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Once he was as great as his fame made him. His knowledge was deep, his thought was subtle, and his hands marvelously skilled; and he had a power over the minds of others. The wise he could persuade, and the smaller folk he could daunt. That power he certainly still keeps. There are not many in Middle-earth that I should say were safe, if they were left alone to talk with him, even now when he has suffered a defeat. Gandalf, Elrond, and Galadriel, perhaps, now that his wickedness has been laid bare, but very few others.
~ Aragorn describing Saruman.
Saruman the White is one of the two secondary antagonists (alongside Gollum) of the 1954 fantasy novel The Lord of the Rings by the late J.R.R Tolkien.
He is an extremely powerful wizard and the leader of the Istari who got corrupted by Sauron, and in doing so ended up serving as Sauron's chief lieutenant during the War of the Ring. He commands Isengard and breeds the destructive Uruk-hai. He also attempts to destroy the kingdom of Rohan and control Théoden with the assistance of his henchman, Gríma Wormtongue. He is the former superior-turned-archenemy of Gandalf.
In Ralph Bakshi's The Lord of the Rings from 1978, he was voiced by the late Fraser Kerr.
Saruman is the head of the White Council, a group of elves and wizards formed to contest the return of Sauron. Like his fellow wizard Gandalf, he is a Maia, an angelic being sent to Middle-earth by Eru, Tolkien's analog for God. He grows to covet the secrets of Sauron's power, and uses the palantir to communicate with the Dark Lord, who ensnares him and gains his allegiance. Saruman envisions the future of Middle-earth under his new master's rule, certain of his victory against the Free Peoples of Middle-earth. Though subservient to Sauron, Saruman plans to one day overthrow him and rule Middle-earth himself.
He begins his part in Sauron's conquest of Middle-earth by having his minion Gríma Wormtongue poison the mind and body of Théoden, King of Rohan, rendering him weak and powerless; he then has Wormtongue influence Théoden to do Sauron's bidding. In his bid to crush the kingdom of Rohan, Saruman emulates his master by breeding an army of Orcs, with Uruk-hai among them, and fortifies Isengard in preparation for the assaults against the Men of the West. He employs corrupt men in Bree to strengthen Sauron's spy network in the hunt for the Ring and secretly aids the enemies of Rohan, persuading the Dunleding to join his master.
When Gandalf discovers Saruman's treachery, Saruman imprisons him, but Gandalf manages to escape. Saruman then has his Orcs attack the Fellowship of the Ring and kidnap the hobbits Merry Brandybuck and Pippin Took, in hopes of eventually capturing the Ringbearer, Frodo Baggins. When Gandalf helps Théoden overcome Wormtongue's (and thus Saruman's) influence, Saruman orders his Orc army to attack Rohan while he watches from his tower sanctuary. Saruman appears to be winning the battle at first, but then a herd of Ents (giant, tree-like beings) attack on the Free Peoples' behalf, angered by Saruman cutting down whole forests to supply his army with weapons. As the tide of battle has turned against him, Saruman locks himself within his tower, neither willing to sue for pardon out of arrogance nor further betray Sauron's trust.
After Sauron is defeated, Saruman flees from Isengard, together with Wormtongue, intent on avenging both his and his master's downfall on the peaceful Hobbits. Thus, he chooses settle in the Shire, under the guise "Sharkey", and turns it into his own petty realm, with a ragtag company of Half-Orcs and evil Men as his main enforcers. Eventually, Frodo and his companions come back to the Shire and break Saruman's hold over it. As Saruman and Wormtongue are chased out of the Shire, the fallen wizard curses his minion and throws him down. Enraged, Wormtongue cuts Saruman's throat, killing him; moments later, Hobbit archers shoot and kill Wormtongue.
Saruman is cruel, uncaring, and treacherous. He would do anything to achieve greater power, even if it meant siding with Sauron, betraying his own allies and the White Council, and laying waste to the forests. Ultimately, however, his schemes and treachery lead him to his defeat.
During the War of the Ring, he allies with Sauron, believing there is no way the Dark Lord could be defeated. Initially, he plans to use the One Ring to overthrow Sauron, and rationalizes every evil thing he does as the means to a good end. By the time of Sauron's resurgence, however, Saruman has given in to his ambition and lust for power, and simply wants to rule Middle-earth with or without Sauron. Ironically, Sauron is aware of Saruman's desire to overthrow him, and plans to dispose of him once he had served his purpose.
Saruman is arrogant, looking down on Gandalf as a "fool" and the men of Rohan as "peasants" living in "a thatched barn". He is highly manipulative, managing to win many to his side against Rohan and even manipulating Treebeard into releasing him merely with his voice. He is cunning and intelligent, managing to poison the mind of King Theoden, force Gandalf through the Mines of Moria, and create weapons capable of breaching the wall of Helm's Deep. He hates the race of Men and wishes to wipe them out, starting with the kingdom of Rohan. He has no problem killing women and children. He is also needlessly cruel to Grima Wormtongue, his most loyal servant, beating him in public and calling him a "cur".
Even when defeated, he is spiteful, cursing Gandalf and Theoden and gleefully telling them that Frodo would die.
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 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. Once it had been green and filled with avenues, and groves of fruitful trees, watered by streams that flowed from the mountains to a lake. But no green thing grew there in the latter days of Saruman. The roads were paved with stone-flags dark and hard; and beside their borders instead of trees there marched long lines of pillars, some of marble, some of copper and of iron, joined by heavy chains, to the centre all the roads ran between their chains. There stood a tower of marvelous shape. It was fashioned by the builders of old, who smoothed the Ring of Isengard, and yet it seemed a thing not made by the craft of Men, but riven from the bones of the earth in the ancient torment of the hills. A peak and isle of rock it was, black and gleaming hard: four mighty piers of many-sided stone were welded into one, but near the summit they opened into gaping horns, their pinnacles sharp as the points of spears, keen-edged as knives. Between them was a narrow space, and there upon a floor of polished stone, written with strange signs, a man might stand five hundred feet above the plain.
~ Tolkien's description of Orthanc.
Saruman's dwelling was Orthanc. It was built in the Second Age by the Dúnedain.
The figure of Saruman is portrayed slightly differently in the cinematic version and the book version.
In the film trilogy, he is portrayed as being solely a loyal servant of Sauron. In the books, he is one of his master's greatest minions in the war, but he also entertains the idea of taking the One Ring for himself if possible.
His death is portrayed differently in the films than in the original books: in Peter Jackson's movie Saruman dies during his conversation with Gandalf and Théoden in the Orthanc tower, but in Tolkien's book he dies in the Shire where he set himself up. In both versions, however, he is killed by Grima Wormtongue.
In the animated film, Saruman wears a red robe rather than a white one despite his namesake.