ANSWER: In “The Council of Elrond” Gandalf explains his absence to Frodo and others by relating how he was deceived and trapped by Saruman in Isengard in the Third Age year 3018. As part of his story Gandalf says:
‘Late one evening I came to the gate, like a great arch in the wall of rock; and it was strongly guarded. But the keepers of the gate were on the watch for me and told me that Saruman awaited me. I rode under the arch, and the gate closed silently behind me, and suddenly I was afraid, though I knew no reason for it.
‘But I rode to the foot of Orthanc, and came to the stair of Saruman and there he met me and led me up to his high chamber. He wore a ring on his finger.
Soon after Saruman says:
‘ “The Nine have come forth again,” I answered. “They have crossed the River. So Radagast said to me.”
`”Radagast the Brown! ” laughed Saruman, and he no longer concealed his scorn.
“Radagast the Bird-tamer! Radagast the Simple! Radagast the Fool! Yet he had just the wit to play the part that I set him. For you have come, and that was all the purpose of my message. And here you will stay, Gandalf the Grey, and rest from jourjourneys. For I am Saruman the Wise, Saruman Ring-maker, Saruman of Many Colours! “
Many readers have asked what the significance of this statement was. Did Saruman make a Ring of Power for himself? I have often argued that J.R.R. Tolkien certainly meant this, for near the end of The Lord of the Rings as Gandalf, the Hobbits, and the Elves of Lorien and Rivendell are returning north through Dunland they come upon Saruman and he makes a very interesting comment:
On the sixth day since their parting from the King they journeyed through a wood climbing down from the hills at the feet of the Misty Mountains that now marched on their right hand. As they came out again into the open country at sundown they overtook an old man leaning on a staff, and he was clothed in rags of grey or dirty white, and at his heels went another beggar, slouching and whining.
‘Well Saruman!’ said Gandalf. ‘Where are you going?’
‘What is that to you?’ he answered. ‘Will you still order my goings, and are you not content with my ruin?’
‘You know the answers,’ said Gandalf: ‘no and no. But in any case the time of my labours now draws to an end. The King has taken on the burden. If you had waited at Orthanc, you would have seen him, and he would have shown you wisdom and mercy.’
‘Then all the more reason to have left sooner,’ said Saruman; ‘for I desire neither of him. Indeed if you wish for an answer to your first question, I am seeking a way out of his realm.’
‘Then once more you are going the wrong way,’ said Gandalf, ‘and I see no hope in your journey. But will you scorn our help? For we offer it to you.’
‘To me?’ said Saruman. ‘Nay, pray do not smile at me! I prefer your frowns. And as for the Lady here, I do not trust her: she always hated me, and schemed for your part. I do not doubt that she has brought you this way to have the pleasure of gloating over my poverty. Had I been warned of your pursuit, I would have denied you the pleasure.’
‘Saruman,’ said Galadriel, ‘we have other errands and other cares that seem to us more urgent than hunting for you. Say rather that you are overtaken by good fortune; for now you have a last chance.’
‘If it be truly the last, I am glad,’ said Saruman; ‘for I shall be spared the trouble of refusing it again. All my hopes are ruined, but I would not share yours. If you have any.’ For a moment his eyes kindled. ‘Go!’ he said. ‘I did not spend long study on these matters for naught. You have doomed yourselves, and you know it. And it will afford me some comfort as I wander to think that you pulled down your own house when you destroyed mine. And now, what ship will bear you back across so wide a sea?’ he mocked. ‘It will be a grey ship, and full of ghosts.’ He laughed, but his voice was cracked and hideous.
Here Saruman appears to be referring to the failure of the Rings of Power, which all “went out” the moment the One Ring was destroyed. It was because the Rings lost their powers that Elrond and Galadriel had to leave Middle-earth, for as keepers of Rings they had felt the burden of many thousands of years bear down upon them more than any other Elves.
The Elves of Eregion had created the Rings of Power to delay the effects of Time, which ultimately would result in the Elves fading and losing their corporeality, unless they took ship over Sea to Aman. Saruman’s taunt to Galadriel and Elrond seems to suggest that they were going to begin fading, or had already begun to fade, and so would soon be rendered no more than dis-embodied ghosts.
But one other aspect of the various Rings of Power was that their makers had to invest part of their own native strengths into the Rings themselves, externalizing part of themselves (as Tolkien put it in one of his letters). The Three Rings were made by Celebrimbor, who had already been slain thousands of years before. After the death of Sauron Saruman remained the only living maker of a Ring of Power, but because he devised his Ring according to the lore he had studied (which was the remnant of the secrets of the Elven-smiths of Eregion and such of Sauron’s teachings as had been preserved) Saruman’s ring was also subject to Sauron’s One Ring. Hence, when the One Ring failed Saruman’s ring would also have to fail.
This would also explain the deeper meaning of Frodo’s own words in the Shire, when he forbade the Hobbits from slaying Saruman: “‘…He was great once, of a noble kind that we should not dare to raise our hands against. He is fallen, and his cure is beyond us; but I would still spare him, in the hope that he may find it.'” I don’t think that Frodo meant only that Saruman had fallen to a corrupt state — but that he was no longer as powerful as he had once been. Gandalf and Treebeard alluded to Saruman’s diminished state when they spoke at Isengard after the Downfall of Sauron:
‘No, not dead, so far as I know,’ said Treebeard. ‘But he is gone. Yes, he is gone seven days. I let him go. There was little left of him when he crawled out, and as for that wormcreature of his, he was like a pale shadow. Now do not tell me, Gandalf, that I promised to keep him safe; for I know it. But things have changed since then. And I kept him until he was safe, safe from doing any more harm. You should know that above all I hate the caging of live things, and I will not keep even such creatures as these caged beyond great need. A snake without fangs may crawl where he will.’
‘You may be right,’ said Gandalf; ‘but this snake had still one tooth left, I think. He had the poison of his voice, and I guess that he persuaded you, even you Treebeard, knowing the soft spot in your heart. Well, he is gone, and there is no more to be said. But the Tower of Orthanc now goes back to the King, to whom it belongs. Though maybe he will not need it.’
Some readers have argued that Gandalf stripped Saruman of his power, but the text does not explicitly state this. In fact, Gandalf seems to imply that Saruman remains dangerous as he leaves Orthanc immediately after ejecting Saruman from the order of the Istari:
‘Well, that is done,’ said Gandalf. ‘Now I must find Treebeard and tell him how things have gone.’
‘He will have guessed, surely?’ said Merry. ‘Were they likely to end any other way?’
‘Not likely,’ answered Gandalf, ‘though they came to the balance of a hair. But I had reasons for trying; some merciful and some less so. First Saruman was shown that the power of his voice was waning. He cannot be both tyrant and counsellor. When the plot is ripe it remains no longer secret. Yet he fell into the trap, and tried to deal with his victims piece-meal, while others listened. Then I gave him a last choice and a fair one: to renounce both Mordor and his private schemes, and make amends by helping us in our need. He knows our need, none better. Great service he could have rendered. But he has chosen to withhold it, and keep the power of Orthanc. He will not serve, only command. He lives now in terror of the shadow of Mordor, and yet he still dreams of riding the storm. Unhappy fool! He will be devoured, if the power of the East stretches out its arms to Isengard. We cannot destroy Orthanc from without, but Sauron – who knows what he can do?’
‘And what if Sauron does not conquer? What will you do to him?’ asked Pippin.
‘I? Nothing!’ said Gandalf. ‘I will do nothing to him. I do not wish for mastery. What will become of him? I cannot say. I grieve that so much that was good now festers in the tower….’
That Saruman could still be capable of greater mischief at this point than after the Downfall of Sauron seems evident from Gandalf’s exchange with Treebeard:
‘So Saruman would not leave?’ he said. ‘I did not think he would. His heart is as rotten as a black Huorn’s. Still, if I were overcome and all my trees destroyed, I would not come while I had one dark hole left to hide in.’
‘No,’ said Gandalf. ‘But you have not plotted to cover all the world with your trees and choke all other living things. But there it is, Saruman remains to nurse his hatred and weave again such webs as he can. He has the Key of Orthanc. But he must not be allowed to escape.’
‘Indeed no! Ents will see to that,’ said Treebeard. ‘Saruman shall not set foot beyond the rock, without my leave. Ents will watch over him.’
And yet even in these passages there is no definitive statement from Tolkien that Saruman retained much if any of his native power. There have been many debates concerning the nature of a wizard’s staff. Some readers infer that both Gandalf and Saruman had their power bound up in their staves — and yet Gandalf remained powerful enough to fight the Balrog of Moria for 11 days before finally slaying it, even though he destroyed his staff with the Bridge of Khazad-dûm. Hence, the destruction of Saruman’s own staff appears to be more symbolic in nature and merely tied with his status as a menber of the Istari. Only Ilúvatar had the power and authority to alter the nature of any being; the Valar themselves appear not to have exercised this power even upon the half-elven descendants of Eärendil and Elwing. It thus seems unlikely that Gandalf was casting Saruman out of the order of the Ainur (as some had suggested).
So while it remains interpretative to say that Gandalf only removed Saruman from office and did not reduce Saruman’s power, it is also interpretative to say that Saruman’s power was bound up with his ring. And yet Saruman’s words to Elrond and Galadriel have no in-story context if he is not referring to the loss of his own innate power. Neither Rivendell nor Lorien were successfully assailed during the war; hence, the fall of Isengard could not have had any effect upon the Elven-realms. Furthermore, the Elves played no part in the fall of Isengard or in Gandalf’s removal of Saruman from “the order”. Hence, Saruman could only have been referring to some action in which Elrond and Galadriel played a part — and that had to be the overthrow of Sauron, which was their chief concern.