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Tolkien’s Magic

I’m not speaking of his incredible writing voice or his powerful poetry; I’m speaking of the magic in Eä, the World that Is.

There seems to be a lot of confusion on this topic in the fanfiction and RP world. With many fans left clueless, they turn to other fandoms for the magic in their stories. Thus we see ‘Elemental Magic’, ‘Charmed Magic’, ‘Wicca Magic’, and ‘Harry Potter Magic’ infiltrating our beloved fandom. Believe it or not, none of these are remotely close to the magic that’s already there.

What Magic is:

In the beginning, Eru Ilúvatar made Eä, the World that Is.
He made it through song. Therefore, magic is made of and accessed through song
(S 20).

Levels of Magic:

  1. The power to create and destroy utterly: Eru’s power. When his music dies, Eä dies as well. The end of the world, so to speak.
  2. The power to elaborate creations: the power of the Valar. The Valar took Eä and made something out of it, each choosing a part of the creation that they wanted most to elaborate.
  3. The power to command and serve the creation: the power of the Maiar. They serve the Valar, watching over Eä. They’re a bit like guardian angels.
  4. The power to change oneself: the power of the Elves. They cannot force the creation to serve them with magic, but they can change themselves.
  5. The power to control one’s own destiny and the power to die: the power of Men. It is said that Eru gave Men the greatest gifts of all the races, but they share it with Dwarves and Hobbits.

Who are these powerful things and why can’t I add more of them?

Eru Ilúvatar is something like the Judeo/Christian God. His name translates as ‘The One Father of All’. Kinda defeats the point of having two or more, doesn’t it?

The Ainur (all the Valar and the Maiar) were born through Ilúvatar’s beginning of the world song. They were made in the same moment. They are finite in number; that means that no more can be born, and none can die. They can be tossed into the void or locked in a prison, but they can never be slain. They can be free of their physical bodies, but that does not make them dead (S 15).

The Male Valar are:

  • Manwë: the Vala of the air
  • Ulmo: the Vala of the water
  • Aulë: the Vala of craft and metal
  • Oromë: the Vala of hunting
  • Námo: the Vala of death
  • Irmo: the Vala of visions and dreams
  • Tulkas: the Vala of wild things

The Female Valier are:

  • Varda: the Valië of the stars
  • Yavanna: the Valië of growing things
  • Nienna: the Valië of mourning
  • Estë: the Valië of repose and healing
  • Vairë: the Valië of history and weaving
  • Vána: the Valië of youth and blossoms
  • Nessa: the Valië of joy (S 20)

The evil Vala is Melkor, though he did not begin evil. He could be called the Vala of perversion, jealousy, and hatred. It should be noted that nothing is evil from the start, and what becomes evil stays evil.

The some of the Valar paired up with each other to make their long passage easier, but they cannot wed as Elves and Men can (i.e. having sex).

  • Manwë & Varda
  • Aulë & Yavanna
  • Námo & Vairë
  • Irmo & Estë
  • Tulkas & Nessa
  • Oromë & Vána
  • Ulmo, Nienna, and Melkor are alone (S 25-9)

The Maiar are the lesser powers. They choose a Vala to work for, but they are free to change their minds. We don’t know who all of the Maiar are, but we do know that they are finite in number. A few famous ones are Gandalf, Smaug, Sauron, Thuringwethil, and the Balrog. All of those on that short list served Melkor except Gandalf.

What magic can Men do?

Men are able to do magic, but on the subject of how it works and how powerful they can become Tolkien was a little vague. We do know that they must do magic through a lot of studying, and that the help of a Maia is very useful when this comes about (LOTR 870). Perhaps becoming undead, like a ringwraith, can expand their powers more. We also know that the Drúedain specialized in a type of magic involving stone carving. They can make statues of themselves called watch-stones, which protect their homes by physically destroying enemies. Unfortunately, these statues are bound to their makers in a way that what harms the statue harms the maker (UT 380-2).

Can the Maiar marry Elves or Men? What happens when they do?

The Maiar can fall in love with and marry Elves (and presumably Men). It only happened once. King Thingol, a Sindarin Elf who was king of a realm called Doriath fell in love and married a Maia named Melyanna (renamed and remembered in myth as Melian) (S 55-6). They had a daughter named Lúthien Tinúviel. Lúthien was not a Maia. She was an Elf, as her father was. But, she was a very powerful Elf, and she had the power that took normal Elves many thousands of years of study and wisdom. She didn’t have the power of a Maia, she only had powers of an Elf, and she had to access it the same way everyone else did: many hours of song (S 165).

Elves can change their appearance?

Elves can change their appearance, but it’s not as easy as whistling a few bars of a song and becoming more beautiful than Tinúviel. It takes hours and hours and hours of singing a Song of Power for anything to happen. Before an Elf can do that, the Elf needs to spend several thousand years studying and practicing (S 178).

What’s a Song of Power?

Tolkien spoke of them now and then, and they take the most prominent part in the Tale of Tinúviel. However, we don’t know what they are made of besides singing. They are magic spells, except they aren’t near as convenient or easy to use, seeing as one must sing for many hours before anything happens (S 171).

The Importance of Names

The role of names in magic isn’t entirely clear, but we know that they have significance. To the Elves, a name makes the owner of the name an individual. In magic, names seem to serve as a way to direct magic towards the individual. In Elven marriages, they name Varda and Manwë as witness to their union (MR 211). Forgetting your name seems to be important as well, because it holds the key to an individual’s personality. If you forget your name, you forget who you were, and other people won’t know who you were as well. In the tragedy of Túrin and Nienor, the dragon, Glaurung, made Nienor forget her name. Nienor and Túrin met in the woods, but they didn’t know that they were brother and sister and married. When they found out, they committed suicide.

So there’s telepathy in Eä? How does it work?

Telepathy isn’t as cut and dry as it is in most fandoms. It’s true; everyone can do it. The ability to do it is based on the Levels of Magic, so a Maia can do much more and better telepathy than an Elf could.

An Elf can’t think to another Elf, "Hey how y’all doin’?" In fact, an Elf would never say, "Hey how y’all doin’?", but that’s besides the point. No one can have a conversation telepathically like one would if one were speaking on a telephone. Telepathy can come in the form of emotions, images, sounds, or ideas. It also works like a random searchlight; one can observe far away places and events with telepathy. The best way to do telepathy is to look into someone’s eyes as you think to them (LOTR 348-9).

Telepathy isn’t easy. It takes years and years of study and practice to be able to do it. Most of the time, it is done through magical aids, like the Palantíri, but the Palantíri didn’t transmit sound, only images and thought. Telepathy isn’t a very useful way to communicate in comparison to sending a letter or speaking with someone, and it is incredibly exhausting (UT 411).

In Conclusion

Now, I send you into the great world of our fandom armed with information. Have fun, and respect the complexity of Tolkien’s creation by remembering that Tolkien’s magic is a lot more complex than ‘abracabra’. As usual, if you write about a ‘magik-mage Elf’ that can control the elements after reading this essay (or any of those abominations I listed at the beginning of the essay), I will beat you with my hardcover edition of The Silmarillion until it sinks in.


  • (LOTR) The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien The Mirror of Galadriel, The Black Gate Opens
  • (MR) Morgoth’s Ring by J. R. R. Tolkien Laws and Customs Among the Eldar
  • (S) The Silmarillion by J. R. R. Tolkien Ainulindalë, Valaquenta – Of the Valar – Of the Maiar – Of the Enemies, Of Thingol and Melian, Of Beren and Lúthien
  • (UT) Unfinished Tales by J. R. R. Tolkien The Drúedain, The Palantíri

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