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.