Radagast Gets a Backstory (But Not Much of One)

Yesterday we talked about Radagast in The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, so today let’s see what Tolkien had to say about him after that – in the Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales. It should be remembered that neither of those two works were finished by Tolkien. While he wished for The Silmarillion to be published and had it nearly complete on a few occasions, he never gave any thought at all to a work entitled Unfinished Tales.

This means that the stories contained within it are unfinished in every sense of the word. They were not intended for publication. However, in most cases they are the final word and it contains some of the last things he ever wrote. Some consider them canon, and that makes sense. Some (like me) generally consider them, but enjoy pointing out the contradictions and inconsistencies because we’re pedantic and fun (seriously, it’s fun).

So let’s go!

Radagast is mentioned in “Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age,” when the Istari (wizards) are being discussed. This portin of the Silmarillion basically gives a quick synopsis of the events in and around Lord of the Rings. It’s here that the wizards are introduced. We learn that at first, only Cirdan of the Grey Havens knew their true nature, and he only told Elrond and Galadriel. Somehow or another word got out (probably from Elrond who couldn’t shut up about anything) that they were “messengers sent by the Lords of the West to contest the power of Sauron, if he should arise again, and to move Elves and Men and all living things of good will to valiant deeds.” Or so rumor had it.

The Istari looked like Men, but aged slowly. Their chiefs were Mithrandir and Curunir (Gandalf and Saruman). Saruman came first, followed by Gandalf and then Radagast, and then “others of the Istari who went into the east of Middle-earth, and do not come into these tales.” (These were later to be called the Blue Wizards.)

This passage has very little to say about Radagast except that he “was the friend of all beasts and birds.” Saruman’s treachery is also mentioned, and Radagast comes into the short story once more. Saruman “gathered a great host of spies, and many of these were birds; for Radagast lent him his aid, divining naught of his treachery, and deeming that this was but part of the watch upon the Enemy.”

It seems pretty clear that the black crows seen by the Fellowship on Hollin Ridge were originally Radagast’s friends (you know, possibly). While the White Council began to suspect Saruman, Radagast, not being on the White Council, had no reason to.

The Silmarillion merely recounts the version in Lord of the Rings (especially in Appendix B). This makes sense as it was completed in late 1951, and originally meant for inclusion in the main text of Lord of the Rings (or at least in some Appendix or another) .

For a bit more detail, we’ll have to hit up “The Istari,” which appears in Unfinished Tales. This was written a few years later in 1954, but continually referenced by Tolkien through 1972. This is a fun little essay, but I’ll do what I can to focus upon Radagast.

Here, it’s said that there were probably more than five Istari, but only five came to Middle-earth. Saruman came first, as it was previously said, but in this version, the two Blue Wizards, and then Radagast came next. Bringing up the rear was Gandalf, but Cirdan could see that he was the “greatest spirit and the wisest.”

Gandalf was, according to this, the only wizard who “remained faithful.” Saruman had his treachery, the Blue Wizards went East and disappeared (possibly at Saruman’s hand, but who knows), and Radagast, “became enamoured of the many beasts and birds that dwelt in Middle-earth, and forsook Elves and Men, and spent his days among the wild creatures”.

While Gandalf and Saruman had been given other names (Mithrandir and Curunir), Radagast so far was simply Radagast. In the Numenorean language, it means “tender of beasts,” though Tolkien had also mentioned that it was “a name derived from the Men of the Vales of Anduin, ‘not now clearly interpretable.'” This latter glossing was written later in his life and is probably what he settled upon.

There is also an origin story. Up to this point, Tolkien gave no indication where the Istari came from. Sure, they were Maiar (Olorin in the early pages of the Silmarillion was Gandalf), but how they came to Middle-earth wasn’t told.

Tolkien worked on this idea for awhile, mostly in random notes. The now-famous story involves a council of the Valar called by Manwe to send three emissaries to Middle-earth. Two Maiar came forward – Curumo (Saruman) and Alatar (Blue Wizard #1). Manwe specifically requested Orlorin (Gandalf). One of the Vala named Varda said that she didn’t want Gandalf to be “the third,” meaning that he should be the first. Saruman would not forget this. Ever.

Anyway, Radagast came along as a bit of an afterthought to the Valar, it seems. Manwe had only wanted three and now he had three. But Yavanna begged Saruman to take Aiwendil (Radagast – he’s got another name now!), and Saruman couldn’t really refuse. And Alatar (Blue Wizard #1) just decided to bring along his friend Pallando (Blue Wizard #2), making it five.

That it was Yavanna who picked Radagast is telling. Yavanna was related to plants; her name meaning “giver of fruits”. She co-created the two white trees, and it was also she who created the Ents in order to protect the Trees after Aule created the Dwarves, who would destroy them. Incidentally, it was Aule who sponsored Saruman, and we’ll see that Yavanna’s Ents would have to deal with that as well.

So now we know much about the very limits of the canonical Radagast. Tomorrow, let’s dig into the drafts and see what kind of things we shall find! Will there be giant spiders, a magic hedgehog, and bird shit everywhere? I doubt it!

A Few Notes

  • In the late 50s, when a film company was trying to make a movie out of Lord of the Rings, the screenplay transformed Radagast into an Eagle. Tolkien wasn’t thrilled about any of it. “I feel very unhappy about the extreme silliness and incompetence of [Morton Grady Zimmerman, who was writing the screenplay], and his complete lack of respect for the original (it seems wilfully wrong without discernible technical reasons at nearly every point).
  • Look at me not mentioning Radagast from the Jackson movies (well, okay… not until the very end). Also look at me not using a photo of Sylvester McCoy (though McCoy is pretty awesome).
Camera: Holga 120N  Film: Fujichrome Provia 100 x-pro as C-41

Camera: Holga 120N
Film: Fujichrome Provia 100 x-pro as C-41

About the Photo
If Radagast the Brown is going out steppin’ to Middle-earth, he’d definitely pick up a few things at the Outdoor Store. He would also live in Portland because of course he would.


  • Day 146
  • Miles today: 5
  • Miles thus far: 721 (267 from Rivendell)
  • 73 miles to the Doors of Moria
  • 200 miles to Lothlórien
  • 1,058 miles to Mt. Doom

Today’s stopping place in the narrative: Book II, Chapter 3. Encamped along the western foothills of the Misty Mountains. 17th night out from Rivendell. January 10, 3019 TA. (map)

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