Friday, November 13, 2015

Magic and Tolkien

My friends and I always have heated debates about literature and politics at lunch.  Yes, I know it's nerdy.  Usually it revolves around me getting into a debate with my friend Anna.  She likes contemporary fantasy/dystopian/fiction/sci-fi type stories. Today she was explaining how one of the characters in her book has wind/ice powers or something like that.  To which I responded: I don't like magic in books.  Of course the entire table then converged upon me.  "What do you mean you don't like magic?  You're the biggest Lord of the Rings fan we know!  Oh the humanity!"  Okay, it wasn't that dramatic, but they were pretty surprised.   I feebly tried to explain to them how the magic in The Lord of the Rings is way different from the common conception of magic.  I didn't do a very good job of it and they left very confused.  So I did a bit of reading, and this is what I came up with regarding magic in Middle-earth.

Professor Tolkien stated in a letter to Milton Waldman from 1951*:

"All this stuff is mainly concerned with Fall, Mortality, and the Machine...both [the fall and mortality] of these (alone or together) will lead to the desire for power, for making their will more quickly effective, - and so to the Machine (or Magic).  By the last I intend all use of external plans or devices (apparatus) instead of developments of the inherent inner powers or talents - or even the use of these talents with the corrupted motive of dominating: bull-dozing the real world, or coercing other wills.  The Machine is our more obvious modern form though more closely related to Magic than is usually recognized.

"I have not used 'magic' consistently, and indeed the Elven-queen Galadriel is obliged to remonstrate with the Hobbits on their confused use of the word both for the devices and operations of the Enemy, and for those of the Elves.  I have not, because there is not a word for the latter (since all human stories have suffered the same confusion).  But the Elves are there (in my tales) to demonstrate the difference.  Their 'magic' is Art, delivered from many of its human limitations: more effortless, more quick, more complete...And its object is Art not Power, sub-creation not domination and tyrannous re-forming of Creation."

Tolkien makes it clear in the last part of the first paragraph, that by "machine" or "magic" he means using something outside that you have created to create to your own will, with your own designs without regard for the natural order of things.  If you look at it from a Christian point of view, doing something like that is essentially saying: "I know better than God and so I'm going to create something in spite of his plans in order to make my will known."  This is something that Tolkien was fundamentally against.

Tolkien references the Hobbits' discussion with Galadriel from The Fellowship of the Ring which is as follows:

"'Well,' said Sam, 'you can't see nobody working it.  No fireworks like poor old Gandalf used to show.  I wonder we don't see nothing of the Lord and Lady in all these days.  I fancy now that she could do some wonderful things, if she had a mind.  I'd dearly love to see some Elf-magic, Mr. Frodo!'...'Do you wish to look?'  Frodo did not answer.  'And you?' she [Galadriel] said turning to Sam.  'For this is what your folk would call magic, I believe; though I do not understand clearly what they mean; and they seem also to use the same word of the deceits of the Enemy.  But this, if you will, is the magic of Galadriel.  Did you not say that you wished to see Elf-magic?'"

As for the first part of this quote, Sam so delicately says "'you can't see nobody working it.'".  This corroborates what Tolkien said earlier:  "Their more effortless, more quick, more complete...".  Sam doesn't see the Elves do a "magic trick" or do something spectacular to amuse him, but they just emanate goodness and that is the type of flawless, easy skill that the Elves possess.

Now one of the points that my friends at lunch brought up was "Gandalf uses magic all the time!"  I can only assume they were referring to the fireworks at Bilbo's party and the spectacular beams of light shot at the Balrog and Nazgul from the movies (none of them have read the books, sadly).  Now Gandalf does indeed have powers.  He is a Maia, so he is a low level angel.  For this reason he does have some powers which he uses sparingly.  It is complicated and so it was hard for me to explain it to my friends, but Gandalf was sent to Middle-earth by Manwe, the leader of the angels.  Manwe in turn gets his intel from Eru Illuvatar, the god of the world.  So Gandalf uses his powers only when it is necessary in order to fulfill the will of God, or Eru (and he knows when this is through Manwe).  Unlike the modern use of magic, Gandalf is using his powers to fulfill the will of God.

Contrasting that, Magic (or the machine) is used to fulfill your own will.  To make things easier for yourself.  This is the antithesis of Gandalf's use of magic.  Sauron does this.  He is also a low level angel, but instead of fulfilling Eru's will and glorifying him with his art, he does the opposite and uses his power to corrupt and bend others' wills to his.

As for Tolkien's last point in his letter, "And its object is Art not Power, sub-creation not domination and tyrannous re-forming of Creation.", he is demonstrating that the Elves do not seek to fulfill their own will, but to glorify God through their Art.  I am going to do a future post on what Tolkien called Sub-creation, because it is so fascinating and a big part of his writings.

He says that magic is an art.  I want to make it perfectly clear that it is not an art that you can study and learn, like the wizards in Harry Potter.  You are born with it, and you practice and perfect it for the greater glory of the world around you and put it to use according to Eru's will.

If you have questions about this topic, I would happily answer them.  Galu!

*Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien (1981) no. 131; and in part reprinted in the preface to The Silmarillion (1999).


  1. You explained it pretty well to me! :D

  2. Oh yes! Yes! I want to hug you, but that would be slightly creepy and weird.