12

By the Third Age, gunpowder was obviously invented, but it was very rarely used. In late medieval and early modern Europe (and subsequently on the whole planet) it completely changed warfare.

As Middle Earth is a very low-magic setting, gunpowder would not be made obsolete by magic, as magic hardly exists at all.

We don't see any cannon artillery, or tercios which would mop up the floor with a similarly sized army from Middle Earth (maybe except the Elves whose archery would probably still be superior to muskets).

  • I think, in the context of Tolkien's obvious Luddism, that the use of gunpowder by the orcs/enemy was an indication of their lack of morality. – Raven13 Jan 24 '14 at 22:21
  • Adding to Raven13's comment: Tolkien had been in WWI. He didn't want any gunpowder in his stories, because he'd witnessed first-hand what gunpowder did. I don't think Tolkien gave any in-universe explanation for the lack of guns and cannons. It's worth noting that guns are great equalizers -- any idiot with a gun can kill. So perhaps those with sufficient skill to invent guns/cannons decided it was a lousy idea, because it would cancel out their skill advantage over their inferiors. – dmm Aug 27 '14 at 17:13
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    Where is it obvious that gunpowder per se was invented? The Shire may have had fireworks shows, but Gandalf's were the best, and doesn't necessarily mean there was chemical gunpowder. Saruman's army uses an explosive at the Hornburg, but that's Saruman's device, not common technology. Are there other cases? – Dronz Mar 20 '15 at 17:43
  • @Dronz in both cases the fireworks and the explosive pot were lit by spark or fire. It was gun powder. They showed the gunpowder in the movies, though I realize it's not cannon, it still indicates gunpowder. – Escoce Mar 20 '15 at 18:57
  • In a significant way, advancement was anathema to virtue in Tolkien's world. Progress was to be regretted, not embraced. Gunpowder is no exception. – Wad Cheber May 19 '15 at 4:39
28

To answer this question it's necessary to dispel one common misconception: Middle-earth is actually an incredibly high-magic setting: just look at all the magic items that the Fellowship are laden-down with, the constant references to spells, the magical realms they pass through, and so forth.

There's further discussion (and evidence) of that here, but for the purposes of this question it's just necessary to first establish that "Middle-earth is low-magic" is quite false, so I'll just give you a quote and refer you to the full article for more information.

J.R.R. Tolkien created huge heaping treasures of magic items, piled them up, and set dragons to guard them. He raised entire cities around groups of Elven and Dwarven craftsmen who minted, built, constructed, manufactured, conjured, or otherwise produced factory-style volumes of magical cloaks, lanterns, musical instruments, weapons, armor, and maybe even shoes. You cannot find a story about Middle-earth where Tolkien doesn't have someone do something magical. He has sleep spells, disease spells, spells of far-farsightedness, curses, counter-curses, healing magic, and Elves can run on snow.

So the assertion that "as Middle Earth is a very low-magic setting, gunpowder would not be made obsolete by magic, as magic hardly exists at all" is instantly disproven, because:

  • Middle-earth is actually a very high-magic setting,
  • Gunpowder can easily be made obsolete (and even unnecessary) by magic because,
  • Magic exists around every corner and under every stone.

Despite this it seems valid to still ask "why isn't gunpowder more common", but there needn't be a significant reason for this. The ancient Chinese had gunpowder, fireworks and blasting devices, but yet it wasn't hugely common there either - it was invented entirely by accident, required specialized alchemical knowledge, handling of volatile and dangerous ingredients, and its use as a weapon was a later development.

The History Stack Exchange site has a relevant question and accepted answer about the use of gunpowder in ancient and medieval history that's worth reading in this context.


Edit: 19th April 2014

The user vsz has raised some objections to this answer and it's necessary to clarify. In actual fact there are two (if not more) different types of "magic" in Tolkien's work, but Tolkien - confusingly - used the word "magic" for both of them.

Tolkien clearly expresses this in Letters 131 (written before LotR was published) and 155 (written after), so I'm going to quote from both of them here; first of all his acknowledgement of this confusion.

I have not used 'magic' consistently... (Letter 131)

...and...

I am afraid I have been far too casual about 'magic' and especially the use of the word... (Letter 155)

In Letter 131 he defines the two types:

and so to the Machine (or Magic). By the last I intend all use of external plans or devices (apparatus) instead of development of the inherent inner powers or talents — or even the use of these talents with the corrupted motive of dominating: bulldozing the real world, or coercing other wills. The Machine is our more obvious modern form though more closely related to Magic than is usually recognized.

...and...

...the Elves are there (in my tales) to demonstrate the difference. Their 'magic' is Art, delivered from many of its human limitations: more effortless, more quick, more complete (product, and vision in unflawed correspondence). And its object is Art not Power, sub-creation not domination and tyrannous re-forming of Creation.

In the latter quote note especially the words "demonstrate the difference".

Letter 155 again draws the distinction, and particularly notes that the types are not necessarily differentiated into "good" or "evil":

...some would say that there is a latent distinction such as once was called the distinction between magia and goeteia ... but magia could be, was, held good (per se), and goeteia bad. Neither is, in this tale, good or bad (per se), but only by motive or purpose or use. Both sides use both, but with different motives. The supremely bad motive is domination of other 'free' wills. The Enemy's operations are by no means all goetic deceits, but 'magic' that produces real effects in the physical world. But his magia he uses to bulldoze both people and things, and his goeteia to terrify and subjugate. Their magia the Elves and Gandalf use (sparingly): a magia, producing real results (like fire in a wet faggot) for specific beneficent purposes. Their goetic effects are entirely artistic and not intended to deceive: they never deceive Elves (but may deceive or bewilder unaware Men) since the difference is to them as clear as the difference to us between fiction, painting, and sculpture, and 'life'.

When discussing magic in Middle-earth it's extremely important to acknowledge that both types exist. When speaking of "magic as Art" you're not speaking of the entirety of "magic" in Middle-earth: you're only speaking of one type. When speaking of all of the magic items that the Fellowship are laden down with, you're speaking of the other type. The existence of one type doesn't prevent the existence of the other type, and there is no contradiction.

  • 2
    This dispels the key mistaken assumption of the question, but doesn't quite address the gunpowder issue. The Deeping Wall at Helm's Deep was destroyed with the Fire of Orthanc, which may be magical, or may be some more simple explosive. Also, I always read Bilbo's description of Gandalf's fireworks to imply that the Hobbits are familiar with fireworks (ergo something akin to gunpowder), just that Gandalf's are particularly good. So why are so many purely mechanical siege weapons used? Are resources required to manufacture gunpowder scarce? – BoBTFish Jan 24 '14 at 9:04
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    @vsz - Gandalf quite openly throws lightning bolts around when he's fighting the Nazgul on Weathertop, as well as when he's fighting the Balrog. The Hobbits have Swords +1 (+1,000,000 versus Ringwraiths) from their first dungeon-bash (in the Barrows). The Fellowship have Cloaks of Concealment. Galadriel is capable of ripping apart an enemy fortress. Elrond has Cure Light Wounds, Cure Serious Wounds, and Cure Oh-My-God-Please-Let-Me-Die-So-The-Pain-Can-Stop Wounds. Subtle? I don't think so. – user8719 Jan 25 '14 at 1:23
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    Darth Satan, what you call a "misconception" is actually strongly debatable. Magic in LotR is subtle. I can agree with you it's not a "low magic setting", since any setting where incarnate deities and their avatars walk the Earth battling each other cannot be considered "low magic". But when fans generally consider LotR's magic "subtle", they mean it doesn't work as in AD&D. Elven cloaks aren't "of concealment". Elves even assert what they do isn't "magic", and are confused by the term. Sauron, Gandalf and Saruman do not throw fireballs at each other [continues] – Andres F. Sep 24 '14 at 23:53
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    When Saruman ensnares unwary listeners, it's more a reflection of his evil will than an actual spell. There are spells and supernatural things, of course, hence the Morgul blades, and Elvish blades glowing in the dark, but in general, they cannot be relied upon. An adventurer in Middle-earth cannot go around equipping magical stuff and thinking "I know! I'll use a ring of Spider Bane against the giant spiders in Mirkwood!". It doesn't work like that. When regular people find magical stuff, they are confused. When seemingly magical beings are asked about their magic, they are confused too. – Andres F. Sep 24 '14 at 23:58
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    Nonsense. It's not as low-magic as commonly assumed, sure, but calling it "high magic" is ridiculous. Games like D&D and WoW have high-magic settings, because magic users are a dime a dozen, and every village has a stock of healing potions. Gandalf is one of five wizards in the entire known world. The presence of subtle magical elements to elf- or dwarf-crafted items, which are unknown outside their own lands, doesn't bump the needle out of deep "low magic" territory. – user1786 Mar 21 '15 at 15:56
7

I would look at our own history for precedence - China invented gunpowder thousands of years ago and yet they didn't have guns - why? My guess is they didn't have the high grade iron/steel needed to channel an explosion into a projectile.

Another example is steam power - in The Hobbit it is suggested that the goblins use steam powered torture devices, so why don't we see trains, nodding donkey machines etc? Because while the basic technology had been discovered, the prerequisite knowledge and expertise was not there.

It took many different experiments with steam in our own world before Watt, Trevithick and Stevenson came up with their engines. Also as a guess I would say that the Dwarfs are likely to have had some form of heavy industry simply due to the scale of Khazad Dum.

  • Khazad Dum wouldn't need heavy industry to make it, the Dwarves literally had thousands of years to work on it and had a great deal of Elvish help during that time. – sevvack Feb 12 '14 at 0:52
  • I was thinking more of operations, such as water pumps, metal movers etc. Also Khazad Dum was built primarily in the early first age when the elves (at least the Noldor and the Sindar) dwelt in Beleriand where the concerned dwarven cities were Nogrod and Belegost. Khazad Dum was "But a distant Rumour" (from somewhere in the silmarillion, not sure where). It was not until the second age when Eregion and later Imladris was founded that the elves really became involved with Khazad Dum. Although the only concrete evidence for help comes from Celebrimbor and Narvi's door to Moria. – Steven Wood Feb 12 '14 at 8:37
5

I would say that Middle Earth has not invented gunpowder yet, certainly not as a conventional technology, and not in cannon or gun form. The best uses I see are by two of the best wizards, Gandalf and Saruman, who also have even better things they can do, and who are not in the business of developing industrial weapons production for humans or orcs.

  1. I don't see where it's obvious that gunpowder per se was invented. The Shire may have had fireworks shows, but Gandalf's were the best, and doesn't necessarily mean there was chemical gunpowder. Saruman's army uses an explosive at the Hornburg, but that's Saruman's device, not common technology. Are there other cases?

  2. Even if gunpowder was starting to be known, that's not the same as cannon or gun technology, which are also not the same as good cannon or gun technology, which both take much invention and technology development to produce. China had gunpowder and rockets long before they had effective cannon. Even Medieval Europe had gunpowder for a long time before they had effective weapons which could use it. Tercios were circa 1500, around 300 years after gunpowder's introduction to Europe. If the Shire's fireworks and Saruman's bomb are gunpowder devices, then Middle Earth would seem to be in the infancy of gunpowder technology development (and since we only see fireworks and a bomb made by a wizard, development by humans et al may not have begun). And if those examples require magic, then they don't even have gunpowder yet.

  • It makes sense for the setting that only wizards use it. Gandalf has the objective of not meddling too much with human civilization, and letting them develop on their own. For Saruman, it makes sense to not give his subjects the knowledge of technology which could make them more independent (and usable in a revolt against him), so I can imagine that instead of teaching his subjects how to make gunpowder, he just simply made them a single bomb, with the instructions that it is a rare magical artifact, to be set on fire near a wall only if they can't manage to break in by other means. – vsz Mar 20 '15 at 20:26
  • Yes. Even if the wizards do know it to be something others might be able to learn how to make, and even if they did think of the idea of engineering cannons or guns which others could develop technology for (which I don't see why they would be thinking that way), they might not see either scheme as a good idea. They have lots of other ideas they are working on, and other abilities, and no reason in their own mindset to be trying to advance human technology in such a way. – Dronz Mar 20 '15 at 23:15
0

Armies of Sauron also used some kind of explosives to blast the wall of Rammas Echor, giant circle of fortifications surrounding Pelennor Fields:

"Now ever and anon there was a red flash, and slowly through the heavy air dull rumbles could be heard.

"They have taken the wall!" men cried. "They are blasting breaches in it. They are coming!"

Woses also tell about blasted wall to Rohirrim troops

"Walls stand up no longer: gorgûn knock them down with earth-thunder and with clubs of black iron."

It seems that Saruman's ''fire of Orthanc'' might be similar to Sauron's devices, among which are also missiles that combusted mid-air ("for all those arts and subtle devices, for which he forsook his former wisdom, and which he fondly imagined were his own, came but from Mordor").

The White Wizard also had in use ''liquid fire'' with which he attacked and burned some of the Ents attacking Isengard (possibly something like greek fire). Even in the First Age forces of Morgoth used various chemical substances:

"...he saw two Orcs setting fuel against the house and preparing to kindle it. Then Barach was shaken with fear, for marauding Orcs carried with them brimstone or some other devilish stuff that was quickly inflamed and not quenched with water." The Faithful Stone, The Druedain, Unfinished Tales

"But in the next year, ere the winter was come, Morgoth sent great strength over Hithlum and Nevrast, and they came down the rivers Brithon and Nenning and ravaged all the Falas, and besieged the walls of Brithombar and Eglarest. Smiths and miners and makers of fire they brought with them, and they set up great engines; and valiantly though they were resisted they broke the walls at last." Silmarillion

Gandalf of course has his fireworks though how they were made or whether they are only 'scientifically' based or something more 'magical' is unknown. The effects of those fireworks appear to be something more influenced by his power particualrly tricks with fire and smoke, since they remain in air for some periods of time, they spread scent of flowers, not to mention the famous shape of the Mountain and Dragon moving and looking lifelike :).

-1

the first weaponized use of gunpowder, unless I'm mistaken, was done at the deep of Helm. It was a bomb LOTR ends not so long after that, so I don't see a question here. It might come after.

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