28

When Saruman reveals his betrayal to Gandalf, he says the following:

"And here you will stay, Gandalf the Grey, and rest from journeys. For I am Saruman the Wise, Saruman Ring-maker, Saruman of Many Colours."

Is there any significance behind the term "of many colours" ? I always assumed that he simply used this term to disassociate himself from the colour White. This is just my interpretation of it but I would be interested in any other opinions, or preferably any cast iron meaning of it explained in any other literature outside of Lord of the Rings.

  • 1
    From wikipedia: He is referred to as 'Saruman the White' and is said to have originally worn white robes, but on his first entry in The Fellowship of the Ring they instead appear to be "woven from all colours shimmered and changed hue so that the eye was bewildered" and he names himself 'Saruman of Many Colours'. Seems fairly obvious. Now, why did he have those pretty robes? – AncientSwordRage Jul 28 '12 at 18:42
  • 15
    Pet peeve: LOTR is not three novels. It's one novel, split into six books, which happens to be frequently sold in three volumes. But Tolkien never intended the three-way split and attached no importance to it. – Daniel Roseman Jul 28 '12 at 19:11
  • @DanielRoseman OK I promise not to do it again. Habit of a lifetime I am afraid. – bazz Jul 29 '12 at 18:17
44

The answer is revealed immediately after Saruman shows his "colours" (pun intended).

' "White!" he sneered.  "It serves as a beginning.  White cloth may be dyed.  The white page can be overwritten; and the white light can be broken."

' "In which case it is no longer white," said I. "And he that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom."

Tolkien had Saruman choose to move from White to Many-Coloured because it is what white can be broken down into. Saruman thinks this choice reveals his wisdom (prisms and the splitting of light may have been unknown prior to him), but Gandalf explains the reaction as Tolkien, disliker of modernity and machinery (as described in Letter 154, "I am not a 'reformer' (by exercise of power) since it seems doomed to Sarumanism."), would have it - it signifies that Saruman "has left the path of wisdom".

  • 12
    +1 For the accurate answer, with references! (Now I can confess I deeply dislike this side of Tolkien's moralizing. In fact, science works by "breaking things to find out what they are", to mankind's great benefit.) – Andres F. Jul 29 '12 at 5:04
  • @AndresF. "to mankind's great benefit" you say? What about the nuclear bomb? Breaking apart Plutonium may yet prove to be far less than a great benefit. – user23715 May 11 '14 at 23:39
  • 5
    @user23715 Nuclear fission itself is neutral. Whether it's used for good (power plants that pollute way less) or evil (nuclear bombs) is up to us. – Shadur Nov 29 '14 at 13:47
  • @Shadur - Plutonium fission used for good? Can you say Fukushima, Chernobyl or Yucca Mountain? :D I would rather see investment in Thorium Breeder Reactors if we're going to go the fission route. – user23715 Dec 2 '14 at 21:25
  • @Shadur - And now add to the list of "used for good" nuclear fission the facility at Zaporizhzhya, Ukraine. :o – user23715 Dec 3 '14 at 16:11
24

I'd like to suggest an additional explanation, not backed by Tolkien's letters perhaps, but still valid in his themes, specifically the theme that everyone has a role to play in the world. Even the little creatures, even the corrupted Gollum, are all a part of the plan.

As part of this plan, the Istari came to Middle Earth, each with their assigned roles and their assigned colors. I can't draw direct lines between their colors and their roles but it's obvious that these roles were there. Saruman was wise in lore, and he led the council. Gandalf knew all the people of Middle Earth (except the east, etc), and knew how to bring them together. Radagast the Brown was a friend to animals. Etc.

So what happens to Saruman is a classic case of hubris. He begins to feel that he is bigger than the role he was given, that in his wisdom he could surpass the wisdom of all others. He no longer feels constrained by his color, but styles himself "Saruman of Many Colors", who can do anything, know everything. This, of course, is his downfall.

5

I believe you've hit upon the right reason, that he wanted to dissociate himself from the color White. This is a clue that Saruman has begun to fall under Sauron's influence.

White symbolizes the Light of Illuin and of the White Trees, Telperion and its scions (through Yavanna) Galathilion, Celeborn, and Nimloth. This last was the White Tree of Númenor which was destroyed by the device of Sauron, just as his lord Melkor had destroyed the Lamps and elder Trees.

Telperion had a mate Laurelin of golden hue, but the Elves did not care as much for her as for Telperion's silvery moonlight. So White is by extension the color beloved by Elves and by Númenoreans. Another descendant was the White Tree of Gondor, a symbol closely tied to Aragorn.

In short, there was long enmity between Sauron and the White Light. As Sauron undermined Saruman, the wizard also came to reject and belittle the White.

  • 3
    As far as I can tell, he never fell under Sauron’s influence in the books (although he might have been influenced by him). But he was ever his own agent, and his scheming was to further his own goals. – Konrad Rudolph Jul 28 '12 at 19:22
  • 3
    I think it can be fairly argued whether it was under or by influence. Regardless, when Saruman turned to the wrong path he was continuing the work of Melkor as surely as Sauron was. – Mark Beadles Jul 28 '12 at 20:08

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.