Saruman the Gollum

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)

Sauron’s Ring and the metaphysics of invisibility

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 34

Central to Tolkien’s representation of the evil of domination is the eponymous Ring of Sauron itself, about which there are three main points I would like to make in regard to its general symbolism of Tolkien’s metaphysics of domination.

The first point concerns the Ring’s mythic power to render its wearer invisible, a property Robert Eaglestone has analyzed in light of Emmanuel Levinas’s application of the Ring of Gyges from Plato’s Republic to the problem of the modern self. As Eaglestone points out, Levinas sees “in the gesture of seeing without being seen, both the phenomena of evil and one of the defining and unavoidable features of modernity” (Eaglestone, “Invisibility,” 75). For Levinas, Eaglestone explains, “our thought and daily lives are first in a relationship to the others that populate the world. Everything else is built on this fundamental relationship to the other, which ‘happens’ to us before we choose it.” This fundamental, mutual participation in the life of others “involves giving up one’s rights and acknowledging both the rights of the other and one’s own responsibility to them over and above yourself.” In modernity, however, Levinas argues a decidedly new attitude emerged, especially in Descartes’s methodical doubt which posited a radical theoretical distance between the thinking subject and the world , thus rendering the subject “invisible” to it. As Eaglestone summarizes Levinas’s argument, the modern isolation of the subject

creates the illusion that one’s subjectivity is, like Gyges, not derived from one’s relation with others but rather existing independently without society or recognition from others. Levinas continues and argues that the “myth of Gyges is the very myth of the I” which stands alone. “Seeing without being seen” is at the same time an illusion of radical separation and uprootedness from others, and the grounds of the possibility of “inner life”… Invisibility seems to turn the world into a world of spectacle, in which the observer is disengaged and free from bounds or restraint…(76)

As Eaglestone continues, in this illusion of separation at the heart of modernity, “others are turned from people into objects” (81). Like the modern conception of the subject, Sauron’s Ring, in making its wearer invisible to others and thus detaching him from his rootedness and participation in the world, in principle denies the claim that other beings have on him by virtue of their otherness. Invisible to all others while all others remain visible to him, the Ring-wearer assumes a quasi-transcendence in which their being effectively becomes an extension of his own.

In this Sauron’s Ring may be said to reverse the pattern of the Ainur’s Vision, the joyous eucatastrophe of which consists in its giving the appearance of “things other” that do not yet exist, the reality of which is later granted as a divine gift. The tragedy or dyscatastrophe of Sauron’s Ring, by contrast, is that it takes the reality of an already existing thing and belies that reality by denying its appearances. However, because things are what they are on account of their otherness, to deny a thing its appearance and its consequent relationship with those beings to whom it appears, is also to deny its reality, as we see in the case of the Ring-wraiths and all those who possess Sauron’s Ring for too long. As Gandalf explains to Frodo, if one “often uses the Ring to make himself invisible, he fades: he becomes in the end invisible permanently, and walks in the twilight under the eye of the dark power that rules the Rings… Yes, sooner or later… the dark power will devour him” (FOTR 56). Related to this, of course, is Bilbo’s complaint to Gandalf in which he unwitting reveals the effect the Ring has had on him: “I am old Gandalf. I don’t look it, but I am beginning to feel it in my heart of hearts. Well-preserved indeed!’ he snorted. ‘Why, I feel all thing, sort of stretched, if you know what I mean: like butter that has been scraped over too much bread. That can’t be right. I need a change, or something” (41).

The only person over whom the Ring seems to have no power, even to render him invisible, is Tom Bombadil, one of the earthiest characters in Tolkien’s fiction and one whose whole identity is most tied to his love of and devotion to things other.  As Tolkien writes of Tom in one letter, “he is an ‘allegory’, or an exemplar, a particular embodying of pure (real) natural science: the spirit that desires knowledge of other things, their history and nature, because they are ‘other’ and wholly independent of the enquiring mind, a spirit coeval with the rational mind, and entirely unconcerned with ‘doing’ anything with the knowledge” (Letters 192, emphasis original).

Gandalf and Torture

Readers are familiar with the anti-capital punishment sentiment of The Lord of the Rings, most memorably stated in Gandalf’s iconic and programmatic statement to Frodo, “Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends.” (Though it is worth noting that, in contrast to “sanctity of life” arguments, Gandalf doesn’t question the possibility of a person deserving capital punishment, only whether there is anyone really qualified to execute such a punishment.)  And Gandalf almost certainly would have been opposed to the use of torture. Yet in his account to Frodo of his encounter with Gollum in the chapter “Shadows of the Past,” Gandalf confesses to having resorted in his impatience to the threat of torture: “I endured him as long as I could, but the truth was desperately important, and in the end I had to be harsh. I put the fear of fire on him, and wrung the true story out of him, bit by bit, together with much snivelling and snarling.” How Gandalf was able to use the mere “fear of fire” to “wring the true story” out of Gollum, we are not told, and it is possible that what is involved here is a unique, fictional ability possessed by Gandalf and which does not exist in and is therefore not repeatable in the real world. Even so, Gandalf appears to regret his having to make recourse to such measures (compare Augustine’s discussion in City of God 19.6 of the “miserable necessity” with which a magistrate may, Augustine seems to allow, be compelled in some instances to use torture), and it is a remarkable thing that Gandalf should be found availing himself in the end to such methods-of-last-resort in a story that is ultimately about the renunciation of all such pragmatic compromises (viz., under no circumstances is the Ring to be used, even to defeat Sauron himself). Are we to see this, then, as a momentary moral lapse on Gandalf’s part (it wouldn’t be the only instance), or are we perhaps to see Gandalf’s threat of torture as somehow, in some way, morally distinct from the act of torture itself? If the latter, what would the basis of such a distinction be?