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

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  • David J. Finnamore
    ... something ... 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,
    Message 1 of 19 , Jul 17 9:40 PM
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      --- 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.)


      > The runes of power would not NECESSARILY
      > have to rely upon special arrangements or symbology.

      But they might involve those sometimes. More importantly, word play,
      layered meanings in names, and such, are important facets of Tolkien's
      work.


      > His runes of power may have been nothing more than a passing idea
      > thrown in to a couple of passages for effect. That is, they would
      > have been there, a part of Middle-earth, but there would have been
      no
      > real explanation for them (WHY are they there, HOW do they work?).
      > They provided a sense of completeness, so to speak. But there would
      > be no occultic associations because Tolkien was telling a story, not
      > describing the occult.

      I didn't mean to imply occult, more like Cabal or something. But
      anyway, the man wants ideas about what to inscribe in his instrument;
      the point here is to encourage creative thought, to raise
      possibilities. Getting too technical in the creative stage can shut
      down the juices.


      > 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.


      > 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!

      In Middle-earth, words have a magnified power. There is nothing
      anti-Christian about the idea that words have power of/over matter.
      Genisis 1. John 1. The idea that even individual letters contain
      some vestige of that power is very old in the Judeo-Christian
      tradition. It was submerged for a while by the so-called
      Enlightenment but we're getting over it, finally.

      And there was great rejoicing. (Yea!)

      David
    • Michael Martinez
      ... 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
      Message 2 of 19 , Jul 18 11:17 AM
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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
        being.

        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
        were.

        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
        possession.

        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
        substance.

        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.
      • Trudy Shaw
        ... From: David J. Finnamore To: mythsoc@yahoogroups.com Sent: Tuesday, July 17, 2001 11:40 PM Subject: [mythsoc] Tolkien s runes of power (was Re: Digest
        Message 3 of 19 , Jul 19 6:40 AM
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          ----- Original Message -----
          From: David J. Finnamore
          To: mythsoc@yahoogroups.com
          Sent: Tuesday, July 17, 2001 11:40 PM
          Subject: [mythsoc] Tolkien's runes of power (was Re: Digest Number 632)


          --- 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.


          David




          The "native talent" description is supported by Tolkien at the end of letter #155, where he says, "Anyway, 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. Aragorn's 'healing' might be regarded as 'magical', or at least a blend of magic with pharmacy and 'hypnotic' processes. But it is (in theory) reported by hobbits who have very little notions of philosophy and science; while A. is not a pure 'Man', but at long remove one of the 'children of Luthien'."

          (BTW, this is the paragraph that has the written-in note reading, "But the Numenoreans used 'spells' in the making of swords?" Interesting that he has the word "spells" in quotes and has a question mark at the end of the statement--perhaps a note to himself to think more about this seeming contradiction?)

          I can't lay my hands on an actual quote right now, but my impression has been that the power of "Elf magic" lies in the Elves' direct connection to and strong bonding with the created world, which Mortals don't have because of their destiny to pass beyond it.

          Two questions on earlier posts--
          In the quotation about technology (above), is Arthur C. Clarke referring specifically to Tolkien's Elves or to the (pardon the expression ) garden variety?
          Does Gandalf's "library research" really come under the heading of magic? The knowledge helps him track down what happened to the Ring, but he doesn't seem to use it in any magical way.

          -- Trudy



          [Non-text portions of this message have been removed]
        • Michael Martinez
          ... I cited Letter 155/156 in my essay Understanding Magic in J.R.R. Tolkien s Middle-earth , the original version of which was published on the Vault s
          Message 4 of 19 , Jul 19 8:28 AM
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            --- In mythsoc@y..., "Trudy Shaw" <tgshaw@e...> wrote:
            > I can't lay my hands on an actual quote right now, but my
            > impression has been that the power of "Elf magic" lies in the
            > Elves' direct connection to and strong bonding with the created
            > world, which Mortals don't have because of their destiny to pass
            > beyond it.

            I cited Letter 155/156 in my essay "Understanding Magic in J.R.R.
            Tolkien's Middle-earth", the original version of which was published
            on the Vault's Middle-earth site (set up for Sierra's now-defunct
            Middle-earth Online game) and republished in Visualizing Middle-
            earth. I'm at work and don't have the URL or time to dig it up. But
            I may have included a few other citations (such as the Beorn-magician
            one) showing how Tolkien changed his mind on Men's ability to use
            magic. It was a 40-page paper and I can't remember all the details.

            >
            > Two questions on earlier posts--
            > In the quotation about technology (above), is Arthur C. Clarke
            > referring specifically to Tolkien's Elves or to the (pardon the
            > expression ) garden variety?

            Clarke's statement, so far as I know, is a classic: "Any sufficiently
            advanced technology seems like magic." I have never seen it
            specifically associated with Tolkien.

            > Does Gandalf's "library research" really come under the heading
            > of magic? The knowledge helps him track down what happened to the
            > Ring, but he doesn't seem to use it in any magical way.

            Although I agree that "knowledge is power", I don't equate "power"
            with "magic".

            Tolkien does not associate reading and writing with magic in his
            Middle-earth stories. I think it's going beyond his intentions to
            argue that a writing system or the use of written language is a
            magical application.
          • Sweet & Tender Hooligan
            ... _________________________________________________________ Do You Yahoo!? Get your free @yahoo.com address at http://mail.yahoo.com
            Message 5 of 19 , Jul 19 10:38 AM
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              > I cited Letter 155/156 in my essay "Understanding Magic in J.R.R.
              > Tolkien's Middle-earth", the original version of which was published
              > on the Vault's Middle-earth site (set up for Sierra's now-defunct
              > Middle-earth Online game) and republished in Visualizing Middle-
              > earth. I'm at work and don't have the URL or time to dig it up.

              It's at:

              http://mevault.ign.com/features/editorials/understandingmagic.shtml

              paul christian glenn | pcg@...

              "And then I lost it. I kinda lost it all,
              you know? Faith, dignity, about
              fifteen pounds..."


















              .


              _________________________________________________________
              Do You Yahoo!?
              Get your free @... address at http://mail.yahoo.com
            • Michael Martinez
              ... That s it, thanks. And I see the Beorn reference is in Letter 144, not Letter 211, which I believe I attributed it to previously.
              Message 6 of 19 , Jul 19 11:27 AM
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                --- In mythsoc@y..., "Sweet & Tender Hooligan" <cirhsein@y...> wrote:
                >
                > It's at:
                >
                > http://mevault.ign.com/features/editorials/understandingmagic.shtml

                That's it, thanks. And I see the Beorn reference is in Letter 144,
                not Letter 211, which I believe I attributed it to previously.
              • dianejoy@earthlink.net
                ... From: Michael Martinez michael@xenite.org Date: Thu, 19 Jul 2001 18:27:12 -0000 To: mythsoc@yahoogroups.com Subject: [mythsoc] Tolkien s runes of power
                Message 7 of 19 , Jul 20 6:53 AM
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                  Original Message:
                  -----------------
                  From: Michael Martinez michael@...
                  Date: Thu, 19 Jul 2001 18:27:12 -0000
                  To: mythsoc@yahoogroups.com
                  Subject: [mythsoc] Tolkien's runes of power (was Re: Digest Number 632)


                  --- In mythsoc@y..., "Sweet & Tender Hooligan" <cirhsein@y...> wrote:
                  >>
                  >> It's at:
                  >>
                  >> http://mevault.ign.com/features/editorials/understandingmagic.shtml

                  >That's it, thanks. And I see the Beorn reference is in Letter 144,
                  >not Letter 211, which I believe I attributed it to previously.

                  I must congratulate you on a very detailed and perceptive piece. Haven't read it all; I have trouble reading long articles on screen; I've bookmarked it and hope to read it once I print it off. It may be a while.
                  Have you considered sending it off to a print publication---like *Mythlore* for instance, or are there legal rammifications? ---djb

                  The Mythopoeic Society website http://www.mythsoc.org

                  Your use of Yahoo! Groups is subject to http://docs.yahoo.com/info/terms/


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                • Michael Martinez
                  ... Haven t read it all; I have trouble reading long articles on screen; I ve bookmarked it and hope to read it once I print it off. It may be a while. ...
                  Message 8 of 19 , Jul 20 10:12 AM
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                    --- In mythsoc@y..., "dianejoy@e..." <dianejoy@e...> wrote:

                    > I must congratulate you on a very detailed and perceptive piece.
                    Haven't read it all; I have trouble reading long articles on
                    screen; I've bookmarked it and hope to read it once I print it off.
                    It may be a while.
                    > Have you considered sending it off to a print publication---like
                    *Mythlore* for instance, or are there legal rammifications? ---djb

                    Thank you. I included the essay in Visualizing Middle-earth. Right
                    now I have such a backlog of writing projects that I'm not going to
                    submit anything to anyone. I've been approving reprint requests
                    since no one ever asks for a rewrite with those. :)
                  • David J. Finnamore
                    ... of letter #155, where he says, Anyway, 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
                    Message 9 of 19 , Jul 22 8:26 AM
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                      --- In mythsoc@y..., "Trudy Shaw" <tgshaw@e...> wrote:
                      > The "native talent" description is supported by Tolkien at the end
                      of letter #155, where he says, "Anyway, 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. Aragorn's 'healing' might be regarded as 'magical', or at
                      least a blend of magic with pharmacy and 'hypnotic' processes. But it
                      is (in theory) reported by hobbits who have very little notions of
                      philosophy and science; while A. is not a pure 'Man', but at long
                      remove one of the 'children of Luthien'."

                      It seems to me, then, that there is a clear distinction between what
                      he, as an "outside observer" believed about what was behind his tale,
                      and what those who (in theory) reported the tale believed. The story
                      itself, unless my memory is failing, makes numerous references to a
                      relationship between magical power and the learning of lore.


                      > In the quotation about technology (above), is Arthur C. Clarke
                      referring specifically to Tolkien's Elves or to the (pardon the
                      expression ) garden variety?

                      Niether. He was not referring to Tolkien but to the fact that people
                      with advanced technology can appear to be magical to those without it.
                      Which seems to have happened in the case of Elves and Hobbits.

                      David
                    • Michael Martinez
                      ... I cannot think of any such references. However, the paragraph cited above is the same one against which Tolkien wrote the marginal note pointing out that
                      Message 10 of 19 , Jul 22 10:16 AM
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                        --- In mythsoc@y..., "David J. Finnamore" <daeron@b...> wrote:
                        > --- In mythsoc@y..., "Trudy Shaw" <tgshaw@e...> wrote:
                        > > The "native talent" description is supported by Tolkien at the
                        > > end of letter #155, where he says, "Anyway, 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. Aragorn's 'healing' might be regarded
                        > > as 'magical', or at least a blend of magic with pharmacy
                        > > and 'hypnotic' processes. But it is (in theory) reported by
                        > > hobbits who have very little notions of philosophy and science;
                        > > while A. is not a pure 'Man', but at long remove one of
                        > > the 'children of Luthien'."
                        >
                        > It seems to me, then, that there is a clear distinction between
                        > what he, as an "outside observer" believed about what was behind
                        > his tale, and what those who (in theory) reported the tale
                        > believed. The story itself, unless my memory is failing, makes
                        > numerous references to a relationship between magical power and the
                        > learning of lore.

                        I cannot think of any such references. However, the paragraph cited
                        above is the same one against which Tolkien wrote the marginal note
                        pointing out that Numenoreans used spells in making swords.

                        I was sure it wouldn't be long before an Anglo-Saxon-centric argument
                        was made about Tolkien's magic, but it can be shown that his magic
                        closely resembles nothing and vaguely resembles everything. I am
                        sure that was his intent, but I doubt he ever confessed to doing
                        things that way in writing.

                        Gandalf and the wizards, for example, exhibit powers which are found
                        in Greek mythology, from Zeus hurtling thunderbolts at people to
                        various gods changing into animals and trees (Radagast being a master
                        of shapes and hues, although there are people who argue endlessly
                        and, in my opinion, pointlessly about how Gandalf's comment cannot
                        possibly refer to anything like Radagast changing his own shape).

                        And Tolkien made a point of calling the Rohirrim "Homeric horsemen",
                        although there were no such horsemen in Homer (that I recall). On
                        the other hand, Tolkien exhibited a fondness for Alexander the Great,
                        at least to the extent that Alexander is mentioned more than once in
                        Tolkien's letters.

                        The Rohirrim thus appear to be loosely based on the Goths as they
                        were perceived to be in the 1940s (at the time of their entries into
                        the Roman Empire) as far as culture goes; their "translated" language
                        and nomenclature are taken directly from Anglo-Saxon (Mercian,
                        according to some people, but I don't know enough to distinguish such
                        features of language); their ideas and values are "Homeric", even
                        down to men forseeing their deaths and taking oaths which carry them
                        to the far ends of the world; and they are very close to being a
                        rewrite of the Third House of the Edain, the Marachians.

                        Helm Hammerhand resembles Hurin in some ways, and Eorl the Young
                        might be modelled on Hador. At the time he wrote THE LORD OF THE
                        RINGS, Tolkien knew far more about those earlier characters than he
                        was revealing to his Hobbit readership, so he seems to have had no
                        qualms about borrowing from himself. And both Helm and Hurin owe a
                        little something to Herakles, being men of great strength with
                        tempers that get them into trouble. And they both lose their
                        families because of their actions.
                      • Michael Martinez
                        ... I meant to add something about the two famous charges of the Rohirrim: Eorl s arrival at the Battle of the Field of Celebrant and Theoden s charge in the
                        Message 11 of 19 , Jul 22 10:22 AM
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                          --- In mythsoc@y..., "Michael Martinez" <michael@x> wrote:
                          > --- In mythsoc@y..., "David J. Finnamore" <daeron@b...> wrote:
                          > The Rohirrim thus appear to be loosely based on the Goths as they
                          > were perceived to be in the 1940s (at the time of their entries
                          > into the Roman Empire) as far as culture goes; their "translated"
                          > language and nomenclature are taken directly from Anglo-Saxon
                          > (Mercian, according to some people, but I don't know enough to
                          > distinguish such features of language); their ideas and values
                          > are "Homeric", even down to men forseeing their deaths and taking
                          > oaths which carry them to the far ends of the world; and they are
                          > very close to being a rewrite of the Third House of the Edain, the
                          > Marachians.

                          I meant to add something about the two famous charges of the
                          Rohirrim: Eorl's arrival at the Battle of the Field of Celebrant and
                          Theoden's charge in the Battle of the Pelennor Fields. Both charges
                          owe a little something to Alexander, who more than once led his
                          Companion cavalry in charges against the center of enemy lines (an
                          unusual cavalry tactic for a time centuries before the stirrup came
                          along -- and I don't believe the high saddles used by Roman Cibinarii
                          for similar tactics had been developed yet, either).

                          Anyway, I was starting to get ahead of myself as I typed, as the
                          Helm/Hurin/Herakles comparison was one I hadn't made in a long time,
                          and it suddenly reoccurred to me.
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