Let Us Speak of Magic: Part the Second

In which the author discusses the magic of the Elves of Middle Earth.

The Tempest 1855 Ivan Aivazovsky
The Tempest by Ivan Aivazovsky, 1855. (Did any of the swan ships burn at Alqualondë?)

Let Us Speak of Magic: Part the Second

Dear Reader.

It is fitting that we should speak of the magic of Tolkien’s Elves and the Dark Lord in the same breath – for theirs is the struggle that shaped the history of Middle Earth.

But, I admit, I was overly ambitious to promise that we could do them justice in a single letter. There’s simply too much magic.

So, herein, we shall give the greater part of our attention to the Elves in this letter – with a glimpse of Sauron’s power (but not yet Melkor, his time approaches). We will also hold off on discussing the Three Rings for the Elven Kings (of which only one is actually held by an Elven King by the Third Age).

We begin with minor magics but the high art will come.

The Lesser Arts

Elves make Elven (or occasionally “Elvish”) things:

Elven-rope, elven-cloaks (or Elvish robes if you prefer), elven-bows, elven-swords, lembas (Waybread is never actually called elven/Elvish-bread in the books).

But they aren’t magic, whatever their quirks. Take it from the source:

‘Are these magic cloaks?’ asked Pippin, looking at them with wonder.
‘I do not know what you mean by that,’ answered the leader of the Elves. ‘They are fair garments, and the web is good, for it was made in this land. They are Elvish robes certainly, if that is what you mean. Leaf and branch, water and stone: they have the hue and beauty of all these things under the twilight of Lórien that we love; for we put the thought of all that we love into all that we make.

Before we say, “But what kind of authority is this nameless leader of the Elves to tell us anything of import?" Let’s be clear that this thinking can be found straight at the top:

‘And you?’ [Galadriel] said, turning to Sam. ‘For this is what your folk would call magic, I believe; though I do not understand clearly what they mean; and they seem to use the same word of the deceits of the Enemy. But this, if you will, is the magic of Galadriel. Did you not say that you wished to see Elf-magic?’

So, not magic as you or I understand the word. But. Nameless Leader of the Elves, also gave us two ideas worth noting:

  1. “They are fair garments, and the web is good, for it was made in this land.”
  2. “We put the thought of all that we love into all that we make.”

So where something is made is important (Mount Doom, eh?) and here, again, we also find Tolkien’s Magic Signature of Self in Middle Earth.

But what about the Mirror?

The Mirror of Galadriel

Galadriel’s mirror is subject to her command but it will show “things unbidden” – things that were, are, and yet may be. (Of note, if the mirror is left to its own devices rather than directed, it will give more difficult but more valuable information.)

But the magic isn’t only in the mirror:

Galadriel sees what Frodo sees regarding Sauron.

'I perceive the Dark Lord and know his mind, or all of his mind that concerns the Elves.'

The mirror isn’t explained anywhere, we don’t get a breakdown of how it works (which I appreciate). And it is even more difficult to parse with precision because two other sources of “magic” show up in this passage: a ring of power – Nenya, the Ring of Adamant – that Galadriel is wearing and the light of the Evening Star, Eärendil.

Yet, I think we can safely say that the mirror is a work of elven craft – an artifact that holds prophetic powers of revelation, which even threatens to be used as a window for the Enemy to look through. (Notice the resonance with the Palantíri here, which themselves are likely made by the elf we’re about to turn to next…)

Is the mirror an amplifier of Galadriel’s own vision? Is its “magic” her own, focused in an object? We aren’t told, though it is possible, considering such statements as, “We put the thought of all that we love into all that we make.”

And was there ever a greater mind or maker of things amongst the elves than the Noldor, Feanor?

The Craft of Feanor

For Fëanor was made the mightiest in all parts of body and mind: in valour, in endurance, in beauty, in understanding, in skill, in strength and subtlety alike: of all the Children of Ilúvatar, and a bright flame was in him.

Feanor is awesome. Feanor is terrible. The Spirit of Fire, the maker of the Silmarils, the leader of the Kinslayers (Dragonlance copycat inbound), the one who made the oath that would shape the doom of the elves till Eärendil’s great labor (which involved the last of the Silmarils).

“And a bright flame was in him.”

Echos of creation here:

[Melkor] had gone often alone into the void places seeking the Imperishable Flame; for desire grew hot within him to bring into Being things of his own, and it seemed to him that Ilúvatar took no thought for the Void, and he was impatient of its emptiness. Yet he found not the fire, for it is with Ilúvatar.

Which in turn is echoed in the creation of the Silmarils themselves:

Yet that crystal was to the Silmarils but as is the body to the Children of Ilúvatar: the house of its inner fire, that is within it and yet in all parts of it, and is its life.

And thus more – and more potent evidence – of Magic as Signature of Self in Tolkien.

Feanor, driven by the “shadow of foreknowledge,” made the Silmarils whose theft by Melkor drove the wars and sorrows of the First Age. His oath made in pursuit of those treasures brought the Curse of Mandos that shaped the direction and outcome of that conflict – even as Mandos foretold, in part, at their making.

And that’s all Capital “M” Magic.

Let us speak more of the Oath of Feanor and the Curse of Mandos as they played out in the life of Finrod…

The Last Song of Finrod Felagund

Music – and the magic of it – is a central and persistent theme in Tolkien’s fantasy.

It goes back to the Creation Music, you find it in the dueling eschatologies of the Barrow Wight and Tom Bombadil in Ch.8 “Fog on the Barrow-downs” in Fellowship, and you witness it in the song duel between Finrod and Sauron.

Finrod is seeking a Silmaril and that journey has brought him and his companions before Sauron, cloaked in magic disguises. Sauron wants to know who they really are.

We’re going to quote the whole thing, as found in The Lays of Beleriand edited by Christopher Tolkien, pg 276. Sauron sings first:

He chanted a song of wizardry,
Of piercing, opening, of treachery,
Revealing, uncovering, betraying.
Then sudden Felagund there swaying
Sang in answer a song of staying,
Resisting, battling against power,
Of secrets kept, strength like a tower,
And trust unbroken, freedom, escape;
Of changing and of shifting shape,
Of snares eluded, broken traps,
The prison opening, the chain that snaps.
Backwards and forwards swayed their song.
Reeling and foundering, as ever more strong
The chanting swelled, Felagund fought,
And all the magic and might he brought,
Of Elvenesse into his words.
Softly in the gloom they heard the birds
Singing afar in Nargothrond,
The sighing of the sea beyond,
Beyond the western world, on sand,
On sand of pearls in Elvenland.
Then the gloom gathered; darkness growing
In Valinor, the red blood flowing
Beside the sea, where the Noldor slew
The Foamriders, and stealing drew
Their white ships with their white sails
From lamplit havens. The wind wails,
The wolf howls. The ravens flee.
The ice mutters in the mouths of the sea.
The captives sad in Angband mourn,
Thunder rumbles, the fires burn-
And Finrod fell before the throne.
The Lay of Leithian, Canto VII, vv. 2173-2205

(Hear a rendition here.)

Sauron’s music is described only as what it is meant to accomplish: breaching the magic of the elven disguises by a “song of wizardry” – Of piercing, opening, of treachery, revealing, uncovering, betraying.

Likewise, Finrod responds with a “song of staying,” described by what it is meant to accomplish, but Tolkien now expands beyond the simplicity of Sauron’s 3 verses into 8 verses of countersong.

As the battle intensifies, Finrod brings in “all the magic and might” of “Elvenesse” (a reference to the homes of the elves in Middle Earth – such as Nargothrond – and on to Valinor itself. Remember, place matters). And the spirit of place comes in reply, with all the hope of the paradise left behind.

But Sauron destroys Finrod with his own hope.

He follows the thread of the song back to paradise and recalls its betrayal: The rebellion of the Noldor, which Finrod was part of (as was Galadriel, as it would happen). A rebellion that culminated in the Kinslaying of the “Foamriders” at Alqualondë. This is the great sin all Noldor bear (even though Finrod and his people did not directly participate in it).

Sea birds and sand of pearls are undone by the wailing of the wind, the howling wolf, ravens, muttering ice (a reminder of the bitter crossing of Helcaraxë).

Sauron matches Finrod note for note, conjuring the power of place and memory – and prevails.

This, too, is magic as the Signature of Self. Finrod isn’t wielding incarnations or a secret language of power. He sings from himself, drawing upon his identity and the hope of his people. He sings with the spirit and the power of the Elves – and it is a mighty song indeed.

But that spirit and power is sullied by “the red blood flowing.”

Sauron reminds Finrod of the guilt of his people and in so doing declares a darker identity over them: that of Rebels and Murderers.

“And Finrod fell before the throne.”

Oh, Dear Reader, deep is the sorrow and shame of the elves of Middle Earth. Yes, beautiful their works, noble and valiant their deeds. But tragic as well. Their “magic” is them, their signature of self: revealed in craft and vision and song.

Next week, we will speak more of the Dark Lord and his magic.

Best regards,


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