Tolkien, Magic, and Ensoulment

Occasionally I have a desire to physically make an object – say, a pipe, a book or guitar – using the most basic set of tools necessary to accomplish the task without compromising quality. The idea is that modern manufacturing, in order to save time and money, is more and more automatic and computerized, and that these processes are increasingly placing more distance between the creator and the created thing. So, I want to reverse that; the less there is of the machine, the more there is of the human soul. The more time it takes, the more charged the object is with the life of the person. If it takes more effort to create, that effort is reflected in the thing somehow.

It reminds me of the opening monologue of Peter Jackson’s The Fellowship of the Ring. The example is of a more malevolent application to the idea, when it is said of Sauron and The One Ring, that “into this ring he poured his cruelty, his malice,and his will to dominate all life”… additionally, the The One Wiki to Rule Them All states the following:

To accomplish his goal of bringing the peoples of Middle-earth under his dominion, Sauron knew that the One Ring would need to contain an extraordinary amount of power. As such, he concentrated within the Ring a great part of his own fëa (soul).

This is, unless I am mistaken, also why he isn’t whole without it. It is a part of him. Interestingly, JRR Tolkien talked about the adverse effects of Modernism in his letters as being affiliated with the idea of “The Machine”, and he even says that “magic” is really close to this idea of “The Machine” ( there’s a really good article by The Atlantic that  I will link at the bottom for those interested). Both Machine and Magic are about “making the will more quickly effective”, which he saw as mostly put to ‘bulldozing the real world, or coercing other wills’ .

My interpretation, which varies from Tolkien, is that magic is the human soul pouring forth the modalities of its being into the object – be it malice or meekness, wit or stupor; the Machine aspect is the mere physical act of crafting that runs tandem to the pneumatic effort involved. They are in fact two sides of the same coin. Tolkien saw The Machine as a substitution for the development of ‘inherent inner powers’, mere external devices. I assert they are essentially identical, but different in degree – the external object is the deposit of the information imbued . One is hierarchically greater than the other, and the lesser depends on the greater. That is why if there is only mere external sophistication, there is less life in the thing; a mere commercial commodity of no spiritual value.

Tolkien’s idea of magic is at first glance mostly negative. Perusing his letters, a more nuanced perspective emerges. He looks at the difference of orientation the elves have with magic, and he does admit in a draft letter to Naomi Mitchison that he didn’t use the term in a consistent sense, and even makes a distinction between magia and goeteia,  which allows for a nuance you can appreciate:

I do not intend to involve myself in any debate whether ‘magic’ in any sense is real or really possible in the world. 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. Galadriel speaks of the ‘deceits of the Enemy’. Well enough, 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 (for this tale, since it is specially about it) 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’.

Both sides live mainly by ‘ordinary’ means. The Enemy, or those who have become like him, go in for ‘machinery’ – with destructive and evil effects — because ‘magicians’, who have become chiefly concerned to use magia for their own power, would do so (do do so). The basic motive for magia – quite apart from any philosophic consideration of how it would work – is immediacy: speed, reduction of labour, and reduction also to a minimum (or vanishing point) of the gap between the idea or desire and the result or effect. But the magia may not be easy to come by, and at any rate if you have command of abundant slave-labour or machinery (often only the same thing concealed), it may be as quick or quick enough to push mountains over, wreck forests, or build pyramids by such means…

There are two points in this: Firstly,  there is Tolkien’s disinterest in seriously considering the possibility of magic as an actual reality. This strikes me as odd, since he was a philologist. Surely he understood that one of the secrets to magic is that the world is made of words. The magic word is not always ‘abracadabra’, it may be ‘will you please….”, or even ‘Let there be Light’, ‘In the beginning was the Word’, ‘be thou withered’…Christ is the ‘Living Word/Logos’ …. As we see, his own beliefs are predicated upon the origin of the world as being magical, and even of an ultimately good nature. If this seems debatable to you, we have recourse to a lecture Tolkien gave entitled On Fairy Stories, where he states the following:

The mind that thought of light, heavy, grey, yellow, still, swift also conceived of magic that would make heavy things light and able to fly, turn grey lead into yellow gold, and the still rock into a swift water. If it could do the one, it could do the other; it inevitably did both. When we can take green from grass, blue from heaven, and red from blood, we have already an enchanter’s power…

In such ‘fantasy’, as it is called, new form is made; Faerie begins; Man becomes a sub-creator.

Small wonder that spell means both a story told, and a formula of power over living men.

The story-maker proves a successful ‘sub-creator’. He makes a Secondary World which your mind can enter. Inside it, what he relates is ‘true’: it accords with the laws of that world. You therefore believe it, while you are, as it were, inside. The moment disbelief arises, the spell is broken; the magic, or rather art, has failed.

Make sure you retain all of that, and then read what he says further on in the lecture, connecting it to the preceding parts:

The Gospels contain a fairy-story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories. … But this story has entered History and the primary world; … It has pre-eminently the “inner consistency of reality.” There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many sceptical men have accepted as true on its own merits. For the Art of it has the supremely convincing tone of Primary Art, that is, of Creation. …this story is supreme; and it is true. Art has been verified. God is the Lord, of angels, and of men — and of elves. Legend and History have met and fused.

The honest perspective Tolkien has with regard to the reality of magic is exceedingly obvious! Our act of creation is an echo of the primordial origin and act of which we are the image and reflection. Moreover, the gospels contain the point of contact between Legend and History, which speaks volumes about what this means. As I mentioned in my post Thoughts and Prayers, magic is the intersection between the super-mundane and the mundane; and now we see that the super-mundane is where mythic and legendary modes of reality reside.

Secondly, Tolkien states that the motive of magia is closing the gap between the idea or desire and the result or effect, even to the point of immediacy. This is precisely in line with my thinking concerning closing the distance between the soul and the object; it is as if this is a necessary requisite for ‘ensoulment’ to occur. Tolkien forbears ‘philosophic consideration of how it [magic] would work’, but we may have the answer in its motive. Although we see that Sauron did not forge all of the twenty rings himself, he did secretly forge The One Ring in the fires of Mount Doom himself, and it is in this that he poured forth his soul.

I will close with further considerations of the possibility of the human soul suffusing an object with various ‘frequencies’. The idea is that the object ensouled becomes alive in some sense. A talisman or amulet is ensouled, just as the body is ensouled. The one is only possible because the other is already the case. And so it seems odd indeed that magic is something villified in modern religious organizations. To believe in the soul as animating the body is to declare the body as an ensouled object, which is what is required for an object to be magical. It is only because the body is ensouled that the human soul is able to supposedly ensoul something without itself. The puppet has no life but what is imparted through it by the marionette.

if you liked this, related articles I have posted are the following, also the link to the article in The Atlantic:

Imagination, Objectification, and Forbidden Knowledge

Thoughts and Prayers

The Secret Fire: Tolkien, Boehme, and the Golden Chain of Wisdom

https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2012/07/fall-mortality-and-the-machine-tolkien-and-technology/260412/

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