Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The Splintered White - Magic in The Lord of the Rings

A knock-down, drag-out wizard fight which Did Not Happen In The Book
I've had several conversations over the years about magic in the use of fiction. Ever since the advent of Harry Potter, it's been a hot topic among evangelicals. Opinions tend to be on one or the other extreme. Either no magic whatsoever, or bring on the broomsticks. Over the last year or so, I've read much thoughtful commentary on the matter. The examinations include many, many different novels. But again, most of my thoughts return to magic in my favorite: The Lord of the Rings.

More than any other, this story permeated my childhood. Among the things I learned from it were humility, faith, courage, perseverance, friendship, and joy. As anyone who knows the stories will say, the magic is never more than a narrative device. One could (almost) read through the book and not remember any instance of overt magic. There's no question that the central essence is story-related - the characters, the conflict, the resolution.

For many, though, this isn't enough. I respect that. I really do. The Bible explicitly forbids dabbling in black arts, or white arts for that matter. But at the same time, I recognize that stories are a special case. They are in the realm of the imagination, which ranges far beyond reality. In some cases, the same rules do not apply. Yet, as Professor Tolkien (a devout Catholic) himself believed, we may invent any sort of creatures we wish, but to call good evil, and evil good, is a sin. Then, must we completely discard anything that mentions magic? If your conscience forbids any mention of magic whatsoever, by all means, listen to it. But mine does not, and I feel the need to defend my point of view. All the same, I like to know what sort of "magic" we're talking about.

Perhaps some definitions are in order. Tolkien, the philologist, was all about meaning. When he used the word "magic," he definitely thought about what it meant, and went so far as to lay out a partial explanation. Magic does not mean the same thing for every being in Middle Earth. For instance, hobbits, men, and elves (the primary races) cannot meddle with the supernatural, unlike wizards (a.k.a. Maia, the closest thing to angels in Tolkien's world.) Yet, hobbits, men, and elves, still have "magic." For the elves, this was a skill which we on Earth lost in the Fall:

“Their ‘magic’ is Art, delivered from many of its human limitations; more effortless, more quick, more complete (product, and vision in unflawed correspondence). And its object is Art not Power, sub-creation not domination and tyrannous re-forming of Creation.” (Letter 131)

In our fallen world, the product is never quite the vision. This article isn't coming out as beautifully and polished as it was in my head. If I was an elf, I'd have already convinced you. Tolkien believed that in the elder days, we could not only perfectly shape our vision, but shape the world around us to fit the vision, using words. Let there be light. And there was. A remnant of this remains in the elves.

So that's elfkind. What of men and hobbits - our protagonists, our Everyman stand-ins? This is similar, but their magic was not pre-Fall - their magic is our magic - the magic we all possess. What is this? I quote from a wonderful article by TheOneRing.Net's Anwyn:

"Tolkien believed that human beings are endowed with creativity in order to share in God’s power of creation. He called this 'sub-creation' and felt that he was making the most of his abilities in this line through his writing. It follows that the characters in his books would do the same. So everyone is endowed with his or her own abilities, and since he’s not limited to real human beings, but is free to imagine beings with greater powers of creation, the result is powers that to us are supernatural, but to him are merely the result of that being’s art."

I admit, Anwyn's article partially inspired this one, though I've long intended to marshal and express these ideas. Later in the essay, Anwyn expounds on the gifts of men and hobbits, mention Aragorn and Faramir, and Sam, a hobbit, whose gifts seem, respectively, to be: healing, leadership, and gardening.

"Aragorn used athelas to help him in his healing, but undoubtedly part of the virtue of it sprang from his own hands. Faramir was versed in the lore and history of men, but he used his knowledge wisely and to good effect, being a good captain of his men and, in time, a steward and prince of his people. And our sweet Sam had a positive gift for growing things, no matter how much he was helped at that juncture by the gift of the Lady Galadriel."

The Maia - of whom, in The Lord of the Rings, we meet four, are angelic creatures. Gandalf and Radagast seldom resort to these things, and never with a sinful will for dominance. Saruman and Sauron are fallen angels, and use their gifts to enslave and terrorize. They seize control from God (Eru/Iluvatar), their master. And yes, they're the bad guys.

Elves - their power is a more perfect ability of sub-creation.

Men and hobbits - all creative endeavors.

What of the Enemy? In The Two Towers, the elf queen Galadriel has given Frodo and Sam the opportunity to look into a prophetic mirror:

Balrogs - balch 'cruel' + rhaug 'demon'
"And you?" she said, turning to Sam. "For this is what your folk would call magic, I believe, though I do not understand clearly what they mean; and they seem to use the same word of the deceits of the Enemy."

Tolkien obviously does not mean the same thing when he speaks of the power of the elves - the good guys - and the power of Sauron - the bad guy. (He seriously disapproved of sloppy distinctions when it came to words.) I quote again from Anwyn:

"So Tolkien divides power into two headings: The natural kind, proceeding from the desire of the being to sub-create, and ‘magic:’ a deliberate use of devices or machines with a corrupted motive."

 For Tolkien, the ultimate evil is when created beings take their gifts, refusing to acknowledge whence they came, and turn them to their own ends. This is domination, a terrible perversion of sub-creation. Without God, all is nothing. The first creature to do this, in Tolkien's world, is the fallen valar (high angel): Morgoth. His protégé is Sauron.

The ultimate incarnation of this will to dominate is the Ring (though naturally, it can be seen to symbolize many things - Tolkien disliked allegory but loved myth):

"The chief power (of all the rings alike) was the prevention or slowing of decay (i.e. 'change' viewed as a regrettable thing), the preservation of what is desired or loved, or its semblance - this is more or less an Elvish motive. But also they enhanced the natural powers of a possessor - thus approaching 'magic', a motive easily corruptible into evil, a lust for domination. And finally they had other powers, more directly derived from Sauron... such as rendering invisible the material body, and making things of the invisible world visible." (Letter 131)

Paradise Lost - Gustave Dore
"Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heav'n."
~Satan, Paradise Lost
So the purpose of the Ring (one purpose, at least) is power over Death, and power over the natural order of things. (Note: "the rings give power according to the measure of each possessor" - Fellowship)  Tolkien said that the three things he wrestled with primarily in The Lord of the Rings were the Fall, Mortality, and the Machine. Tolkien, often accused of writing escapist novels, would retort that we live in a society obsessed with escape of the one thing which cannot be escaped - Death. In his phenomenal poem, Mythopoeia, he says of fantasy writers:

It is not they that have forgot the Night,
or bid us flee to organized delight,
in lotus-isles of economic bliss
forswearing souls to gain a Circe-kiss
(and counterfeit at that, machine-produced,

bogus seduction of the twice-seduced).

Unlike, you know, modern society. Commercialism, consumerism, escapism. The Machine is a Band-Aid over a gaping wound. Modern man uses cosmetics, plastic surgery, and drugs to appear young. He does anything to avoid working with his hands. He is trying his best to live forever, to remedy the Fall. Note that in The Two Towers, Faramir says that while the ancient kingdom of Numenor fell because it became "enamoured of the Darkness and the black arts" modern-day Gondor's kings declined because they "hungered after endless life unchanging."

And now, here we are. We have outlined the "magic" of elves, men, and free folk, seen the granted powers of the maia, and the corrupt domination of the fallen. What is the resolution?

If you don't want a spoiler, I suggest that you do not continue. In the end, how is the Ring dealt with? Does Frodo, the humble, merciful, sacrificial hero destroy domination, symbolically acting as a Christ-like figure? Does Tolkien take the salvation by works path...?

No. While standing at the crack of Doom, even Frodo is corrupted by the Ring. Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely - thus goes the platitude. Human beings are entirely without hope on our own merits. Tolkien is one of the few authors that refuses to have a flesh-and-blood hero save the day. Ultimately, the Ring is destroyed when Gollum slips. Or does he? Throughout the epic, Tolkien has a very strong line on chance, though of course, he despised open allegory, so he slips it in, quietly, in Fellowship:

"…there was something else at work, beyond any design of the Ring-maker. I can put it no plainer than by saying that Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker. In which case you also were meant to have it. And that may be an encouraging thought."

There is no chance. Death cannot be destroyed by created beings. Something - or Someone - must intervene. And in the end, even the Edenic Shire cannot satisfy, but only the Undying Lands of Valinor, across the sea.

I thought somebody said this wasn't a Christian book?


Valinor. "And in the end, even the Shadow was only a passing thing...there was light and high beauty
for ever beyond its reach"

1 comment:

  1. Great article. I really enjoyed reading it. And I FULLY agree. But then, of course, that would be expected. ;D I had hoped to get to this sooner, but time has a way of dictating our activities. I'll put a link to this article in my blog!


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