On Modernity

The Voice of Saruman


The excesses of modernity (Source)

Tolkien’s views on modernity (and those espoused by the characters of The Lord of the Rings) are simultaneously simple and complicated to understand. Certainly, Tolkien is wary of what we today might call economic progress, industrialism, and social modernity, and he places the sources of those movements in the homes of his antagonists, in particular Saruman. Yet Tolkien is no Luddite, nor oblivious to the times: his Elves recognize that times is passing and much of what they thought fair cannot be maintained indefinitely. The men of Rohan, the hobbits, the friendship of Elves and Dwarves – these are all new things in the world for ancient ones like Treebeard, more hasty and modern people and structures than those that lived during the earlier ages of the world.

Nevertheless, it is with Saruman where Tolkien displays most evidently his concern and anxiety about the forces of modernity. Sauron is a primal, aboriginal, pure, and unadulterated evil; Saruman instead is corruption, decay, pettiness, and “best intentions” embodied. He is a man of ambition, but with steps “too big for his boots,” as one might say. He is full of craft and knowledge without wisdom, full of haste and action without reflection, full of change and upheaval without consideration. All others are tools or fleeting allies for his continued track up the ladder of success. In many ways, Saruman is the modern politician, as both Tolkien saw in his own time and we still see: the twisting of words, the manipulation of friends, the betrayal of spoken word. It is an ugly mirror to what we see in our own day.

Within the ring of Isengard are the excesses of modernity. Industry is not in and of itself problematic: the Elves have forges, the Dwarves delve deep, and the men of Gondor have long built cities of great size and scope. At Isengard, however, industry overpowers all else, and it destroys any other objective beauty that could be seen: it tears up the old gardens, burns down the forests, and makes everything dirt and foul. It wastes resources, cutting down trees for sport instead of fuel. Compare the care of the dwarves of Gimli’s mind for the caves near Helm’s Deep versus the way the orcs delved at Isengard.

But modernity is more than just industry for Saruman. It is the way he experiments with the nature of things, combining like and unlike, orc and man, into foul concoctions. It is the way he betrays neighbors and yet speaks sly and slippery words of tempting kindness and needed arrangement. It is the way his speech breeds fear instead of counsel, self-serving instead of oriented to the common good. It is the way in which Saruman is clad in all colors instead of wearing the raiment of one.

We largely abhor Saruman, and we disdain what he has done. Yet we must be careful, for deeper in Saruman is a strain of modernity that we must consider in ourselves: for as Treebeard notes, even he might hide out like Saruman if all that he held were taken from him. The difference, as Gandalf retorts, is that he did not seek to cover the world in his trees, like Saruman in his modernity. Do we seek to impose something on the world around us? Do we place self-interest above the common good? Do we hold all friendships as temporary, and twist words for our own ends, however well-intentioned they might be? Have we lost ourselves, in the quest after something greater?

2016’s Reflection: “On Treachery
2015’s Reflection: “On Speech


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