We return, once again, to the subject of The Hobbit trilogy.
I have already gushed about this trilogy at lenght, and presented my reasons for liking it. Because of that, I won’t bore you with the details, especially when you can read those details here and here.
Instead, I will jump straight to the point with this article, namely to make an observation about Saruman in this trilogy.
I recently saw an Q&A with Christopher Lee, regarding his role as Saruman. I’ll paraphrase the specific quote.
Saruman the White was, at one time, a very noble, fine, decent, honorable man […] I’m happy to say I’ve done [the Hobbit….] when he IS a good man.
He goes on to say that, to the best of his knowledge, Tolkien never explains exactly how Saruman turned from Saruman the White to, as he termed him, Saruman the Black.
Now, the problem is that, like most people who saw the Hobbit, my main knowledge about Saruman comes from the adaptation of The Lord of the Rings. In other words, I was used to seeing Saruman as a duplicitous villain. I don’t think it’s unfair to say that a lot of us watched An Unexpected Journey, and when Saruman appeared, we thought “Oh, crap, secondary villain!”. Because, again, that is how we are used to seeing him.
But then I saw that Q&A, and this changed the way I saw his character. Once I watched the movies with the understanding that Saruman isn’t a villain, I realized that his actions not only aren’t villanous, but they’re not even unreasonable or foolish.
What I thought as subversion was just caution. What I saw as manipulation was really just reasonable observation. What I saw as contempt for Radagast was…. OK, that’s pretty much there no matter what, but still, it’s not becaue he’s evil, but because he simply doesn’t respect Radagast.
Let’s consider the context here. Gandalf appears in Rivendell with a bunch of dwarves, on a mission to Erebor. Saruman has heard of this and meets up with Gandalf to get an explanation why, exactly, he thinks it’s a good idea to mess with a creature known as the “Chiefest and Greatest Calamity of Our Age”. Gandalfs response is to suggest Smaug might side with Sauron.
As in, the dark lord that was defeated and vanquished THREE MILLENIA ago.
Gandalf goes on to question what became of the last of the dwarf rings, worn by Thrain. Thrain who, to the best of everyones knowledge, fell in battle along with his father at Moria, and his body was never recovered, possibly taken by the orcs when they retreated.
And Saruman notes that, even IF by some miracle what remains of Sauron claimed the dwarf rings, they are useless to him if he doesn’t have the One Ring, which was lost in the Anduin and swept off to sea. (Something that also happened literal millenia ago).
Gandalf then points to the fact that three trolls have destroyed a farm, and a pack of warg riders attacked him and his comrades. As Elrond notes, it’s hardly a prelude to war.
When Gandalf points out that something is wrong with the Greenwood, and that the woodsmen speak of a necromancer in Dol Guldur, Saruman dismisses this absurd, and that it’s likely they’re just scared of a petty conjuror “dabbling in black magic”. Gandalf then tries to bring up Radagast and his visit to the fortress.
In other words, he’s presenting the testimony of someone who Saruman considers a mentally unstable fool, and an embarrassment to his order, as a defence. It’s not exactly a great argument to bring up the ravings of the local shroomhead when pleading your case.
When Gandalf presents the Morgul Blade, Saruman asks what evidence there is that it comes from the tomb of the Witchking of Angmar.
Gandalf: I have none.
Saruman: Because there IS none! Let us examine what we know. A single orc pack has dared to cross the Bruinen, a dagger from a bygone age has been found, and a human sorcerer who calls himself “The Necromancer” has taken up residence in a ruined fortress. It’s not so very much, after all.
Put bluntly: When Saruman meets with Gandalf at Rivendell, he basically pulls a WTFAW! He treats Gandalfs like I treat Dave on a regular basis, except with less swearing, insults and threats of violence.
Gandalf takes what Saruman concludes to be minor coincidences, and presents them as proof that the second worst enemy in the history of Middle-Earth has somehow resurfaced.
Granted, Gandalf’s theory is correct, but its hard to blame Saruman for his reasoning. It all comes down to context. Either Gandalf is a bit of a worrywart and these minor events happening at once are just a coincidence, or Sauron, who was OBLITERATED 3000 years ago is back and threatening their long fought-for peace. What sounds more likely?
And the actual, important evidence, like the bounty on Thorins head? Gandalf doesn’t say a peep about that! What is Saruman supposed to think, when the evidence he’s offered is so weak?
And it’s very important to note that, when Gandalf is captured in Dol Guldur, and Radagast brings his message to Galadriel, what does Saruman do? Does he dismiss the message as unimportant? Does he think Gandalf has screwed up and leave him to sort out his own mess?
No, he does not. Gandalf might “look for trouble where none exists”, but he is still a member of the Istari. He is a member of Sarumans order, and while they have their disagreements, they are kin. Is Saruman the White going to let Gandalf just die? Fuck that!
He goes to Dol Guldur, along with Galadriel and Elrond. There, he’s faced with the Nazgûl, the nine undead servants of the Dark Lord Sauron, risen from the dead, armed and ready to destroy him. And Saruman promptly gets down to the business of KICKING THE EVER UNLIVING SHIT OUT OF THEM! He even trades blows with the Witchking himself!
And THIS is a crucial moment of Sarumans character in the movies.
What happens once they’ve won and saved Gandalf?
They are faced with Sauron himself.
And here, we see something very interesting. Saruman, who didn’t flinch when faced with the Nazgûl, is suddenly TREMBLING IN ABJECT TERROR!
And who can blame him? Sauron has returned, and even without the One Ring, he has gained this much power, so much so that he can casually reanimate the Nine without any effort. He can’t take on physical form, but he clearly doesn’t need to, to fight them!
This is something Saruman the Wise had never considered: that the Dark Lord, even weakened, should dwarf their power this much.
And the only reason they survived was because one of the most powerful elves in Middle-Earth sacrificed a lot of her power just to drive Sauron away, before retreating to Lothlorien.
Remember that Q&A, when Christopher Lee said that Tolkien never explained how Saruman fell? I put it to you, that within the continuity of the movies, THIS is the moment Saruman broke. He was presented with something that, as far as he was concerned, wasn’t just unlikely. It was fucking IMPOSSIBLE for Sauron to have returned, and yet HERE HE IS! It’s enough to cause Saruman to not just lose his way. He lost his mind!
It explains why he doesn’t follow the books in that he wants to usurp Sauron, but instead means to join and serve him. As he puts it.
Against the power of Mordor, there can be no victory.
He has seen the power of Sauron first hand and he knows that, since then, that power has only GROWN! To his mind, the wizards have no choice. Either they will join Sauron, or they will die.
Now, this is all well and good, but there is actually a point I want to present with all this.
Like I said earlier, Sarumans character in the Hobbit has this great depth to it, but it suffers from the fact that we, as the audience, know Saruman only as a villain, and we therefore mistrust anything he says, or at least are unsure what his motives are. So, how could they have prevented that?
And this lead me to an idea. And of course, it’s meaningless in the grand scheme of things, since it’s obviously too late to change it now. But it’s just an idea I had, with the benefit of hindsight, not unlike what I did with Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.
And the idea is this: They should have given Saruman a different staff.
See, Sarumans staff is made to resemble the tower of Orthanc, which does kind of make sense, since that’s where he lives.
But this always struck me as strange, since he hasn’t always lived there. He arrived in Middle-Earth and wandered it for centuries, before taking up residence in Isengard. So, logically, he must have had another staff in that time, and one can assume it wasn’t made to look like Orthanc.
Suppose that, when we see him in An Unexpected Journey, he instead carried a WHITE staff. Not identical, but similar to that carried by Gandalf the White, who describes himself as “Saruman as he SHOULD have been”, and this is his original staff.
That would have been a very good indicator that here, Saruman is not evil. It’d make the audience go “Hang on, why is Sarumans staff different? It’s white now, when it was black in the other films!”
(While I’m at it, they could also have given him a cleaner white robe and a manicure, but I think the staff might be the detail most people would notice.)
From there, I don’t think it’s a great leap of logic to suppose that Saruman isn’t evil here. Proud, a bit condescending, but ultimately a force of good. Hell, as an added nod, perhaps when Sauron appears, Sarumans staff shatters, echoing Gandalfs meeting with the Witchking in the third LOTR movie. Only here, because of Sarumans pride, and the fact that he isn’t as wise as Gandalf, the shock contributed to his change to, as it were, Saruman the Black.
And the next time Gandalf sees him, Saruman has crafted a new staff, this time a polished black, modeled after the black tower he resides in.
Now, like I said, this observation is kind of meaningless. I’m just musing on what could have been, in a movie series which I really enjoy anyway. And I understand that, due to the issues behind the scenes and the somewhat impromptu production, it’s hard to blame them for not thinking about such a minor detail. It’s just a small thing that, to me, would have made the trilogy that little bit better.
But it DOES beg the question why Saruman, even as the noble head of the Istari, decided to go with such an ominous looking staff…
Then again, this IS the same guy who, in the books, decided to wear a robe that sparkles like a rainbow, and still expects people to take him seriously, so maybe he just has lousy taste.