Tolkien’s dislike of modernism can be found scattered throughout the tales, but can be observed perhaps the most clearly in the various portrayals of the Wizard’s Vale, Isengard. A great circle of stone and iron, from the middle of which rose an imposing jet-black tower known as Orthanc, Isengard experiences dynamic transformation throughout the course of The Lord of the Rings. Here, we see Tolkien, or the Author for whom Tolkien transcribed, speak volumes about the heart and soul of modern man. Let us consider Isengard in the three phases presented in The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King.
Fair and Green
By the time the reader is led by the narrative to the Wizard’s Vale, the rot has already begun to set in. Tolkien provides very little description of the place that was Isengard before the filth of Saruman had fully set in, save a few glimpses into the past intermingled with passages of the present. We may nonetheless begin to formulate an image from these few offerings.
In Fellowship, Tolkien describes the Isen plain as “green and fair,” (254) though he mentions this only as a point of contrast to which we will presently come. Elsewhere, in Towers, it is written that inside the ring of Isengard the environment had once been Eden-esque:
“Once it had been green and filled with avenues, groves of fruitful trees, watered by streams that flowed from the mountains to a lake.” (Towers, 541)
If there is one thing to regret about Tolkien’s work, it is that there is not greater description about the earlier state of Isengard provided in the primary books of the Lord of the Rings canon. There is greater description found in periphery titles and supplemental work, however, so one must find solace in this fact.
Dark Smoke and Heavy Chains
Sometime between the events of The Hobbit and The Fellowship of the Ring, Saruman took an interest in finding the Ring of Power. He began conversing with the Dark Lord Sauron by way of the Palantiri and it was through these conversations that the corruption of Saruman began to bear fruit. However, it was not until Gandalf the Grey rode to Isengard seeking help in his errand that Saruman declared himself in league with the Dark Lord. Once he had done this, the scourge of Isengard began in earnest.
To the corruption of Isengard, Tolkien provides much more detail. There are two passages worth bringing to light, one short and the other long – both worthy of meditation. To first quote the shorter and first presented of the two, from the Fellowship of the Ring:
“… the valley below seemed far away. I looked on it and saw that, whereas it had once been green and fair, it was now filled with pits and forges… Over all his works a dark smoke hung and wrapped itself about the sides of Orthanc.” (Fellowship, 254)
And second, the full passage from The Two Towers from the snippet provided in the previous section:
“A great ring-wall of stone, like towering cliffs, stood out from the shelter of the mountain-side, from which it ran and then returned again. One entrance only there was made in it, a great arch delved into the southern wall. Here through the black rock a long tunnel had been hewn, closed at either end with mighty doors of iron. They were so wrought and poised upon their hinges, posts of steel driven into the living stone, that when unbarred they could be moved with a light thrust of the arms, noiselessly. One who passed in and came at length out of the echoing tunnel, beheld a plain, a great circle, somewhat hollowed like a vast shallow bowl: a mile it measured from rim to rim…The plain, too, was bored and delved. Shafts were driven deep into the ground; their upper ends were covered by low mounds and domes of stone, so that in the moonlight the Ring of Isengard looked like a graveyard of unquiet dead. For the ground trembled. The shafts ran down by many slopes and spiral stairs to caverns far under; there Saruman had treasuries, store-houses, armouries, smithies, and great furnaces. Iron wheels revolved there endlessly, and hammers thudded. At night plumes of vapour steamed from the vents, lit from beneath with red light, or blue, or venomous green.” (Towers, 541)
Suffice it to say for the moment that Tolkien does not offer a favorable view of the endeavors with which Saruman has busied himself of late.
It is worth drawing into the din of discussion certain elements of the cinematic adaptation directed by Peter Jackson, as in this particular case he provides a not-unTolkien-esque moment. Aside from depicting the pits and forges in a remarkably industrial way, Jackson also succeeds in a brief dialogue between Saruman and one of his Orc lieutenants. The process has just begun, and Isengard is still a place of life, however superficial it may be. Saruman is told that the trees of the inner ring are proving difficult to remove; “Their roots run deep,” is the exact phrase, to which the wizard responds, “Rip them all down.” This pregnant point, we shall return to below.
Orchards and Trees
Once the filth of Saruman had been washed away, a new dawn had come to Isengard. Notice the baptismal imagery: through no choice of its own, but rather as a consequence of its steward, Isengard had become a sinful place; sinful in that a once beautiful, lovely, and nurturing place had been made ugly by the corrupted and prideful actions of another. Only by fire and water, by an act of violence, however righteous, was Isengard brought through this dark time and thus allowed to flourish fully. One may see, without too much of a stretch, purgatorial images through the Last March of the Ents, wherein they torn down the towers, filled the pits, and quenched the forges that had enabled Saruman’s reign of terror. By breaking the damn and releasing the furious river into the ring of stone, the proverbial sins of Isengard’s past were, in a sense, washed away.
Tolkien provides more detail about what became of the Wizard’s Vale once the Wizard had been expelled than he does of the Wizard’s tenure, but one may presume that what Isengard became was a fuller vision of what it was before. Thus does the Professor write in The Two Towers:
“They passed through the ruined tunnel and stood upon a heap of stones, gazing at the dark rock of Orthanc… The waters had now nearly all subsided. Here and there gloomy pools remained, covered with scum and wreckage; but most of the wide circle was bare again, a wilderness of slime and tumbled rock, pitted with blackened holes, and dotted with posts and pillars leaning drunkenly this way and that. At the rim of the shattered bowl there lay vast mounds and slopes, like the shingles cast up by a great storm…” (Two Towers, 556)
One would hope for a slightly more optimistic assessment upon the returning of a good place to good men (or trees, in this case). Alas, we see that even once good has been done there still remains the residue of the evil that was until very recently in residence. Yet, the wound at this point has been closed. What remains now is the long and intentional work of healing. And the healing does indeed come.
Following the events that make up the bulk of The Return of the King, as what remains of the fellowship continues on their victory lap back across Middle Earth to their various homelands and sundry destinations, certain of the company return for a moment to the Isen plain, whereupon they are greeted with a welcome sight: Isengard, reborn. Tolkien writes,
From the Deeping-Coomb they rode to Isengard, and saw how the Ents had busied themselves. All the stone-circle had been thrown down and removed, and the land within was made into a garden filled with orchards and trees, and a stream ran through it; but in the midst of all there was a lake of clear water, and out of it the Tower of Orthanc rose still, tall and impregnable, and its black rock was mirrored in the pool… where once the old gates of Isengard had stood, and there were now two tall trees like sentinels at the beginning of a green-bordered path that ran towards Orthanc: and they looked on in wonder at the work that had been done, but no living thing could they see far or near.” (Return of the King, 956-7)
It is not much, but Tolkien reassures the reader that Isen is on the mend, that it is well tended to. Thus concludes the journey of the character of Isengard, for Isengard was very much a character in this tale. It neither spoke nor swung a sword, but it endured evil just as vile as that endured by the Fellowship and indeed by the whole of Middle Earth. To this end, Isengard represented Middle Earth – an otherwise beautiful and lovely place, filled with vitality and goodness, a small corner of the earth that had been destroyed by the sins of wicked men. It endured, never relented, and through fire and water was redeemed and made all the more loverly than before.
The picture Tolkien paints of Isengard is of a once beautiful place teeming with life and growth and beauty; a place that has been corrupted by men (or wizards) and, more specifically, by their sinful desires for power. One can make the argument that Tolkien was making the point that the thirst for power, if allowed to move past concupiscence, is corrupting not only to the individual, but to the natural world beyond as well.
One must consider as well Tolkien’s comment on modernity. Recall his description of Isengard once Saruman has declared himself in league with Mordor. Tolkien writes of “door of iron,” “posts of steel,” and the plain itself “hollowed like a vast shallow bowl.” The plain was “bored and delved” with shafts that led to “pits and forges.” Pits and forges, of course, are there to call to mind images of mine shafts and factories – industry, in other words, which one need not have pointed out was the rapist of the English country side. These are all signs of “progress”: economic progress, technological progress, militaristic progress. Progress, to Tolkien, was the killing of the old and the beautiful in order to be replaced by the ugly, utilitarian, and new. Isengard, prior to Saruman’s stewardship, was a place of beauty and life, which existed for the advancement of knowledge and wisdom. Wise men of old were said to have gone to this place to observe the movement of the stars. With Saruman, amidst the rhythmic clanging and thundering crash of the hammer on steel and the constant thud of axe blade-into-tree trunk, “plumes of vapour steamed from the vents, lit from beneath with red light, or blue, or venomous green.” This is no longer a place of beauty, but rather a place that has been robbed of all beautiful things.
A casual observer either of Tolkien’s original work or of Jackson’s adaptation may read or watch the unfolding of Isengard and the evil of Saruman as being militaristic, or environmental, or spiritual. Tolkien, however, never distinguishes one from the other. No specific manner of sin is ever made clear regarding Saruman. Rather, Tolkien points out that all are related; his militarism and his mechanistic, industrialized mind led to the destruction of the natural world – no small sin, to be sure – and was fueled by his having become spiritually corrupt, perhaps even bereft.
This, then, was Tolkien’s view of the modern man, and indeed the modern world. He saw it, and certainly would see it all the more today, as an utter aberration upon the natural world, and thus on goodness itself. Being a devout Catholic, Tolkien understood and believed most deeply in the natural order, that all of Creation existed in an ordered, sensical way. Modern ways – factories, machinery, and the explosion of technological prowess – were applauded and welcomed by modern man, but for what purpose? To seize control over the natural world, and thus over order itself, for the purpose of bending creation to his will.
Saruman eschewed the natural world, and indeed destroyed it, in his quest for worldly power and authority. Is our time any different? Or do we not now applaud the very activities engaged in by Saruman? The orc remarked that the trees were strong because their roots ran deep. Indeed, deep roots are the strongest, and still the modern man insists on uprooting them for his own ill-conceived ends, and what are those ends? By the twisted logic of progressivism, the ends are “progress,” – rip, cuts, naw, break, hack, and burn in the name of progress, and once we get there, begin again for yet more progress! This is an unsustainable plan, for one day there will be nothing left to burn, no trees left to uproot.
We are, today, surrounded by little Sarumans – men who would see the good things of the world subdued for their own dark purposes. Let us remember that there is some good in this world, and that it is worth fighting for.