Originally published on JRRTolkienExaminer on 6/30/09.
Tolkien 101 is a series of short articles designed to introduce new Tolkien fans to important characters, concepts, and vocabulary from the published works of JRR Tolkien.
If you were introduced to Tolkien’s works through Peter Jackson’s film trilogy, or if you are just curious about the background of Tolkien’s invented world (his “Legendarium”), then these articles are meant for you.
But who is Sauron? Why is he so evil? And how did he become so obsessed with locating missing jewelry?
As we learn in The Silmarillion, Sauron was a Maia, a kind of angel or lesser god. (Read this for more information about Tolkien’s cosmology.) He was the chief lieutenant of Melkor, the most powerful of the Valar or greater gods. Melkor warred against the other Valar, and Sauron was his most powerful follower.
After Melkor and Sauron attempted to rebel against Eru Ilúvatar (God) in the Timeless Halls (Heaven), they volunteered to go down into Arda (Earth) to aid the other Valar in creating the world. But soon Melkor rebelled again, and a long and brutal war between Melkor and his followers and the Valar left the world in ruins.
Melkor spent many centuries in the First Age warring against the Elves and Men of Middle-earth. During this time, Sauron was Melkor’s most trusted lieutenant. He dwelt in a tower called Tol-in-Gaurhoth, “the Isle of Werewolves,” but was eventually driven out by two lovers, the Man Beren and the Elf Lúthien.
At the end of the First Age, Melkor was finally defeated for good in The War of Wrath. But Sauron escaped, inheriting Melkor’s position as Middle-earth’s arch-villain.
In the beginning of the Second Age, Sauron had in part repented, although he fled rather than face the judgment of the Valar. But soon, in his desire to rule over Middle-earth and order all things to his liking, Sauron became a cheap copy of Melkor.
Sauron’s first major accomplishment was to forge the Rings of Power. He presented himself to the Elves disguised as Annatar, the “Lord of Gifts.” The wiser Elves, such as Elrond and Galadriel, shunned him, unaware of his real identity but not fooled by his fair-seeming countenance. But Celebrimbor, King of Eregion and grandson of Fëanor who created the Silmarils, accepted Annatar’s aid and was betrayed.
Together, Celebrimbor and Annatar/Sauron made 19 magic rings, three of which (the “Elven Rings”) gave their wearers tremendous power. Once the rings were on Elven fingers, Sauron raced back to Mordor, and in the fires of Orodruin (“Mount Doom”) he poured much of his personal power into the newly forged One Ring, which would allow him to control the minds of anyone wearing the other rings.
But Celebrimbor wasn’t a complete idiot, and the moment Sauron first slipped on the One Ring, the Elf smith sensed what Sauron was trying to do. Celebrimbor and his friends immediately took off their rings, and so were not corrupted. Sauron declared war, and the Elves of Eregion were slaughtered; Sauron retrieved 16 of the magic rings. But the three Elven Rings were hidden, and Sauron never located them. (Elrond, Galadriel and Círdan the Shipwright each had one, but Círdan gave his to Gandalf.)
Aware now that his scheme would not work against the Elves, Sauron gave seven rings to the Dwarves and nine to Men. He was unable to control the minds of the Dwarf kings or turn them to his will – but the rings worked their magic, corrupting the Dwarves and fueling their greed. The kings of Men were entirely at the mercy of the rings, and the nine who bore them were enslaved and transformed into the nine Ringwraiths.
Sauron’s second great accomplishment in the Second Age was the Fall of Númenor. The last king of Númenor, Ar-Pharazôn, invaded Middle-earth with an army so astonishingly great that Sauron immediately surrendered. Ar-Pharazôn brought Sauron back to Númenor as his prisoner, but over time Sauron dominated the king’s will and became his closest advisor.
Sauron convinced Ar-Pharazôn to sail to Valinor and war against the Valar, fooling Ar-Pharazôn into thinking this would give him physical immortality. Sauron also arranged the construction of a temple to Melkor, where human sacrifices were made.
Needless to say, Ar-Pharazôn’s fleet was utterly destroyed. And much to Sauron’s surprise and dismay, Eru Ilúvatar intervened directly and the island continent of Númenor was broken and sank beneath the sea. Sauron was forced to flee in spirit form, and returned to Mordor.
The Elves of Middle-earth, led by Gil-galad, the last High King of the Noldor, allied themselves with the few Númenórean survivors and marched against Sauron – this was the Last Alliance of Elves and Men. Isildur cut the One Ring from Sauron’s hand, and the Dark Lord was defeated, escaping in spirit form to hide and nurse his wounds for a thousand years.
In the Third Age, around the year 1050, Sauron reappeared in the Greenwood. The evil he brought there caused mortals to rename the great forest “Mirkwood.” He set up shop in a tower called Dol Guldur, the “Hill of Sorcery,” calling himself The Necromancer. Gandalf discovered his true identity, and The White Council drove Sauron out of Dol Guldur.
Sauron returned to Mordor, began building armies in preparation of the War of the Ring, and exerted his power in an attempt to locate the One Ring. His armies were defeated at the Battle of Pelennor Fields, but Sauron had sent only a small portion of his military and magical might.
As Sauron prepared to unleash a far greater onslaught against Elves and Men, and to face off against Aragorn and the surviving Gondorians and Rohirrim, he found the One Ring. Frodo Baggins had brought it all the way to Mount Doom, and Sauron watched in helpless horror as Gollum stole the Ring and then fell into the Cracks of Doom. With the One Ring destroyed, the Ringwraiths faded away; Sauron’s fortress of Barad-dûr collapsed; and Sauron himself was reduced to a spirit of malice, unable to hurt anyone ever again.
In the books, those who have some kind of psychic or magical link to Sauron, such as anyone who wears the One Ring, or who peers into a palantír or the Mirror of Galadriel, experiences Sauron as a single terrible eye wreathed in flame. But in the books, Sauron himself manifests as a physical, humanoid being, sitting on his throne in the tower of Barad-dûr. In the Peter Jackson film trilogy, Sauron actually is a flaming eye, attached to the top of Barad-dûr. Jackson unfortunately takes this visual metaphor too far, representing Sauron as an evil lighthouse.