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Let's Read Tolkien 51: The Voice of Saruman

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They passed through the ruined tunnel and stood upon a heap of stones, gazing at the dark rock of Orthanc, and its many windows, a menace still in the desolation that lay all about it. The second breakfast gang head into the ruins of Isengard to meet the king's party and talk to Saruman. While the rest of Isengard is wrecked, the tower of Orthanc still stands. Gandalf leads Théoden, Aragorn, Éomer, Legolas and Gimli to Saruman's door, where Gríma speaks to them. Gandalf commands him to fetch Saruman, who eventually appears at a balcony above them. Saruman works his powers of persuasion on Gandalf, Théoden and the others, but they resist him. Gimli and Éomer speak bluntly against him, and Théoden denounces him completely. Saruman briefly loses his cool, but then turns his full charm on Gandalf. It fails, and Gandalf expels Saruman from the order of wizards. Saruman's staff breaks. As he retreats into Orthanc, a heavy globe is thrown from a higher window: it smashes the rail where Saruman was standing, and falls to the foot of the tower, unbroken. Pippin grabs it, but Gandalf quickly takes it away from him. It is prudently decided to withdraw from globe-throwing range. Beyond it, the King's party meet the ents, who undertake to guard Saruman. He is left to his own devices. ** The focus of this chapter is obviously Saruman, formerly the White, now a prisoner in Orthanc. I already talked quite a bit about Saruman in the Council of Elrond , where Gandalf first revealed his treachery. Because of the ludicrous charge of fascism levelled at Tolkien, it's worth looking at what Théoden, who clearly comes away as the moral winner here, has to say to Saruman. Even if your war on me was just - as it was not, for were you ten times as wise you would have no right to rule me and mine for your own profit as you desired - even so, what will you say of your torches in Westfold and the children that lie dead there? And they hewed Háma's body before the gates of the Hornburg, after he was dead. What Théoden specifically refuses is what Tolkien's detractors always blame him for: submitting meekly to the rule of the "wiser" old men. As I've said before, too many of Tolkien's critics share Gimli's problem in Fangorn: they can't seem to tell two wizards apart. Even though Théoden decisively rejects it, Saruman's rhetoric is described as tremendously powerful and persuasive. By the Tolkien Society's account , Tolkien only invented Saruman in August 1940, well into the Second World War (see Letters , 163), and it's difficult to escape the idea that the most direct inspiration for Saruman was Hitler. Tolkien was a committed anti-fascist and hated Hitler with a special passion because of his attempts to connect Nazi ideology with the same Germanic/"Northern" mythologies that inspired Tolkien ( Letters , 45). Despite his opinions on Jews, which I've argued are fairly antisemitic , not to mention his ideas of blood heritage and racial decline , Tolkien strongly disapproved of the Third Reich's antisemitic "racial" laws ( Letters , 29 and 30). He memorably referred to Hitler as a "ruddy little ignoramus" ( Letters , 45). Luckily for us, Tolkien didn't make Saruman into a caricature of Hitler. I talked a bit about Tolkien's notion of analogy versus applicability in the context of Tom Bombadil , and the same applies here: in his aspect of a demonic orator, Saruman certainly resembles Hitler, but in other ways they're clearly dissimilar. For starters, if the War of the Ring was a direct analogy of the Second World War, then surely the great orator would be Sauron? But we barely hear Sauron speak at all, and when he does, it's hardly memorable or persuasive. Saruman's appeal as a character lies exactly in the fact that he is, so to speak, more broadly applicable. Consider this part of the first description of Saruman's voice: Mostly they remembered only that it was a delight to hear the voice speaking, all that it said seemed wise or reasonable, and desire awoke in them by swift agreement to seem wise themselves. This hits home, not just as a description of persuasive political rhetoric in general, but it specifically captures the neoliberal orthodoxy of our times: an expert is talking, and they know best. This is especially so in Saruman's address to Gandalf, where he directly preaches exactly the techno-gerontocracy of old wise men that Tolkien supposedly advocated. Again he does so in fully 20th-21st century political rhetoric, even including a fauxpology: he doesn't apologize for imprisoning Gandalf, but tries to talk around it and "regrets" it while trying to blame his victim. Saruman's rhetoric hasn't aged one bit since Tolkien wrote it, and its modernity is one of his most succesful deliberate anachronisms . The juxtaposition of Saruman's glib smoothness with Théoden's archaism and Gandalf's down-to-earth directness is very powerful. In the end, Saruman's powers of persuasion fail him. It seems fairly clear to me that Gríma was trying to kill Saruman with the palantír , specifically when he saw or heard Saruman humiliated by Gandalf. One suspects that the only loyalty Wormtongue ever had to anything was to strength, and seeing Saruman suddenly weak must have made it amply clear to him that his treason had been a complete failure. In confronting Saruman, Gandalf broke his spell, which must have been his plan all along. Next time: a special rock and a fool of a Took.

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