The titles of Wizards, and the business of The Grey

Flammifer

Well-Known Member
White, Brown and Grey. The three Wizards we meet in TLOTR each have a color for a title. Each also seems to have a job, or ‘business’ in Middle Earth. What do we know about these titles? What can we speculate about what job goes with each?

White – We first hear of this title when Gandalf says to Frodo in ‘The Shadow of the Past’, “I might perhaps have consulted Saruman the White, but something always held me back.” “He is great among the Wise. He is the chief of my order and the head of the Council (The White Council – previously mentioned as the Council which drove the dark power from Mirkwood). His knowledge is deep, but his pride has grown with it, and he takes ill any meddling. The lore of the Elven-rings is his province. He has long studied it, seeking the lost secrets of their making; but when the Rings were debated in the Council, all that he would reveal to us of his ring-lore told against my fears.”

Gandalf, speaking at the Council of Elrond, of his thoughts after being told by Radagast that Saruman would help against the Nazgul, said of Saruman, “And that message brought me hope. For Saruman the White is the greatest of my order…. Saruman has long studied the arts of the Enemy himself, and thus we have often been able to forestall him. It was by the devices of Saruman that we drove him from Dol Guldur. It might be that he had found some weapons which would drive back the Nine.”

White – It seems that the job of The White is to directly oppose Sauron. The academic specialty of The White is the study of the arts of the Enemy. One of the businesses of The White is to create devices which are effective against the Dark Lord. The White Council is the Council of The White. He heads it, and it advises him and supports him in his job. The color symbolism is obvious. The White is so called because the job is to oppose the Black. The White should be a Lord of Light to oppose the Dark Lord.

Brown – In the Council of Elrond, Gandalf tells of his meeting with Radagast the Brown, “who at one time dwelt at Rhosgobel, near the borders of Mirkwood. He is one of my order, but I had not seen him for many a year…. Radagast is, of course, a worthy wizard, a master of shapes and changes of hue; and he has much lore of herbs and beasts, and birds are especially his friends.

Brown - It seems like the job of The Brown is something to do with herbs, beasts, and especially birds. His academic specialty seems to be ‘master of shapes and changes of hue’. Could the business of The Brown be to oppose the Dark Lord’s corruption of beasts and birds? Corruption such as has been evidenced in Mirkwood, and with the flying beasts of the Nazgul? In his role as master of shapes, did he give Beorn the power to change shape to that of a giant bear to protect the herbs and beasts and birds from the growing corruption from Dol Guldur? The Brown may also be a protector and confidant of the Eagles of Manwe? His is the agency by which they came to Orthanc and rescued Gandalf. Brown as a color links to the earth, perhaps to the brown leaves on the forest floor, and thus, forests and wild places. The connection between the color and the role of The Brown is less obvious than The White.

Grey – Unlike ‘The White’ and ‘The Brown’ where we get at least some descriptions of the roles, for The Grey, we can only speculate and deduce. Grey is a color between White and Black. The most prominent application of the title ‘Grey’ to a people is ‘Grey Elves’, as applied to the Sindar. The Grey Elves are those who turned towards the light of Valinor, and undertook the journey, but dropped out along the way and never arrived. Perhaps the business of The Grey was with all those peoples who were similarly ‘betwixt’? Looking towards the Light, but uncertain. Perhaps tempted by the Dark. Was the mission of The Grey to bring hope to those peoples caught in this conflict, and help them resist the Dark and work towards the Light? That would make the mission of the Grey to be towards Elves, Men, Hobbits and Dwarves who resisted the Dark Lord, but were tempted by him and vulnerable to him. The mission might not extend towards those who had rejected the Light and given their allegiance to the Dark, such as orcs, perhaps the Men in the far East and South?

Interesting, that it is a Grey Elf (Cirdan) who gives Gandalf his Elven Ring. Is it the Grey Elves who encourage Gandalf to stretch the boundaries of his title and role? When he actively intervenes in the course of events in Middle Earth (as he does in the quest of the Dwarves in The Hobbit), is Gandalf going beyond the role of The Grey, and edging into what should be the job of The White? (I think it may be a Grey area.) In any case, the Elves in Middle-earth do seem somewhat more comfortable with Gandalf rather than with Saruman.

Total speculation, but it seems to fit somewhat with what we know of Gandalf the Grey.

If anyone has a searchable LOTR, it might be interesting to see where the colors Brown and Grey are used and if they seem to resonate with these speculations?
 

amysrevenge

Well-Known Member
When he actively intervenes in the course of events in Middle Earth (as he does in the quest of the Dwarves in The Hobbit), is Gandalf going beyond the role of The Grey, and edging into what should be the job of The White? (I think it may be a Grey area.)
I think this ties in nicely with Saruman's diatribe about Gandalf "concerning himself in every business, whether it belongs to him or not."

Saruman, through inaction (at this point the others have no reason to suspect anything more nefarious, but the inaction is starting to become obvious), has abrogated many of his White duties, and Gandalf almost by default finds himself performing White tasks. Tasks to which he is not entirely suited as Gandalf the Grey, but is eminently suited for when he returns as Gandalf the White. I said it in class, but I think Gandalf the White would have found a way to not have left Bilbo and the Dwarves to face the Dragon alone, where Gandalf the Grey had conflicting loyalties and duties that pulled him away.
 
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Beech27

Active Member
After a quick search of Fellowship alone, it's interesting to me how often "grey" is used to describe natural elements. There are some obvious ones, of course. A cold day or sky may be grey, and a stone's face too. But many uses are, to me, pretty unique: Ancient trees have grey-green trunks; grass is grey with dew; and the east wind itself is grey. Interesting, too, is how grey Lothlórien and all its associated items are: cloaks, ropes, mirrors, threads, roads, etc. This seems true of Bombadil's realm as well. I feel like Tolkien uses the word more often than most, and in some slightly atypical ways that would be worth spending more time on than my cursory search.
 

Alcarlótë

Active Member
This is a great post and continuation of what happened during the ExLotR session :) At the moment, I only have one thought of mine to add:

Was the mission of The Grey to bring hope to those peoples caught in this conflict, and help them resist the Dark and work towards the Light? That would make the mission of the Grey to be towards Elves, Men, Hobbits and Dwarves who resisted the Dark Lord, but were tempted by him and vulnerable to him. The mission might not extend towards those who had rejected the Light and given their allegiance to the Dark, such as orcs, perhaps the Men in the far East and South?
Gandalf has spent enough time in the South (wherever specifically that was) to earn a name (Incanus) there but says he doesn't go into the East, which marks one more difference between the two general directions - Sauron, during the early Third Age, was somewhere in the East regaining power. The South is notable for the conflict between Gondor and the Black Numenoreans and later the Corsairs, the Gondorians that fled after being defeated in the Kin-Strife. Big parts of Near-Harad were also conquered and lost again by Gondor during the Third Age. Maybe the larger degree of relatable political conflict in at least some parts of the South relate to Gandalf going there but not to the East, which is uniformly treated like Sauron's prime territory and refuge. The Blue Wizards and their journey east might also have an influence on Gandalf's job description and/or geographic focus.
 

NancyL

Member
I can't tell if the color designations were something they chose for themselves, whether their Valar sponsors chose them, or whether they were something they just picked up along the way. I'm leaning towards the second option, but only because Saruman clearly resents his color after he's changed sides.
 

Kate Neville

Active Member
I think we need to look closely at the development of Gandalf from The Hobbit into The Lord of the Rings. Gandalf is never 'the Grey' in The Hobbit. But what sort of information would Tolkien have to work on when bringing him into TLOTR? He is "an old man with a staff...a tall pointed blue hat, a long grey cloak, a silver scar over which his long white beard hung down below his waist, and immense black boots." He was a great story teller, was apparently responsible for sending "quiet lads and lasses" off on adventures, and could make splendid fireworks (a talent which came in handy when they were stuck up in 15 fir trees). And he was given the Thror's map and key when he found Thrain in a dungeon of the Necromancer when he was "finding things out, as usual; and a nasty dangerous business it was." He has friends in Rivendell, and although he doesn't know Beorn personally, he knows enough about him to find a way to talk him into welcoming 13 dwarves and a hobbit. He knows how to lead the dwarves out of the goblin tunnels, he knows the Eagles, and can understand the language of wargs. Gandalf of The Hobbit is a man who 'smokes and knows things.' What would be the role of such a person in the larger epic tale of The Lord of the Rings?

The first mention of 'Gandalf the Grey' comes from Gandalf himself, when he says to Bilbo, "Then you will see Gandalf the Grey uncloaked." To the rest of the Shire, he was just Gandalf the Wizard, probably because he was the only wizard they knew. Tolkien is certainly inspired by his earlier choice of a grey cloak for Gandalf -- but as a sobriquet it is obviously more than a sartorial descriptor. Grey is such an elusive color -- it's the color of smoke and mist. A grey-cloaked person can travel without attracting attention, without declaring allegiance to any side. Saruman accuses him of "concerning himself in every business, whether it belongs to him or not." But it is clear from Gandalf's actions that 'concerning himself in every business' is his job. I like to think of him as the Wizard Without Portfolio. He calls himself the servant of the Secret Fire -- a fire which is not only present in every Child of Ilúvatar, but also in the core of Arda itself, which makes him a servant of the entire created world.

Saruman and Radagast, on the other hand, do have 'portfolios.' Gandalf again is the first to name Saruman 'the White' when talking with Frodo in Chapter 2. We learn from Gandalf that "the lore of the Elven-rings, great and small, is his province," and that he is the head of the White Council and "the chief of my order." In the Catholic Church, white vestments symbolize purity of soul and rejoicing, being used at Christmas and Easter (with gold) and for feasts of the angels and saints who weren't martyred. I suppose we are meant to think of Saruman as having a 'purer' vocation -- perhaps because he is studying to attack the enemy's power at its root. But I think Tolkien might also have been thinking of 'the White' as symbolizing a closer relationship to the Light, which ultimately comes from Eru. Elbereth is called 'snow-white' in the first Elven poem we hear, and Tolkien would have had in his mind (though not written on the page) his original idea that Elbereth/Varda "at the playing of the Music had thought much of light that was of white and silver, and of stars." (BoLT1) A wizard who has such a close relationship to the Light would indeed be considered great, but Saruman's decision to break the light simply to show off its component parts is a move away from the source of his greatness.

When Gandalf returns as 'the White,' I think it reflects the fact that his sacrifice has brought him closer to the Light, and so he is returned with greater power and more knowledge to take up the portfolio tossed aside by Saruman. I look forward to observing the ways in which he takes on a much more direct leadership role after his return.

I have nothing to add to what has already been said about Radagast the Brown, except that I see no reason to assume that he was NOT a member of the original White Council, which was a council of good wizards called to figure out what to do about that nasty Necromancer going around giving wizards a bad name.

Interesting that we first hear these color names for the wizards from Gandalf. Do you suppose he did that on the trip over? And were they happy about it?

[I am willing to look backward to what Tolkien would have known about his world while writing LOTR, but I am purposely ignoring his later developments about where the wizards came from and their relationships to the Valar.]
 

amysrevenge

Well-Known Member
I have nothing to add to what has already been said about Radagast the Brown, except that I see no reason to assume that he was NOT a member of the original White Council, which was a council of good wizards called to figure out what to do about that nasty Necromancer going around giving wizards a bad name.
Agreed. About all we know about Wizards (plural) is that there is a group of good ones. The very first time we meet a good wizard, I think it's an apt assumption he's on that council (or, rather, I feel like the burden of proof would tip the other way - there would need to be evidence that the very first good wizard we meet is NOT on the council of good wizards).
 

NancyL

Member
5 Wizards ... 5 Elements?
Air - Blue (1)
Earth - Brown
Fire - Normally Red, but since Gandalf served the secret fire, his color would be the grey of ash from which a fire could be woken.
Water - Blue (2)
Spirit - White
 

Flammifer

Well-Known Member
5 Wizards ... 5 Elements?
Air - Blue (1)
Earth - Brown
Fire - Normally Red, but since Gandalf served the secret fire, his color would be the grey of ash from which a fire could be woken.
Water - Blue (2)
Spirit - White
Hi NancyL,

I like your thought connecting the wizard colors to the elements.

Here's another wild speculation. We know that many languages have no word for the color 'Blue'. (Including ancient Greek - hence Homer's oft quoted references to 'the wine-dark sea'). Research shows that where there is no word for 'blue' in the language, native speakers cannot really 'see' the color blue. They cannot differentiate it from other colors. So the speculation is that JRRT titled two Wizards as 'Blue Wizards' simply because they are invisible (as far as any knowledge of them is concerned)!

(I think this is the sort of linguistic joke which JRRT would greatly enjoy.)

By the way, we should remember that 'Blue Wizards' do not exist in TLOTR. They are a later (and rather sketchy) thought by JRRT, probably concocted just to explain Saruman's reference to 'the staffs of the five wizards'.
 

Jim Deutch

Well-Known Member
Research shows that where there is no word for 'blue' in the language, native speakers cannot really 'see' the color blue. They cannot differentiate it from other colors. So the speculation is that JRRT titled two Wizards as 'Blue Wizards' simply because they are invisible (as far as any knowledge of them is concerned)!
"[citation needed]" !

I'm pretty sure this research post-dates tLotR. It probably post-dates JRRT himself. I still like these speculations about Wizards anyway. Fun and interesting!
 

Flammifer

Well-Known Member
Hi Jim,

I have no idea when people first observed that many languages have no word for blue, and then, when researchers noticed that native speakers of those languages often could not really see the color blue.

You may be right that it post dates JRRT.

I like to think that he was aware of the linguistic phenomenon in Greek at least.

In any event, whether he could have produced it or not, to have titled the Blue Wizards blue, because they are invisible, is exactly the sort of linguistic joke which I think Tolkien would have enjoyed!

PS. For citations, just Google 'languages with no word for the color blue', and you will find lots of citations with a little digging.
 

Anthony Lawther

Active Member
The top hit on Google Scholar is to a paper that suggests that the languages that don't have a word for blue are in high-UV exposure regions of the world, while people living in low-UV exposure regions do have words for blue, and that this is evidence of phototoxic effects on people in those regions.

Equally, if the sky is always 'blue' and the sea is always 'blue' do you actually need the word blue, or are 'sky' and 'sea' sufficient?
What colour is a 'clear sky'? I'd say blue, but then I speak English and I'm not from England.
An Englishman might ask 'What do you mean by a clear sky?' ;-)
 

Jim Deutch

Well-Known Member
Google 'languages with no word for the color blue', and you will find lots of citations with a little digging.
Trying to invoke some google-fu, I searched on "can see blue" (without the quotes). Interesting stuff! In particular, it turns out this observation about ancient languages is not recent at all, and could easily have been known to JRRT:

https://www.sciencealert.com/humans-didn-t-see-the-colour-blue-until-modern-times-evidence-science said:
But there's actually evidence that, until modern times, humans didn't actually see the colour blue.

As Kevin Loria reported for Business Insider back in 2015, the evidence dates all the way back to the 1800s.

That's when scholar William Gladstone - who later went on to be the Prime Minister of Great Britain - noticed that, in the Odyssey, Homer describes the ocean as "wine-dark" and other strange hues, but he never uses the word 'blue'.

A few years later, a philologist (someone who studies language and words) called Lazarus Geiger decided to follow up on this observation, and analysed ancient Icelandic, Hindu, Chinese, Arabic, and Hebrew texts to see if they used the colour.

He found no mention of the word blue.
to have titled the Blue Wizards blue, because they are invisible, is exactly the sort of linguistic joke which I think Tolkien would have enjoyed!
I agree! But I think it's more likely that he didn't know they were "invisible" until he got to the end of the book and they had never appeared. :rolleyes:
 

Forodan

Member
The idea that ancient people could not see blue is a canard. There has not been enough time since what we consider 'ancient' history (only a few thousand years ago) for human vision to have changed in any significant way. Ancient peoples were just as able to perceive blue as we are, but they usually would not have a word for it unless they could produce it -- meaning with a particular dye or pigment. Which makes sense. How many shades of any 'pure' color could you define if you wanted to try to sort them all out? Hundreds. So there is not much real-world use in naming 'pure' colors themselves, only colors 'of' particular things. And that's how colors are usually described in ancient literature.

Getting back to Saruman and modern science as something -- hmm, not optimal? -- the reason we have these broad names for categories of colors is Newton. He discovered the spectrum as such by splitting light through a prism. With that knowledge, which would be expanded to the entire 'electromagnetic spectrum' a couple centuries later, you could name broad categories of 'pure' colors instead of individual colors of particular things. But that is actually a limitation not an advance. Pure colors are mostly abstractions, rarely found in the real world. Actual things are almost always in-between shades, and even mottled with many different colors. Which is why the ancient preferred to use the names for the things that had the color(s) they wanted to invoke. But of course, such descriptions will inevitably get tangled with other properties of objects that we would not consider 'color' in our modern abstract sense of pure colors. Textures, patterns, etc., are also part of 'color' in ancient texts. But this also makes sense. That's the real world they experienced. Our idea of the 'colors of the spectrum' is an illusion brought about by our being taught an abstract schema that doesn't exist in the real world...

Which leads to a much broader problem of the translation of color descriptions in ancient languages. Ancient Greek and Latin writers just don't use the concept of color in the same way as we do, and it can be very confusing to translate. They hadn't been told by Newton to simplify their color perception! :) But they could definitely see the colors we can see. Blue and purple pigments, such as Tyrian purple (murex dye) and indigo, were recognized as such in even the ancient world. Here are some links to stories about an obscure field of archeology.



 
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Halstein

Active Member
In Norwegian we have no word for maroon, but we can see it. It is called "rød-brun" which means "red-brown". According to our English-teacher the colour might be less popular in Norway, than in Britain, because it lacked it's own proper name.
 

Jim Deutch

Well-Known Member
The idea that ancient people could not see blue is a canard. There has not been enough time since what we consider 'ancient' history (only a few thousand years ago) for human vision to have changed in any significant way.
I don't think anyone maintains that any genetic changes are involved. It's more a psychology thing, as you go on to write above.
Interestingly, Stan Gedzelman maintains that nobody ever drew or painted a cloud until late Roman times. He's written a whole book "The Soul of All Scenery - a history of the sky in art". But he's not an art historian, he's a meteorologist...
 

Kate Neville

Active Member
and all I can think of is the wide and varied and sometimes bizarre names for various paint colors at Sherwin-Williams...
 

Jim Deutch

Well-Known Member
the wide and varied and sometimes bizarre names for various paint colors at Sherwin-Williams...
Wow, I just took a look. Wouldn't it be crazy to be in their marketing department. Such fun making up color names! Three blue shades in a row are named "After the Rain", "Surfin'" and "Sky Fall" (which is a bit ominous, if you ask me).
 
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