. Alas, not me: August 2020

24 August 2020

Σοφιστής and 'Saruman', part two

Recently I suggested that 'Saruman' is Tolkien's rendering into Old English of the Ancient Greek σοφιστής. Last night I discovered another interesting piece of evidence to support that suggestion. While looking at the entry for σοφιστής in the Liddell-Scott-Jones Greek-English Lexicon, I found the following quotation from Demosthenes used to illustrate the pejorative sense of the word (II.2):

'γόητα καὶ σοφιστὴν ὀναμάζων' (Dem. 18.276).

We may easily render this straightforward phrase 'naming [me] a cheat and a sophist', but that would obscure a very interesting connection for us. The word γόητα, here translated 'cheat', is the accusative singular of γόης, the first meaning of which is 'sorcerer, wizard'. We find γόης and σοφιστής similarly paired at Plato Smp. 203d, with the addition of φαρμακεύς, another word for 'sorcerer'. Γοής is of course related to γοητεία, a word Tolkien knew well, as his discussion of it in a 1956 letter to Naomi Mitchison attests (Letters # 155). Note that the qualities Tolkien attributes to goeteia -- namely, 'to terrify and subjugate' and to 'deceive or bewilder unaware Men' -- are not at all unlike the qualities of Saruman's voice, by which he can persuade or daunt others.
But I suppose that, for the purposes of the tale, some would say that there is a latent distinction such as once was called the distinction between magia and goeteia. Galadriel speaks of the 'deceits of the Enemy'. Well enough, but magia could be, was, held good (per se), and goeteia bad. Neither is, in this tale, good or bad (per se), but only by motive or purpose or use. Both sides use both, but with different motives. The supremely bad motive is (for this tale, since it is specially about it) domination of other 'free' wills. The Enemy's operations are by no means all goetic deceits, but 'magic' that produces real effects in the physical world. But his magia he uses to bulldoze both people and things, and his goeteia to terrify and subjugate. Their magia the Elves and Gandalf use (sparingly): a magia, producing real results (like fire in a wet faggot) for specific beneficent purposes. Their goetic effects are entirely artistic and not intended to deceive: they never deceive Elves (but may deceive or bewilder unaware Men) since the difference is to them as clear as the difference to us between fiction, painting, and sculpture, and 'life'.

Goeteia -- and goety, its obsolete English descendant -- operate by invocation, that is to say, by being spoken or cried aloud. The Ancient Greek verb at the root of γοητεία is γοάω, to wail or bewail, especially the dead. That last sentence in the letter is of particular interest since it allows us to see a link between the power of Saruman's voice and Faërian Drama as a product of the power of Elvish minstrelsy. That, however, is an essay for another time. For today it will suffice to note the connections between γοητεία, σοφιστής, and Saruman, which make seeing Saruman as a translation of σοφιστής even more plausible. It draws Saruman even closer to those venal amoralists who used the power of their voices to make the morally worse argument defeat the morally better argument. 

08 August 2020

Σοφιστής and 'Saruman', or, Tolkien at play in the fields of philology

Every now and then I see a connection that has been staring me in the face for a long time, one of those connections that seems unbelievably obvious in retrospect. By a long time I mean well more than half of my life, since I have been reading Tolkien for nearly 50 years and Greek for more than 40. Recently I have been read Dennis Wilson Wise's perceptive article, 'Between Rage and Eloquence in Saruman and Thrasymachus', in The Journal of Tolkien Research 3 (2016), and currently I am reading Simon Critchley's book, Tragedy, the Greeks, and Us (2019).

Thrasymachus, to whom Wise compares Saruman, was a Sophist, one of those allegedly unscrupulous moral relativist teachers for hire who appeared across the Greek world in the Fifth Century B.C. and taught the art of persuasion. Wise argues that it is no accident that Thrasymachus and Saruman have so much in common. Rather, he argues, Tolkien constructed his portrait of Saruman with the Sophists in mind.

Last night I read the following in Critchley (94): 

The Greek word sophistes originally meant "skilled craftsman" or "wise man", but was used to describe travelling teachers who visited Athens from the mid-fifth century BCE and acquired a negative connotation in the comedies of Aristophanes, like The Clouds, and then in the writings of Plato and, later, Aristotle.

I knew all this, just as I knew that sophistes (σοφιστής) combines σοφία, 'skill', 'craft', 'wisdom', with the agent suffix -στής. I also knew that Saruman is formed in precisely the same way, combining saru, a Mercian dialectal form of Old English searu, 'skill' or 'craft' with the agent suffix -man. Not until I read Wise and Critchley in close proximity did I make the obvious connection. 

Saruman is not attested in extant Old English, but it is more than a significant name invented by Tolkien to suggest to those who know Old English that this particular wizard is cunning and crafty. It is a translation of σοφιστής into Old English, which subtly ties the portrayal of Saruman into the moral concerns of Greek philosophy and politics. 

It is always a pleasure to see Tolkien at play in the fields of philology.


I intend to spend more time researching this and writing it up. To my knowledge no one has observed this connection before me, but I only made the connection last night. I also know of at least one occasion where Tolkien considered the use of names based on Greek.