(Updated on 26/09/15)
New update 06/09/2020: As this post has been linked to by a far-right website seeking to use it as part of a bizarre argument against following COVID-19 restrictions, let me take the opportunity to say that COVID-19 is a real and present danger to millions of people worldwide, that you can mitigate against by wearing a mask, following social distance guidelines and avoiding the morons who say otherwise.
We’re rounding off this little trilogy of chapters with one of fantasy’s most famous meetings. “The Road To Isengard” set it up, and “Flotsam And Jetsam” provided the background details for the setting, but it is “The Voice Of Saruman” that provides the true climax of Book Three, before the more coda-esque “The Palantir”.
This chapter is actually the only time that we will actually see one of the primary villains of the whole story, with the exception of the Witch-King if you want to be picky. Sauron is vaguely seen, or described at any rate, in “The Field of Cormallen” but that is more of a shadow than anything else, a dim form that means very little. It’s Gandalf’s turn to rack up the tension as our group heads towards Orthanc, and he does it nicely enough, giving out plenty of warnings about what they might be about to encounter: “A wild beast cornered is not safe to approach. And Saruman has powers you do not guess”. The effect is to make sure that the reader knows that Saruman is still dangerous, even if he has been defeated militarily. Gandalf is also nicely wary of bringing the hobbits along, knowing that it isn’t really the place for the kind of humour that greeted them at the gates of Isengard. This is going to be a serious moment. On our approach, Tolkien is at pains to describe the desolation that Saruman has brought upon himself, with words like “ruined”, “gloom”, “scum”, “wreckage” and “slime” abounding.
Théoden, at least, is all set for the confrontation, it being part of the character journey for him, meeting the wizard who has caused him so much pain. One of my favourite lines of his, “I am old and fear no peril” comes up here, perfectly illustrating his disregard for own physical existence at this point. He’s lost his son, nearly lost his Kingdom and has a lot still to do in order to save it. He simply doesn’t have the luxury of self-concern, being in his old age anyway, and likely to die before all is done. Indeed, it is something that will actively be seeking soon enough. Someone like Saruman can cause little in terms of fear for someone like Théoden.
The description of Saruman’s titular vocal sounds as we are introduced to him is another great bit of writing by Tolkien, capturing the essence of this character. It isn’t so much the way that his voice actually sounds, but the way that it makes the listener feel:
“Suddenly another voice spoke, low and melodious, its very sound an enchantment. Those who listened unwarily to that voice could seldom report the words that they heard; and if they did, they wondered, for little power remained in them. Mostly they remembered only that it was a delight to hear the voice speaking, all that it said seemed wise and reasonable, and desire awoke in them by swift agreement to seem wise themselves. When others spoke they seemed harsh and uncouth by contrast; and if they gainsaid the voice, anger was kindled in the hearts of those under the spell. For some the spell lasted only while the voice spoke to them, and when it spake to another they smiled, as men do who see through a juggler’s trick while others gape at it. For many the sound of the voice alone was enough to hold them enthralled; but for those whom it conquered the spell endured when they were far away. and ever they heard that soft voice whispering and urging them. But none were unmoved; none rejected its pleas and its commands without an effort of mind and will, so long as its master had control of it.”
It is clear then that Saruman is a master manipulator, able to prey on emotions and feelings, able to strike whatever tone the situation calls for. If there is magic here, it is of the insidious kind, like Wormtongue, the kind that creeps inside and controls you, before you know it. You can easily envision a world where Saruman, with the power of his voice, could be the master of all he sees. I’ve seen comparisons drawn between this depiction of Saruman and Adolph Hitler, another great orator who used that skill for bad ends. It’s possible, especially given how manic Saruman becomes in the course of this confrontation, eerily similar to Bruno Ganz in Der Untergang. That Tolkien, writing when he did, could have been drawing influence from the dictator, is not exactly hard to imagine. Indeed, much of Saruman’s rhetoric – rejecting blame for his aggressive moves, decrying talk of “evils done by the way” and envisioning a “high and ultimate purpose” that is more important than anything else – comes straight from that dictatorial school of thought that manifested itself so devastatingly in Tolkien’s lifetime.
Saruman is, in a word, dangerous and will remain so for the rest of the story. Gimli perfectly captures his relationship and contrast with Gandalf – “Alike and yet unlike”. Saruman and Gandalf are a mirror of each other, with Gandalf as the heroic side, who rejects temptation and becomes the beacon of truth, while Saruman gives in and becomes nothing but a master of deception and lies. Indeed, Gandalf, with his colour as the most potent image for it, has actually supplanted Saruman, taking his place as the greatest of the wizards, a place that Saruman has unknowingly surrendered through his actions.
His first point of attack in this battle of words is a clever one, Théoden’s legacy: “Will you have peace with me, and all the aid that my knowledge, founded in long years, can bring? Shall we make our counsels together against evil days, and repair our injuries with such good will that our estates shall both come to fairer flower than ever before?”. It’s a very clever appeal, since saving Rohan is what Théoden is all about. Gimli sees through it, just as he has proven resistant to wizard’s spells and enchantments before, as in “The White Rider”. Eomer too. This causes the first cracks to appear in Saruman’s facade, with his flash of anger towards Théoden’s nephew and his very obvious hatred for the “demons” that are the Ents coming into view for the first time. It is suddenly clear that Saruman is not all powerful after all, and has a hint of desperation to him, not unlike Wormtongue back in “The King Of The Golden Hall” when his “leechcraft” and deceptions were laid bare.
Théoden shows his own strength. Maybe it’s just his common sense, maybe it’s the grief of a father who has suffered as harsh and undeniable a loss as he has with his son, but in a moment much like Frodo at “The Council Of Elrond”, Théoden rises as the hero, and rejects Saruman utterly. It’s a moment that, for me anyway, called to mind the rejection of the Devil by Jesus: “Away from me Satan!”. Saruman’s memorably vicious reply is one that we can really believe in. It’s what the wizard really thinks of Rohan revealed, and it’s so deliciously spiteful:
“What is the house of Eorl but a thatched barn where brigands drink in the reek, and their brats roll on the floor among the dogs?” Too long have they escaped the gibbet themselves. But the noose comes, slow in the drawing, tight and hard in the end. Hang if you will!… I know not why I have had the patience to speak to you. For I need you not, nor your little band of gallopers, as swift to fly as to advance, Théoden Horsemaster. Long ago I offered you a state beyond your merit and your wit. I have offered it again, so that those whom you mislead may clearly see the choice of roads. You give me brag and abuse. So be it. Go back to your huts!”
Like a boxer nearing the end, Saruman tries for a wild attack afterwards, a last gasp attempt to get Gandalf onside. He acts reasonable to a fault, but the things he spouts are just a fantasy, and an obvious fantasy at that. Tolkien tries to play up the tension here, but the reader knows this isn’t going to work. Gandalf laughs it off – take note of that, he just laughs off his opponent, destroying him in a way that armies could not have in the process – and that’s it. Saruman’s schemes, his machinations, his enchantments, have gone up in smoke. He’s played what appears to be his last card and lost. Gandalf appears magisterial in comparison to his fallen compatriot, and those around him have the cloudy illusion of Saruman’s power cast from their minds for good.
Gandalf offers an extraordinarily reasonable counter offer, that of freedom in exchange for help and his staff. In fact, this is the very reason Gandalf is having this conversation, the “Dangerous, and probably useless…” task that he envisioned at the chapters beginning, showing that he still has that streak of mercy that he must offer, even to his most deadly of enemies. And Saruman nearly goes for it: “…they saw through the mask the anguish of a mind in doubt, loathing to stay and dreading to leave its refuge”. We can feel the temptation that drags the former white wizard back towards a somewhat righteous path, the signs that a better being is in there somewhere but unlike with Sauron, Saruman chooses this moment to resist, foolishly. He’s incredibly proud, far too much, and it ends him here, his last show of defiance. The audience might be forgiven for feeling a little sad at this conclusion, as it so easy for the reader to fall under Saruman’s spell.
Or so it seems. The depiction of Saruman in this chapter is certainly one of the former power making his last desperate bids for some kind of victory, for any kind of survival, and all of them failing miserably. Yet, as we will learn, Saruman has other plans, long prepared, and already in motion. He is a master of deception after all, and he knows that he may have an “out” in some other plot. Is this whole discussion, with Saruman seemingly defeated, just another one of his parlour games? Is he still secretly in control, making himself appear weak and defeated so that Gandalf will no longer consider him in his equations? If so, he does it to a tee, the image of him crawling away without his staff after Gandalf’s final denunciation one that sticks in the mind.
The MacGuffin for the next chapter, little more than a stone of some kind, hits the ground in front of the party, cast by a soon to be regretful Wormtonuge, it nicely left ambiguous as to who exactly he was aiming for. Pippin takes it up, and writes his own fate for the next part of the adventure. Wormtongue himself barely features in this chapter, dismissed almost as soon as he appeared early on by Gandalf, and unseen later. Tolkien is writing Grima as if he was someone that can be easily ignored from this point and, indeed, the first time reader will probably not attach much importance to Saruman’s spy until his final moments.
All’s well that ends well, as the party turns away from Orthanc, marking the end of the war with Isengard. The tone is one of happiness, as the heroes ride off victorious. Treebeard promises that he’ll do everything in his power to stop Saruman from escaping: “Until seven times the years in which he tormented us have passed, we shall not tire of watching him”. Quite the facepalm moment, with hindsight.
This chapter needs to wrap-up Book Three, with “The Palantir” more about setting up the events of Book Five than it is about rounding off the current little strand of the larger adventure. Saruman has been defeated in the way that really matters to the bigger war, but he still needs to be faced down personally. The confrontation is an epic moment, full of wonderful dialogue and prose, as Tolkien masterfully creates a vision of an insidious Satanic manipulator, who knows just how to get under the skin of mere mortals. With greater power, we are left in no doubt that Saruman could rule Middle-Earth.
But Tolkien also wants to show a final victory – of a kind – and so Saruman is also portrayed as a defeated power. Théoden rejects his honeyed words, Gandalf laughs off his offer of an alliance, and then his very symbol of magical power and authority is destroyed right in front of him. Saruman is left to crawl away, drawing an end to the climactic final encounter of Book Three. Was it worth the two chapter set-up? I would say yes. It’s one of the great fantasy scenes, one of the seriously commendable bookmark moments of the entire epic. It isn’t just a confrontation for a confrontations sake, it’s a battle of wits and words where both sides are trying to influence the other. And, it is made better, perhaps, by what comes later in the story, as the deceptive Saruman enacts his last gambits for power, his character made by his performance here. True, there may not be all that much time for anyone else to get much characterisation, aside from those brief, but important, moments for the King of Rohan and Gandalf, but I for one will not begrudge Tolkien that, so well written is the titular antagonist of the chapter.
This Book is just about done. We’ve just got a little coda to get through, as Pippin gets drawn back into the primary narrative.
For more Chapter by Chapter reviews of The Lord of the Rings, check out the index here.