Magic (Middle-earth)

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Magic, as referred in this article, pertains to mystical, paranormal, or supernatural activity as it appears in J. R. R. Tolkien's fictional realm of , of which Middle-earth is a part. 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 are inherently good or bad in itself.


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".[2] 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, for example, trapping Saruman in his desire for ultimate knowledge and order.[3]:68 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). 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 that neither kind of magic is good or evil, but using them to control free will is the supremely bad motive of his fiction.[4]


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.[5]

The Balrogs (Maiar seduced by Melkor) were evil shapechangers. Their supernatural abilities came in the form of control of fire, and an ability to contact other evil spirits.[6][7]

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, putting receivers of the spell under eternal sleep [6][7]

Great Eagles are sentient eagles who assist the elves in patrolling the land and watching for the movements of orcs and other evil creatures.[7]

The Nazgûl, 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 weapons, and used their black breath to cast curses, which caused dark depression among their foes, causing them to freeze in terror.[6]

In the index of The Return of the King, wizardry is described as the 'magic of the kind', popularly ascribed to the Wizards (Istari).[8]:440

In addition to the different types of supernatural creatures in Middle-earth, there was a shadow realm where creatures, such as the Ringwraiths, have a different presence than that observable in the normal world. High Elves exist 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."[9]:235 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. The wound causes permanent psychological effects on Frodo.

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 until ordered. The functions of palantíri are similar to modern videophones (although the sound is not transmitted, and instead thoughts are "transferred between wills"[10]) and powerful telescopes; but palantíri do not have any mechanical workings and are clearly magical, resembling specula, or divining spheres used by soothsayers.

Moon-letters were 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 can be considered a form of magic. In The Hobbit, Thranduil, the Elvenking of Mirkwood, uses magic doors to guard his palace. The tower of Orthanc is said to contain wizardry "older and stronger than Saruman's",[11]:174 making it extremely difficult for the Ents to damage it.

The Staves of the Five Wizards, the Istari, seem to be objects of magic, as they appear to be a primary part of the Wizards' own power. Saruman's staff was famously broken in his parley with Gandalf the White at Orthanc. (Saruman did acquire another staff,[8]:261 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;[9]:375 the name Gandalf means 'wand-elf' or 'staff-elf'.[12]:399 It was with him when he arrived in Middle-earth from the enchanted land of Valinor[12]:289 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 white magic from his bare hand.[8]:128

The craftsmanship of Elves displays their subtle, instinctive control of magic. Lembas, a food given to the Fellowship by the Elves of Lothlórien, was capable of keeping a "traveller on his feet for a day of long labour",[9]:386 and the hithlain rope is described as strong, tough, light, long, soft to the hand, packs close and unknots itself at spoken command. Hithlain appears to have been produced from the bark of mallorn trees and was possibly used to make elven-cloaks.[13] The cloaks that the Fellowship received from the Elves were thought to be magic, and although the Elves did not confirm 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, seem to possess magical properties.


In 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 tells Frodo Baggins that "it has not been hard for me to read your mind and memory,"[9]:232 and both Aragorn and Glorfindel are able to tell the severity of Frodo's injury. 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 uses magic to disarm Aragorn and Gimli and destroy an arrow Legolas shoots 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 tells Gimli that Saruman could "look like me in your eyes if it suited his purpose with you",[11]:181–182 in other words, Saruman can use magic to create illusions.


  1. ^ The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, No.155 to Naomi Mitchison (draft)
  2. ^ 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.
  3. ^ Curry, Patrick (2004). Defending Middle-Earth: Tolkien: Myth and Modernity (1st Houghton Mifflin Books ed.). Boston: Houghton Mifflin. ISBN 0-6184-7885-X.
  4. ^ 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.
  5. ^ Tolkien, J.R.R. (1977), The Silmarillion, New York City: Houghton Mifflin, ISBN 0-618-12698-8
  6. ^ a b c "Creatures of Middle-Earth". alatosmanveru. Retrieved 8 March 2014.
  7. ^ a b c "Beings and races of the Middle-earth Universe". Library of the Ancients. Retrieved 8 March 2014.
  8. ^ a b c Tolkien, J.R.R. (1988). The Return of the King: being the third part of The Lord of the Rings (2nd ed.). London: Unwin Hyman. ISBN 0-04-823047-2.
  9. ^ a b c d Tolkien, J.R.R. (1955). The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (1st ed.). London u.a.: Allen & Unwin. ISBN 0-04-823045-6.
  10. ^ Tolkien, J.R.R. (1980). Unfinished Tales. The Random House Publishing Group. p. 430. ISBN 978-0-345-35711-3.
  11. ^ a b Tolkien, J.R.R. (1966). The Two Towers: being the second part of The Lord of the Rings (2nd ed.). London: G. Allen & Unwin. ISBN 0-04-823046-4.
  12. ^ a b Tolkien, J.R.R. (1984). Unfinished Tales of Númenor and Middle-Earth (Repr. ed.). London: Allen & Unwin. ISBN 0-04-823179-7.
  13. ^ 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.

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