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.”

The True Power and Majesty of Kings

As Aragorn journeys further and further away from Gondor, the place of his dream, on what seems to be the hopeless quest of rescuing Merry and Pippin from the orc host who have taken them prisoner, he encounters a war band of the Riders of Rohan riding homeward from the destruction of that very host. The war band are commanded by Eomer, nephew of Théoden, king of Rohan and against the orders of the king they have set out after the orcs on hearing of their incursion into Rohan. On meeting Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli they challenge them. Aragorn’s response to the challenge is astonishing. He invokes the name of his mighty ancestor, Elendil, the last and only king of the two kingdoms of Gondor and Arnor and then he continues:

“I am Aragorn, son of Arathorn, and am called Elessar, the Elfstone, Dunadan, the heir of Isildur Elendil’s son of Gondor. Here is the Sword that was Broken and is forged again! Will you aid me or thwart me? Choose swiftly!”

Aragorn has no more time for courtesies, however time honoured they might be. This is the true crisis, the moment of doom, of judgement, and courtesy is at such moments simply time wasting. Nor is there time for weighing up what choices might be available. Aragorn has given his command, “Choose swiftly!” and the command must be obeyed whether Eomer chooses for him or against him. Eomer is awestruck, but so are Gimli and Legolas who have travelled with him since Rivendell.

“They had not seen him in this mood before. He seemed to have grown in stature while Eomer had shrunk and in his living face they caught a brief vision of the power and majesty of the kings of stone. For a moment it seemed to Legolas that a white flame flickered on the brows of Aragorn like a shining crown.”

Readers may remember the “kings of stone”. We encountered them on the river journey down the Anduin from Lothlorien and they may remember that Aragorn gave his ancestors a lordly greeting and then seemed to shrink into himself in his boat. It was the time of doubting when Aragorn questioned his very identity. It was the time of his Wilderness Temptation but that time is now over. It may be that in his pursuit of Merry and Pippin Aragorn has had to lay aside his kingly ambition for a time. It may be that he will lay down his life in a vain pursuit. But he no longer does so as a man wracked with doubt. The choice he has made is a kingly choice, a free choice, and he will not be thwarted by any man.

Readers may also have noted that I have used words like “Wilderness Temptation” and “Emptying”. I might also have used the phrase, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand.” The witness of the gospels and of the letters of the New Testament to Jesus the King resound with the same language that, in The Lord of the Rings, bears witness to Aragorn, who will be king of Gondor and Arnor. It is not that Tolkien is making Aragorn into a kind of Jesus, but that this language,and the language of the New Testament, reveals true kingship to us; the language first of self doubt and of emptying, and the language also of command. Aragorn has revealed himself to all as their true king.

Choose swiftly! Are with me or against me? The time of judgement has come! The kingdom of heaven is at hand!