Perception is a magic of its own sort in the natural order of our reality. It is no doubt that individual perceptions of magic influence our experience of Tolkien’s universe to varying degrees. What are these perceptions exactly? Where does the truth of all the magic lie?

Magic has the secret power of making impossible things happen by saying special words or doing special things. Magic is further defined as being a special quality possessed by an individual or thing, that appears too good to be real.(Oxford dictionary ).

Magic in Tolkien’s Mythology is outlined as being mystical, paranormal, or involving supernatural activity, and all of these appear throughout his fictional realms.

In the inquisitive exploration of the magic in Tolkien’s universe one should keep mind the combination of conscious intentions and subconscious influences of Tolkien, expressed in his writings, which is subtly revealed in the letter addressed to Milton Waldman  (publisher, 1951). The opening line of this letter leads powerfully with “You asked for a brief sketch of my stuff that is connected with my imaginary world. It is difficult to say anything without saying too much…” Tolkien goes on to elaborate in his letter that there is nothing brief about his creations, “In order of time, growth and composition, this stuff began with me…. I do not remember a time when I was not building it. Many children make up or begin to make up imaginary languages. I have been at it since I could write”.

He further expresses the extent and depth that he spent his own existence building languages, races, and imaginary worlds, which set the tone for his perfectly crafted storylines. It is evident that Tolkien was a skilled ‘magician’ (or perhaps the true Eru Ilúvatar) in his own right, gifted with abilities to create written pieces with his powerful crafting (manipulation of words and world conjuring), maintaining such fiery passion and harmony in his constructs, that it became fantasy literature, suspended into an almost timeless reality.

It also became etched in our time, since the debut of his epic tale, The Hobbit in 1937, that “J. R.R Tolkien transformed the fantasy genre forever. “However, as time moves forward, the classics become savored by those who know their worth, so to, new things come to pass allowing the flow of life with new storylines. In the latter timeline, books by many emerging fantasy authors captured the interest of fantasy audiences such as:

  • The Inheritance Cycle (Eragon, Eldest, Brisingr & Inheritance) by Christopher James Paolini,  
  • The Kingkiller Chronicle book trilogies (The Name of the Wind, The Wise Man’s Fear & The Slow Regard of Silent Things) by Patrick Rothfuss,
  • The Wheel of Time (New Spring, The Eye of the World, The Great Hunt, The Dragon Reborn, The Shadow Rising, The Fires of Heaven, Lord of Chaos, A Crown of Swords, The Path of Daggers, Winter’s Heart, Crossroads of Twilight, Knife of Dreams, The Gathering Storm, Towers of Midnight & A Memory of Light) by Robert Jordan with Brandon Sanderson as the co-author for the final three novels listed, due to Jordan’s death.

The development and growth in the fantasy genre resulted in an ocean of opinions, perspectives, and comparisons of such best-selling works to Tolkien’s literature on a multitude of media platforms. Take into account, the materialization of articles in our current decade, such as the one encompassing perspectives contained in Making  Magic , Part 1 : Defining and  Selecting Magic Systems by Moriah Richard ( Writers Digest:2020), which dominated the interest of many writers and readers. Richard states “I think that speculative fiction has branched out in new and interesting ways, and in turn, we see that fantasy no longer holds strictly to a nebulous magic structure. Not all readers are satisfied by the ‘And then the wizard saved the day!’ plot point. Some want to understand magic. They want to know its boundaries, see its limitations, and be able to anticipate the main characters’ struggle.”

Richards believes that a writer of current times, developing a book involving magic should first consider the magic systems and then the best types of magic systems relevant to their storyline, before even beginning with their world-building process. Clearly, this was not the intended focal point of Tolkien, as detected in his letter to Milton Waldman, disclosed earlier.

Richard further elaborates in his article, on the importance of using measurable magic systems and refers to the fantasy writer, Brandon Sanderson (co Author of The Wheel of Time) in his arguments. Sanderson popularized the existence of magic systems occurring on a spectrum (Sandersons First Law:2007). The spectrum of which contains 3 points: soft and hard magic appearing at opposite ends, divided by a middle-ground between them. According to Sanderson, the Lord of the Rings series (Tolkien) can be considered as utilizing Soft Magic in its constructs. Soft magic is defined by him as “magic that is not well-defined for the reader…we don’t understand where the magic comes from, who can use it, or what its limitations are”.

In terms of other perspectives on the subject of Tolkien and the use of magic in his stories, further discussions arose, such as those in The “Rules” of Tolkien’s Magic  (2015) , reflecting that his world was “often dismissed for not having any strict rules of magic.”. A fan of Tolkien’s works, named Knight of Gondor discusses the “Rules” of Tolkien’s Magic, presenting his interpretations, with references from Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, and The Silmarillion:

  • In the Fellowship of the Ring, Gandalf mentions knowing all the spells of man, dwarf, elf, and orc…non-Isatari can do magic. (‘Magic systems’ are communicated to the reader as being part of the storylines, characters, and history).
  • The exertion of energy upon the things one holds authority over…or if someone breaks a promise to you (Isilduir casting a curse on the oath-breakers).
  • Provision for the energy used in magic (Chemical energy from glucose in your cells, energy stored in the one ring).
  • The laws of physics are maintained (Gandalf mentions he cannot burn through snow).
  • The use of spells to channel magic in specific actions. (Gandalf summons lightning while fighting the Balrog).
  • Use of counterspells (Gandalf preventing the Balrog from opening a door in Moria).

There are also speculations provided by Knight of Gondor:

  • The use of magical objects to increase focus.
  • Drawing energy from the spell of your soul to connect to the wraith world.

The response to his analysis includes many who opposed and those who are supporting of the interpretations, and speculations on this discussion platform. Evidently, the diverseness of individual perceptions of magic use in Tolkien’s writings (and subsequent adaptations) are revealed, as a popular interest of analysis and as a point of reference for writers, readers, and viewers, over time in the fantasy genre.

Letter 155  (a draft To Naomi Mitchison) written by J.R.R. Tolkien reflects “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….I do not intend to involve myself in any debate ‘whether’ magic’ in any sense is real or  really possible in the world…”

In my view as an avid fan of Tolkien, I do not see why he would have to engage in such debate, explain magic formulas, or provide any analysis of his constructs on magic. Clearly, he did not write with the intent of creating a fantasy world with a defined formula that depicted a magic rules system. He went with his own unique flow of pure inspiration which naturally weaved a magic essence throughout Arda, shaped by the Valar (Ainur spirits brought to being by Ilúvatar’s thought), through the continental masses such as middle-earth, Aman, and the oceans. After all, any fantasy world is a doorway to magic as it serves as an escapism from this conscious dimension by the engagement of the individual that enters it.

 As Gandalf reads out the riddle in Fellowship of the Ring (book II, Chapter 4:297)):

“Ennyn Durin Aran Moria. Pedo Mellon a Minno. Im Narvi hain echant. Celebrimbor o Eregion teithant i thiw hin.”  And then translates it to his companions as,

“The Doors of Durin, Lord of Moria. Speak, friend, and enter. I, Narvi, made them. Celebrimbor of Hollin drew these signs.”

 The entry in to the fantastical through Tolkien’s work can be compared to the entry through the doors of Durin, allowing the opportunity of engagement into the riddles of our minds and senses, creating a unique experience to each person who enters the gates of adventure.

Remaining in reference to this popular moment in Chapter 4, Book II (FOTR: Tolkien), magic is visibly evident, in my view, although indirectly perhaps (‘soft’), yet purposeful and powerful in emphasizing the adventure; If anything, I would dare say, the use of magic drives the element of adventure in a naturalness that is synchronized within the flow in its constructed worlds, races, and storylines.  For instance, upon closer inspection of The West Door of Moria (also known as the Elven Door ), was magnificently constructed amongst Dwarves and Elves in the time between SA 750 and 1500. The Elf and Lord of Eregion, Celebrimbor, and the Dwarf Narvi were the great craftsman of the Second Age, whom collaborated and built the Door. The constructed door can be considered an actual magic physical element in Tolkien’s fantasy world due to its materials of construction and the password activation processes triggered by the riddle. The ithildin on the door, which was a type of refined Mithril, allowed the inscription of moon-letters (Dwarven runes) that could be revealed by the moon and starlight at certain times, allowing those at the door a chance to read the riddle and if answered correctly, activate the password for entry.

Then there are also the  magic items and constructions such as the “magic doors” to guard the palace of Thranduil (The Elven king of Mirkwood). The power captured within these doors make it nearly impossible for anyone to enter or exit the palace against his will.

“There is no escape from my magic doors for those who are once brought inside” (The Hobbit: Barrels out of Bond).

Thranduil’s magic and powers in comparison to other elves raised interest on various fan platforms as well, with many provoking perspectives. However, it is imperative to note that the type of magic of the wood elves possessed can be cited from The Hobbit (Flies and Spiders):

“Though their magic was strong, even in those days they were wary. They differed from the High Elves of the West, and were more dangerous and less wise. Most of them (together with their scattered relations in the hills and the mountains) were descended from ancient tribes that never went to the Faerie in the  West. There the Light -elves and the Deep-elves and the Sea-elves went and lived for ages, and grew fairer and wiser and more learned, and invented their magic, and their cunning craft, in the making of beautiful and marvellous things, before some come back into the Wide World.”

In my own moments of pondering, I have concluded that most of the magic used in Tolkien’s world has a resonance with the traditional descriptions of magic classified as “Ancient Magic’, which is described as being the strongest form and so old that even some of its magicians have no knowledge of it. This type of magic exists in all elements of the world, naturally. Trying to explain it or analyze it is definitely fun and engaging like a riddle, however, it is undefinable in terms of true measurement. Magic elements exist in every aspect of Tolkien’s writings, they thread through stories of the universe (Ea.), binding, all, such as the aspects of race, world history, the moments of adventure, physical objects, geographical locations, and in his actual use of character dialogue (which contain ancient wisdom). The magic elements contained serve the purpose of driving plots such as the depiction of good versus evil, revealing the struggles of power amongst and within races, amidst high-stake conflicts. Magic in these texts is revealed in the form of songs, words, and prescience. The true trace of magic finally remains with the impact imprinted on the reader/viewer.

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Jenna Padayachee
Jenna Padayachee resides in South Africa (the country where J.R.R. Tolkien was born in 1892). She has exposure to Video Technology, and holds a BA Degree in Communication Sciences practices Shotokan Karate and Yoga. The depth and texture of her existence have been influenced, largely, by various genres in books, movies, and music. She enjoys writing that is used to create worlds, share perceptions, and influence positive individual shifts to mindsets. Tolkien’s writings and movie adaptations have added a powerful depth and magic to her own journey.