As a philologist
and Professor of Anglo-Saxon, Tolkien was familiar with "minor"
works of Old English (OE) literature like the Anglo-Saxon charms.
These texts were communicative acts, applications of verbal magic
in which language was used to affect material reality (Nöth,
63). As in most Indo-European languages, OE charms consisted of
an optional epic introduction, which identified the evil or related
an analogous situation (e.g., illness or infection) and how it
was overcome, demonstrating the power of the cure (Grendon, 111),
and the incantation itself, in which the desired result was "modeled
in language" (Zimmer, 68-69). Underlying the charms was the
assumption of the "power of the word" to change reality
(Grendon, 119). We find echoes of OE charms in the verbal magic
performed in The Lord of the Rings, and the charms also
shaped aspects of the story.
from the eleventh-century Anglo-Saxon magico-medical text Lacnunga
(Ms. Harley 585, British Library), the "Nine Herbs Charm"
(Nigon Wyrta Galdor) and "Against a Sudden Stitch"
(Wið Færstice) appear to have influenced Tolkien's
writing of The Lord of the Rings. The "Nine Herbs
Charm" was an incantation uttered over nine powerful plants
(mugwort, plantain, chamomile, apple, fennel, chervil, betony,
nettle, and lamb's cress [Dobbie, cxxxiii]) to intensify their
ability to counteract nine poisons and nine infections or illnesses
from onflygnum, flying infections thought to enter their
victim through the mouth and ears (Storms, 196-197; Abernethy
21-22). Pettit has suggested that Tolkien used this nine vs. nine
opposition in Elrond's assembling of the nine-member Fellowship
of the Ring to oppose the nine Black Riders of Mordor (41 fn.;
FR, II, iii, 275). The numbers three and nine occur with greater
frequency than any other numbers in the Anglo-Saxon charms (Grendon,
122; Grattan and Singer, 44); as Chevalier and Geerbrant point
out, three is a number used in Indo-Europeans cultures and, in
fact, almost universally, to represent wholeness or completeness
(997). Nine, as the square of three, shares and perhaps intensifies
charm used by Tolkien, "Against a Sudden Stitch," is
meant to counteract rheumatism or lumbago (Storms, 140; Hauer,
250) or a sudden stabbing pain of unknown origin (Pettit, 39),
understood as the result of a dart or knife shot into the victim
by mysterious riders, witches, demons (i.e., Germanic gods from
a Christian perspective [Grenden, 215]), or elves on a burial
mound or hill. The exorcist uses the herbs feverfew, nettle, and
plantain and a knife to extract or neutralize this dart, which
then melts. Pettit argues convincingly that this charm influenced
Tolkien in his depiction of the Black Riders' attack on
the Fellowship on the hill Weathertop, Frodo's stabbing
by the Witch King of Angmar using a Morgul Knife,
and Frodo's experience of "pain like a dart"
(FR, I, xi, 195-196), and his subsequent healing by Elrond, who
finds the sliver of the knife and extracts and melts it
(Pettit, 41; FR, II, I, 221-222; my emphasis).
several instances of actual charms in The Lord of the Rings,
most of them associated with Tom Bombadil (his charming of Old
Man Willow [FR, I, vi, 120] and the barrow wight's spell [FR,
I, viii, 141] and Tom's counterspell [FR, I, viii, 142]). Zimmer
adduces these instances of magic and adds Gandalf's breaking of
Saruman's staff in The Two Towers (67; TT, III, x, 583).
Interestingly, Tolkien's charms lack an epic introduction, but
they do contain the conclusion of the typical Anglo-Saxon metrical
charm, in which an evil being is deprived of power, sent to sleep,
or cast out of its habitation through the use of language.
Van Kirk, ed. The Anglo-Saxon Minor Poems. New York: Columbia
University Press, 1942.
J.R.R. The Lord of the Rings. 1954-55. 50th Anniversary
Edition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987.
George William. "The Germanic Metrical Charms." Dissertation,
University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1983.
Chickering, Howell D., Jr. "The Literary Magic of 'Wid Faerstice'."
Viator 2 (1971): 83-104.
Grattan, J.H.G. , and Charles Singer. Anglo-Saxon Magic and
Medicine, Publications of the Wellcome Historical Medical Museum,
New Series, 3. New York: Oxford University Press, 1952.
Grendon, Felix. "The Anglo-Saxon Charms." The Journal
of American Folklore 22. 84 (1909): 105-237.
Hauer, Stanley R. "Structure and Unity in the Old English
Charm 'Wid Faerstice'." English Language Notes 15.
4 (1978): 250-57.
Horn, Wilhelm. "Der Altenglische Zauberspruch Gegen Den Hexenschuß."
[The Old English Charm Against a Sudden Stitch]. In Probleme
Der Englischen Sprache Und Kultur, Ed. Wolfgang Keller. Heidelberg:
Carl Winter, 1925. pp. 88-104.
Jolly, Karen Louise. "Anglo-Saxon Charms in the Context of
a Christian World View." Journal of Medieval History 11
Nöth, Winfried. "Semiotics of the Old English Charm."
Semiotica 19 (1977): 59-83.
Pettit, Edward, ed. Anglo-Saxon Remedies, Charms, and Prayers
from British Library Ms. Harley 585: The Lacnunga. Vol. 1:
Introduction, Text, Translation, and Appendices. Lewiston, NY:
Edwin Mellen, 2001.
---. "J.R.R. Tolkien's Use of an Old English Charm."
Mallorn 40. 11 (2002): 39-44.
Skemp, A.R. "Notes on Anglo-Saxon Charms." Modern
Language Review 6 (1911): 289-301.
Storms, Gotfrid. Anglo-Saxon Magic. The Hague: Martinus
Thun, Nils. "The Malignant Elves: Notes on Anglo-Saxon Magic
and Germanic Myth." Studia Neophilologica 41 (1969):
Weston, L.M.C. "The Language of Magic in Two Old English
Charms." Neuphilologische Mitteilungen 86. 2 (1985):
Wrenn, C. L. A Study of Old English Literature. New York:
W.W. Norton, 1967.
Zimmer, Mary. "Creating and Re-Creating Worlds with Words:
The Religion and Magic of Language in the Lord of the Rings."
Seven 12 (1995): 65-78.
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