“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order of wizards who came to Middle-earth to rouse its peoples against Sauron, he has been the most private, the most withdrawn, staying close to his home in Mirkwood among the creatures beloved of Yavanna of the Valar.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

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

    • Hi. It’s good to hear from you again. I had never noticed the reference to Saruman’s ring in any of my previous readings of LOTR but I have come to learn that Tolkien was not a lazy writer. If he includes a detail then it always has significance. One of the key elements in Saruman’s fall, closely related to his overweening pride, was his growing fascination with the arts that Sauron had developed and, in particular, his ringcraft. I think that it was in one of Tolkien’s letters where he comments that eventually Saruman would have learned enough to create a ring of power. I was just musing over whether this ring was an early effort. Was it there just as a display of his “greatness”? Saruman does boast about being wise, of being a wizard of many colours and of being a ringmaker. At Caradhras when the Fellowship is blocked in its attempts to cross over the Misty Mountains Gandalf comments that Saruman’s arm “has grown long indeed”. Is this a reference to his ring? Certainly Peter Jackson attributes the weather in the mountains to Saruman. My feeling is that all of this is a reference to Saruman’s hubris. He has overreached himself and his fall is inevitable.

      • My guess would be that it was an attempt and was a magic ring of lesser power, but as is usually the case in Tolkien’s writings, there are many very difficult things to interpret. I agree that his fall was definitely inevitable. Saruman, in his pride, I think acted too soon—along with, of course, forgetting the Ents. I believe it was Merry who mused that Saruman’s great wisdom had a lot to do with settling at Orthanc. I haven’t read that part in a while, but perhaps Saruman seemed very incompetent now that an army of Ents was attacking Isengard.

        I think, by the way, Gandalf was referring to Sauron. Boromir’s exact words were, “I wonder if this is a contrivance of the Enemy. They say in my land that he can govern storms in the Mountains of Shadow that stand upon the borders of Mordor. He has strange powers and many allies.” Although, I suppose his allies could include Saruman.

      • Many thanks for your correction of my attribution of the storm to Saruman’s power. You are quite right, of course, that Boromir, and then Gandalf in his reply, were both referring to Sauron. I had been relying on my memory alone which is never wise! I wonder, too, if Peter Jackson’s films have had more of an influence on me than I would care to admit.
        I really like your reference to Merry, by the way. The hobbits have greater insight than many realise.

      • They do have great insights—even the one whose name translates to “half-wise”. I’m not sure if Merry was entirely right (I believe Aragorn disagreed with him). Still, I think Merry was right in that there were certain senses in which (I think) Saruman was actually rather defenseless. Excellent post, by the way!

      • I think that you are right (relying on memory again!) in saying that Aragorn says that there was once a lot more to Saruman than what the hobbits see after the Ents have finished with Isengard. Aragorn is right, of course. I agree with what you say about Saruman’s defencelessness. Just as with Sauron he is undone by something that he regards as having no significance.
        Thanks for your comment on my post. I appreciate your encouragement.

  1. Did you watch this guys video before writing this? You both even mention a “prism” when speaking of Many Colors.

    • Hi there. When I tried to click on the link it disappeared into the ether. Sorry about that. But no, I did not watch the video. Apart from Tolkien’s work from various sources the only thing that I referred to was Verlyn Flieger’s Splintered Light.

  2. I did listen to the video, it’s right to suggest a prism motif. Saruman is drawing on a trope which was familiar to the Romantic poets, such as Wordsworth and Keats, and which Tolkien draws on in “Mythopoeia”. In 1817 Keats famously toasted “confusion to mathematics”, saying Newton had destroyed the poetry of the rainbow by reducing it to a prism. The Romantics most likely got the anti-prism idea from Goethe’s “Farbenlehre” (theory of colours), published in 1814..Goethe had a dotty theory by which the prism corrupted the white light by something called “turbidity”.

    Going even farther back, in Samuel Butler’s “Hudibras” (1660 or so), the anti -hero Sir Hudibras takes the “common-sense” part of Gandalf, berating the fake sorcerer Sidrophel with the fate of Anaxagoras who was driven into exile for speaking impiously about the pure white light of the Sun. (Hudibras Part 2, Canto 3, line 743 and note)

    • Thank you so much for all of these references. I am instinctively, intuitively antagonistic towards anything that is reductionist in nature and so particularly enjoyed Keats’s toast contra Newton’s reduction of a rainbow to a prism.

  3. I personally liked the comparison of the coat of many colors to “powers”, it reminds me of Jacob’s coat of many colors in the Bible and how God raised him up to be the prototype ,”Savior” of his people.

    • Many thanks for leaving a comment. Does your user name imply that you live in one of the lands of the midnight sun? I am sure that Tolkien did have Joseph’s coat in mind when he conceived Saruman’s coat of many colours. Both coats are an expression of power. For Saruman it is a display of what he conceives to be his greatness while for Joseph it displays his father’s favour. Certainly his brothers believe that greatness is intended for him. But Joseph will not save his people until he has lost everything and then have everything restored to him. Saruman too will lose everything but he will not learn wisdom and humility as Joseph does. What do you think?

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