If you are anything like me, a lover of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth who has only slowly explored all the secrets behind The Lord of the Rings, you may have been surprised by Radagast the Brown. I knew he existed, but he explodes onto the screen in The Unexpected Journey–the first Hobbit film by Peter Jackson. Re-watching the first film with my son as we prepared to see the finale of the Trilogy, and I had to ask myself: Is it time, or time again, for Radagast the Brown?
Needless to say, Radagast is a little … distracted. One of Tolkien’s hand-scratched notes, which Christopher Tolkien includes in Unfinished Tales, says of Radagast, that:
“in becoming enamoured of the wild creatures of Middle-earth Radagast neglected the purpose for which he was sent.”
Tolkien’s legendarium is hard on Radagast. Though lovingly named, “tender of beasts,” and though he set about good work in principle, he becomes lost in his task of protector of the forest. While the film tries to redeem Radagast a bit, perhaps to add a little Hobbitish homeliness, Unfinished Tales says he “forsook Elves and Men” (see below).
Yet he still played his role in the Great War of the Ring. He set Gandalf on a path that would lead to his capture, but he also alerted the Eagles, who would be able to aid Gandalf. Radagast is one of those glorious Tolkien inventions that is neither perfectly good nor perfectly evil. Do we have space for this sort of character in our lives?
In our world today, there is always space for Gandalf. In the passage below from Unfinished Tales where we hear about the 5 Wizards, the Istari, Gandalf is called the late-comer. While the Blue Wizards disappeared on an errand, Saruman the White was lost to power, and Radagast the Brown disappeared into his world, Gandalf the Grey alone remained faithful. This faithfulness is not the only trait necessary for our age:
“Warm and eager was his spirit; … his joy, and his swift wrath, were veiled in garments grey as ash, so that only those that knew him well glimpsed the flame that was within.”
Brilliant. Gandalf is a decisive figure who understands good and evil, and lives in joy and friendship despite that shoulder-bending knowledge. We need Gandalf the Grey today.
But do we also need Radagast the Brown today?
I think we do, and I think this is one place that Peter Jackson did well in The Hobbit film.
We live in a time of environmental extremes. On one side, there is an aspect of the environmental movement that treats humans like invasive creatures–as if we were foreign to the rest of creation. On the other side there is a movement invested in resisting human concern for creation care. Either because it doesn’t understand how intimately we are knit into our environment, or because they are invested in conspiracy theory frameworks, this movement rejects Radagastism in all its forms.
But there is darkness creeping into the Woods of our World.
We are at a time when we are understanding more and more how synchronistically the Creator has made this world. All things are connected, and we have some reason to think that humans have failed in some ways in their task as the shepherds of all living things (if we read the Genesis tale aright). Of the three things that broke in humanity’s great fall from Eden–the God-human relationship, the human-human relationship, and the human-creation relationship–it is the latter one that we as a generation know better than any before.
Radagast shows us the value of living synchronous lifestyles, of creating life-melodies in the world that harmonize with that world. He shows us of animal care, because creatures have value. He is also a listener to the world around him, looking for clues of health and illness in the vast garden that he was sent to tend.
I think we can learn from Radagast the Brown.
True, I would avoid bird turd in my hair. And we cannot forget our greater tasks (whatever they may be). We must not neglect the reason we, like the Istari, were sent into the world. The reason the Wizards were sent is not much different than our own. And for those of us whose task is creation care (like Radagast), we must not forget the world around, the battles outside our little woods.
Unfinished Tales IV.2: The Istari
Now the White Messenger in later days became known Elves as Curunír, the Man of Craft, in the tongue of Northern Men Saruman; but that was after he returned from his many journeys and came into the realm of Gondor and there abode. Of the Blue little was known in the West, and they had no names save Ithryn Luin “the Blue Wizards;” for they passed into the East with Curunír, but they never returned, and whether they remained in the East, pursuing there the purposes for which they were sent; or perished; or as some hold were ensnared by Sauron and became his servants, is not now known. 3 But none of these chances were impossible to be; for, strange indeed though this may seem, the Istari, being clad in bodies of Middle-earth, might even as Men and Elves fall away from their purposes. and do evil, forgetting the good in the search for power to effect it.
A separate passage written in the margin no doubt belongs here:
For it is said indeed that being embodied the Istari had needs to learn much anew by slow experience, and though they knew whence they came the memory of the Blessed Realm was to them a vision from afar off, for which (so long as they remained true to their mission) they yearned exceedingly. Thus by enduring of free will the pangs of exile and the deceits of Sauron they might redress the evils of that time.
Indeed, of all the Istari, one only remained faithful, and he was the last-comer. For Radagast, the fourth, 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. Thus he got his name (which is in the tongue of Numenor of old, and signifies, it is said, “tender of beasts”).
And Curunír ‘Lân, Saruman the White, fell from his high errand, and becoming proud and impatient and enamoured of power sought to have his own will by force, and to oust Sauron; but he was ensnared by that dark spirit, mightier than he.
But the last-comer was named among the Elves Mithrandir, the Grey Pilgrim, for he dwelt in no place, and gathered to himself neither wealth nor followers, but ever went to and fro in the Westlands from Gondor to Angmar, and from Lindon to Lórien, befriending all folk in times of need. Warm and eager was his spirit (and it was enhanced by the ring Narya), for he was the enemy of Sauron, opposing the fire that devours and wastes with the fire that kindles, and succours in wanhope and distress; but his joy, and his swift wrath, were veiled in garments grey as ash, so that only those that knew him well glimpsed the flame that was within.
3. In a letter written in 1958 my father said that he knew nothing clearly about “the other two,” since they were not concerned in the history oh the North-west of Middle-earth. “I think,” he wrote, “they went as emissaries to distant regions, East and South, far out of Numenorean range: missionaries to enemy-occupied lands, as it were. What success they had I do not know; but I fear that they failed, as Saruman did, though doubtless in different ways; and I suspect they were founders or beginners of secret cults and ‘magic’ traditions that outlasted the fall of Sauron.”