A Shadow of the Past, Birnam Wood, Eowyn, Fangorn Forest, Gandalf, Gondor, Isengard, Istari, King Duncan, Lady Macbeth, Macbeth, Macduff, Orthanc, Palantir, Saruman, Sauron, Shakespeare, The Lord of the Rings, The Weird Sisters, The Witch-King, Tolkien
In “The Shadow of the Past,” Gandalf, giving Frodo backstory of the Ring, makes a confession:
“I might perhaps have consulted Saruman the White, but something always held me back.”
“Who is he?” asked Frodo. “I have never heard of him before.”
“Maybe not,” answered Gandalf. “Hobbits are, or were, no concern of his. Yet he is great among the Wise. He is the chief of my order and the head of the Council. His knowledge is deep, but his pride had grown with it, and he takes ill any meddling. The lore of the Elven-rings, great and small, is his province. He has long studied it, seeking the lost secrets of their making; but when the Rings were debated in the Council, all that he would reveal to us of his ring-lore told against my fears. So my doubt slept– but uneasily. Still I watched and I waited.” (The Lord of the Rings, The Fellowship of the Ring, Book 1, Chapter 2, “The Shadow of the Past”)
In terms of the spiritual life and safety of Middle-earth, Gandalf’s confession foreshadows much evil to come. Both Gandalf and Saruman are Istari, one of a group of five divine beings sent specifically to counteract the activities of Sauron.
Gandalf suspects that “the chief of my order and the head of the Council” is false, and his suspicion will prove to be true, but what has happened to Saruman? Gandalf suggests that it has something to do with the ring, but, in fact, the ring is only emblematic of the real problem: the lure of control.
Here is Saruman attempting to seduce Gandalf into joining him:
“I said we, for we it may be, if you will join with me. A new Power is rising. Against it the old allies and policies will not avail us at all. There is no hope left in Elves or dying Numenor. This then is one choice before you, before us. We may join with that Power. It would be wise, Gandalf. There is hope that way. Its victory is at hand; and there will be rich reward for those that aided it. As the Power grows, its proved friends will also grow; and the Wise, such as you and I may with patience come at last to direct its courses, to control it.” (The Lord of the Rings, The Fellowship of the Ring, Book 2, Chapter 2, “The Council of Elrond”)
Instead of fulfilling his role as a counter-balance to Sauron, Saruman proposes first to control Sauron, and then even to become Sauron. As Saruman says, “Why not? The Ruling Ring? If we could command that, then the Power would pass to us.” (The Lord of the Rings, The Fellowship of the Ring, Book 2, Chapter 2, “The Council of Elrond”) This use of the first person plural pronoun is not convincing:
“Saruman,” I said, standing away from him, “only one hand at a time can wield the One, and you know that well, so do not trouble to say we.” (The Lord of the Rings, The Fellowship of the Ring, Book 2, Chapter 2, “The Council of Elrond”)
But what is it which Saruman wants to do with that ring?
“We can bide our time, we can keep our thoughts in our hearts, deploring maybe evils done by the way, but approving the high and ultimate purpose: Knowledge, Rule, Order; all the things that we have so far striven in vain to accomplish, hindered rather than helped by our weak or idle friends. There need not be, there would not be, any real change in our designs, only in our means.” (The Lord of the Rings, The Fellowship of the Ring, Book 2, Chapter 2, “The Council of Elrond”)
Knowledge, rule, order? We immediately want to know, knowledge of what, and who is ruling whom, with what order? And the answers are all the same: Saruman’s knowledge, Saruman’s rule, Saruman’s order. But what has happened to Saruman to so turn him away from the purpose for which he was sent?
Saruman’s headquarters are at Orthanc, a tower set in a stone circle at Isengard.
Originally, this had been the site of a Gondorian strongpoint, but, as Gondor waned, it fell into disuse until taken over by Saruman with the permission of the Steward of Gondor, Beren. When we think of wizards, we imagine them as wanderers, like Gandalf and Radagast, and even more so, the two Blue wizards who have wandered so far as to have disappeared almost entirely from the history of Middle-earth. Could the very fact that Saruman would want a permanent base have been a hint that his plans went beyond the directive he had received in Valinor?
And there is worse to come. Within Orthanc, Saruman has discovered a Palantir, a far-seeing stone of Numenor.
Who else might have one of these stones? Unfortunately, one of them is in the hands of Sauron.
And the seduction of Gandalf began with the seduction of Saruman, as Gandalf says:
“Saruman…I have heard speeches of this kind before, but only in the mouths of emissaries sent from Mordor to deceive the ignorant.” (The Lord of the Rings, The Fellowship of the Ring, Book 2, Chapter 2, “The Council of Elrond”)
This figure for good being drawn away from the proper path reminded us of a similar situation in Shakespeare. Macbeth has been a successful general for Duncan, the king of Scotland. For his latest victory, he has been well-rewarded by the king, but just as in the case of Saruman, there is some part of him which wants more. Thus, when, after the battle, he and a companion meet three strange women on the edge of the battlefield, their prophetic words touch him in a place perhaps untouched before, but there.
They first hail him by titles King Duncan has yet to give him–but will. Then they hail him as King of Scotland itself, and his corruption begins. It may have gone no farther than unquiet dreams had there not be a second element in his seduction: his wife.
It is she who completes what these three strange women began, not only nurturing Macbeth’s ambition, but even planning the murder of King Duncan.
Like Saruman, Macbeth is overcome, gives in, murders Duncan, seizes power, but, also like Saruman, can not retain it and, interestingly, an element in his defeat closely resembles an element in Saruman’s defeat: trees.
As his reign suffers resistance and becomes bloodier and more confused, Macbeth sees a series of apparitions, including one which reassures him–or so he thinks–that
Where Macbeth has had Birnam Wood, Saruman suffers from the Forest of Fangorn–
(We would add one more Macbeth parallel for The Lord of the Rings. Another seemingly reassuring apparition has told Macbeth that he can only be killed by a very special person:
After the fall of Isengard, Saruman is imprisoned in his own tower. During his imprisonment, he is deprived of the Palantir, but Sauron’s seduction has been thorough and, even when offered another chance, there will be nothing left for him in the future but being a petty spoiler and then the victim of his own slave, someone he had once seduced.
Thanks, as always, for reading.