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Tolkien’s Magical Inventory

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Trolls’ purses are the mischief, and this was no exception. “ ‘Ere, ‘oo are you?” it squeaked, as it left the pocket; and William turned round at once and grabbed Bilbo by the neck, before he could duck behind the tree.

—From The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

Imagine poor Bilbo’s surprise when he tries to pick one of the trolls’ pockets and sets off the Middle-earth version of a car alarm: an enchanted screaming purse! It’s enough to send a poor Hobbit/burglar to an early mound.

The talking purse belonging to William the troll is the only inanimate object in The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings that has a line of dialogue.* In fact, it is a unique item in Middle-earth, and one of J.R.R. Tolkien’s most original inventions; and it predates the talking Sorting Hat of Hogwarts by exactly sixty years. *(See Bandoras’s response in the comments section below for an example of a talking sword from Tolkien’s legendarium.)

Sadly, the purse scene was not used in the film The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. It would have been hilarious to see the reaction on actor Martin Freeman’s face—Bilbo’s career as a cutpurse curtailed by a bag with leather lips and screeching with a Cockney accent!

Perhaps Tolkien thought that the talking purse smacked too much of a fairy-story, and that’s why he didn’t use the device or anything like it again in The Lord of the Rings. The magical artifacts in the trilogy are more serious and sinister: the One Ring, Palantirs, the Morgul-blade, the Watcher-statues at the entrance to Cirith Ungol, etc. There are many other enchanted items in Middle-earth, however—ones that people often forget about. And all of them have unique properties.

When Sam and Frodo take their leave of Faramir, the captain of the Rangers of Ithilien gives them parting gifts—two staves (walking sticks) ingrained with a charm. Faramir says:

“They are made of the fair tree lebethron, beloved of the woodwrights of Gondor, and a virtue has been set upon them of finding and returning. May that virtue not wholly fail under the Shadow into which you go.”

Wouldn’t you love to have a walking stick that would help you find where you want to go and then guide you home again? It’s sort of like the Gondorian equivalent of a GPS unit, only made of wood. (The staves have another property that is not quite magical but very useful, as Sam finds out when Gollum attacks him in Shelob’s lair: lebethron sticks are good for walloping Sméagols!)

One can imagine that Legolas—when he builds his boat in Ithilien—fashions his craft out of lebethron, for it would certainly help point his way on his journey to find the Undying Lands far across the Encircling Sea (see the final entry of Appendix B, The Return of the King, for this story).

In Unfinished Tales (in the chapter The Hunt for the Ring) there is a remarkable description of the Nazgûl attack on Frodo on Weathertop. What makes this narrative so interesting is that it’s from the Witch-king of Angmar’s point of view:

But above all the timid and terrified Bearer had resisted him, had dared to strike at him with an enchanted sword made by his own enemies long ago for his destruction. Narrowly it had missed him. How he had come by it—save in the Barrows of Cardolan. Then he was in some way mightier than the Barrow-wight.

The sword in question is not Sting (Frodo has not yet arrived in Rivendell to receive that weapon from Bilbo). It is, in fact, a sword that had been given to Frodo by Tom Bombadil who retrieved it from the Barrow-wight’s mound along with three other weapons (one for each of the hobbits). These blades were forged thousands of years before by Men of Westerness, and they were wrought with spells to combat the Dark Lord and his minions. If Frodo had actually struck the Ringwraith with that sword, it would have been “as deadly to him as the Mordor-knife to Frodo.” One of the reasons that the Nazgûl flee from Weathertop, Tolkien explains, is not only out of fear of Aragorn but  “especially of Frodo.” That’s a powerful spell-wrought sword to make the Lord of the Nazgûl fear one of the Shire-folk!

The Elves gave excellent magical gifts as everyone knows: rope that unknots itself, a phial of potent light that could blind a spider of Morgoth, and dust that makes anything grow. One of the most powerful gifts that the Lady Galadriel bestows upon the Companions, however, is lembas, for the Elven waybread is charmed. The tiniest morsel:

. . . fed the will, and it gave strength to endure, and to master sinew and limb beyond the measure of mortal kind. [The Return of the King]

Tolkien, in one of his letters, goes so far as to say that lembas serves an almost religious significance at the end of the trilogy. Without eating it Sam and Frodo would have succumbed to their physical and mental depredations on their final push to Mount Doom. The lembas “had a virtue without which they would long ago have lain down to die.” Like spiritual faith it gives them hope. Gollum, by the way, refuses to eat it, for just as the Elven rope “freezes” and “bites” him, lembas would certainly burn his mouth and tongue with its Elven spell.

Athelas is a plant that was known to the Dúnadain as having a potent and otherworldly property. It was first brought to Middle-earth by the Númenóreans. Aragorn uses the plant to check the affect of the Morgul-blade toxin that poisons Frodo’s body. Later, in the Houses of Healing in Gondor, Aragorn uses the same herb (called kingsfoil in Minas Tirith) to bring Merry, Faramir and Éowyn out of their comas caused by the Black Breath of the Nazgûl. It is old lore in Gondor that a king has the ability to heal, and the scene where Aragorn brings Éowyn back to consciousness using the scent of athelas is one of the most beautiful passages in all of Tolkien’s work:

. . . as the sweet influence of the herb stole about the chamber it seemed to those who stood by that a keen wind blew through the window, and it bore no scent, but was an air wholly fresh and clean and young, as if it had not before been breathed by any living thing and came new-made from snowy mountains high beneath a dome of stars, or from shores of silver far away washed by seas of foam.

Aragorn might possess the healing hands of the rightful king of Gondor, but he still needs a little of the legendary herb to help him with his craft. The remarkable thing about athelas is that each person who inhales the scent smells something completely different. The nurse Ioreth is reminded of the roses of her childhood, while Merry recalls the glorious memory of bees in heather—a quintessential Shire image. The scene in the Houses of Healing would have worked without Aragorn using the herb, but it makes it so much more interesting because the athelas connects the Ranger/Returning King to the ancient and preternatural lore of Middle-earth.

The mystical athelas, along with the talking purse, virtue-imbued staffs, enchanted swords and spiritual bread, are all unique examples of Tolkien’s wild creative genius. The magical inventory at the author’s disposal was like a wizard with a bottomless pouch filled with a never ending supply of wonderful items. Now if only there existed a copy of The Lord of the Rings that would read the entire story aloud to us in his voice . . . a talking Tolkien tome!

Now that would be magical.

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7 comments

  1. Actually there is one other instance of a speaking object. In Children of Hurin we have this scene:

    Then he drew forth his sword, and said: ‘Hail Gurthang, iron of death, you alone now remain! But what lord or loyalty do you know, save the hand that wields you? From no blood will you shrink. Will you take Turin Turambar? Will you slay me swiftly?’
    And from the blade rang a cold voice in answer: ‘Yes, I will drink your blood, that I may forget the blood of Beleg my master, and the blood of Brandir, slain unjustly. I will slay you swiftly.’
    Then Turin set the hilts upon the ground, and cast himself upon the point of Gurthang, and the black blade took his life.

    Still, the point you touch on rings back to that in Middle-earth all things are imbued with Ea, the Secret Fire. All things crafted by Eru are of Arda and so they too are part of the song and in some small measure they too have life.

    The One Ring itself is a corruption of that. It has a will all its own and guides by malice and deception unlike Faramir’s gift, for example, which guides those who remain true and strong.

    I absolutely love this article. A fantastic read, Mr. Smith.

    • Wow, Bandoras! That was awesome that you remembered that talking sword from The Children of Hurin. I had this nagging voice in my head that I was forgetting something and you nailed it. I amended the article. And I’m glad that you liked the piece!

  2. There are so many magical items and objects inside the books that one would forget the landscape. For example when looking at the mountain Caradhras, ok in the movie the tale got twisted a little, but in effect the whole mountain had something magical and really planned to stop the fellowship from passing by. He clearly had an evil mind and to me felt like a magical entity, with his own wicked purposes. Same goes for other parts in Middle-earth, especially the woods… but then again in a land where there are walking trees one expects almost anything to live and be sort of magical. Thanks for writing this article, truly enjoyed it. Reminds me that these days we have almost forgotten how magical the world around us is and we should really go out and ‘live’ it some more!

    • Pieter, you are so right about Caradhras! It’s the same thing with the menace projected by the Haunted Mountain and the pathways leading to the entrances. What’s really interesting is that Legolas can hear what stones are thinking. In the ruins of Hollin near the Gates of Moria, he hears the stones lamenting the loss of the Elves who used to live there long ago. The stones don’t speak out loud, but they are communicating to him psychically.

  3. A great article. I had nearly forgotten all about the walking staffs – and the lovely turn of phrase there – a ‘virtue’ has been set upon them…

    Look forward to the next post.

  4. This is wonderful, Noble! Thank you, mellon, for sharing your thoughts on such far-ranging topics!

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