A physicist loose among the liberal arts

Saruman 15-love

Gandalf probably has the most dedicated fan club of any character in LotR. But to an idiosopher, he has one moment of complete catastrophe. This is from Gandalf’s report to the Council of Elrond about his confrontation with Saruman:

“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.”
“In which case it is no longer white,” said I. “And he that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.”

LotR, II, ii.

I’ve talked about this passage before, working from the possibility that Saruman was playing a clever joke. Lots of people, many of whom know more than I do, take that last sentence as a statement of JRR Tolkien’s own beliefs. Malcolm Guite‘s Signum Sessions lecture is an excellent example:

But there’s a problem with that: I agree with Saruman.  First, dyeing white cloth.  JRRT frequently mentions colors, and uses them as important signifiers in his texts.  Hobbits like to dress “in bright colours, being notably fond of yellow and green” (LotR, Prologue).  Bombadil’s jacket is bright blue (I, viii). Gandalf wears blue and grey. The dwarves in The Hobbit are even distinguished by the color of their hoods (I, i). Surely if wearing cloth of other colors than white were morally dubious, it would have been mentioned. If Gandalf is going to disagree with this, he’s going to have a lot of explaining to do.  JRRT provides no explanation.

Second, the white page can be overwritten. If it weren’t, a philologist would have nothing to do.  A twentieth-century author would not publish any books.  Writing on white pages can’t be a bad thing to Tolkien.  Something is going seriously wrong with the wise-Gandalf interpretation.

Third, breaking things to find out what they are is an essential part of learning.  In the specific case in the text, a group of photons that would have been annihilated in the electric field of earthly matter in a few nanoseconds was divided up to show its component colors and confirm the wave theory of light.  Lots of learning for no loss.  Here’s a sampling of other ways that life would be lessened, had we stayed on this so-called “path of wisdom”:

  • No one would ever have eaten an oyster or a walnut;
  • Musical harmonies might never have been discovered;
  • Doctors wouldn’t know about the circulation of the blood;
  • The beauty of the crystals that form inside geodes would never be seen.


(The dwarves of the Glittering Caves will back me up on the importance of that last one.)  None of these things is bad.  Gandalf is just wrong.

What’s going on, here?  It’s the power of the Voice of Saruman.  Even through the filter of Gandalf’s re-telling, the effect is still there.  Gandalf sounds like a fool.  Saruman’s voice has tricked him into a ridiculous position. JRRT has shown the effect, not just told us about it, by having it affect the reader as well.  As Théoden found out, “When others spoke they seemed harsh and uncouth by contrast…” (III,x.)

No worries, Grey Wanderer — it can happen to anyone.


Signed Graphs and Interesting Stories


Tales from the Attic


  1. You are correct in your assertions about the beauty of difference. The tension between the one and the many has exercised philosophers and theologians for centuries. On a practical level the church struggled with the challenge of polyphony to plainchant for a long time. I happen to love both and would be sorry to lose either.
    Tolkien knew all this and also your examples from within LOTR so I can only assume that Gandalf is referring to something else. Surely it is Saruman’s attempt to “improve” upon the simplicity of his vocation?

  2. PS Thank you so much for the link to Malcolm Guite. I will listen to it with great pleasure.

  3. What an interesting thought, Joe, about Gandalf being deceived even at the Council without knowing. I don’t know if I agree with it, but it is interesting since that statement about breaking things to find out what they are has always been a bit of a thorn. I tend to think that he must mean something else than we think he means, something more Medieval and less “anti-scientific.”

    • I like your distinction between “less scientific” and “more medieval”. I have begun to listen to Malcolm Guite’s excellent lecture thanks to Joe’s link on his post. In it he makes clear that what the Inklings were doing was to reunite the imagination and reason, (Demeter and Athene, as in CS Lewis’s remarkable pre-conversion poem that he cites). At no point did Lewis or Tolkien seek to overthrow good science in their work. That still leaves us with the question of in what way Saruman had, indeed, departed from the way of wisdom in his creation of a coat of many colours. I suggested to Joe that Gandalf was merely accusing him of seeking to “improve” his vocation expressed in the name, Saruman the White, but I am open to there being more than that. What are your thoughts?

    • Joe

      I see us the readers (well me, anyway) as the ones who fall under Saruman’s spell. Gandalf is sticking to his principles, and Saruman is using that to back him rhetorically into an absurdity. I give Gandalf a lot of credit here — I would have been sorely tempted to spin the story to preserve my amour-propre.

  4. I haven’t had the chance to track it down fully yet, but I have discovered that the “he who … wisdom” line was not in the first couple of versions of Gandalf’s account of his argument with Saruman. I want to figure out, if possible, precisely when it appeared and why.

    I have a sneaking suspicion it might be a late insertion and have to do with splitting the atom, since Tolkien, and most other sensible people, even those who believed in the necessity of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as lesser evils, were horrified by it. “I am become Death” etc.

  5. Maybe what Gandalf is warning against is specifically those ways of “breaking” that destroy the object being studied. Cracking open a walnut or oyster found on the ground may be justified by the tasty thing found inside, but vivisecting a living person to learn about his circulatory system — at least before surgeons learned how to put people back together — or shattering a beautiful Greek amphora to examine the cross-section of the shards would be foolish and irresponsible. It’s all the difference in the world between the careful way archaeological excavation is carried out today as opposed to the destruction of Hisarlik by Heinrich Schliemann in his effort to find Priam’s Troy. Maybe science’s greatest gift to us is the ability to understand a thing by taking samples, instead of by destroying it.

    And maybe Gandalf’s argument is not so much “anti-scientific” as it is opposed to materialism, or if I may borrow Stephen’s terms above, opposed to reason-sans-imagination. This is consistent with “Mythopoeia” (bringing me back to a comment I posted earlier today on one of your older posts!) and his depiction of some others who followed Aulë besides Saruman. It’s also right in line with what I know of Owen Barfield’s work, so it would not surprise me if this was a very Inkling way of looking at the world.

    In any event, I’ve also struggled with this quote, and it’s only through reading and discussing it here that I’m starting to get a better understanding of what I think Gandalf means.

    • I’ve been doing some poking about, and so far it looks like T had no problem with science per se. He praises Botany, Astronomy, and several others I don’t recall right now. What they have in common is that they are not, as you suggest, Shawn, involved with destroying things in order to learn more. What he would have thought of a supercollider, I don’t know.

      I have been able to learn that through 5 versions of “The Council of Elrond” Gandalf does not say the words in question, and Christopher makes a point of saying so. So up until 1942 they are not there. When thereafter did they appear? Short of 1954, I mean? I don’t know that I can find that out from any book I have.

      But I would ask, Joe, what did the nuclear physicists of the day hope to learn from splitting the atom?

      There may also be another layer to this, playing on the meaning of Saruman’s name, suggesting that a Saruman who breaks things is not Saruman at all. As of course he’s not any longer.

      • Joe

        Short answer: nuclei spit out weird things with lots of energy. They wanted to find out what was creating those things and spitting them out. The kind of atoms that had been split by 1954 were the kind that would fall apart on their own, eventually. This puts them on the positive side of Shawn’s dichotomy.

        Like everyone reading the published Fellowship of the Ring, when Gandalf tells Saruman that breaking things to find out what they are is foolish, I thought of nuclear fission. Like maybe 10% of the readers I next thought, “but fusing nuclei causes even more trouble than breaking them!”

        • Not quite every, my friend. I thought of light, since Saruman has just said “white light can be broken.” The image it conjured for me was of a prism and spectrum. (Newton or Pink Floyd, take your pick.)

          To which Gandalf responds at once “In which case it is no longer white. And he that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.”

          Surely the natural way to take G’s two sentences here is as referring to breaking white light?

          But, Joe, you’ve blinded me with Science. (SCIENCE!)

          No longer do I think this refers to science or technology at all. I think it’s Gandalf’s critique of what Saruman has done to himself by changing himself from STW to SOMC (or SOTMC, Jacksonian)

          Interestingly, in Letters 329 & 346 T quotes these lines of Gandalf, but to criticize, in the both cases, literary rather than scientific analysis (analysis of course means ‘break-down’).

          Hence, Saruman in changing himself from Saruman the White to Saruman of Many Colours is guilty of literary theory. He has deconstructed his identity.

          (I really think we should send this to Corey for the podcast. Return of the Shadow will be reaching the Council of Elrond soon, and Exploring the Lord of the Rings will be there in couple of years.)

          • …and in deconstructing his identity, he’s lost sight of the inherent goodness of what he was. Much like one who reads a fairy-story and goes looking for the bones of the ox in the soup. Interesting thought, Tom.

            And I absolutely thought of Pink Floyd the first time I read this (I was 15, after all). I did make the connection to fission on a later reading, though.

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