I Came At Long Last to the Dwelling of Saruman

Since we’ve covered the hell out of Radagast based upon only a few lines and a plot point, let’s continue on with Gandalf as he tells about his meeting with Saruman in Isengard. He describes the place as “a circle of sheer rocks that enclose a valley as with a wall.” In the middle of that circle is Orthanc, a stone tower.

To say that Tolkien was thoughtful when it came to naming things is a gross understatement. Isengard, for example, was “intended to represent translations into the Common Speak of the Elvish names Angrenost and Carach Angren, but ones made at so early a date that at the period of the tale they had become archaic in form and the original meanings were obscured.” Angrenost meant “iron fortress,” and Carach Angren meant “jaws of iron”. This makes sense since Isen- means “iron” (in an older English) and -gard means “enclosure” (in older Germanic).

If by the time of the story (3018 of the Third Age) the Elven words were archaic, when was Isengard built? Gandalf explains that it was built by “the Men of Numenor long ago.” And that’s really all he’s said about it. Nowhere is there given any other firm date, though it’s pretty safe to assume that it’s the end of the Second Age, after the Drowning of Numenor when all of the exiles came to Middle-earth with Elendil. That doesn’t really seem ancient enough to render the Elvish words “archaic,” but whatever.

Gandalf went on to describe the tower – Orthanc, meaning “forked-height,” due to its spires. It apparently means “Mount Fang” in Sindarin and “Cunning Mind” in the language used in Rohan. It’s probably based upon the Old English word “orpanc,” which means “a skillful contrivance or work, artifice, device, design,” but can also mean “cunning, skillful.”

The circle of stones surrounds Orthanc and there’s only one gate that can be used to enter inside. Gandalf described it as “a great arch in the wall of rock.” He also said it was strongly guarded. He doesn’t mention who was strongly guarding it, so it’s probably safe to assume that they were Men, perhaps Dunlendings, the so-called “Wild Men” who sided with Saruman during this time.

As soon as Gandalf entered the circle, he was afraid, “though I knew no reason for it.” This, in light of everything that Gandalf had suspected about Saruman, seems really unbelievable. Gandalf was nursing a huge cup of denial.

And now we finally meet Saruman, who comes off as a real prick. He had been known as Saruman the White, but when Gandalf addressed him as such “that title seemed to anger him.” Saruman shot back, sarcastically calling him “Gandalf the Grey.”

I wrote yesterday that Tolkien somewhat arbitrarily gave the wizards colors. First Saruman was Grey and then became White. Radagast also started out as Grey, only to become Brown. And its this Brownness that Saruon focuses upon when Gandalf recounts that it was Radagast who told him that the Nazgul were back and to see Saruman about this.

“‘Radagast the Brown!’ laughed Saruman, and he no loner concealed his scorn. ‘Radagast the Bird-tamer! Radgast the Simple! Radagast the Fool! Yet he had just the wit to play the part that I set for him. For you have come, and that was all the purpose of my message.'”

We learned yesterday that Radagast had mostly withdrawn from dealing with Elves and Men, and had become fairly aloof. Saruman used this to his own advantage, tricking the brown-clad wizard into getting Gandalf to show up.

But was that really necessary? Couldn’t Saruman more easily have sent out an urgent summons for Gandalf that would have been just as effective? Even Gandalf says that “things are now moving which will require the union of all our strength.” That was reason enough for Gandalf to seek out Saruman even without being beckoned by him. So why include Radagast at all?

At this point, that hardly matters, since Saruman got what he wanted – Gandalf. “And here you will stay, Gandalf the Grey, and rest from journeys.” So far, that seems pretty nice. Sure, things are moving at a much quicker rate, but the rate before was practically glacial, so what did that really even mean? A rest might be a good thing, no? At least it might be a kind gesture. Thanks, Whitey!

But then Saruman amps up the creepy factor, immediately following the invitation with: “For I am Saruman the Wise, Saruman Ring-maker, Saruman of Many Colours!”

When Gandalf saw Saruman, he noticed that he was wearing a ring on his finger, but nothing more is mentioned about that. Saruman had been studying the One Ring, as well as the other Rings of Power, so it’s possible that he made his own (fanboy that he was).

Saruman then makes quite a show of turning his white robe into an iridescent mess incorporating all colors. White, said Saruman, “serves as a beginning. White cloth may be dyed. The white page can be overwritten; and the white light can be broken.”

The white light can be broken? That’s a pretty dark place you’re going to, Saruman. And tomorrow we’ll see just how dark (well, at least a darkish glimpse).

A Few Notes

  • So why include Radagast at all? Probably because Tolkien really wanted to use him. It connects this story to The Hobbit and just makes things more colorful (though brown).
  • The next time I invite someone to crash at my place, I’m going to immediately follow it up with a maniacal list of my traits. “Hey, if you like, you can stay for the night – my couch is super comfy. For I am Eric the Wiseass, Eric Tofu-maker, Eric of Many Cameras and a weirdly large record collection!” All true, of course, but I’ll make sure to raise my arms and sort of shout it at the ceiling. There will also be pointlessly scornful laughter. You’ll see.
Camera: Mamiya C3 Film: FujiChrome Velvia 50 (RVP) expired mid90s

Camera: Mamiya C3
Film: FujiChrome Velvia 50 (RVP) expired mid90s

About the Photo
As I’ve said before, I really do need more photos of towers. They’re just not that easy to come by. This one, however, will do. It’s from the West Virginia State Penitentiary in Moundsville, WV.


  • Day 148
  • Miles today: 5
  • Miles thus far: 731 (277 from Rivendell)
  • 63 miles to the Doors of Moria
  • 190 miles to Lothlórien
  • 1,048 miles to Mt. Doom

Today’s stopping place in the narrative: Book II, Chapter 3. Marching south along the western foothills of the Misty Mountains. 18th night out from Rivendell. January 10-11, 3019 TA. (map)

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6 thoughts on “I Came At Long Last to the Dwelling of Saruman

  1. “archaic” describes the “translations into the Common Speech”, not the Elvish original Angrenost. Elvish languages change more slowly than Mannish.

    The OE word orþanc should have a thorn, not a ‹p›.

    Númenor had outposts in Middle-Earth long before the drowning, so Orthanc could well be older than that.

    Could “white light can be broken” allude to Isaac Newton’s experiment with the prism? Some thought it blasphemous, or at least creepy, that Newton “broke” the pure sunlight into colors. Another possibility – more likely imho but harder to understand – is that “white light” means the cool kind of light of which Telperion was made, in contrast to the hotter light of Laurelin.

  2. Archaic – of course, but it’s still not old enough for their meaning to be lost.

    Thorn – yes, but I wasn’t copy / pasting, and didn’t take the time to hunt for a thorn. Sorry.

    Numenor had some outposts, but this for inland? Maybe… But how much extra time would that really give us? When did they start coming back over? And where were the outposts?

    White light – I took it to mean from the Trees. It makes more sense, I guess. At least it keeps it in the family.

  3. I frequently still use a scornful “_______ the bird tamer!” As an insult. It’s a great line because it seems vaguely neat yet it pisses off saruman.

    Hercules the Pennsylvanian! Hercules the scooter rider! Bah!

    • I guess it’s safe to say that Saruman likes his birds to be wild. I assume he secretly drinks whatever the Shire version of Wild Turkey might be.

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