Essay by Roger Echo-Hawk
In the “olden times” of Cornwall, England every village had its own white witch. A midnight ceremony bestowed upon them the power to heal and to “ill-wish,” as well as the magical ability to ride ragwort stems. These witches wore rings with blue stones – rings made by snakes breathing on hazel-twigs. And they could transform themselves into toads and hares.
These interesting details about white witches were set down during the 1880s by a Cornish folklorist named MA Courtney. Just a few years before, in an 1873 book on the traditions of West Cornwall, William Bottrell discussed the doings of white witches, pellars, charmers, wise women, enchanters, conjurors, and a “white wizzard.” I get the impression that many of these terms were interchangeable, referring to a general class of tradition keepers with special knowledge of herbs, healing rituals, and esoteric powers of mind.
Throughout the 19th century male and female white witches could be found across the English countryside. In my 2016 edition of Tolkien in Pawneeland, I touch on white witches in writings by Sir Walter Scott, Walter Skeat, and Sabine Baring-Gould. And I suggest that in 1940-1942 JRR Tolkien made a decision to weave traces of this heritage into the cultural fabric of Middle-earth, conjoining his wizards with folk tradition pertaining to white witches.
Pondering his wizards sometime in late 1940, Tolkien settled on white as Saruman’s special color, electing him to serve as “chief of the White Council” – casual mention of such a council had materialized at the end of The Hobbit. Now Tolkien gave the group more definition and depth and narrative duties. And a year later in late 1941 Tolkien invented Galadriel and set her on this White Council. Not long after inventing Galadriel, Tolkien decided to kill Gandalf the Grey and replace him with Gandalf the White.
When we first meet the Elf Queen Galadriel in The Lord of the Rings we find her surrounded with the words “white” and “wise.” Tolkien probably accepted the idea that “witch” and “wizard” and “wise” had intertwined roots. Noting the widespread assumed link between “witch” and “wise,” Michael Dilts has more recently questioned that construction, as well as efforts to connect the term with other Old English terms for “divination” and “bend.” He prefers the suggestion by Calvert Watkins that the old forms of “witch” may refer instead to “the wakeful one, the watcher.”
Dilts makes a fascinating argument. But it is apparent that Tolkien in his day accepted an association between wizard and wise. Merging the invisible roots of these words together with vanishing British tradition about white witches, Tolkien elevated his wizards into transcendent figures of otherworldly power and majesty – while reserving the word “witch” for the leader of his Ringwraiths.
It is reasonable to suggest that when Tolkien sat down to write The Lord of the Rings, he was then the foremost academic expert on British folklore. As I show in Tolkien in Pawneeland (p. 310-318), the white witches of Skeat and Baring-Gould are arguably evident in Middle-earth. But it is less clear that Tolkien ever encountered the Cornish white witches – we can identify only a few wispy traces of MA Courtney’s witches.
It may not be coincidence in The Fellowship of the Ring that Gandalf threatens to turn a too talkative Sam into a toad – one could read this as a subtle reference to Cornish white witchery. And in The Two Towers when Wormtongue calls Galadriel a sorceress, Tolkien has Gandalf softly sing a poem about her, referring to the color white: “White is the star in your white hand[.]” And in The Return of the King when we notice Elrond’s “ring of gold with a great blue stone,” perhaps we are glimpsing the forgotten Cornish white witches and their magic rings mounted with blue stones.
Investigating the sources that shaped Tolkien’s White Council, others typically make mention of notable literary white witches in the novels of H Rider Haggard and CS Lewis. But when Tolkien summoned the lords and the lady of his White Council, it is reasonable to sense that he was doing something more than referencing purely literary imagery, and that he was evoking misty British historical tradition.
In the end, it is difficult to weigh with any specificity the influence of any of these sources – a wealth of wizards and witches in European literature complicates such a task. Even so, we can assume that at least a few white witch echoes came to Tolkien’s hand from the British countryside as he conjured the magic of Middle-earth.