The Lord of the Rings Reread

LotR re-read: Two Towers III.10, “The Voice of Saruman”

This week in the Lord of the Rings re-read, chapter III.10 of The Two Towers, “The Voice of Saruman.” As always, spoilers for the whole book and comments after the jump.

What Happens

All the non-Ent visitors to Isengard meet and go to Orthanc, where Gandalf, Théoden, Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas climb the stairs, and the rest wait at the foot. Gandalf commands Saruman to come forth, and he does. First he offers Théoden peace, friendship, and protection against the Ents. Théoden is briefly tempted but rejects this. Saruman loses his temper, insults Théoden and Rohan, and then regains control and tries Gandalf with “we’re all wizards together.” Gandalf laughs at him and instead invites him to come down, to live in freedom and help them if he chooses. Saruman in turn is briefly tempted but also rejects this. Gandalf commands him to come back, names him outcast, and breaks his staff. As Saruman leaves, a heavy crystal sphere comes from a window and nearly hits both Saruman and Gandalf. Pippin picks it up and Gandalf takes it from him.

The party heads out of Isengard and meets Treebeard and other Ents at the gate. Treebeard reluctantly agrees to let Gimli accompany Legolas to Fangorn Forest when he returns, says farewell to Merry and Pippin, and promises Gandalf to keep vigilant watch over Saruman.


The reunion of everyone in this chapter made something clear to me that I should have noticed about prior chapters: the lack of a clear point-of-view(-ish) character. By -ish I mean that, in Fellowship, we mostly got Frodo’s thoughts and perspective, but not only and not in any formally structured kind of way like switching POV at chapter breaks. As for this book: in the hobbit-only chapters it’s basically Pippin; though I had to go back and look, it clearly talks about his thoughts, recollections, and impressions and not Merry’s. But the rest of the chapters, which are the bulk of this book, are far more external and spread-out in focus, to the point that I couldn’t identify a single predominant character. If anything, this chapter is from a group POV, that of everyone listening to Saruman but Gandalf (and Wormtongue): the effect of Saruman’s voice is described in terms of the group, what “they” heard and felt, first just the Riders and then all “that stood within hearing.”

This makes me wonder if this is why I liked the hobbit chapters so much better this time around. I don’t know if it accounts for all of it, but I suspect it does give those chapters a more personal and cohesive feel that makes them more approachable to me. It also makes me wonder what the other chapters would look like with a more specific character focus—Aragorn, I’d guess, as for logistical reasons he’s already at the center of most of the action. But putting us in Aragorn’s head would make it quite a different book. Among other things, I have a vague suspicion that Tolkien would have found it . . . unseemly, maybe? Legolas or Gimli wouldn’t have the same issues, but I still can’t quite imagine it. What do you all think?

I also find the choice of Pippin as the focus of the hobbit chapters interesting. I suspect it’s because he has the most growth to do. Also, he’s going to fall victim to the palantír next chapter and getting to know him better would be useful for trying to have us care and be sympathetic not scornful. Not only is he given more opportunities here, but like most characters he looks better from inside his head.

* * *

And now for the part that gives this chapter its name, Saruman’s voice. Tolkien is at an advantage here because he’s working in text and so can say, this voice was supernaturally convincing, and not have to actually create that sound. (I recently had to stop listening to an audio version of what was probably a perfectly reasonable story because of this very problem.) And yet his descriptions do convey something of a sound to my mental ear, even more than “I don’t know what [ Temeraire / Dortmunder / other difficult-to-voice character of your choice] sounds like, but I know it isn’t that.” (Though I can’t resist mentioning here that it isn’t Christopher Lee, either, even though we’ll get to the rest of the movie in due time. Y’all may have to drag me kicking and screaming, but we will get to it.)


Here’s the explicit descriptions of the sound of Saruman’s voice: “low and melodious,” “with gentle question,” and “soft” when he first speaks to Théoden; “less suave” to Gimli and then “hissed” at Théoden; as he turned to Gandalf, “his voice changed,” and during their conversation he “paused” and “mused, as if puzzled.” After Gandalf also rejects him, “his voice was shrill and cold,” he “sneered” and  “cried” (out), and “his voice rose to a scream.”

This is a little more description than I registered before I went through and picked out the phrases, but it still doesn’t seem like all that much. The work is really being done by the descriptions, not of the sound of his voice, but of its effect on people. Which is where we come back to the group POV point: the more conventional way of presenting this section would be to pick a POV character and let us eavesdrop on their thoughts and their sense of the feelings of people around them. In effect the chapter does this, but through a group POV, not a single one. Which I found effective, but also peculiar, because while I hate the maxim “show don’t tell” as a piece of writing advice—unless you are writing sequential art, you must tell, all you have is words, you literally cannot “show”—I nevertheless thought, on closely reading this section, that it felt a little didactic, which is after all the spirit of that advice. (The “tone . . . of a kindly heart aggrieved by injuries undeserved” when he first appears struck me as particularly clunky in this regard.) Or, possibly, I’m overthinking the whole thing. It’s a hazard of the project.

On to the actual words of Saruman: they definitely show a reliance on the supernatural powers of his voice, because taken alone they are not that persuasive. He proceeds straight from the assumption that he is the wronged one, without even trying to convince anyone of that first, which I personally would think rather necessary when talking to people attacked by you without provocation; and his speeches to Théoden and Gandalf are really rather short, when you take away his responses to those who object.

(The objectors, for the record, are Gimli and Éomer, who get labeled brainless thugs. While we’re cataloging insults, the Rohirrim collectively get called “brigands” and cowards; Aragorn and the hobbits are “these cut-throats and small rag-tag that dangle at (Gandalf’s) tail.” I wonder if Legolas is included in that? Otherwise I don’t see that he gets mentioned at all. Also, it’s interesting that when Saruman makes his pitch to Gandalf, the person who “even” doubts is Théoden, presumably as the one who just rejected Saruman’s spell, not Aragorn, who I’d expect to have more resistance given his long association with Gandalf.)

* * *

Some specifics about the confrontations with Saruman.

A political statement of significance, from Théoden: “were you ten times as wise you would have no right to rule me and mine for your own profit as you desired.” The last clauses are significant: not a statement against external rule, but against bad external rule. Set this against Gandalf’s offer to Saruman, which is unrestricted freedom: “free from bond, of chain or command: to go where you will, even, even to Mordor, Saruman, if you desire.” As Gandalf says later, “I do not wish for mastery”; but the scales are rather different. (Gandalf not being an anarchist, after all.)

Does anyone know what Saruman refers to, when he tells Théoden, “Long ago I offered you a state beyond your merit and your wit,” which from context seems to be alliance (a.k.a. servitude)? He said earlier he’s never met Théoden before, and I don’t remember any reference to this elsewhere.

Saruman says that Gandalf aspires to “purchase() yourself a pair of boots many sizes larger than those that you wear now.” Which sounds to me a fairly modern or informal statement (demonstrating his loss of control if so), and is also a fun image.

Gandalf’s magic. We get the “as if” description again when he commands Saruman to come back and Saruman does, “as if dragged against his will,” which seems even more odd to me considering that two paragraphs later he does clear and explicit magic in breaking Saruman’s staff. Also, that magic is done in English (Westron, you know what I mean): “Saruman, your staff is broken.” His previous spells were not (were the fire spells Elvish, do we know?). I’m used to books with a much more formalized and explicit magic system, so this caught my eye, though in LotR I don’t think it’s likely to be significant of anything.

(Has anyone here read Patricia Wrede’s Mairelon duology, where magicians do spells in non-native languages so that they don’t spill too much power into them by mistake? I thought that was a nice reason for the tendency of Earth-fantasy magicians to mutter in Latin and Greek and whatnot. Nb. the first of these considerably pre-dates Harry Potter.)

* * *

And a few things from the end of the chapter.

The palantír: I hadn’t registered before that the stairs were made of the same material of Orthanc itself, which all the fury of the Ents could barely chip; so when the palantír “cracked and splintered” the stair, that should have been an early sign to me that this was A Major Object. (I think that Pippin’s moving “slowly, as if he were bearing a great weight” is emotional rather than physical, however.)

Clumsy conflict-setting, to have Gimli’s axe slip from his belt as he bows to Treebeard.

Treebeard’s addition of the hobbits to the Long List seems most apropos to me:

Ents the earthborn, old as mountains,
the wide-walkers, water drinking;
and hungry as hunters, the Hobbit children,
the laughing-folk, the little people,

You can tell he likes them because he didn’t try and fit “hasty” in somewhere.

Next time, the halfway point in structure, though not page count, of the whole darn thing. Go us!

« Two Towers III.9 | Index | Two Towers III.11 »

Kate Nepveu is, among other things, an appellate lawyer, a spouse and parent, and a woman of Asian ancestry. She also writes at her LiveJournal and booklog.


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