“Never before has any voice dared to utter words of that tongue in Imladris, Gandalf the Grey,” said Elrond, as the shadow passed.
“And let us hope that none will ever speak it here again,” answered Gandalf.

At the beginning of the Fellowship, Gandalf refuses to utter words in the Black Speech. Even at the climax of his first conversation with Frodo regarding the Ring—when he throws it into the fire, revealing the spidery lines of Elvish-looking script—Gandalf does not read the inscription on the Ring aloud.

“The language is that of Mordor,” he tells Frodo, “which I will not utter here.” And Gandalf proceeds to give an English translation of the inscription, a translation which is now familiar to Tolkien fans everywhere:

One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them . . .

At the Council of Elrond, however, the situation is different. Gandalf is nearing the climax of a very different conversation. He is presenting evidence to a councilful of people regarding (1) the identity of the One Ring and (2) the seriousness of the situation. And at the climax of that conversation, we find Gandalf thundering out the language of Morder:

Ash nazg durbatulûk, ash nazg gimbatul . . .

The mighty tremble, and the Elves stop their ears.

Why speak those unspeakable words? Why speak them in the Council but not in Frodo’s living room?

Gandalf achieves at least three excellent effects by uttering those words at the Council. First, and most immediately, they serve to establish the identity of the One Ring. Exactly the correct words appear on the Ring’s inscription. Previously in Frodo’s living room, Gandalf softened the blow of this fact by reciting a translation; but in a council of Elves who know the Black Speech, the exact wording is important.

Second, those words establish the seriousness of the situation. “I do not ask your pardon,” Gandalf tells Elrond. The finding of the Ring means the Black Speech is “soon to be heard in every corner of the West”—and that is precisely why a solution must be found.

Third, Gandalf achieves something that Tolkien is a master at doing obliquely. He increases our fear of evil, not by portraying it directly, but by portraying it by negation. The words of the Black Speech are words which—in a subversion of wordhood itself—must not be spoken. They are unspeakables. The rule is underscored even in Gandalf’s breach of it. And this is part and parcel with Tolkien’s treatment of evil throughout the trilogy. We know Evil not by how it looks and sounds, but by how it doesn’t look or sound. It is silence and darkness—and that is well, because when it becomes even semi-audible and visible (as it does with the Ringwraiths, or with Gandalf’s uttering of the Black Speech), it cannot be endured.

And so Tolkien turns the screw of suspense in the Council. He increases the council members’ conviction that they have found the One Ring. And he increases our suspense over the central puzzle: what is to be done with this Ring, this unspeakable thing?


The Council of Elrond is full of news, most of it bad.  And not the least is the news that Gollum—previously captured by Aragorn and turned over to the Wood Elves for safekeeping—has escaped.  How did he escape the watchful eyes of the Elves?

“Not through lack of watchfulness,” said Legolas; “but perhaps through over-kindliness.”

It turns out that the Elves were letting Gollum climb trees.  They kept him part-time in a dungeon, of course, since after all he was a prisoner.  But they “had not the heart” to keep him there all the time.  Rather, they would often take him out into the forest and let him climb a high tree, “until he felt the free wind.”

It’s a picturesque and poignant way of treating a prisoner, isn’t it?

The rationale for the Elves’ treatment of Gollum is interesting. The Elves seem to be motivated largely by what we might call a remedial view of incarceration. “Gandalf bade us hope still for his cure,” says Legolas. Cure from what?  Partially, the black thoughts of his own heart.  And that meant removing Gollum from darkness in general, including the darkness of his underground prison.

Unfortunately, as well-intentioned as the Elves’ remediation program is, it does not work. (Interestingly, I can’t think of a single case of remediation in the Lord of the Rings that does work.  Saruman is kept under lock and key by Treebeard, who hopes to cure him eventually; but Saruman just ends up deceiving Treebeard and escaping.  Something similar happens with Sauron in his prior imprisonment by the Valar. This is an interesting trend, but it’s also probably a digression for a different post.)

In any event, Gollum takes advantage of the Elves’ good will, escapes, and returns to attempt worse things in the end.

I don’t think Tolkien is offering any ideological reflections here on the treatment of prisoners.  Instead, I think he’s observing something about the difference between good will and ill will.  Good will does what is best for others, even in the case of enemies and prisoners.  Prisons are not places for gratuitously inflicting pain on the wicked.  They are (or should be) places for lost souls to be restrained in the hope that they can be made good again.

But an ill will is one that takes advantage. It harms even the people who attempt to do it the most good. And in the last analysis, even the best wills may not succeed in reforming the worst wills. This, I think, is the burden of Tolkien’s thoughts on remedial imprisonment. And it is a burden worth keeping in mind when we get to more imprisonments in The Return of the King.

In celebration of Tolkien’s birthday this year, I’ve decided to start up this old commentary again.

It has been 9 years since this blog started. It has been almost 6 years since the last post, and the blog has had nearly 10,000 views. But like the Red Book of Westmarch, and any other respectable medieval chronicle, there’s no problem with gaps as long as nothing important gets left out.

Here are my best wishes for a happy new year of Tolkien reading and intermittent blogging!

Saruman, receiving Gandalf into Orthanc just before he springs his trap, accuses Gandalf of being a wanderer through many lands and a meddler in everybody’s business. The accusation, though not meant kindly, has the happy ring of truth to it. “Everybody’s business” seems to include the business of the idle, weak, and foolish (Saruman’s terminology), known chiefly to us as Hobbits and Bree-landers.

Gandalf’s rapport with the little and lesser peoples of Middle Earth is fascinating for its humour and humane interest.  It’s interesting how much his pleasure in dealing with these humble folk shines through the stories he tells in the Council of Elrond, sometimes to the exclusion of the great.  We note that when he describes his flight from Orthanc to Rohan and his reception by King Theoden, Gandalf gives us no detailed characterization of the king nor any recital of an entertaining conversation with him, even though he rides off on the king’s best horse. But Gandalf does take the trouble to relate some animated exchanges with the Gaffer of Bag End and Butterbur of Bree, even though the chat with the Gaffer has almost no plot value at all.

“I came to Hobbiton and Frodo had gone,” Gandalf says, “but I had words with old Gamgee. Many words and few to the point. He had much to say about the shortcomings of the new owners of Bag End.

“‘I can’t abide changes,’ said he, ‘not at my time of life, and least of all changes for the worst.’ ‘Changes for the worst,’ he repeated many times.

“‘Worst is a bad word,’ I said to him, ‘and I hope you do not live to see it.’”

Now this is a scrap of conversation the Council does not need to hear at all. But Gandalf conjures up the Gaffer vividly anyway, with all his little concerns over bad neighbors, in the midst of a tale full of suspense and dread over the fate of Frodo and the Ring. The only thing that justifies the anecdote is the strength and solidity of the Gaffer’s character itself… and the spontaneous, humane interest in such things on the part of Gandalf and his hearers.

It is interesting to me that no other word slips from Saruman’s mouth more frequently than “wisdom” or “wise.”  He compliments Gandalf sarcastically for being “so cunning and so wise”; he invokes “that good which only the Wise can see”; and he commends his “wise course” to Gandalf.  Gandalf’s friends, by way of contrast, have to settle for the appellation “fools.”

The only other substantive noun that Saruman invokes as frequently as “wisdom” is the word “power.”  The two doubtless go together for Saruman.  His wisdom involves mastering the power of the Ring, and he reveals himself at last, conjointly, as both “Saruman the Wise” and “Saruman Ring-maker.”  (What Ring, we wonder, has he made?  How has he earned the title that belongs to the Elven-smiths?  Has he stolen their knowledge, as Sauron did?  Alas, he does not clarify.)

I wonder if there is a deliberate contrast between Saruman and the rest of the Wise on the matter of these two words.  There is an excess of self-consciousness in Saruman, a susceptibility to confuse wisdom with power, and specifically with his own power.  Saruman’s wisdom and power, unlike Gandalf’s, know nothing of humility.  And that is interesting because Gandalf really does have wisdom and power, like Elrond and Galadriel and the other wizards in his order.  The Wise, we are constantly reminded, have been the guides and counselors in a great deal of what has transpired in the Tale of the Ring.  But what we also discover throughout that Tale is that so much of it depends upon what the Wise do not know and cannot control.

Elrond’s words to Frodo at the end of the Council seem to call back to Saruman’s words and reprove them:

This is the hour of the Shire-folk, when they arise from their quiet fields to shake the towers and counsels of the great.  Who of all the Wise could have foreseen it?  Or, if they are wise, why should they expect to know it, until the hour has struck?

Ilverai over at Wandering Paths has had some interesting afterthoughts on Saruman.  I especially like the allusion to the “turncoat” as one who changes the colors of his coat.

Apparently Saruman’s move from white to many-colored does not lack for allusion and symbolic power.  The common metaphor about “revealing one’s true colors” probably goes with the turncoat allusion.  There is also a resonance, peculiarly enough, with Newtonian physics.  Saruman says that the “white light can be broken.”  How exactly he acquired this optical knowledge is perhaps beside the point; maybe wizards in Middle Earth liked to experiment with prisms much more than they did in the actual Middle Ages.  But for an audience raised on basic optical knowledge in high school, the allusion is effective.

I wonder if Gandalf doesn’t somewhat miss the point in his response.  Saruman’s analogy of the white page and the white light presents the idea that they are good starting points, but only as a background for something greater and more interesting.  Saruman wants power and who knows what else, in addition to his initial pure state of being-whatever-he-was.  So it seems that Gandalf’s response should have had something to do with purity, not with the business of breaking things to find their essences.  Saruman had not broken his white light to find out what white light was, but to acquire powers and distinctions that he thought he could not have as long as he was “white.”

Today I bought my first volume ever of Tolkien criticism.  It is the “Modern Critical Views” volume edited by Harold Bloom, and it contains an essay by T. A. Shippey, whom I haven’t yet read, but who had the only name that I recognized among the critical contributors.  A few of the essay titles have appeal:  there is “A Mythology for England” by Paul H. Kocher, and “On the Need for Writing Tolkien Criticism” by Neil D. Isaacs.  At some point after my own essays are written this semester, these will probably steal the show.

The reason I haven’t ventured into Tolkien criticism before is probably related to the reason that the Hobbits didn’t often venture into the great Outside World.  It is so much more comfortable to sit by my own the hearth and do my own irresponsible readings at my own pleasure.  But there comes a point where even a Hobbit has to admit that maybe it would not be a bad thing to find out what people are actually doing in the outside world, especially when they are getting academic about it, and so there may be a few reflections on Tolkien criticism turning up in future posts on this blog.

The occasion of this great upheaval was the fact that I visited a book sale this morning.  The stouthearted gallant who devotedly escorts me to bookstores found it first and put it into my hands; and it was the $5.00 price tag that put the thought into my head that, perhaps, it would not be a bad thing to find out what people in the outside world are up to.