Features, Legendarium, Tolkien 101

Tolkien 101: How to tell apart Saruman and Sauron

04.13.10 | Kunochan | 6 Comments

sarumansauron_188x250Tolkien 101 is a series of short articles designed to introduce new Tolkien fans to important characters, concepts, and vocabulary from the published works of JRR Tolkien.

If you were introduced to Tolkien’s works through Peter Jackson’s film trilogy, or if you are just curious about the background of Tolkien’s invented world (his “Legendarium”), then these articles are meant for you.

As an aficionado of the original books, I find it strange that viewers of the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy have trouble telling the difference between the villain characters Sauron and Saruman. When reading the book, confusing these characters is impossible. And being intimately familiar with the story, I had no trouble telling them apart in the films.

But I have heard from more than one intelligent, attentive moviegoer that they were confused on this issue. So let’s get this cleared up.

There are a number of similarities between the movie characters, even beyond their confusingly similar names. (In the execrable 1978 Ralph Bakshi quasi-animated J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Saruman’s name was changed to “Aruman” for precisely this reason.) Let’s look at both film characters — I’ll touch on the literary characters toward the end of the article.

By the way, I am simplifying certain details here, in a way that may cause die-hard fans to get their hackles up. Relax. This article is for movie fans who haven’t read The Silmarillion. I’m glossing over some niceties until the end of the article.

Saruman was a wizard sent from the Uttermost West to aid the Free Peoples of Middle-earth in defense against Sauron. He became obsessed with finding the One Ring, at first to destroy it, but later to wield it himself. He was corrupted, at least in part, by Sauron, who could communicate with the wizard through his palantír or “seeing stone.” Saruman is basically just a guy — very powerful and cunning guy, with magical and technological terrors at his disposal, but a guy nonetheless, who gets murdered by his own lackey (in the Extended Version).

Sauron, on the other hand, is pretty much a god. Although movie Sauron had a physical body in the Fellowship flashback scenes, for the rest of the trilogy he is a purely supernatural being, appearing as a giant flaming eye attached to the top of his Dark Tower in Mordor.

In the film, Saruman (the guy) decides that Sauron’s (the god’s) victory is inevitable, and decides to join him. He is Sauron’s lackey, his pawn. They are certainly not the same person, although their goals and methods tend to be similar. It would be in keeping with both the books and the films to see Saruman as a kind of counterfeit or wannabe Sauron.

Movie Similarities



Casts magic from atop a black tower Casts magic from atop a black tower
Created his own race of (new) Orcs to serve him Created his own race of (original) Orcs to serve him
Is searching for the One Ring Is searching for the One Ring
Hates Gandalf Hates Gandalf
Owns a palantír Owns a palantír
Commands the flying crebain (evil crows) Commands the flying Ringwraiths (evil undead)
Corrupts Théoden, King of Rohan, through magic and Gríma Wormtongue’s treachery Corrupts Denethor, Ruling Steward of Gondor, through the magic of the palantír
Villain Super-villain
Controls others with his voice Controls others through fear, magic rings
Is killed by a sniveling nobody (Gríma Wormtongue) Is killed by a sniveling nobody (Gollum)

Movie Differences



Appears as an elderly gentleman in robes Appears as a great fiery eye
Controls Isengard, and armies of Orcs and evil Men Controls the entire land of Mordor, and commands Ringwraiths, trolls, battle mammoths, giant spiders, countless Orcs, fleets of ships, and the great armies of the Men of southern and eastern Middle Earth.
Can be slain by physical violence Can be temporarily defeated by physical violence, but can only be slain by destroying the One Ring
Plans for world domination scuttled by talking trees Plans for world domination scuttled by midgets
Represents the evils of modern industrialization Represents the evils of an unbridled lust for power
Name is Anglo-saxon “man of skill” Name is Quenya (High Elvish) “foul, putrid”

Now let’s move on to the books. Some of the backstory from the books was hinted at in the films (for instance, that Sauron had driven Denethor mad through the palantír). Other storylines were cut entirely (in the books, after Saruman is defeated at Isengard, he escapes to The Shire and sets himself up as “The Boss”).

Saruman in the books looks pretty much exactly as Christopher Lee portrayed him in the films. But Sauron is described by Tolkien as a great, monstrous black creature of heat and fire, yet still humanoid in appearance.

The “fiery eye” version of Sauron was not invented by Peter Jackson for the movie. In the book, this is how the mind and will of Sauron are experienced by those who encounter the Dark Lord telepathically; by Frodo through the One Ring; by Galadriel through her Mirror; or by Saruman, Denethor, Aragorn and Pippin through one of the palantíri. What Jackson did was make Sauron always appear as a fiery eye, and anchor that Eye to the top of the Dark Tower, effectively turning Sauron into an evil lighthouse.

But the most important thing to know about the original literary Saruman and Sauron is a similarity – they, along with Gandalf and other wizards, all belong to a “race” or class of beings called Maiar, which can best be described as minor pagan gods, or as lesser Christian angels, depending on your point of view.

Long ago, a number of the Maiar rebelled, with Sauron as one of the main leaders of the rebellion. About 2,000 years before The Lord of the Rings, five emissaries, called wizards, were sent to Middle-earth to aid Elves and Men against Sauron. Two of these were Gandalf and Saruman.

So why aren’t Gandalf and Saruman as powerful as Sauron? Well, they never were in the first place, as Sauron was always the greatest of the Maiar. But also, the wizards were stripped of much of their divine power, and given mortal bodies that hardly aged but could be killed. So Gandalf could die slaying the Balrog, and Saruman could die falling onto a spiky wheel (Extended Edition) or be murdered by Gríma (book).

But Maiar, even when they are turned into wizards, are immortal and cannot die, which is why the good and noble Gandalf is sent back; while Saruman and Sauron are destroyed (in the movie) or reduced to shades of malice in the wilderness (in the books).

Books (The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion)

(Detail of “Saruman and the Palantir” by Hildebrandt; source)

(Detail of a painting of Sauron by JRR Tolkien; source)

Appears as an elderly gentleman in robes Appears as a great, dark, terrible lord, black and fiery, but humanoid
Was once a Maia Is still a Maia
Is a cheap counterfeit of Sauron Is a cheap counterfeit of Melkor
Is abandoned by the Valar, and denied return to the Uttermost West Was offered a chance at repentance by the Valar; but refused to return to the Uttermost West
Was once good and noble, before being corrupted by Sauron and by his own lust for mastery Was once good and noble, before being corrupted by Melkor and by his own lust for mastery
Is functionally immortal Is functionally immortal
After his “death,” becomes a weakened, malicious spirit that can no longer do much harm After his “death,” becomes a weakened, malicious spirit that can no longer do much harm
Demise is directly related to Hobbits (“Scouring of the Shire”) Demise is directly related to Hobbits (bringing the One Ring to Mount Doom)
Pretends to ally with Sauron, but hopes to overthrow and replace him Pretends to ally with Saruman, but laughs at the wizard’s delusional hubris

The point here is that Saruman, although a Maia, has had his powers greatly curtailed in order to gain permission to travel to Middle-earth. He imagines this will not matter if he can get his hands on the One Ring. Meanwhile Sauron has never had his power limited in this way, although he has lost a great deal of his power in two important ways. First, through a series of defeats over the long history of the world, Sauron has lost some of his abilities, particularly his ability to take on a pleasing form and hide his identity. Second, Sauron placed the bulk of his power into the One Ring, and now that’s missing.

So why have two major villains? (It certainly doesn’t work in Batman movies.) Because Sauron represents primordial supernatural evil, a la the Christian Satan; while Saruman is the well-intentioned hero lured to evil through pride and lust for mastery.

In conclusion, when re-viewing the Lord of the Rings trilogy extended editions on Blu-ray, just remember: Saruman is a mellifluous-voiced old man played by the guy who was Count Dooku in the Star Wars prequels; while Sauron is the main baddie, a giant flaming eye who created the evil Ring.

For more info: Read more about Sauron, Gandalf, and the cosmology of Middle-earth in Tolkien 101.
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