48

It's mentioned many times throughout Tolkien's work that the Elves (High Elves mostly) are in some way more powerful than Men. We hear many times, for example, that Rivendell and Lórien are mostly safe places from Sauron's attacks.

The only example I can recall where it is said that an Elf did some magic is Elrond being able to control the river around Rivendell. Also, in Appendix B of LotR, after the entry for March 25th 3019, it is mentioned that

They [the Elves of Lórien] took Dol Guldur, and Galadriel threw down its walls and laid bare its pits [...].

Are we supposed to understand that Galadriel simply went there and did some magic that managed to bring the fortress down? And if she did, did she have to use her Ring?

My question is, therefore: can the Elves perform what we would call magic?

  • 2
    I'm from Germany and have only a german copy of "The Silmarillion", so it's difficult for me to give you good quotes, but I recall that at least Finrod Felagund was capable of performing songs of power. He used this to transform the shapes of himself and his followers into Orks (or maybe it wasn't literally transforming but creating the illusion), when he helped Beren on his quest for a Silmaril. After they were captured and taken to Tol-in-Gaurhoth, he and Sauron battled with songs of power. I guess this is quite close to "traditional magic". – Philipp Jan 11 '12 at 13:38
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    If I remember properly, the river around Rivendell was controlled by Glorfindel, not Elrond (at least in the episode when he killed the horses carrying the Nazgul - and, yes, in the movie it's a different character that does it) – Yaztromo Mar 12 '12 at 21:09
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    @Yaztromo: No, it was indeed Elrond that controlled the river, with Gandalf putting in his touch as well. Glorfindel - along with the rest of the fellowship - drove the Nazgul into the river using fire and his mighty apperance. The scene is only described through the eyes of a very weakened Frodo, but he sees a mighty fair bright silver light. It is later implied by Gandalf that this was Glorfindel in another form. And maybe another occurence of magic done by elves. – mort Dec 9 '13 at 9:20
  • @mort Nope. It has to do with the fact Glorfindel has lived in Valinor. Gandalf actually explains this if I'm thinking right (and in HoMe it's rather differently described - that is there are some interesting additions). Anyway he's at once in both the Seen and Unseen; that's the white light part that Frodo sees: from the Unseen. And he's one of the few who could face the Nazgûl too. He's the same one who took out (and of course went down too) a Balrog in the fall of Gondolin. – Pryftan Jun 3 '18 at 1:19
71

I've written before here that "magic" in Tolkien's world isn't really how we traditionally envisage it. Again, the key quote is Galadriel's confusion over what Sam means by the word itself:

'For this is what your folk would call magic, I believe: though I do not understand clearly what they mean; and they seem to use the same word of the deceits of the Enemy. But this, if you will, is the magic of Galadriel. Did you not say that you wished to see Elf-magic?'

Instead, his concept is that different kinds of creature have differing amounts of power that is native to them, and exercising it is simply the same as any other physical action. Even within the races, different individuals have different amounts of power: among the elves, for example, Fëanor was the most powerful of all, but Galadriel herself was also extremely powerful.

Clearly Galadriel's mirror is, as she admits, an example of Elves performing overt magic. There are plenty of other examples, though, where the division between "craft" and "magic" is not clear: the forging of the Rings, or the Silmarils, for example.

Even Men can perform magic: we see Aragorn healing Merry and Éowyn, and wresting control of the Palantír away from Sauron, neither of which can be explained in any other terms than "magic". Although this is probably because of his descent from the kings of Numenor, who in turn descend from Elves and Maiar via Elros (Elrond's brother). Another example is the leader of the Ringwraiths, who we are told was a powerful sorceror even before he was seduced by the ring.

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    +1 This is the definitive answer to me. Elves are certainly capable of what other folk "would call magic", as Galadriel said. But like @Daniel says, "magic" in Tolkien's world is very subtle and more like the natural power of Middle Earth's beings. – Andres F. Jan 12 '12 at 0:34
  • I understand the thing about all creatures having different degrees of native power. What I'd like to know is, does this power translate into anything that we might call supernatural? As an example, Galadriel is said to have the power to read the thoughts of others. Can she really look into people's minds, or is she just really good at reading faces and expressions? What I mean by "magic" is really: could a regular human achieve the same thing, or is it beyond anyone's reach? – Javier Jan 12 '12 at 14:18
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    There are plenty examples of feats beyond humans: Glorfindel becoming invisible while battling the Ringwraiths is pretty overt magic too. The telepathy that Galadriel (and also Finrod Felagund) exhibited. The chants of power of course – Ram Apr 17 '16 at 6:00
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    @Lexible Do you mean Thranduil? Elu Thingol was the lord of Doriath, a kingdom of Elves in the First Age. – maguirenumber6 Dec 4 '16 at 14:13
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    @maguirenumber6 Oops! Yes. – Lexible Dec 5 '16 at 19:10
19

Yes and no. They didn't have the powers that most would consider traditional magic. Within Tolkien's mythos that was the domain of the Ainur (gods and angelic beings, i.e. the Wizards, Sauron, etc).

However there were a number of areas where Elves could exhibit abilities that verge on (if not venture into) the magical realm:

  • crafting what would be considered to be magical items (the Rings and the Palantirs, amongst others) through the millenia they were able to spend perfecting their craft.
  • a craft which Tolkien called "Enchantment", which projects the designer's concepts on to a spectator. Galadrial appearing dominant to Frodo and Elrond's river surge would appear to be examples of this.
  • potentially other powers including, as you mentioned, the throwing down of the walls of Dol Guldur.

Source

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    In the book the "river horses" were added by Gandalf: to make the rush of water more destructive. – Richard Jan 11 '12 at 7:59
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    But the rush of water was Elven Enchantment - Gandalf just added the visual touch. – DJClayworth Jan 11 '12 at 17:58
9

IMHO, most "magic" associated with the Elves in Middle-Earth has a connection with the Valar, or with song & recitation:

Valar:

The Girdle of Mellian: The fence of enchantment set around Thingol's kingdom of Doriath by Melian his Queen, preventing entry into his land without his will and consent. Mellian was a Maia.

The Silmarils: crafted by by Fëanor in Valinor, after being taught the craft by Aulë.

The Elven Rings: crafted by Celebrimbor, the son of Curufin and grandson of Fëanor (and thus by extension the craftsmanship comes from Aulë).

The Mirror of Galadriel: the origin of the mirror is not detailed, but the Silmarillion states that the Noldor took with them many items from Valinor when they departed. Since the Noldor were favored by and were closest to Aulë, it's not unreasonable to assume he had some doing in its making.

The rising of the waters of Bruinen: according to the Silmarillion, all water is under the governance of Ulmo:

For all seas, lakes, rivers, fountains and springs are in his government; so that the Elves say that the spirit of Ulmo runs in all the veins of the world.

Song & Recitation:

The singing of Luthien to defeat Melkor. Luthien of course is half Maia as well.

The singing of Tom Bombadil to control the trees in the Old Forest.

Sam's calling upon Elbereth in Cirith Ungol, holding the Light of Earendil:

A Elbereth Gilthoniel, o menel palan-diriel, le nallon sí di-nguruthos! A tiro nin, Fanuilos!

(O Elbereth Starkindler, from heaven gazing far, to thee I cry now beneath the shadow of death! O look towards me, Everwhite)

Also, the Light of Earendil comes from the Silmarils.

Considering the world actually came into being through music according to the canon, it is not surprising that music and recitation would have magical properties.

Even in the movies, though not following the books, when Arwen calls upon Bruinen (which incidentally stills sends shivers up my spine):

Nîn o Chithaeglir lasto beth daer; Rimmo nîn Bruinen dan in Ulaer!

(Waters of the Misty Mountains, listen to the great word; flow waters of Loudwater (= Bruinen) against the Ringwraiths!)

  • Melian was a Maia, not a Vala; so Luthien is, of course, half-Maia. – MLP Feb 25 '12 at 15:06
  • Oops - corrected, thank you. But I don't think it affects the reasoning, as Maia and Valar are both Ainur. – Gulhir The Grey Feb 25 '12 at 16:01
  • I agree: doesn't affect your reasoning at all. Typos and thinkos seldom do wreck anyone's real point; they're almost always mere annoyances. I just think it's important to keep the answers on this site consistent with what the Professor wrote. – MLP Feb 26 '12 at 21:16
8

Yes, they could.

The definitive statement of Tolkien's view of magic (and "magic") in his world is contained in Letter 155, and in this letter he clarifies that there are actually two different kinds of "magic" in Middle-earth:

But I suppose that, for the purposes of the tale, some would say that there is a latent distinction such as once was called the distinction between magia and goeteia.

When people speak of Elven magic (and by extension magic in Middle-earth) as being "subtle" and "low-key" and more akin to "art", what they are actually speaking of is that which Tolkien classifies as goeteia.

In this letter, Tolkien clarifies that both types of "magic" are available to both his good and his evil beings:

Both sides use both, but with different motives.

He specifies what Sauron uses his for:

But his magia he uses to bulldoze both people and things, and his goeteia to terrify and subjugate.

And also specifies what the Elves use theirs for:

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'.

The second sentence here in particular is key: that is the description of "magic as art or craft" that is most commonly assumed for Middle-earth, but the existence of this kind of "magic" need not nor should not preclude the existence of the other.

  • And he also points out (for those who didn't put it together on their own) that the translation of Istari, wizards, has to do with the connexion of wizard and wise. I seem to recall that he also suggests that technology is in a sense magic; and would personally agree. Some of the things we have today for those who don't understand how they work really do seem magical! But that's out of universe of course. – Pryftan Jun 23 '18 at 13:58
3

I think that all beings in middle earth have power to use magic to some extent. When sauron and melkor exert their power to change things in the world, part of their being flows outward to enact the change, which eventually causes them to fade.

Gandalf is rarely seen using magic except in small doses and usually only in circumstances which he has no other choice, which is my reasoning behind him never fading.

Most races are seen using magic, but it seems to be that the actual incidence rate for them using magic is in this order elves>dwarves>men>hobbits, which i believe is explained mostly by their allotted lifespan and desire to know such things.

It's usually the elder beings that hold more power, and i believe the reason is because over time one learns more about the world around them and how to pour their own being into changing it.

This is why the rings of power cause the humans to fade. The rings force their bearers to expend their essence to enact the change intended by the ring, and one consistent intention of the ring is the longevity of the bearer. They pour their own being into their youth and over time they fade until their only existence is in the other plane.

I also believe this to some extent explains the magic of the numenorians. Since they have longer lifespans and kinship to the elves, they have a longer time and better opportunity than the rest of the humans to learn about magic.

This may be another reason why Gandalf fears sauron, it's not entirely because sauron is more powerful, but because ultimately he can't defeat sauron. His being is poured into the ring, so if gandalf were to attempt fighting sauron directly, gandalf would eventually fade from existence from the amount of being he would pour out in effort to destroy sauron, while sauron perhaps weakened or defeated temporarily, would only return once again when his ring was returned.

Just my $.02

-1

Tolkien didn't like magic and in Middle Earth often thought of magic as an artificial substance like Sauron and Saruman's devices. For beings like elves, Maia, etcetera it is an innate spiritual power that they could use to affect the physical world. I'm pretty sure that in Rivendell Gandalf explains that there two worlds seen (physical) and unseen (magic) and that elves had power in both.

  • I’m not the one who down voted but I would say that it could be improved if you quoted these things. And Gandalf does explain to Frodo about the Unseen and Seen, yes, and that the white light was Glorfindel on the other side. – Pryftan Jun 23 '18 at 13:59

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