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Isengard and Treebeard: Musing on Trees and Towers

Written by Ben Schneider

There are a number of conspicuous escapes that take place during the saga of the Ring. Gollum escapes the Elves; Gandalf escapes Orthanc; and the four Hobbits have their own set of daring getaways—sometimes even from fiery mountain slopes on the backs of eagles. On only a few notable occasions, however, is a character simply set free: Gollum by Sauron, Frodo, Sam, and Gollum (again) by Faramir, and Saruman by the Ents. For Gollum's first release, it is hinted, he is being sent out as a spy and agent of the Red Eye. When Faramir releases Frodo and Sam, they deemed allies–and Gollum is reluctantly let go to, with some stern warnings, seemingly against what Faramir feels is his better judgment. And then, when we at last return to Orthanc on our way Shireward, we discover that Saruman (with Gríma at his heel) has simply been let free.
But why?
Treebeard admits some of the reasons himself. He hates to see things caged. He seems also to believe that he has taught Saruman something of a lesson, saying that Saruman was "not so weary of his tower as he was weary of my voice. Hoom!" The old Ent has been moralizing, it seems, and thinks the old Wizard reformed; or at least defanged.
Gandalf is not wholly convinced, however. He suspects Saruman's power of voice has swayed even Treebeard. That fact that Treebeard avoided the question, knew it was coming, and answered it slyly more or less cinches the suspicion as true.
The two explanations can both be true of course, and to some extent or other certainly are. Saruman of the Broken Staff has the power of persuasion, but it is diminished. The decision lay mostly in Treebeard's nature, but he was swayed. So there it would appear we have our answer: Saruman freed himself, even if it was the gentlest of escapes. A simple push on an unlocked door.
But was he, as Treebeard believed, actually reformed? Or at least broken? On the surface, the answers seem a pretty easy no, and not much. But the question is one that is given to us more uncomfortably than most. We are not simply told, as we often are, that his nature is evil--nor do we get an eloquent pearl of wisdom from Gandalf, reassuring us that it's just complicated and beyond our judgment. And although Gandalf is down on Saruman's reform in this scene, he was not nearly as pessimistic back after the destruction of Isengard, when he asked Saruman again and again to relent.
Among the throng of figures who are mostly either truly good of heart or wicked to the core, Saruman, much like Boromir and Denethor, waver on the line, and there is no mistaking the fact that the wavering of the Wizard Formerly Known As the White is of great interest. It is one of those very human moments where we are reminded just how hard a thing it is to let go of one pride and power, and how easily we can become ensconced in the towers of our own bitterness. It is also more generally a herald of the Fourth Age, where the rise of the reign of Men, with their wavery, fickle hearts, will surely lead to more of this—more moral ambiguity, more inextricable mingling of wickedness and good. With that mingling, more times that the truly good must give the wicked a second or even third chance at reform, even if there is only the faintest glimmer of hope for it.
Finally, Saruman and Gríma's liberation serve one additional role: to give us a sense of contrast in the time of homegoing. When the returning Hobbits uncover them in the Shire, they find themselves far, far greater and their enemies far pettier than just one year ago when they set off on their adventure. Perhaps even more important, we see the two diminished clingers-to-evil denied any homegoing or shelter of their own, cast out of Rohan, out of Orthanc, out of the Shire, and barred forever from Valinor beyond the Sundering Seas.

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