Saruman has been identified by critics as demonstrating the fall of an originally good character, and has distinctively modern connections with technology. Tolkien writes that The Lord of the Rings was often criticised for portraying all characters as either good or bad, with no shades of grey, a point to which he responds by proposing Saruman, along with Denethor and Boromir, as examples of characters with more nuanced loyalties. Marjorie Burns writes that while Saruman is an "imitative and lesser" double of Sauron, reinforcing the Dark Lord's character type, he is also a contrasting double of Gandalf, who becomes Saruman as he "should have been", after Saruman fails in his original purpose.
Saruman "was great once, of a noble kind that we should not dare raise our hands against" but decays as the book goes on. Patricia Meyer Spacks calls him "one of the main case histories of the gradual destructive effect of willing submission to evil wills". Paul Kocher identifies Saruman's use of a palantír, a seeing-stone, as the immediate cause of his downfall, but also suggests that through his study of "the arts of the enemy", Saruman was drawn into imitation of Sauron. According to Jonathan Evans and Spacks, Saruman succumbs to the lust for power, while Shippey identifies Saruman's devotion to goals of knowledge, organization and control as his weakness. Tolkien writes that the Istari's chief temptation (and that to which Saruman fell) is impatience, leading to a desire to force others to do good, and then to a simple desire for power.
Treebeard describes Saruman as having "a mind of metal and wheels". Evil in The Lord of the Rings tends to be associated with machinery, whereas good is usually associated with nature. Both Saruman's stronghold of Isengard and his altered Shire demonstrate negative effects of industrialization and Isengard is overthrown when the forests, in the shape of the Ents, literally rise against it. Patrick Curry says Tolkien is "hostile to industrialism", linking this to the widespread urban development that took place in the West Midlands where Tolkien grew up in the first decades of the 20th century. He identifies Saruman as one of the key examples given in the book of the evil effects of industrialization, and by extension imperialism. Shippey notes that Saruman's name repeats this view of technology: in the Mercian dialect of Anglo-Saxon used by Tolkien to represent the Language of Rohan in the book, the root word searu means "clever", "skillful" or "ingenious" and has associations with both technology and treachery that are fitting for Tolkien's portrayal of Saruman, the "cunning man". He also writes of Saruman's distinctively modern association with Communism in the way the Shire is run under his control: goods are taken "for fair distribution" which, since they are mainly never seen again, Shippey terms an unusually modern piece of hypocrisy in the way evil presents itself in Middle-earth.
Saruman is in part the architect of his own downfall. Kocher, Randall Helms and Shippey write that Saruman's actions in the first half of The Two Towers, although intended to further his own interests, in fact lead to his defeat and that of Sauron: his orcs help split the Fellowship at Parth Galen, and in carrying off two of the hobbits initiate a series of incidents that lead to his ruin. In turn this frees the Rohirrim to intervene at the Battle of the Pelennor Fields and then together with the men of Gondor to assault Sauron's stronghold of Mordor and distract him from Frodo's final effort to destroy the Ring. Shippey says that this demonstrates the value of persistence in the face of despair, even if a way out cannot be seen; Kocher and Helms write that it is part of a pattern of providential events and of the reversed effects of evil intentions throughout the book.
In the end, the diminished Saruman is murdered, his throat cut, and Shippey notes that when he dies his spirit "dissolved into nothing". He identifies Saruman as the best example in the book of "wraithing", a distinctive 20th-century view of evil that he attributes to Tolkien in which individuals are "'eaten up inside' by devotion to some abstraction". Referring to Saruman's demise, Kocher says that he is one example of the consistent theme of nothingness as the fate of evil throughout The Lord of the Rings.
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