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. Both sides used magic in the War of the Ring.

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 as a Maia. The Lord of the Rings tells how its enormous power was ultimately defeated.

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"). He 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 1] He explained that both 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 1]

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.[2] Such magic contrasts with the enchantment in early drafts of Tolkien's fictional elvish lands, which he saw as a form of pure art and an appreciation of the wonders of the world.[3]

It might seem that witchcraft would always be evil, but in Tolkien's view this was not so. The elves used the enchantments of witchcraft without evil intention for artistic purposes, and were always aware of the difference between reality and deception. In contrast, the Dark Lord Sauron employed witchcraft to deceive and terrify, his intention being invariably to control and dominate.[3][4]

Races able to use magicEdit


The Ainur possessed supernatural abilities. After the creation of Middle-earth, some of the Ainur felt obligated to watch over the new creation. They entered Middle-earth to guard the creation and became the godlike Valar, and their servants, the Maiar. Among the Maiar were the Istari or Wizards, and the evil servants of Melkor (a fallen Vala, later named Morgoth) the Balrogs and the Dark Lord Sauron.[T 2][T 3]

Sauron was a powerful fallen Maia, intent on dominating Middle-earth. Having discovered how to make magical Rings of Power from the Elven-smith Celebrimbor in the Second Age, he put much of his own power into the One Ring, which he secretly forged in Mordor. Because the One Ring gave control, at least in principle (the Three Rings of the Elves being hidden from him) over all the other Rings of Power, it made Sauron far more powerful and dangerous than before.[T 4]


The Wizards were five Maiar sent to Middle-earth in the Third Age by the Valar, so that they could act indirectly to rescue it from Sauron's evil. Their leader was Saruman the White, a master of lore who, out of pride, set up his own realm at Isengard and became an unwitting servant of Sauron. He was countered by Gandalf, originally Gandalf the Grey, who eventually replaced him. The only other Wizard who played any part in defeating Sauron was Radagast the Brown, a master of herb-lore.[5]

In The Fellowship of the Ring, Gandalf used spells to conjure fire,[T 5] create light,[T 6] open the doors of Moria,[T 6] bless Sam Gamgee's pony (Bill),[T 6] hold the door in the Chamber of Mazarbul,[T 7] and break the Bridge of Khazad-dûm.[T 7] He stated in front of the Doors of Durin, which he needs to open, that he "once knew every spell in all the tongues of Elves or Men or Orcs, that was ever used for such a purpose".[T 6] Gandalf told Frodo that "it has not been hard for me to read your mind and memory" while Frodo lay recovering from his Morgul-knife wound in Rivendell.[T 8]

In The Two Towers, Gandalf used magic in Fangorn forest to prevent the Dwarf Gimli, and the Elf Legolas, while they believed him to be Saruman dressed as a beggar, from attacking him. They talked, and then as he turned away, "as if a spell had been removed", they were again able to seize their weapons. Then he discarded his hood and ragged grey cloak, and revealed himself by his magic:[T 9]

His white garments shone. He lifted up his staff, and Gimli's axe leaped from his grasp and fell ringing on the ground. The sword of Aragorn, stiff in his motionless hand, blazed with a sudden fire. Legolas gave a great shout and shot an arrow high into the air: it vanished in a flash of flame.[T 9]

Later, Gandalf used his voice at Orthanc to compel Saruman to return to the parley, to break Saruman's staff, and to dismiss him after doing so. Gandalf told Gimli that Saruman could "look like me in your eyes if it suited his purpose with you", in other words, Saruman was able to use witchcraft to create illusions.[T 10]


The Balrogs were powerful evil fire-spirits, able to take a man-shaped body but apparently much larger. Their supernatural abilities came in the form of control of fire, and a Wizard-like power to work magic spells. This power was seen in The Lord of the Rings when the Balrog named Durin's Bane in Moria started to open a door closed with a spell by Gandalf.[T 7]


All Middle-earth's dragons were descended from Glaurung, the father of dragons,[T 11] created by Morgoth in Angband during the First Age in his striving to overcome the Elves.[T 12] They had a specific hypnotic power called the dragon-spell.[T 13]


The Nazgûl, or Ringwraiths, were the remnants of powerful kings and sorcerers of men, trapped by Sauron's deceptions. He gave each of them a Ring of Power; under the control of his Ruling Ring, these gifts brought all of them under his complete control, becoming his most deadly servants. The Ringwraiths used numerous spells of beckoning, location, and fire as weapons. Further, their "black breath" caused dark depression among their foes, freezing them in terror.[T 14][T 15]

As well as the visible realm of Middle-earth, there was a shadow realm where creatures, such as the Ringwraiths, had a far more distinct presence than that observable in the normal world. High Elves exist in both worlds. Tolkien wrote that " those [like Glorfindel] who have dwelt in the Blessed Realm live at once in both worlds, and against both the Seen and the Unseen they have great power."[T 16] Mortals could see this world whilst wearing a Ring of Power, as both Frodo and Sam did; after his wound from the Nazgûl's Morgul Blade, Frodo was always partly able to see that world. This was because attack with that weapon was an attempt to transform him into a wraith, trapping him permanently in the shadow world. The wound caused him permanent psychological damage.[T 16]


Tolkien's Elves were immortal beings with powers that far exceeded those of mortal Men, though these powers ranged from skill, art, and craft to the clearly magical.[4] In The Fellowship of the Ring, as the Nazgûl attempted to capture Frodo and the Ring from the Elf-Lord Glorfindel, Elrond (the Lord of Rivendell) commanded the river to rise, so as to sweep the Nazgûl away and drown their horses.[T 17] Both Glorfindel, and Aragorn (a man, but with some Elvish blood) were able to tell the severity of Frodo's injury; Aragorn had powers of healing, especially against the Nazgûl's Black Breath.[T 17]

The craftsmanship of Elves displayed their subtle, instinctive control of magic.[4] Lembas, a food given to the Fellowship by the Elves of Lothlórien, was capable of keeping a "traveller on his feet for a day of long labour".[T 18][4] Their hithlain rope had properties ranging from being an excellent material to frankly magical: it was strong, tough, light, long, soft to the hand, packed close and unknotted itself at spoken command. The rope was made from the bark of mallorn trees, and the material was possibly also used to make elven-cloaks.[6][T 19][T 20] The Hobbits wondered if the cloaks that the Fellowship received from the Elves were magical. The Elves did not confirm this; Galadriel herself was confused about Sam's use of the word when explaining about her mirror, not least because the word could also mean "the deceits of the Enemy",[4][T 18] but she said that the cloaks helped to keep out of the sight of unfriendly eyes.[T 18] This was confirmed by the subsequent experiences of the Fellowship, where the cloaks provided extraordinarily effective camouflage. When Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli stand up, after lying hidden in the grass of Rohan with their cloaks, and call out, the Marshal of the Riders of Rohan, Éomer, astonished, starts to question them:[T 21]

And strange too is your raiment. Have you sprung out of the grass? How did you escape our sight? Are you elvish folk?[T 21]

Some of Galadriel's gifts to the Fellowship, such as the Phial of Galadriel she gave to Frodo and Sam's box of earth from her gardens that helped the Shire to recover after the depredations of Saruman's men, certainly possessed magical properties.[T 18]


Dwarves, too, although mortal and hence lower than Elves, were able to work certain kinds of magic, as seen in The Hobbit when Thorin's Dwarves set spells over the gold they have found in the Trolls' cave.[4] The spell-operated Doors of Durin are stated in The Fellowship of the Ring to have been made by Narvi, a Dwarf of the Second Age, in collaboration with the Elf Celebrimbor who made the lettering.[T 6][T 22]

Men and hobbitsEdit

Men and Hobbits did not have magical powers, but could make use of magical things made by the Elves, such as the Phial of Galadriel, or by the Númenóreans who were Men with some Elvish blood, such as Sting. By the same token, Aragorn, with Númenórean blood, had special powers of healing. The shape-changing Beorn in The Hobbit, too, had the distinctly magical but unexplained power to change his form between man and bear.[4]


The One RingEdit

The principal magical artefact in The Lord of the Rings is the One Ring, which is however wholly evil. Its power is far greater than that of anything else, able to turn anyone who uses it to evil.[4] It could therefore not be seized and used directly against Sauron by any of the wise or powerful, such as an Elf-Lord, King, or Wizard; instead, as told in The Lord of the Rings, its magic power could be opposed only by the small and insignificant, such as Hobbits of good will, not interested in power for themselves.[T 14] The One Ring had numerous magical powers. Like all the Rings of Power, it was able to slow down or prevent decay, as the Elves specially wished. They also increased any natural powers that their wearer possessed, something easily turned to evil and a desire for control. They conferred physical invisibility, at the same time enabling the wearer to see the invisible realm. And uniquely, the One Ring, the Ruling Ring, held the powers of every other Ring of Power, enabling its wearer to see everything their wearers were thinking, and to control and enslave them.[T 4]


In The Lord of the Rings, the action of magic is demonstrated more often than it is mentioned explicitly. This is seen, for instance, when the palantíri, the Stones of Seeing, made by the Elves of Valinor (perhaps by Fëanor himself), allow thoughts to be "transferred between wills".[T 23][T 24]

Hidden writingEdit

Moon-letters were discovered by Elrond on Thror's map of the Lonely Mountain, which revealed the method of opening the secret entrance: "Stand by the grey stone when the thrush knocks," read Elrond, "and the setting sun with the last light of Durin's Day will shine upon the key-hole."[T 25]

Similar letters, made of Mithril, were written around the Doors of Durin at the western entrance to Moria in The Fellowship of the Ring. They, however, were made visible not by moonlight but by a spell, spoken by Gandalf.[T 6]

Indomitable masonryEdit

The tower of Orthanc was built with wizardry "older and stronger than Saruman's",[T 26] making it extremely difficult for the Ents or tree-giants to damage, whereas they could tear up ordinary stonework without effort, in a supernaturally accelerated process of destruction. In the Hobbit Merry's account, "Their fingers, and their toes, just freeze onto rock; and they tear it up like bread-crust. It was like watching the work of great tree-roots in a hundred years, all packed into a few moments."[T 27]

Similar "indomitable" Númenórean masonry made the outermost wall of the city of Minas Tirith impossible to breach.[T 28]

Wizards' staffsEdit

The staffs of the Five Wizards were objects of magic, as they held or channelled the Wizards' own power. Saruman's staff was broken in his parley with Gandalf the White at Orthanc, and the action destroyed his power. Gandalf the Grey's staff had also been broken, on the Bridge of Khazad-dûm, and he died.[T 29] His name indeed is derived from the Old Norse Gandalfr, which meant "staff-elf".[7] It was with him when he arrived in Middle-earth from the enchanted land of Valinor.[T 30] When he was re-incarnated as Gandalf the White he had a new staff.[T 9]

Spell-wrapped weaponsEdit

Both sides used magic to enhance the power of their most special weapons.[T 28][T 16][T 14]

The Men of Númenor, described as "of Westernesse", gave magical powers to named swords such as Narsil (reforged for Aragorn as Andúril),[T 14][T 5] Orcrist, and Glamdring, as well as smaller unnamed knives like the one that Bilbo called Sting, making them shine blue when the enemy in the form of Orcs were nearby; these weapons terrified the enemy, who would not willingly handle them, and greatly feared them in battle.[T 31][8] The Men of Númenor had similarly bound the knives that Tom Bombadil retrieved from the Barrow-wight with spells specifically designed to destroy the Nazgûl. It appears as a fortunate coincidence that Merry uses one of these weapons against the Lord of the Nazgûl in the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, breaking the spell that protected him from death, and enabling Eowyn to kill him.[T 15][9]

The weapons of the enemy included the Morgul Knife used by the Nazgûl on Weathertop to try to turn Frodo into a wraith.[T 16] During the siege of Gondor, the great battering-ram Grond was linked with the power of the Lord of the Nazgûl with evil spells of destruction written around it; he speaks further "words of power" while it attacks the gates of Minas Tirith.[T 28][10]

In The HobbitEdit

In The Hobbit, magic is treated very lightly: Gandalf gave the Old Took a pair of magic diamond studs that fastened themselves and never came undone until ordered.[T 32] It is also mentioned that Thranduil, the Elvenking of Mirkwood, used magic doors to guard his palace.[T 33] The protagonist Bilbo Baggins finds a magic ring,[T 34] but its true nature as the One Ring is not revealed in the novel.[11]



This list identifies each item's location in Tolkien's writings.
  1. ^ a b Carpenter 1981 Letters, #155 to Naomi Mitchison (draft, September 1954)
  2. ^ The Silmarillion, "Ainulindalë"
  3. ^ Letters, #156 to Robert Murray, S.J., 4 November 1954
  4. ^ a b Carpenter 1981 Letters, #131 to Milton Waldman, late 1951}}
  5. ^ a b The Fellowship of the Ring, book 2, ch. 3 "The Ring Goes South"
  6. ^ a b c d e f The Fellowship of the Ring, book 2, ch. 4 "A Journey in the Dark"
  7. ^ a b c The Fellowship of the Ring, book 2, ch. 5 "The Bridge of Khazad-Dum"
  8. ^ The Fellowship of the Ring, book 2, ch. 1 "Many Meetings"
  9. ^ a b c The Two Towers, book 3, ch. 5 "The White Rider"
  10. ^ The Two Towers, book 3, ch. 10 "The Voice of Saruman"
  11. ^ The Silmarillion, "Of the Fifth Battle", pp. 192-193
  12. ^ The Silmarillion, "Of the Return of the Noldor", p. 116
  13. ^ The Hobbit, ch. 12 "Inside Information"
  14. ^ a b c d The Silmarillion, "Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age"
  15. ^ a b The Return of the King, book 5, ch. 6 "The Battle of the Pelennor Fields"
  16. ^ a b c d The Fellowship of the Ring, book 2, ch. 1 "Many Meetings"
  17. ^ a b The Fellowship of the Ring, book 1, ch. 12 "Flight to the Ford"
  18. ^ a b c d The Fellowship of the Ring, book 2, ch. 8 "Farewell to Lórien"
  19. ^ The Treason of Isengard, ch. 13 "Galadriel"
  20. ^ The Two Towers, book 4, ch. 1 "The Taming of Sméagol"
  21. ^ a b The Two Towers, book 3, ch. 2 "The Riders of Rohan"
  22. ^ Unfinished Tales, part 2, ch. 4 "The History of Galadriel and Celeborn", "Concerning Galadriel and Celeborn"
  23. ^ Unfinished Tales, part 4, ch. 3 "The Palantíri"
  24. ^ 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. ^ The Two Towers, book 3, ch. 9 "Flotsam and Jetsam"
  28. ^ a b c The Return of the King, book 5, ch. 4 "The Siege of Gondor"
  29. ^ The Fellowship of the Ring, book 2, chapter 5 "The Bridge of Khazad-dûm"
  30. ^ Unfinished Tales, part 4, ch. 2 "The Istari"
  31. ^ The Hobbit, ch. 2 "Roast Mutton"
  32. ^ The Hobbit, ch. 1 "An Unexpected Party"
  33. ^ The Hobbit, ch. 5 "Barrels Out of Bond"
  34. ^ The Hobbit, ch. 5 "Riddles in the Dark"


  1. ^ Curry 2004, p. 19.
  2. ^ Curry 2004, p. 68.
  3. ^ a b Purtill 2003, pp. 139–140.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h Perry 2013, pp. 400–401.
  5. ^ Stanton 2013, pp. 709–710.
  6. ^ Russell 2005, p. 21 note 27.
  7. ^ Shippey 2005, p. 110.
  8. ^ Burdge & Burke 2013, pp. 703–705.
  9. ^ Kocher 1974, pp. 44-45.
  10. ^ Shippey 2005, pp. 242-243.
  11. ^ Shippey 2005, pp. 87–89.