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


Dec 18 2012, 11:53am

Post #1 of 25 (1769 views)
'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.


Dec 18 2012, 1:33pm

Post #2 of 25 (1116 views)
A thought about games [In reply to] Can't Post

An aspect of "the problem of magic" comes up in fantasy games too. The creator of a game has a different set of problems to the creator of a story, of course. But they both have an interest in what you might call "balance" or "fairness". It's difficult to make a good story if the good guys never once look like having difficulties. Similarly, a game gets boring if you will inevitably win, or inevitably lose. [Stories and games for small children are an exception here; they can get quite upset by their character being in peril.]

I can think of two fantasy games which have taken a similar route to JRRT. Both World of Warcraft and the Games Workshop Tolkien-based games use the "magic is time-consuming and exhausting" idea. This evens things up in what would otherwise be characters with bows and swords versus magical characters whose spells are as lethal as flamethrowers or hand grenades. So they limit the "rate of fire" and the amount of "ammunition" magic-using characters have. That way, basic grunt warrior characters have a chance to rush them between spells or when they have run out of energy!


Dec 20 2012, 7:37pm

Post #3 of 25 (1090 views)
Galadriel and semantics [In reply to] Can't Post

Excellent post, noWizardme!

I'm having trouble finding a large block of time to reply, so I'll have to do it in chunks, and in random order.

Galadriel's line about the word "magic." I must have 10,000 favorite lines from Tolkien, and this is one of them because it's rich in meaning. There's a tendency in all fantasy stories for authors to invent races, then gradually forget the differences between them so eventually they all act and talk the same, they just have pointy ears or not. This was a great reminder of the difference between Elves and mortals. It's repeated and augmented a little later by the Elf who's also confused by the word "magic" when asked about the cloaks. These immortal beings don't share the same perspective that mortals do, down to their word choice in everyday speech, and there's a profound conceptual misunderstanding between the races.

We grow up with fairy tales where magic means turning invisible (check!) and involves reciting spells and ugly witches brewing up nasty things in a pot. I doubt it was intentional, but think how Tolkien reversed the whole witch-and-pot image with the ethereal Galadriel and her wondrous Mirror. For her there is no conjuring and no tricks, which is what magic is to Sam and hobbits. It's more of a manifestation of the spirit. I'm not aware of a concrete explanation for the mechanics of the Mirror, but it seems like it represents the intuitive part of your mind that's buried beneath the rational part, hence the part that dreams and makes creative connections, which is also a little wild and uncontrollable. ("Do not touch the water.")

It's revealing that she says that the Mirror is more helpful when left to its own will, rather than obeying her commands. Creativity works the same way. Try telling an artist to paint a rainbow in a field of daisies with two kids playing with a dog vs. asking them to paint whatever landscape is on their mind. The latter would almost always be more beautiful and more satisfying.

The boats, cloaks, and ropes of Lorien seem to work the same way: there is no recipe of spells that the Elves use, but rather they spontaneously put their love into all that they make, again letting creativity flow naturally without command. So the Elves are mystified that this creative flow is equated in the same word for Wargs of Sauron that don't leave corpses behind or Sauron's emissaries appearing fair (but feeling foul).

I think there's more than expert craftsmanship or better technology that goes into the works of the Elves. I think that they impart a portion of their souls into their works, and that results in things like ropes that untie themselves when the suggestion or need is put to them not by a spell, but by a person's will. I would also guess that there's selectivity involved and that Elvish magic is not neutral. By that I mean that conventional magic works for everyone; spells in Harry Potter work for whoever recites them. But I don't think that if an orc tugged on an Elvish rope that it would untie itself. And if a Nazgul looked into Galadriel's Mirror, I doubt it would be compliant in any fashion. These Elvish things don't have on/off switches.

Another thought about how magic does/doesn't work is that the Phial of Galadriel is no ordinary flashlight. If it was, it would have worked in Orodruin. And when the hobbits confronted Shelob, its intensity wouldn't have increased as their wills grew bolder. There's an organic nature to all these Elvish things that doesn't translate as technological devices. Given that JRR didn't like technology very much, he probably came up with these alternatives to it quite intentionally.


Dec 20 2012, 10:14pm

Post #4 of 25 (1052 views)
Palantiri vs Skype [In reply to] Can't Post

You make an astute observation about palatiri. They may be something that as kids we would all love to get as a Christmas present, but they cause as many problems as they solve.

I think it's said somewhere that when Arnor was in mortal danger, "messages" were sent to Gondor asking for help, and those were most likely sent via palantir. That the help came too late isn't the palantirs' fault but timing in general.

I think they worked well when Aragorn challenged Sauron on purpose to provoke his attack and distract him from Frodo, though Sauron would disagree with me. They worked against Sauron when he was again distracted seeing Pippin on screen, mistaking him for the Ring-bearer in Saruman's custody and provoking a rfit between the two evil S's.

Their use certainly backfired on Denethor, and after his death, that palantir remained cursed for most people. The one in the Tower Hills that looked West was soothing enough, but not practical for anything behond therapy. In sum, what seems like such a cool device (maybe not that original, since they're essentially crystal balls, but in some ways they feel invented by Tolkien) is something that you'd better leave alone. What a shame!

The Shire

Dec 21 2012, 12:22am

Post #5 of 25 (1026 views)
Magic vs Blessed [In reply to] Can't Post

I think of elven items as being "Blessed" rather than "Magical". This is especially apparent with the Phial and the glowing elven swords, but also explains the behavior of the cloaks and ropes.

If you are a creature of darkness, a magic blade is something to fear, but a blessed blade is horrific, like a lightsaber. This is also why Glamdring worked on all evil creatures, even on a balrog.


Dec 21 2012, 2:51am

Post #6 of 25 (1020 views)
Gandalf's magic: a wizard's must [In reply to] Can't Post

It's probably telling that the most willing and ostentatious display of magic is in the early chapters in the Shire, where Tolkien was initially writing a more Hobbit-like book, and things are similarly light-hearted, so Gandalf can do all the tricks he wants. Later on he's much more reluctant, as you point out. I personally want to shake him by the collar when they're freezing to death on Caradhras and he fusses about revealing himself--that's worse than being buried in snow?

He shows no reservation in barbecuing the Wargs that attack later, I suppose because he figures they know who he is and concealing his magic is no longer of any use. That's one of the rare treats we get. Others are a tease, such as viewing the Weathertop battle with the Nazgul from afar and in just a few words. In Minas Tirith, Denethor taunts Gandalf about confronting the chief Nazgul, but Gandalf temporizes and says the time hasn't come yet, and we're forever left wondering how their duel at the gate of Minas Tirith would have turned out if only the Rohirrim had arrived a little later.

I think Tolkien knew that readers would expect magic, not just wisdom, from anything he called a wizard, so that's probably why we see the most from him. He shows a lot more than the Elves do, as your great list of examples indicates. But as for being a guide of others' deeds, that's the role Gandalf sticks to whenever possible, including at the very end of the trilogy, when Merry and Pippin show up at the last minute, tipped off by Gandalf both to say goodbye to Frodo and to give Sam company on the way home. No magic there, just guidance (or manipulation), and that's the role he played at the very beginning as well.


Dec 21 2012, 4:12pm

Post #7 of 25 (1052 views)
Elvish magic (a helpful/distracting thought from "On Fairy Stories" [In reply to] Can't Post

Thanks Curious G and Cyberia! Good points both - I like the distinction between Blessed and Magical.

I came across an interesting quote from Tolkien's essay "On Fairy Stories" There's a discussion of how a successful fairy tale creates a "Secondary World" (c.f. the real "Primary World" . If its creator is good, the Secondary World is "believable" in a special sense - you don't genuinely believe that it exists, but go along with behaving as if you did temporarily believe it, for the purpose of being entertained.) Then he says:

Art of the same sort, if more skilled and effortless, the elves can also use, or so reports seem to show; but the more potent and specially elvish craft I will, for lack of a less debatable word, call Enchantment. Enchantment produces a Secondary World into which both designer and spectator can enter, to the satisfaction of their senses while they are inside; but in its purity it is artistic in desire and purpose. Magic produces, or pretends to produce, an alteration in the Primary World. It does not matter by whom it is said to be practised, fay or mortal, it remains distinct from the other two; it is not art but a technique; its desire is power in this world, domination over things and wills.

Given the context, I think we should be careful about relating this quote to our current discussion, but boy is it tempting.

That would seem to back up the points CuriousG and Cyberia have made about the Elves not having magic in the sense we understand it - so Galadriel is not merely being difficult Evil or pedantic or having a smile Laugh at the rustic hobbits; there is genuinely a racial difference in what magic is to an Elf as opposed to a mortal.

It seems to me that it might explain the following a bit

  • The Fellowship entering both Rivendell and Lorien lose track of time, despite having a very urgent quest. They are lost in a Secondary World - or is that a Tertiary World from our Point of View, since they are already a Secondary World to us?... [cough] noWizardme, stop being difficult Crazy

  • The Elvish cloaks certainly are a kind of elvish craft which deceives both creator and audience - they are not cloaks of invisibility so much as super camouflage (not so sure about the rope though - it would seem odd to think it merely seemed to be securely knotted, but that was enough to make it bear weight...)

  • Of the 3 races that worked with Sauron to get Rings, the Elves alone did not want "power in this world, domination over things and wills" (and perhaps came out better on the deal because of it?)

That said, I think the Elves do dabble in the dirty world of Power politics when they must (and who can blame them). I think CuriousG has an interesting point about how Galadriel does not try to steer her mirror (or says it works best when you don't) c.f. the palatir users and the troubles they have from it...

Hmm - I think this might be helping, but I don't feel like I've got to the bottom of it, so do chip in if you can...


Dec 21 2012, 6:59pm

Post #8 of 25 (1024 views)
Or the palantir as YouTube? [In reply to] Can't Post

The palantiri are certainly most unreliable! I think one thing is that they seem to offer objectivity, but actually things are badly distorted by the will of the user,or someone manipulating the user.

So Saruman and Denethor, spying on Sauron, cannot be shown out-and-out fabrications, but Sauron can influence what they do see, and that is enough to turn it into propaganda. He can also compel the to see more.

Beyond this, if you did have a device that could theoretically see anything, you would still have to choose where to look, and how to interpret what you saw. Perhaps there's a parallel with us in the Internet age: we theoretically have access to more, and more varied, sources of information than ever before. Some of it is intended to manipulate, to be sure. In theory, the viewer can observe widely enough to form a balanced view. But that can be hard to do, requiring hard work and Judgement. And I've heard the idea that many people instead restrict themselves to information sources which re-inforce their existing prejudices, perhaps not realising that they are getting a more and more atypical view of the world. In another part of this thread, CuriousG has contrasted the palantir users with Galadriel, who says her mirror works best when left undirected. Also that viewers must be very careful when interpreting what they see. Perhaps the palantir users should have done the same.

The limits of the palantiri thus seem quite natural. Just as well, as otherwise the palantir could cause huge plot holes: a force able to see anywhere should have a huge military and political advantage, you'd think.

The Shire

Dec 23 2012, 6:41pm

Post #9 of 25 (1015 views)
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.

The Shire

Dec 24 2012, 3:38pm

Post #10 of 25 (980 views)
Magic & Grace of Valar/Aman/Undying Lands [In reply to] Can't Post

The only instance I can recall 'magic' being used as a catch-all plot device is within the story of Beren & Luthien (I get the Silmarillion, Lost Tales, and HoM-E Volume X/XI versions all jumbled in my mind... difficult to associate details with which version...) where-in Luthien is able to (among other magical deeds on that quest...) magically grow her hair to create a rope to escape her elevated for-her-own-good prison in the forest of Doriath, transforming herself & Beren into the shapes of a wolf and bat... the sleep spells she casts more than once (one of which was successfully aimed at Morgoth Bauglir himself in his throne room), and the healing of Beren after bow-shot & involuntary-hand-removal by way of Carcharoth.

An argument could be made that having half-Maiar half-Elven ancestry imparted to her some ability beyond those given to the Elder Children of Illuvitar.

In the OP you mention the Palantiri... made by the Elves of Tol Eressea for the House of Elendil. And it calls to mind the Silmarils, Feanorian Lamps and other such magnificents examples of Eldar craftsmenship. Much of what we would call 'magic' or 'Elf Magic' in Arda comes from the grace granted to those who reside(d) in Aman... The Silmarils, Lamps, and perhaps even the Palantiri were wrought by Feanor under the tutelage of Aule. By the end of the Third Age, I can think of no other kindred of the High Elves than Galadriel (Elrond is in his own category, what with his Maiar ancestry).... it seems to me that her magical abilities can be directly traced to her having the power of Nenya, combined with the grace imparted to her from her years in Aman. It seems the ability to do & create great things left the world in a direct correllation with the Eldar leaving Middle Earth.

Mighty must the Noldor have seemed (To all but Melian & Thingol in Doriath) when they arrived fresh from Aman.... each with the might and magnificence that Galadriel possesses.


Dec 24 2012, 4:33pm

Post #11 of 25 (978 views)
You can add to that [In reply to] Can't Post

The phantom of Eilinel by which Gorlim was ensnared, Finrod changing his companions and himself to look like Elves, and his duel with Sauron. Perhaps also Melian telling Luthien where Beren is in the early versions.
But yes, you are correct - there is no other tale in which the magic is so flamboyant (as Curious would say), not even the Tom Bombadil episodes.

In Reply To
Luthien is able to (among other magical deeds on that quest...) magically grow her hair to create a rope to escape her elevated for-her-own-good prison in the forest of Doriath, transforming herself & Beren into the shapes of a wolf and bat... the sleep spells she casts more than once (one of which was successfully aimed at Morgoth Bauglir himself in his throne room), and the healing of Beren after bow-shot & involuntary-hand-removal by way of Carcharoth.

And welcome to TORn!


Dec 24 2012, 7:56pm

Post #12 of 25 (978 views)
The dark side of magic: Nazgul [In reply to] Can't Post

Welcome, Nolofinwe. I think Mim may be right that we need to define magic, if possible, to further explore noWizardme's OP. So I'll throw Nazgul magic into the mix, which I think is conventional magic and not technological.

1. The Witch-King vs. Frodo at the Ford of Bruinen in two magic acts: breaks Frodo's sword and renders Frodo mute. Then comes Elrond's magic of the river flood, which has touches of magic from Gandalf, purely for artistic effect. (Now really, why did Gandalf do that, other than out of vanity?)

2. The siege of Minas Tirith. The great gate withstood Grond until the W-King uttered a spell (three times) that made it burst. No gunpowder like Saruman used at Helm's Deep.

3. The W-King's threat to Eowyn that he wouldn't kill her but would leave her mind open to torment in Barad-dur. Maybe he meant that literally, but since he calls it her "naked mind" (I think; books not handy), I have always taken that to mean that she would be robbed of her body and left as a mind/spirit subject to endless torment. It gives me the chills to think of that threat, since it implies she can't die and will be in immortal hell.

4. I'm not sure about the Nazgul at Crickhollow. Fatty Bolger thinks he sees the gate open by itself, but maybe he just couldn't see them. But it seems more magical when they knock the door in just by pounding on it, unless they possibly have unusual strength.

Nazgul magic is violent magic, but I think Gandalf's magic in fighting the Balrog and the Wargs is violent too, as is Elrond flooding his local river. (Do you suppose Galadriel used the same trick when Dol Guldur attacked?) And Felagund fighting Sauron with songs of power seems like more than an artistic spat. It's also significant that Sauron sings back, hence he's as musical as an Elf and uses the same magic that they do.

So to circle back to Galadriel saying she's perplexed that hobbits use the same word for good and bad magic doesn't always hold up. I don't think flooding rivers in anger is "putting our love in all that we make." But it would make sense if there are different types of good magic. There's passive magic, such as Elven cloaks and watery mirrors, where you put your love into your creations and that has a life of its own, and the more active kind when you shut a door with a word of Command in a contest of wills or ring a kingdom of Doriath with--what, walls of deceit? I thought that was what the Enemy did?

The more I think about it, the more I think Mim is onto something with "Tolkien enjoys challenging the accepted use of words." Maybe he didn't really redefine magic, except in the passive sense I described, which I think is unique to him. Maybe he just wanted us to think about it.

The Shire

Dec 24 2012, 10:10pm

Post #13 of 25 (965 views)
passive elven magic [In reply to] Can't Post

The cloaks and rope were passive, but the Mirror was all Nenya, IMHO. Ring of Water, after all.

EDIT: The Barrow Blade would be an example of non-elvish 'Magic'.

(This post was edited by Cyberia on Dec 24 2012, 10:14pm)

The Shire

Dec 25 2012, 4:56am

Post #14 of 25 (988 views)
Light vs. Dark.. [In reply to] Can't Post

As for Nazgul magic...

I always found it very interesting (and made me wish things had gone different in the Citadel) that Gandalf repeatedly stated and with no small deal of confidence that he would've been able to sort out the Witch King had Denethor's madness not detained him. When he looks out on the battlefield 'with the sight that was given him' he says he has beheld some greivous scene that for the madness of Denethor he would've been able to prevent... it makes me wonder...

I've always interpretted that to mean that he would've been able to save Theoden, and spare Eowyn/Merry the torment they suffered during/following the slaying of the Witch King.

Perhaps Glorfindel's phophetical statement wouldn't apply to Gandalf.... Maia as he is....though perhaps he wouldn't have killed him.... just stopped him.

I have to refresh myself on the Grond/Gate business... I had heretofore been under the impression that Grond was itself forged & enchanted with some dark magic (beasts of burden would occassionally go mad while pulling it as a result, I beleive was stated.) and it alone broke the gate after three blows. I could well be mistaken, but such was my recollection when I read this.

The Shire

Dec 25 2012, 4:09pm

Post #15 of 25 (938 views)
Perception of Lorien (and Imladris for that matter) [In reply to] Can't Post

I've always viewed the 'magic' of Lothlorien & Imladris (when inhabited by Elrond & Galadriel...each with a ring of power) as more akin to Doriath in the Elder Days, within the protection of the Girdle of Melian... though less powerful.

Doriath no doubt inspired Galadriel (And Celeborn) to establish their protected sanctuary ... I could lump Imladris & Lord Elrond in there as well but I would think Elrond was inspired more by Gondolin, with the history of his forefathers being what they are.


Dec 25 2012, 4:24pm

Post #16 of 25 (920 views)
Good comparisons [In reply to] Can't Post

Thinking of memorials to realms in Beleriand, wasn't Cirdan stubborn? He builds havens in the Falas, and those are destroyed, so starts anew on the Isle of Balar, and that's destroyed with much of Beleriand, so what does he do next--move inland to a forest or something? No, he builds new havens in the remnant of Beleriand (Lindon), making him a single-minded port authority for thousands of years. Gotta admire that determination.

The Shire

Dec 25 2012, 4:31pm

Post #17 of 25 (951 views)
Yes [In reply to] Can't Post

Agreed... I had at first typed "And Cirdan in the 3rd age, was inspired by Cirdan in the 1st Age." No matter how many times you smash his havens, he will build another one.


Dec 26 2012, 2:37pm

Post #18 of 25 (954 views)
Evidence of anger? [In reply to] Can't Post

In Reply To
So to circle back to Galadriel saying she's perplexed that hobbits use the same word for good and bad magic doesn't always hold up. I don't think flooding rivers in anger is "putting our love in all that we make." But it would make sense if there are different types of good magic. There's passive magic, such as Elven cloaks and watery mirrors, where you put your love into your creations and that has a life of its own, and the more active kind when you shut a door with a word of Command in a contest of wills or ring a kingdom of Doriath with--what, walls of deceit? I thought that was what the Enemy did?

What makes you think that anger was involved when Elrond used the river to defend Rivendell? It seems to be to be a completely rational action of self-defense that includes no implication of a negative emotional state.

'There are older and fouler things than Orcs in the deep places of the world.' - Gandalf the Grey, The Fellowship of the Ring


Dec 27 2012, 12:45pm

Post #19 of 25 (884 views)
Please do! [In reply to] Can't Post

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.

I'd love to read some more of your musing- feel free to post more Smile


Dec 27 2012, 12:55pm

Post #20 of 25 (944 views)
Compare & Contrast: Terry Pratchett's witches [In reply to] Can't Post

Terry Pratchett's Discworld stories have some witch characters who might be interesting to consider here. Much of the magic they do is actually shown to be skilled psychology and people-handling. More occult things are a less-used last resort. The widespread expectation that witches can and do use magic is ironically one of the things that mean they can get away with more conventional means.

Maybe the Middle-earth wizards are a bit like that too?


Dec 27 2012, 6:21pm

Post #21 of 25 (913 views)
Hobbit magic (to add to the pot!) [In reply to] Can't Post

Another use of "magic" to consider: Early in The Hobbit, hobbits are described as having:

Little or no magic about them, except the ordinary everyday sort which helps them to disappear quietly and quickly...

I'm not supposing that this implies invisibility cloaks or saying magic words- I'm supposing it is a cultural ability to move away quietly.


Dec 28 2012, 1:55am

Post #22 of 25 (889 views)
Read Gandalf's explanation to Frodo [In reply to] Can't Post

"Elrond commanded it...The river of this valley is under his power, and it will rise in anger when he has great need to bar the Ford."

The other bit of angry magic at the same time is Glorfindel's: "Caught between fire and water, and seeing an Elf-lord revealed in his wrath,..."


Dec 28 2012, 2:06am

Post #23 of 25 (906 views)
Magic and knowledge to Medieval witch hunters [In reply to] Can't Post

I can't cite the source, but I read somewhere that gifted minds were suspect in Medieval times because they were so far away from the norm. If a man read a lot, surrounded by illiterate people, and he was exceptionally smart, they concluded that he was a wizard and got his knowledge from dark arts. Women healers (who brewed up concoctions, hence the image of witches and their bubbling pots) were viewed the same way. If there was an exceptional gift that couldn't be explained, black magic was the explanation. (And oddly, in the Age of Faith, they apparently didn't think these gifts were blessings from God.) Not that all wise/talented people were considered witches, of course, but it was a recurring problem.

It all seems foreign today. People marvel at Einstein or Hawking or great artists and think they're just, you know, great, not that they got their exceptional talent from a pact with the devil. Or maybe they did, and we just haven't figured it yet. (kidding!)

So that blurs the lines too. Wizards could be seen as both magical and very well-educated, combining the supernatural with a skilled mind. I think of Gandalf that way..


Dec 28 2012, 9:26pm

Post #24 of 25 (867 views)
Well, to be fair... [In reply to] Can't Post

In Reply To
"Elrond commanded it...The river of this valley is under his power, and it will rise in anger when he has great need to bar the Ford."

The other bit of angry magic at the same time is Glorfindel's: "Caught between fire and water, and seeing an Elf-lord revealed in his wrath,..."

The river rising "in anger" sounds more metaphorical than literal. However, it is certainly open to interpretation. In any case, the "anger" is attributed to the river, not to Elrond.

Glorfindel was due some wrath about then.

'There are older and fouler things than Orcs in the deep places of the world.' - Gandalf the Grey, The Fellowship of the Ring

The Shire

Dec 31 2012, 3:05pm

Post #25 of 25 (1166 views)
Elves/Rivendell [In reply to] Can't Post

With these ‘magic’ related posts in mind, I observed the following relevant exchange which I don’t believe I picked up during my many reads over the years… or at least didn’t assign it its proper significance…
( I had an excellent idea a week or two ago, after having viewed the Hobbit when it came out, to rent the audiobook and listen to it during my rather lengthy commutes in the morning. I finished it quickly, and moved on to the Lord of the Rings… (Audiobooks w/ Robert Inglis are very well done, by the by))
Towards the end of Book 1, when Frodo, Strider, Sam, Pippin, Merry are making their way to Rivendell, and come across Glorfindel on the road, Glorfindel relates that Gildor passed word on to Rivendell that the hobbits were travelling un-protected and un-aided with the ring, and being pursued by the Nine. He then states “There are few even in Rivendell who can ride openly against the Nine… yet such as there were, Elrond sent North, South, East and West.”
It’s hard to draw a lot of specifics from that statement other than Glorfindel is mighty enough to ride openly against them, as are at least 3 others (presumably more…) but it’s a very interesting statement with regard to Elf power/strength/magic vs. dark power/strength/magic.
Glorfindel is older than Elrond (if indeed the Glorfindel of the 3rd age is the reborn Glorfindel who perished in the Fall of Gondolin) and one of the mighty Elf Lords of old… it was he who nearly destroyed the Witch King when Gondor/Elves of Rivendell&Havens obliterated the armies of Angmar. I wonder who else rode out from Rivendell to seek the Hobbits… possibly Elrohir/Eladan, others we do not know of.
In any event, I find it interesting that only a few of the Elves can "ride openly against the Nine". Even as fell wraiths, they’re the fell wraiths of men. I would’ve thought that almost any Elf would be a match for them… much as Legolas was entirely un-affected by the King/Armies of the Dead.


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