Sauron is an oft-maligned villain these days. Tolkien’s villain is frequently held up as an example of everything that is wrong with Fantasy Villainy. He seems too distant and shiftless in the Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit, a character who barely appears and merely seems to be the personification of Evil. I feel that his is mostly put forth by people who don’t want to read between the lines. Sauron is a subtle villain, whose influence and personality can be felt throughout Tolkien’s creation. He might not get much direct main-stage time, but his influence pervades the world and all of the action within it.
Here are a few things that most Sauron bashers don’t consider
1) Sauron is not the actual Dark Lord: That honour belongs to Morgoth, one of the Valar, who rebelled against the designs of Eru. In Tolkien’s mythology, even the Elves don’t really understand Morgoth’s rebellion, likening it to disharmony within the original song of creation. The obvious comparison for Morgoth would be Lucifer, however it is worth noting that there were plenty of real rebels around in Tolkien’s time who had ugly, oppressive regimes. It is hard for me not to see some of these as influences on Tolkien. Morgoth was a totalitarian villain: he simply wanted to impose his will upon the world and would let nothing stand in his way. In Elven mythology he comes off as a caricature, but this is purposeful on Tolkien’s part. This is a man who would be familiar with works like Paradise lost as well as the simple medieval caricatures of the Devil.
Interestingly, Tolkien goes out of his way to note that Sauron is truly loyal to Morgoth after the renegade Valar gains his allegiance. Their relationship seems to indicate that he is a true believer in Morgoth’s vision rather than them being two self-serving villains working together out of self interest. Sauron is noted as admiring Morgoth’s strength and sense of expediency.
2) Sauron originally served Aule, the smith: Aule represents craft and technology in middle earth. Before joining Morgoth, Sauron was one of Aule’s most skilled followers. He helped shape middle-earth and many of the great wonders within it. Craftsmen often get attached to their work, and it is worth noting that when Sauron rebelled he ran straight to Middle-Earth to try to gain control of what he’d invested in. It is a little harder to see him as entirely in the wrong when you look at his actions from this perspective.
3) Sauron loved order: His love of order becomes his downfall since he sees Morgoth as a powerful figure who can impose his will upon the world. His creation of the rings of power can also be seen through this light, he merely wants control, and uses his craft to get it. The concept of order being a monstrous force is a very modern one, and all of Sauron’s acts are consistently about gaining control. He does not do evil just for evil’s sake as it might seem. Within the Lord of the Rings and it’s history, his actions are entirely consistent on this. He seeks power for the sake of control, not self-aggrandizement.
In his notes Tolkien is more direct stating that Sauron’s “capability of corrupting other minds, and even engaging their service, was a residue from the fact that his original desire for ‘order’ had really envisaged the good estate (especially physical well-being) of his ‘subjects” (Morgoth’s Ring). Sauron’s actions all flow from this, but are marred by impatience and single-mindedness.
4) Sauron comes bearing gifts: Far from always being the war-mongering brute, Sauron is quite capable of being charismatic and manipulative when it suits him. To forge the rings of power he posed as Annatar (The Giftbringer/Lord of Gifts?) and pretended to be an emissary from Aule. He seduced the elves of Eregion into creating the very rings that would enslave them, and nearly succeeded in getting them to wear them. In the end he failed, but he was still able to use the rings later to corrupt the kings of men who became the Nazgul. His actions as Annatar, which are part and parcel of Lord of the Rings lore, demonstrate the ability to plan for the long term and to act humbly and amiably to get his goals accomplished.
5) He tries to help reconstruct Middle-Earth: When Sauron comes out hiding after Morgoth’s fall he originally attempts to help re-construct Middle-Earth. He sees it as a land abandoned by the Valar, and wants to re-organize it. He falls into the trap of thinking that his way is the best way, and then that is the only way, falling into old habits. Tolkien discussed this in letters and his notes, and it is quite consistent with Sauron’s actions.
6) Makes the best of bad situations: In the second Age, Sauron is confronted by the Númenóreans, the descendants of men and elves. They are so militarily powerful that he realizes that he cannot withstand them. Instead, he surrenders and allows himself to be taken captive, instead of bunkering down in Mordor. Over time he gains the trust of the Númenórean kings, and gradually convinces them of their own superiority. He tells them that Eru is an invention of the Valar, used to oppress them, and that the real creator is Melkor (aka Morgoth). He then gets them to worship Melkor, and sets himself up as high priest. Basically he realizes he can’t defeat these guys, and so he gets them to take him to their impregnable island where he perverts their religion. In the end, he sets the Númenóreans against the Valar, using one enemy to destroy the other. It doesn’t work out perfectly, but he does end the Númenóreans.
Sauron always has a plan. He resorts to force only when it is easy or required. He often shows great cunning and foresight in his plans and is willing to hide for long periods or act defeated and humble. He uses his lore and gifts to make himself useful to those who defeat him and then worms his way into their plans. Not exactly the actions of a mustache twirling megalomaniac. Putting his power into the ring actually worked out very well for Sauron since it allows him to return again and again.
7) Sauron is not the eye on the Tower: While the eye represents the will and presence of Sauron, he actually has a body somewhere in the tower beneath and is merely focusing his will through the eye. The eye itself represents his desire to control, always roaming, obsessively seeking out dissent.
Despite never appearing directly in a scene or as a perspective character Sauron is still a distinct villain with understandable goals. Plenty of people in human history have taken it upon themselves to impose order through force. Many of those who succeeded were praised and admired, despite their monstrous acts. Tolkien lived in the age of Totalitarianism and would be well aware of this. Sauron is comparable in many ways to Hitler or Stalin. He is also not as one-dimensional as he originally appears, demonstrating long-term planning skills, an aptitude with craft, and the ability to switch up his game plan when force fails him. Finally his willingness to follow when it suits his goals provides a key insight into his desires for order and his admiration for strength, both characteristics of Totalitarian societies, and fascism in general.
Personally I find Sauron to be an exceptional villain, and very interesting so long as one is willing to actually apply a bit of philology in analyzing him. He is more believable and interesting than his detractors are willing to give him credit for, but none of them seem to read between the lines. I like Sauron because I can identify with his desires, and can see how they can corrupt someone. He is the benchmark for all Fantasy Villains, and one to which very few measure up to.