Midway through Season One, Rings of Power has already teed up plenty of tantalizing mysteries, but none have tormented viewers quite so powerfully as the identity of The Stranger. Way back in Episode One, this anonymous geezer crash-landed into Harfoot country by way of a meteor strike; ever since, he’s been testing his otherworldly powers and forming connections with the Harfoots. But just who is this mysterious meteor man? One need only look to J.R.R. Tolkien’s text for clues.
I’m going to stake my hypothesis here on Steve Jobs’s Internet, once and for all—The Stranger is a Maia. I guarantee it. Tolkien’s Maiar are creatures of divine origin created as helpmeets of the gods before the beginning of the time; possessed of otherworldly powers, they can wander the world unseen or disguise themselves as earthly creatures. Maiar come in many forms, though casual Tolkienites know them best as wizards like Gandalf and Saruman. But just which Maia could The Stranger be?
One popular fan theory argues that The Stranger is Sauron. Yes, believe it or not, Sauron was a Maia, cut from the same cloth as Gandalf himself—way back at the beginning of the world, Sauron was a good and virtuous being known as Mairon, until Morgoth corrupted him. Certain things about The Stranger point toward this theory; in Episode One, his flaming crater looks an awful lot like the Eye of Sauron, and in Episode Five, he inadvertently harms Nori Brandyfoot with his supernatural powers, suggesting that he may be dangerous. But in my book, the Sauron theory doesn’t hold water. The timing doesn’t line up; although Sauron’s whereabouts were unknown for the first five centuries of the Second Age, Rings of Power takes place during the twilight of the Second Age, meaning that by now, Sauron should be posted up in Eregion, where he disguised himself as an elf named Annatar and manipulated Celebrimbor to craft some very pretty rings you may have heard about. Canonically speaking, given that Sauron’s main priorities during this time were corrupting men and deceiving elves, what sense would it make for him to land in Harfoot country?
So if not Sauron, then what other Maiar does that leave? The strongest argument is for Gandalf. Let’s face it—The Stranger certainly has the right look, even if the timing doesn’t quite make sense, given that Gandalf didn’t roll into Middle-earth until the Third Age. But here’s the thing: before he was dispatched to MIddle-earth as a wizard during the Third Age, Gandalf had already been knocking around for thousands of years as Olórin, his true Maia form. Proto-Gandalf had a special concern for Middle-earth and roved its lands for thousands of years, mingling incognito among the elves to watch over them. By that logic, perhaps Rings of Power is taking some creative liberties with Gandalf’s earlier wanderings. This formative time with the Harfoots would certainly explain a lot about the affinity he’d later develop for hobbits.
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Perhaps The Stranger is a different wizard entirely. In his thin sketches of the Blue Wizards, Allatar and Pallando, Tolkien often flip-flopped the timing, but one telling finds them arriving in Middle-earth during the Second Age to disrupt Sauron’s evil activities. We don’t know much about what, specifically, the Blue Wizards got up to during their stay, but we do know that they “had very great influence on the history of the Second and Third Age.”
Other theories abound about The Stranger’s true identity, from one of the fearsome Balrogs (also Maiar) to the legendary elven hero Glorfindel, but there’s not nearly as much evidence to support those claims, so we’re not going to get into it today. See me after class if you want to learn more.
Mark my words: The Stranger is a Maia, and sooner or later (hopefully sooner), Rings of Power will reveal exactly which one. If I’m wrong, you can make me walk at the back of the caravan. Or use your scary ice powers to blast me across the forest like poor Nori—your choice.
Adrienne Westenfeld is the Books and Fiction Editor at Esquire, where she oversees books coverage, edits fiction, and curates the Esquire Book Club.
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