Of all the speeches at the Council of Elrond, Gandalf’s concluding story is the most entertaining.  As it should be:  after nearly twenty pages of historical narrative and elevated rhetorical style, we all need a break.  The break comes in the form of the story that everyone has been champing at the bit to hear, namely, why Gandalf the Grey was late.  And the story is told in the colloquial and ironical style that proves this Gandalf to be not so much a rhetor as a retorter.

I think the difference comes off to nice effect in Gandalf’s conversation with Saruman.  Saruman presents himself as a rhetorician, attempting to persuade Gandalf to his side by getting up and declaiming “as if he were making a speech long rehearsed.”  (It is extraordinarily strange to me, by the by, that Saruman’s speech possesses almost none of the rhetorical virtues that show up in Elrond’s or Aragorn’s speeches.  Saruman starts off rather vacuously and uninterestingly—“The Elder Days are gone. The Middle Days are passing.  The Younger Days are beginning”—and in what follows, he uses almost no arresting sentence constructions or poignant archaisms or attention-grabbing ecphoneses.  The messenger that rode to Daín from Mordor spoke more sweetly and seductively.  Yet Saruman is the wizard whose spell-binding voice is supposed to possess great powers, such that he may persuade almost anything living to his will!  It is a strange inconsistency.)

In contrast to Saruman, Gandalf makes no speeches in Orthanc.  But his wit punctuates Saruman’s speeches like a needle popping balloons.  When Saruman calls himself “Saruman of the Many Colours,” Gandalf remarks sardonically that he liked white better.  When Saruman repeatedly insists that “we” will command the Ring, Gandalf points out the obvious absurdity.  In reply to Saruman’s insinuation that he must submit either to himself or to Sauron, Gandalf breaks the horns of the dilemma by refusing both options and requesting another.  And so it goes on, until Saruman leaves Gandalf in the tower of Orthanc and retreats, the temporary victor of the situation but loser of the war of wit.

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