Wednesday, 29 July 2015

The Necromancer...

The other day Fr Hunwicke put me in mind of dark lords and the dead with a quote, half-heeded most of the time, from Gandalf:
"Always after a defeat and a respite, the Shadow takes another shape and grows again." The Lord of the Rings, Book I, Chapter II.
To this quote was attached a Scripture, which had hitherto not occurred to me in the context (attend ye!):
"When the unclean spirit is gone out of a man, he walketh through dry places, seeking rest, and findeth none. Then he saith, I will return into my house from whence I came out; and when he is come, he findeth it empty, swept, and garnished. Then goeth he, and taketh with himself seven other spirits more wicked than himself, and they enter in and dwell there: and the last state of that man is worse than the first. Even so shall it be also unto this wicked generation." Matthew 12:43-45.
What an ingenious exegesis! It put me in mind of the "Necromancer," that menacing, shadowy figure in Mirkwood, so named because "he casts a fleeting shadow and presage on the pages of The Hobbit," (Letters no.131). When Tolkien wrote The Hobbit in the early 1930's the Necromancer served merely as a literary "machine" or excuse for Gandalf's disappearance on the borders of Mirkwood. There was then no substantial connexion between Bilbo's magic ring and malevolent forces, still less a significance in the epithet beyond sorcery - see the explanation given by the Catholic Encyclopaedia of the blurred distinction between necromancy and other forms of pagan magic and superstition. But with the evolution of The Lord of the Rings the eponymous Necromancer became much more sinister, and the Ring, which was the channel of Sauron's power over things visible and invisible, the instrument of necromancy.

As you know necromancy is an abomination condemned in God's holy word (Leviticus 20:6, Galatians 5:20). Its English form is of Greek derivation, νεκρομαντεία, via mediaeval Latin necromantia, with the comparative negromantia ("the black arts"), and signifies divination of the dead, or "pythones" as in the Vulgate, from the Greek πυθώ ("to decay"). (On this point, Tolkien connoisseurs will undoubtedly remember the description of Melko's court in the Tale of Tinúviel; see The Book of Lost Tales Part II, Chapter I, p.32). To what purpose do men seek contact with the spirits of the dead? The most famous example we have, of course, is the story of the conjuring of the soul of Samuel by the witch at Endor (1 Samuel 28). God had abandoned Saul for his disobedience and as such Saul had recourse to the soul of the prophet Samuel for prophecy and wisdom in the Israelite war against the Philistines. He himself saw nothing, howbeit you can decide whether he was deceived by the witch or by a demon. I believe it was the latter because necromancy necessarily entails contact with demons and the desire to contact the dead is unnatural and proceeds from grief, despair or malice, and so we are justly warned: "Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour," (1 Peter 5:8). The Gospel is full of stories of demonic possession, and the demon imparts neither wisdom nor truth but invariably seeks the destruction of the body in fire and water (Mark 9:22). And so in conjuring the dead we are in peril not only of lies and deceit, for to God alone do we make recourse for wisdom (James 1:5), but of destruction.

In order to understand necromancy in Tolkien's legendarium it is necessary to understand the differences between Morgoth and Sauron. Tolkien's ultimate explanation, if you like, of the problem of evil within Arda was what he described as "Morgoth's Ring," that is to say the physical world under the domination of the dark power. As Sauron in later ages let his spirit pass into the Ring of Power, so Morgoth on a much grander scale had let his much greater spirit pass into the earth and into his subordinates (such as Glaurung), thereby gaining a terrible grip upon the physical constituents of the earth at the expense of his own personal power. As it says in the Annals of Aman (§ 179):
"For as he grew in malice, and sent forth from himself the evil that he conceived in lies and creatures of wickedness, his power passed into them and was dispersed, and he himself became ever more earth-bound, unwilling to issue from his dark strongholds."
But in so doing, even at Morgoth's expulsion at the end of the Elder Days, the greater part of his native influence remained dispersed throughout the world, to guide his servants whensoever they might do evil. And this influence was not solely limited to Orcs and dragons, and so on. All things that were born on earth, and lived on it and by it, were liable to be "stained" and have a tendency, however slight, toward evil. The shadow that fell upon Númenor, for example, was at first undoubtedly the influence of Morgoth in the world, who began and devised, and not Sauron, who, as high priest of the satanic cult, carried out and completed the destruction of the Númenóreans.

Sauron, as dark lord, therefore inherited the corruption of Arda and his own machinations with the Rings of Power were not merely an emulation, "a child's model or slave's flattery," as it were, of Morgoth's vast demiurgic labours but something altogether wiser and surpassingly cunning. Whereas Morgoth's sole ultimate object was the destruction and reduction to nil of all things except himself, even his own servants; Sauron desired complete mastery over the minds and wills of others and was content with the physical world, which he had foolishly supposed was abandoned by the Valar, so long as it served him, hence the Great Rings. As Gandalf told Frodo: "And hobbits as miserable slaves would please him far more than hobbits happy and free," (The Lord of the Rings, Book I, Chapter II). (Tangentially, we could also say that of our political class). And herein lies the connexion between Sauron and necromancy. It is told in the Valaquenta, "in all the deeds of Melkor the Morgoth upon Arda, in his vast works and in the deceits of his cunning, Sauron had a part." As Morgoth eventually degenerated into a state of nihilistic madness much of the more subtle evils conceived by him in the beginning were achieved by Sauron. It was Sauron who completed the breeding of the Orcs, a vile labour that would have entailed not just the slow torment of the years but necromancy, the expulsion by foul arts of the fëa (the spirit) from the bodies of those in the dungeons of Utumno and the imprisonment of other fëar who, as the Gospel says, would fain destroy the body (hereafter hröa). Under the domination of Morgoth "Sauron was become now a sorcerer of dreadful power, master of shadows and of phantoms," (The Silmarillion p.181), and with the coming of Death into the world this "dreadful power" was clearly in rivalry to the divinely appointed masters of spirits, namely Námo, who kept the houses of the dead, and Irmo, master of visions.

The inevitability of Death is at the foundation of Tolkien's legendarium. The respective "Fall" of the two kindreds Elves and Men is inextricably linked up with Death. Míriel Þerindë, the mother of Fëanor, died, which was against Nature and about her Death was woven all the tales of the Elder Days. In the beginning of their days Men came under the domination of the dark power and turned westward. Those who turned from the Shadow, the Edain who fought heroically against it, were richly rewarded for their sorrow and travail with the isle of Númenor which became their kingdom and the zenith of their art, beauty and wisdom. But Men could not escape Death, and the dread thereof, in which can be discerned the will of Morgoth, and thereunto they were filled with fear and wrath because it seemed that they were beset them round with a great darkness which they could not penetrate and from which they could not escape (c.f Akallabêth p.317). And given the nature of Men they turned to the Dark once more, some were ensnared by Sauron and became his servants; three high lords of Númenórean race were given Rings of Power.

With Death came the separation of fëa from hröa. It was different for Elves and Men albeit both fëar were summoned by Námo to Mandos, that is summoned by just authority, to leave the places of their life and go to the "halls of waiting" in the realm of the Valar. Thence the fëar of Men would depart and go we know not whither. For Elves, whose doom it was to remain within the circles of the world indefinitely, they were given a period of repose and reflection in Mandos, at the judgement of Námo, and had the choice to be re-born among their kindred. But the fëar of both Elves and Men are summoned, they are not brought to Mandos, and those, especially among the Úmanyar (that is, those Elves who never saw the light that was before the Sun and Moon), who refused the summons had little power to resist the counter-summons of Morgoth and of Sauron. Some were filled with grief and lingered among places that they had known in life, unable to take shape again or influence the world. Others were filled with malice and of these many became the willing servants of Sauron, taking hröar by force. The necromancers, the wights and wraiths, were of Sauron's host. To some among them Sauron had given Great Rings in life and they became themselves dwimmer-crafty under Sauron's tutelage, cruel and cold. They were the Nazgûl. Darkness went with them and they cried with the voices of death. Their lord was the Witch-king of Angmar, a great king and sorcerer, who sent spirits under his dominion, the men of Carn Dûm, into the Barrow-downs, and there animated corpses of the Dúnedain. The abode of the Witch-king in the south was Minas Morgul, a name that signifies "negromancy." Sauron summoned evil spirits from afar and enslaved them, and taught his followers the same craft. For this purpose were the Rings made.

The prophecy of Isaiah has this to say of Jerusalem (let us attend):
"Cower down thou must, and offer parley from the earth where thou liest; from the ruins thy voice will make itself heard, no better than a muttering from the ground, as it were some ghost that moaned there under the earth." Isaiah 29:4.
That the dead might have indistinct voices is not to be marvelled at. The human voice is derived from the living God who, by the λόγος, created all things. Tolkien gives many descriptions of the voices of the dead, from the Shadow Host who followed Aragorn to Pelargir "like the echo of some forgotten battle in the Dark Years long ago," to the languid moan of the Barrow-wight "far away and immeasurably dreary." Or the menace of the Nazgûl stalking the hobbits through the Shire and the "long-drawn wail" that "came down the wind, like the cry of some evil and lonely creature. It rose and fell and ended on a high-piercing note." We don't know much about the realm of the unseen as hinted at by Gandalf but I expect that the reason their voices come, as it were, from a great depth is because they exist simultaneously in both worlds. Their possession of the Rings even in life made them so.

And so Sauron's epithet in The Hobbit, the Necromancer, meant much more than just crude power. It was wicked, and his Ring would have made him master of both the living and the dead.

I haven't said anything yet about the Dead Marshes, or Deadmen's Dike or the Watchers of Cirith Ungol but I have run out of time. If you're interested in pursuing this subject further then I recommend volume ten of The History of Middle-earth (it's the volume I consult most of all actually), pp217-225 and pp390-398; Unfinished Tales part IV and you can never go wrong with The Letters of J.R.R Tolkien.


  1. Excellent analysis. I've always been troubled by how the enemy managed to develop orcs by tormenting and corrupting elves. I like the explanation of driving out their féar and substituting corrupt spirits.

  2. In fact, is it possible that Morgoth replaced the féar of elves with those of men he had corrupted, offering them a kind of deathlessness on earth in debased elven bodies? This might explain why orcs don't have the preternatural abilities, compared to men, that elves do. Just sayin'.

    1. Thank you. For the question of whether Orcs came in their beginning from Elves or Men (or even sentient beasts), see The History of Middle-earth Volume 10 pp 408-423. Orcs hated the "big bosses," and the Ringwraiths, and seemed to prefer a tribal existence such as existed in the Misty Mountains.

      As for driving out their spirits and replacing them with corrupted ones, that is a conjecture. Elves did unnatural things in Middle-earth, even the kindred of the Gnomes. Remember Eöl the Dark Elf and Maeglin his son, the Sons of Fëanor became evil too. When the Sindar first discovered orcs in the wild they assumed them to have been Avari who had become savage and evil. Not very far from the truth. Even the Elves were not incorruptible.