Tolkien Gateway

Letter 155

The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien
Letter 155
RecipientNaomi Mitchison
DateAn unsent part of Letter 154, which was posted 25 September 1954
Subject(s)Explication of Magic and its moral dimensions

Letter 155 is a letter written by J.R.R. Tolkien and published in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien.

[edit] Summary

Tolkien feared that he had been far too casual about "magic" and the use of the word, although criticism by Galadriel and others of the "mortal" use of the term showed that thought about it was not casual. It was a very large and difficult question and the story of The Lord of the Rings could hardly be burdened with a pseudo-philosophic disquisition! Tolkien had no intent to debate whether "magic" was real or possible in the world.

For the purposes of the tale there was a latent distinction between what was once called magia and goeteia.[note 1] Galadriel spoke of the "deceits of the Enemy".[1] Magia was held to be good and goeteia bad; in this tale neither is good or bad except by motive or purpose or use. Both sides used both, but with different motives. The supremely bad motive was the domination of other "free" wills. The Enemy's operations were not all goetic deceits, but "magic" that produced real effects in the physical world. However, his magia bulldozed people and things, and his goeteia terrified and subjugated. Elves and Gandalf sparingly used magia for real results (such as fire in a wet faggot) for specific beneficent purposes. They used goeteia entirely for artistic effects because to Elves the result was as obvious to them as the difference between fiction, painting, sculpture and life is to us (although Elvish goeteia might deceive or bewilder unaware Men).

Both sides lived mainly by "ordinary" means. The Enemy and those like him went in for "machinery". The basic motive of magia is immediacy: speed, reduction of labour, and reduction of the gap between the idea or desire and the result or effect. But since magia was not easy to come by and since the Enemy had abundant slave-labour or machinery, the latter means was often preferred. Another factor then enters, a moral or pathological one: tyrants lose sight of objects, become cruel, and enjoy smashing, hurting, and defiling. One could defend poor Lotho's new and more efficient mills, but not Sharkey and Sandyman's use of them.

A difference in Tolkien’s "magic" is that it cannot be attained by "lore" or spells; it is an inherent power not possessed by Men as such. Aragorn's healing might have been regarded as "magical", or a blend of magic with pharmacy and hypnotism, but it was reported by hobbits with little notions of philosophy or science. Aragorn was not a pure "Man" but at long remove was one of the "children of Lúthien".

Alongside the final paragraph of this part of the letter that was not sent Tolkien had written: "But the Númenóreans used 'spells' in making swords?"

[edit] Notes

  1. The second term, in English Goety, is defined in the O.E.D. as "witchcraft or magic performed by the invocation and employment of evil spirits; necromancy".


  1. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, The Fellowship of the Ring, "The Mirror of Galadriel"