Being the chief villain of the Second and Third Ages, Sauron sparks numerous questions concerning his motives. How did he become the evil figure we know him to be? Why did he run the risk of transferring a great amount of his inherent power into the One Ring knowing that it could lead to his destruction? Let us look at his downfall and motives through Tolkien’s own stories and letters.
Having risen like the shadow of Morgoth, Sauron was nevertheless different from his former lord. His downfall arose out of good motives, nor was he the beginner of discord. Sauron belonged to the Maiar — spirits created from Ilúvatar’s thought. He came into existence before the physical world took shape. Originally Sauron, who was known as Mairon (the Admirable) at that time, was associated with the people of Aulë, so he was a very skillful smith.
As the Maia changed allegiance, his name Mairon was no longer used by other peoples, though he himself kept on calling himself Tar-Mairon — King Excellent — until the time after the downfall of Númenor (1). His pride was already swelling as the Maia’s power as Morgoth’s lieutenant was great. Because of his deeds the peoples of Middle-earth referred to him either as Sauron — the Abhorred, or Gorthaur — Terrible Dread.
However, it was a virtue that attracted Sauron into Morgoth’s service and later caused his downfall. The Maia loved order and disliked any kind of fuss. Add to this his admiration of strength, and Sauron’s motives for switching sides become very clear. It was Morgoth’s ability to bring Sauron’s designs into life quickly and efficiently that played a key role in his desire to join the Dark Ainu’s forces. His service on the dark side infected Sauron with Morgoth’s lust for power, and eventually his fair endeavours went seriously astray.
Still, a look into Sauron’s motives and his personal story reveals him as a wiser, more sensible and reasonable villain than Morgoth. He did not have Morgoth’s sheer nihilism, and thus was able to retain rational thought and keep his actions cunning and thought-out. Sauron joined the service of Morgoth in the already corrupted world. For a very lengthy period of time the Maia served another, so he did not fall so low and did not dissipate his powers like Morgoth did. Well into the Second Age he was still able to assume a fair form, which shows that he was not yet so utterly corrupted to the point of being unable to look handsome any more. It was not to last, though, as Sauron’s further way was a downward spiral. In comparison, Morgoth lost the ability to change his appearance at will at the very beginning of the First Age, was no longer able to veil his malice by good looks and became permanently incarnate.
After the downfall of Morgoth in the War of Wrath, Sauron repented, though it was out of fear, but as Manwë’s herald Eönwë could not grant pardon to those of his own race, Sauron was to go to Valinor and there face Manwë himself. That Sauron could not do for fear of humiliation. Moreover, he was used to the power he enjoyed in the service of Morgoth and was not prepared to lose it.
Thus Sauron stayed in Middle-earth. Just like in the case of his joining Morgoth, his initial motives were fair or, at least, veiled in fair forms. Sauron wished to help restore Middle-earth after the hurts done to it in the War of Wrath. His fair words, aided by his fair appearance, were very much in accord with what the Elves wanted. So they, except Elrond and Gil-galad, hearkened to him and his teaching. Eventually two things rose out of it.
Sauron’s initial desire to heal the lands of Middle-earth turned into what Tolkien called “a veiled attack on the gods”. In his heart Sauron thought that the Valar had abandoned Middle-earth and did not care about it any longer. So he encouraged turning Middle-earth into the place as beautiful as Valinor, keeping these lands free from decay. By doing this Sauron challenged the Valar in his aim to create a paradise on the other side of the Sea. This, accompanied by his ever-growing pride fuelled by the others’ admiration for his great knowledge, made him lust for Complete Power. But being an immortal spirit he strove to become not just the Lord of the World, but the God-King — and that was how his servants saw him. Tolkien writes that “if he had been victorious he would have demanded divine honour from all rational creatures and absolute temporal power over the whole world” (Letters, № 183). This is where the Rings of Power enter the scene.
We know that Sauron “did not object to the existence of the world, so long as he could do what he liked with it” (Morgoth’s Ring, p. 396), so in order to achieve this, he made the One Ring. He, unlike Morgoth, never wanted to level the world to the absolute nil, but aimed at controlling the minds and wills of others, with his special target being the Evles. So as to to achieve his aim, he put a considerable amount of his own will and power into the One Ring. It was essentially “One ring to rule them all / One ring to find them /One ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them“. It contained the powers of the lesser Rings of Power, so Sauron could “could see the thoughts of all those that used the lesser rings, could govern all that they did, and in the end could utterly enslave them“ (Letters, № 131). However, he did not manage to trick the Elves, whom he most hated and desired to enslave, as they hid their Rings when they perceived Sauron’s intentions and never used them while he was in possession of the One.
Sauron did reach his aim partially, though. With the Ring on, he was able to enslave and dominate the vast multitudes of Men that had not established any contact with the Elves. His empire was thus constantly growing. The power of the Ring was in accord with Sauron: if he wore it, his own power was enhanced, but even if the Dark Lord did not wear the Ring, he could still affect it being far from it. So after being parted from its master in the War of the Last Alliance, the One was constantly trying to return back to him, betraying those who came into the possession of it by slipping from them in the worst moments, doing everything possible to reunite with the hand that made it. This urge became especially strong when Sauron arose again after his vanquishing and began “sending out his dark thought from Mirkwood“ (Fellowship of the Ring, p. 73).
Nevertheless, having a considerable amount of Sauron’s own power in it, the Ring’s concept had several serious weaknesses. The first one was that anyone with sufficient strength and willpower could take possession of the One, challenge Sauron himself and eventually oust him from the position of the Dark Lord. Very few in Middle-earth were capable of it, so it did not seem a particularly serious threat to Sauron.
Another threat was that the Ring’s destruction could cause Sauron’s diminishing to a shadow and, thus, vanquishing. It posed certain difficulties, though, as the Ring could be unmade only by Sauron’s own smithcraft or in the fires of Orodruin where it was forged, but by no other means and nowhere else. Getting inside Mount Doom was a serious challenge — an impossible mission to complete for an ordinary person on an ordinary day, so Sauron simply did not consider this possibility as an option. Another aspect was that even if anyone did reach the fires of Orodruin, they would be simply unable to cast the Ring down because of the hold it had on those possessing it. We remember that the One found its end by a happy chance. Frodo could not bring himself to throw the Ring into the fire because of its terrible hold on him and Gollum, having taken the Ring from the Hobbit, stepped way too far from the edge and fell into the fire together with his Precious.
In his arrogance and pride Sauron did not consider that a mere chance could interfere in his designs, that a mere accident could make things go terribly wrong for him, so he did not consider the second option either, though, it seems, he was well aware of both weaknesses in his design of the Ring. Growing increasingly proud, Sauron made a classical it-would-never-happen-to-me mistake — an oversight which caused his eventual undoing. In his lust for Complete Power he came very close to becoming Absolute Evil, but failed and followed Morgoth “on the same ruinous path down into the Void” (The Silmarillion, p. 24).
(1) Parma Eldalamberon 17, p. 183
- H. Carpenter – The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien; with the assistance of Christopher Tolkien; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2012 (Kindle edition).
- J. R. R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien – Morgoth’s Ring; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2015.
- J. R. R. Tolkien – The Silmarillion (edited by Christopher Tolkien); HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 1999.
- J. R. R. Tolkien – The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2001.
Featured image: Carl Blechen – Stürmische See mit Leuchtturm