In the extended version of the movie "The Return of the King", Saruman tells Gandalf from above Orthanc:

"Something festers in the heart of Middle-Earth, something you have not yet seen. But the great eye has seen it".

I have watched the movie many times but couldn't really relate this statement to anything in particular.

I was wondering what did Saruman mean here?

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    Probably referring to Peter Jackson's artistic vision. Commented Feb 18, 2014 at 20:11
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    @DVK-in-exile - I think you might be onto something here. According to Pippa Boyens, all of the dialogue in this scene was added in in an unsuccessful attempt to allow them to add Christopher Lee into the film. When they gave up on that, they simply removed all the dialogue and everyone was happy again.
    – Valorum
    Commented Apr 14, 2016 at 9:37
  • @Valorum - what do you mean by "added in an unsuccessful attempt to allow them to add Christopher Lee into the film"? They added him to the film, as Saruman, successfully. Or are you referring to expanding his role and making him more of a presence because he's such an iconic, well-known actor? Commented Aug 23, 2016 at 14:25
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    @AndrewMattson He was not in the Theatrical Version of "The Return of the King"
    – user001
    Commented Aug 23, 2016 at 15:13
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    @AndrewMattson - He was only in the Extended Version. They removed him entirely for the Theatrical Version, to speed things along and win twelve minutes of edits; scifi.stackexchange.com/a/125090/20774
    – Valorum
    Commented Aug 23, 2016 at 15:35

9 Answers 9


To be on the safe side, just consider this entire answer to be one big spoiler:

The other answers touch on this explanation, but I'll do the long version. The statement by itself could be taken as Saruman simply trying to intimidate Gandalf & party, but when you look at the entire conversation it takes on a different tone. Let's take a look at the scene from the script:

Saruman: "What do you want Gandalf Greyhame? Let me guess: the key of Orthanc, or perhaps the key of Barad-dûr itself, along with the crowns of the seven kings and the rods of the five wizards!"

Gandalf: "Your treachary has already cost many lives. Thousands more are now at risk, but you could save them Saruman. You were deep in the enemy's council."

[Realizing he has something to bargain with, Saruman grins.]

Saruman: "So you have come here for information. I have some for you."

[From his robes, Saruman whips out a glowing Palantír, and stares at it raptly.]

Saruman: "Something festers in the heart of Middle-Earth. Something that you have failed to see. But the Great Eye has seen it. Even now he presses his advantage. His attack will come soon."

[Gandalf moves Shadowfax forward.]

Saruman: "You're all going to die."

Saruman: "But you know this don't you, Gandalf."

[Saruman sneers at Aragorn.]

Saruman: "You cannot think that this Ranger will ever sit upon the throne of Gondor. This exile, crept from the shadows, will never be crowned king."

As you can see, the key element of the conversation is Sauron's plans. Gandalf is essentially saying, "Redeem yourself, Saruman - tell us what he plans to do next." Saruman then taunts them without actually answering, but he says two things:

  • Firstly, there is a weakness in the World of Men which Gandalf doesn't know about, but Sauron does. The ONLY thing that fits this is Denethor being loopy & therefore unable to lead Gondor against an attack.
  • Secondly, he insults Aragorn, the potential leader of Gondor, as being unworthy.

Taken together, both statements point towards Gondor as the answer. Sauron sees the fall of Gondor as his turning point - the moment after which mankind stands no chance. He knows that if he can destroy Gondor, he's all but won the war. Therefore, his biggest concern is that someone will lead the armies of Gondor against him and put up a fight. Gandalf believes that Gondor is in good hands via Denethor, but Sauron knows better. That is the secret that Saruman is referring to... the secret that Gondor is weak and lies vulnerable despite all appearances to the contrary.

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    Would the pirates' attack be another possibility, given that Saruman says, " Even now he presses his advantage. His attack will come soon" and then "You are all going to die" ?
    – Ray
    Commented Feb 20, 2014 at 10:52
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    It's more likely the "presses his advantage" referred to the fact that Sauron was already planning the attack on Minas Tirith at that point, which is the primary reason he summoned the Haradrim & pirates to begin with. It wasn't until later after Pippin saw the white tree burning in the Palantir that Gandalf figured out he was going to attack Gondor at all, whereas both he and Aragorn seemed to know about the pirates in general.
    – Omegacron
    Commented Feb 20, 2014 at 14:38
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    @Ray - The pirate attack was the least significant piece of the larger assault on Gondor. The Orcs and Haradrim (or whatever the guys with the Oliphaunts are called) were a far more serious threat. I counted 3 or 4 smallish ships, each carrying perhaps 50 - 100 pirates. Compared to thousands of Orcs and thousands of guys with a bunch of enormous death-elephants, the pirates are insignificant to the point of irrelevance.
    – Wad Cheber
    Commented May 16, 2015 at 23:18
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    I've come to the conclusion that it's impossible to read this without my mind hearing it in Christopher Lee's voice.
    – Omegacron
    Commented Jul 22, 2015 at 13:15
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    @WadCheber did you count that from the movie or the book? I wonder if their numbers are really that low in the book Commented Apr 14, 2016 at 8:43

Peter Jackson and Philippa Boyens (LOTR's Writer and Producer) discuss this scene in the 'Director's Commentary' track, explicitly confirming that the evil "festering in the heart of Middle Earth" that Saruman is referring to was in fact Denethor's madness and weakness as a steward

PB: "It [going to talk to Saruman at Orthanc] is very much going backwards in terms of the storytelling. We were so conscious of that. It needed to be providing fresh information. It needed to be moving the story onward. So we attempted to do that in the pickups.

Really what we were trying to do was to pin the tension on that Saruman knows something that Gandalf needs to know. That thing that he knew was about Denethor and that Denethor was a great danger to Minas Tirath and that Minas Tirath was going to fall and that he knows exactly what Sauron's plans were.

But in the greater scheme of things, that was just us trying to make the scene work..."

So there you go, straight from the horse's mouth.

  • 1
    Which is a shame, since in the book Denethor was a rational, if cold, character - at least until he thought Faramir was dead. Never could figure out why PJ wanted to eradicate as much virtue from the characters (sans Hobbits, maybe) as possible.
    – Shamshiel
    Commented Apr 14, 2016 at 18:15
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    @Shamshiel - Listening to PB and PJ speak, the problem is that if your characters (in the movie) are true to their characters in the book then their actions would be utterly baffling to the audience since you haven't got twenty pages to lead in to why character X doesn't like the dark or why character Y seems to hate his job. Movies are a visual media whereas books have the liberty to create a mental picture.
    – Valorum
    Commented Apr 14, 2016 at 18:36
  • I don't think "competent, rational, and proud Steward" is hard to portray and makes a lot more sense than "yeah, there's this big kingdom where this batshit crazy mean guy runs stuff."
    – Shamshiel
    Commented Apr 14, 2016 at 23:15
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    @Shamshiel - Yes, but if he's "competent and rational" it makes it very hard to justify why the people would accept some complete random who's just wandered in off the streets as their king. Making the guy bonkers means that the public would be willing to consider anyone as king material.
    – Valorum
    Commented Apr 14, 2016 at 23:20
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    Definitely seemed like that would be why he whipped out his own Palantir - that Sauron was able to connect, manipulate and drive Denethor mad via their connection with other Palantir. Also, the line itself seems, to me, to be a homage to Hamlet - "Something is rotten in the state of Denmark." Commented Aug 23, 2016 at 14:30

From context within the movie, this may be one of two things.

  • A reference to the madness of Denethor. Recall that Saruman says this line while holding the Palantir; the movie hints at Denethor's own use of a Palantir ("Do you think the eyes of the White Tower are blind? I have seen more than you know") and so we have a connection between Denethor, Saruman and Sauron. This connection is of course more explicit in the book, but Denethor is not so mad there (yet).

  • Mere bravado in defeat, an attempt to demoralize his enemies, but not with any specific reference to anything.


I think it's location early in the third movie indicates what Peter Jackson was trying to do with it:

---They just beat Isengard and won at Helm's deep, so viewers need a cue that there is still a bigger danger ahead, something Gandalf hasn't even seen.

---Saruman is visibly connecting this thought with the Palantir.

---In a scene that isn't much further away, one of the Hobbits dangerously looks into the same Palantir, and sees the extreme danger that Minis Tirith is in. The tree, the eye, flames, all that stuff.

---From that point the protagonists prepare to save Minis Tirith. Gandalf rides there to warn them and light the beacons for help, Aragorn eventually makes his way to summon the army of the dead to help save Minis Tirith, and Rohan begins its muster for war.

---Minis Tirith nearly falls because of its hopeless leader (Denethor), over-matched forces, and internal weakness.

---Everthing comes together at the right time to save the city, Gandalf has the hobbit light the beacons, Rohan arrives, prophecy is fulfilled in Eowyn's killing of the Witch King, Aragorn arrives with the army, etc.

I think we see the plot device that Saruman's quote was supposed to be: it cued the audience that a problem was still ahead. That problem turned out to be two-fold, (A) Sauron planned to launch a massive onslaught against Minis Tirith and cripple his opposition, and (B) Minis Tirith was too weak from its leadership down to survive such an onslaught. That is what Gandalf, Aragorn, and Rohan rectify before the movie turns to the final movement at Mordor, both at the Black Gate and with the hobbits at Mt Doom.

  • It is Pippin that looks into the Palantir :-) Commented Apr 3, 2015 at 6:15

I think all the responders are wrong. Sauron's forebearer...the big bad of the simillarion melkor constantly searched for something known as the "flame imperishable"...a great power that always eluded him. Considering the first flame in dark souls which is such a similar concept....and the fact things like balrogs lie deep in the earth along with the fires that made the rings of power....maybe what festers is the flame imperishable and sauron...having dug so long is close to finding it

  • Indeed the flame was set at the heart of Arda. However, the Flame Imperishable is the creative power of Eru Iluvatar, and it is very doubtful that Sauron could obtain it in any meaningful sense.
    – Adamant
    Commented Aug 23, 2016 at 5:23

Since this scene was cut from the theatrical version, this 'thing that festers in the heart of Middle-Earth' may never have been put into practice by Peter Jackson at all. However, I will say that the mention of a 'thing' clearly rules out Denethor, yet it cannot be the Corsairs of Umbar(the pirates) either, because they live on the edge of Middle-Earth, rather than in the heart. The only thing that even comes close could possibly be the Balrog, but since Gandalf already killed the Balrog, I have no answers. Unless Saruman does not know that the Fellowship encountered the Balrog in the first place, in which case the wily wizard might be referring to the Balrog. If so, then this apparent foreshadowing actually does not affect the rest of the movie in any way; theatrical or extended.


I took it a little more literal

When I heard this line I immediately thought of the Army of the Dead. "Something festers in the heart of middle earth" Festering implies a rotting or infectious decay. -they're literally decayed corpses. cursed by Isildur to live in death until they are lifted from it.

"heart of Middle Earth"

We know they settled in/under the white mountains which is pretty central to both Rohan and Gondor, making them easily accessible to aid on either front (had Saruman succeeded and continued his attack on Rohan). the centrality of their location allows for them to act as life support and arteries to the men of middle earth. since they don't know about them yet, and Sauron may know, he needs to attack before this becomes exposed and can be used against him- which was and was completely devastating.

By the third movie we know that Saruman knows that Aragorn is with Rohan and is Isildur's heir to the thrown of Gondor. it is unclear if Sauron knows at this point but if he does then we can assume he did not forget about his dealings with Isildur and the ties that the men of the white mountains had with both Isildur and himself.

He also knows that only the blood of Isildur can lift the curse, so his advantage would be to strike as soon as possible to annihilate the already weak Minas Tirith, while Denethor is mourning the death of Boromir and at his ultimate lowest.

I really don't see how the Balrog came into play, I also didn't read the books or half these comments. its just what i got from the foreshadowing and the movies and a few wikis.

  • 1
    Welcome to SFF.SE. While there may be some merit to your answer, try to back it up with sources from the books or movies to prove why your answer is correct.
    – Skooba
    Commented Apr 14, 2016 at 9:59

"Something festers in the heart of middle earth", i love this sentence and from the first time i thought about it, i saw one, out of many comments in this story, referring to the decay, corruption and decline of our modern western society. "Something that you have failed to see" is meant as an insult to Gandalfs naitiviti (and also incompetence) also "failed to see", meaning, maybe more difficult to comprehend. To understand how the mechanics of the darkest parts of human psychology requires one really dark individual. (saruman)

I view this epic story as a guide to understand this world, our world, to understand the charactaristics of power.corruption and war.

  • 1
    yeah but...coming from the source...keep your forked tongue behind your teeth!
    – NKCampbell
    Commented Apr 1, 2022 at 4:50
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    I don't see how this addresses the meaning of the quote in-universe, which was the point of the question.
    – DavidW
    Commented Apr 1, 2022 at 11:15

In the silmarillion morgoth (saurons old master) retreats in to the earth where he still waits probably a reference as Morgoth is referenced alot in the films extended version

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    This is simply not true. Morgoth does hide out in his mountains a few times, but by the end of the book he's been expelled from the material universe. He may be waiting, but in no sense is he underground Commented Jul 22, 2015 at 11:19

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