Sep 4 2009 5:48pm

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

cover of The Two TowersThis 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.

David Goldfarb
1. David_Goldfarb
Interesting point about audio versus text. I remember once I read Victor Contoski's story "Von Goom's Gambit" out loud -- the text twice refers to "a small, cutting voice filled with infinite sarcasm", which is all very well for the author of the text but as the reader I had to try to do such a voice. Since then, I've occasionally tried again in private, and I never have been satisfied with the result.
2. pilgrimsoul
Interesting that you took notice of Pippin as a narrator. Both he and Merry tell a good tale. They are both intelligent and observant--something a lot of critics miss. And they tell their stories in character, that is, their individual ways as do the rest of the characters.
Soon Lee
3. SoonLee
I wonder if the group POV was chosen partly because there are two parties in the encounter: Saruman & 'the group'.

The group POV also presents those who are left (Boromir is dead, Sam & Frodo are elsewhere) as still a Fellowship, what remains of it. I think it's a significant authorial choice.

(Edit to fix typo)
Kate Nepveu
4. katenepveu
David Goldfarb @ #1, yeah, that would be a tough one.

pilgrimsoul @ #2, it's funny you say so, because last chapter when Merry & Pippin were taking turns telling their story, I couldn't tell their voices apart, even though I can tell _them_ apart. But my opinion of Pippin is unquestionably improved from what it was.

SoonLee @ #3, I really like that idea about the group POV signifying the Fellowship. Thanks.

* * *

Apropos of absolutely nothing, I have to share this link to someone imagining Bilbo Baggins meeting the Antichrist in LaHaye and Jenkins's Left Behind series.

Thanks to Chad for pointing it out.
5. TA Widman
Thoughts on magic in Middle Earth...

It is important to remember what Galadriel says about magic, when reading LotR, to paraphrase: "what you think is magic, is not magic to us." This is key to understanding magic in Middle Earth. The other element is Gandalf's claim on the Bridge of Khazad-dum: "I am a servant of the Secret Fire, wielder of the Flame of Anor." All magic doers in ME are either Maia or Valar...or in some way related. The making of the three rings was only possible through the lore of Sauron, given to Celebrimbor. In this sense, what we think of as magic, is more akin to "divine or miraculous" power, rather than that derived from incantations etc. When the istari came to ME from Valinor, they took on the nature of men (in more ways than one)...perhaps this is true of their magic as well...and to appear more human, they use spells and incantations....
Geoffrey Dow
6. ed-rex
Saruman's voice is a problem for me as well, Kate. Like you, the words never seemed at all impressive to me, so I was left taking Tolkien's word that Saruman really was All That. I'd go so far as to say this is one of the weakest chapters in the book(s) because I had to artificially reinforce my suspension of disbelief in order to accept that Saruman was a serious threat. (Perhaps a counter-example for why Sauron works so well: him we never see and so are free to imagine being as monstrous and terrifying as we can.)

On the other hand, Treebeard's addition to the Long List is a minor masterpiece of understated characterization. You can so easily "hear" his affection for, and sense of humour about, those strange and silly hobbits. Thanks for pointing that out.

(Thanks also for taking personal control of the indexing!)
7. DBratman
Insofar as there is a single POV character in the hobbitless chapters, that character is Gimli. This becomes clearer in Book 5. Also, note that Sam takes over from Frodo as principal POV in Book 4, and there is some of him in that role even earlier.

Rather than the absence of persuasiveness in Saruman's words forcing an assumption that the sound of his voice carried that power, for me the absence of persuasiveness in the words was proof that his voice must have been really something. But I may have just been more under the spell of the story.

But if one shared Saruman's assumptions about who and what is in the right here, I daresay his words would be convincing enough, and Eomer and Gimli really would be perceived as brainless thugs. Tolkien is good enough to give a glimpse of that without giving over large parts of the book to the other side's POV.
8. DemetriosX
Saruman's voice: Apart from the inherent difficulty of writing an extremely persuasive speaker and speech, there are a couple of other things going on here. First and foremost, it doesn't really matter exactly what Saruman says. He does not persuade through logic or rhetoric. This is an exercise of his power as a Maia. His voice is merely the conduit and his difficulties in persuading anybody of anything is a clear sign that his power is broken. Obviously, he will get his act together at least somewhat later and use his persuasive skills to some extent, but for now he is shaken.

It's also interesting to compare Saruman's persuasions with Wormtongue's back in Edoras. Worm had to maintain a semblance of plausibility, even though he was probably acting as a channel for Saruman. Saruman isn't used to that and still has to learn to mind what he says, so we get a glimpse of the way he really thinks. There's also a lot of unspoken reference here to the power and use of language in northern European myth and legend.

POV: A lot of this comes from the narrative conceit of the Red Book. For the most part, it was written by Frodo and Sam (which is why Sam's voice will begin to predominate), but both Merry and Pippin also made contributions. We talked about this a little in the chapter on Lothlorien and Aragorn.
9. birgit
The group POV could also show Saruman's problem with using his voice in front of the whole group: he is addressing parts of the group in different ways while the others are listening and can analyse what he is doing while they are not the focus of his power.
Kate Nepveu
10. katenepveu
ed-rex @ #6, I may have given the wrong impression--Saruman's voice _does_ work for me, which I find odd on reflection because of the way it's done.

DBratman: Gimli, huh? Maybe that become clear later, but I don't think I agree so far.

the absence of persuasiveness in the words was proof that his voice must have been really something

Yes, that's what I meant, apparently I wasn't clear at all on this. Lack of persuasiveness indeed!

birgit @ #9, Gandalf definitely cites the addressing-a-group problem as part of breaking Saruman's spell, and I think that's right, though the POV doesn't so much show the group divided against itself as its reactions shifting in response to Saruman's changes, I think.

Also, everyone, I will be basically offline until Monday afternoon. See you all then, and enjoy your long weekend if you have one!
Soon Lee
11. SoonLee
Kate @4:
Thank you and thanks to the other posters. This re-read continues to be a fun and rewarding experience partly because the sharing of different impressions of the same text reveals or highlights aspects of the work previously hidden, but for me, it's the cascading effect of one person's insight being a revelation for others, the back and forth bouncing of ideas that is the really neat part.

DBratman @7:
That's the sense I got from the description of Saruman's voice too. Saruman's words alone are not seductive to me; it's the description of the effect of Saruman's voice that sells it for me.
jon meltzer
12. jmeltzer
Interesting that Saruman says nothing to Aragorn. It isn't conceivable to me that the head of the White Council doesn't know that the Line of Isildur still exists. Perhaps he thinks it's beneath his notice?
13. pilgrimsoul
JRRT suggests via Gandalf that Saruman might not have recognized Aragorn in the armor of Rohan. Wormtongue heard Aragorn proclaim his identity and must have reported it to Saruman, so Saruman must have known Aragorn existed. He might not have realized that Aragorn was present at Isengard.
14. DBratman
DemetriosX @8: "POV: A lot of this comes from the narrative conceit of the Red Book."

I wonder just how consciously Tolkien had this in mind when he was originally writing the story. The Red Book only appears in the drafts at the very end. I expect it was just a natural instinct on Tolkien's part to tell the story from the perspective of the least significant person there that he could get away with (like the fox! who assuredly was not a contributor to the Red Book), or to enter a scene in the consciousness of the last person to wake up in the morning, something he does repeatedly.

This separates him strikingly not just from the film, which takes a much loftier perspective on the story, but from most epic fantasy writers, who are always putting you inside the strategic planners' minds. Thus you have whole novels where the conversations read like not just the Council of Elrond, but the Last Debate, and without either the distancing Tolkien shows there or the sense of self-sacrifice his characters show.

It's another way to write fantasy, sure, but I prefer Tolkien.
15. DBratman
pilgrimsoul @13: One of the few significant changes Tolkien made to the story when he revised the text in 1966 was to add remarks by Gandalf emphasizing that Saruman must have known that an Heir of Isildur stood there. (Wormtongue, I suppose, could have told Saruman of him.)
16. pilgrimsoul
Very interesting! I am not finding this on my own. Can you give a specific reference as to where Gandalf says this?
Andrew Foss
17. alfoss1540
Ed-Rex @ 6 - Regarding understatement - almost as effective as "Mostly Harmless"

RE: Saruman's persuasiveness. I was partiularly struck this time by the paragraph explaining the nature of Saruman's voice and its effect on the listeners. In fact I reread it a few times, as well as all the references to each persn or groups reaction. I have blocked the scene out of my mind from the movie, because it failed on so many levels.

Of the Palantir, I took special notice of this the first time I read it because my brother had made something similar a part of a D&D campaign, where we were trying to scratch or break an inpenetrable substance like Orthanc stone. I was duped by the fact that my brother was well read and I was not. But from reading #1, I paid special attention to that - as well as Pippin's immediate interest in the Palantir.
jon meltzer
18. jmeltzer
@16: It's at the end of the next chapter ("The Palantir"), Gandalf talking to Pippin, after he gives the big infodump about what the stone is.
Ian Gazzotti
19. Atrus
Tolkien says Saruman's voice "was not hypnotic but persuasive. Those who listened to him were not in danger of falling into a trance, but of agreeing with his arguments, while fully awake. It was always open to one to reject, by free will and reason, both his voice while speaking and its after-impressions. Saruman corrupted the reasoning powers."

I'd say this doesn't really count as magic or, at least, not the same kind of magic that glows blue when orcs are near or creates a fire from thin air. Saruman's a politician and his voice is not one of command but persuasion, misinformation and misdirection. Its 'power' might have been augmented by his being a maia, but it mostly came from his own use of words and language rather than from a 'spell', and it doesn't have a long-lasting effect due to a magical nature.

One example I've been told is that of a very good seller who might be able to convince you to buy something useless, or an orator convincing you that a certain topic is very important. Afterward you might rethink those same words in your head, or read them in a transcript, or watch a video, and ask yourself how was he ever able to convince you; but in that moment they worked, more because of the effect of the words (addling your reasoning) than the words themselves.
Matt Austern
20. austern
I've always thought that Saruman's arguments sounded not just like a politician, but like a distinctly 20th century politician. He's the most fully modern character in the book. (Which is a not a flattering view of modernity.)

Is it unbelievable that Saruman would claim to be the aggrieved party? That's just the sort of claim that Hitler made, not too long before this book was written.
John Massey
21. subwoofer
I've been walking on the peripheral of this thread for obvious reasons but I did want to say that I really admire the interaction that Kate has with her fellow posters and the time she takes to respond with thought and care to what John Q. Public has to say.

And yes, I do remember feeling slimy after reading anything with Saruman in it. His duplicity leaps off the pages. Why Gandalf could not of see it...

Kate Nepveu
22. katenepveu
DBratman @ #14: to enter a scene in the consciousness of the last person to wake up in the morning, something he does repeatedly

That's interesting--I think I'd put it down as narrative economy rather than any more thematic choice, but I'll be thinking about it.

Atrus @ #19, is that from Tolkien's letters?

Certainly it's possible to corrupt people's reasoning powers through ordinary means. I read the text as implying that Saruman's will creates a sort of glamour where people become more suspectible than they would otherwise, but the text is ambiguous about this as it is about many possibly-supernatural things.

austern @ #20, it's not unbelievable that Saruman would claim to be the injured party in the least! It's just surprising to me that he proceeds immediately from that assertion instead of working up to convincing people of it. If I were him I'd structure my argument a lot differently. (But then I am used to doing my professional persuasive writing in a very linear, organized, one bit builds on the next way.)

subwoofer @ #21, I appreciate the kind words, and thanks for taking the time out of (I presume) WOT discussion to stop by. And now I'm trying to tease out a memory of someone who never trusted Saruman from the start--I was going to say that I'm not sure Gandalf should have caught his duplicity earlier, because he was apparently in better control then, but maybe not. Hmm.
23. Nicholas Waller
The BBC radio play adaptation deals with Saruman's voice pretty well - sometimes sounding as if it comes from 100 feet away when addressing the crowd, and then coming close and seductively and in your ear while talking to Theoden or Gandalf.
Steve Timberlake
24. Linkmeister
austern @ #20

"like a distinctly 20th century politician."

Of a particular persuasion, too: one who thrives on describing him or herself as a victim, no matter whether there's merit to that claim or not.
Matt Austern
25. austern
It's not just that. Partly it's that the values he claims to represent seem distinctly modern to me, and, of course, that his chosen means are mechanization and industrialized warfare. And partly it's the argument he made for joining Mordor: that "We can bid our time, we can keep our thoughts in our hearts, deploring maybe evils done by the way, but approving the high and ultimate purpose." This is a shifty argument that seems very familiar from some of the bloodier episodes of the 20th century.
26. DavidT
"Clumsy conflict-setting, to have Gimli’s axe slip from his belt as he bows to Treebeard."

Interesting; I read it as one true bit of comic relief, of the sort PJ tried so hard to inject into the Gimli character in other ways.
Clark Myers
27. ClarkEMyers
"And now I'm trying to tease out a memory of someone who never trusted Saruman from the start--I was going to say that I'm not sure Gandalf should have caught his duplicity earlier, because he was apparently in better control then, but maybe not. Hmm. "

Think about somebody who preferred Gandalf as the group leader - white embracing all colors perhaps? - going back to the struggle over the Necromancer - arguably Gandalf's method of looking in old libraries is nicer than lurking in labs.
Terry Lago
28. dulac3
I believe Galadriel had preferred Gandalf to lead the White Council instead of Saruman.
Kate Nepveu
29. katenepveu
austern, I believe Tom Shippey has made the same comment about Saruman, but I might be conflating it with his pointing out other modern ideas in the book--addiction, power corrupts, etc.

DavidT, as I've said before I'm pretty bad at spotting humor in text, so that may well have been the intent.

dulac3, I think you're right, Galadriel did prefer Gandalf for the White Council.
Hugh Arai
30. HArai

It seems like all of the individuals generally considered wise preferred Gandalf to Saruman. Treebeard did. Galadriel has already been mentioned. I believe Elrond and Cirdan did as well. Really it appears that Gandalf might have been deceived in part by being too humble - Saruman was the head of their order and that was that.
Ian Gazzotti
31. Atrus
katenepveu @22 - Yes, that's from the Letters.

I agree on a glamour that might make a listener more susceptible, but from T's words I get the idea that an Ainur's power is not enough, by itself, to brainwarp someone into doing whatever he wants. Were it possible to break free will just by 'magic', Morgoth would've won right back during the First Age and there would've been no LotR at all.

Instead, both Morgoth and Sauron and later Saruman use their voices and cunning (and half lies, and false promises) to set elves and men against each other and cause disasters far greater than they could've obtained by raw power alone. It's a frightening modern realization of how a war is often war by politics and misinformation just as much as by weapons and might.
Kate Nepveu
32. katenepveu
Atrus, I agree that it can't be enough by itself, or as you say we have no plot at all. I still read the text as implying that Saruman's effectiveness as an orator gets a supernatural boost, that's all.

Nice point about war by misinformation--though not historically accurate, it still _feels_ like a very modern idea and so it's sometimes easy for me to overlook how important it is to both sides here.

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