Friday, April 18, 2014

Self-Stylin': Gandalf the Grey

             We talked extensively in class about the different speaking styles of the characters of Middle-Earth, and how their styles relate to their races. Elrond, who is half-elven, speaks in an archaic form of the Common Speech because he has been speaking the Common Speech since the time of legends. Boromir, like the men of Gondor and of Rohan, speak a very formal version of the Common Speech, while Aragorn is able to alter between colloquial speech he would use as Strider, the archaisms he would use as the husband of an elf, and the formality he would use as a descendant of Numenor. Gloin, as a dwarf, speaks using repetition and oblique references to make his point, since his people can be characterized as secretive. Hobbits speak more colloquially than any other race in Middle-Earth, yet we see a great range of different styles. Working-class hobbits, like Samwise, speak in a very earthy, informal way, using aphorism regularly. Upper-class young hobbits, like Merry and Pippin, speak a more traditional hobbitish dialect. Tom Shippey remarks on Frodo’s and Bilbo’s ability to speak in a more formal style because of their learning. They can communicate with elves and men in a way that the other hobbits cannot do so easily; their style changes to reflect their situation. Meanwhile, Saruman, a Maia, speaks the most modern Common Speech present in the Lord of the Rings. This reflects his character as an untrustworthy, corrupt, and power-hungry wizard. His willingness to modernize his speech seems in some way to be connected with his willingness to modernize Isengard.

            The style of one important character in the Council of Elrond, though, remains to be addressed. Neither in class nor in the readings have we discussed Gandalf’s style, although in The Author of the Century, Shippey notes, “Just to make things more difficult, the longest speech, by Gandalf, which takes up close on half the total, contains direct quotation from seven more speakers…” (68). Our one remark on Gandalf’s style is that he is able to replicate the voices of characters as diverse as Isildur and Butterbur precisely—no small feat! It is difficult to remark on Gandalf’s style because of his ability to reflect other characters’ speech, and because when he speaks for himself, he speaks in a style that is only subtly archaized—less markedly archaized than the speech of either elves or men. He does use a word order that is not quite modern, but he is also able to use fairly modern-sounding idioms: “’Yes, long and weary,’ said Gandalf, ‘but not without profit. For one thing, the tale he told of his loss agreed with that which Bilbo has now told openly for the first time; but that mattered little, since I had already guessed it. But I learned then first that Gollum’s ring came out of the Great River nigh to the Gladden Fields. And I learned also that he had possessed it long.’” (II.ii, p. 247). Phrases like “nigh,” “learned also,” and “mattered little” are clearly archaic and rather formal, but those like “for one thing” and “already guessed” sound much more modern. This is also clear when Gandalf speaks to Butterbur: “’Ass! Fool! Thrice worthy and beloved Barliman!’” (II.ii, p.257). An elf, with all his formality, would not likely call someone an ass. But it is unlikely that a hobbit would cry, “Thrice worthy and beloved” to anyone. Gandalf’s style is marked most, then, by versatility and by the ability to hear and replicate other styles of speech.

            This has two important implications for his character. The first is that it makes him more sympathetic. The other three characters whose styles change depending on the situation are Frodo, Bilbo, and Aragorn—all heroes,  in their own way. That Gandalf is included in this class means that he also is somehow heroic. Because these characters can change their speaking style, they are more vivid and more like the reader. The reader can enter into the story more fully through empathizing with characters like Frodo and Aragorn; this may be because of their speech. It also sets up Gandalf as areliable narrator. Because he can repeat others’ voices exactly, he is more likely to be correct (especially because other characters interrupt him during the Council of Elrond specifically to corroborate his story). Despite leaving Frodo for the first book, he is now proven to be a wise and reliable guide for the Fellowship.

            My final question is why Gandalf has the ability to change his speaking style, unlike any of the other characters portrayed as ‘older’ in the Lord of the Rings. Denethor and Theoden cannot; neither can Elrond or Galadriel. Gandalf is unique. Perhaps, like Frodo and Bilbo, he gained this ability through study. But that seems unlikely, since the other ‘older’ learned characters (like Elrond) do not possess the ability. By comparing him to Saruman, the only other Maia who speaks in Lord of the Rings (discounting the Balrog and Sauron), it is evident that both of them have changed their speaking styles since arriving in Middle-Earth. Saruman’s modern speech is evidently new and jarring to Gandalf, since he comes to Isengard, but he clearly sees through Saruman’s devices. Their ability, then, seems to be intrinsic to their station as wizards—their mastery of language extends from spell to everyday speech. Gandalf’s identity as a Maia, then, is evident from his lack of defined speech patterns, rather than from the defined speech patterns that mark other races. But this lack of definition in turn defines him as a creature not quite limited by the bounds of Middle-Earth.
    --Marguerite Meyer


  1. I think we can extend the implications that you raise about roles of Frodo, Bilbo, Aragorn, and in particular Gandalf. It is certainly true that as readers we find these characters more interesting because of their ability to switch between styles, but I feel that the ability is also grounded in something deeper than class or age; instead, it extends from these characters’ status as Elf-friends. Earlier in the course we discussed the role of Elf-friends in both mediating and participating in the Perilous Realm. With this in mind, we could construct Gandalf’s versatility of style through his ability to mediate the various cultures and his status as an Elf-friend (which I believe we can call him, an argument on this point could probably be another whole post). Denethor and Theoden are too far removed from other cultures in order to be able to change their style, they are bound up the world of Men. In the other direction, Elrond and Galadriel are too bound up in the elvish world, they are elves and definitely not Elf-friends. So, what makes Gandalf so unique in the versatility of his language? I think the answer appears when we compare him to Saruman, but particularly when we look at Saruman’s relationship to the role of Elf-friend. Saruman speaks using modern language which breaks completely with the secondary reality that is Middle Earth. He is akin (but not allegorically so!) to Tolkien’s critics who would use modern language out of a fear of archaism. Whereas Gandalf is akin to Tolkien himself, capable of mixing and matching different styles in such a way that he can mediate and interact with all the peoples and cultures of Middle Earth, of the secondary reality. So Gandalf’s mastery, though perhaps only possible because of his powers as a Maia, does not happen because of that position, otherwise Saruman would have it. Instead Gandalf’s power amplifies his ability to be an Elf-friend . . . Well I’ve said quite a bit, so anyone else’s thoughts?

  2. Regarding your question, I think Gandalf’s speech variation is related to his task and mission: to guide the mortal races against Evil. As such, he is a sort of chameleon, adapting his speech to fit his context. I mean, think about it this way: if Gandalf is in Bree, he isn’t going to speak the same way he would to Denethor. Bree’s clannish inhabitants would look at him funny and avoid him, hardly a productive night.
    I think this is further supported by Le Guin’s discussion of speech patterns. In a passing joke, she mentions that wizards speak in the subjunctive. That is definitely true in Gandalf’s case. It’s always veiled allusions, cryptic hints and maybes, never straight answers. In this way, he is able to nudge the mortal races into combating Evil, rather than directly ordering them to do his bidding. The latter methodology was likely too similar to Sauron’s fall from grace, since Sauron was originally a maiar construction worker who happened to like orderliness a little too much. Saruman himself probably changed his speech patter, as it is hard to believe that he always spoke in a modern mode during the First and Second Ages.
    However, I do not think that Gandalf’s ability to change his speech is intrinsic to his wizardry. You brought up Aragorn, who jumps from Elvish formalism, to Strider’s rough and tumble speech patterns, a change that implies that speech is not limited wizards. Thinking about some of the other characters, Elrond probably hasn’t left Rivendell since the Last Alliance, and if he did, it’s not like he was hobnobbing with Men or Hobbits. He was likely with other very old Elves. As such, why would he need to change his speech to a more modern mode, when all of his peers/friends are using the older tongue?

  3. I’m not entirely convinced that Gandalf’s style of speech makes him somehow unbound from Middle Earth. The elves are also there only temporarily, not true residents of Middle Earth, but as you pointed out, Elrond is not able to change his style of speaking. Moreover, essentially all of his styles are examples or combinations of other styles existing within Middle Earth already. Unlike Saruman, whose voice demonstrates some magical power in helping to corrupt Theoden, Gandalf’s voice alone appears to hold no such power. He can change his overall appearance and sound, but really neither of these abilities strikes me as characteristics of style.
    That being said, Gandalf is clearly different from the other participants of the Council; as you point out, his speech is much more diverse than any other single character. I would hypothesize that Gandalf appears to have a sort of intense empathy, allowing him to more easily learn social norms and adapt to interactions with any sentient race in Middle Earth. It is perhaps one of the more effective tools Gandalf could have, since his own power to influence the fight against Sauron is limited and uniting the peoples of Middle Earth is essential to the triumph of good.

  4. It's interesting how you class Gandalf's variations of style in terms of ability, rather than choice. It raises questions about the relation of language to action of speech and who we are. For instance, does Saruman's speak in a modern, political, fashion because he wishes to say much without saying anything or does he speak this way because he has a fundamentally modern understanding of the world (perhaps this is most obvious in his desire to dominate and control nature)? More clearly, to what degree do we shape our language and to what degree does language shape us? Could Saruman have chosen to speak like Butterbur, and would that have led him to a different end? Or would he be unable, and this illustrates precisely why there was no other end for the white wizard? Given Tolkien's deep linguistic awareness, we could expand this question beyond speech and to the language of things (indeed, continued pushing might take us to the questions of free will and destiny that so color Tolkien's writings). The comparison of Saruman and Gandalf on this point is very interesting, I wish you had gotten to it sooner!

  5. I think that considering Gandalf in the context of the other characters you mentioned who can change their speech patterns (Frodo, Bilbo, Aragorn, Saruman) sheds some light on why he specifically does. If one just looks at Gandalf and Saruman, this flexibility of speech could appear to be tied to their wizardly or Maia nature but the others are clearly not Maia or wizards and yet exhibit the same ability. All of the characters who change their manner of speech have frequent or prolonged contact with other races and therefor need to express themselves different manners. Gandalf is the most obvious, he has contact with the greatest variety of peoples, but it is important that he does not stick out, so he adapts to fit his surroundings: a conjurer in The Shire, a Wizard in Rohan, an ancient power in Rivendell. Aragorn too needs to move freely without attracting attention, while Saruman shifts his speech to best manipulate various targets. Frodo and Bilbo, while they do not need to obscure their identity, do have a great deal more “cultural exposure” than other hobbits. These experiences, particularly their knowledge of and affinity for the elves, allow them a form of speech not entirely hobbit-like in nature. Meanwhile characters like Denethor or even Elrond live mainly within their own cultures and thus have little need of speech that allows them to move in others.

  6. I think many of these theses are rather interesting and generally hold water when taken relative to many of the other older main characters in LotR, but there's one who has gone unmentioned so far and (I think at least) has a speech pattern worth considering. Tom Bombadil, himself an ancient force, has one of the most unique styles of anyone in the book. "'Sun won't show her face much today, I'm thinking. I have been walking wide, leaping on the hill-tops, since the grey dawn began, nosing wind and weather, wet grass underfoot, wet sky above me. I wakened Goldberry singing under window; but naught wakes hobbit-folk in the early morning. In the night little folk wake up in the darkness, and sleep after light has come! Ring a ding dillo! Wake now, my merry friends! Forget the nightly noises! Ring a ding dillo del! derry del, my hearties!" (LotR, 128). Besides a predilection for exclamation points and an aversion to articles, Bombadil speaks with a very simple and repetitive style reminiscent of the lower Hobbits (or perhaps the reverse) yet with a power akin to Gandalf or Saruman. Many of the theories proposed around Gandalf refer to his flexibility, his ability to exist in all situations (realms of men, halls of elves, and holes of hobbits all alike), so then might we take Bombadil's unique style--one which is both difficult to place and yet simultaneously seemingly unalterable--as evidence of his role as both eldest/original and as outsider? Or perhaps there's something more at work in his non-sensical rhymes.
    --H. Goldberg