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The One Ring Forums: Tolkien Topics: Reading Room:
'The problem of magic' in Tolkien


Dec 18 2012, 11:53am

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'The problem of magic' in Tolkien Can't Post

Fantasy writers have to deal with which an editor I know calls “the problem of magic”. That is, it’s possible to use magic as an all-purpose plot device, to open up or shut down options for the characters at the author’s whim.

In a recent discussion (http://newboards.theonering.net/forum/gforum/perl/gforum.cgi?do=post_view_threaded;post=538952;sb=post_latest_reply;so=DESC;) , CuriousG had a good example:

“…but what if the One was a magic ring that did anything you wanted? If Frodo and Sam are starving in Mordor, Frodo puts it on briefly and turns rocks into fresh bread and turns orcs into barrels of beer. Presto! That would have made the story light-heared, but also relegated it to children's fairy tales. The fact that the One, while horrible, has definite limits on what it can do makes the story more solid and believable in JRRT's world governed by rules. “

Exactly - you quickly end up with a tale not worth telling. OK, there’s fiction where the Fairy Godmother or Deus Ex Machina turns up and fixes everything, but mostly we seem to prefer our heroes to have to overcome obstacles themselves. That is definitely how Tolkien goes and it means that, when inventing a world where there is magic, you probably have to come up with some rules and limitations. And these need to seem credible, or it can seem like the cardboard scenery has fallen down and you can see the special effects people peeking out.

I’ve been finding it interesting to think about how Tolkien handles it. Let’s start with:

“ ‘If there’s any magic about [comments Sam in Lorien] its right down deep, where I can’t lay my hands on it, in a manner of speaking’
“You can see and feel it everywhere,’ said Frodo.
‘Well,’ said Sam, ‘you can’t see nobody working it. No fireworks like poor Gandalf used to show’ ”

That seems to sum up the approach to me. JRRT manages a world in which magic is very present, and yet one in which we don’t find it odd that magical characters don’t do much overt magic right in front of us. I’m having fun thinking about this and hope it’s worth a discussion!

Gandalf is probably the most obvious user of magic (he is a wizard after all!). Gandalf lets off real fireworks of course, and is seen to be working magic on some occasions. For example:

• A flash and bang to make Bilbo’s sudden birthday-party disappearance look less like ring magic
• There is a magic battle with the Black Riders when Gandalf is on Weathertop (but that happens “offstage”.)
• Adding some “white riders” to the flood at the Ford of Brunien
• Reluctantly lighting a fire in the mountains, then fighting the wargs in A Journey in the Dark.
• Providing a light source from his staff in Moria
• He fights the Balrog, and breaks the bridge.

He can manage some magic for fairly trivial purposes: relieved to hear that the Hobbits met Strider at Bree, he seems to place an enchantment on Barliman’s beer, and when the characters return to the Prancing Pony in the aftermath, we hear that the beer has indeed become remarkably good.

You may have other examples, important or trivial. But compared with the constant combat spells of Harry Potter or World of Warcraft (say), it’s fairly rare to see somebody obviously working magic (I think). Gandalf has to hurry around on foot or on horse (a pretty special horse, of course) – that gives us a cliffhanger as to whether he will bring the relief of Helm’s Deep onto the battlefield in time. We would not get that if he could simply teleport to and fro. Most of what Gandalf does, I think, shows him as a learned, wise and active leader; he does not overtly use magic to influence things.

Why not? Gandalf’s only discussion of magic I can think of comes before and during Moria. When he magically kindles fire on Carahras, he grumbles that it will have revealed his presence:

“I have written Gandalf is here in signs that all can read from Rivendell to the mouths of the Anduin.”

Having just tried magically to bar the door of the Chamber of Records in Moria he says:

“ I could think of nothing to do but to try and put a shutting-spell on the door. I know many; but to do things of that kind rightly requires time, and even then the door can be broken by strength.”
But then:

“Then something came into the chamber – I felt it through the door…It laid hold of the iron ring and perceived me and my spell”

And then:

“The counter-spell was terrible. It nearly broke me…Ah! I have never felt so spent, but it is passing”

I think that gives us some limitations of magic:

• Reveals the presence of the spell-caster (not good for a wizard on a covert mission, with a party being eagerly sought by Saruman, Sauron and perhaps others).
• Can take time to do properly (though less satisfactory options can be done more quickly in emergency)
• Can be overcome by strength
• Is exhausting

Some wizardly magic seems to involve a battle of wills – so we are led to infer that Gandalf helps Frodo take the ring off on Amon Hen, so narrowly avoiding detection by the Eye. At Orthanc, Gandalf recalls the trapped Saruman and breaks his staff (and then is very tired, hence slow to fathom the meaning of the palantir) . Another thread (http://newboards.theonering.net/forum/gforum/perl/gforum.cgi?do%3Dpost_view_threaded%3Bpost_latest_reply%3Bso%3DASC%3Bpost%3D15896=View+Threaded ) discusses in detail whether Saruman is able to

“use magic spells and/or his voice to speed up the Uruk-Hai during their race from Boromir's death to Isengard- AND simultaneously hinder and/or slow down Aragorn, Legolas, & Gimli's pursuit”.

(I think the answer is ‘yes’ )

Also along those lines, Saruman’s signature magic ability is his persuasive voice.

Leaving Gandalf for the moment, I’d like to bring up the Elves.
Shortly after Sam’s comment about magic in Lorien, Galadriel arrives and works some magic with her mirror. Though she expresses some confusion over the use of the term “magic”:

“For this is what your folk would call magic, I believe; though I do not understand clearly what they mean; and they seem to use the same word for the deceits of the Enemy.”

I’m not quite sure what her point is (anyone any ideas?), though it reminds me of something from the story I once read about Simon Magus, and the magic contest he is supposed to have undertaken with St Peter. I remember the author of that novel making the point that the early Christian church adopted a new approach to magic – saints could perform miracles and that was good, but miracles, not magic. All others were evil sorcerers, not to be tolerated. (I wish I could remember more about that novel. If anyone recognizes it, please do help me out!)

In the next chapter, as the Fellowship are given cloaks, and we get another kind of Elvish scepticism about magic:

“’Are these magic cloaks?’ asked Pippin, looking at them in wonder.
‘I do not know what you mean by that,’ answered the leader of the Elves. ‘They are fair garments, and the web is good, for it was made in this land. They are Elvish robes certainly, if that is what you mean. Leaf and branch, water and stone: they have the hue and beauty of all these things … for we put the thought of all that we love into all that we make.”

Later, Sam is sure that he is able to make his Elvish rope detach from the crag by calling it (though Frodo suspects that Sam ties a dodgy knot).

So some items could be, as the Elves say to Pippin, not magic as such, just especially well-made. Long-lived folk such as the Elves and Numoreans might be expected to become particularly expert at their crafts, to the extent that their work looks magical to the others. The Ent-proof masonry of Orthanc might be an example of human super-craft. Gandalf’s fireworks could be another (he’s just a great pyrotechnician, chemist or alchemist). That can’t be the full explanation, however - while some “magic” items might “just” be particularly well made. It’s hard to see how a palantir or Ring works without magic!

What do we make of the enfeeblement of Theoden by Wormtounge and Saruman? In the Peter Jackson film it is pretty clearly magical. In the book, I remember it being less clear. It is certainly a process that has taken a long time to establish, leaving us to wonder whether it is conventionally magical, or psychological or even pharmacological. I think there are other places where there is this effect: is something magical going on or is there another explanation. The snowstorm in The Ring Goes South comes to mind. I expect there are other examples (which I cannot think of….).

What do you think about characters such as Bombadil, Treebeard and Ghan-buri-Ghan? They seem to be magical (probably in descending order – a propos my previous paragraph, maybe Ghan-buri-Ghan just has superb conventional woodcraft?). Bombadil and Treebeard don’t seem as much to DO magic as to BE magic. It seems to be part of them rather than a craft or skill they have learned. Do you agree?

Back to magic as a technology. A lot of magic items exist in Middle-earth: magic swords with built in goblin-detectors, barrow swords that can damage wraiths, palantirs, magic light-source bottles, and (perhaps most magical of all) the Rings. Perhaps magical items are a way of getting around the time-consuming/exhausting side of magic: perhaps you can charge up a magic item like a battery or capacitor to have a source of power to use up quickly when needed. And also, the magic can be used by the user of the item, who does not necessarily need to be capable of creating that magic him or herself.

The palantirs bring up another limitation of magic, I think. When characters use them, they always seem to end up mis-informed. So Sauruman and Denethor are tricked into thinking that Sauron is undefeatable. Sauron is deceived unintentionally when he sees Pippin in the stone, and is tricked by Aragorn showing him the reforged sword. Magic items can backfire! We have been discussing other aspects of this in the “oft evil will shall evil mar” thread. Sauron’s One Ring is so evil that anyone who gets their hands on it is likely to covet it. And it is ultimately this which leads to Sauron’s downfall.

A bit of a rag bag of thoughts about magic here! I’d be most interested to hear what you think.

Subject User Time
'The problem of magic' in Tolkien noWizardme Send a private message to noWizardme Dec 18 2012, 11:53am
    A thought about games noWizardme Send a private message to noWizardme Dec 18 2012, 1:33pm
    Galadriel and semantics CuriousG Send a private message to CuriousG Dec 20 2012, 7:37pm
        Magic vs Blessed Cyberia Send a private message to Cyberia Dec 21 2012, 12:22am
            Elvish magic (a helpful/distracting thought from "On Fairy Stories" noWizardme Send a private message to noWizardme Dec 21 2012, 4:12pm
    Palantiri vs Skype CuriousG Send a private message to CuriousG Dec 20 2012, 10:14pm
        Or the palantir as YouTube? noWizardme Send a private message to noWizardme Dec 21 2012, 6:59pm
    Gandalf's magic: a wizard's must CuriousG Send a private message to CuriousG Dec 21 2012, 2:51am
        Compare & Contrast: Terry Pratchett's witches noWizardme Send a private message to noWizardme Dec 27 2012, 12:55pm
            Magic and knowledge to Medieval witch hunters CuriousG Send a private message to CuriousG Dec 28 2012, 2:06am
    A problem of terminology Mim Send a private message to Mim Dec 23 2012, 6:41pm
        Magic & Grace of Valar/Aman/Undying Lands Nolofinwe Send a private message to Nolofinwe Dec 24 2012, 3:38pm
            You can add to that sador Send a private message to sador Dec 24 2012, 4:33pm
            The dark side of magic: Nazgul CuriousG Send a private message to CuriousG Dec 24 2012, 7:56pm
                passive elven magic Cyberia Send a private message to Cyberia Dec 24 2012, 10:10pm
                Light vs. Dark.. Nolofinwe Send a private message to Nolofinwe Dec 25 2012, 4:56am
                    Perception of Lorien (and Imladris for that matter) Nolofinwe Send a private message to Nolofinwe Dec 25 2012, 4:09pm
                        Good comparisons CuriousG Send a private message to CuriousG Dec 25 2012, 4:24pm
                            Yes Nolofinwe Send a private message to Nolofinwe Dec 25 2012, 4:31pm
                Evidence of anger? Otaku-sempai Send a private message to Otaku-sempai Dec 26 2012, 2:37pm
                    Read Gandalf's explanation to Frodo CuriousG Send a private message to CuriousG Dec 28 2012, 1:55am
                        Well, to be fair... Otaku-sempai Send a private message to Otaku-sempai Dec 28 2012, 9:26pm
        Please do! noWizardme Send a private message to noWizardme Dec 27 2012, 12:45pm
        Hobbit magic (to add to the pot!) noWizardme Send a private message to noWizardme Dec 27 2012, 6:21pm
    Elves/Rivendell Nolofinwe Send a private message to Nolofinwe Dec 31 2012, 3:05pm


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