By Maria Bustillos | Here is the second and final post of this piece from The New Yorker | Once we are persuaded of the authenticity and quality of the author’s message, it remains for the reader either to contend or to submit. Moment by moment, an engaged reader will be testing all the author says—for its humor and generosity, for its grace of expression, for its truth. We try his ideas on, you might say, one by one. This exercise can be both exhilarating and dangerous. Will we yield? Will we fall under the author’s sway, or just laugh at him, or throw his book across the room?
There’s a fine examination of the dangers of vulnerability to influence in J. R. R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings”; it involves the treacherous wizard Saruman, whom Gandalf, his fellow wizard, engages in a final parley at the Tower of Orthanc. Saruman’s speech is itself a magic spell, cast right before the reader, intended to charm Gandalf into betraying his companions. The dreamy-eyed philologist and Oxford don Tolkien saved some of his loveliest language for the “silver-tongued” Saruman.
Gandalf stirred, and looked up. “What have you to say that you did not say at our last meeting?” he asked. “Or, perhaps, you have things to unsay?”
Saruman paused. “Unsay?” he mused, as if puzzled. “Unsay? I endeavoured to advise you for your own good, but you scarcely listened. You are proud and do not love advice, having indeed a store of your own wisdom. But… I bore you no ill-will; and even now I bear none, though you return to me in company of the violent and the ignorant. How should I? Are we not both members of a high and ancient order, most excellent in Middle-earth? Let them wait on our decisions! For the common good I am willing to redress the past, and to receive you. Will you not consult with me? Will you not come up?”
So great was the power that Saruman exerted in this last effort that none that stood within hearing were unmoved. But now the spell was wholly different. They heard the gentle remonstrance of a kindly king with an erring but much-loved minister.… Of loftier mould these two were made: reverend and wise. It was inevitable that they should make alliance. Gandalf would ascend into the tower, to discuss deep things beyond their comprehension in the high chambers of Orthanc.… Even in the mind of Théoden the thought took shape, like a shadow of doubt: “He will betray us; he will go—we shall be lost.”
Among the many beauties of this passage is the double persuasion implicit in its structure. It describes magical rhetoric, invoking another, equally magical rhetoric to make its point. Tolkien’s own spell continues far beyond that of Saruman, however.
Then Gandalf laughed. The fantasy vanished like a puff of smoke.
“Haha L.M.A.O.,” Gandalf goes on to say, more or less. Gandalf is totally invulnerable to Saruman’s magic, despite his comrades’ trepidations; the prepared, learned mind has nothing to fear from opening itself to conflict.
Gandalf then offers Saruman a stern but fair chance at mending their relations, for age, study, and experience make us empathetic, and empathy makes us fair—makes us merciful and generous—even when we have the power to punish those who’ve wronged us.
That we have the means of doing this—of entering into another mind to find all the riches and the perils that may await us there—affords us the possibility of deep pleasure and understanding. Without the ability to travel outside ourselves, all our conversations are in danger of becoming like tennis games consisting entirely of serves, with never a rally in sight. This is a matter of comprehending and containing the trick of beautiful rhetoric, experiencing the workings of a mind entirely unlike your own.