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In Lord of the Rings, Gandalf says to Butterbur after learning the Hobbits have left with Strider :

"May your beer be laid under an enchantment of surpassing excellence for seven years!"

Did Gandalf actually cast a spell on Butterbur's beer, or was it just a figure of speech?

56

Yes (or at least it is implied)

Judging from the conversation with Butterbur when Gandalf and the four Hobbits pass through Bree on their way back to the Shire, it would appear there was actually an enchantment of surpassing excellence:

‘Does he now?’ said Butterbur looking puzzled. ‘Though I’m sure I don’t know why he should, sitting in his big chair up in his great castle, hundreds of miles away. And drinking wine out of a golden cup, I shouldn’t wonder. What’s The Pony to him, or mugs o’ beer? Not but what my beer’s good, Gandalf. It’s been uncommon good, since you came in the autumn of last year and put a good word on it. And that’s been a comfort in trouble, I will say.’

  • 2
    Based on the evidence in your answer, this could be a placebo effect. Gandalf's words made people inclined to try it, and therefore were more likely to like it (possibly even out of a subconscious fear of contradicting Gandalf, or simply agreeing with Gandalf in absence of a strong opinion of their own). Or it could have motivated Butterbur to live up to Gandalf's words, thus subconsciously making better beer by himself. All your quote shows is that Butterbur himself attributes the improvement to Gandalf's words, not whether that is actually the case (in the context of an enchantment) – Flater Aug 25 '17 at 11:32
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    This seems to make narrative sense. Gandalf is able to use human elements (i.e. non-magic) to bring out the best in people. It happened for Bilbo and Frodo, most notably (he did not make them do anything, but he convinced them to do it themselves, with a little advice along the way). Butterbur could have been a more mundance example of the same thing: Gandalf gets people to better themselves. Note that he also threatened to turn Merry and Pippin into (...frogs?) without actually doing so, and Sam immediately confessed eavesdropping out of a similar fear. Gandalf says things to improve things. – Flater Aug 25 '17 at 11:38
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Of course, there isn't a very clear definition of 'magic' in Middle-Earth, so it is possible that an Istar just wishes the beer to be good, and it is, just like the elvish cloaks discourage being seen. (I think the elves say they are 'good elvish make' or something, and are puzzled by the Hobbits' definition of 'magic' -- I haven't got the book here)

4

In Middle Earth, things that should happen often do happen, and it isn't always clear what makes them happen. This frequently occurs when Gandalf is around. I don't think Tolkien feels the need to explain the mechanics of it.

Butterbur did the right thing (eventually) and Gandalf was pleased. Whether Gandalf made the beer excellent (as Butterbur clearly believes) or simply predicted that it would be excellent (perhaps as a reward granted by some other power) is not really the point. It was fitting that Butterbur should have some success to help him through the hard times, and that success came to him. A chance occurrence, as we say in Middle-earth.

  • "Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them?" – Rand al'Thor Jun 21 '16 at 19:08
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    @Randal'Thor: you're missing part of the quote: "... but those who are narratively important, shall live or die exactly as is needed for the narrative". – Flater Aug 25 '17 at 11:42

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