The Curious Case of Radagast the Brown

Radagast the Brown

Radagast the Brown is one of those mysteries left to us by Tolkien; but unlike many other unresolved issues, we do get hints of his character here and there. Perhaps, it’s one of the reasons why I find him so alluring and why I’ve avoided writing a “Character Profile” post on his character, since he technically isn’t in The Hobbit.

Nevertheless, Sylvester McCoy’s performance in Peter Jackson’s films have reasserted my interest in this most unique character and here’s hoping I’ll provide all the little information we have about him.

Who was Radagast the Brown?

A member of the Order of wizards, Radagast was a Maia sent to Middle-earth to help aid its inhabitants against the growing threat of Sauron. It is said that he loved animals more thanRadagast anything else. Furthermore, during the Council of Elrond, Gandalf says of him:

“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.”

It seems that Radagast was a powerful Maia in his own way. Being able to communicate with animals and have the ability to change shapes and create illusions are certainly essential qualities.

He also dwelt in Rhosgobel, “near the Southern borders of Mirkwood” (The Hobbit – Chapter 7,Queer Lodgings”).

Don’t be fooled by his foolishness …

Radagast’s only scene in Tolkien’s world appears in The Lord of the Rings in the shape of a flashback. During the Council of Elrond, Gandalf relates the story of how he went to Orthanc and was there betrayed by Saruman.

Radagast and GandalfOn his way to Isengard, he encounters Radagast who delivers him a message. It was Radagast who informs him of the Nazgûl’s reappearance as riders in black, searching for “The Shire”; and he who delivers Saruman’s message for assistance.

Of course, Radagast had no knowledge of Saruman’s betrayal and was simply acting as a messenger between friends.

The Brown wizard may come across as slightly absent-minded and definitely not interested anymore in his original purpose – unlike Gandalf. He is even called “a fool” by a mocking Saruman. Yet, there’s more to Radagast than meets the eye.

We’ve already established that he’s a master of birds and animals and indeed, in his meeting with Gandalf, he was ordered to: “Send out messages to all the beasts and birds that are your friends. Tell them to bring news of anything that bears on this matter to Saruman and Gandalf” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book II: Chapter 2, “The Council of Elrond”).

Clearly Radagast was an important element in the gathering of information through the natural world; and he still was a Maia after all.

RhosgobelFurthermore, Gandalf says once more about him that: “he rode away towards Mirkwood where he had many friends of old. And the Eagles of the Mountains went far and wide, and they saw many things”(The Fellowship of the Ring, Book II: Chapter 2, “The Council of Elrond”).

It is therefore a strong possibility that thanks to Radagast, Gwaihir came to the rescue of Gandalf in Orthanc; and may have also contributed to the arrival of the Eagles during the Battle of the Morannon at the Black Gates of Mordor.

Radagast, it seems, was indispensable after all.

We also learn that Radagast was not much of a wanderer: “You were never a traveller, unless driven by great need.”

Radagast in The Two Towers? The most fascinating mystery …

Undoubtedly, what makes Radagast such a fantastic character (apart from everything else) is his apparent appearance early-on in The Two Towers.

In one of the most ambiguous scenes from The Lord of the Rings, a tired trio of hunters (Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli) find themselves resting for the night beside the eaves of Fangorn:

“Suddenly Gimli looked up, and there just on the edge of the fire-light stood an old bent man, leaning on a staff, and wrapped in a great cloak; his wide-brimmed hat was pulled down over his eyes”

(The Two Towers, Book III: Chapter 2 –  “The Riders of Rohan”)

Radagast (close-up)The old man doesn’t speak and as Aragorn tried to approach him “the old man was gone. There was no trace of him to be found near at hand…”. Soon after, their horses cry out and run away.

Gimli is quick to state that it is Saruman, but as Aragorn says “this old man had a hat not a hood” – unlike Saruman’s usual hooded appearance.

In the following chapters, when the three meet Gandalf (returned now as the White), Gimli asks him the question we have all been wanting to ask.

“Was it you, Gandalf, or Saruman that we saw last night?’

‘You certainly did not see me,’ answered Gandalf, ‘therefore I must guess that you saw Saruman. “

(The Two Towers, Book III: Chapter 5 –  “The White Wizard”)

The answer seems pretty straight forward but we can’t deny the element of the “hat” compared to the “hood” – which Aragorn made reference to. Furthermore, why would Saruman be interested in three members of the Fellowship, who had nothing to do with the One Ring directly – unlike hobbits?

This leads me to believe (and it’s not just me who thinks so), that this was Radagast. If not himself, some sort of apparition of his. A rare glimpse of this character leaving Rosgobel and taking part in the events of the War of the Ring – perhaps watching over the characters. A figure who remains hidden in the shadows, but is always present.

A silent guardian …

As to the horses running away, we learn that they meet Shadowfax later on, but in re-reading the scene from “The Riders of Rohan” chapter, the horses ‘run away’ at the sight of the old man. Perhaps they recognized Radagast and being who he is, ran to meet him as their friend (and were later on joined by Shadowfax himself).

A tantalizing moment that may shed light on this most mysterious character.

“Perhaps you have heard of my good cousin Radagast” – but was he really?

Gandalf and Radagast at the High FellsSo says Gandalf to a cautious Beorn in The Hobbit, as the wizard seeks help. It is this one quote, in the whole book, that ever mentions the name of Radagast.

But what’s curious here is the use of the word “cousin”. For many years, I always thought it was merely a way for Gandalf to refer to a friend … but why say “cousin” when you could have used any other term: “friend”, “companion”, “buddy” … anything.

Okay perhaps not “buddy”, but you get my meaning.

Whether “cousin” should be taken literally or not, is up to you to decide. After all, in The Silmarillion, the Valar had spouses and a Maia (Melian) wedded an elf king (Thingol), from whom the descendants of Eärendil stemmed from.

Relatives among Maia, may therefore have been quite possible …

The Cinematic Radagast

A quick note on Peter Jackson’s version of Radagast.Radagast in Dol Guldur

Sylvester McCoy did a brilliant job in bringing to life the character of Radagast. It’s great to see so many characteristics and a personality which remains altogether unknown in the books.

In the two films so far, his character has already displayed impressive strength (braving the ruins of Dol Guldur and deflecting the Witch-king’s attacks), as well as his ability to communicate and attune himself with nature.

Radagast has much to offer and let us hope  we will see more of him in There and Back Again.

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37 thoughts on “The Curious Case of Radagast the Brown

  1. I agree, well done, sir! I liked Radagast from the books, but he was a little too goofy in the movies for me. (I think it was the bird poo on his head that bothered me the most.) I suppose I always imagined the Maia as somewhat regal – although there is no actual assurance of this. Personal preference I suppose.
    And I think it makes total sense that the Maia would consider themselves cousins.
    Thanks for such a great profile!

  2. He is my all time favorite wizard even more than Merlin himself.
    Radagast the Brown forms the main reason of existence which is keeping the earth and animals safe. I think that I’m more of a Radagast than anything else…

    P.S. Smashing post.

    • On the Barrow Downs forums a few years ago, someone pointed out that Radagast’s portrayal in the movies seems to be ripped straight out of a book about Merlyn (spelled with the Y), right down to the bird droppings, the mice in the coat, and the hedgehog friend. In my mind, I like to imagine Radagast staying in Middle-earth to eventually become Merlin himself, bridging the two mythologies in a similar way to Arthur possibly sailing off to Valinor before death.

      • Never read Merlyn so I can’t really talk about that, but if it’s true, it’s interesting nonetheless.

        As to your theory about Radagast becoming Merlin, that’s a fascinating idea as we already know that Tolkien may have tried to link his concept of the Arthurian world with that of Middle-earth (or at least, The Silmarillion) …

    • I agree that PJ and Co may have gone off the rails a bit in creating his character, but personally I find it refreshing to have a wizard that isn’t another perfect copy of Saruman or Gandalf. There’s quite a distinction between the three of them and I’m pretty sure we will see more of his serious side in Film 3 … let’s hope!

      • I think dignity is what he’s missing. I’ve yet to see the second film, though, so honestly I’m going off of what the first film did, which just didn’t work for me. I’d a hard time believing that a creature that old and that invested in other creatures would be such a fool.

  3. Very interesting post about the Brown Wizard!
    We can’t forget that he was Yavanna choice as said in Unfinished Tales…: “Curumo [Saruman] took Aiwendil [Radagast] because Yavanna begged him”.
    I’m not sure about his presence in TTT – Hammond and Scull (LotR Reader’s Companion, 374) shows that it was Saruman that visited the camp at night, based on other schemes from Tolkien and from Gandalf’s speech in book III, c. 5: “He was so eager to lay his hands on his prey that he could not wait at home, and he came forth to meet and to spy on his messengers. But he came too late, for once, and the battle was over and beyond his help before he reached these parts. He did not remain here long.”
    And about the references as being a “cousin” of Gandalf, Anderson (The Annotated Hobbit, 167) suggests that it isn’t an actual kinship, based on the definition of the Oxford English Dictionary.

    • Hey Lee thanks for the Yavanna reference (slipped my mind!).

      As to the Radagast/TTT issue, I was aware of the Reader’s Companion and the evidence seems strong – but somehow I can’t help shake off this feeling that Tolkien may have been playing with his audience in some way or other! 😀

    • Melian the Maia was of the ,,kin of Yavanna” and of course Manwe and Melkor have been ,,brothers in the mind of Iluvatar” (even more interestingly it is told that Varda had met and rejected Melkor before Great Music 🙂 kind of giving a wonder whether it was ekhm courtship from the part of DArk Lord hehe 🙂 and many other relations (like among Valar the Feanturi brothers, masters of spirits: Namo Mandos and Irmo Lórien). There are relations in the very nature and spirit, kinfship of minds and purposes (maybe also powers, if there are spirits of fire there might be some closer relationship between some of them based on their affinity, their natural domain). About Radagast, he was too goofy, much over the top in silliness, in DoS it is a bit donwplayed but still his behaviour in first movie is the most horrible thing about movie portrayal. From the short dialouge in book and descriptions one could make a really interesting character, distinct from Gandalf and Saruman. For example his fearful reaction to the Nazgul might indicate he is more prone to panic (though Gandalf also was wary of them) but the fact he lives in most dangerous forest in the world notes he has some amount of bravery, he is more simple minded, kind (expecially for animals) a bit solitary (but I bet he would be very helpful for numerous tribes of Woodmen living in Mirkwood, they probably held him as some sort of authority figure, judging by the respect Beorn showed towards him, a trait which was probably carried on by Beornings, one only wonders whether PJ views any pro ecological hermit types as weirdoes like he showed in movie).

  4. Very nicely done! Excellent post.
    The only thing that bothered me about the cinematic Radagast was those blasted rabbits. That was “too much”, or rather, “too cute” for my tastes. Otherwise PJ’s depiction of him was quite well done.

  5. I was fine with the movie depiction of Radagast. In fact, I thought it was rather well done. But I also thought AUJ was a good movie, where as a lot of people didn’t. We won’t discuss DOS….that’s another story.

    The Rastobel Rabbits….a bit much, sure. But go watch DOS…you’ll soon get over it.

  6. Great post! I had never considered Radagast as the old man seen by Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas. Intriguing to say the least.

    I love Radagast and he is in the literary world among my top 3 characters. However, I did not like the interpretation of him in the film, even though I love Sylvester McCoy. I understand the reasoning, but I suppose it simply clashes to much with my own perception (which is a much more silent and less twitchy character, while I don’t see him as having the same feeling of grandure that Saruman and Gandalf can emmit, he stills have this aura of knowing stuff).

    • Radagast’s portrayal in the films has created quite a rift! I can understand people’s reservations towards his outlandish character; but for some reason, I can’t help but smile whenever he’s on screen 🙂

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