Alternative Theory on Wizard Colors


New Member
So I'm still catching up a bit, and I just finished the episodes where Prof Olsen recharacterizes the Wizard colors from marks of hierarchical status (understood like karate belts) to signals of each Wizard's particular discipline or role. As I understand it, the class decided that the discipline or "role" of the White Wizard was to understand the enemy and devise counters--that is the role Gandalf will assume upon his return. Also the class seemed to accept that the role of the Brown Wizard, Radagast, was to understand the natural world, specifically birds and beasts. But I'm a bit confused about the role of the Gray Wizard. Based on Saruman's conversation with Gandalf, the class sort of vaguely landed on "traveling" being part of that role. Saruman, as Prof Olsen noted, explicitly connects "the Gray" with traveling, saying: “Have you indeed, Gandalf the Grey! ...wandering about the lands," and "here you will stay, Gandalf the Grey, and rest from journeys."

I guess I don't think that traveling is an appointed task of the Gray Wizard, or that there is a specific discipline assigned to each Wizard color. I think at this stage in the story it seems more likely that Gandalf's color Gray has more to do with his personality, for lack of a better world. We will find out that Gandalf is also Olorin, who in the Silmarillion is described to have an affinity both with Lorien--Irmo, "master of visions and dreams"--and Nienna, who is "acquainted with grief and mourns for every wound that Arda has suffered." We are further told that Olorin "walked among [the Elves in Valinor] unseen, or in form as one of them, and they did not know whence came the fair visions or the promptings of wisdom that he put into their hearts. In later days he was the friend of all the Children of Ilúvatar, and took pity on their sorrows." Operating in the world of dreams, offering compassion for the hurts of middle earth, and distributing fair visions and promptings of wisdom in disguise or unseen--if put into a color--to me would be Gray. It's like he chose the color of his raiment as an enfleshed Maiar the way natural Maia choose to appear with certain features.

I don't think this is necessarily exclusive of the idea that Wizards have assignments. I mean, Saruman/Curunir was a disciple of Aule I believe, so it follows perhaps that he would be given the responsibility to learn and understand that renegade disciple of Aule, Sauron. And perhaps that role earns him the color of White and the position as head of the whole order, though his position as "head" of the order appears to have been up for discussion after the Istari arrived in Middle Earth, because Galadriel advocates for Gandalf. But maybe Saruman 'chooses' White because it aligns with his activity, which is understanding and opposing his brother-in-Aule-discipleship Sauron.

I wonder (and fearlessly speculate) that Radagast was a disciple of Yavannah, and that his chosen color Brown is representative of his personality or interest. I wonder why he was sent, a bit--perhaps the Valar hoped to harness a bit of the natural world to oppose Sauron, or prevent Sauron from further marring the natural world? And the blue wizards? What could be their provenance and purpose?

Rachel Port

Active Member
Grey and silver are very important and keep recurring in this book. I thought of this when we were talking about Shadowfax who was a shade of grey that shone like silver in the sun and became almost invisible in the night. The elves are associated with grey, and the cloaks the elves of Lorien give to the travelers are grey and can blend with most natural backrounds, containing elements of green and brown as well. In Rohan, the cloaks hide Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas from the riders of Rohan. Also, the rope the elves give to Sam is a silver-grey and glows in the dark. The bark of the mallorn trees are grey. And are the elf boats also grey? Mithril is silver in color. The elfstone Galadriel gives to Aragorn is set in silver. The elves depart Middle Earth at the Gray Havens. The runes on the gates of Moria are silver (made of mithril). And that's just what I can think of right now; there must be more.

So grey has two sides - it can shine out brightly or provide camouflage. I can't help thinking that all of this has something to do, not necessarily with Gandalf's job, but with his qualities. Even when he returns as Gandalf the White, he cloaks himself in grey to hide his brightness. And his comings and goings in the Shire can be secretive, but he also is a master of fireworks.

On the Bridge of Khazad-dum Gandalf identifies himself: "I am a servant Secret Fire, wielder of the flame of Anor. You cannot pass! The dark fire will not avail you, flame of Udûn. Go back to the Shadow! You cannot pass!"

Does grey cloak his bearing the Ring of Fire? His actual relationship to the fire of the Sun? Smoke is always associated with fire. Maybe that's why this class had such a hard time figuring out what his actual job was. I always thought he had announced it on the Bridge of Khazad-dum.

This isn't really a reply to your hypothesis, but your thoughts about the colors of the wizards seemed related to thoughts I've been having for a while about Gandalf's color in particular.
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This conversation literally blew my mind when I listened to it a few weeks ago. It made so much sense as it was talked through. I really wanted to think about it more, so thank you @MattfromWI for prompting some further thoughts. Especially your comment on Gandalf's personality rather than discipline.

@Rachel Port, I love how you identify this as Gandalf's qualities rather than his job. That phrase opened a new door in my mind that shed new light on this whole topic for me. Here's where I got to in my thinking so far.

In the matter of the wizards and their colors, there is confusion because we don't know whether to align colors
a) arbitrarily
b) hierarchically
c) according to style/personality/quality or
d) according to role

If we dismiss the first two on the grounds that Tolkien had reasons for almost everything, and that hierarchy doesn't appear to play a role in the interactions of the wizards themselves. We are left with roles and style

I believe we can separate roles (what one does) from style (how one does) and thereby link color to role.

My main piece of evidence for all of this is Gandalf as a case study. When he is sent back, he is given a new color, a new role, but he operates with the same style.

His role has changed, as has his color
Piece of evidence #1. He says he was sent back, until his task is done. (TTT5)
Piece of evidence #2. He says "Yes, I am white now... Indeed I am Saruman, one might almost say, Saruman as he should have been. (TTT5)
Piece of evidence #3. Gandalf starts to openly challenge Sauron. Minas Tirith. Helm's Deep. Gate of Mordor

His style (character, quality, personality) has not changed.
Piece of evidence #4. He still gathers others and unites them. Minas Tirith. Helm's Deep. Gate of Mordor
Piece of evidence #5. He still wanders the land rather than setting up shop in a citadel, although now he wanders openly.
Piece of evidence #6. He still lets others play their roles. Although Gandalf is still "chief" in all these matters, Aragorn leads the armies. Frodo is still the ring bearer. Gandalf doesn't try to claim the headship, or sweep in and rescue Frodo and Sam to take them to Mount Doom.

So in conclusion, colors seem to indicate roles. (I'm going to speculate a little here on brown and blue)
  • White, the role to directly and visibly oppose Sauron.
  • Grey, to work in the shadows, indirectly and invisibly opposing Sauron.
  • Brown, well now... could it be that it is his job to be a watcher and a messenger? This is what Radagast does.
  • Blue, we have scant evidence but we do have some. They both traveled East and their robes are sea-blue, which to me is suggestive of the constant movement of the sea. Other evidence from Tolkien's later writings doesn't seem to bear on our current conversation. I wonder if it was their lot to travel throughout the Eastern lands.
Their personalities, or qualities, determine how they fulfill their roles.
  • Saruman turns to knowledge, devices and weapons, and directly opposes Sauron thusly in line with his role.
  • Gandalf wanders and unites people. He digs out ancient stories and indirectly opposes Sauron by gathering and building grass-roots strength.
  • Radagast makes messengers and watchers out of the beasts and birds that he befriends.
  • The blue wizards travel, and although they perform the same role, they appear to do it differently because they are given different names. Morinehtar and Rómestámo, who as Darkness-Slayer and East-Helper use methods according to their own personalities to achieve their joint given role.
It seems likely to me that the wizards were assigned their colors (again, guessing a little from the way Gandalf was sent back as the White) rather than chose them, but that assignation was made with regard to their personalities.

Congratulations to anyone who made it this far through my long post. If I can wake myself up in time I hope to join you all live in as many formats as I can manage this evening (tomorrow morning for me). I am all caught up (3 months!), and excited to be live for the first time.
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Rachel Port

Active Member
Gandalf as community organizer? I love it, LyndonLeaves. One thing I would add to Saruman's way of fulfilling his role - he studies the works and methods of Sauron - that's part of his ring lore. He immerses himself in the works of the Enemy - and I like the way you contrast his methods with Gandalf's.

I do hope you are able to join us live. I just started since the class went on YouTube live. It's so good to be able to join the discussion instead of just talking at the screen. :)
Thanks Rachel. Great add about Saruman. Fully agree.

How do you join YouTube live? I looked for it, but couldn't find it.


New Member
Thank you both for the conversation! @LyndonLeaves I also like the idea of Gandalf as community organizer, though I think that is a result of his affinity to Nienna and Irmo: he harnesses compassion, vision, and dreams to draw people closer emotionally/spiritually. I think this is evident too during his stint as the "white" wizard--as you point out, he helps gather the scattered Riders for and after Helm's Deep, he orchestrates the summit between the Ents and everybody else, he strides the walls of Minas Tirith tirelessly during the battle of the Pelennor lifting the fighters' spirits. Although he seems to have the ability to oppose Sauron & Co directly, he does so rarely--for example, attacking the Nazgul who pursue Faramir.

Saruman, I...don't get. In some writings he seems to be the first to volunteer to go oppose Sauron (and maybe is the de facto chief for that reason), in others he gets chosen as the chief because he is concerned with "devices" and "arts" as an adherent of Aule, and seems to be most suited to hinder/understand Sauron as a result. In any case, Saruman behaves like Feanor at his worst: he seeks knowledge alone in the bowels of Minas Tirith and tells nobody what he finds, he seeks to dwell in Isengard to devise and engineer things, and probably to have access to the palantir, he is jealous and eventually makes the same prideful fall that Feanor did. Maybe that Aule did with the dwarves, though with less humility about it?

I guess perhaps Gandalf is gray because gray is--as @Rachel Port points out--it contains understated beauty as well as camouflage. In that sense it is appropriate to the spiritual/emotional dimension in which Gandalf operates. But was gray designated for Gandalf ("We need a gray wizard, guys--Olorin, can you do it?") or was it the raiment he chose when he decided to go? Maybe there is one pre-designated role, the White Wizard who is to oppose Sauron by gathering and aiding the free peoples, and Saruman took that role. The other four volunteers then got to choose their own raiment?

I guess I don't have a conclusion here. But it's lovely to hear your names in the classes, and the best part of this "long form" considerations is that we can continue to add to this theme, or parley it into more themes, over the next 15 years haha.

Rachel Port

Active Member
How do you join YouTube live? I looked for it, but couldn't find it.
I think it will appear in your suggested videos if you subscribe to Exploring LOTR. That's how I found out it had gone live. Or you could go to the Signum University page (or whatever it's called) and it probably will be posted there.
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New Member
Great thoughts, I would just like to put out there options C and D don't necessarily have to be mutually exclusive. It's possible that there's a little bit of what came first, the role or the style? There may have been a loose idea of the role, and the person who filled it would need that kind of style. Or the color was assigned to that person because of their style, and then the role was defined by them. Though White does seem to have a much more defined role or more significant meaning assigned to it.