Gandalf tells the story of his confrontation with Saruman at Orthanc:
I looked then and saw that his robes, which had seemed white, were not so, but were woven of all colours, and if he moved they shimmered and changed hue so that the eye was bewildered.
“I liked white better,” I said.
“White!” he sneered. “It serves as a beginning. White cloth may be dyed. The white page can be overwritten; and the white light can be broken.” LotR, II, ii.
Saruman is making an elaborate, layered pun here. Let’s step away from the Germanic-root words for a moment. Breaking white light into its spectral components: analysis. Writing things on paper: thesis. Dyed white cloth: high-status ancient Romans usually wore white to work, but it was tacky to wear that to dinner. For festivities, they wore a brightly-colored outfit called a synthesis. If you’re familiar with classical civilization and you like word games, Saruman is encapsulating the scientific method in three quick phrases.
Am I just imagining this? Well, “His knowledge was deep, his thought was subtle…” and there’s this:
… Orthanc, the citadel of Saruman, the name of which had (by design or chance) a twofold meaning; for in the Elvish speech “orthanc” signifies “Mount Fang”, but in the language of the Mark of old the “Cunning Mind”. LotR, II, ii.
This is exactly the same kind of multi-lingual pun. Saruman has a previous conviction, Your Honor. (Once again, little in Tolkien is due to “chance”.)
And we were warned this was coming. “Saruman” comes from “searo“, “art, skill, contrivance, deceit, stratagem…” which the Bosworth-Toller Dictionary warns “is uncertain whether the word is used with a good or with a bad meaning”. And no way am I going to try to contradict Professor Tolkien on Anglo-Saxon, but I note that “orÞanc” also has a positive gloss as “original thought”. Both of these words for intelligence can be taken two ways. There’s a context in which this ambivalence persists in modern English: For every “smart person”, there’s a “smart alec”; for every “wise man”, there’s a “wise guy”. And those latter terms are generally applied to a person who makes clever puns in ostensibly serious situations.
Saruman is playing a mind-game here, irritating Gandalf with too-clever puns so he’s rattled, and doesn’t see the trap Saruman is about to spring on him.
1. I have a friend who would buy a gown made of that cloth in a heartbeat.[back]
2. Thanks to Tom Hillman for the link to Bosworth-Toller. For learning Anglo-Saxon, Prague is the last place I’d have thought to look. [back]
3. The public-school career of your humble Idiosopher could in no way have contributed to the evidence for this observation. [back]