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

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  • 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 1 of 19 , Jul 18, 2001
      --- 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 2 of 19 , Jul 19, 2001
        ----- 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 3 of 19 , Jul 19, 2001
          --- 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 4 of 19 , Jul 19, 2001
            > 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 5 of 19 , Jul 19, 2001
              --- 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 6 of 19 , Jul 20, 2001
                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

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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 7 of 19 , Jul 20, 2001
                  --- 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 8 of 19 , Jul 22, 2001
                    --- 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 9 of 19 , Jul 22, 2001
                      --- 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 10 of 19 , Jul 22, 2001
                        --- 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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