Tolkien’s Radagast has to be one of the most overlooked characters in his entire legendarium. And why not? Though he’s one of the few characters who bridges The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, his actions occur entirely off-stage in both books. Tolkien writes almost nothing about him in the published letters, though we do learn a good deal more in his posthumous essay on “The Istari” (published in Unfinished Tales).
Now, by strange coincidence, we now have two extended treatments of Radagast, published almost simultaneously. I discussed one of them recently: Nick Birns’s essay for Mythlore (Fall/Winter 2007, pp.113-26), “The Enigma of Radagast: Revision, Melodrama, and Depth” (read it here). The other is a chapter of about the same length in John Rateliff’s fantastic two-volume study, The History of The Hobbit (Part One: Mr. Baggins, pp.268-80). I’m reading Rateliff’s monumental work in preparation to review it for Mythlore.
Between the two essays, many new insights and theories about Radagast emerge, along with a pretty thorough discussion on the meaning of his name. Thorough, but perhaps not the final word. Since both are available in print now, and some of you may have read them (or will soon), I’d like to offer some thoughts of my own here — specifically on the etymology of the name.
Put on your waders. It’s going to get kinda deep. :)
Birns merely scratches the surface, referring us only to Ruth Noel’s theory that Radagast is “‘Radigost’, a pre-Christian Slavic deity” (116); Rateliff discusses a Slavic source as one of several possibilities, too, but he bypasses Noel and goes right to the source with much greater detail. But Birns does make one satellite point which I think very good: he points to the Elvish root RUSKĀ “brown” for a hint of Russian flavor. (117) This root was the source for Rhosgobel, the name of Radagast’s home; and of course, brown was Radagast’s color in the Order. This is something Rateliff misses in his footnote on Rhosgobel (289). Something Birns misses, on the other hand, is the fact that Beorn’s original name, Medwed, is decidedly Slavic, improving the evidence of a Slavic source for Radagast. Medwed simply means “bear” (or more literally, “honey-eater”) — cf. Slovenian medved, Serbian medvjed, Russian медведь, Czech medvěd, etc.; from an Indo-European root medh– “honey” > English mead. Rateliff acknowledges the name is Slavic but says little more about it.
This is the bulk of what Birns has to say on the subject (since it’s really outside his main purpose), so allow me now to visit Rateliff’s other theories and offer my own comments and further suggestions. In addition to the possibility of a Slavic source, he also posits Old English and Gothic. Well, actually, he first considers the possibility of an Elvish interpretation, though he dismisses this as yielding no low-hanging fruit; and in any case, Tolkien himself decided Radagast was to be “a name [...] of Mannish origin.” So, then, Rateliff turns to Old English and Gothic. What about Old Norse? Rateliff contends “Old Norse is not an option here” (289); however, I’m not so sure I buy his reasoning fully — more on that in a moment. To me, there is the very interesting possibility of Old Norse ráðgast “to take counsel” informing Tolkien’s choice.
But moving on, for Old English, Rateliff suggests a potential reading as “Spirit of the Road”. This would be composed of rád “road” + gast “spirit”; appropriate, considering his reading of Bladorthin as “Grey Traveller” — and I would add that Mithrandir is also quite close to this as well. Rateliff dismisses the element rǽd “counsel” for reasons that seem defensible to me. But then, Rateliff dismisses Old English entirely on the grounds that Tolkien had not yet changed Medwed (Slavic) to Beorn (Old English). I’m not completely convinced, as with the dismissal of Old Norse, and I’ll come back to this in a moment.
Rateliff goes on to talk about the Slavic candidates, with some meaty details, but I’ve already touched on that evidence (above). This leaves Gothic, which Rateliff finds the most probable source. What troubles me here is this: if one may dismiss Old English — “despite the excellent fit in sound and etymology” (277) — and Old Norse on the basis of the Slavic name, Medwed, then why should one not also dismiss Gothic? But to continue ...
Rateliff suggests the possibility of “the Gothic king or war-chieftain Radagaisus (died 406 AD), whose name is rendered Rhadagast in some eighteenth- and nineteenth-century sources” (278). One such source is an 1829 translation of Alfred’s Old English Boethius. But Rateliff missed an even better piece of evidence: the actual form Tolkien used, Radagast, occurs in at least one other, roughly contemporary, edition of the same . Tolkien’s spelling also occurs in Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire ; Rateliff cites this source, but gives the spelling of Rhadagast. Perhaps a different edition? The edition I examined showed both spellings.
Despite the dispute I raised above, I do think that a Gothic source is very likely. Turning to David Salo, Rateliff gives *Radagais (“counsel-spear”) as a possible original Gothic form for the Latin Radagaisus. Could be; but why not *Radagast (“counsel-stranger”)? Otherwise, if Salo is correct, where does the –t in Radagast come from? Is it simply excrescent? In any case, I find “counsel-stranger” much more à propos than “counsel-spear” — for Radagast, at least, if not for Radagaisus.
And let’s also consider Radagast’s Quenya name, Aiwendil (given in “The Istari”). Clearly, the name is Quenya and means “friend of birds” — aiwë “(small) bird” + –(n)dil “friend” — as both Birns and Rateliff explain. But could it also be Gothic? Names with double-meanings in two languages are not uncommon in Tolkien — e.g., Orthanc and Mordor, to give a couple of the better known. It just so happens that Gothic aiwaggeli “evangel, gospel”, when pronounced, is quite close to Aiwendil (the Gothic –gg– is pronounced like English –ng–). This is a loan-word from Greek, related also to Gothic aggilus (άγγελος) “angel, messenger”; and it seems pretty compelling to me when taken in the context of Tolkien’s statements that the Istari were essentially “incarnate angels” (certainly in the sense of “messengers”, but also, arguably, in a more theological sense as well) — see Letters, #156.
Is it too great a stretch to suppose that the Gothic aiwaggeli could have helped to inform Tolkien’s choice of the name Aiwendil? Perhaps. Pehaps not. In any event, though the recent treatments of Radagast have brought us much further in understanding him, I’m not sure the final final word has yet been said.
 An excerpt in Thorpe, Benjamin. A Grammar of the Anglo-Saxon Tongue from the Danish of Erasmus Rask. Second ed. London: Trübner & Co., 1865, p.188.
 Gibbon, Edward. The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Volume 3 (of 6). London: Henry G. Bohn, 1854, p.364-6.