Where some critics have faulted Tolkien’s treatment of evil as sentimental and simplistic (Edmund Wilson’s 1956 article “Ooh, Those Awful Orcs” is the classic example), his work has been admired by others precisely for the subtlety and even sympathy with which he treats the darker side of human nature. Sam alone is sufficient refutation of there being any partisan and bigoted “us-vs.-them” prejudices in Tolkien’s fiction, when, in his “first view of a battle of Men against Men, and he did not like it much,” he has this reflection upon the fallen body of a Southron killed by Faramir’s party: “He was glad that he could not see the dead face. He wondered what the man’s name was and where he came from; and if he was really evil of heart, or what lies or threats had led him on the long march from his home; and if he would not really rather have stayed there in peace…”
One dimension to Tolkien’s sophisticated portrayal of evil is his presentation of it in both its more grandiose and complex (e.g., Denethor) and in its more loathsome and de-personalized (e.g., the Mouth of Sauron) moments. Some of what I have written before on Fëanor’s heroic nihilism, moreover, might be taken as an exploration of Tolkien’s ability to harness these two extremes within a single character. Another character, I suggest, through whom Tolkien examines at once the noble heights and the pathetic depths of which his villains are capable, is that of Saruman, someone whose greatness we are continually reminded of throughout The Lord of the Rings, and yet in whom we see the pitiful process of “Gollumification” playing itself out from the very beginning.
The passage that first suggested to me a certain resemblance between the high Saruman and the low Gollum occurs in his speech (reported at the Council of Elrond) to Gandalf that the latter would remain a prisoner at Orthanc
“Until you reveal to me where the One may be found. I may find means to persuade you. Or until it is found in your despite, and the Ruler has time to turn to lighter matters: to devise, say, a fitting reward for the hindrance and insolence of Gandalf the Grey.”
“That may not prove to be one of the lighter matters,” said I. He laughed at me, for my words were empty, and he knew it.
Although it is Saruman’s statement that we are principally interested in here, I include Gandalf’s reply and his diffident admission of its hollowness only to point out the irony the exchange attains in light of later events: dealing with Gandalf, of course, does prove not “to be one of the lighter matters” for the Enemy. In The Two Towers, accordingly, Tolkien will answer this scene with another encounter at Orthanc in which this time it will be Gandalf who will deploy laughter–not the sneering, self-important, cynicism of Saruman, but what Pippin later describes as “a great joy: a fountain of mirth enough to set a kingdom laughing, were it to gush forth–to similarly shatter and deflate the deceptive pretensions of Saruman.
The ultimate smallness of Saruman’s threat to Gandalf, however, is seen not only in what transpires later, for this is not in fact the first time we have heard someone promise to enlist Sauron’s aid to punish his offenders. In “The Shadow of the Past,” Gandalf describes his encounter with Gollum in which the latter “muttered that he was going to get his own back. People would see if he would stand being kicked, and driven into a hole and then robbed. Gollum had good friends now, good friends and very strong.” As petty, sullen, vengeful, and pusilanimous as Gollum’s boast may sound–a mentality Nietzsche acutely diagnosed in his discussion of ressentiment–when stripped of its high rhetoric, it is edifying to observe that this is essentially what much of Saruman’s speech to Gandalf at Isengard reduces to. When Gandalf first arrives at Isengard seeking Saruman’s help, Saruman “scoffingly” addresses him as “Gandalf the Grey,” and the sarcastic, passive aggression of his address is remarkably Gollum-like: “For aid? It has seldom been heard of that Gandalf the Grey sought for aid, one so cunning and so wise, wandering about the lands, and concerning himself in every business, whether it belongs to him or not.” Gandalf says that he “looked at him and wondered,” and well he might have: Saruman is sounding like a learned Gollum.
(to be continued)