Suaron, the Black Lord, the Necromancer, the Eye – who or what is Sauron?
Any readers of the Lord of the Rings will know generally what Sauron is. He’s the ruler of Mordor, the black, barren, desolate and accursed lands to the east of Gondor. He is the Ring-Lord, creator of numerous rings of power, and one particular ring – the One Ring. Sauron commands the Ring-Wraiths, the most powerful of his servants. He also controls armies large and small, from the thundering mumakil and the men of the far South, to orcs and goblins of the Misty Mountains. Trolls and wolves fight in his armies, and he is virtually unbeatable.
That’s the short and sweet, condensed version of who Sauron is. He has a back-story, however, that is far more complicated.
Sauron was a character who, like much of Tolkien’s world, evolved as the story grew from The Hobbit to The Lord of the Rings and throughout The Silmarillion. Sauron isn’t mentioned by name in The Hobbit at all, though his presence is felt (more on this in a bit). In that book, he lurks as an evil presence in the background, never clearly emerging into the open. The trilogy of movies based on The Hobbit take some liberties with that idea and pull Sauron’s evil into the light more. I think they over-emphasise it; The Hobbit was a children’s book, with plenty of other bad guys in it. Tolkien uses Sauron very deftly, as a subtle evil influence, rather than an overt evil presence.
In the LOTR, Sauron’s full power is displayed. Here it is his actions that dominate the entire story, from his slow growth and re-emergence as a force of evil, to his mustering of power, and of course his all-encompassing desire for the Ring of Power. The sense given of Sauron is a slow-growing evil; a festering disease, or more appropriately a gathering and oncoming storm. That’s the image Tolkien himself employs, frequently using the literal shadow of Sauron’s evil as a thick black cloud, creeping over all the lands of light.
What’s interesting to note about that image is that Sauron’s growth is actually a regrowth; he doesn’t come into new-found power, but rather he simply seeks to regain lost strength. Lost from what, you might say? Tolkien hints at it throughout the main trilogy, but it isn’t until the reader reaches the various appendices to The Return of the King that he sees the true nature of Sauron. And even then, the picture is half-formed, only to become clear in the stories compiled as The Silmarillion. Let’s work forwards from there, and give a fuller version of the origin story of one of literature’s greatest villains.
Melkor/Morgoth and Sauron in the First Age
What’s a “Melkor,” you might ask? Excellent question, and Sauron’s story begins with there. Melkor was one of the god-like Valar, who helped to create the world. We’ll sink into this more deeply at some other time, but for now, just know that Melkor became Morgoth, after he turned to the dark side. Think Annakin/Darth Vader, or more appropriately, Lucifer/Satan. Morgoth was the big, big baddie of the entire Silmarillion; in overall power, he makes Sauron look pretty pitiful in comparison. Morgoth is the first Dark Lord. Sauron was his chief lieutenant, performing his evil bidding and helping Morgoth achieve his aims (basically, Morgoth wanted to re-make the world in his image). Sauron remained fanatically loyal to Morgoth, even after the latter was finally, utterly defeated. Note that even in the Lord of the Rings, Sauron pays tribute to his evil master in subtle ways; there are rumors that he encourages the men of the South and far East to worship Morgoth, rather than himself, and he names the battering-ram at Minas Tirith “Grond,” after Morgoth’s infamous hammer. Even Mordor and the Tower of Barad-dûr themselves are imitations of Morgoth legendary fortress of Angband, an evil, terrible realm.
Sauron’s deeds at this time were pretty extensive; he fought entire wars on his master’s behalf. His character was very much different from what he is during the Lord of the Rings. He had a physical form, and an immense amount of charisma. He even engaged in a battle of song, emerging victorious (he won through sheer evil force of will). He commanded werewolves and “fell beasts,” and could change form and shape-shift (at least one time, he takes the form of a vampire-bat). In some ways, he must have been more like Saruman in LOTR; able to sway men and Elves with smooth words of power. We won’t dwell more on his actions at this point; they could fill an entire post or two. Suffice it to say that Morgoth was eventually overthrown, in a war that would literally destroy and re-shape the world. But notably, Sauron escaped his master’s destruction. He begged forgiveness and swore that he had repented of his evil deeds. Maybe this was a subtle reminder by Tolkien of how powerful his voice was. He was able to convince even the other Ainur (super-strong spirits or angels) that he was sincere, and so avoided death. But he was commanded to return to Valinor for judgement. Unable to bear the thought of punishment, Sauron took to his heels, and hid in Middle-Earth.
The Second Age, Part One
Sauron waited a good long time, after escaping before he started to act; as Tolkien says, “to stir.” When he does, around the year 1000 of the Second Age (each Age began at year 1, so this is 1000 years after Morgoth’s downfall), Sauron chose the land of Mordor to be his stronghold. He began to build Barad-dûr, probably in secret. He could still change form, and so he took the form of a fair and wise man (actually an Elf, I suspect, although Tolkien doesn’t seem to make this clear), and called himself the Lord of Gifts – Annatar. Of old, Sauron had been skilled in the making of things; he excelled at building fortresses as well as crafting smaller items, like rings. He approached the elves of a particular region of Middle-Earth known as Eregion, where one Elf called Celebrimbor received him. Sauron, as Annatar, taught these Elvish smiths much of what he knew. They in turn used that knowledge to create many Rings of Power, in particular Three Rings for different Elvish Lords. But by creating those rings with Sauron’s knowledge, and many with his help, they unwittingly spread his influence.
Not everyone was taken in. Elrond (yep, that Elrond), Gil-Galad, Galadriel – all of them suspected Annatar’s intentions, though they apparently had no clue of his true identity. The whole process of Sauron’s seducing of the Elves of Eregion and the creation of the Rings of Power took centuries. The Three Elvish Rings were forged in 1590 of the Second Age. Ten years later, Sauron created the One Ring to rule them all.
The instant Sauron donned the One Ring, the Elves knew his betrayal. By this point, Sauron completed the Tower of Barad-dûr and the fortification of Mordor, and began to assemble, or at least to openly display, his armies. Knowing their peril, the Elves refused to use the Three Rings, thus avoiding falling under Sauron’s influence. Tolkien is a bit ambiguous on this point; it almost seems like the Rings have both “active” and “passive” effects. To use the Rings actively would be to receive great power, but would also expose the user more clearly to Sauron’s influence and will. Thus, the races which did use the Rings, most importantly the Men who used the Nine Rings of Power which Sauron gave to them, eventually became his servants. Or at least, that was the intent Sauron had. Even a Dark Lord’s plans can go astray. In only one case did his evil conniving work completely, and it was a significant victory. He gave Nine Rings to mortal men; kings and sorcerers of the various kingdoms of Middle Earth. Each and every one fell to his will, becoming a Ring-Wraith. Together, they formed the Nazgûl, and served as Sauron’s deadliest weapons.
The Seven Rings Sauron gave to the Dwarves were less thorough in their effects. They did seem to cause much dissension and grief, and may actually have been the cause of several vicious wars and internal strife. But Sauron never gained any Dwarvish Ring-Wraiths; they were too stubborn even for Sauron to completely enslave.
The Three Rings were the only ones in which Sauron did not have a direct hand in creating. Thus, the passive influence of those rings seems to have been untouched. That is why, in the Lord of the Rings, Galadriel can show Frodo the Ring of Power she bears – Nenya, the White Ring, the Ring of Adamant. Elrond also inherited a Ring of Power; he kept Vilya, the Blue Ring of Sapphire and Air. The third Ring went to Cirdan the Shipwright, who lived at the Grey Havens. Notably, all three locations were the refuges and strongholds of the Elves during the Second and Third Ages, which seems to imply that the passive effects of the Three Rings helped to hold back the evil and corruption of the later Second and Third Ages.
Once the Elves realised they’d been duped, war quickly followed. Sauron took the title of Dark Lord, raised his armies, and assaulted the Elves. They were driven out of Eregion; Celebrimbor was slain. Elrond retreated with the remaining Elves of that region and founded Imladris, later known as Rivendell. Moria, the great stronghold of the Dwarves and an ally of the Elves of Eregion, shut its gates and sealed itself off. Things, all in all, looked pretty grim.
And on that cliffhanger, we’ll stop! Look for part 2 soon. But first, some concluding thoughts. There are strong allegorical elements in Tolkien’s works. He was an outspoken Christian, and at times people have tried to read his stories as allegories of faith, generally, or of Christianity, particularly. However, Tolkien himself denied that LOTR was an allegory. I agree; I do think there are some allegorical elements in the story, but unlike C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, Tolkien wasn’t writing an explicit allegory.
That being the case, it’s hard not to see Sauron’s influence and the Rings of Power as a story of moral decay. As we’ll look at next time, Sauron corrupts entire kingdoms, multiple times. He literally leads people astray, and does so often by twisting their own desires. The characters who resist Sauron are the ones who follow the Light, and stay true to themselves and their friends.