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Understanding Magic In J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-Earth Essay, Research Paper
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’.
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