Besides the clearly demonic Sauron, Tolkien’s other major antagonist is also quite deliberately portrayed as Satanic. But whereas Sauron epitomizes Satan’s tyrannical power, Saruman is the quintessential tempter. Just like Satan, he begins as an angel and falls into evil through pride and jealousy. Like Satan, he seeks to exalt himself above others, and while he sometimes uses physical coercion to accomplish his goals, he prefers to manipulate others into using force for him. This devilish form of evil manifests as an external power dominating the will of others through temptations and persuasions that work upon the inherent flaws of the hearer. The Devil operates on the hearer’s internal desires from outside. Tolkien’s description of this seduction must be quoted at length:
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 spake 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 (TT iii.X, 183).
This is a powerful description of temptation in the primary world—if we substituted Satan for Saruman it could stand in any systematic theological textbook on the nature of sin and seduction to evil. For example, one often goes along with sin in order to appear pleasing in the eyes of others. We also know that when a person is in the midst of temptation, it is a form of temporary madness. We may easily be able to see the destructive result of another man’s extramarital affair and think we would never be so foolish—until we meet that attractive woman and become entranced. Satan is cleverer than we are, and knows just how to play on our desires in order to achieve a fall. When, in the form of a serpent, he tempted Adam and Eve, he worked upon their desire to be like gods, insinuating doubt into their minds about God’s goodness and forthrightly challenging the reasonableness of God’s stricture against eating the fruit. The Devil plays the strings of our psychologies like a master violinist. We can resist, but if we think our resistance will be easy we should take extra care—this may be exactly part of his plan.
Not all temptations work on all people, however. This is, according to Gandalf, Saruman’s downfall. He tries to seduce each member of the group piecemeal (185). But this is exactly the importance of the Church. Not all members will be tempted with envy, so they can help the one who is so tempted to resist by reminding her of the truth—and vice versa for other sins. If Saruman’s hearer does not already wish to appear “wise and reasonable” or otherwise keeps their ethical perspective in proper order (i.e. “It’s more important that you committed atrocities than that I be seen to be wise”), the voice has little effect. Gimli is unfazed by Saruman’s appeal for peace with Theoden, while Eomer is too angry about Saruman’s slaughters to consider a political alliance. Instead Eomer calls Saruman “an old liar with honey on his forked tongue…dealer in treachery and murder” (185, cf. John 8:44)—a perfectly apt description of Satan, ophidian imagery and all. Gimli remarks that “The words of this wizard stand on their heads,” (184) that Saruman calls aid ruin and ruin aid. One is reminded of Isaiah 5, “Woe to those who draw iniquity with cords of falsehood…Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter! Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes, and shrewd in their own sight…”
But to the members of Theoden’s party, Saruman succeeds in placing seeds of doubt about Gandalf’s goodness into their minds. “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,” (184). Once again, we read shades of Satan—“Has God really said…? Surely you will not die,” (Gen. 3:1-5). Theoden finally realizes this. “You are a liar, Saruman, and a corrupter of men’s hearts,” (185). His diabolical machinations are exposed, and Saruman grows angry. “To some suddenly it seemed that they saw a snake coiling itself to strike” (186)—more serpent imagery. In fact, Saruman’s very name means “cunning, crafty,” and the Satan-serpent in Genesis 3 is introduced as “more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made,” (Gen. 3:1).
Saruman’s dialogue with Gandalf is also highly revealing. For example, Saruman tries to tempt Gandalf, but the spell is dissipated by laughter (187). C.S. Lewis appended two quotations to the front of his Screwtape Letters—one from Martin Luther and one from Thomas More. Both advocate that the best way of overcoming the Devil is to mock and laugh at him (BTW The book is dedicated to Tolkien).
Gandalf also remarks, “I fear I am beyond your comprehension,” (187) and wonders whether Saruman ever understood him at all. This is because evil cannot comprehend the good: it is twisted in on itself and can no longer follow the straight line of reason, love, or rightly ordered desires. It is, ultimately, absurd and irrational, since rationality and true understanding are grounded in God the Logos. Gandalf gives Saruman every opportunity to repent, but can do nothing to save Saruman since “pride and hate were conquering him,” (187). Again, with reference to the work of Lewis, the doors of Saruman’s personal hell are quite literally barred from the inside.
The idea of self-condemnation is also present in Dante. Saruman refuses to repent because of his pride. “He will not serve, only command,” explains Gandalf (190)—Saruman would rather be a prisoner in an Orthanc he believes he controls. This is quite clearly a reference to Milton’s famous Satanic maxim, that it is better to reign in Hell than to serve in Heaven.
When Saruman attempts to leave, Gandalf commands him to return. “To the amazement of the others, Saruman turned again, and as if dragged against his will” presents himself before Gandalf. Saruman must move on his leave only. Gandalf breaks his staff by declaring it so. We are reminded here that while evil may occasionally triumph over the servants of God, God Himself is never so overtaken. Gandalf, the Christ-figure, is given authority from above to subdue this Devil with a word (189, cf. 2 Thess. 2:8).
Tolkien is therefore quite deliberately piling on allusions to Satan in this passage, arguing through narrative the role of the Devil as tempter—an outside supernatural force that works on the creature’s internal will and desires, one that condemns itself through pride and is ultimately responsible for its own destruction.