Magia and Goeteia: Shippey, Lewis, and Tolkien

Last December, I ran across an interesting essay by Tom Shippey on C.S. Lewis’ treatment of magic:


I would recommend reading the thing in its entirety, but as a quick summation, Shippey constructs a tentative four-way Lewisian model:

  • Religion: Literal and genial
  • Scientism: Literal and mechanical
  • Magia: Metaphorical and genial
  • Goeteia: Metaphorical and mechanical

Here, Magia and Goeteia are essentially Lewis’ way of separating out distinct forms of magic. The former represents a practitioner coaxing the external world (and the entities therein) to do something. The latter represents our practitioner treating the world as a machine – say the right words, pull the correct metaphorical lever, and the external world will yield the desired result. Magia treats the external world as alive, with all that entails, whereas Goeteia treats the external world as dead, so to speak. Something only to be manipulated, not interacted with. No prizes for guessing that Lewis’ (in Shippey’s analysis) treats Magia as more benevolent than Goeteia.

Lest one wonders what drove Lewis’ thoughts on the matter… there is an easy solution in the form of Charles Williams. Williams was not only a fellow Inkling, but also someone who was intellectually close to Lewis, the latter having sent him fan-letters. And Williams had a background in occultism, specifically with the Christian mystic group, the Fellowship of the Rosy Cross. So while Goeteia might be an obscure word to throw around (and Shippey goes into some detail on this), Lewis did have access to occultist thoughts on the matter.

And this is where J.R.R. Tolkien comes in. As per Letter 159, Tolkien (via Lewis) also got to know Williams during the Second World War, though he was a good deal less enthusiastic about the man than Lewis. And though Shippey does not mention it, Tolkien too made use of the rare term Goeteia, which was clearly doing the rounds among the Inklings at that point. Specifically in Letter 155 (September 1954):

I am afraid I have been far too casual about ‘magic’ and especially the use of the word; though Galadriel and others show by the criticism of the ‘mortal’ use of the word, that the thought about it is not altogether casual. But it is a v. large question, and difficult; and a story which, as you so rightly say, is largely about motives (choice, temptations etc.) and the intentions for using whatever is found in the world, could hardly be burdened with a pseudo-philosophic disquisition! I do not intend to involve myself in any debate whether ‘magic’ in any sense is real or really possible in the world.

But I suppose that, for the purposes of the tale, some would say that there is a latent distinction such as once was called the distinction between magia and goeteia¹. Galadriel speaks of the ‘deceits of the Enemy’. Well enough, but magia could be, was, held good (per se), and goeteia bad. Neither is, in this tale, good or bad (per se), but only by motive or purpose or use. Both sides use both, but with different motives. The supremely bad motive is (for this tale, since it is specially about it) domination of other ‘free’ wills.

The Enemy’s operations are by no means all goetic deceits, but ‘magic’ that produces real effects in the physical world. But his magia he uses to bulldoze both people and things, and his goeteia to terrify and subjugate. Their magia the Elves and Gandalf use (sparingly): a magia, producing real results (like fire in a wet faggot) for specific beneficent purposes. Their goetic effects are entirely artistic and not intended to deceive: they never deceive Elves (but may deceive or bewilder unaware Men) since the difference is to them as clear as the difference to us between fiction, painting, and sculpture, and ‘life’.

Tolkien goes on to debate with himself about Man’s ability to access magic via spells. His eventual conclusion that such things are beyond mortals is a shaky one, and feels at odds with the existence of the Witch-King and sword-spells. But I digress. What is notable in the cited section is that while Tolkien is happy enough to draw a distinction between Magia and Goeteia, he appears to do so in a different way than Lewis.

Tolkien seems to treat Magia as a supernatural effect on the physical world (‘Harry Potter’ magic, essentially), with Goeteia being a supernatural effect on psychology. Gone is Lewis’ view of the genial versus the mechanical, and gone is the moral distinction between the two types of magic. Instead, Tolkien focuses on the ends of magic (‘free will’ considerations), rather than its means – as his letter notes, this is in better accordance with the themes of The Lord of the Rings.

And speaking of means… the instances of magic in Tolkien arguably lean towards Lewisian Goeteia, in that they achieve a clear effect without the fuzziness of external mediation. When Gandalf is lighting fires or using a Word of Command against the Balrog, he isn’t coaxing anything. He’s impacting the world directly, in accordance with his wishes. But since his wishes do not negatively mess with the free will of others, he’s in the moral clear. Sauron’s use of the One Ring on the other hand…

I would put Tom Bombadil more in the Lewisian Magia category though. Bombadil isn’t flicking a switch in dealing with the Willow or the Wight – he is a natural entity interacting with other entities. Nor do Finrod Felagund and Sauron have anything mechanical about their song battle, which is a spontaneous contest of wills as expressed through the power of song.

But such quibbles are neither here nor there. Tolkienian magic – a notoriously fuzzy subject – is definitely more art than science. Notwithstanding that ideas about Magia and Goeteia were floating around Tolkien’s social circle, he does not seem to take to the matter in the manner of C.S. Lewis, for whom exploring the Platonist worldview in his Space Trilogy was part of the fun. Tolkien had his mythological source material (Kalevala, et al) and his themes, but outside the tantalising Letter 155 the nature of magic is not something he particularly explores. I can understand why Shippey found Lewis to be more fertile subject matter for his essay. On the other hand, for all I know, there might be something on the subject in this year’s new Middle-earth volume. We shall see.

3 thoughts on “Magia and Goeteia: Shippey, Lewis, and Tolkien

  1. It seems like LotR pushes most of the things we usually call magic under Lewis’s scientific rubric. The palantir, the tower of Orthanc, Emyn Lhaw & Hen, the Rings themselves, etc. are often described like Elvish or Numenorean technology rather than magic. Caveat: I may be affected by the fact that the palantir I’m using to write this is mostly software, so I don’t have problems with thinking of a sword “wound about with spells” as technology.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. The Tom Shippey paper is fascinating, a great read.

    With Tolkien’s “goeteia” and “magia”, I think the waters are muddied somewhat by Letter 155 (actually a discarded portion of Letter 154 to Naomi Mitchison, sent 25 September 1954). To my mind Tolkien here is reprising a distinction he had already made in ‘On fairy-stories’ as printed in ‘Essays Presented to Charles Williams’ (1947). In preparing the relevant passage he first wrote:

    “So we may observe the difference between Art, Enchantment and Wizardry. Art is the human process that produces by the way (it is not its only or ultimate object) Secondary Belief; Enchantment is the elvish craft that produces a Secondary World into which artist and audience can actually enter, and upon which a man may work a delusory belief; Wizardry produces (or desires or pretends to produce) a real alteration in the Primary World. Wizardry is not an Art in the aesthetic sense, but allied to Science: Science as a technique, rather than an investigation of physical Truth … To all these things, Enchantment and Magic are loosely applied. It is to the third kind only that Magic properly applies”

    –from Bodleian Library Tolkien ms.16 fol.28; in ‘Tolkien on Fairy-stories’ ed. Flieger and Anderson 2008, p.139.

    In the eventual 1947 and subsequent versions the crux is set up between just two as opposed to three concepts: (i) Art and (ii) “Wizardry or Magic” (OFS para 74). Enchantment then receives its definition, much as in the draft, but is conceived as an Art. The reference to Science is dropped.

    So the “goeteia” and “magia” of Letter 155 appear to answer to the established terms (established in Tolkien-world I mean) “Enchantment” and “Wizardry or Magic”. As far as I know he didn’t use the Greek words anywhere else, and in my opinion the more homely language of OFS is a better guide to his thinking.

    Liked by 1 person

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