As I mentioned in my post last week, I had the opportunity to listen to the excellent audio books of The Lord of the Rings narrated by Robert Ingliss. It was wonderful to get to live in this world that I had neglected over the years, and I loved every minute of it. I had the chance to revisit the Shire, and Pelennor fields, and really appreciate hobbits again. However, as I listened to the series I started to become fascinated with a character that I had previously taken for granted, Saruman the White.
Before we go any further, I feel that it is only right that I discuss my young and misguided understand of Saruman as a child. I first read the books for myself when I was in the third or fourth grade, and a particular scene affected my understanding of the character. You see, early into the Fellowship of the Ring in the Tower of Orthanc, as he menaces his long-time friend Gandalf the Grey, Saruman announces that he has grown tired of being “Saruman the White.” From here on out Saruman plans to wield more considerable power, and proudly declares himself “Saruman of many colors!”
To be perfectly frank, my childhood mind probably imagined something like this:
I’m not proud of it, but for a long time I associated Saruman with this scene and thought that he was almost a bit silly. In fact a couple of my friends had an intricate movement, which I believed involved jazz hands, to accompany the phrase, “Saruman of many colors!” I apologize to the late John Ronald Reuel Tolkien for all of the turning over in your grave this likely brought about. I am also sorry for the Hobbit trilogy, although I had nothing to do with that. Regardless of my youthful misunderstanding of this character, I began to appreciate him differently while listening to the audiobooks.
As a character Saruman is profoundly interesting, despite the fact that he is left playing second-fiddle to Sauron as the series’ villain. Appointed as the chief of the five wizards, Saruman and distinguishes himself for his incredible wisdom and power. He was respected by all, even the Ents, and was made the head of the White Council despite the fact that Galadriel preferred Gandalf. For a time this is enough for Saruman, but over the ages he begins to thirst for more and more knowledge. His pride and lust for greater power and influence eventually become his un-doing. Saruman betrays the White Council and becomes a servant of the Dark Lord Sauron, hoping to share in the power and glory of Sauron’s conquest of Middle-Earth.
Of course Saruman is defeated in his attempts to take the One Ring to make himself master of Middle Earth, and his defeat is poetic. His rampant disregard for the earth and for nature finally backfires on Saruman, and the Ents, the tree herders, are roused to strike out against him. They trap him in Orthanc, making his fortress into an impregnable prison. He has objects of great power within the tower, and can do nothing with them. For all of his knowledge of the earthly and worldly issues, Saruman had forgotten about the deep and ancient parts of the world he had studied so long. His fall from grace represents a familiar pattern in Tolkien’s villains, and it is this that fascinated me about the character.
Christian values pervade Tolkien’s work, although it is never explicitly religious. Tolkien was famously religious, and some of his contemporaries noted that he had an, “almost medieval,” tendency to confess his sins to a priest on a regular basis. Perhaps for this reason, corruption by some overpowering and seductive evil is the downfall of almost one of his villains. Overcome by a desire for power, these characters give themselves over to darker impulses and abandon what they know is right. This can be seen in at least half a dozen characters including Boromir, Denethor, Smeagol, Wormtongue, Otho Sacksville Baggins, and ultimately almost Frodo. Even Sauron himself is an example of this, a divine creature who fell from grace so that he could seize power over the temporal world. Saruman is, to me, the most fascinating example of this in Tolkien’s work.
Saruman ultimately follows the same trajectory as Lucifer in Milton’s Paradise Lost. He attempts desperately to ascend beyond his station and therefore becomes corrupted by his more basic instincts. In an interesting twist, he wishes to obtain the Ring of Power so that he can ascend beyond even Saruon’s might. Whereas Lucifer attempted to overpower God so that he could rule over heaven, Saruman is essentially attempting to wrest control of Hell from the Devil.
Despite all of his wrongdoing Saruman is, in a strange way, oddly admirable. We get the sense that Saruman has grown frustrated and bored with the pursuit of knowledge for knowledge’s sake. He wishes to have greater power and knowledge to satisfy some deep and burning ambition. He is frequently identified as a great Lore Master who has a deep knowledge of books, history, and magic, yet he seems to desire some kind of temporal power as well. In this we he resembles Goethe’s Faust, (Killing it with the pretentious references today) who achieves great wisdom and makes a deal with the devil to achieve power over his fellow men. Saruman secludes himself in the tower of Orthanc, an impregnable fortress, to stake a physical claim in the world and to ground his influence between Rohan and Gondor.
Saruman is described as having a mind of “metal and wheels,” and is pushing the boundaries of Middle-Earth technology. He creates a whole new race of orcs with the Uruk-hai, sick and twisted through they may be. In fact, he even creates a kind of black powder bomb so that his forces can storm Helm’s Deep in The Two Towers. Although his actions are reprehensible, it is hard to argue that there is not something impressive about this figure who is choosing to innovate and explore forbidden subjects.
Like Milton’s Lucifer, there is something darkly charismatic about Saruman that fascinates those who encounter him. He maintains a veneer of respectability and prestige that can influence even the hearts of people who know of his folly and wickedness. This is described as the power of his voice, which he uses to sway minds of characters throughout the books. At a meeting with his enemies, after he has been utterly defeated, Saruman’s voice is almost able to win himself some good will. He even manages to trick Treebeard, one of the oldest beings in Middle Earth, using this. His charm and allure stay with him, even once the events of the series have thoroughly brought him low.
In Peter Jackson’s trilogy, this is where we leave Saruman, but Tolkien’s tales delve further and deeper into this complex character. Saruman is visited by Gandalf and his company, and the newly christened white wizard attempts to convince him of his folly. He asks Saruman to consider aiding them on the side of their good, and to choose to do the right thing and give them his knowledge of the enemy and his plans. After a moment of hesitation and consideration, Saruman quickly turns on Gandalf and lambasts him, saying that he only wishes to steal his treasures and take up a seat of power in Orthanc himself.
This pattern of offered and rejected redemption is key to Tolkien’s villains, and is repeated throughout the Lord of the Rings. All of Tolkien’s villains, with the exception of the orcs, are offered the chance at redemption and forgiveness. In some cases, such as Boromir, they take it, and are able to reclaim their honor. Most of the villains however, are too eaten up inside by their own wickedness and their mistrust and fear of others. Saruman is convinced that Gandalf is only attempting to take what Saruman has, and that he is scheming to become more powerful. Like so many others, he cannot see beyond his own small mind to imagine that others might have more noble intentions.
Saruman’s profound loss of power and influence is truly fascinating. The Greek philosopher Aristotle believed that great tragedies could only occur when characters fell from great heights, such as kings and princes. This is why Oedipus he believed that Oedipus was such a powerful tragic character. Later writers have expanded our understanding of tragedy, such as Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, but the idea can still prove to be true. Saruman wielded immense power in his sphere of influence, affecting the minds of kings like Theoden and commanding vast armies. With his staff broken and his magic gone, he is left in Orthanc to lust for power that he can no longer wield.
Yet Saruman’s loss of power is not what truly captivates me, but the loss of his nobility of spirit. After tricking Treebeard into releasing him from Orthanc, Saruman is left to wander the world as a beggar with his servant Grima Wormtongue. He savagely beats Wormtongue and treats him cruelly, simply so that he can have power over someone. These kinds of petty acts are par for the course, and in a moment of extreme childishness he even steals one of the hobbits’ tobacco and sack when it is offered to him. Saruman once commanded the respect of high beings such as Elrond and Galadriel, and now he is glad to lash out in the hopes that it might hurt someone. This fall from grace, and Saruman’s perceived ignorance of its significance is revolting and strangely fascinating to me.
At the end of the series, Saruman meets his demise in Hobbiton of all places at the doorstep of Frodo’s home. Unable to lash out at the elves and men who have hurt him, Saruman sets to work sewing discord in the Shire to try and cause the Hobbits pain. In fact, he is so hungry for power that he sets himself up as a small-time criminal leading a group of armed men who have taken control of the peaceful hobbits. They call him Sharky, which he believes was a term of endearment from his orc servants. In the finest footnote ever put to page, Tolkien clarifies that this is derived from an Orcish term meaning, “Old man.” Saruman is so happy to simply hurt Frodo and his companions that when told to leave and resume his life as a beggar, he puts up little resistance. Despite a failed attempt to stab Frodo, he quickly gives up and resigns himself to his fate.
Saruman was once concerned with high ideals and the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom. Yet he found too much pleasure in power, and specifically in having power over others. His loss of influence leaves him bitter, and he wishes only to seize some sliver of his former might by causing pain to those around him. Grima Wormtongue, his longtime servant and now fellow beggar, receives the brunt of this cruelty as Saruman taunts and beats him only so that he can feel strong. Finally, having endured enough of this cruelty, Grima slashes Saruman’s throat and he dissolves into foul smoke. As Tolkien later wrote, Saruman would be left to wander the world as a spirit forever and never be able to move on. He had finally pushed even the basest of men too far, and he finally paid the price for his cruelty.
Of all of the incredible characters that J.R.R. Tolkien created, I think that Saruman is the one that fascinates and frustrates me the most. An essential part of any tragedy is the moment when tragic hero realizes how far he has fallen. Saruman however, never really seems to experience this. Despite going from a mighty force for good to a beggar scrabbling on the dirt road, he seems to lack basic self-awareness. He longs for power and is willing to take it in even the most basic form, through cruelty and violence. The pettiness of his fall from grace is profound, and it is made all the more so that this formerly enlightened man is too blind to see what he