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Rómenna Meeting Report - December 8, 1985
December 8, 1985
We began our last Rómenna meeting of 1985 with speculations on whom one could possibly get to play Saruman in the "Voice of Saruman" chapter. It would have to be some actor with an extraordinarily powerful and flexible voice; John Gielgud and Laurence Olivier were both suggested. It was also mentioned that Rankin and Bass (otherwise known as Rank & Base), despite the grievous flaws in their animated versions of Tolkien, did pick good voices for the most part (Cyril Ritchard as Elrond was cited)--other than the Nazi elves in The Hobbit, that is.
As the characters approached Orthanc for their interview with Saruman, we noted that Isengard is described in terms that make it sound like a bad neighborhood-- it's a real mess. Despite this, Orthanc itself turns out to have been almost Ent-proof; it only had a few little chips taken out of it. It was pointed out that Gandalf is a little unfair to Gimli when the dwarf anticipates being able to see whether Gandalf and Saruman look alike. Gandalf earlier on had suggested himself that maybe Gimli would see the two together sometime and find out, but now he puts Gimli down when he suggests it. Meanwhile Pippin is being so insouciant that you know he's going to do something stupid. . .
All the powerful people go up the steps to speak to Saruman, leaving the hobbits feeling small and unwanted. We noted that proper protocol is being observed here: the "embassy" consists of the leaders (Gandalf and Théoden) and their seconds (Aragorn and Éomer), plus the two racial representatives, Legolas and Gimli. Then Saruman blows it by having Wormtongue answer the door.
Tolkien, it was observed, cannot convey Saruman's persuasiveness simply by reporting his words, but must describe the power of the wizard's voice and its effects. He specifically says, in fact, that Saruman's actual words were often not particularly persuasive when looked at objectively. Saruman was characterized by a Dune reader among us as "the only male Bene Gesserit." It was also noted that Fëanor seems to have had the same power of persuasiveness, and that he and Saruman were both protégés of Aulë.
Having many different people present at the confrontation turns out to be a good thing for the "good guys." Saruman (as Gandalf points out later) makes the mistake of trying to deal with his opponents one at a time. Therefore when he bends his will on Théoden, for instance, Gimli can be standing by to say "Bullshit!" which throws Saruman off and makes him crack. Every time he turns to another person, the previous target can break out of the spell, and furthermore, each interruption goads him to anger and makes him lose control. Théoden's defiance really upsets him. His last and greatest effort is then directed at Gandalf. His strategy includes turning his foes against each other (Théoden, for instance, listening to Saruman, fears that Gandalf will give in and betray them all). However, Saruman is blind to the change in Gandalf. Like Sauron, he is more interested in objects than in people and tends to overlook important things. Though his final spell is powerful enough to convince everyone else within earshot, Gandalf literally laughs it off. We also noted, regarding Gandalf's comment that a guest who left by way of the roof the last time is not going to be eager to come in the door this time, that the worst thing possible for a propaganda artist like Saruman is someone with a good memory.
Gandalf gives Saruman one last chance to repent, which he blows. Like many political types throughout history (Joe McCarthy was cited as a comparison) he would rather reign in hell than serve in heaven. Gandalf then proves that he is now the official boss of the wizards by demonstrating his control over Saruman--he commands him to come back, breaks his staff, and formally casts him out of the order of wizards. We wondered if any moviemaker would have the subtlety to film this scene as written (to have, for example, Saruman's staff simply crack in half and the head of it fall at Gandalf's feet, rather than have it spectacularly self-destruct in a blaze of special effects).
Wormtongue chucks the palantír--at whom, it's difficult to say--and Pippin runs after it. We noted that the palantír is harder than Orthanc-stone (it takes a chip out of the steps without being harmed itself). It also has an attractive magic, to which Pippin is the most susceptible. Gandalf gets the thing away from him as soon as he notices it, and yells at Pippin into the bargain, but the comment was made that Gandalf yells at Pippin so much anyway that Pippin no longer pays much attention to it. We wondered why Gandalf was so eager to get the palantír away from the hobbit if he was really, as he later states, unaware of what it was or that it was connected with Sauron. Is this a continuity glitch? However, it was pointed out that Gandalf is generally cautious, and always reluctant to give out information, especially when he is not absolutely sure of his facts. He was the same way about the Ring: though he guessed that Bilbo's ring was in fact the One, he never committed himself on the subject or told his suspicions to anyone else until he was able to perform the empirical test of setting the Ring in the fire and read the inscription on it for himself. There is also the factor that Gandalf may have a "magic sense"; he says himself later that he felt the attraction of the palantír. We guessed that Saruman went to consult the stone immediately after his interview with Gandalf--and found it gone, much to Wormtongue's sorrow-- since it was his ace in the hole ("Beam me up, Sauron!").
The party meets briefly with Treebeard before moving on. It was noted that Legolas knows how to get on Fangorn's good side: he compliments his trees, and points out that Gimli uses his axe to kill orcs. (There he goes, having to make apologies for the dwarf again!) Treebeard takes his leave of the hobbits, and promises to watch Saruman. Our next topic was Pippin's theft of the palantír. Tolkien deftly weaves a mood of suspense in this scene; you can almost hear the creepy music. The palantír, we noted, is acting something like the Ring (possibly because of its connection with Sauron), making people want to possess it. An indication of this is the imagery applied to Pippin, which to us recalled Gollum. We also noted that Pippin seems to be afraid of Gandalf rather than the stone. Tolkien also builds suspense by shifting away from Pippin's viewpoint once he has the stone, so that the reader sees its effect on him without knowing what he actually saw in it until later.
When we do get Pippin's account, we are able to observe Sauron's shortsightedness; as someone put it, Sauron is too busy looking at the "mirrors inside his eyes" to realize that the hobbit is not in Orthanc, and too greedy for the pleasure of tormenting him in person to question him immediately. ,We also noted (as Gandalf does later) that it was lucky that Pippin was the first one to look into the stone, since he knew the least (though what he did know could still have been very useful to Sauron and very bad for the West if Sauron had made him reveal it then and there).
We observed that Gandalf uses the old method of looking into Pippin's eyes to "read" him and find out whether or not he is lying. The eyes are supposed to be the mirror of the soul. Pippin is a lousy liar anyway. Gandalf is relieved, but still makes sure that Pippin does not know to whom he has given the stone--Aragorn, as it turns out. Gandalf warns Aragorn against using the palantír, now that they know it is linked with Sauron, and says that he himself would not trust his own powers in such a confrontation. Aragorn reserves the option of using the stone, however, which is, after all, his by right, and will later have his judgment vindicated. The Nazgûl messenger shows up at this point and Gandalf knows that the shit has hit the fan. (It was speculated that the Nazgûl Pippin saw flying toward him in the palantír was this same messenger.) He quickly maps out a revised plan of action, grabs Pippin and splits, leaving poor Merry to pick up the pieces and wonder why everyone bosses him around when he hasn't done anything wrong. There followed various map consultations and measurements as we tried to figure out the speed of Shadowfax the Bionic Horse. At first it almost seemed that he was breaking the 55 mph limit, but later corrected measurements gave a more realistic figure of 20 mph or so (that's assuming we did get it right the second time--exact times and distances are hard to tell from the map).
Gandalf finally starts giving Pippin some information about the palantíri and other things. The reason for this within the context of the story may be that Gandalf figures the trouble started because of Pippin's unsatisfied curiosity, but there is also the factor that Tolkien wishes to inform the reader of these things. We found it interesting that Gandalf would like to look in on Fëanor (everybody's curious about him!). Wouldn't Gandalf have known Fëanor personally in Valinor, while he was still Olórin? Possibly that knowledge was one of the things he sacrificed when he took on a mortal form. We also noted, along with Gandalf, that Saruman is in very deep shit.
We passed on to the supplementary reading, the article on the palantíri from the Unfinished Tales. The powers attributed to the kings of Gondor after the lore of the Stones ceased to be general knowledge, of being able to "hear news on the wind" and so forth, was compared to the similar powers attributed to King Mâth in Welsh mythology, and to the zephyrs of Greek legend which were also bearers of news. Variant readings in this chapter prompted the observation that Tolkien was something of a literary packrat--he never threw anything away, even when it had been superseded, with the result that poor Christopher has had to wade through scores of variant readings on everything and try to decide which is definitive (if any).
In at least one version of the lore of the palantíri, the Orthanc-stone was one of those that needed to be oriented correctly before it would work. The article says that it was more or less by chance that Pippin happened to place the stone correctly, but we speculated that the stone may have "oriented" itself--or rather, that Sauron's will working through the stone may have done so. The palantír itself is only a medium and (unlike the Ring) not inherently evil. The observation was made that the Orthanc-stone was an appropriate tool of Saruman's downfall, since Saruman, as a Maia of Aulë, was much concerned with artifacts. We noted that the various wizards by their very natures had different provinces and areas of interest, and that it would have helped if they could have worked together better (pooled their knowledge and so forth). The White Council was an attempt. at this, but unfortunately Saruman and Gandalf didn't get along.
There followed some discussion of the nuts and bolts of palantír operation. It is easier to use a palantír if you have an inherent "right" to it, as Aragorn and Denethor did and Saruman did not. Pippin didn't either, and in addition when he looked into it he was more or less on one end of an open phone line with Sauron on the other end. A single palantír was usually used more or less for "farseeing" and could only show visual images (with progressive magnification possible to "zoom in" on an interesting detail). The picture was soundless, but verbalized thoughts could be transferred from one person to another if each had a stone. This was not mind-reading; one person would not be able to get anything more out of the other one than the other would have revealed in a face-to-face interview. Presumably it's just as easy to lie using a palantír as it would be face-to-face, though the stone could not be made to show false or illusory images (Sauron was able to control which images Denethor saw in his stone, but not the content of the images themselves). We speculated that there may have been more reason than sheer malice for Sauron wanting to interview Pippin in the flesh, so to speak: he may have wanted to conduct the questioning in person to make sure he was getting the truth.
With that we ended the discussion, and will start off the New Year by tackling the journey of Frodo and Sam to Mordor with the first two chapters of Book IV.