Anyway the thing that had me thinking about Saruman blatantly denying all of his crimes to Théoden’s face was Sauron and the fall of Númenor and the loss of his supernatural hotness -- they’re related, I promise.
A lot of people I’ve talked to treat the event like Sauron lost his ability to be beautiful as a punishment of sorts, as if it was like, “Oh, you did a bad thing, you destroyed an entire civilization, that was terrible of you, now you don’t get to be sexy anymore, justice has been served,” and in all honestly I treat it like that sometimes, but that’s inaccurate.
Sauron losing his beauty was not a punishment -- well, I’m sure it functioned as that, but that’s beside the point -- it was a protective measure for the rest of the world. Let me put it this way: Sauron had managed to orchestrate the destruction of a continent. By himself. He didn’t come in with armies or invent bombs or dig down to the roots of the land and destabilize it. That would have been fair play, as it were. No, he marched into the king’s good graces, riding on the power of his words and the hotness of his bod, and he convinced him to walk open-eyed to his own destruction. It wasn’t a trick, or a deception, not really, because Ar-Pharazôn knew what would happen if he tried that, everybody knew, but somehow, Sauron managed to convince them to do it anyway. Like, one bully maybe tricked you into eating salt when you were a kid under the pretense of it being sugar, and another bully maybe tried to convince you to drive a knife directly into your hand without even bothering to claim that it wouldn’t hurt, and Sauron is definitely the latter.
So an entire continent has just been wiped off the face of the planet, planets just got invented depending on how you want to read the text, and Sauron has unveiled himself as the threat he is to the continued existence of the Free People, and clearly something had to be done. So they took away his greatest weapon.
Beauty, for Sauron, wasn’t ever beauty, at least not since he followed Morgoth and alienated himself from the rest of the maiar. It was a tool. It got people to do what he wanted. It made him trustworthy. Without it, he had to slog through the mud and do everything the hard way. Without it, he had to conquer Gondor with armies like some kind of peasant. Without it, he could command only through fear. Without it, people would actually think about the things that he said to them, instead of assuming they were true at once, based off the relative attractiveness of the person who said them.
I think that one of the things that made the Ring so scary was this, because the Ring was forged before all of this went down, and it’s not ugly, or scary, it’s beautiful, and attractive, and precious, and people want it, and people trust it. I think that Sauron would have regained his power, in some measure, if he had regained the Ring, and if he, who could persuade so many to his side even in his terrifying horrible form, then who would be able to resist his will if he looked attractive? Some people, certainly, our heroes, most likely, but would they have the strength of will to convince others not to flock to him? Doubtful. They would have been scattered, a handful of individuals who could hope to do little more than survive, like Elendil and his ships sailing from Númenor as it sank.
Tolkien was getting at something like this, I believe, with Frodo’s comment of a servant of the Enemy, “looking fairer and feeling fouler”. Some people have (incorrectly) argued that this statement is incongruous because servants of Sauron are quite horrifying throughout, but they have forgotten Saruman.
The thing about Saruman is, he was trying to play out his own mini fall of Númenor with Rohan (though it was much less successful). Saruman’s ambition and range was not yet so great that he could set Théoden about defying the laws of the universe and destroy Rohan that way, but the general principle of talking him into making terrible decisions that would result in the destruction of his country was still there. It wouldn’t have worked if Saruman wasn’t so attractive -- not in the sexy sense (one hopes. I’ve seen some fanfics tho.) but in the sense of him being considered wise and trustworthy. When the reader first meets Saruman, in the chapter “The Voice of Saruman” he and his voice are overwhelmingly described as quite beautiful, though he slips occasionally throughout the exchange and lets some ugliness out. His power, his voice, is waning, as Gandalf puts it, much as Sauron lost his great power of beauty when Númenor fell. When we meet Saruman later, on the road from Rohan to Bree, he’s even worse: he still says pretty words like thank you, but only sarcastically. And at the end, in the Shire, he’s lost it entirely. He only spits slurs and threats and empty spite and at this point -- it’s not that he’s no threat, he did a great deal of damage -- but the pity the hobbits feel for him is overwhelming, because, much like Sauron, he’s lost his greatest weapon, and now he has to do everything from the ground up, with his own two hands.
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