Let Us Speak of Magic: Part the Third

In which the author discusses the magic of the Dark Lord of Middle Earth.

Tempest Sunset by Ivan Aivazovsky, 1856. (Do we glimpse the power of Melkor at work upon the world?)

Let Us Speak of Magic: Part the Third

Dear Reader,

In our discussion of magic in fantasy literature we recently spoke of Tolkien’s elves and their magic – which they do not call magic.

This week, we turn to the magic of Tolkien’s Dark Lord – for his hour has come round at last. Yes, he wields classic powers: fear and darkness and a will that dominates, whether his name be Sauron or Melkor (or even Saruman, if given the chance).

But there is more to his horrible might than mere abilities. We turn now to the Spirit of Corruption who is at work in the very bones of the world...

The Corrupting Power of the Dark Lord

[A]nd [the Valar] built lands and Melkor destroyed them; valleys they delved and Melkor raised them up; mountains they carved and Melkor threw them down; seas they hollowed and Melkor spilled them; and naught might have peace or come to lasting growth, for as surely as the Valar began a labour so would Melkor undo it or corrupt it.
- The Silmarillion, 22

After the song of creation had been sung, the Valar came to Middle Earth to do what they had sung. And so Melkor came to work his own will in spite. In the beginning his work is an application of raw power: he breaks, he crushes, he hollows, he undoes, he corrupts.

But despite all his efforts, the world is “fashioned and made firm.”

And so he dares more. Unable to create anything of his own, he sets to a course of corruption and perversion. The orcs, trolls, and dragons are all his work – though the lore conflicts or is silent on how he makes his marvelous and loyal monsters (are the orcs fashioned from beasts, corrupted elves, stones and slime, men? The lore is not definitive. And I heartily approve.)

Yet does it cost the Dark Lord anything to do this work? Consider the description of the creation of the great wolf Carcharoth:

[Melkor] fed him with his own hand upon living flesh, and put his power upon him.
- The Silmarillion, 180

“Put his power” is the crucial beat here.

There’s an echo here with something more familiar in our experience of Tolkien. Recall Sauron and the One Ring, the Ring that he poured “his power” into. The Ring, which when absent from him, robs the Dark Lord of much of his strength.

Perhaps there is something deeper here to be searched out. But are we weaving overmuch with rather thin thread? I purpose, we turn to Morgoth’s Ring: The Later Silmarillion, Part One, compiled by Christopher Tolkien from his father’s work to explore the proportion more fully.

Morgoth’s Ring

For as [Melkor] grew in malice, and sent forth from himself the evil that he conceived in lies and creatures of wickedness, his power passed into them and was dispersed, and he himself became ever more earth-bound, unwilling to issue from his dark strongholds.
- Morgoth’s Ring, 133

Here we find evidence that the putting forth of power is not without cost to the Dark Lord. To spread his lies and wicked creatures abroad, he sent himself out in them. (The "lies" part is very interesting, as Melkor is credited with sowing the seeds of division not only between the races of Middle Earth, but between the elves and the Valar – contributing to Feanor’s fateful rebellion.)

But there is a larger metaphor at play than merely spreading his power around. Melkor was putting himself in as much of the world of Arda as he could:

Melkor ‘incarnated’ himself (as Morgoth) permanently. He did this so as to control the hroa, the ‘flesh’ or physical matter, of Arda. He attempted to identify himself with it. A vaster, and more perilous, procedure, though of similar sort to the operations of Sauron with the Rings.
- ibid, 399-400

So, as Tolkien continues, we learn that Sauron “concentrated” his power, but Morgoth “disseminated” his (emphasis Tolkien’s in both cases). This effort of dissemination extended to that point that “The Whole of ‘Middle-Earth’ was Morgoth’s Ring.”

Thus everything in the world that it is made of matter – including the peoples – have a “Melkor ingredient” or "element" in them that works upon their bodies, and thus upon their spirits. (See page 400 for this argument – and some of its consequences – in detail.)

This desire to dominate all of creation from within resonates with Melkor’s part in the music of creation: He tried to overthrow the entire song by the discordant part he added.

Part of the consequence of this infection of the world is that the will of the Dark Lords could influence – and dominate – the wills of lesser evils.

A Dread Governing Will

Orcs were multiplying again in the mountains. Trolls were abroad, no longer dull-witted, but cunning and armed with dreadful weapons.
- The Fellowship of the Ring, Ch 2

There is a connection between the Dark Lord and his servants. As his power waxes, his servants grow more numerous and more cunning. Evil creeps back into the world, old powers stir and are summoned to service.

Ringwraiths, shadows under his great Shadow, his most terrible servants. Long ago. It is many a year since the Nine walked abroad. Yet who knows? As the Shadow grows once more, they too may walk again. - ibid

And with the Dark Lord’s absence – or death – they lose something fundamental to their existence:

As when death smites the swollen brooding thing that inhabits their crawling hill and holds them all in sway, ants will wander witless and purposeless and then feebly die, so the creatures of Sauron, orc or troll or beast spell-enslaved, ran hither and thither mindless; and some slew themselves, or cast themselves in pits, or fled wailing back to hide in holes and dark lightless places far from hope.
- The Return of the King, Ch 4

(This concept of extending one’s will to govern an army can also be found to a lesser degree in Star Wars, specifically in Timothy Zahn’s now non-canonical Thrawn Trilogy. Here the Emperor is credited with using the Force to influence the will of his forces and empower them.)

This language of “shadow under his great shadow” is getting at how the Dark Lord and his servants relate. He is their governing will, the Queen Ant at the heart of the Hive Mind. Orcs may grumble and gripe and slay one another – but they are never described as rebelling against him. Because they are dominated to his will, they are drawn to him.

As Gandalf says when explaining why Gollum would go to Mordor:

Mordor draws all wicked things, and the Dark Power was bending all its will to gather them there.

The Signature of Self of wicked things in Middle Earth, is that the Dark Lord is connected to them – they are drawn to him and he can command their service. And, wouldn’t that be a logical outcome for those things that have the “Morgoth element” most fully realized within them?

The Great Elven Music

We have spoken much of the Dark Lord’s power, a power that came to corrupt all matter of the created world. And that power was great indeed, greater than any elf who sought to slay him. Sheer folly it was that the elves would determine to take the Silmarils back from him!

For how could they? Once set upon his crown, what hand could hope to snatch them from his dread brow?

Fingolfin faced him in single combat, he even wounded the Dark Lord, but in the end no elven blade would ever overcome Melkor.

But, the Dark Lord, was indeed humbled once by an elf. Let us give her the last word in this letter.

Last week, we spoke of how Finrod lost the music duel with Sauron and fell before the throne. But this was not the only instance when an elf sang in the presence of the Dark Lord, indeed that very story picks up later in the Silmarillion

This story, the story of Beren and Lúthien – a man and an elven princess – is alluded to by Aragorn on Weathertop. Let us hear part of it as they come before Melkor:

Then suddenly [Lúthien] eluded [Melkor’s] sight, and out of the shadows began a song of such surpassing loveliness, and of such blinding power, that he listened perforce; and a blindness came upon him, as his eyes roamed to and fro, seeking her.
All his court were cast down in slumber, and all the fires faded and were quenched; but the Silmarils in the crown on Morgoth’s head blazed forth suddenly with a radiance of white flame; and the burden of that crown and of the jewels bowed down his head, as though the world were set upon it, laden with a weight of care, of fear, and of desire, that even the will of Morgoth could not support. Then Lúthien catching up her winged robe sprang into the air, and her voice came dropping down like rain into pools, profound and dark. She cast her cloak before his eyes, and set upon him a dream, dark as the Outer Void where once he walked alone. Suddenly he fell, as a hill sliding in avalanche, and hurled like thunder from his throne lay prone upon the floors of hell. The iron crown rolled echoing from his head. All things were still.
- The Silmarillion, 180-181

Great was Melkor. And great did he fall upon his throne, to the cost of a Silmaril pried from his crown. Laid low by the elven-music of Lúthien Tinúviel.

His crown there rolled upon the ground,
a wheel of thunder then all sound
died, and a silence grew as deep
as were the heart of Earth asleep.
-Beren and Lúthien, 211

We have delved deep into the lore of Tolkien's magic in Middle Earth – and thankfully no Balrogs were roused in the process. Next week we will take a break from our discussion of Magic in Fantasy Literature to speak on some other matter.

Until we speak again, Dear Reader.

Best regards,


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