Throughout JRR Tolkien's masterpiece The Lord of the Rings there is one shadowy figure who is never seen but is the cause of all the problems, the source of all fear and is the title character of the book: Sauron, the Dark Lord. The book is set in the land of Middle-earth1 at the end of the Third Age. It tells of the war between the free people of the world and Sauron's forces who aim to dominate the world and impose Sauron's will on it.
This Entry attempts to provide some of the backstory to Sauron. Who was he and what did he look like? Where did he get his skill? And what other trouble had he caused the world in the past?
Sauron the Maia
Whereas in our world there is only one intelligent species, Tolkien's world was inhabited by many species of intelligent creature, for example Elves, Men, Dwarves, Hobbits, Ents, Trolls, Orcs, Dragons, Eagles. All of these were creatures of flesh and blood and had the power of speech. Some of them such as the Elves and the Ents were immortal in that they didn't age, but all of them could be killed. Tolkien believed that humans of our world have a spiritual part as well as a physical one, so he made the creatures of his invented world the same. When their physical body died, their spirit would go on to some other place.
Also in the Tolkien's world were more powerful creatures - these were entirely made of spirit. The most powerful of these were called Valar (singular, Vala) while the lesser ones were called Maiar (singular, Maia). They could take on a flesh-and-blood body, but if this body was killed, their spirit would survive in the world and could take on a new body. These spiritual beings had great power. The greatest of them, the Valar, were entrusted with the job of building the world and looking after it, making it a suitable place for the Elves, Men and other less powerful creatures to live.
The Valar correspond closely with the Christian / Jewish idea of Archangels, while the Maiar were lesser angels. In terms of Greek Mythology, the Valar correspond roughly with the Olympian Gods while the Maiar are lesser gods. The Vala Aulë who had responsibility for building the land and mountains of Middle-earth is closely paralleled by the Greek god Hephaistos, known to the Romans as Vulcan. The evil Vala Melkor, on the other hand, is clearly Lucifer, the archangel who rebelled and brought evil into the world.
Sauron was a Maia. He existed in the world since its creation. He served Aulë and worked with him, learning much skill in craftsmanship from him. But Sauron defected very early on to Melkor, and presumably thus learned much in the line of cunning and deceit.
For comparison, some other Maiar involved in the stories are Gandalf, Saruman, Melian and the Balrog of Moria.
What Did Sauron Look Like?
As a being of pure spirit, Sauron could change his shape. We're not told what he chose to look like in the early days, but in one story he was able to flip between shapes: a man, a wolf, a snake, a bat. In the Second Age, he appeared as a tall and good looking man. But Sauron lost his body in the Downfall of Númenor. Although his spirit survived and took on a new body, we're told that he could no longer appear in beautiful forms, only evil ones. From then on, he appeared as a tall, dark and forbidding man, the Dark Lord. In Peter Jackson's The Fellowship of the Ring we see him in this form at the very start of the film.
He lost his body again in a battle at the end of the Second Age. Isildur dealt him a death blow, cutting off his finger with the One Ring on it. Many years passed before he adopted a new body, but again it appears to have been the Dark Lord form.
In addition, we're told that this incarnation had only nine fingers. Gollum was probably the only person in The Lord of the Rings who actually met Sauron face to face (he was interrogated by him) and he tells us that Sauron had only nine fingers. So Sauron's later body bore the scars of injuries inflicted on the earlier one. Perhaps this was because that's the way that Sauron thought of himself. So as he aged, he became more set into his 'true' form, the one that reflected his own vision of himself.
Sauron projected an image of himself as 'the Lidless Eye'. This was a giant eye surrounded by fire, with a slitted pupil like a cat's eye. Frodo saw this through the Mirror of Galadriel, and Galadriel admitted that she had seen it too. We shouldn't think, though, that this was his actual body form - we have Gollum's statement about Sauron having only nine fingers. It would be hard to imagine a giant eyeball with hands. Tolkien also described him in one of his letters as 'a man of more than human stature, but not gigantic.' So the Eye of Sauron was a representation of the incredible force of Sauron's will. He could dominate lesser beings by the force of his will alone. Only the most powerful and the most self-confident could stand up to Sauron - Finrod Felagund, Galadriel, and of course Aragorn.
The name Sauron is a High-elven one - it means 'abhorred' from the element saur meaning 'abhorrent'. In Sindarin Elvish, this became thaur and was combined with the element gor meaning 'horror' to give the name Gorthaur. In some early stories, Sauron was called Thû but Tolkien never provided an explanation for this name.
What Sauron's original Maia name was we don't know. In the Second Age, he called himself Annatar, Lord of Gifts, but this was a deliberate attempt to disguise his identity. In the Third Age he was known as the Necromancer, but this was just a name that people called him, not knowing who he was.
Seeing a letter 'S' on a dead orc, Gimli thought it might stand for Sauron. Legolas said that Sauron did not use the Elf-runes. Aragorn said:
Neither does he use his right name, nor permit it to be spelt or spoken
It is the name Sauron that Aragorn is talking about here, but he appears to be mistaken. Later in The Lord of the Rings, we meet the Dark Lord's spokesman, a character who calls himself the Mouth of Sauron. He uses the name Sauron many times in his speech, even calling him 'Sauron the Great', so this does indeed seem to be the name by which the Dark Lord went, despite its derogatory meaning.
What Were Sauron's Powers?
Other than his shape-changing, Sauron's main power was the ability to dominate others and fill their minds with fear. Gollum, Pippin and Frodo all felt direct attacks of Sauron's will at different points in the story and each of them succumbed to it. His own armies were as scared of him as his enemies were.
Sauron used his skills as a craftsman of Aulë to capture much of his own power and encapsulate it in the One Ring. We are told that the Ring could be used to dominate others (although we never actually see this happening). It is for this reason that both Saruman and Denethor wanted it. Saruman wanted to rule the world himself, while Denethor wanted the power the Ring would give him to fight Sauron and protect his own country. Sauron's armies were seemingly unstoppable because all the soldiers fought with a single purpose, to carry out his will. When Frodo puts on the Ring as he stands at the Cracks of Doom, Sauron suddenly realises the peril he is in and stops thinking about his armies, concentrating all his attention on Frodo. The orcs and cave trolls hesitate, then lose their will to fight. It is clear that it is Sauron's enormous will that has kept them all going.
Sauron's making of the Ring was his own downfall. He had put so much of himself into it that destroying the Ring would destroy him. He could not survive such a disaster.
It's often asked whether Gandalf was as powerful as Sauron. Gandalf's own answer was that he wasn't. Sauron was the most powerful Maia in the world at the time, and possibly of all time. But it's interesting to compare the wizard and the Dark Lord. Gandalf worked by persuasion while Sauron worked by domination, but both achieved results by their effect on other people, rather than doing great magic themselves. Both were master strategists, keeping track of lots of different possibilities and allowing for unknowns in their plans. But Sauron's biggest weakness was that he didn't understand the possibility of good in others. It never occurred to him that anyone would find the Ring, realise what it was and yet choose not to use it. This was ultimately his downfall.
Let's look at Sauron's history, as recorded in various writings by Tolkien. To talk about his early life, we must discuss the first Dark Lord, the Vala Melkor.
Before the First Age
Long before people first appeared in the world, Melkor declared his intention to be the ruler of the whole world. He built a huge fortress in the far north of Middle-earth called Utumno. Further south he built the lesser fortress of Angband, and set Sauron in charge of it. Angband was mainly underground with many pits and dungeons, but it was visible from afar because of the three-peaked mountain of Thangorodrim over the main gate.
There was a war between the Valar and Melkor, and he was defeated. He was put in prison, and Utumno was destroyed. But the Valar didn't manage to clean out all the secret pits of Angband. The fortress survived, although ruined, and there were many evil things lurking in its depths. And the Valar couldn't find Sauron.
After many ages, Melkor was released. The Valar hoped that he had now repented of evil, but he hadn't changed. He wrought havoc in Valinor, the land of the Valar, killing the two trees that gave Valinor light, and stealing the Silmarils, beautiful jewels which held the light of the trees within them. Melkor fled back to Middle-earth. The Elves known as the Noldor pursued him and came back to Middle-earth too, with the purpose of catching him, defeating him and getting back the Silmarils. They named him Morgoth, the Black Enemy.
With the whole world in darkness, the Valar decided something new was needed. They created the Sun and the Moon and launched them into the sky. The First Age had begun.
Sauron in the First Age
The First Age was the time of Melkor's war against the Elves. Sauron was always second-in-command in this, so there aren't too many stories about him. Melkor took over control of Angband when he returned and rebuilt it, and only once did he leave it. It is said that when humans first awoke in the east, Melkor left Angband in the charge of Sauron and went alone to find them. He wanted to corrupt them before they first encountered the Elves and learned of the good in the world.
The main story of the First Age featuring Sauron is the Tale of Luthien and Beren, the longest of the tales of the First Age. It is summarised in The Silmarillion or you can read an unfinished version in verse form in The Lays of Beleriand. This Entry will give a very brief summary of the events as they concerned Sauron.
Angband was to the north of Beleriand2 where most of the Elves lived. Between the two, there were ranges of mountains running east-west which protected the south from attack. There were only a few gaps in these mountains. The most important was the Pass of Sirion, where the mighty River Sirion flowed south into Beleriand. There was an island in the river called Tol Sirion. Finrod Felagund, a king of the Noldorin Elves, built a fortress on the island to protect the Pass against an invasion from the north.
A few years after Finrod built the fortress, Sauron came down from the north and exerted all his power, instilling terror in his enemies. The brave Elves who manned the tower couldn't take the pressure and they fled. Sauron took over the fortress and it became a place of horror. He filled it with evil creatures and it became known as Tol-in-Gaurhoth, the island of werewolves3.
Many years later, Finrod and a man called Beren were on a quest to retrieve a Silmaril from Melkor's crown, an almost hopeless task since he never slept and never took off the crown. They were travelling north in disguise and when they passed Tol Sirion, they were captured by Sauron's forces and brought before him. Finrod and Sauron had a battle of wills, singing magic songs at each other. Sauron's songs were stronger, and he succeeded in throwing the man and elf into a dungeon, hoping they would say who they were. Finrod eventually died in the dungeon, killed in a fight with a werewolf4, but Beren survived: the Elf-maiden he loved, Luthien, arrived in the nick of time, with a giant wolf-hound called Huan.
Now there was a prophecy about Huan, that he would not be killed until he met the mightiest wolf that ever walked the world. Sauron, being a Maia, was able to change shape into different forms, so he decided that he would become the wolf that killed the wolf-hound. As a wolf he was huge and horrible, but he was unable to defeat Huan, who held him in a grip that Sauron could not escape from. Sauron even tried shifting into other shapes such as a snake, but he couldn't break free. Eventually, Luthien said that she would order Huan to release him if he handed over control of the fortress to her. He did this, and as soon as he was released, Sauron turned himself into a giant bat, and flew off to live in the mountains to the east.
Luthien went on with Beren to accost Melkor himself and managed to win a Silmaril from him. Huan did many more good deeds but eventually was killed by an enormous wolf as had been foretold.
Nothing more is heard of Sauron during the First Age. At the end of it, when Melkor was finally defeated, Sauron was offered pardon, but was told that he would have to go to Valinor and be judged by the Valar. He decided not to accept the offer and disappeared into the east for a thousand years.
Sauron in the Second Age
Tolkien wrote a lot about the First Age in The Silmarillion. The end of the Third Age was covered by The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Most of what we know about the Second Age is from the appendices to The Lord of the Rings, a short account of Númenor in The Silmarillion, and from other unfinished works which were published after Tolkien's death.
During the Second Age, the valiant Men of Beleriand who had fought against Melkor were rewarded by being given their own island in the middle of the Western Sea. They called it Númenor and they developed an advanced civilisation there. They became great mariners and sailed all over the world. The only place they were prohibited from visiting was the land of Valinor in the west, where the Valar lived, although they could see it from the top of the highest mountain on the island. The Númenórians were given long lifespans, far greater than normal men. The first king of Númenor was Elros, brother of Elrond. Due to his half-elven heritage, he could be considered either an Elf or a Man but chose to be a Man. He and his descendants were particularly long-lived even by Númenórian standards, of the order of 400 years, although this got less in subsequent generations.
Back in Middle-earth, the Elf Gil-galad set up the kingdom of Lindon between the Blue Mountains and the sea, and around the Gulf of Lune, the great inlet that cut through the mountains. Most of the rest of Middle-earth was fairly sparsely populated.
After 750 years, some Elves went eastward and set up the kingdom of Eregion ('ereg-ee-on' with a hard 'g' like in the word garden), just to the west of the Misty Mountains. This put them right next to the Dwarf kingdom of Khazad-dûm5, which was under the mountains. The Elves were of the Noldorin race, and loved craftsmanship and making things, so they got on well with the Dwarves. They worked together - the underground city of the Dwarves became more beautiful while the buildings of the Elves became stronger. In most of the accounts of Eregion, it was ruled by Celebrimbor, who is said to have been the grandson of Fëanor, one of the greatest Elves who ever lived and creator of the Silmarils, the Palantiri and the Elvish writing system. (In one account, it was Galadriel and Celeborn who created the kingdom of Eregion, but later lost control of it to Celebrimbor and the People of the Jewel-smiths).
The Destruction of Eregion
Around the year 1000 of the Second Age, Sauron returned. He chose Mordor as a place to set up a kingdom and built the first Dark Tower (Barad-dûr). He started to amass a huge army of orcs and evil creatures with a view to conquering the whole of Middle-earth. At the same time, he started a seven-hundred-year project, to seduce the Elves of Eregion and to get them to obey him. He chose to appear to the Elves in a tall, beautiful form. He called himself Annatar, the Lord of Gifts, and made it known that he was one of the servants of Aulë, sent by the Valar to help them6. Because he had worked for Aulë and knew many mysteries of making the world, he had a lot to teach them, and the Noldorin Elves, having always loved Aulë above all the other Valar, fell for the deception.
Sauron and the Elves worked together and achieved greater and greater feats of skill. Eventually they made magic rings. There were 19 of them. Three were made by Celebrimbor himself, and these were the Elven-rings, the most beautiful and powerful of the set. But Sauron secretly made one more ring, the One Ring, in his forge in Mount Doom back in Mordor. He captured much of his own spirit into the Ring giving it enormous power, the power to dominate the wearers of all the other rings. As Sauron created the Ring, his plot was revealed to Celebrimbor who took off his Elven-ring, so that he was not subject to Sauron's will. Furious that his plan had been thwarted, Sauron unleashed his orc army which emerged out of Mordor and quickly overran Eregion, destroying the kingdom. Celebrimbor was killed, but he had already passed the three Elven-rings to safe keeping. Sauron took the other 16 rings, and later used them to subjugate nine kings of Men and to corrupt the hearts of seven Dwarf-lords. The spirits of the men were eaten away by the rings until they became totally the servants of Sauron and were known as the Nazgûl, the Ringwraiths. The Dwarves were not affected by the rings in the same way - they became extremely greedy and amassed giant hoards of gold. This gold attracted dragons out of the north and the Dwarves were almost all killed.
An Elf-army sent out by Gil-galad and led by Elrond arrived too late to save the country of Eregion; Elrond took the survivors and fled north, where he set up the haven of Rivendell.
But Sauron didn't have it all his own way. At this stage, a giant fleet of ships arrived from Númenor. An army of Men descended upon Sauron's armies and routed them. Sauron had achieved his aim of destroying the Elves, although not in the way he had intended, but had failed to dominate the world due to the Númenórians who were now his Enemy Number One. He retreated into Mordor for many years and bided his time.
The Destruction of Númenor
More than 1,500 years went by. Sauron stayed in Mordor, but his influence reached out to corrupt and conquer the people of Middle-earth, particularly in the East where his rule was absolute. Meanwhile the Númenórians had become even more powerful. They ruled the seas, and had built strong harbours along the coast of Middle-earth. But Númenor was not the happy place it had originally been. They started to be obsessed with mortality. Although they were blessed with long lives, they were in sight of a land they were forbidden from visiting, where the inhabitants, the Elves and the Valar, lived forever. This rankled with them and they became more and more resentful of the Valar who had given them the gift of their land and longevity.
In 3261 of the Second Age, they sailed a huge fleet to Middle-earth and demanded that Sauron should submit. Sauron realised that his armies hadn't a hope of defeating them. He adopted a new strategy. Leaving his Ring in the Barad-dûr, he allowed himself to brought back to Númenor in chains. Gradually, by persuasion, he worked his way into the society of Númenor, eventually becoming an adviser to the king, Ar-Pharazôn. He played on the Númenórians' resentment of the Valar, telling them that the Valar were not the real rulers of the world but that Melkor was. A temple to Melkor was built on the top of the island.
Sauron said that if the Númenórians were to reach Valinor, they would become immortal. Ar-Pharazôn collected together the greatest fleet of ships ever to be seen, and sailed west to attack Valinor. This was directly against the rules set by the Valar, so they punished the Númenórians by wiping their island off the planet. A giant chasm opened up in the seabed between Númenor and Valinor and the fleet sank into it. Then the island of Númenor itself fell into the chasm and was submerged under the waves.
Sauron lost his body in the destruction of Númenor, but his spirit survived. He returned to Mordor, having achieved his purpose.
The Last Alliance
A few Númenórians survived the destruction of their island. Elendil the Tall and his two sons, Isildur and Anárion, saw what was about to happen and sailed east with their families and some of their people in nine ships, arriving safely in Middle-earth. They set up two new kingdoms, Arnor in the northwest and Gondor in the south. Very soon these became mighty kingdoms. Elendil united his troops with those of Gil-galad, High King of the Elves, to lead a war against Sauron. This was known as the Last Alliance of Elves and Men. They attacked Mordor and Sauron was eventually forced to come out of the Dark Tower and fight. Isildur cut the Ring and finger from his hand, causing him to lose his body. The spirit of Sauron survived but was not seen again in Middle-earth for another thousand years.
Sauron in the Third Age
The Third Age started with the defeat of Sauron. For about a thousand years there was peace, and the kingdoms of Arnor and Gondor prospered. Then an evil presence appeared in the south of the great forest of Wilderland. The forest became known as Mirkwood and the evil being, who set up a fortress at Dol Guldur, was known as the Necromancer. It wasn't known at the time that this was in fact Sauron returned.
Soon after that, various evil creatures started to appear around Middle-earth. These were all driven by Sauron's will - some directly, some indirectly. They concentrated mainly on the kingdoms of Arnor and Gondor, where the descendants of Sauron's old enemies, the Númenórians still ruled. The Nazgûl, Sauron's closest servants, waged war on both Arnor and Gondor over the centuries, eventually causing the destruction of the kingdom of Arnor, and the disappearance of Eärnur, the last king of Gondor; control of the kingdom passed into the hands of the Stewards, who officially ruled until the king should return.
About 900 years before the events of The Hobbit, Gandalf, suspecting that the Necromancer was in fact Sauron, went to Dol Guldur but the Necromancer fled and was not seen again for four centuries. This period was known as the 'Watchful Peace'. Then he returned and continued his campaign against Gondor - orcs and Easterlings attacked the country and all would have been lost but for the Rohirrim, horsemen from the north who saved the day. They were given the land of Rohan by the Gondorians in gratitude.
About 90 years before the events of The Hobbit, Gandalf once again went to Dol Guldur. This time he confirmed that the Necromancer was in fact Sauron, and barely got out alive. During Bilbo's journey as told in The Hobbit, Gandalf left the Dwarves as they entered Mirkwood and headed south. He and the White Council, a group of Elves and Wizards, drove Sauron out of Dol Guldur. But only a year later Sauron reappeared in Mordor, where he had been secretly building up his troops again.
Sauron's war against the West and his attempt to retrieve his Ring is fully described in The Lord of the Rings. In summary form, Bilbo the Hobbit found the Ring. Sauron became aware that the Ring had been found, but was fooled into thinking that it was being brought to Gondor where it would be used to fight against him. Concentrating all his forces on fighting against Gondor, he failed to notice Bilbo's nephew Frodo, who carried the Ring to the volcano of Mount Doom where it had been forged many years before, and threw it into the molten rock, destroying it. Without the part of himself he had put into the Ring, Sauron could no longer survive. The spirit of Sauron was seen as a giant shadowy figure rising up into the sky above the Dark Tower, and then was blown away by the wind. Sauron the Maia had finally met his end.