Saruman and Gandalf: The Spiritual Guides of our Day

Soldiers everywhere have a clear sense of priority and Tolkien, drawing on his memories of the trenches of the First World War, knew that well. The sharing of news, unless that news requires immediate action, must always follow after food and some rest. So it is that it is only after they have feasted together and smoked in companionable silence that Merry and Pippin begin to tell the tale of the Fall of Isengard and the revenge of the natural world against the world of the machine.

“An angry Ent is terrifying,” said Merry. “Their fingers and their toes just freeze onto rock; and they tear it up like bread-crust. It was like watching the work of great tree-roots in a hundred years, all packed into a few moments.”

Saruman at first is utterly bewildered by an attack that he never anticipated so it is the bewildered wizard that the hobbits first encounter and they are not impressed.

“His wizardry may have been falling off lately, of course; but anyway, I think he has not much grit, not much plain courage alone in a tight place without a lot of slaves and machines and things, if you know what I mean. Very different from old Gandalf. I wonder if his fame was not all along mainly due to his cleverness in settling at Isengard.”

I want to suggest here that Saruman stands as a warning to the West in our own time. As Aragorn says of Saruman, the West was once as great as our fame made us. Our “knowledge was deep” our “thought was subtle” our “hands marvellously skilled”. But we have come to put our trust in the things that we have made and in the armies of slaves who keep us. Our food is grown by workers paid hardly enough to survive, the temples of Mammon in our great cities cleaned by people who disappear into the shadows once their work is done. Meanwhile we fantasise about artificial intelligence and the development of robots and in our right to live as if the whole of creation exists simply in order to serve us. Like Saruman in his speech made to Gandalf when he imprisoned him in Orthanc we “approve the high and ultimate purpose: Knowledge, Rule, Order” believing ourselves to be numbered among the great who must by right be the beneficiaries of this “purpose”.

In Saruman and Gandalf Tolkien offers us two contrasting spiritual journeys. The one, a journey towards the destruction of humanity both in body and in soul, a journey towards the ultimate victory of Mordor; the other, a pilgrimage made in service of all who seek true freedom not just for themselves but for all peoples, knowing as Augustine said: “What does love look like? It has the hands to help others. It has the feet to hasten to the poor and needy. It has eyes to see misery and want. It has the ears to hear the sighs and sorrows of men”.  And knowing, as all pilgrims do, that each place where we lay our heads can never be permanent, however long we may remain there, but only a brief rest along the way. The pilgrim knows that to build our own Isengard is a fantasy at best and at worst the creation of a slave’s imitation of Barad-dur. The pilgrim knows that our true rest lies only at the end of the journey and that all other rests are respites gratefully received when they come but to be left behind before they become temptations. And the pilgrim knows as Augustine prayed in his Confessions “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”

9 thoughts on “Saruman and Gandalf: The Spiritual Guides of our Day

  1. “as if the whole of creation exists simply in order to serve us” I was reading the Gospel of Matthew last night. I can’t recall the number of the chapters, but they are the ones leading up to the triumphal entry. I remember being struck by, and pondering on Jesus’s words that those who wish to be leaders, must serve… that service somehow IS leadership, as opposed to the worldly idea of leaders being served.
    Reading this, today, lead me back to those thoughts in the context of creation. It gives a completely different meaning to the idea of human lordship.

  2. And maybe it gives a different meaning to what many believe to be divine lordship too. Just think of those who talk of the idea of “Playing God”, meaning those who act as if they have the right to do with our lives just as they wish. In that last journey into Jerusalem Jesus puts himself into the hands of the powerful so that they can do with him as “they wish”. But it was just the thing that the mighty never understand & that is that power never has the last word. Saruman never got it & neither did Caiaphas or Pontius Pilate. Augustine got it when he spoke of the nature of love and Julian of Norwich got it when she said that love is God’s meaning. Gandalf got it too. I think you are absolutely right.

    • How powerfully true that is! I’m reminded of the creation song in the Silmarillion, where Melkor and those who follow him try to drown out the true music with loud and strident repetition. But the true music cannot be overcome because its power is of a completely different kind. ^_^

  3. What wonderful comments!

    The thoughts you expressed in your post about nature and machines, and about relying on and surrounding ourselves with machines and having naught left when these may fail, particularly struck me.

    It took me back again to those conversations about seeking. There are perhaps those things which help us to engage with that process, and those which obscure or distract from the very thing they are supposedly helping.

    The images of the ancient and deep rooted Ents, stirred to slow and powerful action are very potent in this world of quick emails and fast technology. Not to dismiss technology altogether – we all benefit from it in so many ways. It reminds me of the houses built on rock and sand. We must strive to root our actions in human interaction and love and seeking the furtherance of these, and to use the technology to service these aims, rather than to get so caught up in the technology that we forget what it was that we originally sought?

    Saruman is a case in point. From what I have understood it was his search to use the “technology” of the ring, beginning in all good intentions, which led him to destruction. By the time he fell, surrounded by machines, he had forgotten the humanity which he had originally sought to enlighten.

    Gandalf, takes the other path, perhaps….we find him often both in wise understanding of human interaction, and also in that ability to be surprised at the capabilities of human character that comes with the wise. He seeks, perhaps, to empower free people to discover and enact their capabilities rather than to just supercede them with subservient machines or slaves. On the other hand, he’s not against the use of a well forged mail shirt, or a well tempered sword – or harnessing the flight of an eagle, or the speed and courage of a fine horse. We must not close our eyes to what surrounds us perhaps and use what technology we may. But in taking time for fellowship between action as we exchange news in the style of the extract with which you began our discussion, we can perhaps hope to keep our feet and actions rooted in love.

    Or as you put it already, through service, not dominion, is the route to love and ‘lordship’ ?

  4. I love your phrase “the ancient and deep rooted Ents, stirred to slow and powerful action” and the way you link it to the parable of the houses built on sand and rock. I think you are absolutely right and a meditation on that parable in relation to “slow” action growing out of a deeply rooted life will bear rich fruit. Perhaps the challenge for Ents as with all contemplatives is that they may become disconnected from the rest of life but when they do act as in the march on Isengard their action is most definitely powerful.

  5. Reblogged this on Wisdom from The Lord of the Rings and commented:

    Last week I reblogged a piece that I wrote in February 2015 entitled How to Choose the Right Spiritual Guide contrasting Gandalf the enabler and giver of courage to Saruman the controller and director. This week I want to post a piece that I wrote in January 2015, a few week’s earlier, that also contrasted them. In this case it is about Gandalf the Wanderer and Saruman the Builder. Do let me know what you think about this.

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