Understanding Magic In JRR Tolkien
Understanding Magic In J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-Earth Essay, Research Paper
Understanding Magic In J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-Earth
Magic is difficult to define. Outside the literary works of J.R.R. Tolkien we do not take it seriously but instead relegate it to the corners of myth, superstition, and the supernatural (that which lies outside or beyond the natural universe). In Tolkien’s world what he calls “magic” is real and natural, and we must understand the nature of his world in order to understand what he calls “magic”. There are many aspects to Tolkien’s magic and all of them must be naturally part of his world.
Tolkien devised a robust cosmology for Middle-earth. It is but a small part of a greater world, and that world itself is but one aspect of the overall natural order. All things in Tolkien’s order proceed from Il*vatar, the All-father, God. He creates the Ainur, the Timeless Halls, and even the Void. Without the will of Il*vatar these things simply cannot exist. So the beginning is in the will (and imagination or conception) of Il*vatar. Il*vatar’s thought is the Big Bang for Middle-earth.
The Ainur were intrinsically different from the inanimate and non-sentient Timeless Halls and Void. The Halls and the Void were merely areas of what might be called “space” (not “space” as in the 3 dimensions of Space, but “space” as in indeterminate scopes of reality or existence). Call the Timeless Halls and the Void a universe, or two separate universes. Time does not exist in the Timeless Halls (apparently), and nothing naturally exists in the Void (but things can enter into the Void from outside).
Il*vatar’s creation of the Timeless Halls and the Void implies the beginning of a Here and a There, and this further indicates that different rules may apply. Here has its own rules and There has its own rules. In the Timeless Halls Il*vatar taught the Ainur about music, and they each began to compose music for him. One by one, as singers or instruments, they gave expression to whatever was in their thoughts. And when they had progressed sufficiently in these skills Il*vatar commanded the Ainur to join together in a mighty theme.
The Music of the Ainur, the Ainulindal , is the source of a third place to arise from Il*vatar’s thought. And music appears to be a foundation of this third place. The story tells us that after a while Melkor initiated his own theme within the Music, causing dissension and discord to spread through the ranks of the Ainur. And Il*vatar commanded the Ainur to begin a new theme, but Melkor’s music again invaded the original composition, and Il*vatar growing angry raised a third theme unlike the first two.
When the conflict between Melkor’s brash and arrogant theme and Il*vatar’s third theme became so disconcerting that many Ainur stopped singing, Il*vatar brought an end to the music. And he showed the Ainur a vision which gave expression and interpretation to their music, but they did not fully understand it. Then Il*vatar created what we call the Universe, what Tolkien usually called E . “E ” means “it shall be” or “let it be”. It is Time and Space, all that is natural to Middle-earth, which is but a small part of E .
Il*vatar created E within the Void. He said, “I will send forth into the Void the Flame Imperishable, and it shall be at the heart of the World, and the World shall Be….” The Flame Imperishable is never fully described by Tolkien, but Il*vatar kindled the Ainur with the Flame Imperishable, and Melkor sought vainly for the Flame Imperishable in the Void. He did not understand that it existed with Il*vatar, was apparently a part of Il*vatar.
The Flame Imperishable therefore provides the foundation for all things which have an existence or even a Will. It is the power of Il*vatar, his energy source and apparently the source of all that he creates. The Flame Imperishable, as an aspect of Il*vatar, must be the ultimate power in Tolkien’s world: raw, vital, pure, unsullied, subject wholly to his own Will. Melkor perceived it as a means to create, something he himself could not do. Creation in this respect means to bring into existence out of nothing, to give existence to something which previously did not exist. Melkor might be able to conceive of new things, but he could not create them. They could not Be without the Flame Imperishable.
However, Il*vatar gave the Ainur permission to enter into E and to do there all those things of which they had sung. Those who accepted this offer became a part of E — “their power should thenceforward be contained and bounded in the world, to be within it for ever, until it is complete, so that they are its life and it is theirs.” The entry of the Valar, the first Ainur to join E , altered the World completely. Before it was shapeless, dark, and empty. But when they took up their guardianship, the Valar brought to E Purpose, Will, and something which can be called Power. The Power proceeded from their Will, being a facet of their existence which E itself did not share, for it had no Will, and was not a Living Being.
E thus from the very beginning had its own set of rules, axioms we may call them, upon which its cosmology was founded. The Universe or the World could be shaped by the Ainur or by Il*vatar, but Il*vatar chose not to interact directly with E . He left the work to the Ainur. They labored for countless ages in creating (as in constructing, not bringing into existence frmo nothing) stars and regions beyond the reach and ken the still-to-come Children of Il*vatar. In the course of these labors the Valar must have founded, refined, or at least discovered the physical laws which would be natural to E . These laws defined the limits of all things within E .
Time is one of the measurements of E , as are Space and Distance. With the passing of Time the Valar filled more of Space, covered more Distance, with the fruits of their labors. Myriad stars and probably worlds unimaginable spread out behind them. And eventually they came to that region of E where they built Arda, the Kingdom or Realm, which was to be the home of the Children of Il*vatar. Like the Ainur, the Children would be strictly the products of the Thought of Il*vatar. And like the Valar (and their companions, the Maiar) the Children would be bound within Time and Space, with one excecption. Il*vatar decided that Men, unlike Elves, should not remain in E , but should seek elsewhere. Perhaps it was Il*vatar’s desire that E give back something of itself.
The Valar’s work in Arda reveals something of their abilities. They gave shape to the lands, seas, and skies. The “skies” would be the airs above Arda, rather than the apparently limitless expanse beyond them. Water rose from the seas and lands to become clouds, and the winds blew and crossed Arda freely. Melkor’s dabblings in his the labors of his fellow Valar produced the beauty of ice amid the ruin and destruction he sought to dispense. Melkor’s ambition to make Arda his own led him to undertake a great subtrefuge which would forever alter Arda and perplex the Valar.
Although we don’t know from what Arda was shaped or made, after the Valar gave its substance the definitions of land, seas, and airs they utilized those resources to refine the world. They brought forth Biological Life, living things which had no spirits, were not kindled with the Flame Imperishable (except in that they were made from the stuff of E , and therefore possessed some aspect of the living fire which dwelt at the heart of the world). These living things, divided into Kelvar (animals, living things that move) and Olvar (growing things with roots in the earth), acted of their own accord. They were not simply extensions of the thoughts of the Valar. They grew, multiplied, and throve individually without benefit of the direction of the Valar.
Kelvar and Olvar must therefore represent some aspect of Il*vatar’s own Will. They do not have “spirits”, are not Children of the Thought of Il*vatar as the Ainur and the Children of Il*vatar are, but they move and act independently, according to their basic needs and desires. The Ainur gave shape to the Kelvar and Olvar but can they actually have given life to them? The issue is not explored by Tolkien, but many questions arise the answers to which are most easily devised through some association with the Flame Imperishable. For the sake of this discussion we shall assume (without seeking to prove or disprove) that the life of the Kelvar and Olvar stems from the Flame Imperishable, indirectly, which Il*vatar used to kindle the World for the flame is said to be at the heart of the World.
It is important to distinguish between “soulless” life such as the Kelvar and Olvar and “soullish” life such as the Ainur and the Children represent. “Magic” in some of its forms deals with life and death. What is “life” within E ? What is “death”? These terms cannot both be defined biologically. The Ainur, having no physical bodies to begin with, were nonetheless “living” beings from their beginning. They had no biological life but yet lived. In E , when they assumed bodies similar to those of the Children of Il*vatar, they gave themselves biological life — but they were not creating living things. The bodies of the Ainur are like clothes. Tolkien writes:
Now the Valar took to themselves shape and hue; and because they were drawn into the World by love of the Children of Il*vatar, for whom they hoped, they took shape after that manner which they had beheld in the Vision of Il*vatar, save only in majesty and splendour. Moreover their shape comes of their knowledge of the visible World, rather than of the World itself; and they need it not, save only as we use raiment, and yet we may be naked and suffer no loss of our being….
(Tolkien, “Silmarillion”, p. 21)
This passage provides important clues to more than just how the Valar took shape. Their shapes were derived from their KNOWLEDGE of the World, and not from the World itself. The shapes of the Kelvar and Olvar, however, must by default have been derived from the World. By “shapes” Tolkien seems to mean the physical substance, the bodies, of the Ainur and the living creatures. So the bodies of the animals and plants are a part of the World, whereas the bodies of the Ainur are not. And yet the Ainurian bodies must conform to some limitations of the World itself in order to interact with it.
Another aspect we see here is the reference to “the visible World”. The bodies assumed by the Ainur were made in reference to the “visible World”, or the “Seen”. By default, then, they as living spirits were part of the “invisible World”, or the “Unseen”. The distinction between Kelvar/Olvar and the “soullish” Ainur and Children of Il*vatar must therefore include some aspect of the Unseen. Their spirits or souls constitute the Unseen World, of which the Kelvar and Olvar cannot be a part.
Here in the division between the Seen and the Unseen we find the foundation for one aspect of “magic” in Tolkien: necromancy (sometimes referred to as sorcery). He makes reference to it in many places, directly and indirectly. Sauron the terrible is also the Necromancer of Dol Guldur. He teaches the Elves of Eregion to make Rings of Power which he then steals and perverts so as to create Ringwraiths, bodiless spirits enslaved to his own Will. Necromancy is a powerful magic in Tolkien but it is by no means the only magic.
Another type of magic in Tolkien is seen in the expression of Will by the various Ainur and Elves. It would be by this magic that the Ainur shaped the elements of E and so brought order to the World. Arda was produced through this magic, not so much an expression of raw power as Il*vatar’s acts of creation would be, but an expression of a secondary power over the creation. Tolkien called this sub-creation, a subsidiary but independent style of creation within creation. No original creation occurs, but new ideas are given shape or expression. Melkor, greatest of the Ainur in strength and Will, was the greatest sub-creator in many respects, but he gradually became destructive and nihilistic, desiring only to dominate other Wills, to own what was already created and to control it, or to destroy it if he could no obtain those other goals.
The focus of Melkor’s desire was Arda, the abode for the long-awaited Childredn of Il*vatar. The Valar may have given it special consideration when they made Arda, for Melkor was consumed with desire to possess Arda for himself. Melkor’s desire to make Arda completely his own led him to diffuse a great part of his natural strength throughout Arda. He was a being of pure spirit who made himself permanently physical, permenantly bound up within the World (within Arda, to be more precise), so as to be “One” with it, to make it a part of himself. By introducing this part of himself into Arda, Melkor established a foundation for yet another kind of magic. According to Tolkien:
Melkor ‘incarnated’ himself (as Morgoth) permanently. He did this so as to control the hroa, the ‘flesh’ or physical matter, of Arda. He attempted to identify himself with it. A vaster, and more perilous, procedure, though of similar sort to the operations of Sauron with the Rings. Thus, outside the Blessed Realm, all ‘matter’ was likely to have a ‘Melkor ingredent’, and those who had bodies, nourished by the hroa of Arda, had as it were a tendency, small or great, towards Melkor: they were none of them wholly free of him in their incarnate form, and their bodies had an effect upon their spirits.
But in this way 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. For this reason he had to be fought, mainly by physical force, and enormous material ruin was a probable consequence of any direct combat with him, victorious or otherwise. This is the chief explanation of the constant reluctance of the Valar to come into open battle against Morgoth. Manwe’s task and problem was much more difficult than Gandalf’s. Sauron’s, relatively smaller, power was concentrated; Morgoth’s vast power was disseminated. The whole of ‘Middle-earth’ was Morgoth’s Ring, though temporarily his attention was mainly upon the North-west. Unless swiftly successful, War against him might well end in reducing all Middle-earth to chaos, possibly even all Arda….Morever, the final eradication of Sauron (as a power directing evil) was achievable by the destruction of the Ring. No such eradication of Morgoth was possible, sinc ethis required the complete disintegration of the ‘matter’ of Arda. Sauron’s power was not (for example) in gold as such, but in a particular form or shape made of a particular portion of total gold. Morgoth’s power was disseminated throughout Gold, if nowhere absolute (for he did not create Gold) it was nowhere absent. (It was this Morgoth-element in matter, indeed, which was a prerequisite for such ‘magic’ and other evils as Sauron practised with it and upon it.)
It is quite possible, of course, that certain ‘elements’ or conditions of matter had attracted Morgoth’s special attention (mainly, unless in the remote past, for reasons of his own plans). For example, all gold (in Middle-earth) seems to have had a specially ‘evil’ trend — but not silver. Water is represented as being almost entirely free of Morgoth. (This, of course, does not mean that any particular sea, stream, river, well, or even vessel of water could not be poisoned or defiled — as all things could.)
(Tolkien, “Morgoth’s Ring”, pp. 399-401)
The infusion of the Morgothian element into Arda thus altered the susceptibility of that part of the World to the Will of others. Sauron utilized Morgoth’s power to achieve what might be termed a state of enchantment. Enchantment cannot be limited solely to the use of the Morgothian element — it must also be applied to other acts by Ainur, Elves, Dwarves, and even Men which may not have applied the same principles Sauron used. But it must be conceded that Sauron taught the techniques to the Elves and probably to Men. Such use of the unnatural aspects of Arda must therefore be regarded as “sorcerous”, although not with respect to the conjuration of spirits.
Melkor was not the only Vala to extend his power into portions of E , however. Ulmo, the Vala associated with all waters, appears to have engaged in similar but more restricted identification. His was not a permanent identification — not a phsyical aspect of his incarnation. Melkor seems to have perverted the principle of identifying oneself with one’s “native element”, as it were. Ulmo had no permanent dwelling place but moved throughout the waters of Arda. He would try to inspire Men and Elves if they could hear the voices or music of his waters. And yet Ulmo’s power was finite, or only finitely placed within the waters. When he met with Tuor at Vinyamar in Nevrast he said:
“…Yet Doom is strong, and the shadow of the Enemy lengthens; and I am diminished, until in Middle-earth I am become now no more than a secret whisper. The waters that run westward wither, and their springs are poisoned, and my power withdraws from the land; for Elves and Men grow blind and deaf to me because of the might of Melkor….”
(Tolkien, “Unfinished Tales”, p. 29)
The image of a struggle between Melkor and Ulmo over the waters of Middle-earth implies an immense expense of Will. Melkor was stronger than Ulmo and was steadily driving Ulmo from his natural domain. It is perhaps reasonable to suggest that Ulmo went all the more willingly because he understood what was stake — that if he resisted Melkor too strongly Arda (and therefore Middle-earth) might suffer. The time had not yet come. He needed to act with compassion toward Elves and Men. But the implication is that a great power ran throughout Arda — through the land, the waters, and the airs. The power had more than one source, but only one of those sources could be utilized in “magic”: the Morgothian source.
Tolkien uses the word “sorcery” in several ways. Sometimes he speaks of the sorceries of Sauron or his servants, and we are reminded of the necromancy they practiced. Sometimes Tolkien seems to use the word in a more general way. When the Rohirrim speak of the Lady of the Wood and call her a sorceror, do they truly imply they believe Galadriel consorts with spirits, or do they simply mean they perceive in her a great power they do not share?
In the Elvish conception there was no “magic” so much as “Art”. The Elves simply possessed the natural ability to engage in sub-creation. All the Ainur could do was “sub-create” — manipulate the creation of Il*vatar within those bounds he had set through the creation of E itself. The Elves possessed a similar faculty though much diminished by comparison, except perhaps in some rare cases. F anor, the greatest of the Eldar, rivalled the deeds of the Ainur in some respects, and even aroused envy in Melkor’s heart. And Luthien, being half Elf, half Maia, accomplished a considerable stroke against Melkor himself by singing him and all his servants to sleep inside Angband.
Despairing of his use of the word “magic”, Tolkien wrote to Milton Waldman (a publisher to whom he submitted The Lord of the Rings prior to its final acceptance by Allen & Unwin):
“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 for both 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 (product, and vision in unflawed correspondence). And its object is Art not Power, sub-creation not domination and tyrranous re-orming of Creation. The ‘Elves’ are ‘immortal’, at least as far as this world goes: and hence are concerned rather with the griefs and burdens of deathlessness in time and change, than with death. The Enemy in successive forms is always ‘naturally’ concerned with sheer Domination, and so the Lord of magic and machines; but the problem: that this frightful evil can and does arise from an apparently good root, the desire to benefit the world and others* — speedily and according to the benefactor’s own plans — is a recurrent motive.”
“*Not in the Beginner of Evil: his was a sub-creative Fall, and hence the Elves (the representatives of sub-creation par excellence) were peculiarly his enemies, and the special object of his desire and hate — and open to his deceits. Their Fall is into possessiveness and (to a less degree) into a perversin of their art to power.”
(Tolkien, “Letters”, Letter 131)
In a draft of a letter written to Naomi Mitcheson (though this part was not actually sent to her), Tolkien elaborated on the distinctions between “mortal” and “Elvish” perceptions of magic:
“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, 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-philosophic disquisition! I do not intend to involve myself in any debate whether ‘magic’ in any sense is real of really possible in the world. But I suppose that, for the purposes of the tale, some would say that there is a latent distinction such as once was called the distinction between magia and goeteia. Galadriel speaks of the ‘deceits of the Enemy’. Well enough, but magia chould be, was, held good (per se), and goeteia bad. 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 supremely bad motive is (for this tale, since it is specially about it) domination of other ‘free’ wills. The Enemy’s operations are by no means all goetic deceits, but ‘magic’ that produces real effects in the physical world. But his magia he uses to bulldoze both people and things, and his goeteia to terrify and subjugate. Their magia the Elves and Gandalf use (sparingly): a magia, producing real results (like fire in a wet faggot) for specific beneficent purposes. Their goetic effects are entirely artistic and not intended to deceive: they never deceive Elves (but may deceive or bewilder unaware Men) since the difference is to them as clear as the difference to us between fiction, painting, and sculpture, and ‘life’.
“Both sides live mainly by ‘ordinary’ means. The Enemy, or those who have become like him, go in for ‘machinery’ — with destructive and evil effects — because ‘magicians’, who have become chiefly concerned to use magia for their own power, would do so (do do so). The basic motive for magia — quite apart from any philosophic consideration of how it would work — is immediacy: speed, reduction of labour, and reduction also to a minimum (or vanishing point) of the gap between the idea or desire and the result or effect. But the magia may not be easy to come by, and at any rate if you have command of abundant slave-labour or machinery (often only the same thing concealed), it may be as quick or quick enough to push mountains over, wreck forests, or buuld pyramids by such means. Of course another factor then comes in, a moral or pathological one: the tyrants lose sight of objects, become cruel, and like smashing, hurting, and defiling as such. It would no doubt be possible to defend poor Lotho’s introduction of more efficient mills, but not of Sharkey and Sandyman’s use of them.
“Anyway, a difference in the use of ‘magic’ in this story is that it is not to be come by by ‘lore’ or spells; but is in an inherent power not possessed or attainable by Men as such. Aragorn’s ‘healing’ might be regarded as ‘magical’, or at least a blend of magic with pharmacy and ‘hypnotic’ processes. But it is (in theory) reported by hobbits who have very little notions of philosophy and science; while A. is not a pure ‘Man’, but at long remove one of the ‘children of Luthien’.”
(Ibid., Letter 155)
Tolkien borrows the words “magia” and “goeteia” in an attempt to distinguish between forms of magic, but he complicates the matter. He further stumbles when he says that “magic” cannot be practiced by Men — he notes to himself that the Numenoreans indeed used spells on their swords. His examination of the powers in Middle-earth has failed to take note of this fact.
Nonetheless Tolkien distinguishes magia from goeteia by suggesting the former constitutes those actions which produce effects, such as Gandalf’s spell used to ignite flames in a wet faggot of wood on the mountain Caradhras. The game of smoke-rings played by Gandalf and Thorin would also be considered magia (Tolkien, “Hobbit”, p.21). Goeteia must therefore represent the creation of magical items, such as the lamps used by the Elves which give light without the benefit of flame; the magical harps of the Dwarves in Erebor; the enchanted West-gate of Moria which opens when the Sindarin word for “friend” is spoken; and so on.
The goetic magic is the artistic side of sub-creation: Art when the motive is to enhance, preserve, or heal; Sorcery when its motive is to dominate, control, or destroy. The Elves were capable of utilizing their abilities in both directions, but more often preferred Art to Sorcery. Sorcery might be useful as in Finrod’s confrontation with Sauron on the isle of Tol Sirion during the First Age. It might also be the natural expression of the Elvish will as in F anor’s chaotic pursuit of Melkor. It was never beyond the reach of the Elves, but seldom within their arsenal of preferences.
And yet sorcery is practiced by Men throughout Middle-earth: the nine Men who accepted Rings of Power from Sauron (only three of whom were Numenoreans) “became mighty in their day, kings, sorcerors, and warriors of old” before they finally succumbed to the Rings and faded; the hill-men who seized control of Rhudaur (or the evil Men the Witch-king sent to replace them) appear to have practiced sorcery; and the Mouth of Sauron was a sorceror (although he was a Numenorean).
The sorcery of Men must be diverse. Tolkien speaks of Men attempting to communicate with Elvish spirits. When the Elves faded their bodies vanished. Those who were so enamored of Middle-earth they would rather fade than sail over Sea were likely to become “haunts”, spirits dwelling in or near a favorite place. If discovered by Men they might respond to certain sorcerous stimuli, but they were perilous for Men to deal with. The spirits might seek to occupy the bodies of the Men and eject the native spirits, which were weaker by nature or youthfulness. Such acts might not be so much derived of malice as of desperation. Elves were as desperate to live in Middle-earth as Men, but they like Men had a doom which limited their time in Biological Life.
Other sorceries Men might practice included the control of animals. Beruthiel, wife of Tarannon Falastur, was originally a Black Numenorean princess. She learned the arts of sorcery from her people and practiced them in Gondor. Her cats were legendary for their devotion to their mistress and her uses of them to spy upon the people of the realm. Tarannon lived in a great house by the Sea at Pelargir, but Beruthiel preferred to live in a house on the great bridge of Osgiliath. She filled the garden with twisted and mis-shapen trees and plants, and she so terrorized the Dunedain that Tarannon was eventually forced to remove her forcibly and send her into exile. She was last seen sailing alone on a ship southwards past Umbar, accompanied only by her cats, one at the prow and one at the stern.
If magic in some form is available to Men, it is no less available to Dwarves, the adopted Children of Il*vatar. They, too, are Incarnates — spirits dwelling in living bodies, ultimately sent by Il*vatar. Like the Elves the Dwarves are bound within E and must remain in Arda until the End. Like the Men their bodies weaken, grow old, and die naturally. The Dwarves are a curious blend of the Elvish and Human traits of the Children, but they have their own ideas about their place in E and Il*vatar’s plans. Like Men the Dwarves use spells but they seem to practice a sub-creational faculty similar to that of the Elves.
What does Tolkien mean by “sub-creation”? He applies it to the natural means by which the Ainur and Elves achieve their Artistic ends. It is through sub-creation that that Ainur bring to completion or near completion the shape and form of the World. Through sub-creation the Ainur bring forth the Kelvar and Olvar. Through sub-creation the Elves devise the Silmarils, the Rings of Power, and all the “magical” things of their society. Through sub-creation the Dwarves produce their magical doors, lamps, and armor.
The sub-creative process is not described as anything other than Art. But Tolkien invokes the motif of song throughout his works. The Ainur sing their great themes and from these Il*vatar devises Ea. In the myth of the Two Trees, after the Valar have withdrawn before Melkor’s onslought to the Uttermost West, Yavanna sings before the mound Ezellohar, causing the Trees to form as seeds, take root, and grow. In his contest of power with Sauron, the Elven-king Finrod Felagund sings songs of wizardry and sorcery, and Sauron sings in reply. Luthien, while trapped in the Hirilorn by her father, sings to make her hair grow long enough for her to weave an enchanted cloak of darkness from it. The Dwarves sing in their smithies as they create their great artifacts. Aragorn sings or chants softly over the Morgul-blade he finds on Weathertop, as he prepares to engage in what healing he can attempt on behalf of the grievously wounded Frodo.
Tom Bombadil sings all the time, and he uses song to deal with Old Man Willow and the Barrow-wight:
“Setting down his lillies carefully on the grass, he ran to the tree. There he saw Merry’s feet sticking out — the rest had already been drawn further inside. Tom put his mouth to the crack and began singing into it in a low voice. They could not catch the words but evidently Merry was aroused. His legs began to kick. Tom sprang away, and breaking off a hanging branch smote the side of the willow with it. ‘You let them out again, Old Man Willow!’ he said. ‘What be you a-thinking of? You should not be waking. Eat earth! Dig deep! Drink water! Go to sleep! Bombadil is talking!’ He then seized Merry’s feet and drew him out of the suddenly widening crack.”
(Tolkien, “Fellowship”, p. 131)
“Get out, you old Wight! Vanish in the sunlight!
Shrivel like the cold mist, like the winds go wailing,
Out into the barren lands far beyond the mountains!
Come never here again! Leave your barrow empty!
Lost and forgotten be, darker than the darkness,
Where gates stand for ever shut, till the world is mended.”
(Ibid., pp. 153-4)
To summon him in their need, Bombadil teaches the Hobbits to sing a song:
“Ho! Tom Bombadil, Tom Bombadillo!
By water, wood and hill, by the reed and willow,
By fire, sun and moon, harken now and hear us!
Come, Tom Bombadil, for our need is near us!”
Tolkien tells us that “Hobbits have never, in fact, studied magic of any kind” and that “there is little or no magic about them, except the ordinary everyday sort which helps them to disappear quietlyand quickly when large stupid folk like you and me come blundering along”. But he doesn’t say they cannot use magic — they simply don’t wish to. Bombadil’s song shows us that Hobbits can indeed call upon a greater power for help. The magic may be Bombadil’s, but it is Frodo who sings the song of summoning.
Song permeates the accounts of Middle-earth’s “magic”. It is not a part of every scene (”The Mirror of Galadriel” is conspicuous by the absence of singing in Galadriel’s encounter with Sam and Frodo in her garden). But then, it may be that magic is more subtly invoked if an external source of power is used. Galadriel’s mirror consists of water drawn from a nearby spring and poured into a silver basin. Tolkien noted that water and silver were not very tainted with Morgoth’s power, but Ulmo is the Lord of Waters and he was the source of many dreams and visions for Men and Elves. Could it be that Galadriel was drawing upon the power of Ulmo to work her magical mirror?
The relationship of the Elves with the Valar should be closely examined. The Vanyar, Noldor, and Teleri of Alqualonde (the Light-elves, Deep-elves, and Sea-elves of THE HOBBIT) passed over Sea to live with the Valar and learn from them. Those Elves who had lived in the Blessed Realm, Gandalf told Frodo, possessed great power against both the Seen and the Unseen, and lived at once in both worlds. The Seen (the visible World, of which the Kelvar, Olvar, and the physical bodies of Ainur, Elves, Men, and Dwarves are a part) and the Unseen (the invisible World, of which only the spirits of the living beings are part, and not things like the Kelvar and Olvar) are two sides of the same coin. But it requires different magic or power to deal with either of them.
Among the practices of the Eldar we find the singing of hymns to Elbereth, Varda, highest Queen among the Valar, spouse of Manwe the Elder King, Ruler of Arda. Although the hymns are mostly reverential, their influence on other people may be considerable.
Aiya E rendil Elenion Ancalima! Frodo cries when he brings out the phial of Galadriel in the lair of Shelob. By some power he cannot fathom the bright phial, which contains light captured from the Star of E rendil, the last of the Silmarils, protects Frodo and Sam against Shelob. She hovers fearfully in the dark.
When Sam is struggling to win past the Watchers of Cirith Ungol, he draws out the phial and holds it up, and for a moment the mysterious spirits give way before him. On leaving the fortress Sam and Frodo are confounded by the Watchers again, and Sam cries out, Gilthoniel! A Elbereth! In turn Frodo speaks, Aiya elenion ancalima! And with that “the will of the Watchers was broken with a suddenness like the snapping of a cord”. Did the name of Elbereth bring down her sudden awareness, strengthening the potency of the phial? Or was it enough that Frodo spoke the same words which had come to him unbidden in the lair of Shelob?
The invocation of the Valar should not be lightly disregarded. Perhaps it is nothing more than due reverence, a sign of respect. When he crowns Aragorn Gandalf says, “Now come the days of the King, and may they be blessed while the thrones of the Valar endure!” Aragorn’s days must seem blessed indeed: Arnor and Gondor are restored to greatness, and he succeeds in the wars which follow the War of the Ring (or at least is not slain in them), and in due time he gladly gives up his life without reluctance or the stain of the fear of death which had troubled so many of his forebears.
And yet, when the Nazgul, servants of Sauron, Ringwraiths, attack Aragorn, Frodo, and their companions on Weathertop, Frodo lunges out at the Lord of the Nazgul as the Ringwraith seeks to strike him with a deadly Morgul-blade. Frodo cries out, O Elbereth! Gilthoniel! A shrill cry is heard in the night. When all is over and the Nazgul have withdrawn Aragorn finds that Frodo’s sword has only cut the Lord of the Nazgul’s cloak. “More deadly to him was the name of Elbereth”, Aragorn tells the Hobbit. Did the name of Elbereth cause the Nazgul to cry out? When Frodo utters the name of Elbereth again at the Ford of Bruinen it has no apparent effect. But here he has nearly faded due to the Morgul-wound he has received, and his will and strength are greatly diminished. Frodo is on the border of the wraiths’ own world, the Unseen world. Nor is he wearing the One Ring as at Weathertop. It may be that Elbereth’s name indeed could hurt the Nazgul under the right circumstances. As he journeys Frodo becomes stronger of will, greater than he had been before, and Sam perceives him with other vision as a shining figure robed in white. There may be considerable benefit to wearing the One Ring, even for a Hobbit, when calling on great powers, despite the peril of succumbing to the Ring’s evil nature.
The Valar did not wholly abandon Middle-earth after the First Age. They sent the Istari, the Wizards, to counsel Men and Elves and aid them to resist Sauron. When Saruman was slain his spirit rose above his body as a fine mist, and appeared to look toward the West, but a wind blew it away to the East. One gets the impression that Manwe was paying attention to events in Middle-earth all the time, unwilling to take direct action, yet refusing to abandon the Free Peoples to the evils unleashed by his own people, the Ainur. When the Rohirrim were poised to swoop down upon the Pelennor fields, and as Aragorn was leading the captured fleet of the Corsairs up the river Anduin, a strong wind began blowing out of the west, pushing back the immense cloud Sauron had sent to cover Gondor and Rohan. If Manwe could have pressed back the darkness at any time, he must have waited until the forces of the West were in a position to drive back Sauron’s army. The Corsairs had already been defeated, and Saruman was no longer a threat to Rohan — the Battle of the Pelennor Fields was a turning point in the War of the Ring.
During the Battle of the Pelennor Fields two forms of magic clash when Merry strikes the Lord of the Nazgul from behind with the blade Tom Bombadil gave him. Bombadil, when he rescued Merry and his companions from the Barrow-wight, took the Wight’s treasure and piled it outside the mound where it had lain for so long. He took from it four knives which had been fashioned by the Dunedain of Cardolan many centuries before. Even at first sight, “the blades seemed untouched by time, unrusted, sharp, glittering in the sun.”
The weapons are clearly special, and later on Aragorn says of Merry and Pippin’s blades that the Orcs who took the Hobbits recognized them as “work of Westernesse, wound about with spells for the bane of Mordor.” With his blade Merry struck out blindly at the Lord of the Nazgul as the latter stood before Eowyn of Rohan. “No other blade,” Tolkien writes, “not though mightier hands had wielded it, would have dealt that foe a wound so bitter, cleaving the undeed flesh, breaking the spell that knit his unseen sinews to his will.”
Numenorean spell against Sauronian magic. For thousands of years the Lord of the Nazgul had served Sauron faithfully. He could, when his master was strong (and perhaps at other times), “take shape” and walk among the living again, wielding Morgul-blade and mace, riding horses, commanding armies. How can a wraith take shape? The nature of the “spell that knit his unseen sinews to his will” is not explained, but Gandalf explains to Frodo in Rivendell that “the black robes are real robes that [the Nazgul] wear to give shape to their nothingness when they have dealings with the living.”
It is not enough that Merry strike the robe of the Nazgul. After the encounter on Weathertop Aragorn finds a piece of tattered robe which Frodo’s blade had cut from the Lord of the Nazgul’s attire. “All blades perish that pierce that dreadful King” he tells the Hobbits. Frodo’s sword is still whole and usable. His stroke had missed the wraith. The robes may be magical artifacts, or they may simply be robes, used as ingrediants in some spell which gives the Nazgul the ability to move among the living. Shorn of their robes they must “return as best they could to their Master in Mordor, empty and shapeless” Gandalf concludes soon after the Nazgul have been defeated at the Ford of Bruinen. If the robes give them shape, they do not “knit [their] unseen sinews to [the Nazguls'] will”. The unseen sinews are the sinews of a wraith, but a wraith unnaturally retained in Middle-earth by some power. When they die, Men must leave the world. Their spirits must go elsewhere. Sauron has contravened this natural principle by imprisoning the Nazgul’s spirits in the world, and yet they act and function as independent beings still. They are slaves to his will, but their own wills remain intact, merely subverted to Sauron’s purposes but not replaced by his own.
So the spell that Merry’s blade breaks is the spell of Sauron’s devising, the power of the Nazgul’s Ring. In that much the Numenorean lore achieved a great deal against the power of the perverted Elven Rings. And yet the Lord of the Nazgul’s spirit does not leave Middle-earth immediately when it is defeated. Upon Eowyn’s mortal stroke the Lord of the Nazgul rises up into the air and his spirit flies wailing to Mordor, passing over Sam and Frodo on its way, no doubt, to its Master in the Barad-dur. A weak and impotent spirit, the Lord of the Nazgul no longer serves any useful purpose for Sauron, but it remains subject to his power nonetheless until that power is destroyed with the One Ring.
The Rings of Power are indeed the greatest magical artifacts made in Middle-earth. Sauron teaches the Elves of Eregion priniciples of sub-creation they have not yet learned, and one must wonder if these would not therefore be “forbidden arts”. Why did the Valar and Maiar not share this knowledge with the Elves in Aman? A key ingredient in the power of the Rings is the Morgothian element diffused throughout Arda, and especially that portion of the element which exists in gold. With these Rings the Elves hoped for “understanding, making, and healing” according to Elrond as he addresses his Council. Of the Three, Tolkien writes “those who had them in their keeping could ward off the decays of time and postpone the weariness of the world.” And “after the fall of Sauron [at the end of the Second Age] their power was ever at work, and where they abode there mirth also dwelt, and all things were unstained by the griefs of time.”
Tolkien explained the powers of the Rings more fully when writing to the publisher Milton Waldman:
“The chief power (of all the rings alike) was the prevention or slowing of decay (i.e., ‘change’ viewed as a regrettable thing), the preservation of what is desired or loved, or its semblance — this is more or less an Elvish motive. But also they enhanced the natural powers of a possessor — thus approaching ‘magic’, a motive more easily corruptible into evil, a lust for domination. And finally they had other powers, more directly derived from Sauron (’the Necromancer’: so he is called as he casts a fleeting shadow and presage on the pages of THE HOBBIT): such as rendering invisible the material body, and making things of the invisible world visible.
“The Elves of Eregion made Three supremely beautiful and powerful rings, almost solely of their own imagination, and directed to the preservation of beauty: they did not confer invisibility. But secretly in the subterranean Fire, in his own Black Land, Sauron made One Ring, the Ruling Ring that contained the powers of all the others, and controlled them, so that its wearer could see the thoughts of all those that used the lesser rings, could govern all that they did, and in the end could utterly enslave them. He reckoned, however, without the wisdom and subtle perceptions of the Elves. The moment he assumed the One, they were aware of it, and of his secret purpose, and were afraid. They hid the Three Rings, so that not even Sauron ever discovered where they were and they remained unsullied. The others they tried to destroy.”
(Tolkien, “Letters”, Letter 131)
According to “Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age”, “Sauron gathered into his hands all the remaining Rings of Power; and he dealt them out to the other peoples of Middle-earth, hoping thus to bring under his sway all those that desired secret power beyond their measure of their kind….And all those Rings that he governed he perverted, the more easily since he had a part in their making, and they were accursed….” (Tolkien, “Silmarillion”, p. 288)
Sauron’s motives are in some ways only a perversion of the Elves’. In Letter 131 Tolkien says “the Three Rings of the Elves, wielded by secret guardians, are operative in preserving the memory of the beauty of old, maintaining enchanted enclaves of peace where Time seems to stand still and decay is restrained, a semblance of the bliss of the True West.” The Elves, Tolkien says in Letter 154, “wanted to have their cake and eat it: to live in the mortal historical Middle-earth because they had become fond of it (and perhaps because they there had the advantages of a superior caste), and to so tried to stop its change and history, stop its growth, keep it as a pleasuance, even largely a desert, where they could be ‘artists’ — and they were overburdened with sadness and nostalgic regret.”
In Letter 181 Tolkien notes that “[the Elves] fell in a measure to Sauron’s deceits: they desired some ‘power’ over things as they are (which is quite distinct from art), to make their particular will to preservation effective: to arrest change, and keep things always fresh and fair.” And in Letter 144 he says “Though unsullied, because they were not made by Sauron nor touched by him, [the Three] were nonetheless partly products of his instruction, and ultimately under the control of the One. Thus…when the One goes, the last defenders of High-elven lore and beauty are shorn of power to hold back time, and depart.”
The magnitude of the Elvish achievement, and their arrogance, is thus quite immense. As the World itself is measured by Time and Space, the Elves hoped “to hold back time”, to “stop [Middle-earth's] change and history, stop its growth”, merely so that they could be “artists”, practicing their magics, revelling in the beauty of their youth and the youth of the world which had given birth to them. Could Celebrimbor alone have brought about this effect? Undoubtedly not. He was utilizing the knowledge Sauron had given him, and though only Celebrimbor forged the Three Rings, what were the Gwaith-i-Mirdain doing as he worked? They may indeed have gathered around him, singing and shedding of themselves such of their strength and power as they could spare.
The defeat of Eregion in war may not have been due simply to the overwhelming forces Sauron brought against the Elves. The Elves had beaten superior forces in the past. Sauron’s forces went up against more than just Eregion, as well: he attacked other Elven land in the east, and the Edainic peoples of Rhovanion and the Vales of Anduin. An entire civilization east of the Misty Mountains was destroyed and the lands of Eriador laid waste. The Elvenfolk of Eregion may have been drained of much strength, for their power outlived them and continued to work through the Three (and even through the Seven and the Nine, which they helped make). The Elves had found a way to contravene the natural order of the World. They worked a most potent magic indeed.
In the original material on languages which Tolkien composed for the Appendices to The Lord of the Rings, he included the following paragraph:
“$12 Moreover, those were the days of the Three Rings. Now, as is elsewhere told, these rings were hidden, and the Eldar did not use them for the making of any new thing while Sauron still wore the Ruling Ring; yet their chief virtue was ever secretly at work, and that virture was to defend the Eldar who abode in Middle-earth [added: and all things pertaining to them] from change and withering and weariness. So it was that in all the long time from the forging of the Rings to their ending, when the Third Age was over, the Eldar even upon Middle-earth changed no more in a thousand years than do Men in ten; and their language likewise.”
(Tolkien, “Peoples”, p. 33)
The holding back of Time thus worked even while the Rings were not worn by the Elves, and as the Seven and the Nine were made with similar goals they, too, must have had an effect on Time wherever they were kept. But the Three were immensely more powerful than the other Rings, and Celebrimbor valued the Three so highly that he died rather than reveal their locations to Sauron, though under great torment he gave up knowledge of the Seven.
Yet great though the power of the Elven Rings must be, that power had its limits. The effects seem to have been localized rather than completely diffused throughout Middle-earth. Perhaps if the Elves had been able to retain (and use) all the Great Rings they would have accomplished their goal on a broader scale. But in the Third Age we find evidence that the full effects of the Rings were felt in only two places: Rivendell and Lorien. When Bilbo and Frodo are speaking in Rivendell, Frodo asks Bilbo how long it will be before Frodo must leave on the Quest of Mount Doom. “Oh, I don’t know. I can’t count days in Rivdendell,” Bilbo tells him. Months later, after the Fellowship has departed from Lorien and been on the Anduin for some days, Sam becomes confused:
Sam sat tapping the hilt of his sword as if he were counting on his fingers, and looking up at the sky. ‘It’s very strange,’ he murmured. ‘The Moon’s the same in the Shire and in Wilderland, or it ought to be. But either’s out of its running, or I’m all wrong in my reckoning. You’ll remember, Mr. Frodo, the Moon was waning as we lay on the flet up in that tree: a week from the full, I reckon. And we’d been a week on the way last night, when up pops a New Moon as thing as a nail-paring, as if we had never stayed no time in the Elvish country.
‘Well, I can remember three nights there for certain, and I seem to remember several more, but I would take my oath it was never a whole month. Anyone would think that time did not count there!’
‘And perhaps that was the way of it,’ said Frodo. ‘In that land, maybe, we were in a time that has elsewhere long gone by. It was not, I think, until Silverlode bore us back to Anduin that we returned to the time that flows through mortal lands to the Great Sea. And I don’t remember any moon, either new or old, in Caras Galadon: only stars by night and sun by day.’
Legolas stirred in his boat. ‘Nay, time does not tarry every,’ he said, ‘but change and growth is not in all things and places alike. For the Elves the world moves, and it moves both very swift and very slow. Swift, because they themselves change little, and all else fleets by: it is a grief to them. Slow, because they do not count the running years, not for themselves. The passing seasons are but ripples ever repeated in the long long stream. Yet beneath the Sun all things must wear to an end at last.’
‘But the wearing is slow in Lorien,’ said Frodo. ‘The power of the Lady is on it. Rich are the hours, though short they seem, in Caras Galadon, where Galadriel wields the Elven-ring.’
‘That should not have been said outside Lorien, not even to me,’ said Aragorn. ‘Speak no more of it! But so it is, Sam: in that land you lost your count. There time flowed swiftly by us, as for the Elves. The old moon passed, and a new moon waxed and waned in the world outside, while we tarried there. And yestereve a new moon came again. Winter is nearly gone. Time flows on to a spring of little hope.’
(Tolkien, “Fellowship”, pp. 404-5)
Although Legolas here seems to disagree with Frodo’s assessment, he notes that “change and growth is not in all things and places alike.” Is Legolas perhaps dissimilating a little to protect an Elvish secret? Or is it simply that, being from Thranduil’s realm in northern Mirkwood, Legolas has too seldom experienced the power of the Three Rings in close proximity to recognize their effects? Aragorn confirms Frodo’s deduction: “There time flowed swiftly by us, as for the Elves.” The difference was more noticeable to Mortals than to Legolas.
The Rings of Power are the greatest artifacts of magic in all Tolkien’s works. Even the holy Silmarils made by F anor, though far more ancient and long-lasting than the Rings, do not actively work upon their environment. They preserve the light of the Two Trees and do not tolerate the touch of any evil creature. By the power of a Silmaril E rendil sailed through the Shadowy Seas and past the Enchanted Isles and so reached the shores of Aman despite the considerable power of the Valar. But F anor did not seek to pervert the natural order of the World. He merely sought to bring into being a new Beauty, and though his pride and arrogance caused him to withhold that Beauty from all others, it was not wholly his own creation (or, sub-creation). Varda hallowed the Silmarils, and without that special Ainurian blessing they would have been less than they became. They might not have been the key to the resolution of the great and terrible war which was fought over them.
The power of the Silmarils was further increased by the Curse of Mandos, and when Thingol named a Silmaril as the price for his daughter’s hand, he embroiled himself in the Doom woven about the jewels with that power, and so brought down his realm and all his people. Melian foresaw that Thingol’s quest would bring down the Doom on himself and his people, and she had not the power to forestall it. Doriath’s fate was sealed as soon as Thingol named the Silmaril as the price for Luthien.
In the end Luthien herself forsook Doriath and aided Beren in his quest. She searched long and far for him, and found him trapped on the isle of Tol Sirion, where Sauron (then but a servant of Morgoth) had taken the Elven fortress of Minas Tirith. Finrod Felagund and Beren lay imprisoned in the dungeons when Luthien and the Valorinorean hound Huan came to the gate of Minas Tirith. As Luthien sang in her grief and hope to be reunited with Beren Sauron sent werewolf after werewolf to take her, and Huan slew them all until Draugluin, the last and most ancient, crept back mortally wounded to gasp at Sauron’s feet, “Huan is here!”
Sauron took shape as a great wolf, hoping to bring about the doom long foretold for Huan. But he was himself defeated, and yielded up mastery of the island and the fortress to Luthien before he fled to Taur-nu-Fuin in Dorthonion:
‘O demon dark, O phantom vile
of foulness wrought, of lies and guile,
here shalt thou die, thy spirit roam
quaking back to thy master’s home
his scorn and fury to endure;
thee he will in the bowels immure
of groaning earth, and in a hole
everlastingly thy naked soul
shall wail and quiver — this shall be,
unless the keys thou render me
of thy black fotress, and the spell
that bindeth stone to stone thou tell,
and speak the words of opening.’
With gasping breath and shuddering
he spake, and yielded as he must,
and vanquished betrayed his master’s trust.
Lo! By the bridge a gleam of light,
like stars descended from the night
to burn and tremble here below.
There wide her arms did Luthien throw,
and called aloud with voice as clear
as still at whiles may mortal hear
long elvish trumpets o’er the hill
echo, when all the world is still.
The dawn peered over mountains wan,
their grey heads silent looked thereon.
The hill trembled; the citadel
crumbled, and all its towers fell;
the rocks yaned and the bridge broke,
and Sirion spumed in sudden smoke.
(Tolkien, “Lays”, pp. 253-4, lines 2774-2803)
The power of Luthien was considerable. She was in every way an Elven enchantress, and the most powerful Elven enchantress of all time:
Now Luthien doth her counsel shape;
and Melian’s daughter of deep lore
knew many things, yea, magics more
than then or now know elven-maids
that glint and shimmer in the glades.
(Ibid., p. 204, lines 1425-9)
While scheming to escape the prison where her father has placed her, Luthien called upon her friend, Daeron the Minstrel, to make a loom for her.
This [Daeron] did and asked her then:
‘O Luthien, O Luthien,
What wilt thou weave? What wilt thou spin?’
‘A marvellous thread, and wind therein
a potent magic, and a spell
I will weave within my web that hell
nor all the powers of Dread shall break.’
Then [Daeron] wondered, but he spake
no word to Thingol, though his heart
feared the dark purpose of her art.
And Luthien now was left alone. A magic song to Men unknown
she sang, and singing then the wine
with water mingled three times nine;
and as in golden jar they lay
she sang a song of growth and day;
and as they lay in silver white
another song she sang, of night
and darkness without end, of height
uplifted to the stars, and flight
and freedom. And all names of things
tallest and longest on earth she sings:
the locks of the Longbeard dwarves; the tail
of Draugluin the werewolf pale;
the body of [Glaurung] the great snake;
the vast upsoaring peaks that quake
above the fires in Angband’s gloom;
the chain Angainor that ere Doom
for Morgoth shall by Gods be wrought
of steel and torment. Names she sought,
and sang of Glend the sword of Nan;
of Gilim the giant of Eruman;
and last and longest named she then
the endless hair of Uinen,
the Lady of the Sea, that lies
through all the waters under skies.
Then did she lave her head and sing
a theme of sleep and slumbering,
profound and fathomless and dark
as Luthien’s shadowy hair was dark –
each thread was more slender and more fine
than threads of twilight that entwine
in filmy web the fading grass
and closing flowers as day doth pass.
Now long and longer grew her hair,
and fell to her feet, and wandered there
like pools of shadow on the ground.
Then Luthien in a slumber drowned
was laid upon her bed and slept,
till morning through the windows crept
thinly and faint….
(Ibid., pp. 205-6, lines 1466-1516)
Luthien’s magic so drained her that she had to sleep after causing her hair to grow. In the morning she took the hair and wove it into a cloak of shadow which enabled her to escape from Doriath. She spent three days working at the loom, having cut her hair close to her ears. And the “Lay” says that her hair when it grew back was ever after darker than it had been before the spell.
In Angband Luthien once more put forth her power, unmasked by Morgoth and faced all around by his minions:
With arms upraised and drooping head
then softly she began to sing
a theme of sleep and slumbering,
wandering, woven with deeper spell
than songs wherewith in ancient dell
Melian did once the twilight fill,
profound, and fathomless, and still.
The fires of Angband flared and died,
smouldered into darkness; through the wide
and hollow walls there rolled and unfurled
the shadows of the underworld.
All movement stayed, and all sound ceased,
save vaporous breath of Orc and beast.
One fire in darkness still abode:
the lidless eyes of Morgoth glowed;
one sound the breathing silence broke:
the mirthless voice of Morgoth spoke.
(Ibid., p. 298, lines 3977-93)
Great though he was, even Morgoth eventually succumbed to Luthien’s spell. Here a rare element is brought into the enchantment: Luthien dances upon the wing for Morgoth and his horde. She flies around the caverns of Angband, draping her magic cloak across their eyes, and one by one they drop off to sleep. Her song was not enough, she had to strengthen it with the dancing “such as never elf nor fay before devised, nor since that day”.
As previously cited, in Letter 155 Tolkien attempts to distinguish between the abilities of Men and Elves, and thinking of Aragorn he raises the issue of Aragorn’s descent from Luthien:
Anyway, a difference in the use of ‘magic’ in this story is that it is not to be come by by ‘lore’ or spells; but is in an inherent power not possessed or attainable by Men as such. Aragorn’s ‘healing’ might be regarded as ‘magical’, or at least a blend of magic with pharmacy and ‘hypnotic’ processes. But it is (in theory) reported by hobbits who have very little notions of philosophy and science; while A. is not a pure ‘Man’, but at long remove one of the ‘children of Luthien’.
(Tolkien, “Letters”, Letter 155)
Perhaps, but in the margin next to this paragraph Tolkien then wrote: “But the Numenoreans used ’spells’ in making swords?” Indeed, they seem to have done so. Perhaps the smith who made the Barrow blades was a descendant of Luthien as well — Tolkien never returns to the subject. But he has struck down with that one thought the entire argument that Men cannot use magic. In fact, Tolkien says:
Beorn is dead; see vol. I p. 241. He appeared in THE HOBBIT. It was then the year Third Age 2940 (Shire-reckoning 1340). We are now in the years 3018-19 (1418-19). Though a skin-changer and no doubt a bit of a magician, Beorn was a Man.
(Ibid., Letter 144)
Luthien practiced skin-changing: she assumed the bat-hame of Thuringwethil when she and Beren went to Angband. And she was certainly a female magician of great power. But it is highly unlikely that Beorn was a descendant of Luthien’s, though he is thought by Gandalf to be descended of a race of Men who lived in the Misty Mountains. Could those Men have mingled with the Dunedain of Eriador? Perhaps, but not likely. Beorn’s magic seems to have been shamanistic in some ways. He dealt with animals and had a kinship with them unlike any other Man:
Inside the hall it was now quite dark. Beorn clapped his hands, and in trotted four beautiful white ponies and several large long-bodied grey dogs. Beorn said something to them in a queer language like animal noises turned into talk. They went out again and soon came back carrying torches in their mouths, which they lit at the fire and stuck in low brackets on the pillars of the hall about the central hearth. The dogs could stand on their hind-legs when they wished, and carry things with their fore-feet. Quickly they got out boards and trestles from the side walls and set them up near the fire.
(Tolkien, “Hobbit”, pp. 135-6)
These are remarkable creatures, but undoubtedly Beorn has something to do with their abilities, though whether his speaking to them “in a queer language like animal noises turned into talk” could be a spell is debatable. At night Bilbo hears a scraping and shuffling sound outside Beorn’s house, and the second night he is there the Hobbit dreams of bears dancing in the courtyard before he wakes up and hears the noise again. The dancing may be a sign of Beorn’s magic, though he produces no great artifacts like the Elves.
Magical Elvish artifacts are not all great and powerful things. There are the Palantiri, the Stones of Far-seeing, the Silmarili, and the Rings of Power. But the Elves seem to make many other things of lesser power: there are the swords of the Noldor which glow when near evil creatures such as Orcs, and the swords of Eol which seem to wield great power; there are the gold and silver lamps the Elves use that never seem to dim or require fuel. The ropes and boats given to the Fellowship of the Ring seem magical in various ways, for they enable the Company to accomplish tasks that otherwise would be impossible, and one boat even survives the dreaded Falls of Rauros, preserving the body of Boromir. And the grey cloaks the Elves of Lorien give to the Fellowship clearly have a magical ability in the eyes of Mortals: they nearly render the wearers invisible to Mortal eyes, at least.
‘Are these magic cloaks?’ asked Pippin, looking at them in wonder.
‘I do not know what you mean by that,’ answered the leader of the Elves. ‘They are fair garments, and the web is good, for it was made in this land. They are elvish robes certainly, if that is what you mean. Leaf and branch, water and stone: they have the hue and beauty of all these things under the twilight of Lorien that we love; for we put the thought of all that we love into what we make. Yet they are garments, not armour, and they will not turn shaft or blade. But they should serve you well: they are light to wear, and warm enough or cool enough at need. And you will find them a great aid in keeping out of the sight of unfriendly eyes, whether you walk among the stones or the trees. You are indeed high in the favour of the Lady! For she herself and her maidens wove this stuff; and never before have we clad strangers in the garb of our own people.’
(Tolkien, “Fellowship”, p. 386)
By merely putting the thought of all that they love into what they make, the Elves are able to imbue the cloaks with “the hue and beauty of” things like “leaf and branch, water and stone”. As Luthien thought of sleep and hiding, so the cloak she wore gave her the ability to pass unseen amongst her own people, and to enchant even Morgoth into a deep, deep sleep. This was the Elvish way, to practice their “art” in all that they did.
The only other true artifact makers of Middle-earth are the Dwarves. Their motivations, however, were different from those of the Elves. They did not reach so high, nor become so arrogant as to seek to hold back time and preserve the past against the future. Dwarves seemed far more willing to accept their fate than either Elves or Men. Thus we find no attempts among Dwarves to create enchanted refuges, or to extend or preserve their lives.
Dwarves were given to more pragmatic matters. We think of them as the weapon-smiths of Middle-earth, and they were ofte