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3692Tolkien's runes of power (was Re: Digest Number 632)

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  • Michael Martinez
    Jul 18, 2001
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      --- In mythsoc@y..., "David J. Finnamore" <daeron@b...> wrote:
      > --- In mythsoc@y..., "Michael Martinez" <michael@x> wrote:
      > > I don't believe Tolkien would have tried to follow any historical
      > > examples of "magic runes". His magic was not "magic", which
      > > would have offended his Christian values. Instead, his magic was
      > > something natural, a native talent.
      > Good point. I don't know about "native talent," though. I see it
      > more as learned skill, the mastery of lore. Elvish "magic" was
      > chiefly, in the words of Aurthur C. Clark, "sufficiently advanced
      > technology." Not technology as we think of it in the post-modern
      > era, but in the most general sense. But it was also just a little
      > bit more. (See below.)

      Tolkien wrote a great deal about "magic" in Middle-earth (and he
      changed his mind on occasion). He envisioned a sub-creational
      faculty (his words) which diminished from order of being to order of

      That is, only Iluvatar (God) could truly create anything (bring it
      into existence from nothing, through an act of will). The Ainur
      (angels) entered into Ea (It is, let it be -- all of Creation, or the
      universe as measured by Time and Space) and they had the power to
      shape all of Ea according to their whims and desires. That is, they
      made the stars, worlds, plants, animals, etc. Of course, the Ainur
      were the literary successors of Tolkien's Anglo-Saxon gods (from THE
      BOOK OF LOST TALES, which was his mythology for England). So the
      Ainur inherited the mythical labors of shaping the universe and
      giving its creatures function, even if they did not actually create
      the primal universe.

      The Elves could also give shape to their thoughts, but not to the
      extent that the Ainur could. That is, the Elves could alter Time and
      Space to a limited extent, and this ability was perceived as magical
      by Men.

      The Dwarves had a similar sub-creational ability, but Tolkien wrote
      very little about the Dwarves (in any published writings to which I
      have had access), so it's impossible to tell what their limitations

      Men (and Hobbits) are a confusing issue. They lack the sub-
      creational talents of the Elves and Dwarves, but Tolkien ultimately
      conceded that they had to work some kind of magic. He wrote a
      lengthy reply to one reader (Letter 156, I believe -- I'm at work and
      cannot check my books) in which he denied any magical abilities among
      men, but then he noted in the margin that the Numenoreans made
      enchanted swords, so he didn't send the draft.

      In Letter 211, I think, he admits that Beorn (from THE HOBBIT) was "a
      bit of a magician". And in some essays which Christopher Tolkien
      published in MORGOTH'S RING, Tolkien stipulates that men were able to
      practice necromancy by communicating with the spirits of faded
      Elves. The Elven spirits could impart some ability to the men, I
      think, but the men were at great risk of losing their bodies to

      Tolkien really did not follow traditional elements of magic. Hence,
      he has no witches flying on broomsticks or dancing naked under the
      moon. He doesn't have pseudo-Druidic priests trying to sacrifice
      prisoners and sacred groves, etc.

      Where his magic has the appearance of something out of traditional
      folklore, he seems determined to try and explain how it should work
      within the rules of his sub-creational diarama, or at least to
      provide it with a rational framework. So it really serves no purpose
      to look at traditional interpretations of magic and apply them to
      Tolkien. He may be using the facade, but he is not using the

      Occult, cabal, Irish mysticism, whatever. There seems to be no place
      for them in Tolkien's Middle-earth. The closest he seems to come to
      such things is the very terse description of the Morgothian cult
      in "Akallabeth", in which men were sacrificed on alters dedicated to
      Morgoth (although it was Sauron who initiated the cult in the Second
      Age, after Morgoth had been killed by the Valar).

      There is also a hint of some sort of forbidden worship in the story
      concerning the Dead Men of Dunharrow, as I believe there is a passage
      which says they worshipped Sauron in the Second Age (which
      contradicts what "Akallabeth" says of who men were worshipping).

      Perhaps this discussion is getting too technical, but I think it's
      best to apply the creative juices in less traditional directions
      where Tolkien is concerned. Which is not to say he eschewed
      traditional motifs. There are plenty in Middle-earth. It's just
      that he was very innovative, and I don't believe his ingenuity has
      been very well documented (although I have not read all the Mythlores
      and similar journals, so I can't say for sure what innovations have
      been documented through the years).

      In general, most people don't look for Tolkien's innovations, and
      therefore I believe they go largely unnoticed. But that might be the
      way he preferred it. Perhaps he would have felt we would be too much
      like Saruman, leaving the path of wisdom by breaking a thing (his
      story) in order to learn of what it is made.

      Tom Shippey might say that admonition from Gandalf was a subtle jibe
      at Tolkien's fellow scholars (perhaps he did -- I suppose I'll need
      to reread Shippey before the end of the year).

      > > Sauron's words in the One Ring MAY be part of
      > > his "spell", but Tolkien never says so (not in any writing I can
      > > recall).
      > Consider Elrond's reaction, and Frodo's perception, when Gandalf
      > quoted them in the original Black Tongue at Rivendell.

      There could be other explanations for what happened at the Council of
      Elrond. We don't have enough information to rule out any possible
      explanation, or to conclude that one is more likely than the others.

      > > The words on the west-gate may simply be a message, an
      > > instruction sign as it were: "Turn knob and push while holding
      > > knob in turned position" would be equivalent for a modern door.
      > This claim leaves my head spinning. Was the gate not opened by,
      > and only by, the speaking of the appropriate word in the
      > appropriate language? Yes, it certainly was an instruction sign:
      > the instruction was to say the magic word!

      There is no indication that there was anything magical about the
      word. Gandalf refers to a "word of command" in his encounter with
      the Balrog, so we know there are indeed "magical words", but I don't
      believe that "mellon" ("friend" in Sindarin) is magical. People
      would be triggering magical effects all over the place if it were.
      Sindarin was at one time the common language of western Middle-earth,
      spoken by Elves, Dwarves, and Men from Lindon to the Vales of
      Anduin. It was only gradually replaced in that capacity by
      Adunaic/Westron toward the end of the Second Age.

      I would say it is not the spoken word which has power, but the being
      who speaks it. The word may be given a special association through
      special usage, but it could still be very much like an electric lamp
      sitting in a cave without an electrical outlet to power it when
      spoken by most people.
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