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order of wizards who came to Middle-earth to rouse its peoples against Sauron, he has been the most private, the most withdrawn, staying close to his home in Mirkwood among the creatures beloved of Yavanna of the Valar.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

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.

Saruman Fails To Get The Joke!

After a journey of wonders the company led by Théoden and Gandalf arrive at the gates of Isengard to find them cast down and in ruins with a great rubble heap piled up beside them “and suddenly there were aware of two small figures lying on it at their ease…There were bottles, bowls and platters laid beside them, as if they had eaten well, and now rested from their labour.” And so it is that after all the adventures that have befallen the company since its sundering at Tol Brandir Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas are re-united with Merry and Pippin.

This is a good tale to tell at Christmas for as Mary’s great song from The Gospel of Luke chapter 1 tells us, with the coming of the Messiah the mighty are cast down from their seats and the humble and meek are exalted, the hungry are filled with good things and the rich are sent empty away. It was indeed Saruman’s intention to bring the hobbits to Isengard but we can be sure that he had no intention to feast them upon the best of his food amidst the ruins of his once mighty fortress. And yet it is precisely because of his intentions that Saruman has been cast down from his seat and that hobbits, the least significant of creatures, have been the means of his downfall. For the orcs that Saruman sent to bring the hobbits to his dungeons were able to bring them swiftly to Fangorn where they met Treebeard, the most ancient of Ents. And it was through that meeting that the Ents were roused from their long slumber, marched upon Isengard and reduced it to ruins.

There is no doubt that Tolkien takes pleasure in the comic elements of the scene he paints for us. The small figures who could not be less heroic, the piles of empty dishes and bottles, the smoke rising from pipes smoked at ease (and as anyone who has ever tried to smoke a pipe will tell you it is necessary to be at ease in order to smoke one well!) and all this amidst the scene of a terrible battle.

And you can be sure that Saruman does not get the joke! Nor, of course, did Herod when the Magi asked him where the King of the Jews had been born. Perhaps we get closest to the truth of Christmas if we learn to see it as a cosmic joke. So much religion seems hung up with efforts to portray itself as mighty, as deserving of a place at the tables of the powerful. If the wonderful joke of the nativity were to manifest itself at such tables then the religious might well be discomfited as much as kings and princes. Before the modern era it was the custom for kings to have a joker nearby them to remind them of who they truly were. Where are the jokers of our own age? How many board rooms of our great corporations make sure they have a joker among them? Or might they fear that the joker might bring them crashing down to ruins?

If Saruman were to get the joke then he would be free from the prison that he has created for himself. And so too would we if, as Mary sang, we allow that which desires to be rich and dominating of the weak within our souls to be “sent empty away”. Our laughter would truly be that of the merry and so would our Christmas too.

Ready to Risk Everything

Treebeard has lived for ages beyond the reckoning of almost every living creature, except perhaps Tom Bombadil. He has seen the rise and fall of many kingdoms, the glory of Gondolin and Nargothrond and the terrible might of Angband and its master, Morgoth. And he has weathered all this like a mighty oak delighting in the summer sun and standing fast against the storms of winter. To live through all that he has seen has required above all the ability to survive, to harvest whatever is given, to store when necessary, and to endure, always to endure. “I do not like worrying about the future,” he tells Merry and Pippin. For him it is enough to live each day as best he can, fulfilling the task given to him to be the shepherd of the trees.

But now he is prepared to risk all upon an attack on Saruman’s stronghold of Isengard, an attack that may well see the end of the Ents and their age long vigil. “It is likely enough that we are going to our doom,” he says, “the last march of the Ents.”

When the human enterprise is reduced, either to a desire to dominate others for the sake of our own aggrandisement, or in a bid to build fortresses about ourselves when domination no longer seems to be a possibility in order to preserve whatever we can hang onto then this enterprise has been given over to the mean and diminished spirit of Saruman. There is a right and proper desire to conserve what is good, true and beautiful, but as Gandalf says to Treebeard, “You have not plotted to cover the world with your trees and choke all other living things” as Saruman has done, choosing at the moment of the wreck of his ambition to hang onto the shreds of his desire rather than submit and so become a servant once more.

Perhaps, like Treebeard, we will rightly give much of our lives to the building and preservation of some goodness in the world, a home where children can be raised and guests welcomed. Such a life is a good life and worthy of respect. It is when our homes become mean places set in competition against the need of others, with doors and windows permanently barred and shuttered, that they diminish and we with them. And the same is so when we become incapable of risking what we have for the sake of a greater good. Patrick Kavanagh expresses this in his wonderful poem, “The Self Slaved” when he declares:

Me I will throw away.
Me sufficient for the day
The sticky self that clings
Adhesions on the wings
To love and adventure,
To go on the grand tour
A man must be free
From self-necessity

Kavanagh discovered this freedom after being successfully treated for cancer and sensing that he had been given his life back again.

In the poem he discerns a meanness of spirit from which he has been liberated. Now he can truly live life. He goes on to say:

I will have love, have love
From anything made of
And a life with a shapely form
With gaiety and charm
And capable of receiving
With grace the grace of living
And wild moments too
Self when freed from you.

Treebeard knows this spirit and in marching on Isengard he gives himself up to such a wild moment with joy. Happy the one who knows how to do this, whose life does not shrivel up in meanness and diminishment.