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The Saruman Syndrome

November 24, 2010

The Lord of the Rings is perhaps the greatest fantasy of the twentieth century. Very few books can rival its influence or readership. The Harry Potter series, though, comes close.

The story of the Lord of the Rings revolves around a most powerful ring, the possession of which will make anyone invincible. The central quest of the epic is to destroy the ring so it can never be used again. The idea is: too much concentration of power corrupts the possessor. But there is an undertone to this idea. It is not only power which is talked about when it comes to the ring in the epic. Too much knowledge is also considered as bad as too much power. Knowledge is synonymous with power and both are considered bad.

This idea is in accordance with Christian theology. In the Judeo-Christian worldview, the Bible contains ultimate knowledge. Everything worth knowing has been put in the Bible by God. Everything which is not contained in it is not worth knowing. Any attempt at gaining knowledge outside the Bible is considered as un-Christian. For most of the history of Christianity, any quest for knowledge has been severely punished. Over the ages, Christian wisdom has ascertained that any quest for knowledge outside the Bible is inherently evil, and is inspired by Satan. The scientist Carl Sagan asserts that Christianity is the primary reason Europe went into the Dark Ages after the brilliant strides of the Greeks in mathematics and science.[1]

This idea is seeded in Genesis, Old Testament. Eve, the first woman is tempted by the Satan in the form of a serpent to taste the forbidden apple.

Now the serpent was more subtle than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made. And he said unto the woman, Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden?

And the woman said unto the serpent, We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden:

And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die:

And the LORD God said unto the woman, What is this that thou hast done? And the woman said, The serpent beguiled me, and I did eat.

And the LORD God said unto the serpent, Because thou hast done this, thou art cursed above all cattle, and above every beast of the field; upon thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life.[2]

She makes Adam her accomplice in this disobedience and as a result humanity is banished from Heaven forever.

Therefore the LORD God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken.

So He drove out the man; and He placed at the east of the garden of Eden the cherubim, and the flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way to the tree of life.[3]

This desire of Eve to taste the forbidden apple is historically seen as the desire to attain the forbidden knowledge.

This theme has been much repeated in literature. Mephistopheles, the messenger of Satan, lures Dr. Faustus into gaining esoteric knowledge and as a result Faustus falls into the trap of evil.[4] The reason of the downfall of Dr. Faustus is his insatiable desire for objective knowledge.[5]

Another great work of literature, the epic Paradise Lost by John Milton is also based on this idea. In Paradise Lost, Milton makes the apple tree, the Tree of Knowledge. The desire of Eve for the apple is transformed into the curiosity for hidden knowledge. The famous starting lines of the first book of Paradise Lost describe this Biblical event:

Of Mans First Disobedience, and the Fruit

Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal tast

Brought Death into the World, and all our woe,

With loss of Eden, till one greater Man

Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat[6]

Even before Paradise Lost, knowledge was looked upon as evil and Satanic by orthodox Christians; but after it, the idea became fixed in literature and has often been repeated.

Aslan, in the Chronicles of Narnia punishes curiosity.[7] The child heroine of The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge is also rebuked for excessive curiosity by Wrolf, the Christ character.[8]

In the Lord of the Rings, this theme makes its appearance again and again. It is present as an undertone throughout the epic, but it is also expressed explicitly in case of Saruman.

Saruman, the White is an elder wizard like Gandalf, the Grey. He is leader of the Istari, wizards sent to Middle-earth in human form by the godlike Valar to challenge Sauron, the Satan figure of the epic. However, as the story progresses the reader comes to know that he has turned evil and has befriended Sauron. Saruman is working for Sauron and is raising an army to defeat the good side. He traps Gandalf in his castle.

The cause of Saruman’s fall is attributed to his excessive zeal for objective knowledge. His job was to keep an eye on Sauron and try to know about the source of his power. Gandalf explains that as Saruman concentrated too much on his enemy and his ways, he became evil in the end.

The idea here is: any study too deep will result in evil. This curiosity punishing trait is called as ‘the Saruman Syndrome’ in this study.

The Harry Potter series does not suffer from the Saruman syndrome. Harry and his friends are always curious for knowledge. Whenever they encounter something hidden or mysterious, they cannot rest until the mystery is revealed. In fact, most of the plots of the novels depend on this curiosity of the trio. Harry and his friends embark on secret quests again and again, in order to know about a certain mystery, every time breaking a dozen of rules. Even Hermione, who is very particular about rules, breaks a lot of them.

In the first book, they go into the Forbidden Forest, even when they are warned not to. They stay outdoors when they are told to be in after dinner. They go in the hidden room where the three-headed dog Fluffy is guarding a precious thing. The reader gets to see the underground chamber where Harry encounters Voldemort for the first time, due to the insatiable curiosity of Harry.

In the second book, Harry hears a hissing, whispering sound in the underground pipes of Hogwarts which other cannot. He cannot contain himself and goes after the mystery. He goes on about his secret errands, with the help of the Invisibility Cloak. He finds Tom Riddle’s diary in the bathroom and despite warnings from his friends interacts with it, which ultimately leads him to the Chamber of Secrets.

In the third book, Sirius Black, the prisoner of Azkaban is set loose and Harry is specially warned of the danger he faces. Still Harry does not heed the warning and goes after alleged collaborator of Voldemort. It ultimately gets him and his friends to the Shrieking Shack and then to the Dementors.

In the sixth book, he again finds an annotated book of potions, marked as the property of the Half-Blood Prince. Despite the repeated warnings of Hermione, he uses the book. Once he gets into serious trouble as he uses one of the charm mentioned in the book on Draco Malfoy. This charm, Sectumsempra makes various slits in the body of the victim and blood starts gushing out in torrents, from the body of Draco Malfoy. Draco is saved by Snape who happens to be at the place.

Dumbledore never kills the curiosity of these students, but instead satisfies and fuels it. In the sixth book, he encourages Harry to know more about the Horcruxes from Scrimgeour, the new potions master. He himself is busy all through the book, in finding more about Voldemort and how he is to be killed. In the last book, Harry, Ron and Hermione seek out the Horcruxes and try to destroy them.

In this regard, the Harry Potter series is radically different from the curiosity-punishing Christian culture. For Harry and his friends, the quest for knowledge is hard and tortuous but its results are coveted. Even when they face many hardships during their adventures, the knowledge they gain is intellectually and spiritually rewarding. It is worth the trouble they face. The idea of self-enhancement by gaining knowledge is conducive to pagan culture and is against the Judeo-Christian worldview. The Harry Potter series encourages the pursuit of knowledge unlike Christianity and hence does not suffer from the Saruman syndrome.

[1] Sagan, Carl. Cosmos. New York: Ballantine Books. 1985.

[2] Good News Bible. New York: American Bible Society. 2001. Genesis 3:1,2,4,13,14

[3] Good News Bible. New York: American Bible Society. 2001. Genesis 3:23-24

[4] Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von. Faust: Part I. London: Penguin Classics. 2005. p. xxx-xxxi

[5] Marlowe, Christopher. Christopher Marlowe: The Complete Plays. London: Penguin Classics. 2003. p. xxvii-xxviii

[6] Milton, John. Paradise Lost. London: Penguin Classics. 2005. p. 4

[7] Lewis, C. S. The Chronicles of Narnia. New York: HarperCollins. 2001.

[8] Goudge, Elizabeth. The Little White Horse. New York: Puffin. 2001.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. November 25, 2010 11:28 AM

    Nice comparison between two of the greatest fictional epics of the 21st century .I havent read either of the two series , except for the first harry potter book, hence this summary is like a revelation to me.

  2. Thomas permalink
    January 11, 2011 8:13 PM

    Knowledge is power. Power corrupts. Study hard. Be evil.

  3. January 30, 2011 10:33 AM

    I disagree with several points in your analysis, but please, don’t discount my arguments because of it.

    Science is not meant to be an antithesis to faith, but a complement. If I remember correctly, the Tree of Knowledge referred specifically to the Knowledge of Good and Evil, not necessarily increased intelligence. Adam and Eve were led by an outside influence to doubt their creator’s benevolence. This doubt led them to defy Him and seek that specific knowledge. Yes, curiosity was a bad thing in this case. But the moral is not “curiosity and knowledge are bad,” rather, “defying God’s will is bad.”

    Yes, the Church has been very conservative in regards to science. But that was the fault of the imperfect humans leading the Church, not Christianity by definition, as Carl Sagan suggested.

    Faust and Paradise Lost are not scripture defining the faith, but creative works loosely inspired by it. The primary source for quoting Christianity should be Christianity’s only true source, the Bible.

    I am a fan of the Chronicles of Narnia, but I am not sure as to which rebuke by Aslan you are referring. As for Saruman in the Lord of the Rings… according to Tolkien, he represented Industry at the cost of harming the natural world, not necessarily knowledge. This becomes more obvious after reading the books; Saruman reappears in the Shire when the Hobbits return, and industrializes it. This is Saruman’s true villainy, destroying Nature. It did not result from studying, but from the passage of time, the forgetting of his original purpose, and the temptation of the Ring.

    Christianity is not supposed to be curiosity-punishing. Its stewards have, admittedly, been overzealous in resisting the threat of temptation. But humans are imperfect, ever since that first weakness. Please don’t just write me off as a crazed, illogical, mouth-foaming Christian. I did you the courtesy of reading your post in its entirety, please do the same for this comment.

  4. May 15, 2011 9:04 AM

    ‘Yes, the Church has been very conservative in regards to science. But that was the fault of the imperfect humans leading the Church, not Christianity by definition, as Carl Sagan suggested.’

    Carl Sagan suggested a lot more things. But we won’t want to go into that…

    ‘Faust and Paradise Lost are not scripture defining the faith, but creative works loosely inspired by it. The primary source for quoting Christianity should be Christianity’s only true source, the Bible.’

    Of course, and as you should have seen, I have done just that… Quoting Faust and all was just adding some philosophical point of view. It was just explaining the Christian mindset through the ages.

    ‘I am a fan of the Chronicles of Narnia, but I am not sure as to which rebuke by Aslan you are referring. ‘

    For starters, its all over in The Magician’s Nephew. The boy is punished for ringing the bell… and many more things…

    ‘Please don’t just write me off as a crazed, illogical, mouth-foaming Christian.’

    Though I wouldn’t call you a fan of logic, and you are certainly a Christian, you are definitely not crazy… 🙂

    ‘I did you the courtesy of reading your post in its entirety, please do the same for this comment.’

    Even if you had abused, I would have gone through your post… I always do… 🙂

  5. doodle permalink
    July 7, 2012 11:42 AM

    Now that’s a nice review! I’ve had similar thoughts, but hadn’t put ’em into words this succinctly and well. Incidentally, what do you think of Coatzee’s ‘Disgrace’? The one decent book that won the Booker. I liked it, at least until the mandatory rape scene crops up and it gets all preachy.

  6. February 10, 2014 5:13 PM

    Actually, I would argue that Dumbledore fills the role of Saruman in the Harry Potter series. Just think about it:
    They are both very manipulative of others.
    They are both very secretive.
    They both have a greyish agenda that puts them at cross purposes with both their nominal allies and their enemies.
    They both have the power to sway almost anyone into doing their bidding just by talking to them.
    They are both power hungry and very knowledgeable about the ways of their enemies.
    They both dress very colorfully.

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