My heroes have always been villains, Episode II: Sauron, lord of Mordor

It’s the second Thursday of the month and, as promised, this is the second installment of “My heroes have always been villains.”  Today, I discuss one of the greatest villains in modern fantasy literature:  Sauron of Mordor, the title character of The Lord of the Rings.

Peter Jackson’s amazing LotR movies (and the slightly less amazing The Hobbit movies) have brought Sauron to the attention of the population at large to a greater degree than ever before, but he was hardly a shrinking violet to begin with.  Millions upon millions of us met him in the books, after getting teased by him as the Necromancer in The Hobbit.

Except…well, we never really met him, did we?  Tolkien uses Sauron in The Lord of the Rings almost as H. P. Lovecraft uses Cthulhu, Azathoth, and all his other Great Old Ones, more as a symbol, as a force of nature, than as a character.  This tactic has its pluses and minuses, and I’ve always had mixed feelings about it.  On the one hand, the lack of an actual character of Sauron gave him an increased mystique, rather the way unseen and inscrutable entities in horror stories can increase their fearfulness, as we project all our worst personal nightmares onto them.  Sauron can also be the literary representation of real-world threats to “the free peoples of the world”, from Hitler and Stalin to Saddam Hussein, all the way back to Genghis Khan and Attila the Hun.  Yet, he’s even worse than that, for he is in some sense the representation of a physical, universal force rather than “merely” a bad guy.  Of course, we’re given hints here and there, as in Aragorn’s telling of his summary of the story of Beren and Lúthien, that Sauron is not the ultimate evil in the world, but was the servant of the Great Enemy, Morgoth.  That’s all we’re really told, though.  So, for now at least, Sauron is very much the force of evil in Middle-Earth.

But he really is very much a force, not a character.  The only time we ever see any person-to-person interaction with him is second-hand, when Pippin relates his harrowing experience of looking through the Palantir, through which he meets the Dark Lord himself.  It’s certainly a terrible encounter for Pippin, but it must be said that Sauron isn’t especially impressive in that interaction.  He misreads the situation seriously, and his dialogue is not as moving and powerful as we might have hoped from such a deadly entity.  This is clearly not because Tolkien was unable to write powerful dialogue—there have been few better at such things in the modern world.  I suspect that Tolkien is deliberately showing that, though Sauron is dreadful and dangerous beyond easy comprehension, he’s not really all that bright in many ways.  He’s driven by a sense of ever-present fear, and though he’s done some impressive and clever things in the past, as when he fooled Celebrimbor et al into making the Great Rings, he doesn’t seem particularly imaginative or able to see and understand the minds of his enemies except at the most superficial level.

Again, I suspect Tolkien does this on purpose.  I think his point in general is that, usually, evil is born of a limitation of the mind, a dysfunction, and that the evilest characters are, in many ways, profoundly limited (Gandalf himself describes Sauron as a “wise fool”).  This may well be a fact of reality, and it’s probably a good lesson to promulgate, but Sauron’s lack of personality has always disappointed me slightly.  That disappointment is very slight, though; overall, as a force of nature, with the dark majesty and terror met by the other characters—especially by Frodo and Sam—his impersonal nature is brilliantly effective.  There’s a reason these are some of the greatest books in the modern world, after all.

Of course, if one wants to encounter Sauron as more than a symbolic natural force, one need only read The Silmarillion.  He doesn’t have a huge presence there—it’s very much the story of Melkor/Morgoth and his war with the Valar and the elves.  However, as Morgoth’s chief lieutenant and right-hand man, Sauron can’t help but make appearances, especially in the tale of Beren and Lúthien.  He certainly is seen with a bit more depth here, but he doesn’t come off too well, doing most of such winning as he does through treachery rather than cleverness, before he is overcome by Huan, the Hound of the Valar (though he has an impressive magical battle with Finrod).  Other than this, Sauron is barely mentioned in the later parts of the main story.

In the Akallabêth, the Downfall of Númenor, we get to see much more of Sauron, in what seems to be his “finest” hour, when he uses cunning and manipulation, applied over decades to centuries, against the people of Númenor, who are too strong for him to defeat militarily.  It’s an impressive display of beguilement and deceit, worthy of Iago, but it’s still not that awe-inspiring, and it leads to the destruction of Sauron’s “fair” physical form when the island nation falls.

(This has always led me to wonder how Sauron didn’t lose the Ring when he lost his shape.  He’d obviously made the ring earlier, because he’d been able to assume fair shape when he deceived the elves into making the Rings of Power, and after the downfall he was never able to look anything but horrifying.  So, did he not have the Ring when he was in Númenor for all those years?  If not, where did he leave it?  Would he really have trusted it to anyone else, or to be safe in any stronghold?  If he did have it, how did he not lose it when Númenor, and his body, were swallowed by the sea?  I have yet to encounter a good explanation for this.)

So, though Sauron is one of the quintessential villains of modern fantasy literature, he is a symbol, a force, rather than a character.  To the degree to which he is a character, he seems to be Tolkien’s critique of the weakness of mind that leads one to become, or to continue to do, evil.  This may well have been deliberate on Tolkien’s part, and is a respectable line to take.  But it does mean that Sauron, however awesome and scary he can be, lacks a certain complexity and pathos, unlike, say, the character of Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader, whom I discussed in the last installment, and many of the villains I will be discussing in the future.  Nevertheless, he holds a special place of honor, as one of the most powerful, most formative influences on me of the nature of large-scale villainy in fantastic literature.

I think it’s clear, if you look through all the works, in all media, that have followed The Lord of the Rings, that I am not alone in this.

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