Wow. One of the most striking scenes in The Lord of the Rings was the death of Saruman. That may sound odd at first glance, I mean he is a villain after all. But his death is tragic because, like all that is evil in Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, he was not always so. He was corrupted. He was tainted. And in becoming so he was lessened and diminished. He lost the fullness he once displayed and became just a shell. This is powerfully displayed several hundred pages before his death when his power is stripped from him and he is cast down by Gandalf the White, also known as Saruman as he could have been. When we finally encounter Saruman again on the hobbits’ journey from Minas Tirith to Rivendell, we see the shriveled and shrunken soul he has become–bereft of power and dignity as the truth of his heart is laid bare. Again, he refuses the offered redemption, and again we are invited to pity him as we see how far he has fallen.
But all that is just the prelude, the table-setting if you will, for his truly tragic end. I found the passage so powerful that I will just include it in its entirety:
To the dismay of those that stood by, about the body of Saruman a grey mist gathered, and rising slowly to a great height like smoke from a fire, as a pale shrouded figure it loomed over the Hill. For a moment it wavered, looking to the West; but out of the West came a cold wind, and it bent away, and with a sigh dissolved into nothing.
So why does that matter? Well, Saruman, like Gandalf and the other Istari (wizards), is from the West–from Valinor–the home of the Valar and the final home of the elves. He was likely one of the Maiar (the same kind of eternal being as Sauron, though of a lower order than Varda) and as such had chosen to follow the Valar into Arda for love of the world that was being made and the children of Iluvatar (elves and men) who would populate it. Once his task in Middle-Earth was completed, he was to return home, like Gandalf, to Valinor, but it seems his soul will never make that journey. He and the other wizards were sent from Valinor to contest the dominion of Sauron, to lend their aid to the cause of men and elves in their pursuit of freedom from the darkness. Their time in Middle-Earth was to be a short one, and then they would return to dwell with their kind, but Saruman becomes so debased that it seems no return is possible for him.
When Gandalf dies, he is brought back to Middle-Earth to continue his task and ultimately he is allowed to make the journey West at the story’s end because he has proven himself faithful, but Saruman is not. His soul is blown away by a cold wind from the West. His home and his people have rejected and banished him for his treachery and deceit. It seems his soul is not even granted access to the Halls of Mandos (a kind of temporary afterlife for those who have died while bound to Arda). There is no hero’s welcome for him. There is no homecoming. There is no hope–because he rejected the offered mercy time and again, choosing instead his own destruction. He chooses this doom, and that is the true tragedy.