Saruman’s armies are destroyed and his fortress overrun, but he’s still far from harmless – so Gandalf needs to disarm him.
‘I have now a last task to do before I go: I must pay Saruman a farewell visit. Dangerous, and probably useless; but it must be done. Those of you who wish may come with me – but beware! And do not jest! This is not the time for it.’
[…] ‘What’s the danger?’ asked Pippin. ‘Will he shoot at us, and pour fire out of the windows; or can he put a spell on us from a distance?’
‘The last is most likely, if you ride to his door with a light heart,’ said Gandalf. ‘But there is no knowing what he can do, or may choose to try. A wild beast cornered is not safe to approach. And Saruman has powers you do not guess. Beware of his voice!’
Saruman is (or at least was) even more powerful than Gandalf, and we already know what a terrible idea it is to cross Gandalf. He miscalculated terribly in leaving the Ents out of his reckoning, but he’s hardly a fool. He managed to deceive and manipulate the White Counsel (which includes Elrond, Gandalf, and Galadriel) for decades, if not centuries.
Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli, and Théoden (with Éomer) all go up with Gandalf to knock on the doors of Orthanc, while Merry and Pippin wait at the bottom of the stairs with the rest of the Rohirrim.
‘Half a sticky mile from here to the gate!’ muttered Pippin. ‘I wish I could slip off back to the guardroom unnoticed! What did we come for? We are not wanted.’
The “important people” just arrived, and already poor Pippin is feeling superfluous again.
Suddenly another voice spoke, low and melodious, its very sound an enchantment. Those who listened unwarily to that voice could seldom report the words that they heard; and if they did, they wondered, for little power remained in them. Mostly they remembered only that it was a delight to hear the voice speaking, all that it said seemed wise and reasonable, and desire awoke in them by swift agreement to seem wise themselves. When others spoke they seemed harsh and uncouth by contrast; and if they gainsaid the voice, anger was kindled in the hearts of those under the spell. For some the spell lasted only while the voice spoke to them, and when it spoke to another they smiled, as men do who see through a juggler’s trick while others gape at it. For many the sound of the voice alone was enough to hold them enthralled; but for those whom it conquered the spell endured when they were far away, and ever they heard that soft voice whispering and urging them. But none were unmoved; none rejected its pleas and its commands without an effort of mind and will, so long as its master had control of it.
Saruman first addresses Théoden, flattering him and offering “aid”.
It seemed to [the Riders] that Gandalf had never spoken so fair and fittingly to their lord. Rough and proud now seemed all his dealings with Theoden. And over their hearts crept a shadow, the fear of a great danger: the end of the Mark in a darkness to which Gandalf was driving them, while Saruman stood beside a door of escape, holding it half open so that a ray of light came through. There was a heavy silence.
It was Gimli the dwarf who broke in suddenly. ‘The words of this wizard stand on their heads,’ he growled, gripping the handle of his axe. ‘In the language of Orthanc help means ruin, and saving means slaying, that is plain. But we do not come here to beg.’
Methinks Gimli desires to make an incurable dent in Saruman’s head…
But this definitely puts Wormtongue’s situation into perspective. Evidently he was conquered by Saruman’s voice long ago, in which case he may very well have thought he was helping Théoden and his people. Wormtongue could have been anyone.
‘But my lord of Rohan, am I to be called a murderer, because valiant men have fallen in battle? If you go to war, needlessly, for I did not desire it, then men will be slain. But if I am a murderer on that account, then all the House of Eorl is stained with murder; for they have fought many wars, and assailed many who defied them, Yet with some they have afterwards made peace, none the worse for being politic. I say, Théoden King, shall we have peace and friendship, you and I? It is ours to command.’
‘We will have peace,’ said Théoden at last thickly and with an effort. […] ‘Yes, we will have peace,’ he said, now in a clear voice, ‘we will have peace, when you and all your works have perished – and the works of your dark master to whom you would deliver us. You are a liar, Saruman, and a corruptor of men’s hearts. You hold out your hand to me, and I perceive only a finger of the claw of Mordor. Cruel and cold! Even if your war upon me was just – as it was not, for were you ten times as wise you would have no right to rule me and mine for your own profit as you desired – even so, what will you say of your torches in Westfold and the children that lie dead there? And they hewed Háma’s body before the gates of the Hornburg, after he was dead. When you hang from a gibbet at your window for the sport of your own crows, I will have peace with you and Orthanc. So much for the House of Eorl. A lesser son of greater sires am I, but I do not need to lick your fingers. Turn elsewhither. But I fear your voice has lost its charm.’
[…] ‘Gibbets and crows!’ he hissed, and they shuddered at the hideous change. ‘Dotard! What is the house of Eorl but a thatched barn where brigands drink in the reek, and their brats roll on the floor among the dogs? Too long have they escaped the gibbet themselves. But the noose comes, slow in the drawing, tight and hard in the end. Hang if you will!’
His voice may be powerful, but it can’t change the facts, nor disguise them for long (especially to so many people). So he changes tactics once again, focusing all his power on Gandalf.
So great was the power that Saruman exerted in this last effort that none that stood within hearing were unmoved. But now the spell was wholly different. They heard the gentle remonstrance of a kindly king with an erring but much-loved minister. But they were shut out, listening at a door to words not meant for them: ill-mannered children or stupid servants overhearing the elusive discourse of their elders, and wondering how it would affect their lot. Of loftier mould these two were made: reverend and wise. It was inevitable that they should make alliance. […]
Then Gandalf laughed. The fantasy vanished like a puff of smoke.
[…] ‘Understand one another? I fear I am beyond your comprehension. But you, Saruman, I understand now too well. I keep a clearer memory of your arguments, and deeds, than you suppose. When last I visited you, you were the jailor of Mordor, and there I was to be sent. […] But listen, Saruman, for the last time! Will you not come down? Isengard has proved less strong than your hope and fancy made it. So may other things in which you still have trust. Would it not be well to leave it for a while? To turn to new things, perhaps? Think well, Saruman! Will you not come down?’
A shadow passed over Saruman’s face; then it went deathly white. Before he could conceal it, they saw through the mask the anguish of a mind in doubt, loathing to stay and dreading to leave its refuge. For a second he hesitated, and no one breathed. Then he spoke, and his voice was shrill and cold. Pride and hate were conquering him.
Of course Gandalf still gives Saruman another chance, and of course he scorns it. Like Sauron himself, he fails to understand that Gandalf doesn’t desire power for its own sake – but also that he will use what power he has to subdue evil wherever it may be found. In this case, he proves his power by ordering Saruman not to leave, and subsequently destroying his staff with a word. Then Wormtongue throws something out the window toward Gandalf.
‘The aim was poor, maybe, because he could not make up his mind which he hated more, you or Saruman,’ said Aragorn.
‘That may be so,’ said Gandalf. ‘Small comfort will those two have in their companionship: they will gnaw one another with words. But the punishment is just. If Wormtongue ever comes out of Orthanc alive, it will be more than he deserves.
‘Here, my lad, I’ll take that! I did not ask you to handle it,’ he cried, turning sharply and seeing Pippin coming up the steps, slowly as if he were bearing a great weight. He went down to meet him and hastily took the dark globe from the hobbit, wrapping it in the folds of his cloak. ‘I will take care of this,’ he said. ‘It is not a thing, I guess, that Saruman would have chosen to cast away.’
Poor Pippin seems like he’s just trying to be helpful, and Gandalf still reprimands him! But at least he provides a neat summary of the affair at their request.
‘First Saruman was shown that the power of his voice was waning. […] Then I gave him a last choice and a fair one: to renounce both Mordor and his private schemes, and make amends by helping us in our need. He knows our need, none better. Great service he could have rendered. But he has chosen to withhold it, and keep the power of Orthanc. He will not serve, only command. He lives now in terror of the shadow of Mordor, and yet he still dreams of riding the storm. Unhappy fool! He will be devoured, if the power of the East stretches out its arms to Isengard.’
With that, they prepare to take their leave of Isengard, and more importantly, of Treebeard (who Gandalf is content to leave to guard Orthanc). Legolas gets permission to visit Fangorn with Gimli should they be able to accomplish their little bargain.
‘I fear that I must take your gatekeepers from you. But you will manage well enough without them.’
‘Maybe I shall,’ said Treebeard. ‘But I shall miss them. We have become friends in so short a while that I think I must be getting hasty – growing backwards towards youth, perhaps. But there, they are the first new thing under Sun or Moon that I have seen for many a long, long day. I shall not forget them. I have put their names into the Long List. Ents will remember it.
Ents the earthborn, old as mountains,
The wide-walkers, water drinking;
And hungry as hunters, the Hobbit children,
The laughing-folk, the little people,
Until next time…