“You’ll have to shout louder, for surely he is a god! Perhaps he is daydreaming, or is relieving himself. Or maybe he is away on a trip, or is asleep and needs to be wakened!” [Elijah, to the prophets of Baal and Asherah]
I’m not a trash talker, but I am a huge fan of it if done right. I respect it. I admire it. While it can be done out of arrogance and demeaning in intention, I think there is a place for it in human interaction if the trash talker has the right temperament and intelligence and if the trashee deserves it. The above quote comes from the Bible, in case I’m not convincing you yet1. And it’s not just Elijah that rips into foolish people. I’m no Paul expert, but those that are say he communicates in his letters with sarcasm to those who were wrong on matters of doctrine or just being tom-fools 2. And even God himself shows that he is not above it, asking Job if he knows all about the deep aspects of creation like darkness and light and punctuates it with “Surely you know, for you were already born! You’ve lived so many years!”3 Trash talk is a fine art and a special form of communication for unique circumstances.
So I certainly appreciate those who are good at it. Larry Bird may have been the best at it in the sports world. My dad, while a righteous and humble man, showed me and others a time or two he could lay some smack, telling me that if I ever committed certain crimes that he’d bury me “under the jailhouse” and during theological debate would come up with a counterpoint so searing the unofficial judges in my family would laugh and clap and let me know the argument was over.
In the world of fiction, Sherlock Holmes has long been my favorite trash talker4 (Benedict Cumberbatch being the best non-book version of him), showing acerbic wit in his cutting remarks to those less intelligent than he. And even those who are only loosely based on Sherlock, like Gregory House and Patrick Jane, show semblance to him not merely for their skills in observation and being the smartest guy in the room, but also for their ability communicate their superiority through trash talk.
But there is one who rises above them all. Gandalf the Grey–and later, Gandalf the White–was the king of (as the kids say these days) throwing shade. There are countless reasons why I enjoy Tolkien’s Lord of The Rings, but as I was looking back over my notes of my first two readings I was amazed at how often I was impacted by Gandalf’s ability to put words together to put somebody in their place. These five rise to the top. Please note these quotes are from the books and will be cited as such5.
1. “It will be my turn to get angry soon. If you say that again, I shall. Then you will see Gandalf the Grey uncloaked.” (Fellowship Of The Ring, 36)
Spoken to Bilbo very early on, we discover not only how the ring affects those whom it touches, but also that Gandalf is not someone to trifle with. I am pretty sure the second time I read this, after I’d experienced the entire trilogy and knew better the full extent of Gandalf’s power, that a little bit of pee came out.
2. “Knock your head against these doors, Peregrin Took! And if that does not shatter them, and I am allowed a little peace from foolish questions, I will try to find the opening words.” (FOTR, 343)
I imagine we all can relate to being frustrated by a puzzle or a set of instructions, as with Gandalf here mistranslating “speak” for “say,” and how unhelpful other people’s comments can be in that moment. But few of us can relate to shutting another person up quite like Gandalf did here with Pippin.
3. “Fool of a Took! This is a serious journey, not a hobbit walking-party. Throw yourself in next time, and then you will be of no further nuisance. Now be quiet!” (FOTR, 352)
Pippin gets it again here, after dropping a stone down a well out of curiosity. The hobbits got it more than anyone else it seemed and this made me stand in awe of Gandalf even more, since I resonate with the hobbits the most when I read6.
4. “The wise only speak of what they know, Grima son of Gálmód. A witless worm you have become. Therefore be silent and keep your forked tongue behind your teeth. I did not pass through fire and death to bandy crooked words with a self-serving man.” (The Two Towers, 126)
More than the hobbits, Wormtongue needed to be trashed in the worst possible way. Unlike the other quotes, this one has effects in the narrative that make the quote even more powerful. Gandalf raises his staff, thunder rolls, everything goes dark and Gandalf stands above all, reminding me of the Transfiguration.
5. “These we will take! These we will take in memory of our friend. But as for your terms, we reject them utterly. Get you gone, for your embassy is over and death is near you. We did not come here to waste words in treating with Sauron, faithless and accursed; still less with one of his slaves. Begone!’ (Return Of The King, 174)
And few deserved the brunt of Gandalf’s trash-talking wrath more than the Messenger (The Mouth of Sauron) in ROTK. The first time I read this, I stood up and clapped. The second time I read, I stood up and clapped. That is fantastic writing, when the effect is not diminished in repeated readings. If I were going to war, I would want Gandalf more than anyone else in fantasy, even Dumbledore or Yoda. Not only would I feel nearly invincible, but I’d get to listen to a true Lion personality do what he does best.
Pippin once commented on Gandalf: “There is much to read in that book, and I cannot claim to have seen more than a page or two.” I kind of feel that way about him. He is a lot to take in, even after multiple readings. But there can be no doubt that he is like Larry Bird, my dad and Sherlock in that in those rare moments when someone needs a good verbal beatdown, cultural parameters of humility do not suit him. Better than anyone, man or wizard, he could lay down an assault of insults. He truly is the master of trash talk, this most entertaining form of human communication.
(Image © New Line Cinema)
- 1 Kings 18:27 ↩
- See 2 Cor. 12:13 and Galatians 5:12 for two possible examples. ↩
- Job 38:21 ↩
- Honorable mention: Jerry the Rooster in the Seinfeld cockfighting episode ↩
- The movies are excellent and I do not deny that at times they make quotes even better. Two examples are “YOU SHALL NOT PASS!” instead of “You cannot pass” to the Balrog and how Frodo tells Sam in the movie “I’m going to Mt. Doom. Alone.”And Sam replies “Of course you are. And I’m going with you!” (by adding “Alone” to Frodo’s quote, which isn’t in the book, it makes the exchange funnier.) But I will always be a book guy, especially with dialogue. Movies can add positive cinematic elements for sure, but nothing beats a good author’s words. ↩
- This is why I like Aragorn more than Gandalf, since he was so congenial with the hobbits, and was used greatly by Tolkien to help achieve the “humble will be exalted” effect in making the hobbits the heroes. But I fear Gandalf the most by far. ↩