For this is what your folk would call magic. I believe; though I do not understand clearly what they mean; and they seem also to use the same word of the deceits of the Enemy – Galadriel
“Faerie itself may perhaps most nearly be translated by Magic—but it is magic of a peculiar mood and power, at the furthest pole from the vulgar devices of the laborious, scientific, magician. There is one proviso : if there is any satire present in the tale, one thing must not be made fun of, the magic itself. That must in that story be taken seriously, neither laughed at nor explained away.” – J.R.R. Tolkien, On Fairy Stories.
This video has been gaining traction today detailing how Legolas could not really see as far as he claims according to the laws of physics. This is a common occurrence when it comes to the fantastical things in Tolkien’s Legendarium. The problem is that Tolkien’s magic cannot be explained using a set of rules. It is more mythical and mysterious like the folk tales of Anglo-Saxon, of Norse sagas, Arthurian romance and probably the Old Testament.
I can’t believe I have to explain this but magic isn’t science, it doesn’t have to be explained. It can be, and that can be fun too. Brandon Sanderson is known for his magic systems. He even has what he calls Sanderson’s Laws for his series of rules when creating magic systems. Patrick Rothfuss goes to painstaking details to create rules for his magic system. Then comes naming. Naming cannot be explained like love, humor or music yet no one gives Rothfuss any guff trying to explain the rules of naming.
My point is you can have a magic system in a fantasy book that does not have rules and the work of J.R.R. Tolkien is a prime example. The problem is that “magic” in Middle-Earth is what men and hobbits calls thing they cannot explain leading to reactions like the Galadriel quote above. “Magic” is part of Arda (the earth) itself and the elves are connected permanently to Arda. What we as readers such as men and hobbit may see as magic the elves see as a natural part of their skills and their very being. It is more of a divine power with few explanations to how it really works.
Here is where critics start throwing out words like Deus ex machina without fully understanding what it means. What makes Tolkien’s works have that mythical feeling about them is that there are aspects that cannot be explained such as the elves, the wizards, Balrogs and beings like Sauron.
Partially to blame is Hollywood, Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy and films in general. Those are visual mediums, as such they need visuals to convey what is going on. The problem is magics is not all visual in any of Tolkien’s books. While the film showed forcefields and battles of light coming from his staff and slashes of his sword versus the Balrogs swipes and cracks of his whip the fight in the books is more of a battle of wills, a battle of power between to divine beings that we cannot see with barely any swordplay.
The Balrog reached the bridge. Gandalf stood in the middle of the span, leaning on the staff in his left hand, but in his other hand Glamdring gleamed, cold and white. His enemy halted again, facing him, and the shadow about it reached out like two vast wings. It raised the whip, and the thongs whined and cracked. Fire came from its nostrils. But Gandalf stood firm.
‘You cannot pass,’ he said. The orcs stood still, and a dead silence fell. ‘I am a servant of the Secret Fire, wielder of the flame of Anor. You cannot pass. The dark fire will not avail you, flame of Udûn. Go back to the Shadow! You cannot pass.’
The Balrog made no answer. The fire in it seemed to die, but the darkness grew. It stepped forward slowly onto the bridge, and suddenly it drew itself up to a great height, and its wings were spread from wall to wall; but still Gandalf could be seen, glimmering in the gloom; he seemed small, and altogether alone: grey and bent, like a wizened tree before the onset of a storm.
From out of the shadow a red sword leaped flaming.
Glamdring glittered white in answer.
There was a ringing clash and a stab of white fire. The Balrog fell back and its sword flew up in molten fragments. The wizard swayed on the bridge, stepped back a pace, and then again stood still.
‘You cannot pass!’ he said.
With a bound the Balrog leaped full upon the bridge. Its whip whirled and hissed.
Neil Gaiman has a great quote about magic in film when talking about the film adaptation of A Winter’s Tale which by the way is a terrible movie mostly despite his warm review of it.
There’s a thing that happens in Hollywood, when you hand in a script with magic in it, and the people at the studio who read it say “We don’t quite understand… can you explain the rules? What are the rules here? The magic must have rules” and sometimes when they say that to me I explain that I am sure it does, just as life has rules, but they didn’t give me a rule book to life when I was born, and I’ve been trying to figure it out as I go along, and I am sure it is the same thing for magic; and sometimes I explain that, yes, the magic has rules, and if they read again carefully they can figure out what they are; and sometimes I sigh and put in a line here and a line there that spells things out, says, YES THESE ARE THE RULES YOU DON’T ACTUALLY HAVE TO PAY ATTENTION and then everyone is very happy.
I understand, I really do. It seems frustrating because we live in a world of science that strives to explain how the universe works and that can be beautiful but Middle-Earth isn’t our world. It is a epic myth such a The Odyssey, The Prose Edda, The Arthurian Legends and Beowulf. The problem is people still come along and try to explain it or disprove parts of it.
The other problem that pertains to the video about Legolas’s eyes is the perceptions that elves are just some kind of different humanoid type species. Elves are preternatural beings, outside the rules of nature yet also connected to nature itself. This comes from the Tolkien Gateway entry on elves under arts, crafts, powers and magic.
Other races often spoke of ‘Elf magic’, or of objects made by Elves as if they contained enchantments. It is unclear how accurate it is to call Elvish arts and crafts ‘magic’ or ‘enchanted’. Elves themselves only used these words when attempting to simplify or clarify how elvish-made things seemed to have a special quality that no other races were able to achieve. Powerful Elves seemed to have control over nature and the elements, their clothes seemed to shine with their own light, their blades seemed to never lose their sharpness. Less educated folks couldn’t explain these effects, so they simply called them ‘magic’. However, each race had their own special abilities that seemed incomprehensible to others. Hobbits had a seemingly supernatural ability to hide when they wished to remain unseen. Dwarves were unmatched in the art of mining and building halls underground. Wizards had such wisdom and knowledge of the world and all things in it that they appeared to have mystical powers. To each of these races, what they did had nothing to do with magic, it was just how they did things. It may have been so too with Elves. Whether there was any kind of mystical energy involved in the things Elves made can never be proved or disproved.
N.K. Jemisin who wrote the Inheritance trilogy wrote this great article for io9.com just on the subject of magic and rules titled Why does magic need so many rules? In it she makes a connection of what might be the blame for why modern fantasy readers and viewers need rules for magic in Dungeon and Dragons which has rules clearly defined using systems of numbers. Why stop there though? What about video games which also when it comes to magic has a system in place for how magic can be done but Jemisin argues…
It’s supposed to go places science can’t, defy logic, wink at technology, fill us all with the sensawunda that comes of gazing upon a fictional world and seeing something truly different from our own. In most cultures of the world, magic is intimately connected with beliefs regarding life and death – things no one understands, and few expect to. Magic is the motile force of God, or gods. It’s the breath of the earth, the non-meat by-product of existence, that thing that happens when a tree falls in the forest and there’s no one around to hear it. Magic is the mysteries, into which not everyone is so lucky, or unlucky, as to be initiated. It can be affected by belief, the whims of the unseen, harsh language. And it is not…
In LotR, sometimes magic meant forging a ring with a chunk of soul melted into the alloy. Sometimes it meant learning obscure/dead languages, or talking to obscure/dead creatures. Sometimes it meant brandishing a particular kind of stick in a particular kind of way, and shouting really loudly. Sometimes it meant being born with pointy ears, and sometimes resisting magic meant being born with hairy feet. It was organic, embedded, a total crapshoot. And it was wonderful.
The point is, magic can have a system of rules such as Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series or Patrick Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicles, hell, my own fiction has a system of magic but quit trying to find fault in Tolkien’s magic system because magic doesn’t always need so many rules.