Friday, 19 June 2020

Gandalf should not have shown mercy to the unrepentant Saruman

I have always been troubled about the attitude shown toward Saruman by first Gandalf then Frodo, at the end of the Lord of the Rings.

Saruman is a corrupted wizard (a goodie turned baddie) who is the second most important villain in LotR. He is defeated by a combination of the Riders of Rohan and the Ents; and, after being offered and refusing a chance to repent and reform, he is imprisoned by the Ents in the tower of Orthanc.

However, after only a few weeks (and after the prime evil leader Sauron has been defeated and destroyed) Saruman is allowed by the chief Ent (Treebeard) to leave the tower and wander free.

In other words, Treebeard shows the unrepentant Saruman mercy, and lifts his punishment.

When Gandalf discovers that Saruman has been released, he believes that Treebeard has been hoodwinked by Saruman's almost magical rhetorical skills; and that releasing him was a mistake.

However, when Gandalf and a group of the Fellowship accidentally meet Saruman later in the journey, Gandalf does not make any attempt to recapture Saruman; but allows him to continue his wanderings.

In other words, Gandalf shows the unrepentant Saruman mercy, and lifts his punishment.

Saruman goes to the Shire and accelerates the process of enslavement, torture, killing, looting and environmental destruction which he had set into action shortly after Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin had left on their quest. When the four hobbits return to the Shire they need to fight and defeat Saruman and his gangs of ruffians; and in doing so several hobbits are killed and others injured.

So, Gandalf's mercy has by this point led to considerable death among hobbits and destruction of the Shire (plus even more death among the ruffians - who are first offered and refuse a chance to repent, surrender and leave without molestation).

Even after all this, Frodo offers Saruman a further chance to repent, which he refuses. Then Frodo shows the unrepentant Saruman mercy, and does not impose punishment.

Saruman then stabs and tries but fails to kill Frodo, after which Frodo again shows the unrepentant Saruman mercy, and does not impose any punishment.

Eventually Saruman is killed by his servant Wormtongue, who is slain by the other hobbits before Frodo could stop this.

The result of Frodo’s last acts of mercy was the death of both the unrepentant Saruman, and the on-the-verge-of-repenting Wormtongue.

My feeling is that while Gandalf and Frodo are obviously just in offering Saruman repeated opportunities to repent, and that in their hearts it is right that they forgive Saruman; they are both at fault for showing Saruman a mercy (a reprieve from just punishment) which he did not deserve and which led to great harm. I mean, Gandalf and Frodo's repeated acts of mercy led to harm to others, although not to Gandalf and Frodo.

I am also troubled that Saruman - unlike his mass-slaughtered and mass-imprisoned minions (which included men, as well as orcs, wolves and other perhaps intrinsically-evil creatures) - was hardly punished for his wicked deeds.

Such punishment would have been deserved, and it could perhaps also have brought Saruman towards a realization of his wickedness. To let him wander free did none of this.

I wonder how these acts of mercy would have seemed to the men of Rohan, for example. Saruman simply walking free at the end of these terrible wars; having lied, betrayed, corrupted - not to mention having unleashed orcs on women and children... and so on!

Why should Saruman not be punished?

My interpretation is that Gandalf and Frodo were - understandably - exhausted; and for that reason behaved wrongly in showing mercy to Saruman.

They had both, in fact, from perfectly understandable exhaustion lapsed into a lazy and immoral attitude of pacifism - which is at root a kind of pride, pride in one's own superiority, a reluctance (born of exhaustion) to go through the psychological struggles and compromises of judgment, punishment etc).

Indeed, it was wrong for Gandalf and Frodo to have taken it upon themselves to judge in this matter - since both were (at this point in the story) merely biding their time and settling their affairs prior to leaving Middle Earth. Both had done their duty, succeeded in their primary tasks, and neither had an eye to the future of Middle Earth.

Therefore, the right thing for Gandalf to have done would have been to step aside for Aragorn to make a judgment (or to send Saruman back to the King Aragorn for this purpose); the right thing for Frodo to have done was to step aside for Sam, Merry and Pippin to make a judgment - or perhaps also to refer the matter to King Aragorn (imprisoning Saruman and Wormtongue in the meanwhile).

The whole business illustrates for me a confusion between forgiveness and mercy which is very common.

People seem to assume that to forgive somebody also entails showing them mercy - such that a person who is forgiven is not punished.

This is surely completely and utterly wrong!

Universal forgiveness is quite simply a duty, which everyone must strive to achieve - but universal mercy would be wicked, catastrophically wicked.

It is a gross misunderstanding to imagine that wrong deeds ought never to be punished, and that punishment is only done from resentment.

What should have happened (surely?) is that Gandalf, and Frodo, and the Riders of Rohan and everyone should ideally have forgiven Saruman; but that Saruman should have been punished - and punished severely, up-to and perhaps including execution of his earthly body (as an angelic spirit Sauman's soul was presumably immortal within the life of the world).

In my opinion, the repeated mercy that Gandalf and Frodo showed towards Saruman was at best inappropriate soft-heartedness and at worst a kind of 'aristocratic' lenience - whereby rulers are (from a sense of solidarity) more considerate and merciful towards each other than they are to the common people.

Did Tolkien intend to imply this kind of interpretation?

I am not at all sure - but I would not be *too* surprised if he did; wanting, at some level, to show us mistaken mercy borne of exhaustion as being yet another of the many ill effects of the war of the ring.

Note: Originally published 7th September 2010 at Bruce Charlton's Notions. 

Further Note: If Saruman deserved to be let go free to do evil 'in a small way'; how about if Sauron had been captured instead of killed (supposing that the destruction of The Ring hadn't dissolved him into smoke)? What kind of justice would that be? 


Joel said...

I think that there may be some unexplored motivations here:

1) Treebeard, as the jailer of Saruman, assigned by Gandalf, had the primary responsibility for letting Saruman go. He did so foolishly, perhaps, but it would have been an act of bad faith for Gandalf or even Aragorn to gainsay him afterwards and lock Saruman up again.

2) Frodo is seeking a return to innocence for the Shire (and himself). It's an impossible and tragic hope, and in the end, his mercy accomplishes nothing, of course, just as his personal wounds can't be healed.

Trying to lock Saruman up now, in order to prevent future possible wrongdoing, would also be a concern with results over means that is antithetical to the characters of either Gandalf or Frodo.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Joel - I'm glad *you* aren't charged with protecting my homeland ;-) !

Ranger said...

I stand by my earlier comment. This was really Merry and Pippin's responsibility. They only hadn't realized it yet. And even later, at the Shire, it still was their responsibility, they shouldn't have delegated it to Frodo. Frodo is not a ruler, a statesman, or a ruler's representative. Merry and Pippin were the legitimate heirs of the 2 most proheminent Hobbit families, the leaders of the Hobbit Insurrection, AND the representatives of Rohan and Gondor.

And, of course, from a Doylean perspective, it was a necessary part of the plot, so Gandalf had to make the mistake of not making clear beforehand to the hobbits that this wasn't his responsibility anymore. It was not the worst mistake Gandalf made during his 2000-year stay on Middle Earth.

Karl said...

In all likelihood Joel, soft as you find him, would be a better guardian of the realm than those to whom the task is actually assigned in the current year.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Karl - Undoubtedly.

agraves said...

Isn't this the ultimate form of Christianity? Keep turning the other cheek until there are none left. This plague of Christian virtue is wiping out Western Civilization, it reveals an inability to do what has to be done. War is coming to the West and this is no time for half measures but I fear it is too late as the warrior ethos has been stripped away and we are ruled by priests when we need ruled by Kings.

Bruce Charlton said...

@ag - I'm guessing you don't know much about either the history or the actual teachings of Christianity? You are confusing the past couple of hundred years, when the mainstream Churches have been leaving Christianity, and the faith has been weakening and getting distorted by assimilation of mainstream atheist Leftism, with the real thing.

The behaviour you describe is precisely characteristic of atheism, modernity, secularism, post-Christian ideologies - of societies that disbelieve and ignore Christianity; where the public discourse excludes the spiritual and the supernatural as genuine facts of life.

The churches that espouse the ideals of pacifism, submission, self-hatred etc. - are invariably the Least Christian (in fact anti/fake-Christian) churches.

In reality Christianity conquered paganism all over the world. Even considered as a purely political ideology (which is, of course, false) it provides a stronger cohesion of larger groups than did paganism. Remember, the Christian Eastern Roman Empire, capital in Constantinople lasted 1000 years after Rome fell. And Rome and all Europe were all re-won from paganism.

Anyway, none of this has much direct relevance to our current situation, where Institutional Religion has been destroyed in the West; so we must operate as individuals, and have the courage that comes only from that motivation which derives from within and by direct personal knowledge.

You may have noticed that Christians are among very few bloggers and commentators who use their own names (rather than pseudonyms or other forms of anonymity) in this hostile, and increasingly hostile, environment? Whereas the tough-talking 'so macho' commentators hide themselves, even online? This is a measure of the courage that - for most people - comes only from faith in God, and expectation of life beyond death.

Clive Shergold said...

Gandalf is a man under authority, and he acts at all times within the bounds of his mission - which is, as he says, to be the Enemy of Sauron (RK VI 5).

As Gandalf the White, he offers Saruman (already trapped in Isengard by the Ents) his freedom, under certain conditions. When Sarumman refuses, Gandalf casts him from the order (of wizards, or Istari) and the council (White Council of wizards and elves), and breaks his staff (TT III 10). When Pippin asks what Gandalf will do to Saruman if Sauron is not victorious, Gandalf says, 'I? Nothing!'. He tells Treebeard that Saruman must not be allowed to escape. (Note: this is while the war is still ongoing.)

After the destruction of the Ring, Gandalf makes no further acts of authority. He acts as Frodo and Sam's esquire, as a courtesy of honour to them (RK VI 4); he places the crown on Aragorn at Aragorn's request, symbolising his part in the War (RK VI 5). His last positive act is to lead Aragorn to the sapling of the White Tree, where he declares his job is now finished and even his counsel will soon depart.

At Orthanc, when he hears that Saruman has been allowed to leave (by the authority of Treebeard) as a fangless snake, he says, 'You may be right', though observing that Saruman still has a persuasive voice. Aragorn claims authority over Orthanc, but not over Saruman. When they overtake Saruman, Gandalf declares that he does not wish to order Saruman's goings, but offers him help, which is refused (RK VI 6).

Finally, Gandalf leaves the hobbits to deal with the situation in the Shire by themselves, for 'that is what you have been trained for', and he goes to see Bombadil(RK VI 7).

Gandalf has acted at all times within the limits of his authority, and has allowed and encouraged others (including Saruman) to take responsibility for their own decisions, though he may offer advice or comment.

Frodo, at the end, shows mercy that even Saruman respects, though he hates it. Frodo says, 'He was great once, of a noble kind that we should not dare to raise our hands against. He is fallen, and his cure is beyond us, but I would still spare him, in the hope that he may find it.' It is the same mercy that left Gollum alive, to play his final part at Mount Doom, and contrasts with the vindictivenes of Saruman towards Wormtongue, which finally triggers Saruman's murder.

The true judges of Saruman, who finally determine his fate, are the Valar who sent, empowered, and authorised him: '...but out of the West came a cold wind, and [the dying spirit of Saruman] bent away, and with a sigh dissolved into nothing.' (RK VI 8)

As for forgiveness, it seems to me that Gandalf, Treebeard, Merry and Pippin, and finally Frodo all act in a forgiving manner, in that they refuse to allow the injuries they or their people have received from Saruman to tempt them into revenge, vindictiveness, or assuming an authority that they do not have.

Bruce Charlton said...

None of which explains why Gandalf releases into the world a venomous snake-tongue who is capable of daunting and persuading almost anyone. Saruman is too dangerous to be allowed to roam - yet no amoount of evidence of this seems sufficient to persuade; even after teh Scouring.

I'm afraid this seems more like doctrinaire or exhausted pacifism than wisdom. (And Tolkien was, of course, no pacifist: Christians very seldom are pacifists, and essentially none were until the late 1700s.)

I have to regard the above analyses as special pleading. In leaving Saruman unmolested, Gandalf assumes the authority to speak for the group. He has been leader of the free people's in the war. It would not have been possible for the others to over-ride Gandalf.

But in a more general sense, I have never felt that it was right to fight a lethal war that expends the lives of minions like water; and then suddenly to come over all merciful when confronted by the agent of that war. That has never seems like justice to me. Seems a lot more like an Establishment club.

Anonymous said...

I wonder if there is a 'hierarchical' aspect to all this, such that, though Gandalf supplants Saruman, they are still both Maiar and Istari - whereupon, we may ask are ents also Maiar, so that one entrusts a fallen one to another - but why the difference between the treatment of Saruman and the balrog (assuming he is a Maia): is the office of the Istari relevant, here? For, while Frodo speaks of him as "of a noble kind that we should not dare to raise our hands against", what of the 'unhierarchical' killing of balrogs by Echthelion and Glorfindel? But I do not see why any restraint from killing should conduce to a restraint from imprisoning again! Here it would indeed seem Gandalf and Frodo - and Merry and Pippin - fail in judgement and responsibility. The question of executing/shooting-while-armed-and-fleeing the confessedly murderous Wormtongue, seems a distinct one. Who are the three hobbit bowmen? If I am not mistaken, no-one is formally reprimanded for shooting him, though Frodo, Merry, and Pippin, given a moment more in which to speak, might have called for his capture and imprisonment.

David Llewellyn Dodds

Bruce Charlton said...

DLD. Good point about the Balrogs!
Wrt we nowadays forget, and probably Tolkien didn't know or recall, that prison was not a judicial punishment in early societies. Punishments were corporal, exile and capital. Exile could only effectually be imposed in certain circumstances, but could be reinforced with declaring someone outlaw, or offering a bounty if they broke their exile. But Saruman was too dangerous to exile (eg to far Harad), he might well raise rebellion. Maybe he could have been returned to the West, on a ship? But I think justly he deserved to have been killed one way or another. I don't see that he should be allowed "benefit of clergy"!

Anonymous said...

"Maybe he could have been returned to the West, on a ship?" I got thinking about this, among other things, too, after I commented: should he have been referred directly to Manwë and Mandos? After all his ill-informed, misguided 'sass' to Galadriel in VI.6, it would have been an appropriate plot development if he had accompanied Elrond, Galadriel, the other Elves, Gandalf, Bilbo, and Frodo on shipboard, but in the hold in chains, in VI.9! Maybe, reinterpreting Clive Shergold's reading of the "grey mist [...] as a pale shrouded figure" a bit, this is the prelude to the disembodied Saruman being conveyed to the presence of Manwë for assignment to the Halls of Mandos, as he no longer could be bodily.

(It struck me that it is also generally interesting to compare the handling of Saruman by Gandalf and the rest with that of others - including Melkor! - by Manwë, the Council of the Valar, and Mandos in accounts of earlier Ages.)

Saruman's physicality in VI.8 - having "rags of skin" and a "skull" and, so, a skeleton - is striking, and, to me, astonishing, and quietly further informs the reality of Gandalf's death and the wonder of his transformed 'restoration' as Gandalf the White. (Are all the Istari - as Melian? - unusual in this? - though, what of the ents and Eagles, if they are Maiar?)

David Llewellyn Dodds

Bruce Charlton said...

@David - I don't think Tolkien ever sorted out the way the Maiar 'worked' on Middle Earth. Presumably the balrogs are intelligent beings, who are able to direct armies of orcs, strategise etc; but they only seem to be depicted as more like animals.

There is also the idea that some chief orcs - such as Azog, maybe the Great Goblin of The Hobbit - may have been Maiar. Maybe the chief eagles, such as Thorondor, but not all of them?

But Ents were, I think, meant to be a kind of mirror to the Dwarves - the creation of Varda much as Dwarves were of Aule - shaped by a Vala then given autonomous life by Eru.

Colin R. Glassey said...

I agree with you. It was wrong. Frodo and San should have judged Saruman and executed him. Frodo is literally "the hand of God" and having destroyed the One Ring, he had the right and the duty to instruct the others on how to deal with this demon, this fallen angel. Saruman deserved no mercy, and whatever good he did in earlier times (of which there is almost no evidence), pales in comparison with his evil acts in the last years of the Third Age. Saruman was responsible for the deaths of thousands of innocents, of men and women whom he had sworn to aid, Saruman is a terrible evil. For years I thought this was a mistake on Tolkien's part, one of his rare ones. I still think so.

Anonymous said...


I've read a lot in the HME material (and Letters) about Tolkien's thoughts at different times as to who-all were - or might be - Maiar, but don't have the courses of his thoughts on this in their (known or likely) chronological order at my finger tips. (I think (if memory serves me) it's among the many problems Christopher faced in trying to decide what seemed his father's 'final thoughts' when trying to produce The Silmarillion volume.)

Something else that has struck me after your getting me to reread attentively with this post, also seems to me likely to have to do with Saruman's pronounced 'bodiliness' - everyone (or just about) - notably Gandalf, Frodo, Galadriel - seem intent on encouraging his repentance while there is still time, and sparing him to that end. While the sooner is always the better, because truth is at issue, there seems perhaps an urgency that would in another sense be more appropriate with respect to a Man (including a Hobbit or the Hobbit-like Smeagol) than an Elf or Maia. Might some sense of his 'bodily vulnerability' affect their approaches? - though again, that would seem peculiarly appropriate to imprisoning him indefinitely to keep an sufficiently sharp eye on his state of mind and will, if for no other reason!

David Llewellyn Dodds

Bruce Charlton said...

@CRG - Maybe, but in practice at the door of Bag End, Merry was supposed to have taken over; but Frodo resumed/ assumed authority to spare Saruman from the arrows of the hobbits (especially after Saruman has stabbed Frodo. I'm not clear that Frodo had the authority to do release Saruman on behalf of the Shire Hobbits, who had all personally experienced the actions of Saruman (and Frodo had only just met Saruman).

If the scene had Not ended with Saruman's death (at the hand of Wormtongue), and if the LotR had ended with Saruman still at large in Middle Earth, I think Frodo's wrong decision would have been obvious. It is only because Saruman was killed despite Frodo that the ending 'feels right'.

Anonymous said...

I'm currently - and enjoyably - almost half-way through Sam McBride's very interesting book, Tolkien's Cosmology: Divine Beings and Middle-earth (Kent State UP, 2020), and, while not sure I agree with various of his (often explicitly tentative) conclusions, commend his thoughtful detailed discussions of Maiar, Balrogs, and Istari (among other things). So far (that is, near the half-way mark), he has not addressed the main matter of this post explicitly, though one can compare his saying, "Gandalf generously offers Saruman an opportunity that parallels Manwë's approach toward Melkor in the First Age" (p. 67) with his treatment of that earlier event: "Perhaps the most significant instance of the Valar's inability to foresee the consequences of their actions involves their release of Melkor [...]. The decision, ultimately Manwë's, permits Melkor to interact with Elves, spreading lies and innuendo" (p. 43). I'm reviewing it - in Dutch - for Lembas, but you might be interested in reviewing it, here!

David Llewellyn Dodds

Alexeyprofi said...

Frodo's mercy to Saruman at the end was needed to keep the hero's hands clean. This is often done that the hero spares the villain, for example, stretches out his hand to the villain over the abyss, but because of his "anger" he refuses and falls, and the viewer gets moral satisfaction.