Weaving Magical Realism Through Nature

R. Benjamin Gribbon and W. Joseph Balderson — University of South Florida — 4202 East Fowler Ave. ENB118 — Tampa, Florida 33620 – 5350 — USA

Dawn take you all and be stone to you!” said a voice that sounded like William’s. But it wasn’t. For just at that moment the light came over the hill, and there was a mighty twitter in the branches. William never spoke for he stood turned to stone as he stooped; and Bert and Tom were stuck like rocks as they looked at him. And there they stand to this day, all alone, unless the birds perch on them; for trolls, as you probably know, must be underground before dawn, or they go back to the stuff of the mountains they are made of, and never move again. That is what happened to Bert and Tom and William.1

It is traditional in fairy tales for the sight of the sun to be fatal to trolls, and so it is in Tolkien’s world. It was nature itself that condemned poor Tom. This illustrates a pattern of magic in Middle-earth. We are more likely to think of Tolkien’s world as full of wonder than of magic. This is because magic is primarily natural or visualized through natural occurrences or elements. As Men and Hobbits (which Tolkien specifically describes as non-magical) we must often ask was it magic or was it nature? We call the symbiotic relationship between magic and nature in Middle-earth magical realism.”

There are many examples of magical realism in Middle-earth. The sun is perhaps one of the most prominent, itself created by the Valar out of magical and natural resources. Its light was created from the last fruit of Laurelin, one of the Two Trees of Valinor, and was placed in a vessel made by Aulë and guided through the heavens by Arien. Just as it could turn trolls to stone, it would also weaken other servants of Melkor. Yet even its strength is drawn from natural magic.

In the chapter from The Hobbit entitled On The Doorstep,” Tolkien uses the sun as a way to help unlock the secret dwarven door at the Lonely Mountain. While on the doorstep the thrush gives a sign by cracking snails on the grey stone. As the sun sinks into the west, a beam of its light shines upon the wall and a flake of rock splits off, making a keyhole visible to Bilbo and the Dwarves. If there are spells involved here, then they are ancient and invisible to the adventurers experiencing them.

While the sun seems to have many magical properties, other forms of nature illustrate magical realism in Tolkien’s world. A good example is the enchanted river in Mirkwood. There is a possibility that Elves enchanted the river, but in an encounter described in The Hobbit, it seems to be the river itself that causes the hungry Bombur to fall asleep after falling in. Naturally, he does not sleep without dreams:

I was having such beautiful dreams. I dreamed I was walking in a forest rather like this, only lit with torches on the trees and lamps swinging from the branches and fires burning on the ground; and there was a great feast going on, going on for ever. A woodland king was there with a crown of leaves, and there was a merry singing, and I could not count or describe the things there were to eat and drink.”2

Although it seems to be his hunger which prompts the dream, the river carries an enchantment. Anyone who drinks or bathes in the river will dream of Elven feasts and suffer memory lapses. The enchantment of sleep is not permanent, but when Bombur awakens he cannot remember anything after the Unexpected Party. His encounter with the river only leaves him with a sleepy forgetfulness.

The Bruinen river that surrounds most of Rivendell seems to be a means of illustrating the realism of Elven magic. During the War of the Ring, Frodo, in an attempt to escape the Nazgûl, crosses the Ford of Bruinen. As the Nazgûl pursue, their mounts are drowned in a sudden flood and their spirits are sent back to their master in Mordor. This flood, with many great white horses riding its crest, is seemingly magical. It is known that Elrond commanded the flood with help from Gandalf (and, quite possibly, from Nenya, the Ring of Water):

Who made the flood?” asked Frodo.

Elrond commanded it,” answered Gandalf. The river of this valley is under his power, and it will rise in anger when he has great need to bar the Ford. As soon as the captain of the Ringwraiths rode into the water the flood was released. If I may say so, I added a few touches of my own: you may not have noticed, but some of the waves took the form of great white horses with shining white riders; and there were many rolling and grinding boulders.”

A considerable amount of magical realism in Tolkien’s world is revealed among the Elves. To Men and Hobbits, it is not particularly clear whether Elves are more natural or magical. Elves are the Firstborn race of Arda and were conceived by Ilúvatar alone in the third theme of Ainulindalë. They are the eldest and most noble of the speaking races of Arda. This may be why many of the uses of magical realism are focused so commonly through them. Tolkien always portrays Elves as having one foot in another world, yet very close to nature in Middle-earth.

Other creatures demonstrate Tolkien’s magical realism as well. The forests, in particular, have characteristics which seem very magical, and yet they have always been thus. The Old Forest is a small remnant of a forest that at one time covered most of Eriador. The trees are malevolent and mobile near the Whithywindle, and so it seems to the Hobbits, although they can never be sure of it. Tolkien’s description always allows the possibility that the forest is simply dense and difficult to navigate as the Hobbits walk, drawn unavoidably to Old Man Willow. The true nature of the forest is only made clear when Old Man Willow attacks the Hobbits as they rest.

Fangorn also is a home of very strange and mythical creatures, the Ents. Like Old Man Willow, Ents are capable of speech, but Ents can walk and seem friendlier than the trees of the Old Forest. Yet when they are angry they can cause quite a bit a damage. For instance, they reduced the walls of Isengard to rubble during the War of the Ring. They are, naturally, legendary to the people of Rohan: A legend of Rohan!” cried Legolas. Who is this Treebeard?”4 Answering Legolas, Gandalf replies:

Ah! now you are asking much,” said Gandalf. The little that I know of his long slow story would make a tale for which we have no time now. Treebeard is Fangorn, the oldest living thing that still walks beneath the sun upon this Middle-earth.”5

Ents are trees inhabited by the spirits of Yavanna, the Vala whose sphere of influence is growing things with roots in the ground. The Ents are to us perhaps the most unusual of the races on Middle-earth, but are yet as natural as they are strange.

The most awesome instances of magical realism through nature are those summoned by the Valar and Maiar. For example, when the First and Second Ages ended, earthquakes and floods changed the face of Arda.

It has been said that there is only limited magic in Tolkien’s world, and it is true that much of the magic that remains by the Fourth Age (or even the Third) is held only by ancient races, places, and artifacts. Yet it is the nature of magic in Middle-earth to be unobvious. As we study the use of magic, we discover there is much more than we had imagined. Thus, the Fourth Age may have room for more than we know.

This is particularly exciting for players and referees. We enjoy Middle-earth in part because it is unlike our own world, and we enjoy characters with skills we cannot have. Tolkien’s magical realism allows for a great deal of magic limited only in how it works and is perceived. Players may feel free to role-play magic-user characters, though as we watch Gandalf closely, much of his magic was of the obvious kind: fireworks and combat spells included. Yet he was nearly as much a druid as a wizard, and players and referees must take care that magic be described through it’s most natural effects, allowing for uncertainty. Gandalf’s use of magic, however, will prove to be the most common exception to natural magical realism, as we will suggest in future articles. 


  1. Tolkien, J.R.R., The Hobbit, 1966. Anderson, Douglas A., The Annotated Hobbit: The Hobbit or There and Back Again, 1988, p. 51. Following citations are abbreviated as AH.
  2. AH, p. 161.
  3. Tolkien, J.R.R., The Lord of the Rings: Part I, The Fellowship of the Ring, Ballantine Books Edition, New York, 1965, p. (?).
  4. LotR-II, p. 130.
  5. LotR — II, p. 131. Following citations from the Lord of the Rings are abbreviated LotR followed by the volume, page numbers refer to Ballantine edition.


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