J. R. R. Tolkien never seemed to choose words accidentally. He was careful when assigning references to characters or places to convey various shades of meaning that might not be obvious straight away. It is also the case with how the Professor used the word sorcerer and its various derivatives in his books.

A quick search through The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion reveals that sorcerer and its derivatives were not very often applied by Tolkien. The author himself admitted in his letters that his usage of magic was rather casual and sometimes inconsistent, but the concept is present nevertheless. The topic of magic in Middle-earth is deep enough to make for a separate research, so here I will only provide the bits relevant to my present reflection.

In letter № 155 Tolkien differentiated between two kinds of magic that can be found in the world of Arda: magia and goeteia.  Both were used by good and evil characters albeit in different amounts and for different purposes. Magia “produces real effects in the physical world“, while goeteia has to do with influencing wills. We are primarily concerned with the latter here. Goeteia is the Greek γοητεία (γóης — ‘sorcerer’). The form goety was used in English, and is now labelled by dictionaries as an archaic term for ‘witchcraft or magic performed by the invocation and employment of evil spirits; necromancy’. Not only is the term directly connected to most of the ways sorcerer is used throughout Tolkien’s books, but it is also closely associated with evil characters.

The Oxford English Dictionary gives the modern definition of a sorcerer as ‘someone who claims or is believed to have magical powers’, while the Cambridge English Dictionary specifies that these magical powers are used to harm other people, thus implying a very specific evil connotation straight away. Encyclopaedia Britannica shares the latter view. While these days the usage of sorcerer seems to be rather lax and its connotation is more neutral than positive or negative, it was not the case in Middle Ages.

In the heart of sorcerer there lies the Latin root sors, meaning ‘fate, fortune’. In Mediaeval Latin sortiarius was ‘a teller of fortunes by lot’, with its literal meaning being ‘one who influences fate or fortune’. It then entered Old French becoming sorcier — ‘wizard’ — along the way. By the time it reached Middle English in XIV century, the word had become sorcer, then turning into sorcerer in early XV century with the meaning ‘conjurer of evil spirits’.

Owen Barfield thus outlined the way of the word in English, which I am going to quote at length here:

Gradually there came into being a sort of hybrid Low Latin, the father of modern French and the other Romance languages, which in many cases expressed Celtic notions and feelings in Latin forms. So it was that new life came to be breathed into some of the dead abstractions of Roman mythology; but it was a very different life from the old one. Thus, the old Roman deity Sors (Chance) had long ago developed for the Romans into a purely abstract idea, referring to the drawing of lots. But up in the north, far away from the capital, the ‘sortiarius’ became a mysterious teller of fortunes by that means. As the years went on, the syllables softened and smoothed and shortened themselves, until they became the old French ‘sorcier’ from which ‘sorcerie’ was formed, and so our English sorcery.

(History in English Words, p. 78-79)

Tolkien’s usage of sorcerer or sorcery is emphatically negative. In his stories it usually implies meddling with minds, lives, wills, emotions; invoking ghosts, phantoms or evil spirits; using unwholesome means to reach even more unwholesome goals. Treebeard names “fire or blast of sorcery” from Saruman as a possible thing that can kill the Ents; the Mouth of Sauron learnt sorcery when he entered the service of Mordor and the nine Ringwraiths became great sorcerers during their lives after getting the Rings of Power. These, however, are mostly passing mentions and references. The title of the chief sorcerer of Middle-earth is firmly reserved for Sauron.

As Sauron had risen to the status of Morgoth’s most trusted and important lieutenant in the First Age, he became a considerable menace to Middle-earth. He was thus described:

Sauron was become now a sorcerer of dreadful power, master of shadows and of phantoms, foul in wisdom, cruel in strength, misshaping what he touched, twisting what he ruled, lord of werewolves; his dominion was torment.

(Silmarillion, p. 181)

From the First Age onwards Sauron and goeteia go hand in hand. It was sorcery that helped him capture the tower of Minas Tirith held by Finrod’s brother Orodreth and turn it into Morgoth’s watch post. No one in Minas Tirith could withstand the onslaught of Sauron “for a dark cloud of fear fell upon those that defended it” (ibid.). After winning the tower, which became known as Tol-in-Gaurhoth, Sauron began his sojourn there and hosts of “phantoms and wandering ghosts” were there with him [1]. It was also by means of Sauron’s sorcery that Gorlim the Unhappy was captured by the Dark Lord’s servants and then driven to treachery of Barahir and his men. The phantom image of the poor man’s wife conjured in their old house misled Gorlim into thinking that it was really Eilinel — alive and well — and caused the man to agree to any terms from Sauron for a chance to see the woman who by that time had already been dead.

It was during his sojourn in the fastness of Dol Guldur that Sauron was more often referred to as a sorcerer: the title which, until it became known who exactly inhabited the southern end of Mirkwood, had predominantly been the Sorcerer with the definite article and capital S. Once his presence was established there, a shadow crept over Greenwood the Great and turned it into Mirkwood. The forest became poisoned by Sauron’s evil presence and his sorcery: shadows filled it, evil things crept there and very few dared pass through the forest unless it was in the north with Thranduil’s folk keeping the evil away there. There were also sightings of clouds and shadows creeping from the south of Mirkwood where Dol Guldur was [2]. For a while the nature of the darkness and shadows was a mystery:

Whence it came few could tell, and it was long ere even the Wise could discover it. It was the shadow of Sauron and the sign of his return. For coming out of the wastes of the East he took up his abode in the south of the forest, and slowly he grew and took shape there again; in a dark hill he made his dwelling and wrought there his sorcery, and all folk feared the Sorcerer of Dol Guldur, and yet they knew not at first how great was their peril.

(Silmarillion, p. 359)

The name of the hill where Sauron had his abode — Dol Guldur — was a change from the earlier Elvish name Amon Lanc and was given to the place after Sauron’s relocation there. Its meaning is ‘The Hill of Sorcery’, where gul stands for ‘sorcery; evil, perverted knowledge’. The Quenya equivalent of the word was nole (‘lore, knowledge’) and it retained a neutral connotation, while the Sindarin gul acquired a very negative air and referred to evil knowledge, sorcery or necromancy because it was mostly used in such combinations as morgul and Dol Guldur. The word was also in use in the language spoken in Mordor.

At approximately the same time Sauron the Sorcerer was also often called the Necromancer. In Laws and Customs Among the Eldar  Tolkien stated that some houseless Elvish fëar refused the summons of Manwë after the destruction of their hröar and could try and take possession of living bodies aiming not only to occupy but also to control both the body and the will of another person. Sauron was said to resort to such things and teach his followers how to do this. Such dark practices, if they ever took place, well justify the title of the Necromancer.

Sauron’s dealing with phantoms and domination of wills reached its height when he forged the One Ring in the fires of Mount Doom. Being the Ruling Ring, it made the other Rings of Power connected with it.  The utter destruction this dependance and constant use of the Rings could lead to is perfectly seen with the Nazgûl. Having possessed and used their Rings for a very long time, the Nine eventually turned into wraiths walking in the world of the Unseen totally under the influence of Sauron. Their main weapon was fear that went before them and that befell anyone encountering the Nine.

Their chief, The Lord of the Nazgûl, was the most powerful of the Ringwraiths and also often called a sorcerer. Gandalf named him “a spear of terror in the hand of Sauron, shadow of despair” (Return of the King, p. 99) and at a different instance said that “he wields a deadly fear” (Fellowship of the Ring, p. 337). For the Lord of the Nazgûl fear was a weapon that he used no worse than swords: very few could withstand the Witch-king and the terror that he instilled in most of those who encountered him was unbearable. His other weapon was no less sorcerous. The Morgul-knife was enchanted with dark spells, and the wounds it gave could lead to very grave consequences. A piece of a Morgul-blade was left in Frodo’s wound and nearly turned him into a wraith. Even after the piece was removed and the Hobbit was fully healed, he still suffered greatly every year on the day when he had been wounded.

There are a few instances when the word sorcerer or its derivatives are used in reference to good characters and are meant as a way of showing distrust or even contempt. Galadriel is called the Sorceress of the Golden Wood by Grima Wormtongue. Éomer’s implication is less direct in his encounter with Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas: “But if you have her favour, then you also are net-weavers and sorcerers, maybe“ (Two Towers, p. 30). His ‘also’ works subtly but firmly: it puts the three travellers and Galadriel into one company as sorcerers and net-weavers and, thus, someone not to be trusted. Sometimes Elves were indeed feared by Men in the Third Age, and Lórien was a place of wonder and, most likely, fear to Men. Galadriel agreed that mortals often confused Elvish magic with the deceits of the Enemy and that could hardly enhance the Elves’ reputation. However, in the time of the War of the Ring, when most Elves had left Middle-earth and had become the characters of tales and legends, such a distrustful attitude seemed to be the norm among many, and in case of Grima and Éomer it is seen in their word choices.

Sorcery is always a bad thing in Tolkien’s Legendarium. It is a form of dark arts that only evil characters resort to in order to destroy, subdue or manipulate wills. Sauron, being the chief sorcerer of Middle-earth even during the times of Morgoth (who is emphatically never called a sorcerer), is the embodiment of how goeteia might work when used for bad purposes, how dangerous and dark this form of magic could be and how much harm it could do.


Further reading:

On Wizards

On Ringwraiths I

On Ringwraiths II

On Saruman and goeteia from Tom Hillman



[1] The Lay of Leithian

[2] Cirion and Eorl and the Friendship of Gondor and Rohan

Works consulted:

  1. J. R. R. Tolkien – The Silmarillion (edited by Christopher Tolkien); HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 1999.
  2. J. R. R. Tolkien – The Hobbit; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2012.
  3. J. R. R. Tolkien – The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2001.
  4. J. R. R. Tolkien – The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2001.
  5. J. R. R. Tolkien – The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2001.
  6. H. Carpenter – The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien; with the assistance of Christopher Tolkien; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2012 (Kindle edition).
  7. J. R. R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien – Morgoth’s Ring; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2015.
  8. J. R. R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien – The Lays of Beleriand; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2015.
  9. J. R. R. Tolkien – Unfinished Tales of Númenor and Middle-earth (edited by Christopher Tolkien); HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 1998.
  10. Owen Barfield – History in English Words; Lindisfarne Books; 2007 (Kindle Edition).
  11. Etymonline.com

14 thoughts on “The Games of Sorcerers.

  1. The etymology of “sorcery” gives us an interesting angle: I wonder if sorcery is always evil in Middle-earth because there fate isn’t a vague, bodiless concept as it is in our world. When fate is an explicit policy of a known agent (Galadriel knows a guy who knows A Guy), fortune tellers might be even less reputable.

  2. Goeteia is not always bad (and not alwasy “sorcery”). Tolkien wrote: “Neither is, in this tale, good or bad (per se), but only by motive or purpose or use. Both sides use both [magia and goeteia] , but with different motives. The supremely bad motive is (for this tale, since it is specially about it) domination of other ‘free’ wills.”

    1. I’m afraid my wording in the final paragraph was a bit categorical to label goeteia as bad. I’ve changed it a bit now, so thank you for drawing my attention to it!

    1. Marsha, thank you so much! I do love using such an approach to writing about Tolkien — it always reveals so much!
      Indeed, you’re right: I teach English as a foreign language.

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