Kobold Press

Kobold Guide to Magic: Tolkien’s Magic

Kobold Guide to MagicThe Kobold Guide to Magic is written by a star-studded cast of designers and authors. With The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug still fresh in our minds, we bring you an excerpt about magic in J.R.R. Tolkien’s world by designer, editor and noted Tolkien scholar John D. Rateliff. Pre-order the Kobold Guide to Magic at the Kobold Store!

In [the realm of innate magic], magic is a gift; you’re either born with it or you’re not (see the world of Harry Potter, forever divided between wizards and Muggles). Someone born with a talent for magic may still need training, just as someone with a facility for languages still must learn to read and write, but the innate ability has to be there first.

The exemplar of this theory of magic is Merlin, the greatest of all magicians and wizards of legend (and the most popular, too, ever since Geoffrey of Monmouth introduced him back in 1136), who was born half human, half demon. Merlin can do magic because he is himself a magical creature. Similarly, although Thomas Malory says that Morgan le Fay “was put to school in a nunnery” where “she learned so much that she was a great clerk of necromancy” (Le Morte d’Arthur [1485], Book I, Chapter 2), this is clearly a later rationalization, as revealed by Morgan’s by-name le Fay: i.e., the Fay-woman, Elf, Faerie.

This is the tradition that Tolkien overwhelmingly favors. As he says in a draft letter from 1954,

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. (The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, p. 200; emphasis mine).

In Tolkien’s world, then, there are no wizards’ academies, no magicians’ guilds, no temples for training clerics: like religion, magic is subsumed into the fantasy world. Instead, there are many different sentient races (humans, elves, dwarves, hobbits, etc.), each of which has powers unique to it that would seem magical if used by members of any other race.

Thus Gandalf, the most iconic of modern fantasy wizards, can cast a wide array of spells because of who, or rather what, he is: a supernatural being. In Tolkien’s conception, Gandalf the Grey is nothing less than an angel incarnated into human form for a specific mission, as is Saruman (who goes bad) and Radagast (who goes native). Sauron himself is a fallen angel, a being of the same type as Gandalf and his fellow wizards but far more powerful. So too the balrog, a demon of the ancient world more dire than any dragon.

Equal in power to the wizards are the elf-lords, who combine a longevity that, Tolkien said, roughly corresponds with the inhabitability of this planet with a control over their environment impossible in any shorter-lived race. They can establish enclaves (Doriath, Lorien, Rivendell) that become enchanted realms and even control who can and cannot enter. Beyond this, even a fairly typical elf like Legolas simply transcends human limits: in lifespan, in the ability to walk on snow or go for days without sleep or rest, and in preternaturally keen senses (especially hearing and sight).

The same could be said of the other, seemingly less magical creatures. Aside from being long-lived and durable beyond human norms, dwarves excel in curses to protect their treasure against thieves, as when they “[put] a great many spells” on the treasure they have taken from the troll-lair (The Hobbit, p. 83). They also create a wide array of magical items, from the small and portable (the mithril coat) to the monumental (the magical doors to Erebor and to Moria). In keeping with Tolkien’s ideas about magic, cited above, humans are almost never shown casting spells; the major exception, Aragorn, is able to control the palantir and to use athelas to heal because of his nonhuman heritage. Even hobbits, the most unmagical creatures in the story, possess “the art of disappearing swiftly and silently,” which they have developed into a skill that to the Big People (us) “seem[s] magical” (Prologue to The Lord of the Rings, p. 13).

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The full essay is found in the Kobold Guide to Magic.

5 Replies to "Kobold Guide to Magic: Tolkien’s Magic"

James Thomas

January 13, 2014 at 6:09pm

Thanks for sharing this excerpt! Looking forward to the Kobold Guide To Magic!!

Nicolas Quimby

January 17, 2014 at 2:08pm

My impression of men in LoTR was that they were, from everyone else’s perspective, really strong and tough. But that might have just been Boromir, running straight through the neck-deep snow that Legolas pranced over. The vitality of humans was a kind of magic.

I think you’ve sold me on the book, by the way, it sounds very cool.

The Prancing Camel

January 21, 2014 at 7:41am

So what of the Witch-king? Was he not a human who learned magic? Or perhaps evil sorcery doesn’t really count as magic in Tolkien’s world?

Though I would rather have thought it was the other way around: that magic or “the machine” are interchangeable ways of applying power to physically change the world, and in Tolkien’s view not really a good thing, whereas what the Elves do is not magic at all, but rather artistry; an innate ability rather than mere artifice. At least, I have a vague recollection of Tolkien saying something like this in his essay On Fairy-Stories.

Anyway, this excerpt has definitely piqued my interest, and I look forward to reading the whole thing!

Charles Carrier

January 24, 2014 at 9:37am

@ Prancing Camel: The Witch King was once an ordinary human. He was changed when he put on one of the “Nine rings for Mortal Men”, thereby receiving a share of Sauron’s power.

By the way, that’s a great screen name! :)

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January 25, 2014 at 12:28pm

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