Song of Saruman

Robert T. Tally Jr. examine's Tolkien's character Saruman in light of the latest, and last, installment of Peter Jackson's "The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies."

By Robert T. Tally Jr.December 27, 2014

Song of Saruman

IN THE OFFICIAL TRAILER for The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, viewers get a tantalizing glimpse of Saruman, no more than two seconds long, intoning in Christopher Lee’s inimitable basso profundo, “Leave Sauron to me!” For fans of Tolkien and of the genre he helped launch, the prospect of a showdown between the two most powerful persons in all of Middle-earth is delicious.

But, of course, we know that the showdown never takes place. The now six-film saga of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings has made sure to emphasize Saruman’s inherent evil. Although The Battle of the Five Armies does include that scene in which Saruman fights alongside Elrond and Galadriel against the servants of Sauron, the implication in the end is that the White Wizard is really helping Sauron to escape. The oversimplification of Saruman is, in my view, one of the more egregious mistakes made by Peter Jackson and his team. They have taken one of the most interesting — because conflicted and flawed — characters in J. R. R. Tolkien’s story, and turned him into a boringly one-dimensional movie villain. He is evil, and that’s that.

One of the knocks on Tolkien has been that his world is too neatly divided into good and evil, with the saintly elves, heroic men, doughty dwarves, and innocent hobbits standing their righteous ground against hordes of demonic orcs, trolls, evil or fallen men (who are sometimes coded as racial outsiders as well), and some great Satan. This simplistic moral universe has even been taken as a hallmark of fantasy fiction, by such imminent critics of the genre as Darko Suvin, Fredric Jameson, and Carl Freedman, who favor what they take to the political complexity of science fiction. The “great divide” has been bridged by such fantasists as Ursula K. Le Guin, Samuel R. Delany, and China Miéville, among others, but there remains a sense that Tolkien’s own writings are almost comically reductive with respect to morality.

The Jackson films have only exacerbated this perception by reducing the nuances of the books even further, but a careful reading of Tolkien’s writings reveals a far more subtle and complicated view of the motives and goals of various characters in The Lord of the Rings and other texts. Perhaps even against his own wishes, in what might be considered a sort of political unconscious, Tolkien’s work draws attention to the troubled and troubling political and moral quandaries. Saruman is an exemplary figure in this regard.

The filmmakers’ cartoonishly evil vision of Saruman is unfortunate, as it deprives a fascinating narrative of its complexity, while also being untrue to Tolkien’s own vision. Jackson and his team seem incapable of imagining that a person can be wrong without also being evil. For example, the Master of Lake-town in The Hobbit was greedy, but he was an elected official, generally well regarded by the community (at least until he absconds with the municipal funds, a fact revealed only on the last page of the book); in the film The Desolation of Smaug, he is a murderous tyrant who opposes even the idea of elections. An even worse example is the case of Denethor, Steward of Gondor, who in the books has been driven mad by grief and despair, partly owing to the cruel machinations of Sauron himself; in the film (The Return of the King), he is made so irredeemably evil that Gandalf actually attacks him, while we the viewers are expected to cheer. If this is what Jackson does to weak and pitiable characters, what must he do to Saruman, who is a legitimate “bad guy” in The Lord of the Rings?

In addition to limiting his screen time, the answer seems to be: to make him both more evil and less interesting. In the original movie trilogy, Saruman is depicted strictly as a willing servant of Sauron, even going so far as to take orders from him. (Saruman’s own servants appear to acknowledge the pecking order, as one asks, “What orders from Mordor?” and “What does the Eye command?” while Saruman ponders how best to serve Sauron.) In his brief appearance in The Hobbit trilogy, he comes off as a querulous, dismissive boss, who is already shown to be subverting the council he heads. For this reason, the “Leave Sauron to me!” — uttered in response to Elrond’s insistence that they pursue the temporarily banished Sauron into Mordor — appears as a dilatory tactic that would benefit Sauron, thus revealing to the viewers (if not yet to Gandalf, Galadriel, and Elrond) that Saruman is already a servant of the Dark Lord.

In his writings, Tolkien makes clear that Saruman was never really in league with Sauron. Saruman only feigns allegiance for a time, in order to trick Sauron into revealing secrets about the ruling ring or to stall him while Saruman himself seeks the ring. True, Saruman betrays Gandalf and the rest of the White Council, but not in order to side with the Enemy. Rather, as Gandalf himself might put it, Saruman would become Sauron. Indeed, at various points in both the film and print versions of the story, Gandalf, Galadriel, and Aragorn each reveal how powerfully tempted they are to take the ring, only to “pass the test” by declining the opportunity. Saruman is no more evil than these other characters to start with, and thus he serves as the cautionary example of what happens to the wise and good who succumb to the temptation. By missing this crucial point, the films misrepresent Tolkien’s most fascinating villain. Like Gollum, Saruman is deeply conflicted, and he is deserving of the pity he receives from Frodo and others. Saruman’s downfall is, however, more tragic than Gollum’s, since the former had so much farther to fall.

Saruman’s backstory is illuminating in this regard. He was the first of the Istari or wizards to arrive in Middle-earth, and even Gandalf acknowledges him as the wisest, most powerful of that order. (Some would dispute the characterization; in an unpublished fragment, Tolkien reveals that Galadriel had wished to name Gandalf as head of the White Council, which caused Saruman to mistrust her and to envy Gandalf.) After Gandalf’s own fall in his battle with the Balrog, he is resurrected in The Two Towers as “Gandalf the White,” declaring, “I am Saruman, one might almost say.” Gandalf’s deference to Saruman early on, as well as his continuing respect for him later, should be indication enough that Saruman is not an innately evil person. Saruman’s downfall, somewhat like Sauron’s own, is based in part on his good intentions, a desire to make the world an orderly, peaceful, and rational place.

In Tolkien’s mythology, both Sauron and Saruman are Maiar (angelic or demigod-like beings) who were originally in the service of Aulë, the master craftsman of the Valar, the “Powers,” in the pantheon of high gods. (Of course, there’s ultimately only one god, Eru or Ilúvatar, but let’s not get too technical here.) It is significant that the two “evil” characters in The Lord of the Rings have this association, for the connection between creativity or craftsmanship and power is, for Tolkien, a perilous one. In a famous letter describing his “private and beloved nonsense,” the materials that make up his Silmarillion, Tolkien explains that the “creative desire” can lead to the “Fall,” as the maker can become possessive, wishing to become “Lord and God of his private creation.” This leads to a desire for what Tolkien views, almost interchangeably, as Magic or the Machine, the power of “making the will more quickly effective.” With these elements, it is only a short step toward tyranny and domination, as the “sub-creator” imposes his will on others, dominating and “bulldozing” them, and hence becoming a force of “evil.” However, Tolkien explains that “this frightful evil can and does arise from an apparently good root, the desire to benefit the world and others — speedily and according to the benefactor’s own plans — is a recurrent motive.”

Stepping away from Tolkien’s own philosophy for a moment, one can easily imagine a revisionist reading in which Saruman’s good intentions are vindicated, as he attempts to thwart the designs of an authoritarian, aristocratic, and preternaturally conservative regime — that of Elrond, Galadriel, and Aragorn, who are also related to each other by blood and marriage — in favor of a more progressive, modern society. In The Last Ringbearer, Kirill Yeskov’s unauthorized alternate vision of the War of the Ring, Saruman is depicted as defending the rights of an increasingly industrial civilization in Mordor against a warmongering Gandalf, who is intent on nipping the revolution in the bud. There are no orcs in this version, presumably because what Tolkien names orcs are really just men who have been demonized by their enemies. In fact, Tolkien himself gives credence to that view, as he once described the physical appearance of the orcs as resembling “the least lovely Mongol-types,” which is suggestive of a truly cultural conflict masquerading as an ethical one. Seen from this perspective, the geopolitical and moral landscape of Middle-earth looks quite different. This view of history from below informs such revisionary fantasy as we find in Delany’s Return to Nevèrÿon series, for example, and it lends color to other more complicated and interesting works of fantasy literature in recent years. However, I maintain that many elements of such perspectives, if not the authorial intent, can still be found in Tolkien’s own writings.

Returning to Tolkien’s mythology, then, we can see how Saruman’s background as a skilled and wise craftsman-god helps us to understand his motives, as well as his corruption, and it also explains why Gandalf, Treebeard, and the hobbits pity him and hope to save him. The movie version of Saruman ignores his good intentions, and it also ignores his efforts to combat Sauron. By making Saruman a mere lackey of Sauron, the filmmakers vastly simplify the narrative, effectively insulting its own audience by assuming its members cannot handle multiple enemies at once or imagine conflicting values irreducible to simple “good versus evil.” (Even Harry Potter fans know that one can be bad without being evil, after all, and not because they’ve read Nietzsche, presumably.) Like Gandalf, Elrond, and Galadriel, Saruman was never in league with Sauron, and, like them, he was always trying to undermine and ultimately defeat Sauron. Unlike those others, however, Saruman gives in to the temptation to rule, to seek a power over others to arrange things in what he takes to be their best interest. In his study of the Enemy’s “arts,” Tolkien suggests, Saruman became ensnared by this Machiavellian desire. But this is precisely why Gandalf is so eager to forgive, and even rejoin forces with, Saruman in the aftermath of the Battle of Helm’s Deep. This wise, powerful, and ultimately well-intentioned Saruman would be a most useful and worthy ally in the War of the Ring.

Saruman’s story is therefore tragic. In his desire to do good, to protect the people of Middle-earth and to organize (and rule) the world according to rational, benevolent principles, Saruman succumbed to the ultimate evil, which is the desire for power, in Tolkien’s view. The ring itself is a symbol of this peril. In the films, the One Ring is given a rather different role than it had in the novels. Indeed, the filmmakers went so far as to give it a voice, albeit a barely discernible whisper, which suggests almost a personality (Sauron’s). The filmmakers also made the ring much more dangerous to wear, omitting Sam’s use of it in Cirith Ungol, for example. But Tolkien himself warned against putting too much stock in the power of the ring. As he explained in a 1958 letter to an inquisitive reader, the One Ring is a device,

a mythical way of representing the truth that potency (or perhaps rather potentiality) if it is to be exercised, and produce results, has to be externalized and so as it were passes, to a greater or less degree, out of one’s direct control. A man who wishes to exert ‘power’ must have subjects, who are not himself. But he then depends on them.

This explanation helps to demystify the “magic” of the One Ring, which can now be seen as a symbol for the sort of conventional machinery of political and military power, such as a standing army, police forces, or bureaucratic apparatuses.

Saruman’s investigations into ring lore led him to create his own ring of power, but it was not enough to rival the One Ring, so he attempted to acquire that weapon for himself. As I suggested above, in the political landscape of Middle-earth during the War of the Ring, Saruman is really the inverted Galadriel; he “fails the test” that she passes near the end of The Fellowship of the Ring (book and film). In The Silmarillion, Galadriel’s own desire for rule and order is what led her to forsake the Undying Lands and travel to Middle-earth in the first place. Galadriel “yearned to see the wide unguarded lands and to rule there a realm at her own will.” Her motives were almost identical to Saruman’s, and even to Sauron’s originally, but she eventually — after many millennia of apparently absolute rule over her own kingdoms, by the way — abjures her own desire for power, allowing herself to “diminish […] and remain Galadriel.” Seen in this light, Saruman’s inability to “remain” Saruman is the stuff of high tragedy.

This is not to say that Saruman isn’t a bad guy, only that Tolkien allows for far more nuance than his detractors imagine. Things are not nearly as black and white as many critics think, and it is a shame that the films have, by and large, gone even further in oversimplifying things. Although Gollum comes across as extremely sympathetic, a victim of the ring, other villains are presented as almost cardboard cutouts, with no depth of character at all. The filmmakers’ bizarre decision to render Sauron as a disembodied, flaming eyeball, despite the clear description of Sauron’s humanoid form in the books, is an extreme example of their unwillingness to view “bad” characters as having even a modicum of humanity. (Elsewhere, in “Let Us Now Praise Famous Orcs,” I have discussed Tolkien’s misgivings about his treatment of the orcs; as “rational, incarnate creatures,” they too must be redeemable, a fact that casts a different light on the remorseless massacres of orcs by our heroes in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.) Saruman appears as his most villainous in two scenes from the books that were either cut from the movies (“The Voice of Saruman,” which appears in the extended DVD of The Return of the King) or never filmed (“The Scouring of the Shire”), but even in those moments, Tolkien presents him as an object of pity, a once-great and noble, now “fallen” figure. It is a shame that moviegoers are not given enough credit to understand this, and that Tolkien’s greatest villain loses his tragic graces in a farcically fiendish depiction on film.


Robert T. Tally Jr. is an associate professor of English at Texas State University, where he teaches American and world literature, literary theory, and criticism.

LARB Contributor

Robert T. Tally Jr. is an associate professor of English at Texas State University, where he teaches American and world literature, literary theory, and criticism.


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