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Lord of the Rings wizards ranked from least to most powerful

The image of a wizard conjuring magic is familiar to any fan of high fantasy, but there's one class of spell-weavers in particular that laid the groundwork for this trend of modern sorcery: the Istari of Middle-earth. Whether you're talking about Gandalf the Grey, Saruman the White, Radagast the Brown, or that pair of mysterious blue fellas that are barely ever mentioned, the wizards of Middle-earth have held the enchanted attention of the popular imagination for decades.

The funny thing is, when J.R.R. Tolkien first came up with his "wizards," he wasn't describing Hogwarts alumni. Nor was he picturing a human alchemist stooped over a boiling pot as they attempt to harness the magical properties of their surroundings. The wizards of Middle-earth are cut from an entirely different cloth. Angelic in nature, these magical beings are extremely difficult to pin down — let alone rank — without a reasonable understanding of just who they are and what the heck they're doing wandering around with dirty, tattered robes and supercharged walking sticks.

That said, it's worth taking a quick trip through Middle-earth lore in order to sort out just what Tolkien's wizards are, where they come from, and why they exist in the first place. After that, we should be able to accurately break down which wizards are the most powerful — at least as far as we can, based on our poorly informed, mortal intellects.

The Valar and the Maiar

If you want to understand Tolkien's wizards properly, you need to go back to before the beginning of time itself. Middle-earth's history starts with the Supreme Being and Creator, Ilúvatar. He creates a group of angelic creatures known as the Ainur or "Holy Ones." Together with their Creator, the Ainur literally sing Middle-earth into existence and then a select group of them take physical form and descend into the new world to help govern it in the name of Ilúvatar.

This subgroup is then further divided into two more groups: the Valar and the Maiar. The Valar are the 14 top dogs of the bunch. They are, in effect, the primary gods and guardians of Middle-earth. Everyone else is considered a Maiar. While technically less prestigious than the Valar, the Maiar still have incredible power. They help build continents, control the oceans, and even guide the sun and moon through the sky. Over the course of early Middle-earth history, most of the Valar and Maiar end up withdrawing to a continent in the far west of the world, governing Middle-earth from afar.

The beings that would eventually don a physical body and show up back on the western shores of Middle-earth, magical staffs in hand, are from the order of the Maiar. However, they don't look like wizards yet. At this point, they're still spiritual in both nature and physical appearance — or lack thereof.

The origin of the Order of the Wizards

We've established that the wizards began as angelic super-beings that lived in a hidden land far away from Middle-earth. The question that naturally follows, then, is how did they get to the point where they're wandering around the Shire, Gondor, and elsewhere offering advice, shooting off fireworks, and delivering or subduing nations by scheming and brute force? The answer comes in the important distinction that Tolkien made between uppercase "Wizards" and the common "wizards" of legend.

The Oxford professor's wizards are a distinct group of beings that only existed during the Third Age of Middle-earth history. Roughly a millennia into that Third Age (which lasted for just over three thousand years) the Valar select a group of Maiar and send them to Middle-earth as secret ambassadors. The goal is to help the Free Peoples of the World in their fight against Sauron. When they arrive, these agents of the West appear as old men, although they're physically able to move around as if they were in their prime.

This specific group of emissaries becomes known as the Order of the Wizards. There are officially five members: Saruman, Gandalf, Radagast, Alatar, and Pallando. However, Tolkien does mention in the book Unfinished Tales that their total number is technically unknown and there could have been more.

The Wizards of Middle-earth

With such a unique origin story, it should come as no surprise that a Middle-earth wizard operates a bit differently than your average sorcerer. First off, it's important to point out that the wizards are restricted by the very nature of their "old man beings." These fleshly bodies hamper their supernatural abilities and even dim their understanding. They also expose them to the fears and weariness that come from having a physical form.

This is all done in order to ensure that they actually fulfill their quest of helping overthrow Sauron. In other words, they are forbidden to simply go toe to toe with the Dark Lord, who is also a Maia, in order to topple him from power. This is because the Valar feared the wizards might be tempted to make a power grab themselves — a fear that Saruman ends up justifying with flying colors.

Tolkien's wizards come across as a bit restrained on the surface. However, underneath all of those robes and wrinkly skin, these wizards are actually more powerful than any human magician could ever be. They have a spiritual pedigree that is literally other-worldly, and they have a distinct mission to help others, whether they carry it out or not.

Ground rules

Okay, we've got a solid foundation now for what it is that we're working with — five angelic beings sent to help the Free Peoples of the World in the fight against Sauron. When it comes to ranking them, a few things need to be taken into consideration.

First, there's the straight-up wizardly power that they demonstrate. While wizard duels and balls of fire are all well and good as a benchmark, the judging shouldn't stop there. It should also consider how effective they are in carrying out their collective quest. It's also important to take into account how well each wizard coaxes or compels those around them to ensure they accomplish their goals. After all, Saruman with an army of 10,000 Uruk-hai is hands down more powerful than Saruman alone.

We're also going to break the career arcs of Saruman and Gandalf into two distinct sections. Gandalf the Grey (that is Gandalf up until he fights the Balrog) and Gandalf the White (after he fights the Balrog) will be ranked separately. Similarly, Saruman the White (before he goes to the dark side) and Saruman of many colors (after he breaks bad) will be judged separately. Last, but not least, the Blue Wizards, Alatar and Pallando, are so closely linked that they will have to be judged as one unit.

The Blue Wizards

Typically lumped together in Tolkien's writings, Alatar and Pallando initially head into the far eastern lands of Middle-earth with Saruman, but only the white wizard returns. After this mysterious parting, very little is known of the pair of sea-blue Istari, although in many of his earlier writings Tolkien hints at the fact that they failed in their mission to fight against Sauron.

Even so, he mentions in a letter in 1958 that he suspects they founded "secret cults and magic traditions," which likely also means they gathered a number of followers. In the book The Peoples of Middle-earth, Tolkien expresses a slightly different opinion. He explains that the Blue Wizards actually arrived earlier than their companions and helped to keep the eastern lands in disarray, thus preventing Sauron from using overwhelming forces from the east to crush the west. In this version, the two wizards are known as Darkness-slayer and East-helper.

While this second account is a bit more promising, with such a small sample size of their power to work with and the fact that Tolkien himself speculated that they failed in their mission, we're forced to leave these two at the bottom of the totem pole. At least there's two of them, so no one has to be alone in last place.

Radagast the Brown

Radagast the Brown's quirky presence in The Hobbit trilogy, while a bit odd, does do a pretty good job of demonstrating how confusing the wizard is to rank. On one hand, he comes across as distractable. He travels less than the other wizards and spends a lot of his time communing with and tending to the birds and the beasts of Middle-earth. While this is all well and good to a degree, his preoccupation with nature comes across as a bit lackadaisical — at least when it comes to helping the Free Peoples fight Sauron.

On the other hand, Radagast is certainly a good guy. He only helps Saruman when he thinks the wizard is acting for the greater good, and in the book The Fellowship of the Ring, he is the one that sends the eagles to bust Gandalf from Saruman's tower. He also spends a good deal of time living right next to the Necromancer around the time of The Hobbit, which seems to indicate that he was involved in keeping tabs on the villain.

All in all, it's hard to find distinct reasons to put him higher on the list, but he does beat out the Blue Wizards if only for the fact that he has an army of eagles backing him up.

Gandalf the Grey

At this point, everyone and their mother knows that Gandalf is a pretty powerful wizard, even if you're only talking about Gandalf the Grey — that is, the wizard up until he fights the Balrog on the bridge of Khazad-dûm. Even during this earlier part of his career, he still easily beats out Radagast and the Blue Wizards.

For starters, the wanderer in grey clearly keeps his eyes on the prize throughout his tenure in Middle-earth. He's always ready to help the good guys and fight the bad guys, whether he's manipulating hobbits and dwarves to head out on random treasure hunts or he's physically escorting the One Ring to the Cracks of Doom. And speaking of the One Ring, he also resists the temptation to take it from Frodo and use it to dominate others.

On top of that, he's clearly got some pretty sweet powers. He can create fire with his staff, and his magical fireworks are the coolest entertainment this side of Bag End. Add to that the fact that he's the bearer of Narya, one of the three elven rings. This powerful piece of jewelry gives him endurance and helps him inspire others. Finally, while the event does temporarily take him down, the wizard is able to duel a Balrog and actually kill it. Add it all up and Gandalf the Grey solidly lands in the middle of the list.

Saruman the White

Ranking Saruman the White is a tough one, as we're talking about Saruman before he became a lord in his own right. With that in mind, it's tempting to think Gandalf should win out here, but let's take a look at the facts.

Even before he had armies of wargs and Uruk-hai at his beck and call, Saruman was still an imposing leader. He was highly skilled and possessed vast amounts of knowledge. Even Gandalf deferred to him at this point. In The Fellowship of the Ring, he tells Frodo that the white wizard is "great among the Wise," and that "his knowledge is deep." High praise from a fellow wizard.

In addition, Saruman the White is the head of the White Council — a council that includes Galadriel and Gandalf, no less — and is the chief of the Order of the Wizards. As a leader, he even does a decent amount of work in the fight against Sauron, even if his loyalties slowly begin to shift later on. He also possesses the seeing-stone of Orthanc that allows him to watch many things without ever having to leave his tower.

While his power often comes across as more political in nature, it does feel like he edges out Gandalf the Grey, if only due to the fact that the grey wizard deferentially speaks about him as the leader of his own order.

Saruman of Many Colors

If Saruman's early life as a wizard is heavy on the politics, his later career is drowning in it. When the white wizard goes bad, he starts by shedding his pale title for a more colorful designation: Saruman of Many Colors — in the books he even swaps out his white robes for shimmering, colorful ones.

At this point, Saruman is no longer pursuing his quest to help for the greater good, which is certainly a negative. However, this is outweighed by the fact that he goes from a powerful but wandering wizard into an overpowered warlord ruling a kingdom. He has thousands of minions at his disposal and even tries to capture the One Ring for himself in order to take on Sauron, something he wasn't supposed to be able to do in wizard form.

Another thing that helps put Saruman of Many Colors so high on the list is the fact that he is able to capture Gandalf and keep him in his prison. In the Lord of the Rings movies, he even beats him in a wizard duel — which, if a bit painful to watch, still shows off the fact that he's got some chops even in face-to-face combat. Apart from the fact that he wanders from his true purpose, pretty much everything about Saruman of Many Colors is bigger and more powerful than his past life as Saruman the White.

Gandalf the White

Finally, we have Gandalf the White. Reincarnated after battling the Balrog, Gandalf kicks off the "white" part of his wizarding career in style. He starts by showing that he's immune to the weapons of his friends when they accidentally attack him in the Old Forest. Then he proceeds to heal Théoden of his spiritual sickness.

From there he helps to orchestrate a war against Saruman, which ends with him literally breaking the wizard's staff into bits and casting him out of both the Order of the Wizards and the White Council. His star continues to rise as he rallies Gondor against an invasion and leads the defense of the White City of Minas Tirith. He ultimately rallies the men of the West in a desperate attempt to distract Sauron long enough to enable the ring bearer to finish his quest.

The cherry on top? In Unfinished Tales, Tolkien points out that Gandalf is the only wizard to actually reach retirement and head back to the west after his task is complete. From putting Saruman in his place to playing the part of the guiding hand in the war against Sauron, Gandalf the White ends up proving to be the most powerful wizard in all of Middle-earth history.

Honorable mentions

It's worth taking a moment to provide an honorable mention for a few of the other Maiar who, while not technically wizards, do show off some pretty fantastic powers over the course of Tolkien's stories.

There are several good Maiar that make the list. Melian, for instance, is a Maiar that marries the Elven King Thingol and, in the First Age, literally maintains a forcefield of sorts around their kingdom. Ossë is another powerful Maiar that loves to create raging storms in the seas. Arien and Tilion are a pair of Maia that steer the sun and the moon respectively through the sky.

On the villainous side of the ledger, we have Durin's Bane — that is, the Balrog that Gandalf fights in Moria. And then there's Gothmog, an even greater evil Maia known as the Lord of Balrogs who shows up multiple times throughout the First Age. And last, but certainly not least, there's Sauron. The Dark Lord is one of the most powerful Maiar to ever walk Middle-earth, and it takes repeated defeats to finally humble him.

All of these Maiar, good and bad, provide an interesting insight into the true potential that the five wizards have, even if it's carefully layered beneath their mortal forms. It begs the question, which wizard would win if they were "unleashed" from their bodies and allowed to operate in their true spiritual form? Alas, with both Tolkien and his son both passed on, we'll likely never know.