J. R. R. Tolkien, the author of The Lord of the Rings, was famously dismissive of those who attempted to discern some kind of concrete thematic import in his work. In his foreword to the second edition of the work, he wrote: “As for any inner meaning or ‘message’, it has in the intention of the author none. It is neither allegorical nor topical.”
This warning should caution us against overly broad or confident interpretations of his work. However, it does not mean one cannot draw timeless truths from it. That is, at any rate, what Henry T. Edmondson has done in a recent essay at Law & Liberty. Edmondson argues that Saruman, the fallen wizard in Tolkien’s tale, displays a good number of modern vices — chief among them, an eerily apt anticipation of certain aspects of our present politics. Focusing on a moment from the story in which Saruman’s grand designs have come to naught, Edmondson writes of the wizard’s attempt to weasel his way out of his ill fortune with demagoguery:
Anticipating our own age of victimization, Saruman plays the part of the aggrieved victim—no longer the aggressor—because of “the injuries that have been done to me.” Nonetheless, with pseudo-magnanimity, he offers to rescue the men from the ruin to which they are headed under Gandalf’s leadership: “Indeed I alone can aid you now.”
Saruman then offers an opportunity for peace and reconciliation as he asks King Theoden, “Will you have peace with me, and all the aid that my knowledge, founded in long years, can bring?” The implication is that, if Theoden declines to accept Saruman’s offer of peace, it is Theoden who will be divisive. This would seem an implausible tactic—were it not so familiar in contemporary politics. Viciously slander and undermine your political opponent, and then publicly offer to [salve] the wounds that you yourself have inflicted, all the while condemning “the politics of personal destruction.” Saruman, moreover, is as capable of “spin” as any modern-day political consultant.
Edmondson goes on to offer further analysis of Tolkien’s contempt for democracy. It is well worth reading. I would add, however, another vice of Saruman’s that is relevant today. It is best expressed in his own words, and without comment:
‘”And listen, Gandalf, my old friend and helper!” he said, coming near and speaking with a softer voice. “I said we, for we it may be, if you will join with me. A new Power is rising. Against it the old allies and policies will not avail us at all. There is no hope left in Elves or dying Númenor. This then is one choice before you, before us. We may join with that Power. It would be wise, Gandalf. There is hope that way. Its victory is at hand; and there will be rich reward for those that aided it. As the Power grows, its proved friends will also grow; and the Wise, such as you and I, may with patience come at last to direct its courses, to control it. We can bide our time, we can keep our thoughts in our hearts, deploring maybe evils done by the way, but approving the high and ultimate purpose: Knowledge, Rule, Order; all the things that we have so far striven in vain to accomplish, hindered rather than helped by our weak or idle friends. There need not be, there would not be, any real change in our designs, only in our means.”