Saruman the White

Art: John Howe

Saruman the White is a fictional character and a major antagonist in J. R. R. Tolkien’s fantasy novel The Lord of the Rings. He is leader of the Istari, wizards sent to Middle-earth in human form by the godlike Valar to challenge Sauron, the main antagonist of the tale, but later on aims at gaining power for himself and advocates an alliance with the enemy. His schemes feature prominently in the second volume, The Two Towers, and at the end of the third volume, The Return of the King.

Saruman is one of several characters in the book illustrating the corruption of power; his desire for knowledge and order leads to his fall, and he rejects the chance of redemption when it is offered. The name Saruman means “man of skill”; he serves as an example of technology and modernity being overthrown by forces more in tune with nature. The character appears in almost all adaptations of The Lord of the Rings, having a particularly large part in the first two films of Peter Jackson’s film trilogy (2001–2003) in which he was played by Christopher Lee.

Saruman, like Gandalf and Radagast the Brown, was one of five ‘wizards’, known as the Istari, who arrived in Middle-earth 2000 years before the beginning of The Lord of the Rings. They are Maiar, envoys of the godlike Valar sent to challenge Sauron by inspiring the people of Middle-earth rather than by direct conflict.[8]  Tolkien regarded them as being somewhat like incarnate angels.  Saruman initially travelled in the east; he was later appointed head of the White Council and eventually settled at Gondor’s outpost of Isengard. Fifty years before The Lord of the Rings, after his studies revealed that the One Ring might be found in the river Anduin near Sauron’s stronghold at Dol Guldur, he helped the White Council drive out Sauron in order to facilitate his search.

Unfinished Tales also contains various drafts not included in The Lord of the Rings that describe Saruman’s attempts to frustrate Sauron’s chief servants, the Nazgûl, in their search for the Ring during the early part of The Fellowship of the Ring; in one version he considers throwing himself on Gandalf’s mercy. There is also a description of how Saruman became involved with the Shire and of how he gradually became jealous of Gandalf.[11] Another brief account describes how the five Istari were chosen by the Valar for their mission.

Saruman first appears in The Fellowship of the Ring (1954), which is the first volume of The Lord of the Rings. The Lord of the Rings describes a quest to destroy the One Ring, a powerful and evil talisman created by the Dark Lord Sauron to control Middle-earth (the fictional world in which Tolkien’s story takes place). Sauron lost the Ring thousands of years before the book starts and it is now held in secret in the Shire by the hobbit Frodo Baggins, one of the story’s main protagonists.

Early in The Fellowship of the Ring, the wizard Gandalf describes Saruman as “the chief of my order” and head of the White Council that forced Sauron from Mirkwood at the end of Tolkien’s earlier book The Hobbit. He notes Saruman’s great knowledge of the magic rings created by Sauron and by the Elven-smiths. Shortly afterwards, Gandalf breaks an arrangement to meet Frodo, whom he has sent to take the Ring out of the Shire to keep it safe from Sauron’s agents. After Frodo and Gandalf are reunited at Rivendell midway through The Fellowship of the Ring, the wizard explains why he failed to join Frodo: he had been summoned to consult with his superior Saruman, who proposed that the wizards ally themselves with the rising power of Sauron in order to eventually control him for their own ends. Saruman went on to suggest that they could take the Ring for themselves and challenge Sauron. When Gandalf refused both options, Saruman imprisoned him in the tower of Orthanc at Isengard, hoping to learn from him the location of the Ring. Gandalf observed that Saruman was creating his own army of orcs and wolves, “in rivalry of Sauron, and not in his service yet” and that the green valley below Orthanc “was now filled with pits and forges”. Elrond, another member of the Black Council, says that Saruman’s betrayal is “grievous news … for we trusted him and he is deep in all our counsels.”

Tolkien described Saruman at the time of The Lord of the Rings  as having a long face and a high forehead, “…he had deep darkling eyes … His hair and beard were white, but strands of black still showed around his lips and ears.”  His hair is elsewhere described as having been black when he first arrived in Middle-earth. He is referred to as ‘Saruman the White’ and is said to have originally worn white robes, but on his first entry in The Fellowship of the Ring they instead appear to be “woven from all colours [, they] shimmered and changed hue so that the eye was bewildered” and he names himself ‘Saruman of Many Colours’.

The power of Saruman’s voice is noted throughout the book. Jonathan Evans calls the characterization of Saruman in the chapter The Voice of Saruman a “tour de force”. Roger Sale says of the same chapter that “Tolkien valiantly tried to do something worth doing which he simply cannot bring off.” Tom Shippey writes that “Saruman talks like a politician … No other character in Middle-earth has Saruman’s trick of balancing phrases against each other so that incompatibles are resolved, and none comes out with words as empty as ‘deploring’, ‘ultimate’, worst of all, ‘real’. What is ‘real change’?” Shippey contrasts this modern speech pattern with the archaic stoicism and directness that Tolkien employs for other characters such as the Dwarven King Dain, which Shippey believes represent Tolkien’s view of heroism in the mould of Beowulf.

After the defeat of his armies, having been caught in the betrayal of Sauron, Saruman is offered refuge by Gandalf, in return for his aid, but having chosen his path, is unable to turn from it. Evans has compared the character of Saruman to that of Satan in John Milton’s Paradise Lost in his use of rhetoric and in this final refusal of redemption, “conquered by pride and hatred.”

Art: Mathieu Leyssenne


Saruman the White was the Chief of the Order of Wizards. He was wise and powerful, but he was also proud and he became corrupted by desire for the One Ring and was ensnared by the will of Sauron. He created armies and machinery and sought to expand his power, but in the end Saruman’s works were undone by a power greater than any he could devise and he was slain by one of his own slaves.

Saruman was originally a Maia known as Curumo. The Maiar were spirits who helped and served the Valar in the Undying Lands. Curumo was one of the Maiar of Aule, the Vala whose domain was the substances of which the earth was made. Aule was a smith and a master of crafts and works of skill, and from him Curumo gained much knowledge.

Sauron had also once been a Maia of Aule. He had turned to evil and sought to establish dominion over Middle-earth and the Valar decided to send emissaries oppose him. Curumo was chosen by Aule and he became one of the Istari, or Wizards. The Wizards’ mission was to help the free peoples of Middle-earth in their struggle against Sauron without seeking domination or power for themselves.

Curumo went to Middle-earth around the year 1000 of the Third Age. He was said to have been the first of the Wizards to arrive in Middle-earth, although according to another story he was asked by Aule’s spouse Yavanna to bring the Wizard Radagast with him.

Curumo was called Saruman by Men, among whom he spent most of his time. The Elves called him Curunir. Like the other Wizards, he had taken the form of an old man. Saruman was tall with a noble bearing. His hair was black at first, and though it turned white over time streaks of black remained. Saruman had a fair voice and a subtle manner of speech which he could use to persuade others. His robes were white, signifying that he was the highest of the Order of Wizards.

Early on, Saruman went on many journeys throughout Middle-earth. He travelled into Rhun in the far East with the two Blue Wizards, but while they remained there Saruman returned to western Middle-earth.

In 2463, the White Council was formed comprised of the chief Wizards and Elves – including Saruman, Gandalf, Elrond, Galadriel, and Cirdan. Their main concern was the evil power occupying the stronghold of Dol Guldur in Mirkwood, which they feared might be Sauron. When it came time to choose a leader of the Council, Galadriel favored Gandalf, but Gandalf refused and Saruman became the head of the White Council instead.

Saruman became resentful and jealous of Gandalf. He realized that Gandalf was stronger than he was, though more humble, and had greater influence among the peoples of Middle-earth. Saruman was also aware that Gandalf had been given Narya, one of the Three Rings of the Elves, and this made Saruman particularly envious because he considered the Rings of Power to be his special area of expertise. Saruman had long studied the history of the Rings and their making and eventually he even used his skills at craftsmanship to try his hand at Ring-making on a lesser scale.

Of special interest to Saruman was the whereabouts of the One Ring – the Ruling Ring forged by Sauron that had been taken by Isildur and lost in the Gladden Fields where Isildur was slain. Saruman made many visits to the archives of Minas Tirith and learned all he could about Isildur. Among the scrolls discovered by Saruman was one written by Isildur that described the Ring and the inscription it bore.

In the archives, Saruman also learned about the palantiri, or Seeing-stones – devices that could be used to gather information and communicate over great distances. Saruman knew that there was a palantir in the Tower of Orthanc at Isengard – a stronghold in the Gap of Rohan at the southern end of the Misty Mountains. Though Isengard was in Rohan, it belonged to Gondor, but the guard there had grown lax. In 2759, Saruman offered to take up residence in Isengard and repair and maintain its defenses. He was given the Keys of Orthanc by Beren, the Steward of Gondor.

That same year, Saruman attended the coronation of King Frealaf of Rohan. He brought gifts and praised the valor of the Rohirrim. Rohan had just endured an invasion from Dunland as well as the Long Winter. In the years of hardship that followed they profited from their new friendship with Saruman and they were happy to have a Wizard of great power in the stronghold on their western border.

Saruman also became acquainted with Treebeard, the eldest of the Ents in nearby Fangorn Forest. He walked in the woods and spoke with Treebeard and learned many things from him, though he did not share information in kind.

The White Council met at Rivendell in 2851. Gandalf reported that he had been to Dol Guldur and had determined that the evil occupant was indeed Sauron. Gandalf recommended that the White Council attack Dol Guldur, but Saruman overruled him. Saruman told the Council that he believed the One Ring had been washed down to the Sea, where it could not be recovered, and that without it Sauron could not regain his strength. The Council agreed to continue to wait and watch, though Gandalf remained troubled.

In truth, Saruman began searching the Gladden Fields for the One Ring in order to claim it for himself. In his long study of Sauron’s Ring, Saruman had become corrupted by the lure of its power and he sought to replace Sauron whom he had come to view as a rival. Saruman believed that if he found the Ring he would be capable of wielding it to establish order as he saw fit and rule the world of Men.

Saruman reasoned that if Sauron remained in Dol Guldur, the Ring might reveal itself while seeking its Master. But in 2939, Saruman learned that Sauron was also searching the Gladden Fields for the Ring. Therefore when Gandalf again proposed an attack on Dol Guldur at a Council meeting in 2941, Saruman agreed. It was by the devices of Saruman that the attack was successful, and Sauron fled Dol Guldur.

Unknown to the Council, Sauron had been prepared for the attack and he returned to his former stronghold in Mordor and began gathering his strength. He declared himself openly in 2951, and in 2953 the White Council met for the final time. They had learned that Sauron was actively seeking the Ring. Saruman assured them that he had determined that the Ring was in fact at the bottom of the Sea where Sauron would never find it.

Neither Sauron nor Saruman ever found the Ring in the Gladden Fields. Saruman did find the empty case on a chain that had once held the Ring, as well as the Elendilmir – the token of royalty of the North-kingdom – which Isildur had been wearing when he died. Saruman hid these items away in Orthanc along with many other treasures he had gathered. But the Ring was long gone. Gollum had taken it deep under the Misty Mountains where it was discovered by a Hobbit named Bilbo Baggins.

Saruman had no knowledge of Bilbo’s discovery, yet he was aware of Gandalf’s interest in Hobbits and he was suspicious of everything Gandalf did. Saruman visited the Shire himself in disguise, but he feared discovery by Gandalf so he sent agents to Bree and the Southfarthing to learn what they could of Gandalf’s interest in the Shire.


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