Not until the end of last year did I see the first part of Peter Jackson's adaption of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and in most aspects I was pleasantly surprised. One of the scenes that most impressed me from a cinematic point of view, however, clashed the most with my view of Tolkien. This was the scene where Gandalf and Saruman laid in to each other with their magic, tossing each other around Saruman's chambers.

It was not just the indignity of seeing Gandalf tossed around that bothered me. What bothered me is that, unlike too many of his fantasy imitators, "magic" is used very sparingly in Tolkien's works.

One of the best explanations of this comes from the second book of the first volume, where an Elf in Lothlorien describes the stealth cloaks given to the hobbits, saying that they are called "magic", but that that word is also used to describe the deceptions of the enemy. Indeed, it seems that most of the "magic" presented in Tolkien is more a matter of craft, and not of hocus-pocus.

While I see no reason to add the inevitable quote, almost never in the Trilogy, the Hobbit, or The Silmarillion is "magic" ever used seperated from some natural craft or art. There are a great variety of things outside the normal ken, but they all must work through a natural object. Examples of this are The Phial of Galadriel, the sword Sting, the Morgul Blade, the pool of Galadriel, the Palantiri, the Silmarils, the Gate of Moria and the Rings of Power. All of these things have great power, but they all must work through a somewhat natural agency. The Ring is actually unique not just in the extent of its power, but that in its effects are not really tied to anything a ring would normally do.

Gandalf in the entire trilogy seems to perform four spells: he adds an artistic flourish to the water drowning the Black Riders, he launches a bolt of fire at the wargs, he lights some kindling on Caradhras and he performs a spell of closing on a door in Moria. He actually comments when lighting the kindling that it will announce his position to everyone within hundreds of miles, so that even the smallest spell seems to be a rather drastic matter for a wizard to do.

As for the other major wizard in the story, Saruman, his major magical talent seems to be an uncanny ability to persuade people to his advantage, something we can only wish required a supernatural ability.

It seems then that "magic", meaning any kind of ability that somehow "breaks" or goes outside the laws of nature, is perhaps not present as such in Tolkien's works.