The stage is set and Saruman stands at a balconied rail above the heads of his foes ready to address them, appearing as “a kindly heart aggrieved by injuries undeserved.” And so he begins to weave his magic over those who stand beneath him until Gandalf laughs and “The fantasy vanished like a puff of smoke.”
“Saruman, Saruman!” said Gandalf still laughing. “Saruman, you missed your path in life. You should have been the king’s jester and earned your bread, and stripes too, by mimicking his counsellors.”
Those who know the story well will remember that much happened between the moment that Saruman first appears upon the balcony, wreathed in shadow and ever changing colour and the moment when Gandalf laughs at him and the spell is finally broken. They will remember that Saruman tried to persuade first Théoden and then Gandalf to ally with him and how the company who had ridden to Isengard with their king were convinced that either one or the other would submit to Saruman’s persuasive powers so reasonable did his words appear to be. Even his words of contempt for Rohan seemed to them to be deserved and we shall return to that in a later blog, but at the end all is revealed as Tolkien shows us as “Fantasy”.
Those who have seen Der Untergang (Downfall) the remarkable film about the last days of Hitler will know the power of fantasy. As the Soviet forces enter Berlin Hitler still gives orders to armies that no longer exist and his anger against his staff who cannot carry out his orders still has power to frighten them. And they are right to be frightened because the SS still carry out orders of execution against those who know that resistance is futile and refuse to fight on. Hitler believes his own fantasy until the very end and still has the power to persuade others to join him in his belief. We might even argue that he had that power from the very beginning, that the Nazi enterprise was always a fantasy.
Gandalf’s laughter demonstrates the most powerful weapon that exists against such fantasies. When that which we fear or admire is displayed to us for our ridicule then it no longer has the same power over us. Hans Christian Anderson’s tale, “The Emperor’s New Clothes” is one tale that demonstrates the power of laughter over fantasy, J.K Rowling’s Ridikulus Charm demonstrated by Remus Lupin in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkhaban is another. In the first tale the crowd believe the myth of the magical new clothes until a boy cries out that the Emperor is, in fact, naked; in the second the members of Harry Potter’s class are taught how to laugh at their own fears embodied in certain people or creatures and so dispel their power. We do not need to be able to do magic to learn how to do the same with the embodiments of our own fears.
Sadly Der Untergang shows us that fantasy, however far-fetched, has the power to do great harm. In The Lord of the Rings, as we shall see, Saruman still retains some power to do harm himself. Our laughter cannot protect us from all that fantasy can do to us but it can give us great strength to resist that power. Gandalf shows to all that Saruman’s power is broken and when we do see him again it is at the head of a band of cut-throats and thieves. That is for another day. On this day, if I may presume to mix our tales, we learn, with Gandalf and Remus Lupin, to stand against those who make us afraid with our laughter and our cry of Ridikulus!
11 thoughts on “Saruman Still Fails to Get the Joke!”
Amen to that! What a wonderful piece of writing, Stephen!
Thank you so much, Victoria! Though I have only just noticed the grammatical error in my last sentence! Learning the art of good laughter, in the right circumstances, is very important.
“And both have about them this sure mark of evil: only by being terrible do they avoid being comic.”
from The Four Loves, by C. S. Lewis
That is such a powerful statement and a mighty truth. Could you remind me where that comes from in The Four Loves? I would like to read it in context my copy. It is the perfect comment on what I was trying to say and to hit the “Liked” button would be a massive understatement. I cannot help but think that Lewis & Tolkien must have talked about this together.
I am sure they did, probably both smoking like chimneys at the time. What a great mental image! ^_^
When I get home I will see if I can find the quote in my copy and give you the location. The context, though, is explained a little here: https://jubilare.wordpress.com/2013/04/30/roaring-farce/ Lewis is discussing two harmful forms of patriotism (and contrasting them with good patriotism) but his words apply to evil as a whole. I was stunned, when I first read it, by its simple clarity. I think it is one of those statements that cuts across the general muddle of human thought and shows us a glimpse of the Divine perspective on reality. Not that God finds evil “funny,” but that He sees far better than we can, how utterly ridiculous it is at its core.
I found the quote! It is in the very first chapter after the introduction: “Likings and Loves for the Sub-Human.” It is near the end of the chapter, too, in my copy, about four pages from it. 🙂
Thank you so much for sharing the link to your blog. May I have your permission to re-blog it? My reflection on the fall of Hitler in relation to the fall of Saruman was instinctive but after reading that quotation from C.S Lewis I feel that there is a definite connection. I have always accepted Tolkien’s declaration that The Lord of the Rings is not an allegory but I feel that spiritually the kind of journey that Hitler took is typical of all like him, not least, Saruman. I am also sure that in finding them ridiculous we make the best response.
One final point. I am delighted to note that Lewis was no imperialist despite being an Ulster Protestant by background (my mother’s background as well). Also that in this week when we remember the 50th anniversary of the death of Winston Churchill I note from Lewis’s words what a contradictory figure Churchill was. “No Belsen, no Amritsar, Black and Tans or Apartheid”, he writes. Churchill’s resistance to Hitler is something I will always be grateful for but he was also responsible for the Black and Tans. Perhaps we are all contradictory.
By all means! I’d be pleased as punch. ^_^
Tolkien denied writing allegory, but he liked the idea of “applicability” and I think that covers the insight on the real world that fills his work. Saruman is not Hitler, but I don’t doubt that Tolkien’s view of Hitler influenced the creation of Saruman’s character.
I agree that viewing such evil hubris as ridiculous is probably the best response.
I think we are. I certainly think we are all hypocrites, to some degree… or, at the very least, most of us are. In our leaders and powerful men and women it just becomes more apparent because, well, they can DO more than the rest of us, both for the better and the worse.
p.s. I will try to remember to get you the location of the quote tonight. It quite slipped my mind last night!
What a fascinating post, and one that speaks to a particular interest of mine. I’m actually working on a longer series of posts about Nazi propaganda, but I will say briefly here that fantasy was in fact the order of the day. Goebbels deployed myth, music, folk tales, and fanfare almost as weapons designed to keep Hitler enraged, and to keep the German people both in fearful awe and blind patriotism. The goal was to deliberately get people into an easily guidable emotional state and effectively shut off their rational capacities, both for the sake of establishing control, and for the distribution of non-sensical lies and pseudo-science. Fantasy was a key tool in getting Hitler and the German people to suspend their disbelief enough for this to work.
I am fascinated by what I think is your suggestion that the real puppet master in the Third Reich might well have been Joseph Goebbels! The more I think about it the more that makes sense. I am truly excited about the series of posts that you are preparing and will be glad to do all I can to publicise them and be a participating reader as well.