Say What: The applied power of speech and the symbolism of words

  I have been a lifelong devoted student of the semiotics of language, or words as symbols and of the power of those symbols for transformation, deception, manipulation and aesthetic enhancement both positive and negative. We as humans express ourselves with speech yet it is the expression of what we wish to project outward and not always the truest expression of who and what we really are.  I have often said that most people are servants of speech and some people, great leaders (good and bad) are the masters of speech. I am reminded of the Book the Lord of the Rings and of Saruman. Saruman is the chief Istari (who were intended to represent Angels and in the case of The Chief of the Istari a fallen angel) who uses speech to manipulate those around him. His name is even connected to speech. Sarrow is the old English word for Cunning thus Saruman is literally a Sarrow Man or a cunning man. Considered the similarities between the Old English Cunning and the Gaelic Keening which is a vocal lament associated occasionally with the supernatural, as in the keening of the Banshee. Both are vocal manifestations of emotive power.

   When Saruman is first introduced he is called Saruman the White but he declares himself to be Saruman the many colored because his robes, the atypical sign of the wizard, monk or holy man are woven from all colors and “shimmered and changed hue so that the eye was bewildered”. His attire mirrored his ability to use speech to manipulate those around him or to bewilder them (it is worth note that bewilder means to become “wilder” or to become lost in the wilderness). The power of Sarumans speech and indeed all speech of those who use it to manipulate others is that it creates bewilderment; that it casts the victim out into the wilderness metaphorically speaking. How many real life figures does this remind us of from evil Adolf Hitler to the most well intentioned modern politician?

   Fairy Tales and their descendent’s Children’s literature make wonderful use of the power inherent is speech especially when we consider the symbolic nature of words. Incantations are uttered, spells are spoken, names once said can imprison or empower. Red Riding Hood must vocalize her doom when she speaks, naming off the terrors of the hungry wolf, “My what big teeth you have”! For Red Riding Hood speech is directly connected to the symbolism of her impending demise. Max, the hero of Where the Wild things are begins his journey by speaking “I’ll eat you up” a statement that is filled with symbolism both obvious and subtle. It is a literal threat as Max is in the guise of a wolf. Masks are symbolic of the things they depict so Max has made himself the symbol of the wolf and through that symbol has very nearly lost his own identity. By declaring that he will eat his mother up Max links the power of speech with the lure of appetite which is another symbol for the wolf. For this misuse of speech Max is banished to his bedroom where it is assumed he has no one to speak to and no one against whom his words can be used. Symbolism is only effective when someone is there to see the symbol. It is the same thing with speech. Silent time is after all reflective time and reflection does reveal what lies beneath the mask. His dream journey into the place where the wild things are (he has bewildered himself) is the reflective journey of the hero being unmasked. Saruman likewise is sent to his room for silent time when he is imprisoned within the cold walls of his tower. Only in his case, unlike Max he has been to fully seduce by his own symbolism. He continues to speak to himself. Because he achieved a duality between his original purpose as Saruman the White and the assumed mantle of Saruman the Many Colored what should have been silent time with no one to listen becomes an opportunity to use words to further seduce himself, away from himself. In the end Saruman’s most dangerous and seductive words were those which he used against his own better interests! The same is often true for each of us. Before we can really seduce others through our speech we must first seduce ourselves. For Saruman the end to his magic words were the spoiled shire where he was overthrown by the most simple of folks, the Hobbits. For Hitler his magic words led him to an underground Bunker beneath the ruins of a devastated city and a lonely death. For Max, who was given the opportunity to find reflective time and who took that opportunity before he was fully seduced the end to his magic words brought him to his bedroom and to the place where his dinner was waiting for him, still hot.

   What does this tell us? Words have power…Speech is the application of that power… According to the ancient Sufis the gates to both the higher and lower realms can be accessed through our words. Among Early Christians and Jews the word of god contained all the power of the god who spoke the world into being and whose breath brought forth animation into lifeless man. The serpent in the garden seduced Eve by making a convincing argument with his choice of words and the balance of those words against the restrictions placed upon Eve. He made the incompatibility of her actions with her responsibility to her creator appear to be resolved. In other words he talked in circles, the most ancient of rhetorical tricks. Islam holds that the holy Quran must be recited and the gospel of the Christians was accordingly known as the good story, or more accurately the good spell before it was widely available because it was told to the people long before the people could read it. They would gather around in a circle and listen to the spoken word, a concept that survives to this day when “sit for a spell” to listen to a good storyteller or when we are asked to gather around then we know that we will be entering a space where words will given primacy of place.

   I am a parent now and my son watches everything I do but perhaps more importantly he listens to what I say. In time he will develop the vocabulary to comprehend my words and in so doing will become an initiate into the magic circle of speech. I (as well as those around him) will cease to be simple parents and must take on a new role, that of the master adept. What words we utilize to convey our meaning, our hopes and dreams, our fears and anxieties will enter into my son and take root. What will emerge from his mouth in the future will be the flower of the seeds planted today. Will I teach him, will we teach all of our children to play with profanity (that which is outside the temple), deception, Rhetoric (which is only the method of vocal manipulation) or will we initiate our children into the spoken word as power and teach them that like any power its right use must come with a greater measure of responsibility. There is an old moral story that is worth repeating…

Well chosen words must pass through three gates before entering the world.


At the first gate we must post a guard whose job it is to ask of the words “Are you needed” If not then they are not allowed to pass.


At the second gate is a guard who must ask “Are you true” If not then they are not allowed to pass.


At the third gate is a guard who asks “Do you seek to do harm” If so then the words must go back for no word that is not needed, nor a word that is untrue nor one that does harm belongs in the world.





   Of course I being a storyteller this incompatibility between truth of words and the power of not quite true words to create positive transformations is not lost. It is easy to say that no word that does harm is good or that a word that is not needed does not belong but in a world where we are transformed by the imagination how can untrue words be bad? What of words that are not in and of themselves true but that have a positive effect? Should these be discarded? The answer is complicated and I make no claim to the accuracy of my opinion on the matter but I use this as my guide.  Truth is often subjective. We can be truthful by being un-true in our words if the ultimate goal is to not to speak to the intellect but to the imagination. Politicians, our modern word smiths all too often forget this subtle nuance, and in some frightening cases they actually plan on our not realizing it. When we speak to the intellect we must be as honest as it possible to be because the intellect is the house of action. It is through the intellect that we change the world and that change can be good or bad based on how we manipulate the information we take in or on how that information is manipulated before we receive it. This is not to say that imagination does not affect the world but in order for it to do so it must first become intellectual. When we speak to the imagination our goal is not to create an action within the physical world but to create a space where the listener can engage with the words and through them with his or her self with the aim of transforming the base self into what the self can be if fully realized. That is always truth, even if the words used are not totally accurate in and of themselves. And this is why the responsibility is so high. The politician who uses words to make a change in the world works only on the surface but the cunning man or cunning woman who uses words to transform a person at an imaginative level is hands deep in the viscera of the machinery that makes the world go round. In the end it comes down to the power of words, the power of the symbolism behind the words and the power that comes from defining that symbolism. Fairy tales, Children’s literature, Religious texts, even real world examples all provide lessons in how to properly use words, how to employ speech in a positive way and the negative repercussions for the wrong word, the poorly chosen word or the deliberately manipulated word.

   Fictions, stories, fairy tales and fantasies, these are all lies, but they are lies that can be put to good use. They can benefit us in countless ways. Because they are not facts we can interact with them in deeply personal ways; see the world in different shades than what we are familiar with; understand other points of view from our own and give flight to our creative imagination. Creativity and word power, when employed together will surely benefit. Negativity and word power will lead to destruction and ruin, to Sarumans tower and to Max’s Wild Island with no boat to return us to our safe and loving homes, to bunkers beneath ruined, war torn cities and to the place where the contradictions between what we know to be true and right and what we are told, and in some cases tell ourselves is true and right intersect

This entry was posted in Philosophy and Childrens Literature, Sacred Space, Spirituality. Bookmark the permalink.

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