The stage is set and Saruman stands at a balconied rail above the heads of his foes ready to address them, appearing as “a kindly heart aggrieved by injuries undeserved.” And so he begins to weave his magic over those who stand beneath him until Gandalf laughs and “The fantasy vanished like a puff of smoke.”
“Saruman, Saruman!” said Gandalf still laughing. “Saruman, you missed your path in life. You should have been the king’s jester and earned your bread, and stripes too, by mimicking his counsellors.”
Those who know the story well will remember that much happened between the moment that Saruman first appears upon the balcony, wreathed in shadow and ever changing colour and the moment when Gandalf laughs at him and the spell is finally broken. They will remember that Saruman tried to persuade first Théoden and then Gandalf to ally with him and how the company who had ridden to Isengard with their king were convinced that either one or the other would submit to Saruman’s persuasive powers so reasonable did his words appear to be. Even his words of contempt for Rohan seemed to them to be deserved and we shall return to that in a later blog, but at the end all is revealed as Tolkien shows us as “Fantasy”.
Those who have seen Der Untergang (Downfall) the remarkable film about the last days of Hitler will know the power of fantasy. As the Soviet forces enter Berlin Hitler still gives orders to armies that no longer exist and his anger against his staff who cannot carry out his orders still has power to frighten them. And they are right to be frightened because the SS still carry out orders of execution against those who know that resistance is futile and refuse to fight on. Hitler believes his own fantasy until the very end and still has the power to persuade others to join him in his belief. We might even argue that he had that power from the very beginning, that the Nazi enterprise was always a fantasy.
Gandalf’s laughter demonstrates the most powerful weapon that exists against such fantasies. When that which we fear or admire is displayed to us for our ridicule then it no longer has the same power over us. Hans Christian Anderson’s tale, “The Emperor’s New Clothes” is one tale that demonstrates the power of laughter over fantasy, J.K Rowling’s Ridikulus Charm demonstrated by Remus Lupin in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkhaban is another. In the first tale the crowd believe the myth of the magical new clothes until a boy cries out that the Emperor is, in fact, naked; in the second the members of Harry Potter’s class are taught how to laugh at their own fears embodied in certain people or creatures and so dispel their power. We do not need to be able to do magic to learn how to do the same with the embodiments of our own fears.
Sadly Der Untergang shows us that fantasy, however far-fetched, has the power to do great harm. In The Lord of the Rings, as we shall see, Saruman still retains some power to do harm himself. Our laughter cannot protect us from all that fantasy can do to us but it can give us great strength to resist that power. Gandalf shows to all that Saruman’s power is broken and when we do see him again it is at the head of a band of cut-throats and thieves. That is for another day. On this day, if I may presume to mix our tales, we learn, with Gandalf and Remus Lupin, to stand against those who make us afraid with our laughter and our cry of Ridikulus!