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Tolkien and Magic: The Power of Individuality

News from Bree

May 24 2013, 8:25am

Post #1 of 6 (244 views)
Tolkien and Magic: The Power of Individuality Can't Post

The boy nodded his understanding. "Can I ask you something?" The Jedi Master nodded. "What are midi-chlorians?" Wind whipped at Qui-Gons long hair, blowing strands of it across his strong face. "Midi-chlorians are microscopic life-forms that reside within the cells of all living things and communicate with the Force.

"Use the Force, Luke."

Raistlin lifted his thin, frail hand and allowed the spell component he had taken from his pouch to fall slowly from between his fingers onto the deck of the boat. Sand, Tanis realized. "Ast tasarak sinuralan krynawi," Raistlin murmured, and then moved his right hand slowly in an arc parallel to the shore.

"The One Power," Moiraine was saying, "comes from the True Source, the driving force of Creation, the force the Creator made to turn the Wheel of Time."

Bibbidi, bobbidi, boo.

There seem to be almost as many ways of representing magic as there are fantasy writers. Role-players know the whole system with mages, spell components, spellbooks, the language of magic, etc. Jordan fans can tell you the ins and outs of the One Power, complete with a discourse on the varying characteristics of saidar and saidin, and the innumerable levels of strength among Aes Sedai. And Star Wars geeks (a word I use with love, considering that I myself am a dyed-in-the-wool geek!) were stunned when Lucas started explaining the universe-balancing Force with microscopic middlemen, instead of with the innate power of Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader. What ties them in common is that they each have a system, a framework with rules and laws almost more complicated than those of physics. Mages lose their spells after one casting, and must rest and recommit the words to memory before casting again. Aes Sedai spend years in training, because abuse of the One Power can too easily lead to death and evidently you've got to be well-stocked on single-celled symbionts (is that even a word? My spellchecker sure doesn't like it) to even make a dent in the Force. Fantasy writers delight in coming up with their own, hopefully brand-new systems, to give their books that added twist, that spark that no other sword-swinging Elf-hopping kender-singing dragon-flying books have. But what about Tolkien? Where is the system? What are the rules which govern the making of Rings of Power, which delineate the powers and limits of Istari, of Maiar, of Valar? He never talks about a framework or physical laws; we only see the results of the powers use. Where does the power come from?

"It's wonderfully quiet here. Nothing seems to be going on, and nobody seems to want it to. If there's any magic about, it's 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. I would dearly love to see some Elf-magic, Mr. Frodo!"

These passages between Sam and Frodo in Lorien are just about the only overt use of the word "magic" in all of Lord of the Rings. Sam's feeling, as it usually is for most of us, is that if "you can't see nobody working it," then it must not be the real stuff. But I think Tolkien had another image in mind. He seems to have taken his love of nature and the natural order of things to such an extent that he would rather not impose an unnatural system of rules governing a supernatural power, what we term magic. Instead, it seems clear that Tolkien regarded extraordinary power as part of the natural birthright of individual beings, and as such, therefore, the exercise of that power was simply part of the settled order of events. Not magic, but just the use by each individual of the power vested in him or her, to the best and highest of his or her own abilities, be they the greatest of the great or the smallest of the small. And in fact, he regarded the traditional definitions of the word "magic" as tantamount to the evil Machine that tears up the normal fabric of nature.

Beorn by Lelia

Think about it. We at Green Books are constantly getting questions from readers so accustomed to other systems that they almost demand a system in Tolkien. "What were the exact powers of the One Ring?" "Does the magic in Lothorien come from the Elves or vice-versa?" "What can Elrond do with his Elven-ring?" "How does Gandalf do magic?" We do the best we can to elucidate, but the plain truth of the matter is, Tolkien just doesn't make rules. He expects us to accept at face value that Celebrimbor and his cohorts "forged" the Three Rings, that Feanor "wrought" the Silmarils and contained within them the light of the stars of Varda, that Elrond, Gandalf, and Galadriel "use" their rings in some vague way for the protection and enhancement of their lands (in the cases of Elrond and Galadriel) and for the furtherance of their tasks (in the case of Gandalf). Even "What are the powers of Beorn? Why is he the only being in Middle-earth who can shape-change?" Well, because he just was. That was his individual power. Tolkien didn't set out to create magicians who could manipulate a supernatural force. He created individuals who knew how to use their natural powers and he delineated the difference between those who use their power for the sake of creation and those who use it merely for the sake of control.

Tolkien believed that human beings are endowed with creativity in order to share in God's power of creation. He called this "sub-creation" and felt that he was making the most of his abilities in this line through his writing. It follows that the characters in his books would do the same. So everyone is endowed with his or her own abilities, and since he's not limited to real human beings, but is free to imagine beings with greater powers of creation, the result is powers that to us are supernatural, but to him are merely the result of that being's art. I am speaking, of course, of the wise and wonderful Elves. The forging of the Elven-rings is the best example, but their spellbound swords and beautiful works of cooperation with Dwarves also come to mind. A reader (thanks, Andreg!) sent me the exact quotation that details the nature of the Elves' power, and, indeed, the difference between this power and "magic." Letter 131 states: "Their "magic" is Art, delivered from many of its human limitations; more effortless, more quick, more complete (product, and vision in unflawed correspondence). And its object is Art not Power, sub-creation not domination and tyrannous re-forming of Creation." There you have it. Art for Art's sake, and my favorite part "product and vision in unflawed correspondence." In other words, if they could think it (vision), then they could do it (product). No tiresome mechanics, no industrialized machines; just pure, unadulterated Art: sub-creation. Ultimately, what we would call magic is not, in Middle-earth, any such thing. It is simply the natural powers of created beings proceeding from them in yet another spiral of creation. And we know this power is inherent because Tolkien stated as much. The same Letter tells us: "By [the use of the word "magic" I intend all use of external plans or devices (apparatus) instead of development of the inherent inner powers or talents, or even the use of these talents with the corrupted motive of domination; bulldozing the real world, or coercing other will."

So Tolkien divides power into two headings: The natural kind, proceeding from the desire of the being to sub-create, and "magic" a deliberate use of devices or machines with a corrupted motive. And in the use of the former, he stands alone in his system of creation. No other fantasy writer that I know has gone so far as he has with the Elves, given beings power that emanates as naturally as a flowing spring. True, there are other authors whose magic-users have innate talent, abilities, or senses not available to "ordinary" folks, but these special abilities are usually in existence in order to take advantage of an outside power: the Force, the One Power, or the generic, vague mysticism of "magic." Tolkien's Elves have no need of even the appearance of such supernatural forces, because the force of sub-creation is in them already, without any augmentation.

A pet musing of mine is to wonder how this "sub-creation" applies to beings besides Elves, Valar, and Maiar. Don't bombard me with letters about Gandalf's magic words, either, because he was a Maiar, and a badass, to boot, and could do whatever he wanted, with words or without 'em, in any language he pleased. I'm talking about mortals, now. Aragorn son of Arathorn. Faramir of Ithilien. Samwise Gamgee. I believe very deeply that this power of sub-creation extended very thoroughly to mortals of "uncorrupted motive," even if the results weren't always what we would call "magical.
"Now he is a marvel, the Lord Elfstone: not too soft in his speech, mind you, but he has a golden heart, as the saying is; and he has the healing hands. "The hands of the king are the hands of a healer," I said; and that was how it was all discovered. And Mithrandir, he said to me: "Ioreth, men will long remember your words"

So spake Ioreth, wise woman of Gondor, and we know it to be true. Aragorn showed his healing powers many times, but never to greater effect than when he healed Faramir, Eowyn, and Merry of the Black Breath during the last days of the war.
"At last, less than a mile from the City, a more ordered mass of men came into view, marching not running, still holding together.

The watchers held their breath. "Faramir must be there," they said. "He can govern man and beast. He will make it yet."

Our darling Faramir, a man of lore, yet scarcely less doughty in arms than his brother, and with a stern yet merciful attitude towards those under his command and in his power, had a gift for governance.
"Inside [the box] was filled with a grey dust, soft and fine, in the middle of which was a seed, like a small nut with a silver shale.

"What can I do with this?" said Sam.

"Throw it into the air on a breezy day and let it do its work!" said Pippin.

"On what?" said Sam.

"Choose one spot as a nursery, and see what happens to the plants there," said Merry.

"But I'm sure the Lady would not like me to keep it all for my own garden, now so many folks have suffered," said Sam.

"Use all the wits and knowledge you have of your own, Sam," said Frodo, "and then use the gift to help your work and better it."

That last line sums up my entire feelings on the subject of mortals and sub-creation. Aragorn used athelas to help him in his healing, but undoubtedly part of the virtue of it sprang from his own hands. Faramir was versed in the lore and history of men, but he used his knowledge wisely and to good effect, being a good captain of his men and, in time, a steward and prince of his people. And our sweet Sam had a positive gift for growing things, no matter how much he was helped at that juncture by the gift of the Lady Galadriel.

Here's the stickler: Just because the results aren't conventionally "magical," doesn't mean that a talent isn't a gift of sub-creation. Any being, immortal or no, Elven or Human or Holbytla, who uses his or her inclinations and abilities to the fullest, and never forgetting that uncorrupted motive, is exercising his "inherent inner powers or talents" a very personal form of magic that cannot be discounted. So many times in this dreary world we fall short of what we would like to accomplish with our abilities, through sloth or other impediments. Tolkien showed us not only otherworldly Elves whose gifts run to what we would consider outside the settled order of nature, but also very mortal characters who simply used their ordinary powers to the best and fullest extent. And the result, when compared with the many shortcomings and failings of human beings in this world, is very magical indeed.

- Anwyn

(This post was edited by Silverlode on May 24 2013, 7:38pm)

Tol Eressea

May 25 2013, 2:08am

Post #2 of 6 (137 views)
Eowyn's power. Eowyn's magic. [In reply to] Can't Post

Thanks for this essay, Anwyn. I'd never thought of this aspect of the magic of Middle-earth.

Any being, immortal or no, Elven or Human or Holbytla, who uses his or her inclinations and abilities to the fullest, and never forgetting that uncorrupted motive, is exercising his "inherent inner powers or talents" a very personal form of magic that cannot be discounted.

Eowyn's power comes from the fierce protectiveness she feels where her heart and loyalty have been given. She first spends her talents dutifully watching over her deteriorating uncle and king. Then in battle she makes sure that she is near him. Ultimately, her training and passion, and help from a loyal hobbit who wants to protect her, are all that stand between Theoden and a fell beast ridden by something of powerful evil.

"Come not between the Nazgul and his prey!'

Bah! That is nothing compared to a shield maiden of Rohan defending her lord.

"Then Merry heard of all sounds in that hour the strangest. It seemed that Dernhelm laughed, and the clear voice was like the ring of steel. 'But no living man am I! You look upon a woman. Eowyn am I, Eomund's daughter. You stand between me and my lord and kin. Begone, if you be not deathless! For living or dark undead, I will smite you, if you touch him.' "

And smite them both, beast and Nazgul, she does, certainly against my expectations on first reading. No spells or magic staff were needed. Only that single-minded determination to protect.


May 25 2013, 3:47pm

Post #3 of 6 (104 views)
The knowledge and understanding of the Music of the Ainur. [In reply to] Can't Post

It seems to me, that Tolkien once wrote, that magic was wielded according to the individuals' knowledge and understanding of the Music of the Ainur, or somewhat like that. This would be logical since the Music is like a 'blueprint' of Arda and everything in it.

"Don't take life seriously, it ain't nohow permanent!" Pogo


May 26 2013, 2:00am

Post #4 of 6 (91 views)
This is a wonderful and thoughtful piece. [In reply to] Can't Post

I am thinking back to some reference concerning Tolkien and his aspect of humility which allows sub-creation to work though him. The wisdom that he had, to know that he was not directly 'empowered' in the creation making. It was something that Melkor and Sauron did not realize where in the end good was the outcome in spite of their efforts to 'change or alter' the music.Where evil and their 'power of ego' worked against them.

As for Frodo and Sam as well as the rest of the fellowship, Boromir at the end, the opposite worked for them, where humility, lack of self-centerness, and love instead of hate...(self) created the avenues to success in the end which seems like luck, or magic. It was their ability/creativity (if you will, as Anwyn alluded to), to unknowingly allow the original music or the continuance thereof or the echoes of it to turn the tide of the discordant from the dominant course it was bent on , to a more recessive form.

"It's wonderfully quiet here. Nothing seems to be going on, and nobody seems to want it to. If there's any magic about, it's right down deep, where I can't lay my hands on it, in a manner of speaking."

I just love this line. It speaks to me. Though humility we too i feel, can seek the wonder and dwell in awe of the 'Mystery' which can be felt but not rationalized and not even named.

We can say Tolkien is magical, but just maybe we could also say that Tolkien had the 'ability' to be touched by the Divine.

Just my thoughts, or feelings.

''Sam put his ragged orc-cloak under his master's head, and covered them both with the grey robe of Lorien; and as he did so his thoughts went out to that fair land, and to the Elves, and he hoped that the cloth woven by their hands might have some virtue to keep them hidden beyond all hope in this wilderness of fear...But their luck held, and for the rest of that day they met no living or moving thing; and when night fell they vanished into the darkess of Mordor.'' - - -rotk, chapter III

Faerie contains many things besides elves and fays and besides dwarfs, witches, trolls, giants or dragons; it holds the seas, the sun, the moon, the sky; and the earth, and all things that are one in it: tree and bird, water and stone, wine and bread, and ourselves, mortal men, when we are enchanted."
J.R.R. Tolkien


May 28 2013, 11:27am

Post #5 of 6 (70 views)
Really interesting idea! [In reply to] Can't Post

I do agree, in a lot of fantasy worlds magic is something where, given constant inputs, one should expect consistent and predictable outputs. A "science of magic" would become possible - the sort of idea that the alchemists were working towards, perhaps. And it's certainly true that several authors revel in that aspect.

You post came immediately to mind when I read an advert for an audio book today - note how the detailed system of magic is one of the main features the reviewer/marketing person has picked out:

Best-selling author Brandon Sanderson brings his unique brand of epic storytelling to this engrossing tale of danger and suspense. With his trademark skills in world-building, Sanderson has created a magic system that is so inventive and detailed that listeners who appreciate games of strategy and tactics just may want to bring Rithmatics to life in our world.
(re The Rithmatist By Brandon Sanderson, in marketing material from audible.co.uk)

I suppose that one opposite to "given constant inputs, one should expect consistent and predictable outputs" is that magic does whatever the character (or author!) wishes. But that would usually be suitable only for comical or childish tales. Curious G put that well in a reading room thread from last December, where some of us were discussing "oft evil

"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."

CuriousG - http://newboards.theonering.net/forum/gforum/perl/gforum.cgi?post=538952#538952

So, I agree, there seems to be some solid basis on which magic works in Middle-earth, but Tolkien is careful not to give us thorough explanations. I've been involved in several reading room threads discussing what explanations might be, but have come rather to like the way that an explanation looks possible (magic doesn't do just any thing which gets the author out of a plot-hole or makes the story exciting), but that the explanation is just a bit out of reach.
Some Reading Room threads in which we've knocked these ideas about (you might enjoy these threads! are):

The problem of magic' in Tolkien
How The Ring tempts
Tolkien's universe as solid and consistent/inconsistent, and his writing process

Your post, and the idea of magic being an unleashing of personal abilities, really seems to help with the kind of enquiry I'm making in those threads.

I was toying with a further idea, which I'll contribute here, rather than in yet another thread - the possible similarities between magic and prayer. I don't mean mechanistic similarities: I mean an idea about the connection between input and output. Let me explain:

Back to the idea of magical systems consistent enough that you could build a science or technology on them. Consistent input (like putting the right money in a vending machine and pressing the right buttons) produces a consistent output (a can of cola - or occasionally exceptions because the machine is out of cola). It's a system which could be figured out by experiment. I was airing this idea, as an analogy of magic in fantasy worlds to Mrs NoWizardMe, and saying that Tolkien sometimes allows magic to be less consistent (e.g. Sam's rope holds to get him and Frodo down the cliff, then it comes when it's called - at least Sam thinks so, though Frodo prefers to laugh at Sam's knots. Or, wearing the Ring does not seem to turn Sauron invisible.) Mrs. nWm's idea was that maybe magic worked a bit like prayer. In that (as best as I remember)...:

Its a misapprehension that you'd get a predictable result from a prayer for example that you pray for a pony and are given one, or pray for a sunny day. It's a problem that children often have with the idea of prayer - they expect it to work that way & decide it doesn't work when no pony or sunny day turns up. In fact, you will be helped, but there's no telling how. So, to go back to your vending machine analogy, sometimes you insert the right coins, press the buttons, get no cola, kick the machine and go away cursing. Only later do you realize that it was better you had fewer coins that day, or that you'd already had too much cola....

I thought it an interesting idea, especially in regard to the writings of Tolkien, a religious man. So I thought' I'd throw it into the discussion!
I think it could be imagined to be part of people accessing inner powers of their individuality, or as an alternative explanation.

Disclaimers: The words of noWizardme may stand on their heads! I'm often wrong about things, and its fun to be taught more....

"nowim I am in the West, Furincurunir to the Dwarves (or at least, to their best friend) and by other names in other lands. Mostly they just say 'Oh no it's him - look busy!' "
Or "Hold off! unhand me, grey-beard loon!"


May 31 2013, 12:38am

Post #6 of 6 (75 views)
I love the idea of the magic being an individual power [In reply to] Can't Post

of all inhabitants of Middle Earth. Frodo does not seem to know there is anything magical going on as he travels toward Mount Doom, but there was. It was only afterwards that he began to realize just how amazing the whole thing was and that it was miraculous that they had even succeeded. And not just due to Frodo, but because most in his circle were also acting in a way that it pulled the magic out of themselves. I do believe the same type of situation may exist here. If we are truly living our "inherent inner powers and talents," it may not seem magical at the time, but eventually, one would begin to be aware of the the magic happening. Interesting stuff!


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