Magic in The Lord of the Rings–Deus ex Machina Part II

In last week’s blog I wrote about how magic and the paranormal can sometimes become a cheat in modern fiction. This week, I want to focus on how Tolkien handled magic The Lord of the Rings.

I know he is not modern or specifically a YA author, but I like the way he handles magic. In his books, magic never saves the day in an unrealistic way. Magic never solves ALL of a characters’ problems. Magic and the supernatural can help and aid and guide, but it isn’t what ultimately defeats the main bad guy. Frodo or Aragorn don’t instantly develop magical powers right at the very moment they need it. Of course, magical things do happen to the characters, because they live in worlds in which magic is available.

In The Lord of the Rings, Frodo is an ordinary hobbit without any magical abilities. There is magic in the story, though, in the form of Gandalf and the Elves. But Gandalf uses his magic sparingly and the Elves’ “magic” is not the same as what we believe magic to be.


On several occasions Gandalf uses his magic to help the Fellowship. He is the only being powerful enough to fight the Balrog, so he sacrifices himself to save them. He uses magic to rouse Theoden from his enchantment. When the men of Gondor must flee from the Orcs at Osgiliath and are then attacked by Ring Wraiths, it is Gandalf who rides to their rescue. He uses magic to repel the Nazgul.

However, Gandalf never completely saves the day with his magic. Gandalf only does enough to help the other inhabitants of Middle Earth fulfill their own destinies. He gives Aragorn guidance and advice, but does not fight his battles for him, nor does he give Aragorn any special abilities. Aragorn has to discover his power on his own, by taking the dangerous road and proving to all that he is the king returned. Aragorn has special powers—powers that we’d consider magical—but it takes him the length of the book to discover them. He has to PROVE himself as a man and as a king before he can tap into those powers.

The other source of magic for our Fellowship is the power of the Elves. However, the Elves, like Gandalf, remove themselves from the action. Their magic cannot destroy the Ring of Power, but can only guide the Fellowship and aid them on their journey. The Elves do not even consider themselves magical, and their brand of magic is not the fireworks and spells that we consider to be magic.

As Sam says to Frodo when they are in Lothlorien, “If there’s any magic about, it’s right down deep, where I can’t lay my hands on it…” Later, when the Fellowship takes it’s leave of Lothlorien, the Elves give them gifts, including cloaks,

“Are these magic cloaks?” asked Pippen, looking at them with wonder.
“I do not know what you mean by that,” answered the leader of the Elves. “They are fair garments, and the web is good, for it was made in this land…leaf and branch, water and stone: they have the hue and beauty of all these things under the twilight of Lorien that we love; for we put the thought of all that we love into all that we make…”

That is the magic of the Elves. Love and beauty and a deep respect for the world.

Like Aragorn, Frodo is guided by Gandalf, but is also left to prove himself. Frodo is a hobbit and so has absolutely no magic in him. The only magic he possesses is the magic of a simple person who harbors a tremendous capacity for love and compassion. Sam, too. As we learn, though, this is some very powerful magic!

What defeats Sauron is not magic, but some of the highest qualities of humanity—humility, mercy, selflessness, loyalty, and friendship. Sauron cannot see the Ring coming his way to be destroyed, because he cannot understand that anyone could be in possession of the Ring and not use it. This blindness of Sauron’s allows Frodo and Sam to get the Ring to Mordor without detection.

Out of loyalty and friendship Aragorn puts himself at risk not once, but twice, to help Frodo and Sam travel without detection. Aragorn shows himself to Sauron in the Palantir so that Sauron will think he has the Ring. This takes the heat off Frodo and Sam. Aragorn does the same thing when he rides with the men of Gondor and Rohan to the very gates of Mordor (the gates of Hell, really) to bring Sauron’s attention to him rather than Frodo and Sam. Aragorn knows full well that this could be his death, but he does it because he knows that the fate of the world and his two hobbit friends are in jeopardy.

The final defeat of Sauron happens when the One Ring is thrown into the pit of Mount Doom, but this only happens because Frodo and Sam showed mercy on several occasions. Frodo and Sam both had opportunities to kill Gollum, but they didn’t, because Gollum was a source of pity for them. Frodo saw his own potential decay (from carrying the Ring) in the form of Gollum. He felt pity for him and refused to kill him. At the very end, as they climb up of Mt. Doom, Sam and Gollum face off. Instead of fighting, though, Gollum throws himself at Sam’s feet and pleads. Sam thinks of killing him (it would be easy at this point), but can not bring himself to do it,

“But deep in his heart there was something that restrained him: he could not strike this thing lying in the dust, forlorn, ruinous, utterly wretched. He himself, though only for a little while, had borne the Ring, and now dimly he guessed the agony of Gollum’s shrivelled mind and body, enslaved to that Ring, unable to find peace or relief ever in life again.”

Sam pardons Gollum. Sam shows mercy and this final act of mercy destroys the Ring, because Frodo, faced with the act of destroying the Ring, can’t do it. He’s succumbed to it’s evil power. Gollum plays his final part. He attacks Frodo, steals the Ring, and then falls into the pit of Mount Doom, destroying himself and the Ring.

There is magic in The Lord of the Rings. Gandalf and the Elves are very powerful beings. Aragorn has supernatural abilities to fight and heal. But none of this magic is a way out for our characters. They all have to fight (even Gandalf!) and learn and grow. Magic helps them, aids them, guides them. It is not a cheat.

The “magic” of The Lord of the Rings are the simple, and most noble, qualities of what it means to be human.

4 thoughts on “Magic in The Lord of the Rings–Deus ex Machina Part II”

  1. maybe that is what makes those books so timeless, because magic doesn’t save the day… it is the qualities that regular people can possess that save everything. it makes it seem doable, maybe?

  2. For some reason this makes me think of batman- that yes he has all these gadgets and a but load of money but he is still a person, and we all like to believe that we as regular people can be a hero and save the day.

    1. kimberlysbarton

      I like the Batman analogy! You are so right. I always preferred Batman because of that. He’s just a regular guy fighting crime, not a nearly indestructible alien, or a radioactive insect.

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