“Saruman, You Missed Your Path in Life. You Should Have Been the King’s Jester”. On Seeing Through Saruman’s Fantasy World.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins) pp. 251-254

I am sure that my readers have recognised that the quotation from The Lord of the Rings that is contained in this week’s title does not come from the encounter between Gandalf and Saruman that Gandalf describes at the Council of Elrond in Rivendell but from the chapter entitled The Voice of Saruman that comes after the Battle of Helms Deep in The Two Towers. I have deliberately done this because I want to come back to the question of humour that I began to discuss in last week’s post and the critique of modernity that lies within Tolkien’s work and the work of the Inklings. Last week I compared the speech made by Saruman in Isengard to the captured Gandalf with speeches made by Uncle Andrew in The Magician’s Nephew and by Weston in Out of the Silent Planet both written by C.S Lewis. I noted that each speech seemed “well rehearsed” and then I noted that each speech was as much an exercise in self-aggrandisement as it was in presenting something that was objectively true. At all times the speaker was saying, “Look at me!”

Is Harold Jig depicting the court jester in the figure of Saruman?

There have been times when I have thought that humour is merely an expression of despair. I imagine myself standing in the queue for the gas chamber in a concentration camp and standing beside us is an entertainer whose job it is to cheer us up. The entertainer is doing the funniest imitations of the guards and even the camp commandant and despite ourselves we are all enjoying his performance but one by one, even amidst the laughter, we are all disappearing into the gas chamber. Perhaps when we are all gone the entertainer will follow us and perish just as we all did. Sometimes I have felt that the satire on late night TV is of that nature. We share the joke with the performer, congratulating ourselves on our ability to see through the person or situation that is being satirised but deep down we know that we are laughing on the way to the gas chamber.

Is Gandalf’s humour and the laughter in Lewis’s works at the expense of Weston and of Uncle Andrew of that nature? Are they merely trying to cheer us up as we make our inevitable journeys into the dark? Certainly the fantasy worlds that these characters create in which they are the central figure, these are risible. The genius that Lewis displays in putting the words “Ours is a high and lonely destiny” into the mouth of a character as obviously contemptible as Uncle Andrew is to render those same words as equally contemptible no matter who speaks them. When Saruman makes his speech he reveals himself as just another Uncle Andrew but what do we gain from such awareness if we are all on our way to the gas chamber? In Tolkien’s legendarium it is the archetypal figure of Morgoth who infects the world with his assertion that the darkness is the final reality. Verlyn Flieger shows how Tolkien struggled with the fear that Morgoth might be right throughout his life speaking of the loss of his parents in his childhood and then the loss of all his closest friends during the First World War. She shows how in his seminal essay “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics” he speaks of a world ringed with a shoreless sea in which “as in a little circle of light about their halls, men with courage as their stay went forward to that battle with the hostile world and the offspring of the dark which ends for all, even the kings and champions, in defeat”. Gandalf’s laughter at Saruman’s expense may be no more than defiance in the face of inevitable defeat or it can be an expression of hope.

Gandalf’s Laughter. Despair or Hope?

Flieger speaks of two words that Tolkien coined that, in many ways, described both his own inner spiritual conflict and also the spiritual conflict of our age. These are dyscatastrophe and euchatastrophe. If dyscatastrophe is at best a heroic life in the face of inevitable defeat then euchatastrophe is a world in which I might lose myself but then find it again “in another and perhaps higher world”. This, of course, is Frodo’s journey to the “far green country under a swift sunrise” that follows his defeat in Middle-earth. Tolkien chose this ending to The Lord of the Rings, a poignant, tear stained but ultimately hopeful ending. We have the same choice of possible endings for our own story and the story of our world.

A Far Green Country

“Ours is a High and Lonely Destiny”. Is the Lord of Isengard Saruman or Uncle Andrew?

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 251-254

Scholars of the Inklings speak of a certain cooling of the friendship between Tolkien and C.S Lewis following the publication and subsequent success of Lewis’s Narnia stories. It is not my intention to go into this here but I do want to draw the attention of my readers to a similarity between the speech that Saruman makes to Gandalf and that which Uncle Andrew makes to Digory in The Magician’s Nephew. We might extend that similarity to Weston’s speech, translated by Ransom, to the Oyarsa of Malacandra in Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet even though it was first published seventeen years before The Magician’s Nephew. Each of the speeches are similar in spirit. Each one has the sense of it being, as Tolkien describes Saruman’s speech, “long rehearsed”. And each speech is risible in nature. Lewis is quite explicit in this. Both Weston and Uncle Andrew are treated as laughable by those that they are trying to impress. Tolkien is never explicit in this manner and this might be regarded as a difference between him and Lewis as writers of fiction but I have written in this blog before of the way in which Saruman descends into absurdity as the story progresses. While Gollum’s fall into the fires of Orodruin calls upon our pity and Sauron’s fall into nothingness is a terrible thing, Saruman somehow becomes an unhappy joke. Not that anyone in the story is laughing, except perhaps for Merry and Pippin.

Harold Jig’s excellent imagining of Saruman’s display

I am sure that most of my readers recognised the quotation in the title of this week’s post as coming from The Magician’s Nephew. “Men like me, who possess hidden wisdom, are free from common rules just as we are cut off from common pleasures. Ours, my boy, is a high and lonely destiny.” Uncle Andrew is at one and the same time trying to impress his nephew with his significance while, at the same time, seeking to justify the low mean trick that he has just played upon Polly. In his speech to the Oyarsa in Out of the Silent Planet Weston is also trying to impress his audience while justifying his murder of some of the creatures of Malacandra. “To you I may seem a vulgar robber, but I bear on my shoulders the destiny of the human race”.

Andrew Ketterley imagines Uncle Andrew’s Mean Trick Upon Polly

And then there is Saruman’s speech to Gandalf. Last week we thought about Saruman’s display of his own significance. The ring upon his finger, the coat of many colours and the magnificence of Isengard itself, are all intended to impress and to intimidate. This is a strategy that works with the Dunlendings but most certainly not with Gandalf. Nor does his speech, however well rehearsed it is.

“The Elder Days are gone. The Middle Days are passing. The Younger Days are beginning. The time of the Elves is over, but our time is at hand: the world of Men that we must rule. But we must have power, power to order all things as we will, for that good which only the Wise can see.”

One can only guess that the kind of spirit that Saruman, Uncle Andrew and Weston all display must have been discussed when the Inklings met and certainly it must have been recognised and deplored by Tolkien and Lewis. Each of these characters place themselves within modernity, regarding themselves as its heralds, even its guardians and each of them enthusiastically adopt a chronological snobbery that regards any kind of morality other than the right of the strong to order and exploit the lives of the weak as being contemptible. Tolkien describes this contempt eloquently in his foreword to the second edition of The Lord of the Rings. He speaks of the difference between the War of the Ring to the Second World War that had taken place as he was writing his own work. If, he says, the two had resembled each other more, the Ring would most certainly have been used against Sauron and then he says of Saruman that if he had failed to get possession of the Ring he “would in the confusion and treacheries of the time have found in Mordor the missing links in his own researches into Ring-lore, and before long he would have made a Great Ring of his own with which to challenge the self-styled Ruler of Middle-earth. In that conflict both sides would have held hobbits in hatred and contempt: they would not long have survived even as slaves”.

All of the works of the Inklings are a critique of this version of modernity and, as we have noted, as well as this version being cruel it is also absurd. We will return to this in next week’s blog.

“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

The Feast at Rivendell. Frodo is Seated at Elrond’s Table Amongst the Great.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 220-223

If we are to understand the true significance of the feast that takes place on the evening after Frodo first awakes in Rivendell then we need to understand it as if it is a great state occasion. Elrond does not preside in his great chair at the end of a long table upon a dais every day. This is an occasion of real significance.

Peter Xavier Price imagines Gandalf, Elrond and Glorfindel at the Feast

There are many reasons why they should hold such a feast, says Gandalf to Frodo. “I am one good reason. The Ring is another: you are the Ring-bearer. And you are the heir of Bilbo, the Ring-finder.”

So we learn much in just a few words about the reasons why, in the world of Elrond and of the wise, honour is granted. There will be royal halls later in the story where Gandalf will be received with no honour at all. And Frodo, and to some degree, Bilbo too, regard themselves as those to whom all these events have simply happened. Frodo knows that he never sought the Ring. The Ring sought him out. But the court of Elrond in Rivendell is no meritocracy. As Gandalf said to Frodo at Bag End when Frodo asked why he had been chosen to bear the Ring, “Such questions cannot be answered… You may be sure that it was not for any merit that others do not possess: not for power or wisdom, at any rate.”

Frodo is not honoured because he is one of the great. He is honoured because he has been chosen and it is the choice that must be honoured. But there will soon come a time when Elrond will declare that Frodo is among the great and that will be because he will accept the burden that has been laid upon him. That we will think about in a few weeks time.

As Frodo sits nervously among the great at table he sees Gandalf, Elrond and Glorfindel close by, revealed in their glory. Tolkien draws upon all his wordcraft to convey think to us and so doing achieves far more than any picture. And so he says of Elrond that his face was “ageless, neither old nor young, though in it was written the memory of many things both glad and sorrowful.” As we read those words it is not a picture that we see. Tolkien tells us nothing about the shape of Elrond’s nose or mouth, for example. What we see, we see by means of the thoughts of our hearts, and those who know the prayer to which I allude will also know that those thoughts must be cleansed before they can enable us to see clearly.

Peter Jackson imagines Elrond, Lord of Rivendell

So it is that Tolkien shows us that Frodo is learning to see. Later Galadriel will make reference to the keenness of Frodo’s sight. Gandalf, Elrond and Glorfindel are among the immortals and unlike ourselves whose appearance is shaped by factors both inward and outward over which we only have some control, they are able to convey the truth of who they are. Glorfindel is “fair and young and fearless and full of joy. Gandalf has an aged face with eyes “like coals that could leap suddenly into fire”. And Elrond, neither young nor old seems venerable “as a king crowns with many winters, and yet hale as a tried warrior in the fullness of his strength.” Later when Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli encounter Gandalf they are not sure if it is he that they see or Saruman.

As a maia, an order of angelic being to which both Sauron and Saruman also belong, Gandalf has power over how he is able to appear; but this power can also be lost. In seducing Celebrimbor into teaching him the craft required to make the Ruling Ring Sauron was able to appear fair. After he seduced Númenor into its catastrophic act of rebellion he lost that power and could only be the Dark Lord thereafter. And when Saruman dies “the long years of death” are revealed in his hideous face. Gandalf remains faithful to his order’s obedience to Ilúvatar and so conveys both wisdom and strength in the face that others can see.

All this Frodo is able to see because his sight grows keen and his eye is innocent. He does not yet know that he is able to see what others cannot.

Kappriss imagines Sauron the Seducer before the Fall of Númenor

The Keepers of The Elven Rings Bid Farewell to Middle-earth

 

There are three others who set sail into the West from the Grey Havens. Actually I should not have described them as the “others”. This ship was originally meant for them and not for the Ring-bearers. At the ending of their work in Middle-earth, Gandalf, Galadriel and Elrond, the keepers of the Three Elven Rings, were to depart into the West. Arwen was meant to go with them but when she made her choice for Aragorn and for mortality it seems that she was the first to suggest that her place in the ship could go to Frodo. In his letters Tolkien said that Arwen was not able to make such a decision because it was not hers to make but that Gandalf, the true representative of the Valar in Middle-earth, could. It was he who offered the place that was to be Arwen’s to Frodo and realising that the wound of the Ring could not be healed in Middle-earth he also invited Bilbo to make the journey.

Saruman knew that the Three Elven Rings would lose their power when the One went to the Fire but he seems to have thought that their keepers would then diminish with them as unhappy exiles in Middle-earth and that his own unhappiness would be something that he would share with those that he had sought to betray and had learned to hate. His own rejection of grace and his embrace of despair and bitterness had led him to believe that this would be the destiny of his enemies also. The speedy healing of the Shire was a thing far beyond his miserable imagination. And he seems not to have any conception of the grace of the ship that would pass into the West either. Perhaps this was because he knew that to return to the West would also mean to stand before the Valar for judgement and, just like Sauron at the end of the First Age, this was something that he could not countenance. That this grace would be extended to others seems to have been beyond his imagination also.

I think of the journey into the West as being different in nature for each of the Three Keepers.

For Gandalf it was to be rest after his long labours. Although he was tempted to take the Ring and to use it to gain victory over its Maker this was a temptation that he was able to overcome. He was also able to overcome his fear. Tolkien tells us that he was at first unwilling to undertake the mission of the Istari, of the Wizards, to stand against Sauron. He felt himself to be inadequate and was afraid. That he was able to overcome his fear and to offer himself just as he was to the task was a great victory. The victory over the Dark Lord was never accomplished by superior power but by faithfulness and self-sacrifice. Gandalf laid down his life for his friends in the great battle against the Balrog of Moria. He was given his life back and so continued to victory but not a victory that he achieved through his own or any other’s might but one that was achieved through the journey of Frodo and Sam to Mount Doom and the strange grace of Gollum’s taking of the Ring to the Fire.

For Galadriel the return into the West was something that for long years she believed to be impossible and perhaps for a time did not even desire. When she, like Gandalf, was tempted to take the Ring, it was her dream of becoming a Queen over all Middle-earth that she laid down. “I will diminish and go into the West and remain Galadriel,” she said to Frodo. This is what she now accepts as the ship finally departs.

And Elrond? I think that for him there is a particular sadness that is bound up with his separation from Arwen. Of course there is the sadness of the separation itself. But there is something more. Elrond is half-elven but not just by birth but also by choice. At the end of the First Age his brother, Elros, made the strange choice of mortality. Elrond rejected this and now at the end of the Third Age, Arwen, too, makes the choice of Elros and rejects the choice of her father. As he steps onto the ship and confirms his own choice he steps away from mortality and from his daughter. He too must embrace his own destiny for good and ill. He must overcome his bitterness and be healed.

The last pages of The Lord of the Rings are as incomplete as any in literature. Tolkien believed in the “Happy Ever After” of the fairy-story and yet he does not grant this to his characters at the end of this story. Full of uncertainty each one of them in stepping aboard the ship must embrace their own destiny. What that destiny is, lies, not in their own hands, but in the hands of the One to whom they now entrust themselves. As we read these last pages we too are invited into our own leap into faith as we let go our own control of our destiny.

Saruman’s Long Years of Death are Finally Revealed in His Corpse.

Tolkien offers us two different ways of responding to Saruman’s end at the door of Bag End.

The second is the simple anger of the hobbits who have just fought their first battle and lost friends and family to Saruman’s bandits. They seek that form of justice which is retribution.

The first is Frodo’s, his pity and his horror.

“I do not wish him to be slain in this evil mood. He was great once, of a noble kind that we should not dare raise our hands 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’s own story has been one of profound self discovery and he has learned the pity of which the 14th century mystic, Julian of Norwich speaks when she tells us of the God who “looks upon us with pity, not with blame”. He remembers the horror of Boromir’s transformation through his lust for the Ring, of the first encounter with Gollum when he realises what he would become if he gave into it and the journey through Mordor in which he tastes the endless living death that is the hopeless end of all its slaves.

Perhaps it is this last experience that he sees revealed in Saruman’s body when he gazes upon “the long years of death” that Saruman’s existence has become. It is Frodo’s eyes through which we look upon the corpse, not Sam’s and certainly not the hobbits who are veterans of just one battle. Sam faithfully walked with his friend through the valley of the shadow of death but even he did not taste it as Frodo did and learned the pity that comes from that taste. And when Frodo speaks of his hope for a cure for Saruman it is because he hopes for one himself.

That is the difference between Frodo and Saruman. That among many. Frodo longs for a cure and for rest. Saruman no longer has hope for a cure, for mercy, and has learned even to hate it. Frodo will not find a cure in Middle-earth, and Saruman knows that, but he will pass into the West, the true home from which Saruman once came but now despises and Saruman can no longer see even the possibility of the journey that Frodo will take. Frodo’s body will be healed in the West and even more than this he will find peace. He will be at peace with himself.

The poet William Wordsworth once looked out over the sea and wrote unhappily, “The world is too much with us; late and soon, getting and spending we lay waste our powers”. The long dead, yet still existing, Saruman, is, in his entirety, the complete expression of one who has laid waste his powers. When Treebeard described him as a man with “a mind full of metal and wheels” it was more than a metaphor. Saruman has become that about which he has long thought. He is as lifeless as his machinery.

And what of the powers that he has laid waste? Perhaps here lies the greatest warning to the digitally obsessed minds of our own times. Compare Saruman to Gandalf. Gandalf has lived out his long sojourn in Middle-earth at the pace of its peoples. In his going out to each of them he has never sought to force them to his own will and he has waited for the inner and truest life of each to be revealed. Gandalf never goes beyond the power that is his gift. Neither should we. We do not have the power that is Gandalf’s but we have our own and it is far greater than most of us know and can only be found through years of humble self-discovery and sheer hard work and perseverance.

Saruman soon lost patience with the slowness of the Divine Spirit in Middle-earth just as Sauron did and he gave his life to the getting and to the spending that seeks the enslavement of others. Next week we will think about one who discovers his power through the time and work he gives to clearing up after the mess that Saruman has left.

 

I am informed that the title and artist of the artwork in this week’s post is The Scouring of the Shire by Inger Edelfelt