In which I ramble about the relationship between magic and change in Arda.

The One Ring
Credit: Peter J. Yost, “One Ring Blender Render.png”. Used under Creative Commons CC-BY-SA 4.0 International.

I think the powers of the One Ring are best understood by figuring out what magic itself meant in Tolkien’s universe.

In Arda, the world containing the continent of Middle Earth, magic is essentially the ability to project your influence into the world, reshaping it to fit your desires. Those desires don’t have to be conscious ones, and in fact they normally aren’t: your subconscious desires, especially your fears, greatly influence what you do with any magic you have. It takes a great deal of effort and concentration to make magic obey your conscious desires. Hence why Isildur, Bilbo, and Frodo never manage to make the One Ring do anything else but turn them invisible.

Magic is, effectively, the little fire of creation that lives inside each living being in Arda. A “secret” fire, as Gandalf might call it. That fire is put there by Eru Ilúvatar, the supreme god of the setting… but it’s actually more true to think of every “living being” in Arda as actually being a tiny piece of Ilúvatar’s mind, and the fire that each being has is the strength of its connection to Ilúvatar’s full self. Magic is the very mechanism by which Arda was sung into existence, but magic interferes with free will, and Ilúvatar wanted free will to be a major part of Arda. Ilúvatar’s plan to resolve this conflict is that magic will fade from Arda as Arda ages, so that living beings will have less and less ability to impose their subconscious desires on each other, and on the world itself, through sheer force of will.

Rivendell and Lothlórien are two great examples of this. Elrond and Galadriel use their native elf magic, amplified by their Rings (each wears one of the Three), to preserve and protect their homelands. Those lands are beautiful, achingly beautiful, but they’re unnatural because they never change; even in the dead of winter, they always look exactly how their benefactors want them to look.

Elves have a very deep natural affinity for magic… which is to say that they hate change.

It would be inaccurate to say that they “hate change” because they have an “affinity for magic” or vice versa, because “hating change” and “affinity for magic” are actually the same thing in Tolkien’s setting. Elves find change distressing: they can only deal with it on timescales that make sense when measured in elf lifetimes (thousands of years). And thus elves project that fear of change onto the physical world, pushing their subconscious fear of change into the world itself, so that the world around them reacts to their fears and becomes an extension of their minds. But change is part of Ilúvatar’s plan. The elves have known for many thousands of years that the loss of magic would come at some point, but by the Battle of Pelennor Fields they all feel it deep in their bones that the defeat of Sauron will mean the end of magic entirely, and that the only way that magic can remain is if Sauron wins, which would be even worse.

Ilúvatar knew, of course, that the elves would feel this way. He ensured that there was a special place in Arda called Valinor, also known as the Undying Lands, where magic would remain in the world until the end of Arda itself. The Ainur, the lesser gods that Ilúvatar created from himself in order to sing Arda into existence, all physically dwell in Valinor, making it an Edenic heaven-on-earth with their deep and powerful magic. Of the elves who have felt Valinor calling to them, most had already left by the time Bilbo was born. The other elves will mostly die out once magic goes away, because elves don’t age but they can die of a broken heart, and living in a world with so much change will do that to them.

Hobbits, on the other hand, are almost the opposite of elves: hobbits do not naturally take to magic, because (as Bilbo narrates in the Extended Edition opening) hobbits want “peace and quiet, and good tilled earth, for all Hobbits share a love of things that grow” (emphasis mine). They truly, deeply want a balance: some things should stay the same (peace and quiet), but other things should change (growth of new life, death and renewal, children and old age and long family trees). They like cycles and seasons, summer and snow.

I think this explains why the One Ring brings long life, but miserable life, to both Gollum and Bilbo: hobbits (and stoors and their more famous cousins, us humans) are conflicted about dying. They (and we) fear death, yes, but they (we) also fear stagnation. We want a world that’s peaceful, but we want a world with cheese and bread and beer, children and grandchildren, harvest festivals and spring planting, and other things that require decay and renewal to exist. Even though I don’t think Tolkien followed through on his underlying ideas to this point, I think the most effective way to offend a Tolkien elf (if you ever had the chance to meet one) would be to present them with beer and cheese, maybe with some sauerkraut and kimchi and yogurt, and then to take them to the nearest cherry blossom festival or Halloween pumpkin patch or some other seasonal holiday built around marking the passage of time, as life dies and is replaced by new life. The humans’ and dwarves’ affinity for such things is part of why the elves generally find us unpleasant to be around, I’m certain.

It also explains why hobbits and men and dwarves don’t really belong in Valinor: we would find Valinor stifling to the point that we would rebel, trying to fight against the magic there and create change. The magic of Valinor soothes conflict and pain, but it does so because its inhabitants don’t permit conflict and pain, because their subconscious minds reject the idea that disagreement and discomfort should be allowed to exist. As beautiful as it is, it’s just not a world filled with free will, and beings like us can only thrive in a world that has free will.

(Frodo, Bilbo, and the other ringbearers get a special dispensation to go there, but that’s because — on some level — everyone involved understands that the traumas they’ve endured will guarantee that Valinor will be a relief for them, rather than a burden.)

Also: I’m pretty sure Tolkien was autistic, because this instinctual revulsion toward change is a very common autistic trait. It’s very related to “monotropism”, which is the desire to focus on only one thing (one topic, one food, one sensory experience, one mode of thinking) at a time. In short, too many things changing at the same time causes overstimulation, which leads to feeling overwhelmed and helpless. Being forced to experience such changes against our will is demoralizing and traumatizing, especially because it happens over and over again. I suspect it’s a topic he was deeply familiar with, even though he didn’t have the modern language for it.