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The One Ring Forums: Tolkien Topics: Reading Room:
On elven abilities and 'magic'

Cirashala
Wakandian


Dec 8 2020, 1:52am

Post #1 of 21 (1917 views)
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On elven abilities and 'magic' Can't Post

What are the limitations of elves' magic? We know Galadriel seems to be one of the most mighty of the Eldar, and capable of many "magical"/ability feats that mortals were incapable of.

We also know of lanterns that suddenly extinguish, doors that open and close by magic, phials of starlight, mirrors, miruvoir, healing beyond that of mortal capability, ships/boats that do not sink, jewels that capture light even after the source of light is destroyed, etc.

So what capabilities/magic do Tolkien elves have, and what do you think their upper limits are? (Facts AND theory/speculation welcome Smile).

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Asger
Spider-person


Dec 8 2020, 8:16pm

Post #2 of 21 (1831 views)
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I see no limit [In reply to] Can't Post

As I see it, the capability for magic depends on your understandig of the Music of the Ainur. Thus east-elves have just the little understanding they have learned in the beginning from Valar like Orome who taught them.

Poems, sentences and words (of power) spoken or sung like in the Music implements magic. Sindar and Teleri have some magic from their relationship with Ainur like Melian, Osse and Uinen. Noldor have powers of transformation from Aule and light from Varda. The powers of Vanyar we know little of but they might be much greater as they learned from Manwe himself, maybe great creating powers.

This is my opinion, I think

"Don't take life seriously, it ain't nohow permanent!" Pogo
www.willy-centret.dk

(This post was edited by Asger on Dec 8 2020, 8:17pm)


InTheChair
Fantastic Four

Dec 8 2020, 8:25pm

Post #3 of 21 (1830 views)
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There's no certain way of knowing. [In reply to] Can't Post


Quote
lanterns that suddenly extinguish, miruvoir, healing beyond that of mortal capability, ships/boats that do not sink

I'd say these could with some confidence be explained by what we would today call science, and a misunderstanding of it by those who were not taught it, as many people were typically not in ancient times.



Quote
doors that open and close by magic, phials of starlight,

These get a little bit more explicit as that state that magic and starlight are in play here, which from a purely scientific viewpoint seems unlikely. Though if we assume that the records are written by people who do not know these items true functions I suppose you could write them of as ingenious machinery and artificial light sources. There's no need to for the sake of the story though, and I don't know why as a reader one would want to.



Quote
jewels that capture light even after the source of light is destroyed

Now we are moving into more tricky territory. This would be Silmarils, and other Jewels like them. Disregarding the Silmarils for now, as they border on Mythic and Legendary as well as Magic, the concept of an artifical item preserving light, the source of which has been extiguished, is probably not unknown to science, though I do not know of such things myself. In the context of the story I would be willing to accept this a magic.



Quote
mirrors

This is where we go waaay of the scientific radar and into full blown magical ability in an almost world-shattering power level. At least if by mirrors, we are talking about Galadriels mirror, which she uses to glance into events taking place elsewhere, some even in the past, and what is even worse, some, according to herself anyway, even in the future.

Yet in the context of Middle-Earth this is not unique to Galadriel, as there are concepts like the Music of Illuvatar, and entities like Sauron who has seen this Music and therefore know, at least to some degree, things that will come to take place. There are also other items of similar capability, like the Palantiri.

How these would work, I think cannot be explained outside of Middle-Earth, certainly not with a scientific apporach, and I think they are not valid, in that sense, for the real world, and to me as a viewer or reader thay are truly Magical, and Fictional.










(This post was edited by InTheChair on Dec 8 2020, 8:29pm)


Cirashala
Wakandian


Dec 8 2020, 8:50pm

Post #4 of 21 (1821 views)
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A mix of science (like Saruman's black powder bomb) and magic- I like it! [In reply to] Can't Post

Great analysis!

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Happy reading everyone!


Cirashala
Wakandian


Dec 8 2020, 8:54pm

Post #5 of 21 (1821 views)
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That is an excellent point! [In reply to] Can't Post

That would explain how elves can become close to Maiar in power (like Thingol, Galadriel, Glorfindel, and the half-Maiar blood Luthien and her descendants).

I imagine there is an upper limit of sorts though, because we read "Almost like one of the Maiar", not "transforming INTO a Maiar" in the Sil and with reference to Glorfindel.

So I imagine Illuvatar's Music with regard to the firstborn and secondborn may have imposed limitations on their upper capabilities as well (meaning they are set apart from Maiar and Valar, as His children, but endowed with some ability to learn and implement as He has accorded them). And that the elves were called, in a way, as the firstborn to shepherd and teach the secondborn what they were taught.

This could also explain (as well as Illuvatar's long life blessing) why the Numenorians were so much more advanced in abilities, etc than the other clans of Men. They were actually taught by the Eldar as they were meant to be, but the others were NOT.

Interesting observation!

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Happy reading everyone!


squire
Asgardian


Dec 9 2020, 4:39am

Post #6 of 21 (1814 views)
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I don't know that 'science' needs to explain even magic that science can reproduce [In reply to] Can't Post

'lanterns that suddenly extinguish, miruvoir, healing beyond that of mortal capability, ships/boats that do not sink' - you commented: "I'd say these could with some confidence be explained by what we would today call science"

Yes, but.

Why do we feel compelled to eliminate magic in a story if we can argue that it can be reproduced by science? 'Magic' is a fictional concept by definition. To "explain" some instances of magic by saying it's just science that the writer/ observer/ narrator doesn't understand, is to diminish the fiction.

I think Arthur Clarke, with his famous dictum that magic is just misunderstood science witnessed by poorly educated people, has a lot to answer for here. Magic is an imaginative concept for manipulating nature in unnatural ways, for narrative or (in some instances) cultural effect. Just because science can duplicate magic's workings in a story, doesn't mean the magic was actually science all along, hiding and waiting for us scientific types to detect it and denounce the story teller for fraud.

As I read the story, miruvor is a magical cordial, not just brandy. Aragorn's healing powers are not those of a clinically trained psychologist and internist, but of a true King whose connection with God brings health to his subjects. The lanterns that extinguish with a single thought or wish are not electrically connected to a wireless kill switch - they are in tune with the spirit and mind of the party's host and lord, and go out when he realizes danger has approached.

Believe me, I understand and sympathize with the urge to rationalize Tolkien's world-creation. But as you've shown, to argue against the magic of some aspects of his world is to run up against other aspects that cannot be argued against on any rational terms - that must be magic or fail completely. That should be the clue that the more primitive or susceptible instances of magic are meant to exist in their own rights, too.



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noWizardme
Asgardian


Dec 9 2020, 4:32pm

Post #7 of 21 (1761 views)
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The hobbit guide to magic and science [In reply to] Can't Post

Would it be fair to say that Tolkien sticks with a hobbit view of Middle-earth. To hobbits all kinds of different things from outside the Shire are described as magic - Gandalf's fireworks, toys from Dale, swords that glow or kill (un)dead things, elven cloaks.... Other cultures might describe some of these things differently , but that's not how the story chooses to describe them.

Additionally, Tolkien likes to be ambiguous. Does Sam's elven-rope slip or come when it's called? I suspect that Tolkien knows the best way to make us side with Sam on this is to have Frodo tease him with a rational explanation. Similarly, Tolkien probably couldn't come up with a better way of persuading me that something creepy is happening on the Barrow Downs than saying firmly that surely it was just late lunch (and so on).

Tolkien himself is either oddly little help, or explains his views on the matter clearly. He says in Letter #155 “I am afraid I have been far too casual about ‘magic’ and especially the use of the word”. But “a story which, as you so rightly say, is largely about motives (choice, temptations etc.) and the intentions for using whatever is found in the world, could hardly be burdened with a pseudo-philisophic disquisition!”

So I suppose the thing here is a a familiar one - is someone interested in thinking about Tolkien's story, how it works, and what reactions were expected from readers? That might include accepting the naive hobbit idea of 'magic'. Or are they interested in imagining Middle-earth as if it were a real place, and trying to form their own theories about how it 'works'? That might include tying to dissect what is chemistry, artistry, prayer and miracle as opposed to magic. Both seem to be established Reading Room traditions.

~~~~~~
"You were exceedingly clever once, but unfortunately none of your friends noticed as they were too busy being attacked by an octopus."
-from How To Tell If You Are In A J.R.R. Tolkien Book, by Austin Gilkeson, in 'The Toast', 2016 https://the-toast.net/...-a-jrr-tolkien-book/


noWizardme
Asgardian


Dec 9 2020, 5:17pm

Post #8 of 21 (1761 views)
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"speculate" did you say? [In reply to] Can't Post

Okay then, just this once Smile.

[speculation]

I think that the Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic cultures Tolkien liked to study believed in several kinds of magic. These included divining and binding.

I have no idea how divining (discovering what is happening at a distance or in the future) might work. But I have an idea about binding, based on something I once read about those cultures and their ideas.

I think that binding meant magically persuading (or compelling if you were nasty) someone or something to do what you wanted. The 'or something' comes in because I think these cultures were at least a little bit animist - it would make sense to talk about a mountain or a cloud or a keg of beer wanting to do something, or being persuadable.

You asked about limitations, so I'll suggest that you can't bind someone or something unless they are at least a little bit willing to do what you want. This might make sense of, for example the Rings - the One Ring has more success with people who want something. The 'want' can --creepily, if the person binding you is nasty -- be something the subject knows they shouldn't want and might wish not to want.

I further imagine that objects and creatures we'd not think of having full volition 'want' to do things that are to do with their usual functions or properties.

How I see this playing out is that Gandalf can magically light wood because wood 'wants' to burn. But he can't light snow. Snow does not 'want' to burn, any more that Sam wants to be Eco-Tyrant of Mordor. Similarly (spot some other LOTR examples interpreted this way):

*beer might want to be excellent (but probably not to catch fire - not that Gandalf tries that)

*Doors might want to stay shut, or to open (either being a function of a good door). But even a door that wants to stay shut might be ripped open by force

*undead flesh might want to die and an old sword might want to kill a mortal enemy even if he's ---not fully mortal now

*a different sword might want to warn of enemies, for example by glowing

* people might want to seem wise, clever , good and so on, and those 'wants' might make it difficult to see through the lies of a tricksy wizard.

*victims might want to sleep after lunch (or later, until the world's end)

*a pony might want to find its way safely home

*A river might want to flood

* A boat might not want to sink no mater what (or, of course, it might be 'just' an especially well-made boat)

*A horn might want to be good at calling for aid. And so might a different horn.

[/speculation]

~~~~~~
"You were exceedingly clever once, but unfortunately none of your friends noticed as they were too busy being attacked by an octopus."
-from How To Tell If You Are In A J.R.R. Tolkien Book, by Austin Gilkeson, in 'The Toast', 2016 https://the-toast.net/...-a-jrr-tolkien-book/


(This post was edited by noWizardme on Dec 9 2020, 5:27pm)


Cirashala
Wakandian


Dec 9 2020, 6:46pm

Post #9 of 21 (1750 views)
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Interesting [In reply to] Can't Post

Hadn't thought about that folklore tie in Smile Good food for thought!

My writing and novels:

My Hobbit Fanfiction

My historical novel print and kindle version

My historical novels ebook version compatible with all ereaders

You can also find my novel at most major book retailers online (and for those outside the US who prefer a print book, you can find the print version at Book Depository). Search "Amazing Grace Amanda Longpre'" to find it.

Happy reading everyone!


InTheChair
Fantastic Four

Dec 9 2020, 10:10pm

Post #10 of 21 (1730 views)
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I don't disagree. [In reply to] Can't Post

I am even willing in reading the Lord of the Rings, to accept that Gandalf used Magic, to light a fire up on Caradhras, even though technically all he achieved with this Magic, was to light a fire, even if against powers of nature (and more?) where humans might not have succeeded. And certainly in the phial of Galadriel, given Stars association with guidance and hope, there's a lot more going on than just light-source. All these things add to the story.

They don't seem to go anywhere particular in trying to answer the question here though. What are the Magical limitations of Elves? Probably no one can answer that. Lanterns, and ships, and invigorating beverages, may be difficult to use as measurements, since they represent things that humans achieve without Magic. The movies version of a Magical duel/fight between Gandalf and Saruman is similarly peculiar because all they achieve with their Magic they could have done with physical force. Even so there's no other explanation for it than to say that they used Magic to hit each other without physical contact.

Then on the other hand maybe Eärendils ship was just a flying machine, or the Army of the Dead was just a spooky mist, or a Silmaril is only a jewel, or some other explanation that take some of the fun or Magic out of the story.

I don't know for certain what I was getting at. Maybe that in trying to figure out limitations of Magic it might be more interesting to look at the effects and impact it has, rather than specific Magical objects or items.

Anyway, not too much blame on Mr Clarke, I have not read him. (Though if that quote of his is a famous one, it is not impossible I may have heard it before.)


InTheChair
Fantastic Four

Dec 9 2020, 11:14pm

Post #11 of 21 (1721 views)
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I guess it is a little blurry where science goes into magic or magic into legend or legend into fate... [In reply to] Can't Post

Or maybe say it this way.

If I can find the most effectfull use of Magic by an Elf in Middle-Earth, or Valinor, that will tell me, not what the limitations are, but perhaps what the most advanced achievement in Magic by an Elf, know to date is. That will give me at least a baseline.

But then, perhaps that also is only the scientific approach.

Isn't it a bit like asking what are the limitations of Science? We can't know.

What are the limitations of Magic? We also can't know.


Otaku-sempai
Avenger


Dec 10 2020, 1:53am

Post #12 of 21 (1707 views)
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Clarke's Third Law [In reply to] Can't Post


In Reply To
Anyway, not too much blame on Mr Clarke, I have not read him. (Though if that quote of his is a famous one, it is not impossible I may have heard it before.)


Arthur C. Clarke's Third Law is actually a bit different from how it's stated above. It reads: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." That is not to say that magic by necessity is advanced technology.

Clarke's Three Laws are as follows:
1. When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.
2. The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.
3. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

#FidelityToTolkien
#DiversityWithFidelity

“People should not be afraid of their governments. Governments should be afraid of their people.” - Alan Moore, V for Vendetta


Otaku-sempai
Avenger


Dec 10 2020, 1:59am

Post #13 of 21 (1703 views)
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Swamp Gas? [In reply to] Can't Post


In Reply To
Then on the other hand maybe Eärendils ship was just a flying machine, or the Army of the Dead was just a spooky mist, or a Silmaril is only a jewel, or some other explanation that take some of the fun or Magic out of the story.


I dunno. The Silmarilli might conceivably be radioactive, but a naturalistic explanation for the Oathbreakers would be pretty hard to come by. Mass hallucination? That would be some illusion.

#FidelityToTolkien
#DiversityWithFidelity

“People should not be afraid of their governments. Governments should be afraid of their people.” - Alan Moore, V for Vendetta


squire
Asgardian


Dec 10 2020, 2:29am

Post #14 of 21 (1705 views)
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Good point about Clarke's law on magic v technology [In reply to] Can't Post

I misstated it. Thanks for the correction. As you note, he did not say that magic was always just higher technology.



squire online:
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InTheChair
Fantastic Four

Dec 10 2020, 11:22pm

Post #15 of 21 (1625 views)
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Yes [In reply to] Can't Post


Quote
but a naturalistic explanation for the Oathbreakers would be pretty hard to come by


I was still in mode of looking at the effect. In the case of the Oathbreaker, the actual effect seems to have been to put such fear into a whole army that they all died of fright or fled away. I don't know if there is a natural phenomenon that would achieve that, and if there is, the Magical equivalent would still be impressive.
I don't know if the Oathbreaker are to be considered Magical though? And even if they are, this is not Magic of the Elves.







Otaku-sempai
Avenger


Dec 11 2020, 1:53am

Post #16 of 21 (1621 views)
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Magic or Not Magic? [In reply to] Can't Post


In Reply To
I don't know if the Oathbreaker are to be considered Magical though? And even if they are, this is not Magic of the Elves.





Well, supernatural, at least, even if not magical in quite the sense in which we have been discussing.

#FidelityToTolkien
#DiversityWithFidelity

“People should not be afraid of their governments. Governments should be afraid of their people.” - Alan Moore, V for Vendetta


SirDennisC
Asgardian


Dec 11 2020, 4:57am

Post #17 of 21 (1613 views)
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Is this magic? [In reply to] Can't Post

I was going to deposit this in the Cerin Amroth thread below but it fits here too I think:

Gandalf says of some Elves at Rivendell, “For those who have dwelt in the Blessed Realm live at once in both worlds, and against both the seen and the unseen have great power.”

A bit further on he says of Glorfindel, “Yes you saw him for a moment as he is upon the other side, one of the mighty of the Firstborn [aka Elves].” (Sorry if I’ve made any errors here, I’m transcribing from a Harper Collins audiobook.)


Ioreth
Spider-person

Dec 17 2020, 6:36pm

Post #18 of 21 (1298 views)
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never thought of it [In reply to] Can't Post

"but light remaining after the original was extinguished" suddenly screamed "radioactivity" in my head!


Omnigeek
Fantastic Four


Dec 22 2020, 8:27pm

Post #19 of 21 (1243 views)
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Enhancement magic [In reply to] Can't Post

I have said on these boards before that I believe magic in Middle-earth is based very much on the Scandanavian model where it enhances the natural properties of an object and very often requires singing or the drawing of runes to activate or imbue the magics in the object. Thus, a sword can be enhanced to stay sharp forever, a spear can find the weakpoints of an enemy, or a door can be hidden or stay locked until special circumstances present themselves. Magic lanterns enhance, shape, or direct (including extinguish) their light. Starlight can be captured. Mirrors go beyond reflecting images of what lays before them to providing other images, healing can be accelerated (although I felt a lot of that wasn't so much magic as more knowledge of the healing properties of various herbs and techniques), etc.

Fire can be enhanced or clouds can be pulled together into a storm that results in thunder and lightning. The power of water or air can be pulled together from the surrounding environment and shaped, enhanced, or directed. This would be why Gandalf can pull together heat and enhance fires or flammable objects (in a physical world similar to Marvel Comics, he could be causing the molecules to vibrate and increase their potential energy until they combust spontaneously) or Elrond was able to control, shape, and enhance the waters at the Ford to sweep away the Black Riders and their mounts.

In The Silmarillion, we hear of magic battles in the First Age that were very much in the skaldic tradition. Melian hid Thingol's kingdom (IMO) by enhancing the natural tendency and power of forests to hide that which lay within and to cause people to lose their way within thick forests.

OTOH, I don't think the magic is of the conjuring or sorcery style present in Harry Potter or more contemporary fantasy with the exceptions of the Rings of Power being imbued with special qualities to provide specific benefits to the wearers. When Sam pleads with Gandalf to not turn him into a frog or anything unnatural, I took it as the exaggeration that typically grows with legend since it had been decades since Gandalf had been seen in Hobbiton and even more decades since his visits had been plentiful and routine. IMO, the hobbits knew him as a wizard and built up in their minds just what a wizard (or an Elf) was capable of.


squire
Asgardian


Dec 23 2020, 1:37am

Post #20 of 21 (1232 views)
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Very well said! [In reply to] Can't Post

I don't know much about legendary Scandinavian magic, and it sounds like you do, so I can only listen and learn. It certainly seems to cohere with much of what the Prof does with his 'magic' in his story.

I am curious, however, about the idea that the hobbits are simply projecting onto Gandalf a power he doesn't have, of being able to sorcerously enchant Sam into a toad and the like. You suggest that the hobbits already have a cultural construct of what a "wizard" is, which includes the traditional (in our world) fairy tale powers of transformation and metamorphosis, and that that construct has little to do with the actual powers of the real "wizards" of Middle-earth (the Istari, as we are told outside the story).

But where did they get that construct? In our own folklore, all magic is imaginative and fantastic - there is no real magic for it to vary from. But in Middle-earth, there is actual magic (within the story), and I should think that would put real constraints on what the folk-lore of the relatively unmagical hobbits might provide in the way of fairy-tales, etc.

Is Tolkien unrealistically picking and choosing which magic he can have, and where, at any point in the story, simply for comic or mimetic effect? Or is the Sam-into-a-toad gag - which Gandalf absent-mindedly endorses in his later comment to Frodo about keeping Sam's mouth shut, showing it's not just a blurted nightmare of Sam's - an artifact of the lighter and less-consistent The Hobbit's influence on the earliest chapters of Fellowship?



squire online:
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Archive: All the TORn Reading Room Book Discussions (including the 1st BotR Discussion!) and Footerama: "Tolkien would have LOVED it!"
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Omnigeek
Fantastic Four


Dec 23 2020, 1:56am

Post #21 of 21 (1232 views)
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Hobbits projecting [In reply to] Can't Post

I don't think it takes much for folklore to expand upon myths. Yes, magic exists in Middle-earth but the closest the hobbits have come to it in over a century has been Gandalf's fireworks shows during the Old Took's time. In that environment, semi-fantastical tales grow into overblown fantasies and people make things up. The made up stories grow in the retelling fairly quickly. Heck, we see that happening daily in a lot shorter timeframe than a century and this is in an age where we can share (and demand) video and audio to back up incredible stories.

Let's assume Gandalf enhanced his fireworks with a little of his own magic and perhaps some influence from the ring he bears. He doesn't explain anything so it goes from "Gandalf makes the most incredible fireworks and fights orcs and ogres and trolls" to "Gandalf creates fire and slays dragons and trolls and everything bad" to "Gandalf can make stuff just appear and he has fearsome magic to deal with anyone he doesn't like" to "Gandalf can create and change things and if you're not careful, he'll change YOU" and so on. Bear in mind he has only visited Hobbiton sporadically since Bilbo went on his Adventure and it sounds like his visits were generally limited to Bag End when he did come by so the average citizen of Hobbiton will expand it in his/her own mind even more.
I took Gandalf's comment to Frodo as a desire to keep Sam from talking about Mordor, the Ring, and anything else that might be remembered later by a curious audience -- letting Sam imagine Gandalf could turn him into something horrible would reinforce that. If he thinks the worst, he's much likelier to keep his lip zipped. Note that Gandalf doesn't bother alluding to any ability to morph anything else as they are journeying from Rivendell and Sam doesn't ask him to either. If Gandalf actually had that ability, wouldn't he have used it on the Watcher at the Gate or the orcs attacking them at Balin's tomb -- and if Sam still believed he could, wouldn't he have asked why Gandalf wasn't doing something like that?

 
 

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