Does Gandalf Know About Atoms? Part 2 Corpuscular Wizards

So my previous post on this topic spun out some theories based on very little at all. I didn’t actually believe that Tolkien himself had any views on the issue. It was only afterwards, and with the addition of more coffee, that I realised the issue is right there in the text of The Fellowship of the Ring:

“For I am Saruman the Wise, Saruman Ring-maker, Saruman of Many Colours!’

I looked then and saw that his 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.

I liked white better,’ I said.

White!’ he sneered. ‘It serves as a beginning. White cloth may be dyed. The white page can be overwritten; and the white light can be broken.’

In which case it is no longer white,’ said I. ‘And he that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.’

White light can be broken is an overt reference to Isaac Newton’s theory of light and I’m confident that is a deliberate and intentional reference. A man of Tolkien’s background, nationality and intellectual interests would absolutely be aware of Newton’s famous experiments with light. Newton was a key figure in British historical propaganda of the qualities of the British and while Tolkien may have had some scepticism about that as an Oxford man is obliged to be sceptical about the achievements of Cambridge.

There are shades in Gandalf’s reply of John Keats’s remarks on Newton that he had ‘destroyed all the poetry of the rainbow, by reducing it to the prismatic colours.’

Prior to Newton, there were multiple theories of colour* but a classical theory ascribed to Aristotle was that colour was derived from balances of light and darkness. Gandalf (at this point) is famously grey but later comes back as Gandalf the White – and distinctly white, not white-is-actually-just-a-big-mix-of-colours.

I don’t want to over-egg the colour symbols of the wizards. We only learn of three (white, grey, brown) which more suggest Catholic monk robe colours than any grand symbolic scheme. However, this one scene does contrast Saruman and Gandalf as two different schemes for mixing underlying colours and Saruman is overtly a more MODERN one.

Newton’s theory was also expressly ATOMIC or rather “corpuscular”. The idea was that tiny light particles make up visible light and travel with different properties. When refracted the tiny particles follow different angles and hence can be separated out. The theory is also incorrect and could not explain properties of light such as diffraction and polarisation. Resolving these aspects of light would require quantum mechanical theories of light and the idea of wave-particle duality.

I don’t think it is unreasonable to see Saruman as a symbol of toxic modernism in his use of colour given all the other ways Tolkien uses Saruman as representing industrial ugliness. By extension, Gandalf stands for the opposite and in this case they also stand for two different conceptions of nature: Gandalf in the top-down abstract principles/essences/categories shape the kind of thing a person/object/thing is versus Saruman representing the corpuscular/atomic counterpoint that is the arrangement/combination of more basic non-descript building blocks that emerged as different things.

That gives me a different answer to the question of whether Gandalf knows about atoms: he does know about atoms and he is very much against them as an idea.

*[and there still are multiple theories because colour crosses physics and perception]

31 responses to “Does Gandalf Know About Atoms? Part 2 Corpuscular Wizards”

  1. Weird random thought: I wonder if Tolkien really actually felt that light, being the first creation of God, was a sacred substance, and therefore any and all experimentation with light was a form of sacrilege?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. So I searched “Tolkien” and “reductionism”, and found this:

    Philomythus to Misomythus aka Mythopoeia

    You look at trees and label them just so,
    (for trees are ‘trees’, and growing is ‘to grow’);
    you walk the earth and tread with solemn pace
    one of the many minor globes of Space:
    a star’s a star, some matter in a ball
    compelled to courses mathematical
    amid the regimented, cold, inane,
    where destined atoms are each moment slain.

    Hm, yes, Tolkien seems to have negative feelings for atoms.

    Oh, but also:

    The heart of Man is not compound of lies,
    but draws some wisdom from the only Wise,
    and still recalls him. Though now long estranged,
    Man is not wholly lost nor wholly changed.
    Dis-graced he may be, yet is not dethroned,
    and keeps the rags of lordship once he owned,
    his world-dominion by creative act:
    not his to worship the great Artefact,
    Man, Sub-creator, the refracted light
    through whom is splintered from a single White
    to many hues, and endlessly combined
    in living shapes that move from mind to mind.

    That . . . actually seems to be using refraction as a positive metaphor? I think?

    I will not walk with your progressive apes,
    erect and sapient.


    Liked by 1 person

  3. I thought of Gandalf’s quote about breaking things too when I read the last post. The first time I read LOTR that comment made me think of breaking atoms to create an ultimate weapon, something probably Gandalf (and Tolkien) would be against. I never really thought about it since then, but now I realize Tolkien couldn’t have meant that, since he couldn’t have known about nuclear weapons while he was writing the book.


  4. Tyop Patrol: Tolkien is misspelled in line 2.

    Believe me, I know how those things happen. And since I’m quoting the line in today’s roundup I fixed it in my draft so I wouldn’t have to hear about it in my comments.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. 1. You’re forgetting the Blue wizards.

    2. I’m going to argue this, a little bit. 🙂

    There has been a strong tendency in fantasy to view Tolkien as regressive, as against modernity, and that LOTR is a lament for innocent, bucolic, rural, pastoral societies over modern, industrial, scientific, etc. society. But this often seems to confuse Tolkien’s love for the little everyman of the hobbits in their shire and his writing with his pal C.S. Lewis, who did have quite a lot of that theme in his work. Lewis and Tolkien also argued for medieval and ancient classics to not be moved out of Oxford literature curriculum and had a significant influence on how that curriculum was taught at Oxford for many years, which I think rather contributes to the idea that Tolkien was a stuffy traditionalist scholar who, as you are postulating, disliked atoms and modern science.

    But that doesn’t really fit with the elaborate mythology that Tolkien built for his imaginary world, a mix of Christian theology, Norse myth and classic Greek. It’s a theory about Tolkien that is built around Gandalf being a cranky, old, hidebound human wizard. And this has always been a problem, when works like The Sword of Shanara and other epic fantasies that had any tall male wizard, especially an older one, in them were accused of just copying Gandalf, But they didn’t copy Gandalf. They copied instead the old notion of an elderly human mage from fairy tales — Merlin, which is not what Gandalf is, but instead it’s the costume he wears to go among humans and elves. That costume, fana, allows him and other Maiar to be killed (kind of) and be tempted from the angelic path, the path where their father god, Eru, has shown them much of what will happen in Arda, but not all of it, and sets them tasks.

    It’s very tempting to view Saruman, a prideful, jealous angel who tries to gain power and falls, as the emblem of Nazi industrial might and eugenics in the orc breeding, etc. To see him as an allegory for modernity and the dangers of science and the destruction to the Earth of war machines. To see him and Sauron as devils/prometheus who bring real knowledge to humans and thus harm them and make them rebellious. And thus also to see Gandalf as a cranky old human who symbolizes the old ways, and nature and agriculture (since he likes weed and ale) and keeping empires exactly as they are. But, while there was probably some WWII and WWI destruction admonishing in there, Saruman and Gandalf’s conflict wasn’t about the progress and knowledge of humans (and elves). It was about their jobs — protecting humans (and elves) from the interference of other, fallen Maiar so that humans could progress on their own.

    Saruman and Gandalf are angel spirits, disembodied, ageless, not old human men. They have powers, some knowledge, but they don’t know everything and they aren’t allowed to do certain things, to interfere except in select ways. That’s why Gandalf doesn’t just fly Frodo and Sam to Mordor on a giant eagle — he isn’t allowed to by the god Eru. That would corrupt and destroy things from their path. (Free will.) Sauron and then Saruman out of pride and jealousy try to take away humans’ free will and ability to progress without interference. So Gandalf and the other Maiar wizards are trying to counter that interference, but not simply replace it with their own (which is why Gandalf doesn’t want to lead the White Council.) Because that would just corrupt and destroy humans’ free will. (And is why they move Aman out of Arda so that it is no longer a temptation that would interfere with humans and the elves who remain in Arda.)

    Gandalf can stand against the Balrog because the Balrog is a fallen Maiar (angel) who is interfering with the Fellowship. In doing so, he loses his human body costume and his spirit is loose. His father, the god Eru, can interfere and does because Gandalf has proven that he’s wisely following his role as Istari on Arda, and he’s needed against Saruman’s interference. So Eru reincarnates Gandalf into a new though similar form, the White, the leader who represents Eru’s purity of purpose against the interference and corruption of Sauron.

    So yes, prisms obviously come into play in talking about the robes’ qualities of light. But they aren’t talking about the dangers of modern scientific investigation versus the purity of unexamined ignorance. Gandalf is instead warning Saruman about the danger of turning away from the duties given to them by Eru, of rationalizing breaking the rules of the Istari and being corrupted by interfering and destroying as a ruler and manipulator, rather than acting as observer and aid. The white color also symbolizes the humans, whom Saruman would confuse and break apart, dividing them and turning them away from the path they would walk under free will.

    All of LOTR is centered around whether to give in to corruption, confusion, fear or choose to progress forward — jealousy (Saruman,) despair (Aragorn,) wrath (Sauron,) vanity (the test of Galadriel,) sloth (Merry and Pippin,) etc. The main characters of LOTR learn to know themselves and choose to follow that over what limits them, even if they might fail, which Tolkien proposes as the true heroism, without being led and forced to it by powerful beings. Gandalf’s job is to get rid of Sauron’s ability to interfere with that progress and choice, but not simply by ordering the humans around. When the job is done, he leaves for Aman, leaving the humans to whatever progress they choose. (Yes, Aragorn is still a king, but that’s the choice of his people which he then chooses to accept, to face his fears. Gandalf, as Istari, cannot make Aragorn be a king or prevent him from being one.)

    So while Tolkien was very much a lover of the English countryside and there is a fair amount of environmentalism in the main book, he was not making an anti-science, anti-modernity stance in LOTR. He was making a religious/philosophical position, one that was less Old Testament, about humans in relation to their world. For Tolkien, humans are very much the children of god, etc., who can choose, rather than sinners who must be controlled and instructed.

    In that aspect, again, atoms make up the land and the humans and the universe, so Tolkien shows no sign of being against them. He instead seems to see all of it as the creation of his god, who is a god at a distance sort of approach, a creation to be valued by humans but not taken for granted and hopefully not used by them for oppression.

    “I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.
    “So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

    Liked by 3 people

    • I would make a distinction between anti-science/anti-progress and anti-industrial-oppression. For Saruman, science would only be a means to an end; it’s unclear if he has even done any inventing, or if he’s just encouraged the use of existing knowledge in an aggressive way, but in any case he’s not trying to create an industrial civilization because he likes it, or to achieve some new modern way of life, or any other long-term goal. He’s 1. trying to create a large army in a short time, and 2. after that’s failed, trying to damage the Shire as much as he can. His method of damaging the Shire makes sense since he’s starting out with no resources and no magic other than an ability to influence humans with his voice. Humans are already nearby, they already know how to build things and how to cut down trees, they like making money, they don’t have a lot of respect for hobbits— Saruman’s contribution seems to have been mostly to find some unscrupulous people and increase their level of petty ambition.

      Treebeard says Saruman has “a mind of metal and wheels”, but metal and wheels were familiar things already; they’re just inappropriate in a context where you should have alive and flexible things instead, and that’s also an image that suggests blind inexorable force that can only do one thing.

      Liked by 2 people

      • It’s quite a Catholic attitude in some ways. Much as sex is fine if you’re doing it for the right reasons (having babies) and a sin if you’re doing it for your own selfish desires, so science is fine if you’re doing it for the right reasons – namely revealing the glories of God’s creation (all the better to be able to say ‘wow, God is really cool’). You should not be doing science out of base curiosity, or a desire for vainglorious self-promotion, conquest, or other earthly reward.

        Saruman is sometimes thought of as representing the sin of pride – he used the Palantir because he thought he could match his will with Sauron. But his later actions come through a loss of faith. After seeing the power of Sauron he no longer believes that the strength of Men can stand against it, that courage or skill or fortitude will be enough, and so he tries to artificially prop those things up. But of course artifice will never substitute for the real thing. The contrast with Sam, who never loses faith throughout is notable.

        Hmm, that went a long way from where it started.

        Liked by 7 people

        • He loses his faith, I think is part of it. But the big thing with Saruman is that he’s jealous. He’s jealous of Sauron and he’s super jealous of Gandalf. He’s very jealous that the smith gives that ring of power to Gandalf. He tries to make his own One Ring, etc. Just a super insecure angel spirit all the way around. And petty, which is when he’s robbed of his power, he goes and tries to scam the hobbits who thwarted his plans.

          Gandalf recognizes that — that Saruman is jealous and greedy for power. So that conversation about colors and light seems to be Gandalf warning Saruman. Gandalf did not want to come to Middle Earth to look for Sauron. He did not want to be head of the White Council. He did not want to rule over the world of humans. Whereas Saruman thought he could follow Sauron’s path and make an alliance with him but do it all better. But he mostly seems to have wanted that because Dad god and everybody else liked Gandalf better.


  6. I wish I knew away to call this – both the essay and the thoughtful responses to it – to the attention of Stephen Colbert. His geeking on LotR seems very much of this same ilk.


    • Oh we’re barely touching it. There is a looottt of philosophical scholarship and discussion about LOTR out there. People get entire degrees studying his work. I had only a hazy memory of much of the theology structure of LOTR. I did have to look some things up to remember how he set everything up.

      And that’s a large part of the reason why a lot of people who have read The Hobbit and/or LOTR and/or seen the movies see Gandalf as simply an equivalent of Merlin — a cranky, old wizard who is human or fey/elvish and part of a council of wizards involved in the realm’s politics, not a council of angels who have strict orders. And they wonder then, why doesn’t Gandalf just do X or Y, on that basis. While some of the why is explained in LOTR, a lot of it is in the Silmarillion and other materials that Tolkien wrote. He created a massive universe with languages, thousands of years of history, etc., over thirty-five or more years, with the Silmarillion being the equivalent of its Bible. LOTR was really just one tale out of the entire concept.


      • I’ve been to a couple of the BayMoot events, which are not 100% Tolkien-focused but that’s definitely the main thing, and that was a real eye-opener— made me aware that 1. as you said, people have put a huge amount of thought into this, and 2. I am not very well-read at all.


  7. There is a very nice essay in Tolkien Studies on JRR’s use of an essentially mediaeval view of light in LOTR (e.g. eyesight as extra missionary!) and suggests that the above exchange w Saruman incorporated a further meaning that drew on an Aristotelian theory of rainbows as reflections of broken light in a concave mirror, which, of course, magnifies and distorts: Visibílium Ómnium et Invisibílium: Looking Out, On, and In Tolkien’s World by Michael A. Wodzak and Victoria Holtz Wodzak, Tolkien Studies 2014, vol. 11.

    Liked by 3 people

    • I have access to this paper, and it reminded me of a salient point: The sun and the moon are the fruit and flower of the Two Trees of Valinor. And Ungoliant came and sucked(?) the light from the trees and excreted some sort of palpable Darkness. Besides the sun and moon, the only light left from the Trees is in the Silmarils.

      That, and other points raised in the paper, suggest that light, in the Tolkienverse, is not just photons.

      Something that’s been bothering me is the specific wording of: “to find out what it is”. Saruman, as depicted in The Lord of the Rings, doesn’t strike me as having any genuine ontological or scientific curiosity at all. If he breaks something, it’s either out of malice or spite, or to make something to give himself more power. If he broke light, it would be in the service of making a light-based (or Darkness-based) weapon.

      So that’s another way in which the line feels awkward and inappropriate as something that Gandalf addresses to Saruman. But maybe it’s a brief moment of Tolkien addressing those who would analyze his works.

      Liked by 2 people

  8. James Clarke Maxwell’s theory of light as an electromagnetic wave had supplanted Newton’s ideas by the late 1800s. The theory explains phenomena such as refraction, diffraction and polarisation. I don’t believe quantum mechanics is needed to explain any of this. Maxwell also did much research on the nature of colour and colour perception.

    Liked by 1 person

      • I thought our genial host was simply pointing out that to resolve the corpuscular and wave-like aspects of light, you need quantum theory. So, for ex, Maxwell’s theory can’t explain the photoelectric effect, whereby light causes electrons to be emitted from certain metals, which Einstein accounted for using Planck’s radical new quantum hypothesis, thereby helping to kick off the whole ‘quantum revolution’ (and for which he, Al, won the Nobel Prize).

        Every now and then, I dig around a little to try and find out how much JRR knew about modern physics – certainly some of the other Inklings did and it’s hard to imagine that it wouldn’t have come up in their discussions down the pub!


          • Agreed – I didn’t mean to shut the conversation down with my inelegant tone. Tolkien was at liberty to base his world-view on whatever physics he saw fit. ()I actually wrote a novel once based on Aristotelian physics.)


  9. “The theory is also incorrect and could not explain properties of light such as diffraction and polarisation. Resolving these aspects of light would require quantum mechanical theories of light and the idea of wave-particle duality.”

    Well THAT’S not true. Maxwell’s entirely classical Equations provide a perfectly adequate account of diffraction, interference and polarization. Quantum theory provides a somewhat different explanation but it is by no means the only one.

    Liked by 1 person

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