Principles of Tolkien's Magic

         This is an attempt to outline some principles of magic in Middle Earth, with an eye for adaptation to role-playing games. Rather than starting from a pre-existing RPG system, I will go through the canon evidence and proceed into speculation. Within Tolkien's works, we have a number of examples of magic use -- but no explanation of what magic is or how it works.

        f My aim is not an encyclopedic listing of magic shown in Middle Earth, but rather a system or set of principles which is true to the spirit of the stories.

Practitioners of Magic

         The most obvious practitioners of magic are the order of wizards, the Istari. These are only five in number: Saruman, Gandalf, Radagast, and two unnamed wizards. It appears that these are Maiar of a sort: divine beings sent by the Valar from their realm to look after the people of Middle Earth. Their power, then, seems to be largely innate. Though they gain power through various lore and through the focus of their staves, what makes them wizards is their origin, not their knowledge or experience.

         However, magic may also be done by mortals. This may be inherited, such as Bard's ability to understand the speech of animals. However, magic may also be learned. The most visible example is the Mouth of Sauron, who is described as a man (of the Black Nümenörians) who learned great though evil sorcery. The "black arts" are also referred to elsewhere in the Lord of the Rings, as being worked by men. So men may learn at least evil magic.

         However, it is not as clear how good magic is learned by men, or what it would look like. Gandalf does at one point attempt spells "in all the tongues of Elves or Men or Orcs" -- so there are human spells which are presumably not dark arts. In keeping with the themes of Middle Earth, good magic should be in touch with the land and nature. Beorn could perhaps be considered an example. He was referred to as a "skin-changer", but he could also speak with animals and breed enormous bees (larger than your thumb). In his letters, Tolkien made clear that he was a man (as opposed to being of a separate race or infected with lycanthropy). So he may have learned to be in harmony with nature, and contact the animal within himself.

         Of course, elves and dwarves also have magic. Galadriel, for example, is clearly a practitioner -- as are other elves. They create magical items, work feats of healing, control the flow of rivers, and other feats. The dwarves, in turn, can also craft magic from metal, stone, as well as scribing moon letters.

Limits of Magic

         Magic in Middle Earth is based around enhancing or weakening the inherent properties of things. Thus, effects which are truly unnatural are limited.

"If Gandalf would go before us with a bright flame, he might melt a path for you," said Legolas. The storm had troubled him little, and he alone of the Company remained still light of heart.

"If Elves could fly over mountains, they might fetch the Sun to save us," answered Gandalf. "But I must have something to work on. I cannot burn snow."

The Fellowship of the Ring (284)

Forms of Magic

This is one of the most common aspects of magic: making inanimate items with special properties. This includes all races. The elves have magical cloaks, rope, and swords. Dwarves have their mithril weapons and armor, along with moon-letters and magical toys. Men also make magic, as well. The sword which wounded the Witch-King was made by the Men of Nümenör. Orthanc and Orthanc were also made by men. The orcs have a rougher form of magic, such as the healing drought they gave to Merry and Pippin.
The creating and mastering of animals is also a vital part of magic. At a legendary level, creatures like Orcs, Trolls, and the Hell-hawks which the Ringwraith's rode were all created. At a lesser level, there are things like crow spies or the friendship of a masterful horse.
This would refer to effects which seem to come directly from the practitioner. The examples of these are almost entirely from Gandalf and Saruman. This category may be specific to the Istari, then. Two examples of spells:
Gandalf says "Come back, Saruman" - and Saruman is forced to obey as if dragged against his will and he leaned on the rail breating hard. (Book III, Chapter 10)
Gandalf says "Saruman, your staff is broken." -- and the staff split asunder in his hand. (Book III, Chapter 10)


         The dwarves and elves clearly had great powers of crafting magical items. However, this is to some degree true of Men as well -- at least the Men of Nümenör. The tower Orthanc which resisted the Ents and the Fellowship was built by the Men of Gondor shortly after it's founding. The walls of Osgiliath were also described as being similar. The blades recovered from the Barrow-downs were also forged by Men of Nümenör from Westernesse.

Boromir leaped forward and hewed at the arm with all his might; but his sword rang, glanced aside, and fell from his shaken hand. The blade was notched.

Suddenly, and to his own surprise, Frodo felt a hot wrath blaze up in his heart. "The Shire!" he cried, and springing beside Boromir, he stooped, and stabbed with Sting at the hideous foot. There was a bellow, and the foot jerked back, nearly wrenching Sting from Frodo's arm. Black drops dripped from the blad and smoked on the floor. Boromir hurled himself against the door and slammed it again.

"One for the Shire!" cried Aragorn. "The hobbit's bite is deep! You have a good blade, Frodo son of Drogo!"

The Fellowship of the Ring, Book II, chapter 5, subpage 6.

Many of the Ents were hurling themselves against the Orthanc-rock; but it defeated them. It is very smooth and hard. Some wizardry is in it, perhaps, older and stronger than Saruman's. Anyway they could not get a grip on it, or make a crack in it; and they were bruising and wounding themselves against it.

LOTR, Book III, chapter 9, subpage 11.

So passed the sword of the Barrow-downs, work of Westernesse. But glad would he have been to know its fate who wrought it slowly long ago in the North-kingdom when the Dunedain were young, and chief among their foes was the dread realm of Angmar and its sorcerer king. No other blade, not though mightier hands had wielded it, would have dealt that foe a wound so bitter, cleaving the undead flesh, breaking the spell that knit his unseen sinews to his will.

LOTR, Book V, chapter 6, page 6.

Beast Magic

         There are many feats of magic associated with interacting with animals. Bard of Laketown found that could speak with the old thrush, for example -- which was his birthright from the race of Dale. Beorn could clearly talk to beasts as well, and there were birds which acted as spies for Saruman. Beorn could change into a bear as well -- he was human, not a Maiar, but it is not clear where his power came from.

Suddenly out of the darkness something fluttered to his shoulder. He started -- but it was only an old thrush. Unafraid it perched by his shoulder and it brought him news. Marvelling he found he could understand its tongue, for he was of the race of Dale.

The Hobbit (236)

. . . a whole regiment of birds had broken away suddenly from the main host, and came, flying low, straight towards the ridge. Sam thought they were a kind of crow of large size. As they passed overhead, on so dense a throng that their shadow followed them darkly over the land below, one harsh croak was heard.

The Fellowship of the Ring (277-8)

"He is a skin-changer. He changes his skin: sometimes he is a huge black bear, sometimes he is a great strong black-haired man with huge arms and a great beard. I cannot tell you much more, though that ought to be enough."

Gandalf, The Hobbit (116)

Mystical Effects

         There are a number of subtle effects whose power is unclear. There are cases of characters seeing the future (or possible futures), and giving blessings or curses on others.

He laid his hand on the pony's head, and spoke in a low voice. "Go with words of guard and guiding on you," he said. "You are a wise beast, and have learned much in Rivendell. Make your ways to places where you can find grass, and so come in time to Elrond's house, or wherever you wish to go."

Gandalf, The Fellowhip of the Ring (295-6)

"Thus we meet again, though all the hosts of Mordor lay between us," said Aragorn. "Did I not say so at the Hornburg?"

"So you spoke," said Eomer, "but hope oft decieves, and I knew not then that you were a man foresighted."

The Return of the King (830)

Maiar Shapeshifting

         The Shapeshifting of the Valar and the Maiar is a different kind of thing from Beorn's. Basically, any Valar or Maiar can body or disembody themselves at will. Thus, killing their body does not kill them, not for a long time. Nor can you be sure their shape will ever be the same twice. Yet, somehow, Middle-Earth itself wears away this capacity, even in good Maiar like Radagast and Gandalf.

Now the Valar took to themselves shape and hue; and because they were drawn into the World by love of the Children of Ilvatar, for whom they hoped, they took shape after that manner which they beheld in the Vision of Iluvatar, save only in majesty and splendour. Moreover their shape comes of their knowledge of the visible World, rather than of the World itself; and they need it not, save only as we use raiment, and yet we may be naked and suffer no loss of our being.

The Silmarillion (11)


         Essentially only the Maiar (i.e. Gandalf and Saruman) are known to cast spells. However, there are some questionable cases otherwise. Higher being may imbue another with power -- such as The Mouth of Sauron. There are also "black arts" mentioned which Men practiced -- though it is not clear whether there were also "white arts" or what precisely the black arts were. For the Maiar, there are some definite effects known:

"Now go on again!" said Beorn to the wizard.

"Where was I? O yes -- I was not grabbed. I killed a goblin or two with a flash --"

"Good!" growled Beorn, "It is some good being a wizard then."

Gandalf & Beorn, The Hobbit

"I will come," said Gimli. "I wish to see him and learn if he really looks like you."

"And how will you learn that, Master Dwarf?" said Gandalf.

"Saruman could look like me in your eyes, if it suited his purpose with you. And are you yet wise enough to detect all his counterfeits?"

The Two Towers (562)

Legolas gave a great shout and shot an arrow high into the air: it vanished in a flash of flame.

"Mithrandir!" he cried. "Mithrandir!"

"Well met, I say to you again, Legolas!" said the old man. . . .

At last Aragorn stirred. "Gandalf!" he said. "Beyond all hope you return to us in our need! What veil was over my sight? Gandalf!"

The Two Towers (483 - 4)

"There's more behind this than sun and warm air," [Sam] muttered to himself. "I don't like this great big tree. I don't trust it. Hark at it singing about sleep now! This won't do at all!"

The Fellowship of the Ring (114-5)

"I could think of nothing to do but put a shutting-spell on the door. I know many; but to do things of that kind rightly requires time, and even then the door can be broken by strength."

Gandalf, The Fellowship of the Ring (318-9)

Once he (Saruman) was as great as his fame made him. His knowledge was deep, his thought was subtle, and his hands marvellously skilled; and he had a power over the minds of others. The wise he could persuade, and the smaller folk he could daunt. That power he certainly still keeps. There are not many in Middle-earth that I should say were safe, if they were left alone to talk with him, even now when he has suffered a defeat. Gandalf, Elrond, and Galadriel, perhaps, now that his wickedness has been laid bare, but very few others.

LOTR, Book III, chapter 10

Gandalf struck a blue light on the end of his staff, and in its firework glare the poor hobbit could be seen kneeling on the hearth-rug, shaking like a jelly that was melting.

The Hobbit (27)

'Knock on the doors with your head, Peregrin Took', said Gandalf. 'But if that does not shatter them, and I am allowed a little peace from foolish questions, I will seek for the opening words.

'I once knew every spell in all the tongues of Elves or Men or Orcs, that was ever used for such a purpose. I can still remember ten score of them without searching in my mind.'

The Fellowship of the Ring, Book I, page 400

The Men of Númenor were settled far and wide on the shores and seaward regions of the Great Lands, but for the most part they fell into evils and follies. Many became enamoured of the Darkness and the black arts; some were given over wholly to idleness and ease, and some fought among themselves, until they were conquered in their weakness by the wild men.

It is not said that evil arts were ever practised in Gondor, or that the Nameless One was ever named in honour there; and the old wisdom and beauty brought out of the West remained long in the realm of the sons of Elendil the Fair, and they linger there still. Yet even so it was Gondor that brought about its own decay, falling by degrees into dotage, and thinking that the Enemy was asleep, who was only banished not destroyed.

LOTR, Book IV, chapter 5, subpage 20.

The rider was robed all in black, and black was his lofty helm; yet this was no Ringwraith but a living man. The Lieutenant of the Tower of Barad-dur he was, and his name is remembered in no tale; for he himself had forgotten it, and he said: 'I am the Mouth of Sauron.' But it is told that he was a renegade, who came of the race of those that are named the Black Nümenörians; for they established their dwellings in Middle-earth during the years of Sauron's domination, and they worshipped him, being enamoured of evil knowledge. And he entered the service of the Dark Tower when it first rose again, and because of his cunning he grew ever higher in the Lord's favour; and he learned great sorcery, and knew much of the mind of Sauron; and he was more cruel than any orc.

LOTR, Book V, page 202


         It is worth noting that besides genuine magic of the sort that Gandalf used, there were lesser magic which may or may not have had any real power. For example, the dwarves in The Hobbit cast "spells" of some sort to hide their troll-cache.

Then they brought up their ponies, and carried away the pots of gold, and buried them very secretly not far from the track by the river, putting a great many spells over them, just in case they ever had the chance to come back and recover them.

The Hobbit (51)


John H. Kim <jhkim-at-darkshire-dot-net>
Last modified: Tue Jul 3 11:50:49 2012