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.