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. 

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