**Warning: spoilers for the first two episodes of The Lord Of The Rings: The Rings Of Power lie ahead**
Throughout the two hours of its sweeping series premiere, The Lord Of The Rings: The Rings Of Power delivered cornerstone after cornerstone of Middle-earth lore, setting up an expansive status quo from which the story will launch, and offering plenty of tantalizing hints about its future. Based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s own writing about the history of his fictional world, The Rings Of Power nevertheless proved right away that it’s as interested in blazing its own trail as it is in paying homage to its creator, introducing us to myriad new characters and situations that will all play a role in Amazon’s epic, 50-episode grand plan.
These first two episodes, directed with appropriate grandeur by J.A. Bayona, also raised plenty of questions about the future of these characters. What’s in that glowing chest that Durin III and Durin IV are looking into? Who’s that hot guy on the raft in the ocean? Why does Celebrimbor want to build a big forge? They’re all enticing, and they’ll all be answered in due time, but even among these questions, another mystery stands out.
Who is that strange, raggedy man who fell from the sky?
Credited only as “The Stranger” and played by English actor Daniel Weyman, the mysterious being emerges in a smoking crater after apparently falling from the sky in episode one. The adventurous, curious Harfoot Nori Brandyfoot (Markella Kavenagh) takes it upon herself, with some reluctant help from her best friend Poppy Proudfellow (Megan Richards), to try and relate to the mystery man, bringing him food and keeping his existence a secret until she can figure out who he is and what he wants. Eventually, she comes to realize that he’s looking for a specific place, though he speaks in a language she doesn’t understand and spends a lot of time whispering to fireflies. It’s there, on the verge of more discovery, that we leave Nori, Poppy, and The Stranger at the end of episode 2, as our mystery man drapes himself in ragged fabrics and looks for answers after his arrival in Middle-earth.
So, who is this man? Based on his general appearance, the color of the cloth he’s wrapped in, and his tendency to communicate with insects, signs point to the possibility that we’ve just met a very early version of Gandalf the Grey, the wise and driven wizard played by Ian McKellen in both The Lord Of The Rings and The Hobbit trilogies.
Like his fellow wizards, Gandalf began life as one of the Maiar, a sort of primordial, demigod spirit created to help build the world in the earliest stages of creation. In this form, he was named Olórin, served the creator-beings known as the Valar, and came to befriend and love the Elves long before he ever set foot on Middle-earth.
It’s there, with the question of his arrival on Middle-earth itself, that things get potentially tricky. Tolkien’s own limited writings on the origins of the wizard suggest that none of them set foot on the continent until 1,000 years into the Third Age, when the rising threat of Sauron grew too great to ignore, and the Valar decided the peoples of Middle-earth needed some extra help. The Rings Of Power is set firmly in the Second Age, which would suggest that Gandalf’s arrival is off by more than a millennium. Impossible, right?
Not so fast. Because Tolkien’s writings on events that pre-date The Hobbit are often full of gaps, and the timeline of Middle-earth is so long, The Rings Of Power creators have admitted to taking certain liberties with history.
“We talked with the Tolkien estate,” co-creator J.D. Payne told Vanity Fair. “If you are true to the exact letter of the law, you are going to be telling a story in which your human characters are dying off every season because you’re jumping 200 years in time, and then you’re not meeting really big, important canon characters until season four. Look, there might be some fans who want us to do a documentary of Middle-earth, but we’re going to tell one story that unites all these things.”
So, it’s entirely possible that the showrunners opted to move up Gandalf’s arrival in Middle-earth, to tie his story more closely with that of the Rings of Power themselves and give him a greater sense of awareness that Sauron’s presence and influence lingers. That has the potential to change some things, but remember that when it comes to Tolkien’s own writings on the Second Age, there are vast swaths of time in which we just don’t know that much about what went down. That means the series has a lot of blank canvas to fill, and a lot of different ways to use Gandalf or a Gandalf-like figure. Maybe he spends some time in Middle-earth, then goes back to the Valar to report on what he’s seen. Maybe he’s not really Gandalf until the Third Age. Maybe something else entirely is the right explanation, but planting him here would certainly tie him even closer to characters like Galadriel, and his early relationship with Harfoots would explain his lifelong love of Hobbits. As for his disoriented demeanor, well, for that we can look back to Tolkien, and this passage from Unfinished Tales:
For it is said indeed that being embodied the Istari [wizards] had need 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.
A spirit in a new body, sent from afar and imbued with longing for a paradise he barely remembers, would certainly explain a lot of things about The Stranger’s behavior. Whether or not it’s really the great Grey Wizard, and how much he’ll remind us of the Third Age hero he’ll eventually become, will have to wait for future episodes.