In this biweekly series, we’re exploring the evolution of both major and minor figures in Tolkien’s legendarium, tracing the transformations of these characters through drafts and early manuscripts through to the finished work. This week’s installment tracks the rise and fall of one of Middle-earth’s most enigmatic villains, Saruman: one-time head of the White Council who famously falls under the spell of Sauron, betraying the mission entrusted to him by the Valar.
The five Wizards of Middle-earth are a constant source of mystery and confusion. Little to nothing is known about the two Blue Wizards, Alatar and Pallando; Radagast remains a sylvan enigma; only Gandalf and Saruman are given the narrative space necessary to flesh out their characters, but even then the resulting sketch is frustratingly unfulfilled at best. Of Gandalf more is directly known because of his relationship with Hobbits and his central role in the resistance to Sauron, but what of Saruman? The traitorous wizard’s character and motivations are never fully developed in The Lord of the Rings, and readers are left to assume that pride and lust for power lead to his undoing. This is a fair interpretation of Saruman’s role in The Lord of the Rings, but Tolkien’s drafts and left-behind notes paint a fuller picture of his treacherous Power—one that allows us to track his fall from wisdom into folly, and hopefully understand just how it happened that an emissary sent by the Valar themselves could so radically fail in his task.
Saruman first appears in the Middle-earth stories during the drafting of The Lord of the Rings—in August of 1940, to be exact. It’s rare that we can so closely pinpoint the arrival of any legendarium figure, and in that sense Saruman is relatively unique. In fact, Christopher Tolkien comments that the wizard “steps into the narrative quite unheralded,” but in most respects as the same figure whose betrayal of the western alliance will so radically alter the hopes of the Wise (The Treason of Isengard, hereafter TI, 72). Though Tolkien, Sr. (hereafter called JRRT to avoid confusion with his son and editor) played with various aspects of the character—such as his name or the color of his title (he was at times “Saramund the Grey”)—the foundational characteristics were there from the beginning. From Saruman’s first appearance, he’s slated to fall to the seductions of Sauron.
Indeed, his character at this point is so wholly conceived that his manipulation of Radagast is already in place, and his first altercation with Gandalf at the doors of Orthanc is set down in nearly its final form (TI 133-4). There are a few minor differences, though. Saruman has few if any plans to undermine Sauron’s authority, here—he’s all in (TI 136). He also has accumulated, through various means, a significant number of the minor Rings of Power (TI 138), which potentially explains the ring he wears in the “official” version, when Gandalf arrives to seek his aid (LotR 258). The tower of Orthanc is also here a creation of Saruman (TI 150), who was known among the Maiar for his craftsmanship (more on this later).
At this point, JRRT starts to question Saruman’s goals and motivations. Before starting the fifth draft of “The Council of Elrond,” he sits down to work out precisely what happened between Gandalf and Saruman in that fateful meeting. We know from Unfinished Tales that there were multiple and substantively different tellings of this confrontation. In the first two drafts, Gandalf’s capture is a minor issue that isn’t mentioned when the Black Riders show up on Saruman’s doorstep to barter for information. Here, realizing that “his hope of deceiving Sauron, or at the least of receiving his favour in victory, was utterly lost,” Saruman deceives the Lord of the Nazgul by the power of his voice alone. The Witch-king doesn’t even question him (Unfinished Tales, hereafter UT, 355)! They leave unsure of just how much Saruman knows (though it’s already suggested that Sauron has his doubts about the wizard’s loyalty; see UT 353).
However, this changes in the third draft, or version C. Here, the Black Riders arrive at Isengard while Gandalf is being held prisoner at the top of Orthanc. Christopher Tolkien writes that “In this account, Saruman, in fear and despair, and perceiving the full horror of service to Mordor, resolved suddenly to yield to Gandalf, and to beg for his pardon and help. Temporizing at the Gate, he admitted that he had Gandalf within, and said that he would go and try to discover what he knew; if those efforts were unavailing, he would deliver Gandalf up to them. Then Saruman hastened to the summit of Orthanc—and found Gandalf gone” (UT 361). Christopher also points out that in version C, Saruman knows of the dream that visited Faramir and Boromir, and of Boromir’s journey to Rivendell. He also guesses, based on the words of the dream, that the Ring itself is on the way thither in the hands of a Halfling (UT 362). It’s not clear how or why Saruman had this private knowledge, though it is said later, in The Treason of Isengard, that Saruman and Denethor had likely been in some contact via the palantíri (462).
Saruman’s position is further complicated by the fact that he “[recognizes] the great power and the strange ‘good fortune’ that went with Gandalf” (UT 361). The relationship between the two wizards has been strained for quite some time. Even before the events of The Hobbit, Gandalf is frustrated by Saruman’s repeated attempts to foil his plans (UT 336-7) and Saruman is insanely jealous of his colleague’s “luck”—and the fact that Círdan of the Havens chose him (Gandalf) to wield the elvish Ring of Fire. To make things even worse, Saruman knows “that the Grey Wanderer had the greater strength, and the greater influence upon the dwellers in Middle-earth, even though he hid his power and desired neither fear nor reverence” (UT 364). This makes it difficult for them to work together. Saruman consistently pushes Gandalf away, resists the advice he offers the Council, and undermines his plans at every turn. The wizard’s rivalry with his colleague even drives him to become a sponsor of unethical labor practices: Unfinished Tales records that Saruman “liked to extend his power, especially into Gandalf’s province, and he found that the money he could provide for the purchase of ‘leaf’ was giving him power, and was corrupting some of the Hobbits, especially the Bracegirdles, who owned many plantations, and so also the Sackville-Bagginses” (363).
Throughout the drafts, Saruman’s corruption increases in accordance with his power and his jealousy of Gandalf. From a simple pawn of Sauron he develops into a full-fledged villain in his own right. He becomes associated with witch-craft (TI 405), which in JRRT’s work carries connotations of a twisted sort of magic, one that doesn’t accord with the natural world but rather exists to twist and pervert it. At one point, JRRT even considers the possibility that it was Saruman (perhaps in Balrog form; the notes aren’t clear in this regard) Gandalf faces on the Bridge in Moria (TI 236).
In the fifth draft of “The Council of Elrond,” Gandalf relates Saruman’s infamous declamation for the first time. Even at this stage, the gist of his speech is the same: “The Elder Days are gone. The Middle Days are passing. The Younger Days are beginning.” But this original draft also contains the seeds of a political argument that is otherwise missing from Saruman’s rhetoric. “A new Power has arisen,” he tells Gandalf (these opening words are later given to Denethor):
Against it, there is no hope. With it, there is such hope as we never had before. None can now doubt its victory, which is near at hand. We fought in vain—and foolishly. We knew much but not enough. We looked always at it from the outside and through a mist of old falsehood and hate; and we did not consider its high and ultimate purpose. We saw not the reasons, but only the things done, and some of those seemed evil; but they were done under necessity. There has been a conspiracy to hinder and frustrate knowledge, wisdom, and government (150).
Here, Saruman acknowledges where the pursuit of knowledge has left them, acknowledges that, as Gandalf says to Frodo, “even the very wise cannot see all ends” (LotR 59). He asks Gandalf to consider the possibility that they, the Wise, have misjudged, have erred, and that perhaps things that appear evil from one point of view might not in fact be meant for good. And then—then he suggests that they have been deceived and have thus been fighting against knowledge and order. The move is bold, and Saruman’s arguments are as seductive as his voice, but he pushes too hard, too soon, for this speech leads directly into his passionate insistence that the two wizards, if they but join forces, might hold Middle-earth in their sway. So Gandalf is unconvinced.
What led Saruman to this point? In a short piece, “The Istari,” he’s described as “of noble mien and bearing, with raven hair, and a fair voice, and he was clad in white; great skill he had in works of hand, and he was regarded by well-nigh all, even by the Eldar, as the head of the Order” (UT 406). We should pay particular attention to the idea that Saruman’s a craftsman, skilled “in works of hand.” This picks up a trope that often gets center stage in the Middle-earth legendarium. We know about craft in Tolkien: there are two basic trends, one that follows the example of Morgoth and another that follows the example of Aulë. These tensions are put on display in the life of Fëanor, who is constantly faced with decisions about who he’s going to follow.
Saruman’s journey is strikingly similar. He “was chosen by Aulë” (UT 410) for the mission to Middle-earth and, as a craftsman, must choose between the destructive, possessive influence of Morgoth/Sauron and the beneficent influence of Aulë and those who follow him. In many ways, then, Saruman—or Curunír, “Man of Craft,” as he is known among the Elves—is a natural foil to Sauron, who also was a craftsman in the service of Aulë, but who chose instead the lordship of Morgoth. In fact, we’re told explicitly that “Sauron had, in fact, been very like Saruman, and so still understood him quickly and could guess what he would be likely to do, even without the aid of palantíri or of spies” (Morgoth’s Ring 396). Rather than rising up against the Dark Lord as his most powerful enemy, however, Saruman becomes yet another in the long line of Morgoth’s heirs in craft. Therefore he “fell from his high errand, and becoming proud and impatient and enamoured of power sought to have his own will by force, and to oust Sauron; but he was ensnared by that dark spirit, mightier than he” (UT 407-8). Having one’s “own will by force” is in Tolkien’s work the great danger always threatening the craftsman. It was the downfall of Morgoth, of Fëanor, of Túrin. It was precisely what the Ring promised and what Gandalf refuses when tells Frodo that the Ring would corrupt even his “desire of strength to do good” (LotR 61). It’s what Aulë relinquishes when he turns his creation, the Dwarves, over to the rule of Ilúvatar rather than retaining them as mindless puppets.
Saruman fails this test:
[His integrity] had been undermined by purely personal pride and lust for the domination of his own will. His study of the Rings had caused this, for his pride believed that he could use them, or It, in defiance of any other will. He, having lost devotion to other persons or causes, was open to the domination of a superior will, to its threats, and to the display of power (UT 432).
This betrayal of personhood and slavery to craft and “cunning devices” is evident in a number of Saruman’s works, including his destruction of the ancient tree-ring of Isengard, his manipulation of the Orc race, and his corruption of the Shire. We see it most clearly, though, in his reaction to the power of the palantiri.
In JRRT’s discussion of the Seeing Stones and their history we find a fascinating revelation regarding the very different relationships Gandalf and Saruman have towards objects of great power. When Saruman studied the records at Minas Tirith, as he searched for news of the Ring, he became interested in the palantíri and immediately recognized the power they could offer him. He doubtless knew of the Orthanc stone before he took up his residence in that tower, and it certainly influenced his decision to first enter it as a lieutenant or regent of Gondor (UT 422). “But in [Gandalf’s] reading in the archives of Minas Tirith,” the essay explains, “he may be assumed to have learned much about the palantíri of Gondor, though with less immediate appreciation of their possible significance than shown by Saruman, whose mind was in contrast to Gandalf’s always more attracted by artefacts and things than by persons” (UT 424). Saruman’s infatuation with objects and symbols of power and knowledge at the expense of his recognition of personhood ensnares him. This is why he shows no remorse over the massacre of Fangorn Forest; no guilt over the burning of the Westfold or the desecration of Hama’s body, both of which crimes King Théoden lays at his door in the published Lord of the Rings (580). He has sacrificed his mission and purpose in Middle-earth for the amassing of power.
Even when his power has been taken away and the symbol of his craft and order broken by Gandalf, Saruman clings to the dregs of pride and influence. Unable to relinquish his grip on the manipulative and seductive ways that he so long cultivated, he first shuts himself away in Orthanc, and later convinces the Ents to let him go free. It’s interesting to me that Saruman, though he long ago cast aside his care for other persons, knows precisely what to say to Treebeard to convince the old Ent to free him. “You should know that above all I hate the caging of live things,” Treebeard tells Gandalf, “and I will not keep even such creatures as these caged beyond great need” (LotR 980). Saruman knew Treebeard’s weakness, Gandalf responds; and his ability to apprehend and exploit the “weaknesses” of others for his own gain has always been his skill.
Even when he leaves Isengard, impoverished and without his former nobility and power, Saruman’s manipulation hasn’t ceased. He drags Wormtongue along with him in his wake even when they both are bowed to the dust. He creeps back to his holdings in the Shire and again manipulates the small-minded Hobbits, like the Sackville-Bagginses, who also care more for profit and things than persons. This final purpose for Saruman developed slowly in the drafts: didn’t, in fact, appear until the very end. There we find that when the last possibility of manipulation and control is taken away, when even the witless Wormtongue rises up against him, Saruman can no longer exist, and his incarnate body withers away in a horrifying revelation of the decay he’s been hiding all along.
Finally, a passage from one of JRRT’s letters explains Saruman’s fall in a way that I find particularly compelling. The wizards were, he writes, “involved in the peril of the incarnate: the possibility of ‘fall’, of sin, if you will. The chief form this would take with them would be impatience, leading to the desire to force others to their own good ends, and so inevitably at last to mere desire to make their own wills effective by any means. To this evil Saruman succumbed” (Letter 181). Saruman’s impatience causes his fall. Though his motivations began as good, they were perverted by his desire to force those around him into making the decisions he felt were right or appropriate. (I can’t help but wonder, now, if Gandalf’s sudden and largely unexplained disappearances have to do with an attempt on his part to avoid manipulating the actions of others, especially Hobbits, out of his own sense of impatience.) Rather than “encourage[ing] and bring[ing] out the native powers of the Enemies of Sauron,” which was his purpose (Letter 144), Saruman rushes them to his own ends regardless of the means. “He always was hasty,” we hear Treebeard intone mournfully. “That was his ruin” (LotR 980).
Top image: “Saruman the White,” by Noloter
Megan N. Fontenot is a dedicated Tolkien scholar and fan who loves, almost more than anything else, digging into the many drafts and outlines of Tolkien’s legendarium. Catch her on Twitter @MeganNFontenot1 and feel free to request a favorite character in the comments!