The Magician in Middle-Earth

Denethor

I have always found the archetype of the “magician” compelling and empowering. The idea that someone, through their own introspection and hidden lore, could access supernatural power – could gaze into the future, turn into a bird, do all sorts of things – that always captivated my imagination. For that reason, as a child I always preferred fantasy stories in which magic could be good as well as evil, and disliked tales in which magic was mainly the province of villains (such as the Conan stories, Macbeth, or Faust). That being the case, Gandalf the utterly benevolent wizard was always my favourite character in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, with the runner-up being Beorn, the man who can turn himself into a bear (and thus something of a magician himself).

Thus, I felt a profound sense of betrayal when I discovered, many years later, that Tolkien had written his five wizards (Gandalf, Saruman, Radagast, and the two Blue Wizards) not as magicians as I defined the term (mortals who had unlocked supernatural power) but instead as angels (maiar spirits) disguised in mortal form, emissaries from the Undying Lands sent by the gods to confront Sauron. For me it turned Middle-Earth inside out, for now it seemed that the only truly human magicians of that world were evil sorcerers (such as the Witch-King and the Mouth of Sauron) – which was not the sort of fantasy I wanted at all.

As an adult, I am much more willing to recognize the problematic aspects of the magician archetype, its bad as well as its good, and am far more accepting of stories in which all mortal magic is corrupt. That said, it is still a peculiar element of Middle-Earth. After all, modern high fantasy is usually filled with benevolent wizards, and to many, Lord of the Rings is the ultimate archetypal high fantasy story. Thus, I returned to the world of Middle-Earth, reading between the lines to see if it indeed had any magicians as I define the term (regular people who learn non-malevolent supernatural powers).

In Tolkien, the term “wizard” is only used with the Five Wizards, who are secretly angels, while “sorcerer” is entirely a negative term for humans who have made pacts with Sauron in return for power. No one who falls into neither of these categories gets a general magic-using noun (magician, enchanter, etc.) applied to them. But does that mean they don’t exist?

Many elves clearly possess supernatural powers. Elrond summons up a flood in Fellowship of the Ring, while Galadriel has a scrying pool; furthermore, it is implied that their respective powers are what stops Sauron’s forces from invading their homes. There are elves in The Silmarillion who can change their form and control the weather. The wood elves in The Hobbit have magic. Characters such as Frodo and Sam talk about “elf magic” in ways that they never reference “human magic” or “elf magic.” That said, I don’t quite feel that the elves match my magician archetype. To me, a magician has always meant someone who, through skill and will, has unlocked powers beyond the grasp of others of their ilk. They are mortals who have stepped a little closer to the gods. However, Tolkien’s elves are basically demigods themselves, immortal beings who seek to be reunited with their divine “big brothers” and who just naturally possess numerous powers that humans lack. In fact, various elves become confused when hobbits ask to see their “magic,” as for elves this is all just regular talents that they possess, no more magical then their skill with a bow.

Things become far more interesting for me when I look to see if any mortals (humans, dwarves, or hobbits) can possess supernatural abilities without making pacts with Sauron. The aforementioned Beorn is the most prominent example, a being who Gandalf theorizes is either a bear who learned how to turn himself into a man or a man who learned how to turn himself into a bear – and who becomes the patriarch of a whole group of humans (the Beornings), who also possess a certain ursine kinship. Other mortals it seems have learned to access particular powers – Bard and many other people of Dale can speak with animals, certain dwarves know the corvid language, certain humans (such as Aragorn) are capable of prophecy, there is even a seer referenced once or twice; “seer” is the only official term ever given to a benevolent human magician.

Interestingly, Aragorn seems one of the closest things to a magician the story has, both due to his aforementioned fortune-telling and his mastery of certain herbs. Beorn is another figure of course, who actually expressed scorn for wizards. These two people, despite their supernatural powers, come off as being more as warriors than traditional wizards – they have magic, but spells and staves do not define their identity. Probably the most “magician-esque” human to appear in Tolkien is Denethor, the Steward of Gondor. He is described as a sagacious and powerful figure who Pippin feels looks like a wizard more than Gandalf does, and whose will is so great that he can communicate telepathically, read minds, and possibly psychically attack. The novel is surprisingly brief about his abilities, quickly mentioning them but not dwelling too long. They’re not treated as too unusual. In Middle-Earth, it simply seems that especially strong-willed humans can have psychic abilities. It’s part of nature.

Which is, interestingly, the role the “magician” takes in Tolkien. Wizards and sorcerers have supernatural powers because wizards are supernatural beings and sorcerers have bound themselves to a darkly supernatural force. If a mortal wishes power but does not want to taint himself, he must turn to certain techniques that are supernatural to us but which seem to be simply the specific functioning of Tolkien’s world – a sort of occult science. Anyone with enough lore can learn how to speak to animals or unlock almost magicial abilities in healing herbs. One can even learn telepathy or prophecy if the will is great enough. These people are not called “magicians” or “enchanters” because they don’t flaunt their abilities as supernatural. They perceive them as simply talents or skills. The only such magician treated as something strange and other is Beorn, but he seems to be the obsession rather than the rule.

I think the child within me is satisfied that “magicians” do exist in Middle-Earth. They are subtle rather than flashy. Though they don’t even consider themselves to be magicians, they are still mortals able to access wonderful things. That’s good enough for the archetype and good enough for me.

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One Response to The Magician in Middle-Earth

  1. Jordan says:

    Great article. I am a huge Tolkien fan myself. I recently was able to finally share the movies with my 4 children, and now my oldest daughter is halfway thru The Two Towers (she said the book is better, but having seen the movies first it helped her visualize things and put certain people into context). I also always wondered about the wizards…your insight has been most welcome on the subject.

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