Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Magic and The Lord of the Rings

**Note: this is a long post, but be warned that if you stop reading half-way through you are liable to not understand any of it and at most have gotten at most only half of what I meant to say.**

Many people whom I know and respect have different views concerning J.R.R. Tolkein’s classic The Lord of the Rings.  Essentially, magic is at the heart of the matter.  “How can Christians approve and love a book that, basically, portrays magic and wizards as good?”

Hearing this question from some people I admire, and having many other people I trust consider LOTR the best thing since sliced bread, (although I find bread quite good unsliced,) I set my little mind, and the writings of some very clever authors I’ve stumbled across, to work out this conundrum.  And what I found made perfect sense, although it surprised me at first.  Let’s look at it logically, shall we?
But first let's look at an appropriate and well-done wallpaper, just for fun.
First of all, the bit about Christians loving a book that portrays magic as good.  We’ll look at it from the best place: the Bible.
Let no one be found among you…who practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead.  Anyone who does these things is detestable to the LORD…  (Deuteronomy 18:14)

There are a lot of verses like this in the Old Testament, but this one basically covers it.  And, just to round it out, one from the New Testament too.
The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft…I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God. (Galatians 5:19-21)
Pretty clear, isn’t it?   But sometimes, as a defence for LOTR (or other popular books containing wizards) someone will say, “Okay, I know the Bible says magic is bad and all that, but the magic in LOTR isn’t bad.  It’s against the bad magic.  White magic, y’know.” 

I understand what those people are trying to get at, but I have a Bible verse for that too.
Woe to those who call evil good and good evil. (Isaiah 5:20)
Okay, now it looks like it’s tied up neatly and nicely.  The Lord of the Rings portrays magic as good, we shouldn’t support things that portray magic as good, so we shouldn’t support The Lord of the Rings.  All clear and logical.
Wait.... we missed one thing.  Does The Lord of the Rings portray magic as good?  This is when many anti-LOTR arguments fall apart.  You see, those who are against reading LOTR don’t read LOTR.  Profound, no?  But before I ever knew that such a controversy existed, I had read LOTR.  Many times. 
Let’s go looking through the magic in The Lord of the Rings, starting with magic and ‘the good guys.’  That can be divided into two sections: Gandalf, who was spoken of as a wizard, and the elves, particularly Galadriel.  Let’s start with the elves.
Come to think of it, I can’t remember a particular spot where Tolkein or someone who ought to know calls the power and wisdom of the elves magic.  It is spoken of as magic though, by those who don’t really understand it, like Sam and Faramir.  The elves themselves?  The best illustration of that will be a quote from Galadriel.
“And you?” she said, turning to Sam.  “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.” (The Fellowship of the Ring)

It is clear, though, that the elves do have extraordinary wisdom and power.  Could you call that magic?  Would that correspond to the Biblical definition?  I don’t have a definition to hand, but I’ll think one up. 
Magic: gaining power from the forces of evil that perverts the natural order of things
How will that do?  If you disagree with it, tell me a better, but for now that will have to do.
Do the elves have power?  Yes.  Does it pervert the natural order of things? No.  Do they consort with the forces of evil?  Absolutely not. 
But it is clear that the elves could do things that the ordinary peoples of Middle Earth could not.  When the elves were created (I don’t have time to go into the Middle Earth creation story now, although it is fascinating) they were gifted by the creator with extraordinary wisdom.  That wisdom they used in searching out knowledge, studying nature, embroidering, carving stone, inventing scripts (different forms of writing,) making gems, and learning what Sauron was up to so that they could defeat him.  Some elves could communicate directly without using words and all elves did not die natural deaths. 
One thing we have to remember is that just because we on this earth can’t do something doesn’t mean it’s magic.  The elves’ ability to communicate specially and their immortality was a gift for them from their creator.  The knowledge of nature and how to work with it came from their desire for knowledge as they studied, just as physicists’ knowledge of nature, the laws of physics, and how to work with them, came from their desire for knowledge as they study nature.

Now that we’re finished with the elves, let’s go to our next problem: Gandalf.  The wizard.   For the life of me (and I did spend a long time looking,) I can’t remember any passage in LOTR where what Gandalf does is actually called magic.   (And what’s more, nothing that he does fits the definition of magic I gave above.)
But, you might say, “Gandalf is a wizard!  When anybody says wizard, they mean a magician, right?”
But Gandalf is not that kind of wizard.  Really, I can’t see why Tolkien used that word at all, although the reason is probably that it first appeared in The Hobbit, a children’s story where he didn’t have space to go into detail about what Gandalf actually was.  So what was he? 
He was actually one of the Istari.  As a matter of fact, if you look up “wizards” in The Complete Guide to Middle Earth, all that they say is “The Istari” and send you to go look that up.  (Before we go any farther, you should note that long before Tolkien wrote LOTR, he made up an incredibly complex world with a creation story, myths, languages, and history.  He set LOTR in this world, but you have to go to his other works to see Middle Earth and the peoples in it fully explained.)  I don’t have a quotation ready to hand from one of his writings that’ll prove everything I want to say, but to show I’m not making this stuff up, here’s what Robert Foster has to say about the Istari in The Complete Guide to Middle-earth.
ISTARI: Five (or more) beings sent to Middle-earth by the Valar about TA 1000 to unite and counsel the Free Peoples in their struggles against Sauron.  They were forbidden to dominate the peoples of Middle-earth or to match Sauron’s power with power.  When Saruman, the greatest of the Wizards, disobeyed this injunction, he was cast from the order and banished from Valinor… Called Wizards in Westron.

(Just so you know, Westron was the “Common speech” of most of the peoples in Middle-earth, as distinct from, say Valinorean, which was the language of the Valar.  And if you want to know what the Valar were, they were created beings sent into the world by the creator, as guardians or whatnot.  The “wizards” themselves were lesser Valar of a sort.  I suppose the closest real thing I could compare them to would be angels.)
“That’s all fine,” you might think, “but Maria got off track when she started talking about Istari and the Valar.  Gandalf does have magic powers.  He can make spells to open doors.”
Aha!  Gandalf can open doors?  Yes, and close them too. :D  I won’t go back to my whole definition of magic or explain his ability to make doors open by saying that his abilities were given to him by the creator.  Instead I’ll go to something I mentioned when I was talking about the Elves. 
Gandalf was in Middle-earth for many (hundreds? Thousands?) of years.  During these years, what did he do?  LOTR in several places speaks about him having ‘studied’ a lot.  It’s telling that when Gandalf wants to know if Bilbo’s ring is the One Ring, he goes off and looks up things.  He looks for things.  He studies history.  He thinks.  He finds Gollum and gets the story from him.  He does not go, “Abracadabra, show me where the One Ring is and what it’s like.”
But back to Gandalf who's able to open doors.  To go through the door to the Mines of Moria, the password had to be spoken. Then the door would open.  Gandalf thinks up a whole bunch of possible passwords and shouts them at the door in the hopes that it would open.  Was this magic?  I don’t think so.  Gandalf says he once knew all the spells in the tongues of Elves or Men or Orcs that was ever used for opening a door.  He learned this through is long study of the peoples of Middle-earth and his friendship with the Elves.  But I don’t think that door-opened-by-a-password-spell was magic.  Tolkien’s mythical world is not our world.  It worked differently.  They could have had different laws of physics.  Opening that kind of door could be done by anyone, not just someone who knew magic or had special abilities.  This ‘magical door’ was natural, made by the ‘scientists’ of Middle-earth who had studied the laws of physics.  And really, if you get past the fact that it seems like magic, that door isn’t that extraordinary after all.  Here in this earth we have a lot of improbable inventions: computers, remote controls, yes, even doors that open with a password.  That door that Gandalf opened in the mines of Moria was no different.  I might even go so far as to say that perhaps the vibrations made when the word “Mellon” (the actual password) was said, triggered some kind of mechanism inside the door that caused it to open.  Perhaps it did something to the electrons in the door and they all went crazy, pulling themselves away from their ordinary position and getting as close as possible to the person that said “Mellon” thus opening the door.  But I know little enough of the laws of physics in our own world and nothing of them in Middle Earth, so I am rapidly becoming nonsensical.
“Okay, okay,” you might think.  “Maria’s excusing Gandalf, but what about Saruman?  He puts a spell on King Theoden.” 

Yes, he does, and no, I don’t want to excuse him.  True, he was one of the Istari, but, as Gandalf (or Elrond, I can’t remember which) said of him “he studied too long and too deeply the arts of the Enemy” until he began to use them himself.  He allied himself with Sauron (who is basically evil) and began to use unlawful power instead of the wisdom the Istari were meant to use.  For that, as you can see in the quote way above, he was thrown out of the order of the Istari.  How’s that for irony?  A “Wizard” thrown out of his order because he learns and uses magic!
“But what about the One Ring?  That certainly looks like magic and you can’t try to say it’s not evil.”
Yep.  It is evil.  LOTR is a good vs. evil story.  And I won’t say it’s not magic.  Let’s look at our definition.
Magic: gaining power from the forces of evil that perverts the natural order of things. 
Gaining power?  Oh yes.  From the forces of evil?  Sauron’s power was bound up in the Ring and if he’s not a force of evil, I don’t know what is.  Pervert the natural order of things?  Why don’t you read LOTR?  And the story of Middle-earth’s creation.  That should convince you.
So The Lord of the Rings does have magic: in the One Ring.  It is clearly portrayed as evil, but should we really be liking a book that has so much evil in it?  I present to you another quote, this time from Douglas Wilson.  And if you’ve been scrolling and not really paying attention to this very long post, this is the time to listen up.
Magic is trying to wrest power from the created order in order to exercise that power over others.  This is to be distinguished from exercising dominion, which works with the created order in order to serve God and others… The Lord of the Rings is not a book promoting magic, with a little “good guy magic” or “white magic” thrown in to make it palatable for Christians.  The Lord of the Rings is actually one of the most profoundly anti-magic books available.  Why is this? 
…Through an odd circumstance, they [the good guys] came to possess the Ring of Power, and this Ring (wielded by someone like Gandalf, or Elrond) would overthrow Sauron and all their enemies completely.  Then they would be able to wield power decisively.  But when they had overthrown Sauron, they would discover that they had done so by becoming Sauron.
This is why they decide to destroy the Ring.  When Frodo, at the fateful moment, says, “I will take the Ring,” he is saying not just that he will undertake a very dangerous mission.  It is indeed dangerous, but fundamentally, it is a mission of repudiation. The good guys have the ultimate weapon, the ultimate power, and they refuse to use it.  Think for a moment how strange this is as a story line.  Most wartime adventure stories are about trying to acquire a great weapon, or destroy one in the enemy’s possession.  This story is about trying to destroy the enemy’s great weapon that is in your possession the entire time.

Put yourself in Middle Earth for a moment.  Evil is sweeping across the world; you have the great weapon that the bad guy is sure to get, if you don’t use it first.  If you do use it, you can destroy the bad guy forever.  And since the Ring is evil in itself, after you’ve used it to destroy Sauron, you can hop over to the Mount of Doom, throw it in, and be done with evil forever.  That’s what I would have thought.  Sure, the Ring is evil, sure, it’s magic.  But to have one person use that evil once could destroy evil forever.  Wouldn’t that be worth it?  I might think so.  But the three most powerful good guys, Gandalf, Elrond, and Galadriel, are all offered the Ring, and they all refuse it.  Gandalf speaks of it like this.
“With that power I should have power too great and terrible.  And over me the Ring would gain a power still greater and more deadly.” 
They realize that the Ring is evil.  If they used it to destroy Sauron, they would destroy him by becoming him, as Douglas Wilson said.  “They have the ultimate weapon, the ultimate power, and they refuse to use it.”
Kudos to you if you’ve read this far!  I didn’t actually mean for this post to be so long, but it piled up.  There are just three things more that I want to say.

I’ve demonstrated that LOTR is not bad.  But it’s more than not bad.  I could talk for ages about the epic storyline, how much it’s inspired my own writing, the beauty of it, the important themes, the Christian worldview… but that would take a couple more posts at least this long.

The LOTR movies are, for the most part, faithful to the story, and for that I heartily applaud them.  However, the makers of the movies did not share the worldview of J.R.R. Tolkien, so some of the themes don’t shine quite as clear in the movies, and also, the movies’ treatment of magic is, in my opinion, subtly different from Tolkien’s.   So they’re fine to watch, but be discerning in what you get out of them.

I’ve mention Tolkien’s Christian worldview and that it shows through in LOTR (and especially his other works.)  I haven’t mentioned yet that Tolkien was a Catholic.  I believe that certain parts of the Catholic faith, such as purgatory, transubstantiation, and the veneration of saints, are unbiblical.  I can’t imagine how whatever conclusions Tolkien got from the ideas of purgatory and transubstantiation could have found their way into his writings (although some traces of veneration of saints does seem to have slipped in,) but a person’s worldview does influence his thinking, so, again, discernment is a very useful thing to have.  The Lord of the Rings (and Tolkien’s other works) are great books, but they are not perfect any more than Tolkien (or me, for that matter,) is perfect.

And that, my friends, is all I have to say.  For now.   Do you agree with me?  Disagree?  Is there something I missed?  Remember, the comment box is always available and comments are more than welcome. :D


The Mad Elvish Poet said...

Epic post, m'dear. E.P.I.C. Post. Tolkien would be proud. As would Lewis, I believe. ;) Well-thought out, well-written. Frabjous. I'm babbling. I loved it.

Kirsten Fichter said...

Thank you so much for posting this! It was very well written and well researched! I know so many people who put LOTR in the same boat as, say, Harry Potter, stating that the magic is the same, but it's not! Put a little study into it, and the differences are clear. Tolkien was extremely careful about how "magic" was portrayed in LOTR.

I wrote my own post about this topic on my blog Lianne Taimenlore a few months ago, and I was really amazed at how closely yours sounded to mine! It's encouraging to know that the stuff I researched isn't just my own, little personal opinion. If you wanted to stop by my blog, I'd love for you to read my post as well.

Again, excellent post, m'dear! Thoroughly enjoyed it!!

Faith F. said...

Miss Maria! I could reach over and hug you. This is a very good post. May I print it? I was wondering before I write my review of Finding God in the Hobbit if maybe I should try to link to something to explain why we can read fantasy, and I think I will link to you. This was very well thought out, and covered a whole bunch of things. I never would have noticed those things. This long post is lovely. Keep up the good work! And sometime, please, write that post about the glorious story line in Tolkiens work. He was a Catholic, and yet his writing was deeply Christian. I am glad your post was so long. I'm off to read The Fellowship again! In Christ, Faith

Rachel Heffington said...

BEAUTIFUL JOB! I've been waiting for something like this for so long. You finally have explained what I feel about LOTR! Thank you!!!

Alexandra said...

I just have to say kudos to an extremely excellent post, dear! Your article was perfectly expressed and really cleared away any lingering questions I had in my mind. Very thorough research!

I understand where people come from as I used to be anti-Narnia and Lord of the Rings myself. Then my brother stumbled across LOTR and began studying it, and he came to the same conclusions you did after thorough research (and he's a LOTR fanatic the way I'm a TSP or Doctor Who fanatic, so yeah, he's read like, everything there is to read about it :)).

I think a HUGE thing to remember is that Tolkien, as you put so well, created an entirely different world that functioned differently than ours. Half of their "magic" could have been considered science - which reminds me of the scene in Thor when he explains that what primitive man considered "gods" with magical powers was just people on another planet who had a more advanced grasp of science than they did. Or to bring it closer to the subject, it reminds me of an episode of Doctor Who where they meet the witches of Macbeth and discover that they were aliens and their "powers" were just science and their special ability from their own planet.

Again, very well put. Much applauding on this end. :)

Jemimah said...

*applauds profusely* Well researched and well said, Maria dear! It's good to read a different side in this debate on LOTR and its "magic" (I've seen quite a lot of articles that are anti-LOTR lately). To be honest, I am a huge fan of LOTR and Tolkien...and I am unashamedly watching The Hobbit premiere on livestream now.

But anyway, your points here are thoroughly interesting, and I have to agree with them. Especially the magic part. Even that has a logical explanation. And there was always a clear line drawn between good and evil.

But I do have a question to ask. What about the men in the Paths of the Dead. There was a curse (I don't know if it's magical or simply...a curse) that kept them alive somehow. What are your thoughts on that?

Vellvin said...

Great post!! :D I love LOTR lots!
I liked how you went through all the definitions, it was all very clear and nice to read.
Great post, as I've already said and keep up the good work!


Naomi said...

wonderful post!! (:

Marie said...

I really appreciated this post. You came from a very knowledgeable, sensible and un-prejudiced point of veiw and you're arguments made sense--not just some LOTR fan angrily gushing that, yuh-huh, their favorite books are good (not that I have necessarily read anything like that.) Me and my sibling are big-time LOTR fans, so it was really nice to hear a defense for once!

Arielle Melody Bailey said...

BRILLIANT POST!!!!!! I couldn't agree more with what you've said!! Very well written and concise and you explained it excellently.

I especially like your point about having the ultimate power in the Ring and then refusing to use it because in so doing they would have become what they were trying to destroy.

Arielle Melody Bailey said...

I've awarded you over at my blog: http://thesplendorfalls.blogspot.com/2012/12/awards_6.html

BatZion said...

Disagree, my dear lady. I don't think the God of the Bible would tolerate wizards/magic/elves/fairies etc etc as readily as modern culture believes He would. Witchcraft is tied hand in hand with idolatry. Idolatry is punishable with death according to God's Laws. Just check it out in the Old Testament.

Just because I disagree with you does not alter my opinion of you or your blog. :) My very dearest friend is a Tolkien and Lewis fan...
So, no offense and God bless! :)

Michele B. said...

Very much enjoyed your post, and the excellent points you made upon that perennially dicey topic of if it's "OK" for Christians to read books with wizards in them. Well done!
I also appreciate the respectful, reasonable, rant-free tone of the discussions. This gives me courage to say what is in my heart. Full disclosure--Like Tolkien, I am a Catholic. Tolkien's works speak to many Christians, though he took special care to remove religious language from them. And I believe something beyond the words resonates even more deeply for Catholics. Of course Tolkien WAS A CHRISTIAN, and I would just like to register a modest protest.
I know you can't control what commenters say, but comments/attitudes like, "He was a Catholic, and YET his writing was deeply Christian" bother, offend, and frankly baffle me. Like someone can't be both? How are Catholics not considered Christians, when we read the same Gospels, and profess Jesus Christ as our Savior? For centuries, most Christians were what would be called Catholic today. Anyway, I do not wish to be divisive or antagonistic. It's just a distinction I see being made that is not accurate, and it hurts my feelings. For the record: All Christians are not Catholic, but all Catholics are Christian.
God bless you.

Hannah Barta said...

Michele B.,

Hi! I just wanted to say that the Bible says that we must be born again in order to be a true Christian. Born again--we must acknowledge we are sinners, believe Jesus Christ is raised from the dead, and repent. Romans 10:9 is simple: “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.”

I fully agree that Catholics can be Christians! Anyone, even a man or woman we think of as a terror (put whatever sin on them you want), can be forgiven by Jesus

In reply Jesus declared, "I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again." -- John 3:3

Lil said...

Hello friend,
I find this post SOO amazing & helpful and I can't find words to express how thankful I am for your hard work in putting this together! I adore LOTR and have a lot of friends who oppose it because of the magic. Would you mind if I posted this on my blog, with all credit given to you?? I totally understand if you would rather me not, but I promise I will give you complete credit. That would be awesome, thanks :)!