Meeting Saruman on the Road and It’s Still All About Him

The great company begin their journey northward from Isengard to Rivendell after saying a last farewell to Aragorn and as they journey along the road they encounter two wretched figures. One is Wormtongue, once the master of Edoras but now “slouching and whining” and the other is Saruman. Once he was Saruman the White and great among the Wise of Middle-earth but now he is reduced to misery.

He is reduced to misery but undefeated. “All my hopes are ruined,” he declares, “but I would not share yours. If you have any.” He rejects Gandalf’s offer of aid. He will remain alone.

Even now Saruman would like to appear brave and noble just as he wished to appear thus before Gandalf when he tried to persuade him to join his alliance with Sauron when imprisoning him in Isengard. Then he said to Gandalf, “We must have power, power to order all things as we will, for that good which only the Wise can see”. Of course Gandalf knew that when Saruman said “We” he really meant “I” and that is the whole point of this kind of speech. As Digory Kirke says of his Uncle Andrew in C.S Lewis’s The Magician’s Nephew when he tries to look grave and noble speaking of “high and lonely” destinies, “All it means is that he thinks he can do anything he likes to get anything he wants.”

That is all that Uncle Andrew meant and it is all that Saruman means.

And both of them actually are afraid of the loneliness that they boast of. They  have a pathetic desire for the admiration of others even of those for whom they appear to have nothing but contempt. While Gandalf was often truly lonely in the long years of struggle Saruman sought to surround himself with worshippers. Gandalf was the Grey Pilgrim, always dependent upon the hospitality of others but who learnt through his dependence a deep respect and love for all his hosts, even for hobbits! He always remained entirely present to the task that he was given by the Valar and was faithful to it even though few seemed to share his vision and his respect and love for hobbits was to prove crucial to the successful outcome of the whole enterprise although this was never his intention. Unintended consequences are not only or always unhappy ones.

Saruman, on the other hand, always needed walls about him and an endless supply of followers and admirers. His hatred of Galadriel was because he knew that she believed that Gandalf should lead the Council. His hatred of the Elves because Círdan of The Grey Havens gave Narya, one of the three Elven Rings, to Gandalf and not to him. He settled in Isengard, once a great fortress of the Númenorians of Middle-earth, and so became a ruler among other rulers, always dreaming of the day when he might become the ruler over all others, dreaming of the day when he might possess the Ruling Ring. And because he gave himself entirely to his desire he came to believe that all others wanted what he wanted and so were his competitors.

Now all that is left for him is degradation and yet he refuses to repent. As W.H Auden once wrote, “We would rather be ruined than changed. We would rather die in our dread than climb the cross of the present and let our illusions die”. Auden could have written these words about Saruman. He does write them for all who share Saruman’s desire. Even now Gandalf offers mercy and help to Saruman but Saruman rejects it. Where Gandalf offers pity all that Saruman can see is the contempt that he has long nourished in his own heart.

At last he looks upon the hobbits who share Gandalf’s pity, Merry even offering Saruman his tobacco. All he can see is the fine clothes that are the fruit of their labours and suffering. All that he can feel is a hatred of their contentment and he is determined to do them some hurt if he can. To determine to do this is a way of refusing to change. It allows him to maintain some last shred of the illusion of greatness.

9 thoughts on “Meeting Saruman on the Road and It’s Still All About Him

  1. You are so spot-on with the Uncle Andrew link! They would both consider themselves Nietzschean ubermensch-types, but in reality are petty despots in love with their own vanity.

    And I love that snippet of Auden – thank you! I know it’s skipping ahead, but it made me think of Frodo’s comment that ‘He was great once, of a noble kind that we should not dare to lift our hand against. He is fallen, and his cure is beyond us; but I would still spare him, in the hope that he may find it.’
    – Frodo still believes in redemption, but Saruman doesn’t want it. He’s like CS Lewis’s concept of the man being in Hell because he wants to be. He would rather be ruined than changed.

    • Good to hear from you again, David! I have long thought that the only real difference between Gollum and Sauron or Uncle Andrew and Jadis is simply size. As you say what they share in common is their vanity and their desire to have more than they possess already.

    • I have never read a biography of Auden but I believe that he was the centre of a group at Oxford that was extravagantly homo-erotic and hedonistic. His later years on the other hand display a man of profound seriousness. I have no idea how he came to one from the other. He was a man who changed.

  2. Brilliant connection to Uncle Andrew!

    Saruman is — for all his pride, power, and delusions of grandeur — very petty. He tried to become a big fish in a small pond, and for a while, it seemed he was succeeding. But the other fish grew up very quickly all around him and suddenly he didn’t seem so important anymore.

    • Thank you so much for your first comment on this blog. Please drop by again!
      Hannah Arendt spoke of the banality of evil in her book on Adolf Eichmann in his trial in Jerusalem. There are complex characters like Boromir in inner turmoil but those who have said yes to evil have said yes to pettiness and banality too. But what destruction this pettiness and banality can cause.

  3. It’s worth considering on a very simple everyday level, isn’t it. Reminds me of Jesus weeping over Jerusalem. What reluctant children we are sometimes to give up our ego even in the smaller things.

    I’m struck by your words about Saruman’s misery. His isolation and aloneness that are caused by his inability to accept mercy perhaps.

    • The simple every day level is, I think, the most true. One observes the great effort that Saruman makes to give the impression of nobility to others and most of all to himself. His inability to receive mercy is a quality that he has practiced for a very long time.

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