Tuesday 7 September 2010

Forgiveness, Mercy and Repentance (Gandalf, Frodo and Saruman)

I have always been troubled about the attitude shown toward Saruman by first Gandalf then Frodo, at the end of the Lord of the Rings.

Saruman is a corrupted wizard (a goodie turned baddie) who is the second most important villain in LotR. He is defeated by a combination of the Riders of Rohan and the Ents; and, after being offered and refusing a chance to repent and reform, he is imprisoned by the Ents in the tower of Orthanc.

However, after only a few weeks (and after the prime evil leader Sauron has been defeated and destroyed) Saruman is allowed by the chief Ent (Treebeard) to leave the tower and wander free.

In other words, Treebeard shows the unrepentant Saruman mercy, and lifts his punishment.

When Gandalf discovers that Saruman has been released, he believes that Treebeard has been hoodwinked by Saruman's almost magical rhetorical skills; and that releasing him was a mistake.

However, when Gandalf and a group of the Fellowship accidentally meet Saruman later in the journey, Gandalf does not make any attempt to recapture Saruman; but allows him to continue his wanderings.

In other words, Gandalf shows the unrepentant Saruman mercy, and lifts his punishment.

Saruman goes to the Shire and accelerates the process of enslavement, torture, killing, looting and environmental destruction which he had set into action shortly after Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin had left on their quest. When the four hobbits return to the Shire they need to fight and defeat Saruman and his gangs of ruffians; and in doing so several hobbits are killed and others injured.

So, Gandalf's mercy has by this point led to considerable death among hobbits and destruction of the Shire (plus even more death among the ruffians - who are first offered and refuse a chance to repent, surrender and leave without molestation).

Even after all this, Frodo offers Saruman a further chance to repent, which he refuses. Then Frodo shows the unrepentant Saruman mercy, and does not impose punishment.

Saruman then stabs and tries but fails to kill Frodo, after which Frodo again shows the unrepentant Saruman mercy, and does not impose any punishment.

Eventually Saruman is killed by his servant Wormtongue, who is slain by the other hobbits before Frodo could stop this.

The result of Frodo’s last acts of mercy was the death of both the unrepentant Saruman, and the on-the-verge-of-repenting Wormtongue.


My feeling is that while Gandalf and Frodo are obviously just in offering Saruman repeated opportunities to repent, and that in their hearts it is right that they forgive Saruman; they are both at fault for showing Saruman a mercy (a reprieve from just punishment) which he did not deserve and which led to great harm. I mean, Gandalf and Frodo's repeated acts of mercy led to harm to others, although not to Gandalf and Frodo.

I am also troubled that Saruman - unlike his mass-slaughtered and mass-imprisoned minions (which included men, as well as orcs, wolves and other perhaps intrinsically-evil creatures) - was hardly punished for his wicked deeds.

Such punishment would have been deserved, and it could perhaps also have brought Saruman towards a realization of his wickedness. To let him wander free did none of this.

I wonder how these acts of mercy would have seemed to the men of Rohan, for example. Saruman simply walking free at the end of these terrible wars; having lied, betrayed, corrupted - not to mention having unleashed orcs on women and children... and so on!

Why should Saruman *not* be punished?


My interpretation is that Gandalf and Frodo were - understandably - exhausted; and for that reason behaved wrongly in showing mercy to Saruman.

They had both, in fact, from perfectly understandable exhaustion lapsed into a lazy and immoral attitude of pacifism - which is at root a kind of pride, pride in one's own superiority, a reluctance (born of exhaustion) to go through the psychological struggles and compromises of judgment, punishment etc).

Indeed, it was wrong for Gandalf and Frodo to have taken it upon themselves to judge in this matter - since both were (at this point in the story) merely biding their time and settling their affairs prior to leaving Middle Earth. Both had done their duty, succeeded in their primary tasks, and neither had an eye to the future of Middle Earth.

Therefore, the right thing for Gandalf to have done would have been to step aside for Aragorn to make a judgment (or to send Saruman back to the King Aragorn for this purpose); the right thing for Frodo to have done was to step aside for Sam, Merry and Pippin to make a judgment - or perhaps also to refer the matter to King Aragorn (imprisoning Saruman and Wormtongue in the meanwhile).


The whole business illustrates for me a confusion between forgiveness and mercy which is very common.

People seem to assume that to forgive somebody also entails showing them mercy - such that a person who is forgiven is not punished.

This is surely completely and utterly wrong!

Universal forgiveness is quite simply a duty, which everyone must strive to achieve - but universal mercy would be wicked, catastrophically wicked.

It is a gross misunderstanding to imagine that wrong deeds ought never to be punished, and that punishment is only done from resentment.

What should have happened (surely?) is that Gandalf, and Frodo, and the Riders of Rohan and everyone should ideally have forgiven Saruman; but that Saruman should have been punished - and punished severely, up-to and perhaps including execution of his earthly body (as an angelic spirit Sauman's soul was presumably immortal within the life of the world).

In my opinion, the repeated mercy that Gandalf and Frodo showed towards Saruman was at best inappropriate soft-heartedness and at worst a kind of 'aristocratic' lenience - whereby rulers are (from a sense of solidarity) more considerate and merciful towards each other than they are to the common people.


Did Tolkien intend to imply this kind of interpretation?

I am not at all sure - but I would not be *too* surprised if he did; wanting, at some level, to show us mistaken mercy borne of exhaustion as being yet another of the many ill effects of the war of the ring.


Brent said...

Good points, Dr. Charlton. I suspect there is a kind of aristocratic code involved, but not just between equals. Gollum is shown mercy over and over again, all the way until the end. Frodo and Gandalf's conversation is illuminating:

"I am sorry, said Frodo, 'but I am frightened; and I do not feel any pity for Gollum....He deserves death.'
'Deserves it! [said Gandalf] I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death and judgment. For even the wise cannot see all ends. I have not much hope that Gollum can be cured before he dies, but there is a chance of it. And he is bound up with the fate of the Ring. My heart tells me that he has some part to play yet, for good or ill, before the end; and when that comes, the pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many."

Bruce Charlton said...

@Brent - yes indeed. I assume that this was because of Gandalf's prophecy "My heart tells me that he has some part to play yet".

Justin said...

The pardoning of Gollum was justified enough, but the pardoning of Sauruman? Is he implying that the Shire needed to be enslaved, and a handful of hobbits die? Was that part of some "greater good"? I don't see any evidence of it.

Certainly I got the impression that Gandalf and others viewed him as powerless, thus living with his own punishment. I like your interpretation, however, it does appear to be moral fault to have let him go.

I truly never understood Frodo's final pardon. I always thought that was just a bad plot device.

JMSmith said...

I'll have to go back and re-read the last chapters and see if there are any clues. One pure speculation is that Tolkien may have wished to show the moral complacency that can follow defeat of a great evil. This is very close to what Bruce wrote about Frodo and Gandalf's exhaustion, but not identical. No doubt it would have been very tempting to think that Sauron, now defeated, had been the source of all evil.

The distinction between mercy and forgiveness is important, especially since the person with the power to show mercy is seldom the person who suffered the injury to be forgiven. You cannot show mercy unless you have power; and if you have power, you are not often injured.

F said...

I have a different analysis on the events described by bgc. Tolkien needed his hobbits to show they had learned from their exposure to the great heroes that they met on their journey. Up until the end, Merry and Pippen had done little on their own to assert themselves in the world (I know, there are incidents, my point remains). But in the end, cleaning the Shire is entirely their doing. They have "brought home" what it means to be a hero and shown that anyone, with a will to do, can effect positive changes. But a hero needs a villain and the villain at hand for Tolkien was Saruman. Could another villain have been created that would do the job? None spring to mind, Saruman was was perfect foil for the hobbits, he was "within their reach". So here I believe the needs of the book outweighed the morality of the situation. (Personally I was never convinced the "real" Treebeard would ever have released Saruman.)

116 said...

I think it worthwhile to point out that Frodo tells Sam, "And in any case I do not wish him to be slain in this evil mood. He was great once, of a noble kind that we should not dare to raise our hands against. He is fallen, and his cure is beyond us; but I would still spare him, in the hope that he may find it" (1019). Although I agree that Gandalf is less justified, I think that it is wisdom and, more importantly, humility on the part of Frodo (as opposed to pride) that stays his hand against Sauruman. He knows that he, as a hobbit, is in over his head in dealing with a wizard such as Sauruman.