J.R.R. Tolkien uses a soft magic system in his ‘Lord of the Rings‘ (LOTR) series as a narrative device to convey his themes. While the creators of ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender‘ employ a hard magic system to drive the plot, and J.K. Rowling uses a firm magic system in the Harry Potter series to complement Harry’s character arc, Tolkien takes a different approach to magic. For LOTR, he created a very soft magic system even more deeply anchored within the story world than ‘Avatar’ and ‘Harry Potter’ with a strong and nuanced thematic core.
Tolkien uses his magic system to showcase his views about the very nature of good and evil, the importance of mercy, and humankind’s eternal struggle for power. He concentrates most of the magic in LOTR within the one ring which possesses both firm and soft magical qualities, similar to the magic system in ‘Harry Potter’. The ring’s firm magical qualities are physical – invisibility, unnaturally long life, dominance on the battlefield, and acting as a homing beacon for the Nazgûl. It’s soft qualities are psychological – addiction, corruption, and greed.
Hobbits As Heroes
The protagonists of Tolkien’s ‘The Hobbit‘ and LOTR are not powerful wizards, elves, or even men; they’re small, comfort-loving, hobbits with no innate magical powers. Tolkien presents Middle Earth as an epic fantasy world with powerful wizards, dark lords, and immortal elves who all wield powerful magic. But within this high fantasy setting, LOTR is a relatable story of human proportions. This is due to Tolkien’s focus on mortal men, fallible hobbits, and the complex moral dilemmas they face.
Tolkien’s choice to cast non-magic users as the protagonists of his high-fantasy stories would be a hard sell today. If Harry Potter was a muggle and Aang wasn’t the avatar, then they would have no story worth telling. But not Tolkien’s hobbits.
Bilbo Baggins, the protagonist of ‘The Hobbit’, doesn’t understand anything about wizard or elven magic, much less the darker magic of Sauron. Frodo Baggins, the hero of LOTR, is also a non-magical hobbit who knows nothing about the power of the ring he inherited from Bilbo.
Not Chosen Ones
Tolkien casts non-magic users as his heroes and metaphorically dwarfs them with powerful wizards such as Gandalf and Saruman, and gifted immortal elves like Legolas and Galadriel. This contrast establishes that magic-users on both sides of the war for Middle Earth are capable of powerful unknown magic. This disparity also brings Frodo and Bilbo down to human dimensions so readers can relate to them. This set-up also serves Tolkien’s theme: the fate of Middle Earth will ultimately rest in the hands of one ordinary hobbit.
Unlike Harry Potter, literally called ‘the boy who lived’, and Aang who is gifted with specific powers and responsibilities as the avatar, Frodo and Bilbo defy the ‘chosen one’ trope. Nothing is expected of these ordinary hobbits, and Tolkien doesn’t create grand destinies or prophecies to propel them into the conflict of the plot.
After a gentle push from Gandalf, Bilbo runs after the dwarves to join their adventures in ‘The Hobbit’. Although he doesn’t have to, Frodo accepts the responsibility of being the ring bearer and volunteers to take the ring to Mordor although he doesn’t know the way. This agency is another way Tolkien emphasizes the ‘everyman’ aspect of the hobbits, and shows readers that his heroes are engaging in dangerous conflict by choice.
The Soft Magic of The Ring
The ring has both firm and soft magical elements which Tolkien uses to create conflict on multiple levels. The ring’s firm magic – invisibility, extending its bearer’s life, and its ability to dominate on the battlefield – propel Frodo and the fellowship through the plot as they journey towards Mount Doom. The ring’s soft magic – its addictive and corruptive qualities – drive Frodo’s character arc.
Tolkien doesn’t define the scope of the ring’s enormous power. Both Gandalf and Galadriel wisely refuse the ring, Boromir fails to steal it from Frodo, and it’s not clear what Sauron would do with it if he managed to recover it. This is a skilled display of the subtle strength of thematic magic – its purpose isn’t to drive the plot so much as create thematic conflict. This is why Tolkien took care to make clear to readers that no magic can destroy the ring other than the fires of Mount Doom, and why giant eagles do not fly Frodo to Mount Doom so he can simply drop the ring in. Such easy solutions would gut all thematic meaning from the story and create an unsatisfactory ending. Unlike Rowling who creates a more structure to support the softer aspects of her magic system such as the patronus in ‘Harry Potter’, Tolkien doesn’t attempt to explain or justify his choices. This is another marker of a soft magic system – the rules simply exist because the author said so.
Since theme is usually expressed through the protagonist’s character arc, the theme of LOTR is rooted in Frodo’s journey to Mount Doom and his struggle as the ring bearer. Frodo battles the armies of Sauron and the Nazgûl in the external plot, but his internal battle with the ring is primarily psychological. For this reason Tolkien imbues the ring with aspects of soft magic that are emotion-based and largely unexplained.
There is no clear way to resist the allure of the ring other than to reject it entirely as Gandalf and Galadriel do. That leaves ring bearers especially vulnerable with no means to protect themselves against it. This aspect of the ring is in service to the theme. It’s Tolkien’s way of showing readers that no one – not even humble hobbits with the best of intentions – are immune to the appeal of power.
The Thematic Meaning of the Ring
The firm magic of the ring grants unnaturally long life and makes the wearer invisible, but at the cost of being seen by Sauron and the ringwraiths. The softest part of the ring’s magic – its irresistible psychological pull – comes at the price of moral corruption. It’s the soft aspect of the ring’s magic that is the heart of Tolkien’s story and the main plot device he uses to express his themes.
Tolkien uses Gollum and Bilbo to demonstrate the negative consequences of using the ring. This allows Frodo and readers to see and anticipate the ring’s unwholesome effects, adding tension and stakes to Frodo’s choice to become a ring bearer. Bilbo learns the capabilities and costs of using the ring through his interactions with Gollum, and Frodo discovers the same while trying to evade the Nazgûl.
The Irresistible Allure of Power
Gollum, Bilbo, and Frodo – the three hobbits who become ring bearers – begin as emotionally healthy characters with honorable intentions. Yet they all fall to the addictive power of the ring. Why they fail to resist the ring is precisely the thematic question that Tolkien sets out to answer. Frodo’s failure to willingly destroy the ring is how LOTR expresses Tolkien’s opinions about the nature of good and evil.
Gollum’s mind becomes warped and twisted by the ring until he is obsessed with it. Bilbo has great difficulty giving the ring up and still longs for it, even after he’s given it to Frodo. Finally overcome by the ring, even good-natured Frodo eventually pushes Sam away, deluded with the notion that he can journey to Mount Doom alone.
While grappling with Gollum on the precipice of Mount Doom, Frodo finally succumbs to the lure of the ring, losing the moral battle along with a finger. It’s only Gollum’s greed, and Bilbo’s and Frodo’s previous decisions to spare his life as an act of mercy, that results in Gollum wrestling the ring from Frodo and falling to his death with it into the fire.
Tolkien’s Thematic Argument
Tolkien’s theme is not as simple as “absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Frodo’s noble intentions but ultimate failure represent how both good and evil reside in the heart of humankind. This lifts Tolkien’s thematic argument to “the struggle to do right is a worthy one, even if good can never wholly conquer evil”. Frodo, representing humankind’s struggle to do right, may be overcome by the temptation of power. But evil, represented by Sauron and the all-powerful ring, will eventually destroy itself.
The ring’s power to corrupt and the fact that so many crave it, is what leads to its eventual destruction. Unlike chosen one characters of Harry Potter and Aang, Frodo and Bilbo don’t destroy the ring with their strength, emotionally-powered magic, or even their will to do the right thing. The hobbits contribute to the ring’s destruction through the strength of their friendships and their choices to spare Gollum’s life out of mercy. This is another pillar of Tolkien’s theme – fellowship and small acts of compassion may go unnoticed on the battlefield but they have far-reaching consequences, the magnitude of which may not be clear in the moment.
Conclusion: Thematic Magic is Usually Soft
Tolkien’s achievement was not only his ability to lift fantasy from moralistic children’s tales to adult stories that could address the very heart of the human condition. He immersed readers in Frodo’s psychological journey with the ring; how it torments him, how he comes to need and love a repulsive object that he knows he should detest. Even after the ring is gone, Frodo is forlorn because he has defined himself by it for so long: “It is gone forever, and now all is dark and empty.” Here Tolkien gives us another realistic aspect of the theme – having tasted power, losing it comes at a steep emotional cost.
The ring is soft magic because defining how the ring warps the minds of ring bearers with hard, logical rules would undermine the nuances of Tolkien’s thematic argument. Hardening the ring’s magic in this way would also steer its meaning away from greed and in the direction of mind control.
The importance of friendship, the power of small acts of compassion, and fighting a losing battle because it’s worth fighting are all themes that require nuance and subtlety. Tolkien knew that soft magic would better support his story than hard logic-based magic.
Tolkien’s magic is distinct from ‘Harry Potter’ and ‘Avatar’ because he uses it to tell a different kind of story, with a more mature theme and a different kind of emotional tension. While stories like ‘Harry Potter’ and the original ‘Star Wars’ trilogy pit an obvious good against a clear-cut version of evil, they are both essentially coming of age stories that revolve around a ‘chosen one’. LOTR is a character study about ordinary protagonists grappling with the more mature and complex themes of power, friendship, and mercy.
More Posts In This Series:
Part 1 – ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’ – Hard Magic Systems
Part 2 – ‘Harry Potter” – Firm Magic Systems
Part 3 – ‘Dementors and the Patronus’ – Emotion Based Magic Systems
Part 4 – ‘Harry Potter’ – Hybrid Magic Systems
Stayed tuned for ‘Soft v. Hard World Building’ in the films of Hayao Miyazaki, LOTR, and Harry Potter
What do you think the ring means in LOTR? What do you think of Frodo’s failure to throw it in the fires of Mount Doom? Let me know in the comments!