Ginger's post is one of those that make me want to sit over coffee (leaning forward across the table) and ask, "Yes, and how about..." It touches a lot of my own reflections on how Tolkien's Catholicism impacted his fiction. But I'll try to keep this *somewhat* short and concentrate on magic.
Two comments, first:
--Regarding Ginger's post, I'm not sure we Catholics have a lock on sacramental spirituality (Anglicans and Lutherans, at least, use the term, and much of the concept developed from the Judaism of the first Christians), but we've probably reflected on it more than most.
--I think Ginger and Michael are using "incarnation of God" in two different senses, in that Ginger is speaking of a more general presence of God in the physical reality of creation, and Michael of the very specific "Incarnation" (with a capital "I") of God becoming human in the person of Jesus. (Let me know if I've misinterpreted.) It's this second meaning that Tolkien would be referring to when he says there is none in his mythology because it's set before the time of Christ.
Many things in Tolkien's subcreation can be seen as sacramental, that is, something that can be seen, heard, touched, tasted and/or smelled that signifies something deeper than our senses can grasp. I'd certainly place what's identified as magic among these "many things." In a sacramental spirituality, Divinity is everywhere; we just need to recognize it. In M-e, the presence of the supernatural is just enough different from the form it takes in our primary creation that we tend to notice it a bit more and want to give it a name--such as magic. The supernatural is a broader term than God or Divinity, because both M-e and Catholicism recognize the existence of supernatural evil (although in neither is anything believed to be evil in its *origin*).
Is there magic in Middle-earth? That depends on how you define magic. What distinguishes magic from a miracle? Or from the natural workings of creation? The quote from Arthur C. Clarke earlier in this thread seems too limited; yes, magic is something beyond a person's understanding, but it's not necessarily technology. Before the male's role in reproduction was known, our ancestors considered a woman's body magical because it seemed to create life from nothing. From the writings of the early Christian Church, The Acts of the Apostles tells of a magician who wanted to "buy" St. Peter's miraculous powers; not understanding their source in Christ, he believed them to be magical. "Elf magic" doesn't seem magical to the Elves (as Galadriel implies in the mirror scene); their connection with the created world that allows them to do things mortals can't is part of their normal lives. Mortals don't understand it, so they call it magic.
The Elves' oneness with the natural world, coupled with the skills of the Dwarves, was able to create such things as the Moria gate. It's plausible that this connectedness would even allow for such things as doors that opened only when the moon and/or sun were in certain positions, or a certain word was said.
One reason hobbits tend to be so leery of magic and put the label on so many things ("For this is what your folk would call magic, I believe...) could be that they're arguably the M-e race that's the most out-of-touch with their own world's mythology. When Gandalf stands against supernatural evil proclaiming, "I am a servant of the Secret Fire," my guess would be that the hobbits in the party are the ones least likely to know what he's talking about--and the most likely to label anything Gandalf does as magic.
I'm going to try to tread carefully here so as not to wake sleeping dogs, but magic and the supernatural share the quality of being somehow uncontrollable. When we consider the supernatural to be under our control, what we're really talking about is superstition (sometimes practiced by the most religious people: "If I pray in this certain way, God *has* to do what I want"). Sounds a little like "cookbook magic" in which a certain spell always has exactly the same result. A believer such as Tolkien, who would see God as something--Someone--deeper than he can completely fathom, is more likely to create magic that's not cut-and-dried. And a writer such as Tolkien, who has experienced how the creative process can alter your plans for an entire book, would realize that even the Elves won't always come out with the exact result they were expecting (or always understand exactly how they got there). I think magic in M-e has to be treated as an art rather than a science; whether specific words, or a certain person, or the presence of the Ring, or... whatever, are involved, won't necessarily be the same from one "magic" to the next. We might not be able to put into a neatly explained system. In fact, I'd be surprised if we could.
Ginger says, "The magical aspects of Middle-earth seem to have an authenticity because they have been seen in our own world by those who confess a Christian faith." Tolkien said he preferred "feigned history" to allegory. To someone with a sacramental faith, daily life is shot through with signs of God's presence and evidence of the supernatural. Therefore history--even feigned history--will be, too.
Occasionally I've wondered if Elves in Tolkien's cosmos talk about "Mortal magic." Is the connection mortals have to an existence *beyond* the created world so natural to them that they don't recognize its wonder? Do the Elves marvel at it--because it's not part of their experience?
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