Home ] Tolkien Syllabus ] magicalquotes ] [ magicintolkien ]


Magic in Middle Earth:

An Analysis


This used to be the game mechanical section of my document.  But I've reworked it into an abstract discussion of magic in Tolkien.  Its origins as a roleplaying guide should still be evident, and it may still be suitable as such.  All the names I've given to magical phenomena in Middle Earth are completely arbitrary.

A caveat.  Tolkien said a lot about the way his magic worked in his letters.  But the letters were written long after The Lord of the Rings, and in many cases his statements therein contradict the LotR itself. Therefore I have chosen to work directly with the LotR, the Hobbit, and the Silmarillion directly, and then to extrapolate from there about how magic works, ignoring the Letters, The History of Middle Earth, and so forth. People who are really interested in tracing Tolkien's thought as it developed, and being more precise about it that you need for a game should go back to the original sources themselves. 

"Power" in General

The impressiveness of magical power (or maybe just the physical universe itself) seems a whole has declined over the long years of Middle-Earth. Where before, perhaps, many of the Noldor could have stood alone against a Bolrog, by the time of the War of the Rings, their number had shrunk to almost none. And where the men of Numen or had the strength to oppose Sauron at the height of the Second Age, by the Third, he was all but invincible. Even the colors and beauty of the land had shrunk, to become something more mortal, less Elvish.

There are definitely different levels of power residing in kind of being in Tolkien's world, although different individuals of the same race can vary a lot in their potency.  Only a very few beings in Middle-Earth still (late 3rd age) have noteworthy power. They are, in order:

  • The Valar. Only Olmo is remotely likely to make any appearance whatsoever.
  • Such Maiar as remain East of the sea. Tom Bombadil. Gandalf. Sauron. Sauruman. Radagast. Goldberry. The Noldor. The Noldor that remain in Middle-Earth are all exceptionally powerful, since they have the power of Aman in them. 
  • Other Elves have power of a lesser degree, the Sindar more than the Silvan Elves, because the former were taught by the Noldor in the remote Ages of the world, while the latter were not.
  • The Numenorians. These high men have power, though rarely outright Spellcraft or Shapeshifting, and are known to be both Crafters and Farsighted.
  • Dwarves. The Dwarves know their Craft, but rarely have any other abilities.
  • Men, Orcs, and Hobbits occasionally prove to be Farsighted or to be able to bless and curse

Power also manifests as physical capability, not just spell-like magic. Some creatures, like Gandalf, Aragorn, and most elves seem unnaturally tough, strong and generally more capable in battle or self-exertion than their size and physical appearance would dictate.  After all, he basically falls basically down most of a mountain, while on fire, and fighting the Balrog, plunges into ice-cold water, then follows it all the way back UP the mountain, and then proceeds to kill it dead, presumably in hand to hand combat.  Maiar are tough!

Contests of Power

. . . At that moment he caught a flash of white and silver coming from the North, like a small star down on the dusky fields. It moved with the speed of an arrow and grew as it came, converging swiftly with the flight of the four men towards the Gate. It seemed to Pippin that a pale light was spread about it and the heavy shadows gave way before it; and then as it drew near he thought that he heard, like an echo in the walls, a great voice calling. "Gandalf!" he cried. "Gandalf! He always turns up when things are darkest. Go on! Go on, White Rider! Gandalf, Gandalf!" he shouted wildly, like an onlooker at a great race urging on a runner who is far beyond encouragement.

But now the dark swooping shadows were aware of the newcomer. One wheeled towards him; but it seemed to Pippin that he raised his hand, and from it a shaft of white light stabbed upwards. The Nazgul gave a long, wailing cry and swerved away; and with t hat the other four wavered, and then rising in swift spirals they passed away eastward vanishing into the lowering cloud above; and down on the Pelennor it seemed for a while less dark.

The Return of the King (791-2)

Sometimes it seems that highly magical beings contest each other directly, without in the ways of spells and so forth.  For example, Frodo's glass is rendered impotent in the Cracks of Doom, Galadriel repulses the armies that attack Lothlorien, the White Council drives the Necromancer out of Mirkwood, and so forth.  When Gandalf breaks Saruman's staff this might be some kind of direct power contest, but it seems he's also acting, in some mysterious way, on behalf of the Valar.

Power and Sight

Then suddenly, as before under the eaves of the Emyn Muil, Sam saw these two rivals with other vision. A crouching shape, scarcely more than the shadow of a living thing, a creature now wholly ruined and defeated, yet filled with a hiddeous rage and lust; and before it stood stern, untouchable now by pity, a figure robed in white, but at its breast it held a wheel of fire. Out of the fire there spoke a commanding voice.

 "Begone, and trouble me no more! If you touch me ever again, you shall be cast yourself into the Fire of Doom."

The Return of the King (922)

"I thought I saw a white figure that shone and did not grow dim like the others. Was that Glorfindel then?"

 "Yes, you saw him for a moment as he is upon the other side: one of the mighty of the Firstborn. He is an Elf-lord of the house of the princes."

Frodo and Gandalf, The Fellowship of the Ring (217)

Power also acts as a focus of perceptions beyond mortal kin. With sufficient Power it seems that one person in Middle Earth can detect the presence of other Powers, either near at hand, or far away.  

A Power seems to be able to try to read the thought of a victim, but only after the latter's resistance is overcome.   For example, Galadriel says that Sauron is trying to see her thought, but her ring protects her.

But Powers also seem to be able to hide from each other.  Active use of power (especially Spellcraft) seems to be  like a bugle-call for all to hear and can draw all sorts of attention, even upon lesser Powers.  

In addition to his or her "radar" senses, a Powerful character seems also to be able to peep into a kind of symbolic world.  In these visions people appear strangely: Glorfindel as a glowing figure, the Ring as a wheel of fire, Aragorn as a man with a magical crown, Saruman as a striking snake, etc. Interpreting such visions is often difficult. They may show a truer aspect of Middle-Earth, or simply one hidden from mortal eyes. 

In addition Gandalf talks about a "wraith world" and "the other side"  to Frodo as he recovers.  Are these the same as the other visions that befall characters at different times?  Or are they different in some way?  

Power and Healing

Sometimes wounds seem to be not just natural, but supernatural, too. In that case, the healer must have some Power or other to effect a cure. There's a certain amount of craft to this, too, so the healer might also need tools or herbs to do the job right. A ragorn needed Atheleas to cure Merry and Eowyn. Elrond had to melt the blade-shard that had lodged in Frodo's arm.

Power and Leadership

Great Power seems to go hand in hand with the ability to inspire an army.  When Sauron dies, his army is rendered disorganized and ineffective.  Maybe this is simply a feature of evil armies, although the Nazgul can sap the will to resist of those who oppose them


The major powers of the world, perhaps even the Valar themselves, seem to be fading in a way that goes beyond mere attrition.  The Elves of Middle Earth grow less powerful in part because so many of the really mighty ones have died.   But their fate, shoudl they remain in Middle Earth will be be to fade, presumablely to be come less powerful, and maybe even invisible and insbstantial. Entities like Bombadil, too, seem to be bound into the things they love and the lands they adopt, so that they can no longer leave it.  Melian also appears to be at least temporarily diminished by the shape and expenditure of Power she undertakes by Thingol.  Yet Melian also has the ability to leave Doriath, to withdraw her magic, and to go back to Valinor.  

Perhaps it is Middle Earth itself that causes the diminishment, and Powers in the Undying Lands are unaffected.  Yet is seems unclear whether the Valar themselves have grown less potent in the world beyond Valinor, or whether they simply no longer choose to leave it. 

Whatever time's effects on the good Powers of Arda, the evil ones certainly seem to suffer from an increasing leakage of Power and capability.  Morgoth and Sauron both lose the ability to shed their bodies.  Saruman swiftly declines in might once Gandalf breaks his staff,. When he dies, he,  like Sauron, he seems no longer even to be able to maintain a coherent form.  Literally, their ghosts are blown away.

"Magical" Abilities

Some abilities seem to combine the inherent Power of a creature with skill, learning and other devices.  Listed below are the various kinds of magical abilities different inhabitants of Middle Earth have been known to manifest.

Beast Speech and Mastery

Suddenly out of the darkness something fluttered to his shoulder. He started Ñ but it was only an old thrush. Unafraid it perched by his shoulder and it brought him news. Marvelling he found he could understand its tongue, for he was of th e race of Dale.

The Hobbit (236)

. . . a whole regiment of birds had broken away suddenly from the main host, and came, flying low, straight towards the ridge. Sam thought they were a kind of crow of large size. As they passed overhead, on so dense a throng that their shad ow followed them darkly over the land below, one harsh croak was heard.

The Fellowship of the Ring (277-8)

This is, naturally enough, the ability to speak with animals, as found in countless myths and fairy tales.  Radagast, and Saruman, and even Dwarves know this trick.  Sauruman and Sauron seem not only to be able to talk to animals, but to use them as spies.  Maybe it's a mind control thing? Or some kind of Crafting?  Breeding new kinds of monsters seems to be a hobby of all major evil powers. 


Crafting, the ability to make magical items, seem to be far the most common magical power found in Middle-Earth. It is also the most characteristic. From the elven-smiths to dwarven masons, from the Silmarils to One Ring, Crafting is the power that shapes Middle Earth.  According to both the Silmarillion and the LotR, people who make really powerful items also lose a part of themselves into it, or at least can no longer make another identical item.  Feanor cannot make more Silmarils, Yavanna cannot remake the trees, etc.  Sauron's Ring may be a special case; he put so much of his power into it that he will be unable to regenerate if it is destroyed.  There is some suggestion that all major creations diminish their creator, and perhaps minor ones too.

The stones of Holin, after all, recall the loss of the elves who lived there.

Blessing & Cursing

He laid his hand on the pony's head, and spoke in a low voice. "Go with words of guard and guiding on you," he said. "You are a wise beast, and have learned much in Rivendell. Make your ways to places where you can find grass, and so come in time to Elrond's house, or wherever you wish to go."

Gandalf, The Fellowhip of the Ring (295-6)

The blessings different characters give seem to have some actual validity.  Maybe a part of the blesser's power goes out into the blessed.  Curses seem to work too.  Morgoth brags that he's master of the Fates of Arda, so perhaps all Powers have some method of manipulating destiny.


"Thus we meet again, though all the hosts of Mordor lay between us," said Aragorn. "Did I not say so at the Hornburg?"

 "So you spoke," said Eomer, "but hope oft decieves, and I knew not then that you were a man foresighted."

The Return of the King (830)

Sometimes people in Middle-Earth can see the future, or possible futures.  This tends to happen to people who are already Powerful in some way, but it often also strikes more lowly folk.  This seems very similar, of course, to the kinds of fore-seeings that occur in sagas and suchlike. Many such prophecies are double-edged, with a condition that will occur if Sauron wins, and another that will occur if he doesn't.   


"He is a skin-changer. He changes his skin: sometimes he is a huge black bear, sometimes he is a great strong black-haired man with huge arms and a great beard. I cannot tell you much more, though that ought to be enough."

Gandalf, The Hobbit (116)

Some otherwise mortal people in Middle Earth, like Beorn, are able to change shape.  This only occurs in the Hobbit (which resembles a fairy-tale) and the Silmarillion (which resembles mythology).  Perhaps Tolkien thought it was inappropriate for the scale and tone of the Lord of the Rings.  (Although Sam fears being turned into a toad, and Gandalf jokes about it, there doesn't seem to be much evidence that Gandalf could really do it.)

Now the Valar took to themselves shape and hue; and because they were drawn into the World by love of the Children of Ilvatar, for whom they hoped, they took shape after that manner which they beheld in the Vision of Iluvatar, save only in ma jesty and splendour. Moreover their shape comes of their knowledge of the visible World, rather than of the World itself; and they need it not, save only as we use raiment, and yet we may be naked and suffer no loss of our being.

The Silmarillion (11)

The Shapeshifting of the Valar and the Maiar seems to be a different kind of thing altogether. Basically, any Valar or Maiar can body or disembody themselves at will. Thus, killing their body does not kill them, not for a long time. Nor can you be sure their shape will ever be the same twice.  


"Now go on again!" said Beorn to the wizard.

 "Where was I? O yes -- I was not grabbed. I killed a goblin or two with a flash --"

 "Good!" growled Beorn, "It is some good being a wizard then."

Gandalf & Beorn, The Hobbit

Here we come to the rarest of all abilities, the capacity to do spontaneous, flexible magic, which I have chosen to call Spellcasting, cuz I have to call it something.  

Then they brought up their ponies, and carried away the pots of gold, and buried them very secretly not far from the track by the river, putting a great many spells over them, just in case they ever had the chance to come back and recover them .

The Hobbit (51)

In his letters, Tolkien is pretty adamant that ordinary humans can't work magic, only elves and people descended from them, like Aragorn.  But he seems to forget the constant references to spells (in the tongues of elves and men, or by craftsmen of the Dunedain for example) in his own books.  I think it is best to assume that Tolkien is over-systematizing his own world in his letters, but that there is some kind of difference between the spells ordinary dwarves and men use and those used by Gandalf, Radagast or Galadriel.  

It seems that powerful elves (such as Noldor or Luthien) can work the latter kind of magic, as can Wizards, other Maiar, and possibly some men, like the Mouth of Sauron.  There are certainly bodies of lore about how to use power in this manner -- Saruman is said to have plumbed  the Arts of the Enemy, Gandalf to have made a study of Fire magics, gate opening incantations, and so forth.  So there must have been someone to make this lore originally, to transmit it, and people who could learn it, even if much of it is lost. I would assume that the Noldor did most of the writing and researching of magical knowledge.  

But, even so, it's not clear whether this lore is the same for all practitioners, or springs from the same sources.  Galadriel says that her arts are somehow not the same as Sauron's, even though mortals call them both magic.  

For convenience's sake, I have assumed that all spontaneous, flexible higher magic works in a similar way, and have taken the Wizards, particularly Gandalf as my primary example.  Unfortunately, we do not see Gandalf work many spells in the course of the LOTR and those spells he does cast often seem inconsistent. Therefore, most of what follows is pure guess-work. 


"If Gandalf would go before us with a bright flame, he might melt a path for you," said Legolas. The storm had troubled him little, and he alone of the Company remained still light of heart.

 "If Elves could fly over mountains, they might fetch the Sun to save us," answered Gandalf. "But I must have something to work on. I cannot burn snow."

The Fellowship of the Ring (284)

Let's start with what Gandalf can't do:

  • He can't fly. If he could, he wouldn't have an eagle carting him all over the place. This goes for levitation, too. Or teleportation. All very un-Gandalf.
  • He can't burn snow. He says so himself. I take this as a general principle, that he can't do things which a blatantly unnatural nor sustain a magical operation indefinitely. He can, for instance, make a flash of fire, but can't shoot plasma from his fingers like a flammenwurfer.
  • He can't communicate over long distances. Indeed, he denies that such a thing is even possible without a Palantir.
So what can he (and other powerful magic workers) do?


"I will come," said Gimli. "I wish to see him and learn if he really looks like you."

 "And how will you learn that, Master Dwarf?" said Gandalf.

"Saruman could look like me in your eyes, if it suited his purpose with you. And are you yet wise enough to detect all his counterfeits?"

The Two Towers (562)

So a Spell caster can make himself appear as someone else or to make one object appear as another. Or, as Gandalf does, he can keep people from recognizing him for who he really is, until he wants. 

Legolas gave a great shout and shot an arrow high into the air: it vanished in a flash of flame.

 "Mithrandir!" he cried. "Mithrandir!"

 "Well met, I say to you again, Legolas!" said the old man. . . .

At last Aragorn stirred. "Gandalf!" he said. "Beyond all hope you return to us in our need! What veil was over my sight? Gandalf!"

The Two Towers (483 - 4)

Enhancing Nature

"There's more behind this than sun and warm air," [Sam] muttered to himself. "I don't like this great big tree. I don't trust it. Hark at it singing about sleep now! This won't do at all!"

The Fellowship of the Ring (114-5)

"I could think of nothing to do but put a shutting-spell on the door. I know many; but to do things of that kind rightly requires time, and even then the door can be broken by strength."

 Gandalf, The Fellowship of the Ring (318-9)

Gandalf makes tongues of flame.  The willow man makes people go to sleep.  Tom Bombadil cracks the Barrow open.  So perhaps Spellcasters can make a natural process happen very quickly in a very short burst. Or maybe I'm totally misreading these passages, and each of these activities is a carefully studied body of lore, or some kind of inherent magical power.  Maybe Gandalf can make fire from nothing, but can't make much fire from nothing, which is why he says he has to have something to burn -- not because he can't make a tongue of fire all day long, but because you can't melt much snow with a cigarette lighter.

Making Light

Gandalf struck a blue light on the end of his staff, and in its firework glare the poor hobbit could be seen kneeling on the hearth-rug, shaking like a jelly that was melting.

The Hobbit (27)

Big deal, you say. But you never have to go without a torch. And you can read in bed.

(c) Tom deMayo 2003.   Please do not reproduce this page without my permission.  Mention of other people's game systems, Trademarks, etc are without permission and purely for comparative purposes. No challenge to their status is intended. 

The material presented on the pages within http://www.flark.org/SoulEngine/GURPSSE/  is my original creation, intended for use with the GURPS system from Steve Jackson Games. This material is not official and is not endorsed by Steve Jackson Games. GURPS is a registered trademark of Steve Jackson Games.  All rights are reserved by SJ Games. This material is used there in accordance with the SJ Games online policy.

The Tri-Stat dX Core Rules are a trademark of Guardians Of Order, Inc. Used without permission.

The Discworld belongs to Terry and Lynn Pratchett.  Used without permission.  Ook!

Other mentioned books, game-systems, characters and so forth are properties of their respective owners, publishers, or whatever.  Used without permission.