“He That Breaks a Thing To Find Out What It Is Has Left The Path of Wisdom”. Gandalf Speaks of The Fall of Saruman.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp.248-254

“What of Saruman?” It was Galdor, the emissary of Círdan, the shipwright of the Grey Havens, who first asked the question. Why is Saruman not present at the Council? Or why, at least, is he not represented? As Gandalf says himself, “Saruman has long studied the arts of the Enemy himself, and thus we have often been able to forestall him. It was by the devices of Saruman that we drove him from Dol Guldur.”

This driving of Sauron from Dol Guldur had taken place in the same year in which Smaug had fallen, the Battle of the Five Armies had taken place and in which the Ring had been found. It was a year that gained over seventy years of time for the free peoples of Middle-earth to make preparation for the inevitable conflict but we have to observe that no such preparation has taken place. Until this day in Rivendell there has been little communication between Elves and Dwarves and the kingdoms of Men. Gandalf alone has journeyed tirelessly between them and Aragorn has served his apprenticeship in Gondor and Rohan never revealing his true identity, but each realm has largely gone its own way. Perhaps that is why Boromir has some justification in his assertion that Gondor has stood alone against the Enemy. Perhaps too this, in part at least, is why Saruman has made the choices that will soon be revealed to Gandalf.

We have to assume that Gandalf harbours no suspicions regarding Saruman when Radagast the Brown first brings him news regarding the Nazgûl and extends Saruman’s invitation (we might actually say, summons) for Gandalf to meet him in Isengard. That Radagast should be on the road at all is remarkable. Of all the Istari, the order of wizards who came to Middle-earth to rouse its peoples against Sauron, he has been the most private, the most withdrawn, staying close to his home in Mirkwood among the creatures beloved of Yavanna of the Valar. Some have even regarded him to be little more than a plot device, someone to lure Gandalf into Isengard. Certainly Gandalf is impressed that Radagast has made such a journey and this causes him to agree to Saruman’s summons. Impressed enough not to return to the Shire but to entrust a message to Barliman Butterbur to go to Frodo. A message, as we know, that was never sent with all the consequences that we have been considering over the past year.

Gandalf and Radagast the Brown

From the moment that he first enters Isengard Gandalf begins to have misgivings about his choice and Saruman quickly confirms that these are justified. Saruman is wearing a ring on his finger. Is this an imitation of the One Ring, an essay perhaps in the forging of rings of power? Or is it a statement of intent? That Saruman is himself a “power”. And he has created a new coat. He is no longer Saruman the White but Saruman of Many Colours.

Harold Jig imagines Saruman’s self display before Gandalf

“I looked then,” says Gandalf, “and saw that his robes, which had seemed white, were not so, but were woven of all colours, and if he moved they shimmered and changed hue so that the eye was bewildered.”

If Saruman has intended to impress through this careful crafting of his image he most certainly fails. Gandalf prefers white to the breaking of white as if through a prism.

“He that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.”

In her wonderful study on logos and language in Tolkien’s world, Splintered Light, Verlyn Flieger contrasts two kinds of breaking and their consequences. On the one hand there is Frodo who in his complete offering up of himself to the task of destroying the Ring is “completely broken down in order that he may be remade”. Flieger refers to Gandalf’s pondering of the transparency that he observes in Frodo as he lies in his bed in Rivendell and contrasts it with Saruman’s display in Isengard. If Frodo is being broken then Saruman breaks down. Frodo offers himself up. Saruman seeks to break in order to gain power. “In his overweening pride, Saruman has broken himself, not, like Frodo, by yielding to a cause greater than himself but by trying to impose himself upon the cause, by endeavouring to control rather than submit”.

Andrea Pipano’s fine imagining of Saruman to suggest why Gandalf does not mistrust him