Enchantment vs. Magic in Tolkien’s Myth

The following is a reply to David Llewellyn Dodds who has been very generous in his comments on my previous Tolkien post.  This reply fits here and if you are interested you can follow the flow of thought in comment section of the previous post.

In Letter 155 Tolkien takes the traditional distinction between magia (wisdom) and goeteia (sorcery) and for the purposes of his tale distinguishes between magia that has actual effect (machine, technology) and geoteia that is artistic (enchantment).  Both forms can be used for good or ill depending on intention.  Tolkien is more suspicious of the machine, though he in no way discounts that art can be used to deceive.

It is interesting that in his essay “On Fairy Stories” he explicitly correlates the idea of “enchantment” with the creation of a secondary world, or sub-creation.  This is precisely the “elvish craft” of which Tolkien himself is the primary-world master.   Given, that Tolkien calls the quickened art of the elves “enchantment” rather than “magic,” I believe that he is speaking in the essay of what he calls goeteia in Letter 155.  In the essay he also says “[m]agic produces, or pretends to produce, an alteration in the primary world.”  This leads me to conclude that he considers magia to be simply “magic” and goeteia to be “enchantment.”

A further point should be noted in connection to this, namely, the elves themselves seem to favor goeteia over magia, and use the latter sparingly (as does Gandalf, according to Letter 155).  This, I believe, corresponds to the general thrust of Tolkien on these matters:  he hates the machine, but loves art as long as the latter is honest.  Art in itself has no further purpose beyond that of contemplation and delight.  Some artifacts certainly may have both a practical purpose and be beautiful, like a car, but art in itself has as its sole motive the “charming” of the one who beholds it.  It seems to me then, David, that the speculation about the Mirror of Galadriel and the palantíri might be resolved by considering the fact that the elves enchant as a rule and only imbed creation with magical effects when truly necessary.   Thus, it may be possible for the Mirror to be both magia and goeteia, but more so the latter.  The elves are always making things more beautiful, and sometimes the beautiful things they make have a practical purpose.

Enchantment means to produce by way of “incantation,” which we generally understand to mean the invocation of spirits, but it literally means “to sing upon” or “to put words upon.”  Tolkien, in fact, refers to specific words:

But how powerful, how stimulating to the very faculty that produced it, was the invention of the adjective: no spell or incantation in Faerie is more potent. And that is not surprising: such incantations might indeed be said to be only another view of adjectives, a part of speech in a mythical grammar. The mind that thought of light, heavy, grey, yellow, still, swift, also conceived of magic that would make heavy things light and able to fly, turn grey lead into yellow gold, and the still rock into a swift water. If it could do the one, it could do the other; it inevitably did both. When we can take green from grass, blue from heaven, and red from blood, we have already an enchanter’s power—upon one plane; and the desire to wield that power in the world external to our minds awakes. It does not follow that we shall use that power well upon any plane. We may put a deadly green upon a man’s face and produce a horror; we may make the rare and terrible blue moon to shine; or we may cause woods to spring with silver leaves and rams to wear fleeces of gold, and put hot fire into the belly of the cold worm. But in such “fantasy,” as it is called, new form is made; Faerie begins; Man becomes a sub-creator (“On Fairy Stories”).

In my estimation, the words Tolkien speaks of here are not literally “spells” but the power of man to name and form words, and by virtue of the same imaginative power to tell a story.

In Letter 153, Tolkien says

Elves and Men are represented as biologically akin in this ‘history’, because Elves are certain aspects of Men and their talents and desires, incarnated in my little world. They have certain freedoms and powers we should like to have, and the beauty and peril and sorrow of the possession of these things is exhibited in them. . . .

Death and immortality, with power and domination subordinately considered, figure as the major themes of Tolkien’s mythology (Letter 186).  Indeed, they are at the heart of Tolkien’s tale.  Connected with this is loss and the temptation to overcome this problem by any means.  What if we could live forever?  What if we did have the power to prevent loss?  How far can we go with our machines?  Should we not consider efficiency more important than beauty and truth?

Tolkien’s story as an enchantment of the primary world, which might be used as an artifact of evangelization or of gnosticism, depending on the intention, is the primary metaphor of The Lord of the Rings.  This is why I personally believe its real power to enchant (to evangelize) is found in the simple intention to enjoy it, rather than in its overt use as an instrument of propaganda.  For it is not only the enemy that uses art badly.  He uses it to deceive because he is a liar, but those of elvish heritage (mandkind), even if they worship the true God may be tempted to use others with their art and subjugate them to some other end than befits their dignity.  Everyone deserves to be told the truth and to be free to find it.  This, I believe, is also what is at the heart of Tolkien’s contempt for what he calls “allegory.”

One thought on “Enchantment vs. Magic in Tolkien’s Myth

  1. Dear Father Angelo,

    Thank you for this! You bring letters and essay together finely! I want to read and reread this, to see if I find anything of substance to say in reply.

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