Abraham Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln Vampire Slayer, American Civil War, Daniel Day Lewis, early photography, Edward Everett, Gettysburg, Gettysburg Address, National Cemetery, Saruman, Smaug, spell-casting, Steven Spielberg Lincoln, The Battle Cry of Peace, The Blue and the Gray, The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, The Voice of Saruman, Tolkien, voices
Welcome, dear readers, as always.
Recently, it has been thought that a new picture of Abraham Lincoln
at Gettysburg, on November 19, 1863 has been discovered. Lincoln had been invited as one of the speakers for the dedication of a new National Cemetery to honor the Union dead from the battle fought at Gettysburg on 1-3 July, 1863.
The main speaker, and the one everyone was waiting for, was the famous orator, Edward Everett,
whose speech is now totally forgotten (here’s a link to it—it’s worth reading as a specimen of mid-19th-century American oratory—something Everett was famous for), but, to say that Lincoln’s speech has survived is, for Americans—and for anyone who loves good rhetoric, for that matter–an understatement.
Up until recently, there was one definite photograph of Lincoln on the occasion.
(There is a second picture, supposedly of Lincoln on horseback, but it’s been pointed out that the figure appears to be wearing epaulettes,
And, if so, is therefore more likely to be one of the military dignitaries at the ceremony.)
This new photo, which seems pretty convincing to us, now gives us two illustrations of one of the most famous moments of Lincoln’s presidency.
There are a number of films about Lincoln, at least since the 1915 The Battle Cry of Peace, with Lincoln portrayed by numerous American actors, some of them famous, such as Gregory Peck, from the television series The Blue and the Gray (1982)
with the most recent being two films from 2012, the improbable Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter
and Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln
starring Daniel Day Lewis.
Lewis, an actor famous for his strenuous preparations for every role he’s ever played, was sometimes criticized in reviews for his light voice, the impression being that such a deep, thoughtful man should have had a voice to match. In fact, contemporary accounts of Lincoln tell us that his voice was higher—a tenor rather than a baritone—and that his accent was a rural one, mirroring his boyhood years on the Indiana/Kentucky border (his sometimes somewhat phonetic spelling helps here to reconstruct this).
Thus, though his self-presentation—especially his voice–might have seemed to some (especially those who hated him—one of his main generals even referring to him as “the original gorilla”) less than impressive, his words, at least in written form, have endured.
This made us think of the opposite, from JRRT, characters whose words might not matter much, but the way in which they were delivered was persuasive—or almost.
We began with Smaug.
As we said in our last, Smaug’s voice has a danger for Bilbo in it:
“Whenever Smaug’s roving eye, seeking for him in the shadows, flashed across him, he trembled, and an unaccountable desire seized hold of him to rush out and reveal himself and tell all the truth to Smaug. In fact he was in grievous danger of coming under the dragon-spell.” (The Hobbit, Chapter 12, “Inside Information”)
This dragon-spell has a persuasive power to it. It’s never explained, but it seems to embody the idea that the tone can bring out the worst in someone:
“Now a nasty suspicion began to grow in his mind—had the dwarves forgotten this important point too, or were they laughing in their sleeves at him all the time? That is the effect that dragon-talk has on the inexperienced. Bilbo of course ought to have been on his guard; but Smaug had rather an overwhelming personality.”
Perhaps this is what gives the “dragon-spell” its power: that it somehow embodies the personality of the spell-caster. As Smaug is evil and corrupt and suspicious, so his spell can cause others to have corrupt and suspicious thoughts, as Bilbo does.
We see this same effect on the inexperienced when Gandalf, the companions, and Theoden visit the defeated Saruman at Orthanc
in the chapter named, appropriately, “The Voice of Saruman”:
“Suddenly another voice spoke, low and melodious, its very sound an enchantment. Those who listened unwarily to that voice could seldom report the words that they heard; and if they did, they wondered, for little power remained in them. Mostly they remembered only that it was a delight to hear the voice speaking, all that it said seemed wise and reasonable, and desire awoke in them by swift agreement to seem wise themselves. When others spoke they seemed harsh and uncouth by contrast; and if they gainsaid the voice, anger was kindled in the hearts of those under the spell.” (The Two Towers, Book Three, Chapter 10, “The Voice of Saruman”)
When Gandalf first meets Saruman in Orthanc, Saruman’s “robes, which had seemed white, were not so, but were woven of all colours, and if he moved they shimmered and changed hue so that the eye was bewildered.” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book Two, Chapter 2, “The Council of Elrond”)
It may be, then, that the power of Saruman’s voice is in the same shimmer—he appears to be not just one, but many and therefore both momentarily persuasive, as well as ultimately insubstantial, since “those who listened unwarily to that voice could seldom report the words that they heard”. It’s clear, however, that, like the voice of Smaug, the spell within the voice was, potentially, horribly persuasive:
“For some the spell lasted only while the voice spoke to them, and when it spoke to another they smiled, as men do who see through a juggler’s trick while others gape at it. For many the sound of the voice alone was enough to hold them enthralled; but for those whom it conquered the spell endured when they were far away, and ever they heard that soft voice whispering and urging them.”
“..none were unmoved; none rejected its pleas and its commands without an effort of mind and will, so long as its master had control of it.”
There are those of the party on this visit to Orthanc who are not taken in at all. Gimli appears to be unaffected, saying, “The words of this wizard stand on their heads”, and Eomer calls Saruman “an old liar with honey on his forked tongue”. Theoden even breaks the spell, although he is said to speak “thickly and with effort.” At such resistance, Saruman shows both a degree of control and a losing of it, cajoling and calling names alternately, until “Gandalf laughed.” And “The fantasy vanished like a puff of smoke.”
Knowing Saruman’s eventual end, murdered by another whose tongue was persuasive enough to keep Theoden a prisoner once upon a time,
can we see the beginning of that end here? Once the “fantasy” created by Saruman’s voice is broken by Gandalf’s gentle mockery, what is left for him after his grand plans to be (at least) Sauron’s ally but “some mischief still in a small mean way”? (The Return of the King, Book Six, Chapter 6, “Many Partings”)
And, at the end of that mischief, Grima only escapes Saruman and his voice through murder—and his own quick death, following.
Gandalf’s laughter suggests that the source of escape from Saruman’s voice may be detachment: if one can step away from the sound, that sound loses its (literal) charm. It may take effort—as it does for Theoden—but, once away, whatever magic was in the voice vanishes into the smoke it really was. As well, obvious resistance seems always to shake Saruman’s control and that flattering tongue, which can say, on the one hand,
“Theoden Lord of the Mark of Rohan..declared by your noble devices, and still more by the fair countenance of the House of Eorl. O worthy son of Thengel the Thrice-renowned!”
But, when thwarted, can cry:
“Dotard! What is the house of Eorl but a thatched barn where brigands drink in the reek, and their brats roll on the floor among the dogs?” (The Two Towers, Book Three, Chapter 10, “The Voice of Saruman”)
It is striking that, in neither case, are his words to be trusted, any more than his voice—and here we can return to Abraham Lincoln, whose voice may not have impressed, but whose words continue to be remembered.
Thanks, as always, for reading.