Magic in Middle-earth

Magic in Middle-earth is the use of supernatural power in J. R. R. Tolkien's fictional Middle-earth. Tolkien distinguishes ordinary magic from witchcraft, the latter always deceptive, stating that either type could be used for good or evil.

Several of the races of Middle-earth are inherently able to work magic, from the godlike Ainur (including Wizards and Balrogs, both being members of the angelic race of Maiar) and the immortal Elves to Dragons and to some extent also Dwarves. Men and Hobbits could not directly work magic, but could make use of more or less magical artefacts made by others, such as Númenorean swords (made by Men with Elvish blood) and the Phial of Galadriel given to Frodo. Some of the magical artefacts were of great power, including the Palantíri or Stones of Seeing, but by far the most powerful was the One Ring, made by the Dark Lord Sauron and embodying much of his former power.

Scholars have written that Tolkien felt the need for a magical cosmology to counter modernity's war against mystery and magic. In the sense that magic is the use of power to dominate other people, it is evil, and associated in Tolkien's mind with technology. The opposite of that is enchantment, something that Frodo experiences in the Elvish realms of Rivendell and Lothlórien, both preserved by the power of the Three Elvish Rings. That too can be a trap, as the Elves are obliged to let their Rings and their realms fade, just as the Fellowship of the Ring have to let the One Ring go, its addictive power corrupting the wearer's mind to evil.

AppearancesEdit

Middle-earth is described both as being quite natural, with the ordinary features of Earth's rivers, mountains and plains, trees and plants under the sky, and supernatural, with magical powers shared by many of its races of beings from Wizards to Dwarves, and a variety of magical artefacts from rings to impenetrable walls.[1][2][3]

By raceEdit

The various races of Middle-earth had differing powers:[3]

Powers of Middle-earth races
Race Description Examples
Wizards Maiar, spirit beings sent in Man-like form by the godlike Valar to intervene at need in the affairs of Middle-earth[4] Saruman, of great power but also able to use deceptive power to create illusions;[T 1] Gandalf, able to create fire[T 2] or blazing light;[T 3] use many spells;[T 4] read Frodo's mind and memory[T 5]
Dark Lords Melkor (Morgoth) and Sauron, fallen Maiar[T 6][T 7] Sauron greatly increased his power by putting much of his own power into the One Ring[T 8]
Balrogs Evil fire-spirits, Maiar corrupted by Morgoth, in a man-shaped body Durin's Bane started to open a door in Moria closed with a spell by Gandalf.[T 9]
Dragons Descendants of Glaurung, created by Morgoth in the First Age in his war with the Elves[T 10] Smaug exerts a specific hypnotic power, the dragon-spell[T 11]
Nazgûl (Ringwraiths) Kings of men trapped by Sauron's gift of Rings of power Able to use spells of beckoning, location, and fire as weapons; their "black breath" spread depression and terror among their enemies.[T 12][T 13]
Elves Immortal beings with powers from arts and crafts to the clearly magical[3] Glorfindel and Elrond commanded the river Bruinen to rise and sweep the Nazgûl away, drowning their horses.[T 14] Elvish rope was extremely light, strong, and able to untie itself on command.[5][T 15][T 16] Elvish waybread, Lembas, was capable of keeping a "traveller on his feet for a day of long labour".[T 17][3] Elvish cloaks served almost magically as camouflage.[T 18] Galadriel's gifts, the Phial of Galadriel and the box of earth she gave to Sam had magical effects.[T 17]
Dwarves Mortal beings, but able to set spells on gold and forge magical things Narvi made the spell-operated Doors of Durin.[T 4][T 19]
Men, Hobbits Mortal beings who in the Third Age were without magical powers; able to use magical things made by the Elves or by the Númenóreans, Men of the Second Age, at least some of whom had some Elvish blood[3] Use of spell-wrapped swords[T 13][6] and the Phial of Galadriel[T 20][7] Denethor, Steward of Gondor, examines Pippin's spell-wrapped, rune-decorated sword and asks "Whence came this? ... Many, many years lie on it. Surely this is a blade wrought by our own kindred [Men descended from Númenóreans] in the North in the deep past?"[T 21]
Tom Bombadil (unknown race) Timeless being in Manlike form; fearless, with powers in his cheerful singing [T 22] Rescues hobbits from Old Man Willow, and again from the spell of the Barrow-wight, by singing[T 22][8]

By artefactEdit

Magical power is wielded through different artefacts:[3]

Magical artefacts
Artefact Description Examples
The One Ring Extremely powerful, wholly evil;[3] able to corrupt any being of power such as an Elf-lord, King of Men, or Wizard; controlled all other Rings of power; conferred invisibility[T 12][T 8] Effects on all who come close to the Ring
The Palantíri Stones of Seeing, made by Elves of Valinor, allow thoughts to be "transferred between wills"[T 23][T 24] Saruman is deceived by Sauron through the Orthanc Stone.[T 24]
Hidden writing Magical writing, invisible under normal conditions Moon-letters on Thror's map of Lonely Mountain, telling how to open secret door;[T 25] similar letters, of Mithril, written around Doors of Durin at western entrance to Moria, made visible by a spell[T 4]
Indomitable masonry Stonework embodying power preventing it from being broken by force Unassailable tower of Orthanc built with wizardry "older and stronger than Saruman's";[T 26] "indomitable" Númenórean masonry of outermost wall of Minas Tirith.[T 27]
Wizards' staffs Channelled the Wizards' own power[9][T 28] Saruman's staff broken by Gandalf the White at Orthanc; Gandalf's staff broken on Bridge of Khazad-dûm, and he died[T 29]
Spell-wrapped weapons Men of Númenor forged named swords with power to shine in presence of Orcs,[T 30][10] or to break spells protecting the Nazgûl[T 13][6] Narsil (Andúril),[T 12][T 2] Orcrist, and Glamdring; Morgul knife used by Nazgûl on Weathertop;[T 5] battering-ram Grond had evil spells of destruction written around it.[T 27][11]
Magic horn Ancient horn brought from the North by Eorl the Young, from Scatha the Worm's dragon-hoard, brings joy to friends, fear to enemies Merry Brandybuck rouses the Shire by blowing the horn-call of Buckland on it[T 31][12]

AnalysisEdit

A magical cosmologyEdit

The scholar and critic Patrick Curry argued that Tolkien felt the need for a magical cosmology combining polytheism and animism with Christian values like compassion and humility, to counter modernity's "war against mystery and magic".[1] He believed that Tolkien considered magic as something negative, associated with modern science and machinery, as in his essay On Fairy-Stories: a means of "power ... [and] domination of things and wills" that corrupts those who use it, for example, trapping the wizard Saruman in his desire for ultimate knowledge and order.[13] Such magic contrasts with the enchantment of Tolkien's fictional elvish lands, which he saw as a form of pure art and an appreciation of the wonders of the world.[2]

Two kinds of magicEdit

In an unsent draft of a letter in 1954, Tolkien distinguished two kinds of magic with the Greek words μαγεία (mageia "ordinary magic") and γοητεία (goeteia, "witchcraft").[T 32]

  • Goeteia influences perception and will. The Elves used it to create artistic beauty without effort and without deception. Sauron used it to dominate the wills of his subjects.[3][2]

Tolkien stated that these could not be acquired by studying ancient lore or books of spells, but that they were "inherent power not possessed or attainable by Men as such".[T 32] He however qualified this by writing "But the Númenóreans used "spells" in making swords?" alongside the end of the letter explaining these points.[T 33] He further explained that both Mageia and Goeteia could be used for good and bad purposes, but neither was inherently good or bad in itself. In his view, using them to control free will was the most extreme kind of evil.[T 32]

EnchantmentEdit

Curry states that enchantment is "the paradigmatic experience, property and concern of the Elves", as seen both in Rivendell when Frodo listens to the Elves' singing in the Hall of Fire,[T 5] and even more strongly in Lothlórien:[14]

Frodo stood awhile still lost in wonder. It seemed to him that he had stepped through a high window that looked on a vanished world. A light was upon it for which his language had no name.... He saw no colour but those he knew, gold and white and blue and green, but they were fresh and poignant, as if he had at that moment first perceived them... On the land of Lórien there was no stain.[T 34]

Curry cites what he calls Max Weber's crucial insight, namely that "The unity of the primitive image of the world, in which everything was concrete magic [his italics], has tended to split into rational cognition and mastery of nature, on the one hand, and into 'mystic' experiences, on the other". In his view, enchantment heals the split, seen in Platonic, Christian, and Cartesian philosophy, between subjectivity and objectivity.[14]

In the Tolkien scholar Verlyn Flieger's view, the attractive enchantment of the Elves might then seem entirely perfect; but she argues that this is not so. In her 2001 book A Question of Time, she writes that in Middle-earth, as in human life, any attempt to hold on to enchantment is doomed; the Elves are put to the test of letting Lórien's timeless beauty go, just as the members of the Fellowship of the Ring are put to the test of letting the Ring go. In Curry's view, this explains why the magical power of the three Elvish Rings too must fade when the One Ring is destroyed.[14]

Deceptive in useEdit

A palantír could not be made to create false images, even by Sauron, but he could use one to selectively display truthful images to create a false impression in the viewer's mind. In each of the four uses of a stone in The Lord of the Rings, a true image is shown, but the viewer draws a false conclusion from the facts. This applies even to Sauron, when he sees Pippin in Saruman's stone and assumes that Pippin has the One Ring, and that Saruman has therefore captured it.[15][T 35] Similarly, Denethor is deceived by Sauron, who drives Denethor to suicide by truthfully showing him the Black Fleet approaching Gondor, without telling him that the ships are crewed by Aragorn's men.[16] The Tolkien scholar Tom Shippey suggests that Tolkien's message is that one should not try to double-guess the future through any device, but should trust in providence and make one's own mind up, bravely facing one's duty in each situation.[15]

Addiction to powerEdit

The One Ring offers power to its wearer, and progressively corrupts the wearer's mind to evil; the effect is strongly addictive.[17][18] Shippey applied Lord Acton's 1887 statement that "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men" to it, noting that this was a distinctively modern thought: contemporary authors such as George Orwell with Animal Farm (1945), William Golding with Lord of the Flies (1954), and T. H. White with The Once and Future King (1958) similarly wrote about the corrupting effects of power.[19]

Wish-fulfilmentEdit

Shippey writes that there is a "streak of 'wish-fulfilment'" in the account of "The Scouring of the Shire". Merry returns from Rohan with a magic horn, brought from the North by Eorl the Young, founder of Rohan, from the dragon-hoard of Scatha the Worm. The horn, he explains, is "a magic one, though only modestly so":[12] blowing it brings joy to his friends in arms, fear to his enemies, and it awakens the Hobbits to purify the Shire of Saruman's ruffians.[12] Shippey suggests that Tolkien wished to do the same for England, and notes that with his novels he at least succeeded in bringing joy.[12] The historian Caitlin Vaughn Carlos writes that Sam Gamgee's exclamation "This is worse than Mordor! ... It comes home to you, they say; because it is home, and you remember it before it was ruined"[T 31] encapsulates the impulse to nostalgia.[20]

ReferencesEdit

PrimaryEdit

This list identifies each item's location in Tolkien's writings.
  1. ^ The Two Towers, book 3, ch. 10 "The Voice of Saruman"
  2. ^ a b The Fellowship of the Ring, book 2, ch. 3 "The Ring Goes South"
  3. ^ The Two Towers, book 3, ch. 5 "The White Rider"
  4. ^ a b c The Fellowship of the Ring, book 2, ch. 4 "A Journey in the Dark"
  5. ^ a b c The Fellowship of the Ring, book 2, ch. 1 "Many Meetings"
  6. ^ The Silmarillion, "Ainulindalë"
  7. ^ Carpenter 1981 Letters, #156 to Robert Murray, S.J., 4 November 1954
  8. ^ a b Carpenter 1981 Letters, #131 to Milton Waldman, late 1951
  9. ^ The Fellowship of the Ring, book 2, ch. 5 "The Bridge of Khazad-Dum"
  10. ^ The Silmarillion, "Of the Return of the Noldor"
  11. ^ The Hobbit, ch. 12 "Inside Information"
  12. ^ a b c The Silmarillion, "Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age"
  13. ^ a b c The Return of the King, book 5, ch. 6 "The Battle of the Pelennor Fields"
  14. ^ The Fellowship of the Ring, book 1, ch. 12 "Flight to the Ford"
  15. ^ The Treason of Isengard, ch. 13 "Galadriel"
  16. ^ The Two Towers, book 4, ch. 1 "The Taming of Sméagol"
  17. ^ a b The Fellowship of the Ring, book 2, ch. 8 "Farewell to Lórien"
  18. ^ The Two Towers, book 3, ch. 2 "The Riders of Rohan"
  19. ^ Unfinished Tales, part 2, ch. 4 "The History of Galadriel and Celeborn", "Concerning Galadriel and Celeborn"
  20. ^ The Two Towers, book 4, ch. 9: "Shelob's Lair."
  21. ^ The Return of the King, book 5, ch. 1 "Minas Tirith"
  22. ^ a b The Fellowship of the Ring, book 1, chs. 6–8, "The Old Forest", "In the House of Tom Bombadil", "Fog on the Barrow-downs"
  23. ^ Unfinished Tales, part 4, ch. 3 "The Palantíri"
  24. ^ a b The Two Towers, book 3, ch. 1 "The Palantír"
  25. ^ The Hobbit, ch. 3 "A Short Rest"
  26. ^ The Two Towers, book 3, chapter 8 "The Road to Isengard"
  27. ^ a b The Return of the King, book 5, ch. 4 "The Siege of Gondor"
  28. ^ Unfinished Tales, part 4, ch. 2 "The Istari"
  29. ^ The Fellowship of the Ring, book 2, chapter 5 "The Bridge of Khazad-dûm"
  30. ^ The Hobbit, ch. 2 "Roast Mutton"
  31. ^ a b Tolkien 1955, book 6 ch. 8 "The Scouring of the Shire"
  32. ^ a b c Carpenter 1981 Letters, #155 to Naomi Mitchison (draft, September 1954)
  33. ^ Carpenter 1981 Letters, footnote 2 to #155 to Naomi Mitchison (draft, September 1954)
  34. ^ The Fellowship of the Ring, book 2, ch. 6 "Lothlórien"
  35. ^ Tolkien 1954 The Two Towers, book 3, ch. 11 "The Palantír"

SecondaryEdit

  1. ^ a b Curry 2004, p. 19.
  2. ^ a b c Purtill 2003, pp. 139–140.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i Perry 2013, pp. 400–401.
  4. ^ Stanton 2013, pp. 709–710.
  5. ^ Russell 2005, p. 21 note 27.
  6. ^ a b Kocher 1974, pp. 44–45.
  7. ^ Milbank 2013, p. 35.
  8. ^ Jacobs 2020, Article 6.
  9. ^ Shippey 2005, p. 110.
  10. ^ Burdge & Burke 2013, pp. 703–705.
  11. ^ Shippey 2005, pp. 242–243.
  12. ^ a b c d Shippey 2005, pp. 198–199.
  13. ^ Curry 2004, p. 68.
  14. ^ a b c Curry 2008, pp. 99–112.
  15. ^ a b Shippey 2005, pp. 188, 423–429.
  16. ^ Kocher 1974, p. 63.
  17. ^ Perkins & Hill 1975, pp. 57–68.
  18. ^ Roberts 2006, p. 63.
  19. ^ Shippey 2002, pp. 112–119.
  20. ^ Carlos 2020, p. 535.

SourcesEdit