I can’t remember where I read it but somewhere I came across an interesting point pertaining to the latest Peter Jackson voyage to Middle Earth, namely about the infamous Radagast the Brown.
If you’ve seen The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, you’ll be quite familiar with this little brown wizard. Although critics gleefully likened him to Jar Jar Binks, Radagsast actually kinda works. In the more childish Hobbit story (aka Lord of the Rings Lite) he almost fits in among luny dwarves and driveling trolls and moldy goblins. Considering super somber and ominious tone of the first trilogy, it comes more as a relief than anything else.
Radagast is an absolute Jacksonian interpretation of what amounts to an otherwise obscure and underdeveloped Tolkien footnote. Mocked for the bird poop dripping down his face, his goofy antics and outlandish bunny sled, the Brown Wizard is not at all the respectable Obi-Wan Kenobi figure we expect from a guardian of Middle Earth. The Istari are supposed to be dignified for Eagle’s sake!
So how in Gimli’s beard did we end up with a wizard who pulls stick insects from the tip of his tongue and waltzs around resuscitating CGI hedgehogs?
The answer, which I freely admit reading somewhere out in deep vortexes of the internet, is simple. Radagast is a bumbling fool of a Took because what he represents: another alternative path for a sworn protector of Middle Earth. And we’ve already seen the first kind in the Lord of the Rings. Say it with me now: Saruman.
Saruman is a bad bad wizard. He is supposed to protect the free peoples of the land, employing his arcane knowledge to fend off giant evil eye towers like Sauron. But he doesn’t.
The White Wizard is sidetracked by his ambition. He is drawn to power, obsessed with it. Where Saruman sees men as weak and petty, elves as selfishly racist, dwarves as greedy and fat, he sees Sauron’s growing strength as a one way ticket to become Lieutenant Governor of the land, a chance to carve own personal dominion where dumb people no longer can bother him with their annoying questions (oh wait, orcs have lots of those).
Saruman represents what happens when the protector forsakes their mission and starts using their station for personal gain instead.
Gandalf is the obvious counterpoint.
By contrast, the Grey Wizard is utterly faithful to his quest, fervently steady in his mission. He will work tirelessly on the sidelines, quietly pushing the right players into action and skillfully handling tense negotiations between the various factions at play. At its darkest hour Gandalf will not abandon New Zealand to its fate.
If Saruman is swallowed by his ambition and Gandalf steadfast in his purpose, what of Radagast the Brown? Do not speak to me that foolish fellow and his evidently quite public and excessive consumption of mushrooms. What of him?
Though not blindly power hungry like Saruman, he is no steady general in the war for Middle Earth. Sure, perhaps he helps uncover the Necromancer in Dol Guldor, leads a couple of Wargs away from Thorin’s company, and maybe will even see a battle in the upcoming Hobbit films. He is clearly a good guy, that’s not in dispute.
But Radagast is distracted. He is not single-minded in his pursuit of watching over the races of men and elves and Ents and eagles and dwarves. Oh yeah, and hobbits. Unlike Gandalf, he does not invest time visiting the peoples of Middle Earth. He does not visit Rivendell to chat with Elrond and forge important alliance with the elves. He does not share his fireworks with the lowly hobbits. No, he plays with animals in the woods.
He build a hut in the boonies. He chooses birds and badgers over actual people. A loner, an outsider, he should be busy making sure that the Stewards of Gondor were not becoming huge jerks. He should be making sure that dwarves weren’t, you know, almost going extinct from Azogs and Balrogs!
As an Istari, Radagast is charged by Tolkien’s literary version of God with the sovereign protection of Middle Earth. And as Saruman so kindly points out, he wastes his days in frivolity and recreational drug use. Saruman’s vice is pride, but Radagast clearly suffers from an equal terrible one of his own: a complete lack of focus.
Prone to distraction. Forgetful. Preoccupied. Not good traits to have when the whole world is at stake.
Where was Radagast when Gandalf fell in Moria?
Where was Radagast when Boromir took a couple arrows to the chest?
Where was Radagast when legions of foul creatures charged Helm’s Deep?
Probably wrestling with a beaver.