Impatience was Saruman’s Greatest Sin

Welcome back to Saturday. I’ve been trying to hit up a few letters on the weekend, and here’s what I’ve got for today. Since we’ve been talking about Saruman, I thought I’d look to see what Tolkien had to say about him. I didn’t find a whole lot, but there’s definitely some gems for future posts.

Today, I want to look at Letter No. 181 (from Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien), written in early 1956. By this point, the last volume, Return of the King, had been out for a few months. Michael Straight, an editor at New Republic, was curious about the use of allegory in the tale. Of course, Tolkien’s views of allegory are well known now (he hated it), but then, it was a mystery.

Tolkien began by saying: “There is no ‘allegory’, moral, political or contemporary in the work at all.” As an example, he uses Gollum, explaining that he was to him “just a ‘character’ – an imagined person – who granted the situation acted so and so under opposing strains, as it appears to be probable that he would (there is always an incalculable element in any individual real or imagined: otherwise he/she would not be an individual but a ‘type.’)”

Most of the letter is fairly dry, delving into the concept of Frodo’s failure: “Fail it would and did as far as Frodo considered alone was concerned. He ‘apostatized’ – and I have had one savage letter, crying out that he should have been executed as a traitor, not honoured.”

The letter swims for a long time in the discussion of God and the Humane aspects of Men and Elves. If that is your thing, you’ll love Letter No. 181. But that leads to a discussion of his thoughts about evil as they pertain to the wizards.

“His [Gandalf’s – but also all of the wizards] function as a ‘wizard’ is an angelos or messenger from the Valar or Rulers: to assist the rational creatures of Middle-earth to resist Sauron, a power too great for them unaided. But since, in the view of the tale & mythology, Power – when it dominates or seeks to dominate other wills and minds (except by the assent of their reason) – is evil, these ‘wizards’ were incarnated in the life-forms of Middle-earth, and so suffered the pains both of mind and body.”

Let’s take a look at this. The wizards were sent to help the Elves and Men resist Sauron. Power that seeks to dominate is evil. The wizards were flesh and could suffer.

“They were also, for the same reason, thus involved in the peril of the incarnate: the possibility of ‘fall’, of sin, if you will. The chief form this would take with them would be impatience, leading to the desire to force others to their own good ends, and so inevitably at last to mere desire to make their own wills effective by any means.”

Impatience was the greatest sin that the Istari could commit. This goes a long way to explaining why it took so ridiculously long to do anything about Sauron and the Ring (as talked about here). Patience was so important because without it, they would attempt to bend others to their will.

“To this evil Saruman succumbed. Gandalf did not. But the situation became so much the worse by the fall of Saruman, that the ‘good’ were obliged to greater effort and sacrifice. Thus Gandalf faced and suffered death; and came back or was sent back, as he says, with enhanced power.”

So without Saruman’s fall, the Ring couldn’t have been destroyed. That could go for almost every aspect of the story. Without everything fitting just right, the Ring and Sauron would be unconquered.

There’s so much more to this letter. It’s especially useful to those who try to see the Bible or Christ in everything Tolkien wrote. He certainly discusses parallel philosophies and the like, but cautions that “though one may be in this reminded of the Gospels, it is not really the same thing at all.”

A Few Notes
Incidentally, this is also the letter than confirms that Smeagol was bad even before finding the Ring: “The domination of the Ring was much too strong for the mean soul of Smeagol. But he would have never had to endure it if he had not become a mean sort of thief before it crossed his path.” Though in Smeagol’s defense, Tolkien does admit that he was “not wholly-corrupt” when he found it.

Camera: Imperial Savoy  Film: FujiChrome Provia 100D RDP (expired mid 90s)

Camera: Imperial Savoy
Film: FujiChrome Provia 100D RDP (expired mid 90s)

About the Photo
I love letters and post offices, and I wish I had more photos of them. I should start trying take more so that I can use them for the Tolkien letters posts. Hmm… Hmm…

  • Day 150
  • Miles today: 5
  • Miles thus far: 741 (287 from Rivendell)
  • 53 miles to the Doors of Moria
  • 180 miles to Lothlórien
  • 1,038 miles to Mt. Doom

Today’s stopping place in the narrative: Book II, Chapter 3. Marching south along the western foothills of the Misty Mountains. Gaining in elevation 18th night out from Rivendell. January 10-11, 3019 TA. (map)


7 thoughts on “Impatience was Saruman’s Greatest Sin

  1. And, holy crap, there are a whole lot of people who want to see The Bible in Tolkien. Any time I look for an interesting book about the writings, I’m confronted with a whole lot of Christian interpretations. Blech…

    While Tolkien is VERY clear on his feelings about allegory and his intentions in that direction, I feel I just have to say “Too bad”. The author doesn’t really get to decide how readers interpret their work and their intentions are just one source of the meanings in a given text. We can acknowledge that there is no ‘intentional’ allegory in his work, but I would argue it’s still full of allegory.

    • I understand the drive to want to relate your own beliefs to whatever you’re experiencing. It’s probably impossible to do that. But there’s a huge difference between noticing similarities (or even noticing things that might be allegorical) and digging like crazy to connect dots that have no business being connected.

      The author doesn’t get to say how the readers interpret, but he can certainly state his opinion on those interpretations (which he did).

      It’s probably full of allegory (hell, he started off writing Middle-earth as Europe and didn’t fully give that up until after he started writing LotR). But, for me, it’s just safer to stress the lack of allegory. Keeps the Jesus connections to a minimum. I’m really glad Tolkien spoke out against it.

  2. … crying out that he should have been executed as a traitor …

    I don’t recall, now, whether any of the ‘good’ folk ever put criminals to death, or if so how they did it; other than tossing Eol from the walls of Gondolin.

    • Hmm.. I can’t remember either, but my gut says no. The justice was always tempered with mercy. That final judgment wasn’t for Men or Elves to make.

      And in this very letter ( 181), Tolkien himself wouldn’t even rule on Gollum’s fate, saying it was “Goddes privitee.”

    • I guess because he can’t do it in the end. It makes no sense. Even Isildur wasn’t seen as a traitor.

      Well… I sort of think Tolkien came up with the reasoning for the pace a bit after the pace came into being. It works, but he had to jiggle it a bit. 🙂

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