On Radagast the Brown

An old man in brown, sitting in a field surrounded by animals.
Radagst the Brown, by Lucas Graciano

In a world full of people emulating Gandalf, what do we make of Radagast? Radagast the Brown, Radagast the bird-tamer, Radagast the "simple." Radagast is usually described as failing in his mission, or - at best - choosing the wrong tactic. Is there another perspective?

The wizards are given the task of helping the peoples of Middle-Earth to resist the Dark Lord Sauron. To this end, they involve themselves in the politics, culture, and sciences of elves and men, (and dwarves and hobbits). Except Radagast. Radagast, ("tender of beasts," or Aiwendil "bird-friend") was sent to Middle-Earth by Yavanna, the spirit of plants and animals. His inclusion is described as a favor: Yavanna had "to beg" Saruman to agree to take him along. How odd: why would a goddess have to beg? It suggests that either Radagast is lesser or that her realm of influence is lesser. If so, on what basis is this true? For context: Saruman comes from the god of creation and crafts, the Blue wizards from the god of the hunt, and Gandalf from the king and queen of all the gods.

This seems to imply that all living creatures that are not elves, humans, or dwarves (or hobbits?) are somehow less important to the great cosmic plan. Even the Ents - who actually play a decisive role in the war and were created by Yavanna - are thus viewed as secondary.

Yet is this true? And is the only worth of a wizard in how his art is used to sway battles or shape kingdoms? Are we to assume that for thousands of years Radagast had no effect on the world of Middle-Earth? It seems equally as likely, that through Radagast's careful ministrations and tending, the corruption of Sauron was slowed or prevented from spreading further into the natural world. After the Wise chased Sauron from Dol Guldur, Radagast alone stayed on to undo the shadow there. It was his home.

Apart from that, his nonhuman relationships are leveraged to help Gandalf and Saruman at key moments. Yet no appreciation is shown for this valuable community support. Nonhuman networks are taken for granted and considered only for their utility. No value is placed on his centuries of patient relationship-building and tending so that, when in need, he had friends to call on for aid. Saruman may call him "bird-tamer" but his name is "bird-friend," the two betraying radically different understandings of the nature of relationship between wizard and animal and also, perhaps, different beliefs about the level of consciousness possessed by the nonhuman.

Radagast is also deeply rooted to place. He is described as not traveling often, in stark contrast to the other wizards, and has a home in Mirkwood. He is portrayed as silly for this inexperience, but surely none could match his depth of knowledge of the land in which he dwelt. Yet this knowledge is not shown to be helpful or worthy, because it does not directly translate into better tactics, more powerful weapons, or greater political influence. As if the health of the forest is not tied to the livelihoods of all. As if it were no more than scenery.

So what, then, of Radagast?

Did he fail at his mission? Or did he succeed in ways that went unacknowledged? Or was his mission something other from the beginning?

And what does Radagast teach us about the value of work with the nonhuman?

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