What is Tolkien’s magic?
We find magical items in Middle-earth, and also magical creatures, but at first sight magical spells appear rather scarce. Yet once we take Tolkien at his word we find magic interspersed throughout his stories, which themselves weave a spell of extraordinary potency.
A spell, Tolkien explained in his St Andrews lecture on fairy stories, “means both a story told, and a formula of power over living men” (OFS 47).
Here is a philologist talking. Yet the meaning of spell as story is not so arcane as you might think. Children still learn their letters, that is, are taught to spell. Spelling is associated with words as well as magic, or if you want, with word magic.
The older meaning of spell as story is preserved in our gospel, a word that is indirectly invoked in The Lord of the Rings when, in the hall of Théoden, Gríma Wormtongue names Gandalf Láthspell. Gospel is from the Old English good spell, or good story; Láthspell, its opposite, means evil story or ill news.
Tolkien does not state outright that the two meanings of spell are the same; he does not say that a story told is a formula of power. Yet I would argue that he plays on the difference while holding that at root the two may be the same.
Consider this description of the faithless Unfriend in ‘Sellic Spell’ – Tolkien’s telling of the fairy story he discerned within Beowulf:
He had a keen wit, and the King set great store by his counsels, though some said that he used secret spells, and that his counsels roused strife more often than they made peace. (Beowulf 365-6)
On the surface a distinction is clearly drawn here between the counsel Unfriend offers the king and his secret spells. Yet it is not the narrator who separates spells and counsel, but some others in the story. A suspicion hangs in the air that these are people who do not quite grasp the full potency of words in themselves.
Now, Gríma Wormtongue, the counsellor of King Théoden, was drawn by Tolkien out of the character Unfriend (Unferth in Beowulf). I want to compare the cinematic treatment of Gandalf’s encounter with Wormtongue with the scene as told in Tolkien’s own story because, I think, it will allow us to weigh better the significance of this suspicion.
In this scene from the movie a magical dual takes place between Gandalf and Saruman, who has possessed the mind and body of King Théoden. Wormtongue is early stomped upon by Gimli the Dwarf, and is incidental to the battle between the two wizards, which concludes with Saruman’s exorcism and the physical transformation of Théoden from decrepit wreck to comely if middle-aged king.
Turning to the book, I suggest that the real confrontation begins already when the travellers – Gandalf, Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas – arrive at the gates of the hill fort of Edoras and men in bright mail spring up to bar their way, crying in the tongue of the Riddermark:
Stay, strangers here unknown!
Gandalf replies in their language, but observes that it is a tongue that few strangers understand. If you wish to be answered, he asks the guards, why not speak in the Common Tongue? The guards reply that it is the will of Théoden that none enter who do not speak the language of Rohan. Yet a moment later it is suggested that Wormtongue – and this is the first time we hear his name – has been instrumental in establishing this gate policy:
It is but two nights ago that Wormtongue came to us and said that by the will of Théoden no stranger should pass these gates.
Here is no sorcery. Yet Wormtongue is implicated from the first in an attempt to use words to isolate the Rohirrim and their king. And Gandalf, the wizard, overcomes this obstacle by mastery of their language.
The travellers now enter Edoras and climb up to Meduseld, the golden hall of Théoden. At the far end of the hall sits the King on a great gilded chair, while at his feet upon the steps sits Gríma Wormtongue, “a wizened figure of a man, with a pale wise face and heavy-lidded eyes”.
There was a silence.
At length Gandalf speaks. Théoden replies briefly, and not with words of welcome. Then Gríma speaks, naming Gandalf Láthspell, ill-news. An exchange of words unfolds between Gandalf and Wormtongue, who accuses the wizard of being in league with the Lady Galadriel, “the Sorceress of the Golden Wood”, where “webs of deceit were ever woven”. Gandalf has had enough. He sings a song about Galadriel, commands Wormtongue to silence, and then raises his staff and performs the only bit of theatrical magic in the whole scene:
There was a roll of thunder. The sunlight was blotted out from the eastern windows; the whole hall became suddenly dark as night. The fire faded to sullen embers.
And still Wormtongue speaks: “Did I not counsel you, lord, to forbid his staff?”
There was a flash as if lightening had cloven the roof. Then all was silent.
Thunder and lightning, and a wizard’s staff. A moment of drama that achieves one end: the silencing of Wormtongue. And this is the real magic performed by Gandalf. Not the exorcism of Saruman, but the breaking of Gríma’s web of deceit by the silencing of his spells.
And the rest is easy.
‘Now Théoden son of Thengel, will you hearken to me?’ said Gandalf… ‘No counsel have I to give to those that despair. Yet counsel I could give, and words I could speak to you. Will you hear them?’
Gandalf leads Théoden out of his hall.
Quickly now Gandalf spoke. His voice was low and secret, and none save the king heard what he said. But ever as he spoke the light shone brighter in Théoden’s eye…
On the silver screen Peter Jackson treated us to a struggle between wizards. Tolkien, however, tells a story of a battle between two counsellors. Gandalf does not break the incantations of Saruman but silences the twisted words of Wormtongue. He does not lead Théoden back to the light by exorcising Saruman, but by talking to him, speaking to him words of good counsel.
None of this is meant especially as criticism of the movie scene. Peter Jackson correctly discerned that this is a scene of magic, in which spells are spoken and a part of Gandalf’s true nature is revealed. But the real magic in Tolkien’s story, the dramatic thunder and lightning notwithstanding, is word magic.
And this does perhaps point to an intrinsic limitation of the movie adaptations of Tolkien’s stories. For how can a visual drama capture and convey Tolkien’s foundational idea that words are the real magic, that stories sung or spoken aloud are the real spells?
Those who know Tolkien’s writings only through their cinematic adaptations are like those who held that Unfriend relied upon “secret spells” – ignorant of the power of Tolkien’s words they conflate the real magic of Middle-earth with computer aided special effects.
But again, neither Peter Jackson nor those who suspected Unfriend of using secret spells are altogether off the mark. Tolkien was not demystifying sorcery by collapsing magical spells into story and counsel. He was reminding us of the magic incarnate in cunningly crafted words. A battle between two counsellors is a struggle of opposing magical forces.
We can appreciate the real magic invoked by Tolkien in this part of his story by noting three key moments in the coming of the travellers to Rohan.
First, walking between the burial mounds of the kings of Rohan before their arrival at Edoras itself, Aragorn sings – first in the original tongue, then in the Common Speech – the song of “a forgotten poet long ago in Rohan”.
Second, outside the doors of Meduseld, Háma, the door warden, hearing of the lineage of Aragorn’s sword, declares:
It seems that you are come on the wings of song out of the forgotten days…
And third, recall how Gandalf’s ‘thunder and lightning’ moment of magic is directly preceded by his soft singing of a song of Lórien and Galadriel.
Here, in these two songs and the intimation of songs from a long forgotten past, is an indication of the profound magical power brought by these travellers to Rohan: a magic that can hardly fail to break the cunning webs of deceit woven by Gríma Wormtongue.