Down a Dark Path: The Story of Sauron
Think of a novel, any novel. Now think of that book’s central conflict; every story will have one because without conflict there would be no plot. The conflict may take many forms, from an internal struggle by the protagonist against the darker parts of themselves to a literal battle of good and evil for the fate of the world (or even the universe), but for there to be conflict, there must be an antagonistic force, opposing the protagonist. In many, perhaps most, stories this antagonistic force will be a person who for some reason is opposed by the protagonist–an antagonist (not necessarily, of course, a villain; though usually the protagonist is the more moral of the two or more opposing forces involved in the story, stories about villain protagonists and heroic antagonists can and do exist). Now think of the antagonist or antagonistic force in the novel that I asked you to think of earlier. If that force was absent from the story, how would it alter the plot? How would the other characters develop without that influence? Would the storyline still hold your interest?
What I am demonstrating, of course, is that without the antagonist there is no conflict, and without conflict there is no plot. Try it for yourself–think of a story with no conflict whatsoever. Would it be interesting? Would there be anything resembling a plot? Would the characters grow or evolve at all? The truth, of course, is that any good story needs a good conflict to drive the plot and, thus, an antagonist of some sort. Remove the antagonist, and there is no plot. The antagonist is one of the most essential elements of a good story. If a story has a dull, uninteresting antagonist, its plot will also tend to be uninteresting. The works of the great JRR Tolkien are no exception to these universal rules; the story is made by the antagonist, and Tolkien has given us some of the most celebrated literary villains of our age. Chief among these, of course, is Sauron, the titular villain of The Lord of the Rings.
In that trilogy, Tolkien’s most famous work, the Dark Lord of Mordor is a distant but ever potent threat, a long shadow cast over Middle-Earth. Although the story completely revolves around the character of Sauron, we see little of the Dark Lord himself. He is often mentioned but rarely seen and never described in great detail. This only serves to enhance the aura of dread around his person. Throughout the book Sauron is never directly confronted by the main characters; he remains essentially undefeated in person (although we know he was bested by Isildur in the War of the Last Alliance, just). This is unusual for a high fantasy novel; there is no dramatic final showdown between hero and archvillain, sparing Sauron the humiliation suffered by so many similar antagonists of being bested in single combat by the upstart protagonists. Instead, the book ends with Sauron still cloaked in mystery and an air of near-invincibility.
Sauron in The Lord of the Rings is an impersonal villain. In a sense he is not so much a character as evil itself, personified. He claims to see all and know all, the fiery all-seeing eye being his central motif throughout the work. He does not intervene directly in the plot but acts through his agents, such as Saruman and the Witch-King. In his letters, Tolkien himself wrote, “In my story Sauron represents as near an approach to the wholly evil will as is possible.” The only tantalising reference to Sauron’s past we get in the trilogy that bears his name is Elrond’s cryptic comment, “Nothing is evil in the beginning. Even Sauron was not so.” Sauron only becomes a fully-developed character in the wider mythology of Middle-Earth. His history is told in The Silmarillion.
Sauron is a Maia, the lower of two orders of angelic beings that serve Eru Ilúvatar, the name of God in Tolkien’s world, and fulfil a role analogous to the Germanic gods of the mythology Tolkien drew upon in constructing Middle-Earth. Sauron is not the true satanic figure of the Tolkienverse but was corrupted by the Vala Melkor, later known as Morgoth. According to The Silmarillion, once Eru created the Ainur, the angelic beings of Tolkien’s canon, he charged them with making music for him. At first, they sang alone or in small groups, but then Eru said to them, “Of the theme that I have declared to you, I will now that ye make in harmony together a Great Music. And since I have kindled you with the Flame Imperishable, ye shall show forth your powers in adorning this theme, each with his own thoughts and devices, if he will. But I will sit and hearken, and be glad that through you great beauty has been wakened into song.”
It was then that Melkor’s pride brought about his fall as he attempted to alter and subvert the Great Music by introducing elements and themes of his own. Some of the other Ainur attuned their music to Melkor’s, but interestingly, Sauron–then known as Mairon, the Admirable–was not among the first to do so. “Sauron was not a beginner of discord; and he probably knew more of the Music than did Melkor, whose mind had always been filled with his own plans and devices,” Tolkien wrote. The Great Music was then given form by Eru, and so was created Eä, the World. It was then that many of the Ainur entered the world, the mightiest of them being the Valar, the Powers of Arda, and the mightiest of all was Melkor, who would come to be known by the name Morgoth, which is Sindarin for “the Black Enemy.” But the Valar were not alone–with them came the lesser spirits, the Maiar, whom included among their number the future Lord of the Rings. Mairon was one of the Maiar in service to the Vala Aulë. Aulë was the smith of the Valar, and so it was from him that Mairon gained his knowledge of craftsmanship and mechanical workings.
Why did Mairon fall? What caused him to defect from the Valar and pledge his services to Morgoth? According to Tolkien’s notes in Morgoth’s Ring, the tenth volume of Christopher Tolkien’s The History of Middle-earth, Mairon “loved order and coordination, and hated all confusion and wasteful friction.” This was his chief virtue, “and therefore also the cause of his fall.” Every control freak in history can sympathise with Sauron at this early stage. Morgoth’s enormous power and, therefore, his ability to effect his designs efficiently, drew Sauron to him. Indeed, Sauron “adored” Morgoth and while Morgoth still stood, “Sauron did not seek his own supremacy, but worked and schemed for another.” Unlike Morgoth, Sauron was not led astray by his own pride. Sauron only later became consumed by narcissism when Morgoth fell and he fled into hiding from the Valar: “When he found how greatly his knowledge was admired by all other rational creatures and how easy it was to influence them, his pride became boundless.”
Even so, Tolkien emphasised in his letters that Sauron’s goals at this stage were still “fair.” Within Sauron there remained a remnant of the Maia named Mairon, the Admirable, who loved order and desired it purely for the good of all in Middle-earth. He desired to achieve a reorganisation of Middle-earth, which he saw as having been neglected by its gods, which would benefit all of its inhabitants. Sauron was not, therefore, wholly evil, says Tolkien, “unless all ‘reformers’ who want to hurry up with ‘reconstruction’ and ‘reorganisation’ are wholly evil, even before pride and lust to exert their will eat them up.” In time however, Sauron’s desire to impose order came to become an end in itself; he who had initially desired to rule in the interests of all now desired to rule for the sake of power itself. Sauron was becoming more and more like his former master, Morgoth. Tolkien’s letters tell us that Sauron “desired to be a God-King, and was held to be this by his servants,” just as Morgoth had been before his defeat. As Tolkien put it, “bereft of his lord.. [Sauron] fell into the folly of imitating him.”
From Tolkien’s own notes, it becomes clear that Sauron is a more complicated character than he may at first seem. He does not commit acts of evil for the sake of evil; he has aims and goals just like any rational being and possesses both virtues and vices. In a way, Sauron could be cast as a tragic hero, a failed revolutionary corrupted by power and ambition. The story of his downfall serves as a cautionary tale warning against the corruptive allure of power. There is some irony in the fact that Sauron himself corrupted his servants with promises of power just as he himself was corrupted by his desire for the power of Morgoth.
Sauron’s story is also an interesting subversion of an age-old trope. In the Germanic myths Tolkien drew upon as sources for his work, order is seen as good, chaos as evil. This was common in the mythologies of many ancient peoples, and logically so; in the confusing and chaotic world these people lived in, imposing order, stability and rule of law was no doubt seen as the highest good. Tolkien lived in different times when the free world found itself threatened by totalitarian states and ideologies. To the Russian Bolsheviks and the German Nazis, it was necessary and justifiable to impose order on their nations through violence, brutality, and repression because in doing so they were progressing towards a better, more idyllic world (from their perspectives, of course).
Tolkien, who once expressed sympathy with anarchism, was all too aware of the fact that chaos is the price we pay for freedom. Like Robespierre, Stalin, and Mussolini, Sauron is an idealist in pursuit of a Utopian vision, gradually loosing sight of his end goals as he becomes more and more obsessed with acquiring power for its own sake, building a cult of personality around himself and earnestly desiring the love and praise of his subjects. Tolkien himself was a fierce critic of allegory in fictional works, famously criticising CS Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia for the thinly-veiled references to Christianity. It is, therefore, unlikely that he would treat The Lord of the Rings as a straightforward allegory of political events at the time. Nonetheless, we can see clear parallels between Sauron and many real world tyrants although as Tolkien points out, “he went further than human tyrants in pride and the lust for domination, being in origin an immortal (angelic) spirit.”
Tolkien turns the dichotomy between order and chaos on its head so that the central conflict in The Lord of the Rings is rather between order–represented by Sauron–and freedom. For the Free Peoples, the imposition of Sauron’s order would mean the loss of free will; to Sauron; free will is messy, inefficient and gets in the way of his grand plan. So convinced is he of his superiority, it seems to him self-evident that Middle-earth would be better off ordered according to his designs. He does not comprehend why his enemies oppose him when it is so obvious that he, Tar-Mairon, “King Excellent” as he styles himself, is better qualified to decide their fates than they could ever be.
Sauron possesses all the characteristics of a great villain. He can invoke terror, sympathy, fascination, and abhorrence all at once. At the end of The Return of the King, he is reduced to “a spirit of malice that gnaws itself in the shadows.” It’s a great fall for a being of Sauron’s power. Ironically the fallen Maia who started down the path of darkness in the hope of gaining power to effect his designs was finally rendered altogether impotent, an appropriate but cruel fate. It fits well Tolkien’s theme of evil as self-destructive. But as a Maia, Sauron is an immortal spirit and cannot truly die. Both within and without the world of Tolkien’s books, his spirit continues to loom over us all; a giant among fantasy villains, a dark shadow that still has the power to thrill us and inspire countless imitations. He never really goes away. Perhaps it would be some small comfort to the Dark Lord who so longed to be admired and worshipped by others to know that in his own way, he is as beloved and revered as any of Tolkien’s other characters. After all, there is only one true Lord of the Ring.
By The King’s Man