Magic in The Lord of the Rings
What Kind of Magic is There in The Lord of the Rings?
The ring that was created by Sauron is obviously a magic ring, as were the other rings of power that were created by the elves. And the elves create magical objects, like lembas bread, the cloaks given to the Fellowship that kept them hidden in plain sight, and the rope given to Samwise for their journey. And then there’s Aragorn’s ability to use the kingsfoil plant to heal Frodo because it responds differently to him, as a descendant of the Numenorian Kings, than it does to anyone else.
Those are easy to see, but there are other questions that come up:
How is the ring magic
What kind of magic is in the ring?
What kind of magic do the elves have?
What kind of magic does Sauron have?
And the biggest question:
If there is magic in Lord of the Rings, which there is, then what kind of magic is there? Or is there more than one kind of magic in Middle Earth?
I know—that’s a lot of questions! So I’m going to group them into three topics:
Magic itself in Middle Earth and Lord of the Rings in particular
The magic of the elves
The ring, magic, and Sauron
Magic in Middle Earth and Lord of the Rings
Is there magic in Lord of the Rings?
And if there is magic in Lord of the Rings, then what kind of magic is there?
If you’ve seen the movie or read the book, or have heard anything at all about “the one ring,” then you know that there is definitely magic in Lord of the Rings, and in any story taking place in Middle Earth.
Middle Earth is the world of Faerie. Tolkien talks about magic and the world of Faerie (faerie stories, fairy tales, etc.) in his speech On Fairy Tales: “Faerie is most nearly translated by magic,” because the governing principle of the world of faerie is magic.
This quote is important to keep in mind, because at this point in time there are many people in our culture who only recognize the magic that is practiced in the real world, which is always evil. The reason it’s always evil in our world is because it relies on the cooperation and power of demons. There are definitely some stories that also use demons as characters, or have demonic elements in them, but that’s not the kind of magic that Tolkien is talking about when he talks about the world of Faerie.
There is definitely evil in some of the magic in Lord of the Rings.
Sauron worships the demon Melkor, but that character isn’t present in Lord of the Rings, and that’s not the only way that Tolkien uses magic in his stories.
Most of the characters in Middle Earth who have an affiliation with magic are definitely not demons. The elves, the wizards like Gandalf and Sarumon, the Numenorians, the dwarfs, and the hobbits all have some magical abilities that human beings do not.
None of them can acquire the ability to do magic, but they can develop their abilities.
For example, hobbits have a magic for growing things. Human beings can certainly grow things too, but our ability to grow plants isn’t magical. Some of us have a real talent for growing, while others…not so much. I personally have little, if any, ability to grow plants: I have actually killed mint plants. Yes, that plural ending on “plants” is accurate.
In Lord of the Rings, Samwise Gangee is a gardener. He’s developed his ability to nurture and grow plants through learning and practice, but when Tolkien says that hobbits have a “magic” for growing things, he means that their natural ability in this goes beyond what is in the normal range for other types of beings who may have a green thumb.
But the elves, Gandalf, and Sarumon’s magic isn’t associated with gardening.
So how can they also be magic?
Is There More Than One Kind of Magic in Middle Earth?
Tolkien didn’t just mention the magic of Faerie itself. In some of his letters, he explained the two types of magic in more detail, magia and goeteia:
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.
Magic is Faerie is not demonic, nor is it inherently evil; it's an ability of some creatures who are from that world, like elves, dwarfs, and hobbits.
Magic in Middle Earth, in the forms of both magia and goeteia, is not the magic that is used in the real world. Middle Earth is the world of Faerie, which is “most nearly translated by magic,” according to Tolkien ("On Faerie Stories").
Not the magic of the alchemists, who sought to control life and death.
Not the magic of demons, the fallen angels, who use their own natural abilities to deceive us.
Not the magic of illusionists or those doing card tricks.
The magic in Middle Earth is found in stories, not real life. It’s the magic of King Arthur, Narnia, and Fairy Tales.
So where does this leave the elves, Sauron, and the Ring?
The Magic of the Elves
What kind of magic do the elves have?
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.
For elves, their magic is just a part of the type of being that they are. Their abilities in this area seem wondrous to others, like Samwise, but to elves it’s just part of being an elf. You might even compare the abilities of human beings, and the things that we can do, to the way that we’re perceived by cats and dogs. Even just holding up a mirror to either of those animals is shocking to them, in a way that it’s not shocking to human beings beyond infancy. Creating mirrors, tables, computers, etc. isn’t something that every human being does, or does well, but it’s within the natural capacity of human beings to create them.
When Samwise is fascinated with the magic of the elves, it’s because that ability is far beyond the ability of hobbits, and although both hobbits and elves are capable of magic, they are different kinds of beings. This is why their abilities and talents are so different.
The Ring, Magic, and Evil in The Lord of the Rings
What does the ring in The Lord of the Rings do, and What kind of magic does Sauron have?
Sauron wasn’t an elf, but he learned how to make THE ONE RING from the elves.
For the most part, I’m not going to compare the movie version of Lord of the Rings with the books. I think it’s better to view them as different stories, because there are so many differences that it’s better to see them that way (see this post on Disney and Fairy Tales for more on "versions" vs. different stories). But I am going to mention the way the ring itself was viewed by Peter Jackson, because it’s different from the way that Tolkien presented it in the story.
If you listen to Jackson’s commentary on the extended versions of the film, during the discussion about the power of the ring, and how it’s evil, he uses the phrase “inherently evil” to describe it. That idea affected a lot of other characters and situations in the movie version of the story—especially Faramir.
The problems is that Tolkien, as a knowledgeable Catholic writing a series that has very Thomistic ideas embedded within the storyline, would never describe a material object as “inherently evil.”
Only Actions Can Be Inherently Evil
The mere fact that something exists, means that it is good. Everything in the world was created by God, and He pronounced everything that was created to be good (Genesis 1). Nothing that exists can be inherently evil, simply because it exists.
The only things that can be inherently evil are actions, not material objects.
Evil is an absence of a good. Just the fact that the ring exists makes it good, even though it has been used for evil. So when we say the ring is evil, it’s because we know that it should be good—as it is in the rings the elves and Gandalf wear—but because it’s being used for evil, it it’s not. Since it still exists, its existence is good but the evil effect it has is due to the warping of something good, the goodness that should be in a thing created by the elves.
That matters because in the commentary, the writers and producers said that if Faramir was able to resist the ring, it would rob the ring of its power.
The problem is that they didn’t understand why Faramir, Tom Bombadil, Galadriel, Samwise, and Gandalf—no matter how tempted Gandalf and Galadriel were—were able to resist it.
It’s because they chose to resist its power, using their free will.
If it were truly inherently evil and corrupted every being that came into contact with it, then how could any of them have resisted its power? That matters, even in the movie, because the ring was only as powerful as Sauron, who was not all-powerful, was able to make it. It also doesn’t explain how Samwise was able to resist its power, if it truly corrupted everyone who came into contact with it. But Sam had no problem handing it back over to Frodo.
The One Ring: How is it Magic?
Why does Sauron need to get the ring back?
Yes, he wants to rule over Middle Earth, but why does he need the ring to do that? He still has a lot of power over others, and he still seems to be able to affect others, so he’s as powerful as the story claims that he is, then why does he need the ring?
For the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy, Sauron is just a giant glowing eyeball, and eyes can’t wear rings—not usually, and definitely not comfortably!—especially when it’s an eye that seems to be made primarily out of flames.
The reason he needs the ring is because he split his soul, and by doing so, his body was destroyed (similar to what Voldemort did in Harry Potter).
Tolkien, a Catholic, is using the Thomistic idea of the body-soul relation: the soul is the form of the body, and a human soul has an intellect and a will.
In reality, you can’t split a soul apart into pieces the way Sauron has, but Middle Earth is the world of Faerie, and in Faerie, the rules are different because this make-believe world is ruled by magic.
When Sauron split his soul and placed his will in the ring to enhance its power, his soul was divided. As long as he wore the ring, his intellect and will were still somewhat together and his body was able to keep its form. When Isildur chopped off the finger with the ring, it was no longer attached to his body. At that point, Sauron’s intellect and will were separated, and his body no longer had a form.
If Sauron got the ring back that contained his will, then his intellect and will would be united once again, and would then re-form its material body.
His will united with the magic in the ring would rule the other rings as well as the bearers of all of those rings, so they couldn’t stand against him.
That’s how he would be able to wage war and take over Middle Earth.
So the magic of the ring comes from three sources combined:
Sauron’s own magical abilities
The magic in the ring that came from the ability of the elves who then taught Sauron how to make the ring
Once Sauron and the ring were destroyed, all of the power from the ring and from Sauron was gone, but the effects they had on the world would still continue to reverberate for a time.
Of course, all of this could only happen in a world ruled by magic, the way that Faerie is, because there is no such magic in our world.
List of Posts in the Series, "Magic in Christian Fiction"
Magic in The Lord of the Rings (this post)