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The One Ring Forums: Tolkien Topics: Reading Room:
A problem of terminology

Mim
The Shire

Dec 23 2012, 6:41pm


Views: 316
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A problem of terminology [In reply to] Can't Post

First and foremost I think you have to address what is actually meant when people talk about magic. Magic is something of a bucket term in itself, particularly in literature where as you say every author creates their own rules for what is and isn't magically possible. J K Rowling, for an off the top of my head example, has the condition that magic can't resurrect people where as necromancy is obviously a well established branch of magic in other cases. So would an instance of magic which allows necromancy and an instance of magic that doesn't really be the same thing? Well, probably not. I'm not sure I'm explaining what I mean very well but I'm basically trying to say that the question of what magic actually is, is a difficult one, despite how familiar we all probably feel with the term.

That uncertainty is, I think, fuel for how Tolkien uses the term magic in his work. In his letters he comments on his own inconsistent use of the term magic and talks specifically about Galadriel's questioning of the Hobbit's use of the term. He attempts to reflect that confusion back on the reader and suggests that the reader may themselves be confused by their use of magic to describe both the good of the elves and the evil of the enemy. Which is generally symbolic of how Tolkien enjoys challenging the accepted use of words or seeks to go back to an older usage. I think this is a good hint though to what we could do with how Tolkien uses magic.

Firstly, it is evident that one of the mistakes the Hobbit's make is to call what is simply some kind of science or technology magic. The enemy does of course have a magical quality but it seems to me that to a greater extent they are simply technologically advanced. Fire, chemicals, explosives all seem to be part of the enemies arsenal but are described using the language of magic because Middle Earth doesn't have a sufficiently developed scientific vocabulary to describe it in any more accurate terms. So there is a clear misapplication of terminology by the Hobbits. Which I think serves to highlight a general problem with the term magic. It is the word that best fits because Middle Earth has no better explanation for what the enemy is doing. The age old argument that modern technology would look an awful lot like magic to someone from the past.

On the other hand, as Tolkien indicates in his letters, he saw Elves as the truly magical beings. Precisely because they don't have power and they are simply beings free of a certain kind of restraint inherent to the mortal races. Their magic lies in their ability to be pure and to utilize their world and its nature to it's highest potential. Hence why Sam feels there is a magic deep down in Lorien, it is a space that is liberated from the mortal restraint that is the character of the lands he has lived in previously. This can also go a good way to explaining Bombadil and Treebeard's magical feel as they are both simply very unrestrained expressions of the world in which they live. All of this only really works if you accept Tolkien as viewing the general use of the word magic as wrong.

Gandalf is of course the problem in this particular explanation. He does use some of the enemies cheap technological tricks, is called a Wizard and talks about spells. I don't think thats actually as problematic as it first seems. Gandalfs fireworks are spectacular, magical, but they are fundamentally just a form of technology. A form of technology more advanced than those the Hobbits are familiar with. It doesn't seem such a great leap to me that some of his showier magic tricks may just be more of the same. His work with the Balrog in Moria is another matter. The struggle seems to be a mental one, perhaps we may say that similarly to the elves his mind is simply less restrained than a mortal one which allows him to have power to withstand the Balrog. Perhaps this also explains him claiming that his use of 'magic' broadcasts his presence, because it is the product of his unrestrained self.

I could probably go on musing on this topic forever but I think the most fundamental thing I'm trying to say is that I think Tolkien is in some ways attempting to redefine the concept of magic.

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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