Between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings Why did Saruman become evil?

“Leave me Sauron.”

These are the last words spoken by Saruman the White (Mr Christopher Lee) in The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies. He and the other members of the White Council expelled Sauron from his stronghold of Dol Guldur in Mirkwood; Saruman’s words are a promise to finish off what remains of the Dark Lord’s mind. The next time we see him in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (which was really the first time, but you know how the prequels are), Saruman is in the service of Sauron, so corrupt that he imprisons Gandalf, works for the destruction of Rohan, and spawns a fetid army of Uruk-hai to wage war and pursue the One Ring. How could the leader of the Istari (sorcerers) have sunk so low?


Movies never offer an explanation, and JRR Tolkien never wrote down a specific date or cause for Saruman’s corruption. But for the curious, we offer the facts that Tolkien left us.

RELATED: The Difference Between Gandalf the Gray and Gandalf the White, Explained

Picture via New Line Cinema

Saruman, like the five wizards of Middle-earth, was a Maia, an angelic spirit of the same order of Sauron, sent by the Valar (analogous to the archangels) to offer inspiration and guidance to the Free Peoples who resisted evil in the Third Age. They were to be clothed with the bodies of Men advanced in age but endowed with great physical and mental power. Thus incarnated, they would lose much of their natural power; they were not intended to exert force or compel anyone to act. They would also be subject to weariness, hunger, injury and risk of death. Possessed of their free will, they could also be tempted to move away from their task.

In Unfinished Tales, a collection of essays and story fragments left by Tolkien, the first Maia recruited for this task was Curumo. He was attached to the service of the Vala Aulë, the Blacksmith, creator of the Dwarves and the Vala whom Sauron served before his own corruption. Curumo volunteered to take on the responsibility, but only reluctantly accepted some of his attributes. For example, he was invited to bring Aiwendil (later Radagast the Brown) with him. And when the Maia Olórin – later Gandalf the Gray – agreed to be named the third emissary, it was remarked that he would somehow not be the third, a prophecy Curumo remembered.

saruman lotr
Picture via New Line Cinema

He was the first of the Istari to arrive in Middle-earth, wearing a white robe with raven hair and a beard that has faded over the centuries. He became known as Curunír to Elves and Saruman to Men. For over a thousand years he and the Blue Wizards sojourned in the East, but he returned alone just as Sauron’s power in Dol Guldur began to grow. Saruman was, at that time, devoted to his task. In good faith, he offered to settle in the tower of Orthanc in Isengard and strengthen its defenses, which pleased both the king of Rohan and the steward of Gondor. Curunir means “Man of Skill” in the Elvish Sindarin language, and Saruman became a master of craftsmanship, of “metal and wheels” as Treebeard would later put it, and of the lore behind the making of the Rings of Power. As chief of the wizards he was the most powerful of them, and he was elected head of the White Council of wizards and elves counted among the sages who opposed Sauron.

Yet even at this point, while still serving the greater good, Saruman began to fall into his vices. His reluctance to bring Aiwendil with him turned into a complete disdain for Radagast, whom he dismissed as a fool. He also came to envy Gandalf. Remarks made of Olórin by the Valar lingered on him, as did the Elf Círdan’s gift of the Ring of Fire to Gandalf and Galadriel’s favor for Gandalf as head of the White Council. This jealousy could manifest itself in a rather comical way; Unfinished Tales recounts how Saruman despised Gandalf’s affection for hobbits and publicly disapproved of his smoking pipe-weed, but later adopted the practice in covert imitation.

Orb of Saruman
Picture via New Line Cinema

But Saruman’s envy has caused him to view Gandalf as a rival to be feared, someone who must plot against Saruman’s designs. And as he explored the art of ring-making, Saruman also came to envy Sauron himself. Tolkien wrote in his private letters that the greatest temptation against the Istari was impatience: that despite their orders, their desire to do good would lead to a desire to impose good on Middle-earth, and from there , to desire this force for itself. Sake. Such power lay within the One Ring of Sauron. Saruman’s study of the Rings of Power included the last known location of the One Ring, and he went so far as to obstruct the White Council’s plans to expel Sauron from Dol Guldur in the hope that the Ring might to show himself if his master were free to seek. for this, giving Saruman the opportunity to claim it for himself.

This step towards evil takes place long before the events of The Hobbit, a book in which Saruman never appears, except for the vague mention of a council of “white wizards” who met to expel the Necromancer (Sauron) from Mirkwood; Saruman finally relented in his opposition to a strike. The Hobbit the films rig the timeline so that he remains true to his task and the loyal leader of the Council. Lee’s Saruman in the prequel trilogy is sometimes pompous, always dismissive of Radagast and a dissenting voice against “interference” in Mirkwood, but he has no ulterior motives beyond overconfidence. Many adjustments to the Necromancer story in The Hobbit movies don’t make much sense if you stop and think about them (and just aren’t very good on their own), but showing audiences Saruman at his best is among the few that work, and the one that I liked to see.

After Sauron’s expulsion from Dol Guldur, Saruman appeased his unsuspecting allies by claiming that the One Ring is lost forever at the bottom of the sea, while continuing his own efforts to find it. He began to covet treasures and valuables within Orthanc and ceased his friendship with the Ents. His descent had been gradual, but his final downfall came when he presumed in his arrogance to use the palantgo of Orthanc. the palantiri were the seven “seeing stones” of Gondor used to communicate with each other and to gaze into space and time. With his strong will, Saruman could cast stone gaze wherever he wished and gained a lot of useful knowledge. But when he turned the stone towards Bard-dûr, Sauron’s main fortress, he was trapped by the Dark Lord – who possessed one of the palantiri himself.

    lotr saruman
Picture via New Line Cinema

In The Lord of the Rings movies, this connection is presented as one of obedient servitude on the part of Saruman. He is completely resigned to Sauron’s victory, desires it, and works loyally to achieve it. In the books, however, Saruman was treacherous even to his new master. His offer to Gandalf was that they might overtake Sauron and rule in his place, and his Men and Uruk-hai were sent to bring the Ring to Isengard. He created his own ring and got a makeover “Saruman of Many Colors”. When its use of palantir is discovered, Gandalf thinks that Saruman was probably more intimidated than he knew or would admit, more of his secret thought known to the Enemy than he realized. Gandalf’s flight forced Saruman’s hand; had he any hope of standing above Sauron, he must first strike and claim the Ring.

Everything was reduced to nothing. The Ring passed beyond his reach and his plans for Rohan were defeated. Saruman’s final fate matches through the book and film in great detail, but in drastically different settings. Saruman of Lee tries to barter his freedom by offering information to Gandalf when he is killed by his abused servant Grima Wormtongue. In the novel, Saruman, reduced to a resentful, almost powerless beggar, nevertheless enchanted his jailers to set him free, whereupon he rushed to the Shire to leave it in ruins for the returning hobbit heroes. While he caused cruel and senseless damage to their home, he was also foiled, and he meets his end at the hands of Grima. As an immortal spirit, his “death” was not that of hobbits or men, and if he had remained true to his task, he would have returned to the West whence he came. But for his sins, it was denied him. “And his mind faded – no matter what he was doomed to fade,” Tolkien wrote in Unfinished Tales, “and to Middle-earth, whether naked or incarnate, never returned.”

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