- "I am afraid I have been far too casual about 'magic' and especially the use of the word; though Galadriel and others show by the criticism of the 'mortal' use of the word, that the thought about it is not altogether casual. But it is a v. large question, and difficult; and a story which . . . is largely about motives""
- ― J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter 155
- "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"
- ― Galadriel, The Mirror of Galadriel
Magic in Middle-earth was not explicitly defined by Tolkien, and the term can have various meanings depending on usage and context. For Hobbits, it was a term used to describe processes and abilities of objects which could not be explained outside of their limited lore and knowledge. For Elves and Wizards, what others might call magic was not something special or different from the natural world, just a part of it that was not immediately visible. This led to the more common categorization of things as Seen or Unseen, with the Seen aspects of an object or person being only part of it. Through the power of the One Ring, Frodo Baggins at times saw powerful Elves, such as the High-elf Glorfindel, in their true level of power and radiance that extends into the Unseen.
Magic by race
The Ainur, as supernatural or angelic beings, could shape the world around them in terms according to their natures. Melkor, later Morgoth, had great power but he could only mar or corrupt what his brethren had already wrought. As explained in Morgoth's Ring, "to gain domination over Arda, Morgoth had let most of his being pass into the physical constituents of the Earth". This meant that everything which was born or lived on Earth, such as beasts, plants, and incarnate spirits, were likely to be tainted.:394 Sauron, a lieutenant of Morgoth, was a powerful Maia who used his abilities to manipulate objects and those beings enslaved to him. While with the One Ring, Sauron's "relatively smaller, power was concentrated; Morgoth's vast power was disseminated. The whole of 'Middle-earth' was Morgoth's Ring.":400 In this imbuement of Middle-earth, "Morgoth lost (or exchanged, or transmuted) the greater part of his original 'angelic' powers, of mind and spirit, while gaining a terrible grip upon the physical world.":400
For both Morgoth and Sauron, these acts of corruption, of putting their will and power into other things and people, weakened them considerably. "Evil is fissiparous. But itself barren.":405 With each creation or corruption, they were lessened because parts of their power now existed outside of themselves. Such power was not an unlimited supply, and even the Ainur who resided in Aman had limits. For example, Yavanna could not remake the light of the Two Trees of Valinor following their destruction by Ungoliant. The only hope for them to be restored would be to reclaim the light captured of them in the Silmarils.
Some Maiar, like Sauron, had power nearly the equal of a Vala so that even Olórin feared him.:393 Whatever lore Sauron shared with the Elves, such as the making of the Rings of Power in Eregion, would have unlocked their understanding of how to craft the rings using their own innate abilities. This is how the master-smith Celebrimbor was able to create the Three Rings in secret. But the rings that Annatar had a hand in crafting were corrupted and bound to his own power, and any power that his slaves or servants had was also sourced in him. Servants like the Black Númenóreans and the Men who became Nazgûl used this power as sorcery. For example, if Frodo's heart had been pierced with the Morgul-knife, he would have been a wraith and under the Ringwraiths' command, just as they are under Sauron's.
The Istari, the Maiar who came to Middle-earth in the diminished form of men, were tasked to help guide the Free peoples against Sauron. The true nature of the Istari was not known to all, and they were simply considered wise old men. They were called Wizards, and in Tolkien's mythology this term is specifically only used for the Order of the Istari, who are of angelic origin. The word "wizard" is a translation of the Quenya istar (Sindarin ithron); one of the members of an 'order' (as they called it), claiming to posses, and exhibiting, eminent knowledge of the history and nature of the World."
A member of the race of Men wielding apparent magical powers would be referred to as a sorcerer, whether for good or evil. Although later contradicted, according to Tolkien's Letter 155, the concept of magic in his world is not derived from lore or spells, and Men did not have any affinity for magic. By this definition, lore like knowing the language of an animal would not be considered magical in Middle-earth, merely knowledgeable.:227-8
The Eldar of Aman lived alongside the Ainur, knew of their powers, and were even tutored by them. At the same time, the Elves did not comprehend the concept of magic as it was used by mortal beings. For Elves, their bodies and spirits worked in harmony and creation came naturally to them. The Elvish "fëa was above all designed to create things in co-operation with the hröa.":332 The Elves were taught arts and crafts by the Valar in Valinor and put dedication and love in every thing they wrought. They were deeply connected to the things they made, and "the love of the Elves for their land and their works is deeper than the deeps of the Sea." Due to their near immortality,:212 Elves could reach high levels of mastery in arts, crafts, and lore.
The Rings of Power and lesser rings were objects that would seem magical to the Secondborn; they gave powers of manipulation to the bearer of the One Ring, and some might give the wearer invisibility, which was actually the ability to walk in the Unseen world. Galadriel was tutored by Melian when she resided in Doriath, and with her ring Nenya, she was able to enchant and protect the Golden Wood. Elrond wore the ring Vilya which helped him protect his hidden realm of Imladris. In the Third Age, Thranduil was the only Elf-lord who did not have a Great Ring to help him maintain his realm against the Enemy. However, he did have the Enchanted River, which made people fall asleep and dream deeply, and the Elvenking's Halls as his fortress to help protect his people.
Other Elven artefacts were the Palantíri, the Lamps of the Noldor,:Note 2 and the Mirror of Galadriel, all of which would seem magical to outsiders. Even simpler artefacts, such as the river-boats of the Galadhrim and the elven ropes seemed to have wills of their own.
In addition to creation and craftsmanship, Elves had great skill with healing and medicine. Though such things came naturally to them, those Elves who healed often chose not to fight, except at great need, in order to preserve their skill, "for the Eldar deemed that the dealing of death . . . diminished the power of healing.":213 While ordinary for an Elf, it might have felt magical to someone healed by them who did not understand how they were using their fëa (spirit). Glorfindel helped heal Frodo without seeming to do more than search the wound with his fingers. "Frodo felt the chill lessen in his side and arm; a little warmth crept down from his shoulder to his hand, and the pain grew easier." There were no magic words or chants, and no medicine was applied at that time. He also gave Frodo and his companions a drink of clear liquid, which had no taste, that renewed their strength and vigour.
Elven minstrels, like Finrod Felagund and Lúthien, also excerised power through their songs. Finrod fought against Sauron in song and made great progress, but he was overpowered with a dire chant. Lúthien, who was half-Maia, was able to use strong enchantments to disguise both herself and Beren, and she mesmerized Morgoth with her singing and dancing.
Sindarin has two words for dark magic; morgul and guldur. The element gûl literally means "magic lore" or "long study" and has negative connotations that include "necromancy" and "sorcery". Môr translates to "dark" or "night", and dûr means "dark" or "sombre".[note 1] On their own these words are innocuous, as the concept of magic itself is neutral in Middle-earth. However, when these terms are used in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, such as referring to Dol Guldur or a Morgul-knife, they have negative connotations. Morgul may refer to the dark lore and objects produced or influenced through the magic of Sauron and used for evil. These could be shared with his followers, such as the Ringwraiths and Black Númenóreans.
The magic wielded by Sauron, or other sorcerers who were taught how to manipulate the corruption Morgoth left in Arda, was based directly upon the physical legacy of Morgoth himself. The "Morgoth-element in matter . . . was a prerequisite for such 'magic' and other evils as Sauron practised with it and upon it.":400
Sauron himself was also known as the Necromancer, which indicated that he had power over spirits. The Witch-king of Angmar, a servant of Sauron who wore a Ring of Power, had the ability to summon the Barrow-wights to the Barrow-downs.
Certain constructions of the Dwarves had properties which might be seen magical. As a prominent example, Doors of Durin could open by themselves upon the entrant saying the word mellon, without any visible machinery or other assistance. Such a magical appearance could be down to the ingenuity of Dwarven technology and craftsmanship. The Elven Door was created by the Dwarven craftsman Narvi and inscribed by the Elf-lord Celebrimbor with letters and signs fashioned in ithildin.
Another Dwarven door, seen in The Hobbit, is the Back Door of the Lonely Mountain. This was a hidden, seamless door with keyhole that would only be revealed on Durin's Day. The key lines that may infer an enchantment on the door are:
A gleam of light came straight through the opening into the bay and fell on the smooth rock-face. The old thrush . . . gave a sudden trill. There was a loud crack. A flake of rock split from the wall and fell. A hole appeared suddenly about three feet from the ground.
—J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit, "On the Doorstep"
This appears to be what Tolkien might refer to as magia, or physical magic, because there is a crack and a flake of rock falls off the wall.
J.R.R. Tolkien discussed the operations and moral dimensions of magic in Letter 155 of The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. This letter is actually an unsent part of a draft of Letter 154 which was dated September 25, 1954.
Magic in Middle-earth was explained as an innate ability set of the Ainur and the Firstborn, to the exclusion of other peoples. Regardless, The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings both contain descriptions of special items and weapons that are said to have been crafted by Men and Dwarves, such as the dagger wielded by Merry which stabbed the Witch-king and Angrist.
The area of discussion in the letter is the difference between magia and goeteia, with magia (physical magic) usually noted as good and goeteia (charm and conjuring magic) as bad. He wrote, "neither is, in this tale, good or bad (per se), but only by motive or purpose or use. Both sides use both, but with different motives." The evil motive was to use it to dominate free will. The Enemy used his magia to "bulldoze" both people and things and used his goeteia to terrify and subjugate. The Elves and Gandalf sparingly used magia for specific beneficial purposes (like burning pine cones to toss at the Wargs), and their goetic effects were "entirely artistic and not intended to deceive: they never deceive Elves (but may deceive or bewilder unaware Men)." For Elves, the difference was as clear to them as the difference to us between art (fiction, painting, and sculpture) and life.
At the end of the draft noted as Letter 155, he wrote "a difference between the use of 'magic' in this story [The Lord of the Rings] is that it is not to be come by by 'lore' or spells; but it is an inherent power not possessed or attainable by Men as such." While "Aragorn's 'healing' might be regarded as 'magical', or at least a blend of magic and pharmacy and 'hypnotic' processes . . . A. is not a pure 'Man', but at long remove one of the 'children of Lúthien'." However, in The Fellowship of the Ring at the Doors of Durin, Gandalf said, "I once knew every spell in all the tongues of Elves or Men or Orcs, that was ever used for such a purpose. I can still remember ten score of them without searching in my mind."
The Númenórean Question: Since this 1954 letter draft was unsent, he seemed undecided on the total exclusion of Men from spellcasting. Since Men did not have the natural skill to weave their own spirit into things or ideas, they may have used spells. Alongside the final paragraph of Letter 155, which ended with the explanation that Aragorn was distantly of Lúthien's line, Tolkien wrote this question: "'But the Númenóreans used "spells" in making swords?'":Note 2
In a later work completed by 1959, the Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth, there is an amended note which contains the Tale of Adanel in which the strongest and the cruellest of the fallen Men who worshipped Morgoth, during the dawn of Men in Middle-earth, were given "gifts" and "knowledge that they kept secret" which made them "powerful and proud," and with their new power, they enslaved the other Men.:348 In this later text, Men could be given artefacts or taught lore, but magic remained a noninherent trait.
Other versions of the legendarium
In the early stages of the legendarium, the magical elements are more explicit.
In The Book of Lost Tales, the complex relationship of creation from the spirits and bodies of Ainur and Elves is explained as spells and enchantments. Irmo used poppies as reagents in his sleep enchantments.:74 Aulë used spells in his smith-craft.:100 Yavanna used spells and enchantments when creating and growing plants,:71, 98 and she gave spells to Ulmo to populate the seas with aquatic life during the age of "Melko's Chains".:106 In "The Tale of Tinúviel", Tinúviel, Gwendeling's daughter, wove with magics and spells in her tree house prison, and she was aided by her mother and her brother, Dairon.:19
- Essay on magic in Middle-earth by Steuard Jensen
- Principles of Tolkien's Magic by John H. Kim
- Magic in Middle-earth at tolkien.cro.net
- Sindarin translations found at: Hiswelókë's Sindarin dictionary
- J.R.R. Tolkien; Humphrey Carpenter, Christopher Tolkien (eds.), The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter 155, (dated 25 September 1954)
- J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, The Fellowship of the Ring, "Many Meetings"
- J.R.R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien (ed.), The Silmarillion, "Ainulindalë: The Music of the Ainur"
- J.R.R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien (ed.), Morgoth's Ring, "Part Five. Myths Transformed", "[Text] VII"
- J.R.R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien (ed.), The Silmarillion, "Quenta Silmarillion: Of the Flight of the Noldor"
- J.R.R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien (ed.), Unfinished Tales, "The Istari"
- J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit, "Fire and Water"
- J.R.R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien (ed.), Morgoth's Ring, "Part Four. Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth: Addit. Silmarillion — Commentary"
- J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, The Fellowship of the Ring, "The Mirror of Galadriel"
- J.R.R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien (ed.), Morgoth's Ring, "Part Three. The Later Quenta Silmarillion: (II) The Second Phase: Laws and Customs among the Eldar"
- J.R.R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien (ed.), The Silmarillion, "Quenta Silmarillion: Of the Return of the Noldor"
- J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit, "Queer Lodgings"
- J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit, "Flies and Spiders"
- J.R.R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien (ed.), The Silmarillion, "Akallabêth: The Downfall of Númenor"
- J.R.R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien (ed.), Unfinished Tales, "Of Tuor and his Coming to Gondolin"
- J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, The Fellowship of the Ring, "Flight to the Ford"
- J.R.R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien (ed.), The Silmarillion, "Quenta Silmarillion: Of Beren and Lúthien"
- J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit, "The Last Stage"
- J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, Appendix A, "The Númenorean Kings", "Eriador, Arnor, and the Heirs of Isildur"
- J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, The Fellowship of the Ring, "A Journey in the Dark"
- J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, The Return of the King, "The Battle of the Pelennor Fields"
- J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit, "Out of the Frying-Pan into the Fire"
- J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, The Fellowship of the Ring, "A Journey in the Dark"
- J.R.R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien (ed.), Morgoth's Ring, "Part Four. Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth: Author's Notes on the 'Commentary'"
- J.R.R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien (ed.), The Book of Lost Tales Part One, "III. The Coming of the Valar and the Building of Valinor"
- J.R.R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien (ed.), The Book of Lost Tales Part One, "IV. The Chaining of Melko"
- J.R.R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien (ed.), The Book of Lost Tales Part Two, "I. The Tale of Tinúviel"
- J.R.R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien (ed.), The Lays of Beleriand, "III. The Lay of Leithian: Canto V (Lúthien's captivity in Doriath)", vv. 1425-1523
- J.R.R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien (ed.), The Lays of Beleriand, "I. The Lay of the Children of Húrin: II. Beleg", vv. 1203-1223