The Arrival of the Istari
Cirdan the Shipwright stood on the balcony of his tower at Mithlond, his snowy hair flowing in the sea breeze, and gazed in astonishment at the shimmering waters of the Gulf of Lune.
The Sun was bright, and the late morning air was clear; on such a day Cirdan's keen eyes could see for many long leagues. On the horizon, he had spotted a ship sailing east, from the Great Sea inland toward Mithlond, known the Grey Havens in the Common Tongue of Men.
In itself, that was not unusual. Now and again, a ship of Men would even sail toward Mithlond from distant Gondor, bearing officials and scholars seeking counsel and lore from the Elves of the Havens.
Yet, the ship in Cirdan's gaze had not come from Gondor, or any land of Men. Even from this distance, many leagues off, he could see, beyond any doubt, that it was one of the White Swan ships of Tol Eressea, that easternmost of the Undying Lands, nigh to holy Valinor!
The Undying Lands, which had long since been removed from the Circles of the World, were hidden now in another plane of space and time, forever beyond the reach of mortals.
Only the Elves of Middle Earth, when they grew weary of the mortal lands, could take ship at Cirdan's harbour of Mithlond, and sail west along the mystical Straight Road that lead above the bent seas, and through the mists of time to emerald Eressea in the Bay of Eldamar.
Since the defeat of the Enemy in the wastes of Gorgoroth a thousand years before, and the death in that place of despair of the Elven High King Erenion Gil-galad, the High Elven exiles who had long dwelt in Middle Earth had sought the Havens growing numbers, taking ship to Avallone upon Eressea, never to return. Few of that exalted race now dwelt in mortal lands, and their ancient settlement at Forlond was all but abandoned in these latter days. Even many of the Grey Elves of Middle Earth had begun to weary of their ancient home, and seek rest in those fabled lands of the High Elves, in the uttermost West. The glory days of the Elves were long past; this Third Age of the Sun was the fading time, which the Elven-wise knew spelled the looming end of Elvendom on Earth, and the stirrings of the coming Dominion of Men.
Thus it was both a shock and a delight to Cirdan to see one of the Swan ships of Eressea sailing east across the straight road to Mithlond. No ships had sailed east from the Undying Lands to Middle Earth since the War of Wrath that marked the end of the Elder Days, more than four-thousand years before. What errand could possibly cause the Elves who dwelt in the blessed lands of the West of West to seek now the mortal realm of Middle Earth?
His mind racing with questions, Cirdan gathered up his flowing blue robes and hurried down the marble steps of the tower. As he strode through the archway that opened at the foot of the stairs upon the granite-flagged path leading down to the docks, he heard the clear ringing of silver trumpets from the towers and balconies of Mithlond, hailing as always the arrival of a ship at the pier. Yet Cirdan could also hear the murmuring and cries of wonder echoing across the curving alleys and stately houses of noble Mithlond; it appeared that other Elves had now discerned that this was no common ship gracing their shores.
As Cirdan arrived by the longest of the granite quays of the harbour, he found a growing crowd of Elves already assembled, their elegant robes flowing in the sea breeze as they sought to discern every detail of the Swan ship; many of the younger Elves had never before seen a ship from Avallone upon Eressea. As they saw Cirdan approach, they bowed their heads respectfully and cleared a path for him to the end of the quay - for since the death of Gil-galad, Cirdan had been the ruler of all the Elves of Lindon, the Havens in the northwest of Middle Earth, and he was renowned as a wise and powerful lord even amongst so many who were great and noble in their own right.
Cirdan reached the end of the quay, and stared toward the horizon. Between the two low, forested mountain peaks that bounded the waters of the Gulf just west of Mithlond, he could now discern every detail of the White Swan ship, which sailed toward the shore with great speed. The entire hull of the ship, some fifty feet long and painted snow white, was carved in the likeness of one of those noble birds who lived by the shores of Eldamar, from graceful beak and sweeping wings to long-fanned tail. Yet where the back of a swan would be, the hull was open, and above its deck soared a tall white mast, bedecked by a white sail burnished with silver stars, billowing with the West wind. The swan wings soared high above the deck, and blocked from view the passengers aboard the ship.
After some minutes, the winds died down, and the Swan-ship slowed, coming to a halt as it slid alongside the quay. Several of the Elves on shore, clad in the plain grey robes of those who spent their days at work amongst the docks, cast shimmering Elven-ropes over the sides of the hull, and unseen hands onboard the ship took hold and fastened them inside. The grey-clad Elves stepped back as the swan wing nearest the quay swung down, touching the ground, so that it could serve as a ramp. Cirdan strode to the base of this ramp, leaving some space for the passengers to disembark, and stood alongside the other Elves crowded along the quay, staring upwards for a glimpse of the first passenger to come into view.
The sounds of heavy, boot-shod feet could be heard on the deck of the ship, and the Elves gasped as a tall figure, cloaked in white and wearing a peaked white hat, appeared at the top of the ramp, and strode swiftly down to the quay. This was no Elf – his visage and his long, sable beard could only belong to a Man!
"How could a mortal dwell in the Undying Lands, and if indeed he could, why would he seek to return to Middle Earth?" whispered a very young Elf, who had lived for but a few centuries under the Sun.
"Be silent, lad!" shot back Cirdan under his breath. "Even a fool can see this being is not a Man, whatever the fleshly garb in which he is clad." The Elven-youth blushed and fell silent, reflecting that the ever-mounting years had worn on Cirdan's patience, even as they added to his store of wisdom.
Cirdan turned his attention to the figure who now stood, tall and proud, on the quay before him. He was indeed in the shape of a Man, garbed in rich, flowing robes and cloak of creamy white, with a matching peaked hat and heavy black boots. He held in his right hand a long ebon staff, its tip bearing barbs between which was mounted a small sphere of opaque crystal. He had a long, narrow face and a long, aquiline nose. His sable beard and hair were tinged with grey, although his bushy eyebrows were jet black, contrasting with his sallow skin. His eyes were like black pools on a cloudless night, sombre and deep. Cirdan wondered greatly at him, for he possessed an air of such pride and power that even a High Elf of the West might well blanch in his presence, and fear to risk his wrath.
Cirdan was about to bid welcome to this mysterious guest, when he again heard footfalls on the ramp. He looked upwards, realizing that this seeming Man had not traveled alone from Valinor. Striding down the ramp were another two beings who appeared akin to the one now standing on the shore. They seemed like mirror images of each other; for one was garbed in a sea blue cloak and sky blue robes and peaked hat, while the other was garbed in sky blue cloak and sea blue hat and robes. Both bore staffs of clear crystal in their right hands, though the staff of the former was surmounted by a sea blue sphere, and the latter a sphere of sky blue tone. They wore black boots identical to those of the first visitor. Both these blue-robed beings stepped onto the quay, and stood behind and to the left of the visitor in white, as if acknowledging his greater majesty. They were tall, and yet not as tall as he. Their faces were so alike to each other as to be those of twins; black-bearded, blue-eyed, pale-skinned, narrow-faced and straight-nosed. Their eyes were like the sea or the sky, ever shifting, sometimes clear and light, sometimes dark and deep.
While Cirdan contemplated these new arrivals, yet more footfalls sounded on the ramp, and Cirdan looked up to see this next visitor. The figure who had now come into view was dressed in a manner akin to the first three, yet seemed of quite different type, albeit still in the guise of a Man. His robes and cloak were of earthen brown, as were his boots, though his peaked hat was the deep green of a forest in summer. He bore a staff of some smooth beige wood, tipped with a crystal sphere of emerald green. His beard was brown, nearly the same colour as his garb, but his tanned skin was offset by ruddy cheeks. He had a broad, heavy-set face, and a snub nose, and was the same height as those who were garbed in blue. He stepped onto the quay and stood behind and to the right of his white-robed counterpart, and returned Cirdan's gaze. His brown eyes, speckled with green, were full of warmth and mirth. He turned his gaze from Cirdan to the other Elves, and to their amazement he gave a sudden laugh, rich and mellow, as if to set their fears at ease. The blue-garbed visitors stared at him impassively, although the white-robed being frowned for a moment and raised his eyebrow, as if this sudden merriment were an assault on his dignity.
While Cirdan took in this scene, he again heard footfalls on the ramp, and looked up to see yet another figure stride purposefully toward the quay on his black boots. This being, shorter and smaller than any of the others, was robed and cloaked in grey, and grey were his long beard and hair, though his peaked hat was a pale blue. His staff was of knotted dark brown wood, and tipped with a clear angular crystal. His skin was pale, though his cheeks were rosy pink, and his face and nose were long, though less thin than those of the being robed in white. He strode past his kindred and stood to the right of the brown-robed figure, but apart from the others. At first his gaze was hidden from view by the wide brim of his hat, but suddenly he looked up at Cirdan, and beneath his bushy grey eyebrows his eyes were a strikingly bright shade of blue, sharp and piercing and full of light. He glanced briefly at the white-robed being, who had regained his full composure, and then to Cirdan's surprise he turned and acknowledged the Elven-lord's own gaze with a nod and a wink.
Cirdan and the other Elves stood silent for some minutes, studying the visages of these strange visitors, and waiting to see if any more would disembark from the ship. But no further footfalls were heard, and it became apparent that these five were the only ones who had journeyed over the long Straight Road from the uttermost West. Then, assuming his duties as a host, Cirdan stepped forward, bowed his head, and with a sweeping gesture of welcome greeted his visitors:
"Mae govannen, my lords," he said in his soft voice. "Well met! An age and an age has it been since any journeyed eastward from the Blessed Lands to the grey shores of Middle Earth, and we are full of joy at your arrival unlooked for. I am Cirdan, Lord of these Havens, and of the Elves who dwell herein. I am proud to honour you as my guests, and offer you any aid or counsel that is within my power, humble though my wisdom and lore might seem to such as you. May I enquire, great lords, as to your names and stations, the better to serve and honour you during your stay with us?"
The five beings on the quay bowed silently in reply. Then, the white-robed figure stepped forward and spoke, in a deep, yet mellow voice that was a balm to the listener. "Greetings, Lord Cirdan," said he. "You are indeed known to us, for many of your kindred who have sailed from your Havens to seek the Blessed Realm have spoken to us of your wisdom and power, which I see now are matched only by your kindness and courtesy. My cousins and I thank you for your noble words."
The visitor then frowned, and his dark eyes appeared sorrowful, as he adopted an apologetic tone. "Yet I fear I cannot tell you our names, just yet. Indeed, please accept my apologies for what I must now do." He raised his ebon staff, and pointed it at the Elves behind Cirdan. His deep voice cried out like thunder, echoing across the waters, as he spoke a Word of Command in a language unknown to Cirdan.
There was a sudden flash like lightning, and Cirdan stepped back in shock, shielding his eyes, almost losing his balance and falling over the quay into the water before he regained his senses. He stared at his Elven subjects, and to his amazement and growing alarm, saw that they were asleep on their feet! Their eyes were open, yet they did not move, and Cirdan could see plainly that their minds had departed to the land of dreams, far removed from the waking world. Indeed, the whole of Mithlond was now utterly silent, apart from the crash of surf against the shore, and the call of sea birds. It was as if the entire city were under an enchanted sleep and Cirdan the only waking Elf within its walls.
Cirdan stared sharply at the seeming Man in white. In a harder tone of voice than that which he had used in greeting, he said "What is the meaning of this, my lord? Why have you banished the minds of my people from the waking world – for 'tis plain you have done so, by art and lore beyond my ken – and yet spared me alone?"
"Again, please accept my humble apologies," replied the white-robed figure, bowing deeply. Cirdan felt at once that the Man's apology was sincere, and swiftly felt calmer and more accepting of what had just happened, though his shock and anger were not entirely abated. He noted that the two Men robed in blue were staring at him inscrutably, while the Man in brown had stepped back, looking almost as alarmed as Cirdan himself had a moment before. The Man in grey stared at the ground and shook his head, muttering words under his breath that Cirdan could not hear.
Cirdan turned back to the visitor in white, who was now speaking again, in that deep, mellow voice. "My deed was unfortunate, but necessary," said the Man, smiling benevolently, his dark eyes now warm and friendly. "It is commanded by Those who sent us hither that until our mission is at the cusp of fulfillment, our true names, origins, and purposes shall not be revealed in full - save to you, and to two others of Elven-kind who are deemed by the Lords of the West to be your equals in wisdom and power. I have placed your people under a spell of sleep, but it will do them no harm. When they awake, some hours from now, they will wonder why they are standing on the quay, but they will have no memory of the events of this morning." Turning to the Men in blue, he said "Will you see to our ship, my friends? The Sea Elves of Avallone await its return."
The blue-robed beings nodded gravely. The one in the sea blue cloak pointed his staff at the ship, murmuring soft, mellow words in the same unknown tongue used by the Man in white. The ramp gracefully raised itself up from the quay, and was restored to its position alongside the mast. The ropes suddenly loosened from the moorings, and slipped over the side of the ship, falling on the quay below, and the ship drifted out into the waters of the harbour. Then his counterpart, of the sky blue cloak, pointed his staff at the clouds that lay on the eastern horizon, and spoke in the unknown tongue, in a voice lighter and reedier than that of his companion. A sudden wind came out of the East, which filled the sails of the White Swan ship, speeding it back over the Straight Road to its home by the lamp lit quays of Avallone. Their work done, they turned toward the figure in white, and bowed their heads.
"Well done, my friends," said their leader – for so Cirdan perceived the white-robed being to be. "Well done." Turning to Cirdan again, he continued, "Now there will be no evidence of our arrival, save in your own memory. When we have revealed all to you, you will understand the importance of our secrecy, and I trust will disclose nothing to your people, or to others." He smiled again. "Now, we may reveal our names to you, and then with your permission we may take swift counsel in your chambers, before the spell of sleep is lifted from your subjects."
His white-robed form stood taller than ever, the very image of pride and dignity. "We are the Order of the Istari, and as you have perceived we are Maiar spirits, clothed in the flesh and garb of Men. We are the loyal servants of the Valar, their emissaries in these mortal lands. Our true names we shall reveal to you, and in time to your counterparts in wisdom, Lord Elrond Half-Elven and Queen Galadriel. Amongst other Elves, and Men, and other folk, we shall assume such names as our need or fancy suit us. But know that I am Curumo, the White, the most exalted of our sacred Order, chosen by the Valar themselves as our leader in the mighty tasks that await us."
Those in blue then spoke. "My name is Alatar" said the Man in the sea blue cloak, speaking in his soft, mellow voice. "And this is my friend, Pallando."
"We are the Blue Istari," said Pallando, the Istar in the sky blue cloak, speaking in a high, reedy voice. "Our minds and powers are complimentary, each to the other. We travel in common purpose, though we fear our mission will soon lead us far from Elven lands, and it may be long after this day before we see you again."
After a short silence, the Man in brown, who had seemed distracted for a moment by a passing seabird far overhead, turned his attention back to Cirdan. "Ah, well, yes," he laughed, in his merry voice. "My name is Aiwendil, the Brown. The Beasts and Birds, Trees and Herbs and Flowers of Middle Earth are my especial interest and charge. Yet I trust that I am here in common purpose with my fellows, and that my skills shall play their part in the days that lie ahead."
Then last spoke the Man in grey, who had shifted his piercing stare from each of his kindred to the next as they spoke, and now gazed with his bright blue eyes at Cirdan. "I am Olorin, the Grey" said he, in a deep if somewhat rasping voice. "That name I shall not speak again in Middle Earth for many a long year. In the Sindarin tongue of your folk, you may call me Mithrandir, the Grey Pilgrim; for I have many tasks, and little time to abide in any one land."
"Curunir is the name that I would choose in your tongue, in place of Curumo" said the White Istar.
"The Man of Skill" replied Cirdan. "As you wish, lord."
"I shall keep my name, for now, even if it must be secret from others," smiled Aiwendil. "Perhaps Men shall find their own name for me, in time, and then I shall adopt that name for use by all."
"We also shall keep our own names, though keep them secret from others for the moment" said the Blue Wizards. "Indeed, who knows what names shall be found for us in time," continued Alatar, "by the Men of the distant lands to which our travels must lead."
"Now," said Curunir the White, "you have had the full account of our names and origins, my lord Cirdan. Pray take us to your halls, so that we may take counsel with you, and divulge to you something of our purposes in the days ahead."
"As you wish, my lords," said Cirdan, gently pushing aside some of the Elves on the quay, still asleep on their feet, so that his guests could follow him to his own house. "Follow me."