A Prayer Project on Saruman

No surprise here, but I’ve been thinking a lot about Saruman lately (after all I am currently writing a chapter of my thesis on him). Most recently I’ve been thinking about the power of his voice to coerce and manipulate, to sway others to his point of view, and basically remove their personal agency from them to replace it with his own. What’s worst about it is that Saruman was explicitly forbidden from acting in this way before being sent to Middle-earth. The Valar forbade the Istari from unveiling their power to dominate Elves or humans, yet Saruman was swayed away from obedience by his desire to see a good end accomplished in the particular way he wanted to see it done. It’s sad to see one with such potential for goodness and redemptive influence go so wrong, but it has really only highlighted for me the ways that I live in similar (if much less dramatic) ways.

How often have I name dropped, or responded to situations so as to communicate that I already knew the information being shared–that I am well-liked and in the know, that my voice should be attended to and welcomed? How often have I disobeyed express commands from the One who sent me into this world? How am I really any different from Saruman?

Well, hopefully I’m different in the same ways the characters of the story are. They too are faced with life under the sun in the same way I am. They too are tempted toward self-aggrandizement and subtle pomposity. They are human, with the same struggles and foibles I have–with the same struggles Saruman has–but they actively resist. I can do the same. But, I have an advantage against these struggles that they do not have. I, like all Christians, have the Holy Spirit alive in me. The very presence of God breathing light and life into limbs prone to sin. I, by the grace of God, can choose obedience and faithfulness. I don’t need to end up like Saruman. Rather, I can end up like Frodo or Sam: granted passage aboard a ship bound for a port beyond the walls of the world. What a gift! What grace! Hallelujah! Amen.

Saruman’s End

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.

Saruman’s Ring? Now that’s a scary thought…

in the Foreword to the Second Edition of The Lord of the Rings Tolkien refutes the claims that his epic was inspired by WWII noting that if it had served as inspiration then

Saruman, failing to get possession of the Ring, 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.

Imagine that with me for a moment if you will. What a different meaning the title The Two Towers would have taken. And what a different story it would have become. It would be a darker tale, that is for certain. A tale very much lacking in hobbits who “would not have survived long even as slaves.”

I think we can all be thankful Tolkien found his inspiration in other countries Places than in the current events of his day. By drawing on older and deeper truths he was able to craft a story of lasting significance beyond what he ever imagined. And we are all reaping the benefits of that today.