered after Gandalf breaks his staff. Gandalf himself says that the only power Saruman has left is his voice:

['] A snake without fangs may crawl where he will.'

'You may be right,' said Gandalf; 'but this snake had still one tooth left, I think. [Saruman] had the poison of his voice, and I guess that he persuaded you, even you Treebeard, knowing the soft spot in your heart.'

The Return of the King Book 2 Chapter 6: "Many Partings"

It doesn't make a lot of sense for Gandalf to have somehow blocked Saruman from his power. Physically embodied or no, Saruman is still a Maiar; he doesn't do magic, he is magical. The most reasonable explanation is that the power of a Wizard is tied to their staff somehow, although the exact nature of that relationship is unclear.

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    It seems to me that Gandalf may have been given special authority to strip Saruman of the use of his Maia abilities. (I'm myself inclined to the reading that the staff is symbolic and so is the 'your staff is broken' scene.) – zwol Apr 6 '15 at 22:55
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There's nothing in any of Tolkien's writings concerning the precise function of a Wizard's staff.

Of the two major possibilities, (1) that the staff is used for a source of power, either granting or merely enhancing a Wizard's power, versus (2) that the staff is a symbolic badge of office, the evidence in the texts favours the second.

The one critical point this hinges on is: Gandalf was able to defeat the Balrog without his staff (from The Bridge of Khazad-dum, my emphasis):

At that moment Gandalf lifted his staff, and crying aloud he smote the bridge before him. The staff broke asunder and fell from his hand. A blinding sheet of white flame sprang up. The bridge cracked. Right at the Balrog's feet it broke, and the stone upon which it stood crashed into the gulf, while the rest remained, poised, quivering like a tongue of rock thrust out into emptiness.

Despite this there are instances in the texts where Gandalf is seen to use his staff in the performing of magic (and the text of The Hobbit describes it as a "magic staff" at one point), so we need to consider a third possibility: the staff is something that may be used for performing magic, but it is not necessary and a Wizard is still quite formidable even without it.

It must also be considered that of the three Wizards that we know significant information about, Gandalf is the only one particularly associated with a staff. The Istari essay in Unfinished Tales highlights this even further, drawing attention to:

  • The fact that Gandalf, when he arrived in Middle-earth, was 'less tall than the others, and in looks more aged, grey-haired and grey-clad, and leaning on a staff'.
  • The name "Gandalf" 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"'.
  • The fact that one of the variant names he was given also draws attention to his staff: 'Thârkun by the Dwarves (said to mean "Staff-man"), Incánus in the South, and Gandalf in the North, but "to the East I go not."'.

While the other Wizards may have staffs, the only one we actually have evidence of is Saruman: there is no mention of Radagast having a staff during Gandalf's account of his meeting with him. From that we can say with confidence that the popular image of each Wizard having a staff is a later fabrication and not based on anything in Tolkien's own writings.

In the end there is no firm conclusion. It is certainly the case that the staff is not a primary, or even a major, source of a Wizard's power, otherwise Gandalf would not have been able to defeat the Balrog without his. It's uncertain whether any of the Wizards besides Gandalf and Saruman even have a staff. Gandalf does use his staff in certain magical feats, but that may be just part of his disguise among Elves and Men.

We're going to have to put this one down as "Tolkien never wrote in sufficient detail about it".

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    And you can lean on them. – Valorum Apr 6 '15 at 20:03
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    And they look cool. – Valorum Apr 6 '15 at 20:03

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