Magic (Middle-earth)

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Magic, as the word is used in this article, includes mystical, paranormal, or supernatural activity as it appears in J. R. R. Tolkien's fictional realm of Middle-earth. In an unsent draft of a letter in 1954,[1] Tolkien argues that magia and goeteia are both used for good and bad purposes, but neither is inherently good or bad in itself.

Creation myth[edit]

Main article: Silmarillion



Prophecy is real in Middle-earth: Boromir and Faramir have true dreams about the One Ring and the Halfling; Glorfindel prophesies the nature of the Witch-king's doom; Mandos declared the Prophecy of the North to the Noldor; and both Melian and her descendant Elrond are known to possess the gift of foresight, allowing them to sense and see what is yet to come. Likewise, Aragorn foretells danger to Gandalf if he enters Moria, as well as predicting that he and Eomer may meet again on the field of battle.

Any oath sworn by Ilúvatar and the Valar also invokes magic of a kind, as did Fëanor's terrible oath:

For so sworn, good or evil, an oath may not be broken, and it shall pursue oathkeeper and oathbreaker to the world's end. – Quenta Silmarillion

Supernatural beings[edit]

Middle-earth is populated by numerous mythical and fictional beings.

The Ainur possess supernatural abilities that are seen by some as a form of magic. After the creation of Middle-earth, there were some Ainur who felt obligated to watch over the new creation. They entered Middle-earth to guard the creation, and became the Valar and the Maiar.[2]

The Balrog are also Maiar, seduced by Melkor, were evil shapechangers. Their supernatural abilities came in the form of control over fire, as well as their ability to contact other evil spirits.[3][4]

Dragons were all descended from Glaurung, the father of dragons, created by Morgoth in Angband during the First Age. They had a specific hypnotic power called a dragon spell.[3][4]

Great Eagles, are sentient eagles who assist the elves in patrolling the land and watching for the movements of orcs and other evil creatures.[4]

The Nazgul, or Ringwraiths, were the remnants of powerful kings and sorcerers of men. They used numerous spells, including beckoning spells, location spells and fire spells as an offensive weapon. They also used their black breath to cast curses, which caused deep despair among their foes, causing them to freeze in terror.[3]

Werebears, such as Beorn, who helps Bilbo Baggins, Gandalf and their party on their journey to the Lonely Mountain. They are powerful shapeshifters.[4]

In the index of The Return of the King, wizardry is described as magic of kind popularly ascribed to the Wizards (Istari).[5]

In addition to the different types of supernatural creatures, in Middle-earth there was a shadow realm where creatures such as the Ringwraiths had a different presence than that observable in the normal world. High Elves also existed in both worlds. Tolkien wrote "...for those who have dwelt in the Blessed Realm live at once in both worlds, and against both the Seen and the Unseen they have great power."[6] Mortals can see this world whilst wearing a Ring of Power, as both Frodo and Sam do. The effect is also caused by the wound Frodo receives from the Morgul Blade. This wound is an attempt to transform him into a wraith and allows him to see the shadow world more clearly, including seeing Glorfindel as he appears on the other side.

Magic items[edit]

In The Hobbit, it is revealed that Gandalf gave the Old Took a pair of magic diamond studs that fastened themselves and never came undone till ordered. The functions of palantíri are similar to modern videophones (although sound was not transmitted, instead thoughts were "transferred between wills"[7]) and powerful telescopes; but palantíri do not have any mechanical workings and are clearly magical, resembling specula, or divining spheres used by soothsayers. Not least of all are the Rings of Power and the Silmarils themselves.

The Door of Durin in Khazad-dûm is a prime example of a seemingly normal object which is in fact supernatural. The door is nothing special by itself, but the moon-runes and their response to a password are supernatural and thereby magical. Moon-letters were also discovered by Elrond on Thror's map of the Lonely Mountain, which revealed the method of opening the secret entrance:

"Stand by the grey stone when the thrush knocks," read Elrond, "and the setting sun with the last light of Durin's Day will shine upon the key-hole." – The Hobbit

This special combination of spatial and temporal circumstances can be considered a form of magic. In The Hobbit, the Elvenking of Mirkwood, Thranduil, uses magic doors to guard his palace, making it almost impossible for anyone to enter or exit against his will.

The tower of Orthanc is said to contain wizardry "older and stronger than Saruman's",[8] making it extremely difficult for the Ents to damage it.

The Staves of the Five Wizards, the Istari, also seem to be objects of magic, as they appeared to be a primary part of the Wizards' own power and the Wizards frequently used them to help them in their labours. Saruman's staff was famously broken in his parley with Gandalf the White at Orthanc. (Saruman did acquire another staff,[9] but it had no special powers.) Gandalf the Grey's staff had also been broken, on the Bridge of Khazad-dûm. Gandalf the Grey was inseparable from his staff;[10] indeed the name Gandalf means 'wand-elf' or 'staff-elf'.[11] It was with him when he arrived in Middle-earth from the enchanted land of Valinor,[12] and he used its several powers on various occasions. When the wizard was re-incarnated as Gandalf the White he had a new staff, but it soon disappeared from history after being used only twice for magic and then finally to knock on the doors of Orthanc. After that Gandalf emanated magic from his bare hand.[13]

The craftsmanship of Elves displays their subtle, instinctive control of magic. The food lembas, given to the Fellowship by the Elves of Lothlórien, was capable of keeping a "traveller on his feet for a day of long labour",[14] and the hithlain rope is described as strong, tough, light, long, soft to the hand, packs close and, at Sam's spoken command, un-knotted itself. Hithlain appears to have been produced from the bark of mallorn trees, and was possibly also used to make elven-cloaks.[15] The cloaks that the Fellowship received from the Elves were thought by Pippin to be magic, and although the Elves neither confirmed nor denied this (Galadriel herself seemed confused about Sam's use of the word when explaining about her mirror), they said that the cloaks are a great aid in keeping out of the sight of unfriendly eyes; this was confirmed by the subsequent experiences of the Fellowship. Some of the gifts Galadriel gives to the Fellowship, such as Frodo's Phial and Sam's box of earth from the gardens of Galadriel, also seem to possess magical properties.

Elven and Númenórean swords are not just masterfully created weapons, but they also frequently possess magical powers such as the sword Sting, which glows blue when Orcs are nearby. Some Elven swords even bordered on sentience, such as the Black Sword, wielded by Túrin Turambar. The Black Sword was crafted by Eöl, a Sylvan or Sindarin Elf, who poured his hatred into the weapon. Crafted from a fallen star, it could pierce any earthly metal; even the scales of Glaurung. However, it hated its wielder. It was indeed cursed, and led to the death of Beleg. Túrin, before killing himself with it, seems to hear it speak to him, declaring revenge on him for the death of its master and Brandir.


In the The Fellowship of the Ring, Gandalf uses spells to conjure fire, create light, open the doors of Moria, bless Sam Gamgee's pony (Bill), hold the door in the Chamber of Mazarbul, and break the Bridge of Khazad-dûm. Gandalf also tells Frodo Baggins that "it has not been hard for me to read your mind and memory,"[16] and both Aragorn and Glorfindel are able to tell the severity of Frodo's injury. Also in The Fellowship of the Ring, as the Nazgûl attempt to follow Glorfindel, Elrond (the Lord of Rivendell) commands a giant wave to sweep the Nazgûl away.

In The Two Towers, Gandalf first uses magic to disarm Aragorn and Gimli and destroy an arrow Legolas fires at him. Later in the book, he uses his voice at Orthanc to compel Saruman to return to the parley, to break Saruman's staff, and to dismiss him after doing so. Gandalf also tells Gimli that Saruman could "look like me in your eyes, if it suited his purpose with you";,"[17] in other words, Saruman can use magic to create illusions.

In The Return of the King, Gandalf uses a shaft of white light to drive off the Nazgûl assaulting him. The Witch-king of Angmar is known as a dark sorcerer, and Galadriel uses her mirror to show scenes from the past, present, and future.

In the stories of The Silmarillion, Lúthien and Beren change shape to infiltrate Angband, and Lúthien uses magic to put Carcharoth, Morgoth, and everyone in Morgoth's castle into a deep slumber. Finrod sings spells to hide his identity from Sauron, Melian uses magic to create a barrier around her land of Doriath – which is, for a time, seemingly impenetrable – and Sauron uses wizardry to create a phantom of Eilinel to deceive Gorlim before killing him.


Patrick Curry argued that Tolkien felt the need for a magical cosmology incorporating polytheism and animism with Christian values like compassion and humility, to counter modernity's "war against mystery and magic".[18] He observed that Tolkien considered magic something negative, associated with modern science and machinery, as he stated in his essay On Fairy-Stories; a means of "power, ... [and] domination of things and wills" that corrupts those who use it,[19] for example trapping Saruman in his desire for ultimate knowledge and order.[20] Such magic contrasts with the enchantment that occurs in early drafts of his fictional elvish lands, which he saw as a form of pure art and an appreciation of the wonders of the world. In a draft of a letter, Tolkien distinguished these two kinds of magic with the Greek words magia (magic) and goeteia (sorcery), respectively. While the elves use goeteia only for artistic purposes and are always aware of the difference between reality and deception, the enemy employs it to deceive and terrify. Tolkien wrote also that neither kind of magic is good or evil per se in his tales, but using them to control free will is the supremely bad motive of his fiction.[21]


  1. ^ The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, No.155 to Naomi Mitchison (draft)
  2. ^ Tolkien, J.R.R. (1977), The Silmarillion, New York City: Houghton Mifflin, ISBN 0-618-12698-8 
  3. ^ a b c "Creatures of Middle-Earth". alatosmanveru. Retrieved March 8, 2014. 
  4. ^ a b c d "Beings and races of the Middle-earth Universe". Library of the Ancients. Retrieved March 8, 2014. 
  5. ^ J. R. R. Tolkien (1955), The Return of the King, George Allen & Unwin, 2nd edition (1966), index to 'Things', entry 'wizardry' p.440, ISBN 0 04 823047 2.
  6. ^ J. R. R. Tolkien (1954), The Fellowship of the Ring, George Allen & Unwin, 2nd edition (1966), book 2 ch.1 p.235, ISBN 0 04 823045 6.
  7. ^ Tolkien, J.R.R. (1980). Unfinished Tales. The Random House Publishing Group. p. 430. ISBN 978-0-345-35711-3. 
  8. ^ J. R. R. Tolkien (1954), The Two Towers, George Allen & Unwin, 2nd edition (1966), book 3 ch.9 p.174, ISBN 0 04 823046 4.
  9. ^ J. R. R. Tolkien (1955), The Return of the King, George Allen & Unwin, 2nd edition (1966), book 6 ch.6 p.261, ISBN 0 04 823047 2.
  10. ^ J. R. R. Tolkien (1954), The Fellowship of the Ring, George Allen & Unwin, 2nd edition (1966), book 2 ch.7 p.375, ISBN 0 04 823045 6.
  11. ^ J. R. R. Tolkien (1980), Unfinished Tales, George Allen & Unwin, part 4 ch.2 'The Istari', p.399, ISBN 0-04-823179-7.
  12. ^ J. R. R. Tolkien (1980), Unfinished Tales, George Allen & Unwin, part 4 ch.2 'The Istari', p.389, ISBN 0-04-823179-7.
  13. ^ J. R. R. Tolkien (1955), The Return of the King, George Allen & Unwin, 2nd edition (1966), book 5, ch.IV pp.83,94 & ch. VII p.128, ISBN 0 04 823047 2.
  14. ^ J. R. R. Tolkien (1954), The Fellowship of the Ring, George Allen & Unwin, 2nd edition (1966), book 2 ch.8 p.386, ISBN 0 04 823045 6.
  15. ^ Beth Russell (2005), 'Botanical Notes on the Mallorn', in Mallorn (the journal of the Tolkien Society), no.43 p.21 note 27, ISSN 0308-6674.
  16. ^ J. R. R. Tolkien (1954), The Fellowship of the Ring, George Allen & Unwin, 2nd edition (1966), book 2 ch.1 p.232, ISBN 0 04 823045 6.
  17. ^ J. R. R. Tolkien (1954), The Two Towers, George Allen & Unwin, 2nd edition (1966), book 3 ch.10 p.181/182, ISBN 0 04 823046 4.
  18. ^ Curry, Patrick (2004). Defending Middle-Earth: Tolkien: Myth and Modernity. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. p. 19. As we shall see, the spiritual world of Middle-earth is a rich and complex one. It contains both a polytheist-cum-animist cosmology of 'natural magic' and a Christian (but non-sectarian) ethic of humility and compassion. Tolkien clearly felt that both are now needed. The 'war against mystery and magic' by modernity urgently requires a re-enchantment of the world, which a sense of Earth-mysteries is much better-placed to offer than a single transcendent deity. 
  19. ^ Curry 2004, pp. 61–64
  20. ^ Curry 2004, p. 68
  21. ^ Purtill, Richard L. (2003) [1984]. J.R.R. Tolkien: Myth, Morality, and Religion (new ed.). Ignatius Press. pp. 139–140. ISBN 0-89870-948-2. 
Works cited

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