We left things off with the completion of the One Ring (year 1600 of the Second Age), and Sauron’s betrayal of the Elves. Gone is the fair persona of Annatar – back again is Sauron as a Dark Lord.
War ensued quickly. By 1693, the Elves had hidden the Three Rings and begun openly resisting Sauron. Eriador and Eregion, two formerly-prosperous and fair lands near Moria, were devastated in the conflict. For fans of the movies, these regions appear only briefly; in the “crow” scene before the Fellowship begins to climb up Caradhras. They are more fully depicted in the book, although even there only a fleeting glimpse is given of their former glory. Legolas describes the land thus:
But the Elves of this land were of a race strange to us of the silvan folk, and the trees and the grass do not now remember them. Only I hear the stones lament them: deep they delved us, fair they wrought us, high they builded us; but they are gone. They are gone. They sought the Havens long ago.
It is interesting to note that these Elves do appear to be slightly “odd,” by the standards of Tolkien’s fair folk. Note the emphasis on building with stone, and add that to the fact that these Elves were great metal-workers as well, producing the Rings themselves. The Elves of Eregion seemed to have more in common with Dwarves, with whom they were friendly – another oddity. It’s not one that Tolkien ever explains, at least to my knowledge. At any rate, Eregion was quickly abandoned, and became a desolate land. Not exactly barren or blasted, or corrupted like the Dead Marshes, but simply left to return to a hard, scrubby land.
Sauron’s forces advanced quickly. 1697, Eregion falls. 1699, Eriador is defeated. But then, Sauron is suddenly and completely defeated by a huge navy from Numenor, which lands at Lindon. The Numenoreans are a race of men, whose history by itself is worth a blog-post or five. For now, suffice it to say that they were tall, proud, and powerful. Their founder was Elros, a half-Elven and brother to Elrond. Elrond chose to be counted as an Elf, and so was immortal; Elros chose the fate of Men, and was blessed with an extremely long life, but one that did end. His descendants, the Numenoreans, were also especially long-lived (Aragorn is a super-distant descendant of Numenor, and note his advanced age at the time of the Lord of the Rings).
Long story short, this was Numenor at the height of its power. The Numenoreans came from an island between Valinor (land of the gods in the far West) and Middle-earth, rather closer to Middle-Earth if I interpret Tolkien correctly. They used to visit the men of Middle-Earth in their ships, but didn’t seem to take up permanent residence there. However, the fleet that sailed to defeat Sauron in 1700 was different. Their king, though long-lived as always, began to be jealous of the Elves. After the defeat of Sauron, the Numenoreans started to establish fortresses in Middle-Earth, most of them near the coast. You’ll recognize the name of the chief fortress: Umbar.
From the year 1701 to about 2250 there was a long peace in Middle-Earth. Sauron’s efforts were concentrated in the East, beyond the reach of the Elves and of Numenor. In the meantime, the men of Numenor’s jealousy of the Elves grew, and a shadow came on their empire. This was small and insignificant at first, but through the four-and-a-half centuries of peace, it became the source of a major schism. The division solidified into two factions: the men of Numenor who kept the friendship of the Elves and followed the Valar of the West, and the men (the majority now) who coveted the Elves’ immortality and grew bitter against the Valar.
In the meantime, Sauron marshalled his strength. The Nazgul appeared for the first time, and for another millennium (2251 to approx. 3255) Sauron increased his hold over much of Middle-Earth. The men of Numenor, meanwhile, turned increasingly away from the West. They ceased to come in friendship to much of Middle-Earth, and began to arrive as conquerors, gathering tribute. They grew ever-richer, but their lifespans continued to shorten, leaving them ever more frustrated.
There’s a lot we don’t know about this millennium, at least from the main trilogy. But it culminated in another showdown between Numenor and Sauron. By this point, the pride of Numenor and their king, Ar-Pharazon the Golden, knew no bounds. He opposed Sauron not out of a sense of duty to defend Middle-Earth, but an aggrieved jealousy that Sauron dared to call himself Lord of Middle-Earth, when that title belonged to Numenor.
Now Sauron started to show some of his guile, as well as his power. The old enchantments of tongue hadn’t entirely left him. When Ar-Pharazon showed up with overwhelming force, Sauron (who still had a physical body) showed up personally and sued for mercy. He humbled himself before the Numenorean might; in their folly, they believed him, and the king took Sauron as a captive back to Numenor. Here, Sauron worked some of his old magic: in roughly fifty years (2262-2310) he had completely turned the Numenoreans against the Valar. Of old there had been an ancient rule, that the Numenoreans were never to sail west, or attempt to reach Valinor. Sauron played on their jealousy and fear, and convinced them that the path to immortality lay in the forbidden lands of the West. Ar-Pharazon assembled a great armada, and in 3319, he attacked Valinor itself.
As might be expected, this backfired. There’s a long version, but the short version is that the world itself changed (the second such change: the first occurred in the world-ending battle with Morgoth). Numenor, an island, fell into the sea. Only the handful of Faithful, who had never abandoned the Elves or the Valar, were saved. They fled to Middle Earth, and founded two cities which grew into kingdoms. One was known as Arnor; the other became Gondor.
Every time I read or re-read these histories, I am blown away by how VAST Tolkien’s world is. Other fantasies have expansive timelines, but somehow Tolkien manages to really convey a sense of ancientness, of antiquity, with his stories. I think one of the ways he does that is by giving lots of details in some places and nearly none in others. We know much of Sauron’s story regarding the creation of the Ring and his deception of the Elves. But we know nearly nothing of the millennium-long stretch where he worked and ruled in the East of Middle-Earth. Somehow, that lack of information adds to the mystery. Who knows what Sauron was up to? That’s the great question, and it lends flavour to the story.
There is once again the emphasis on moral decay, and on Sauron as a deceiver. He deceived the Elves, and almost got away with it. He deceived the men of Numenor, and succeeded in destroying them – though not without cost, as we’ll see later.
What’s the most fascinating aspect of Sauron’s story to you?