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).

Further reading:

On Morgoth’s permanently incarnated form.

On Sauron’s appearance

The tower of adamant


(1) Parma Eldalamberon 17, p. 183

Works consulted:

  1. H. Carpenter – The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien; with the assistance of Christopher Tolkien; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2012 (Kindle edition).
  2. J. R. R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien – Morgoth’s Ring; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2015.
  3. J. R. R. Tolkien – The Silmarillion (edited by Christopher Tolkien); HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 1999.
  4. 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

21 thoughts on “On Sauron’s motives.

  1. Tolkien was a master, in many ways, of writing morality tales. Sauron and Saruman are both tragic figures, who had high callings, and fell from grace. Imagine how evil Gandolf, who was a demi-god himself, could have been if he fell from grace.

    1. What I really like about Tolkien’s morality is that it’s given very subtly and isn’t forced upon the reader. It’s up to us to see these lessons and draw conclusions from them. Gandalf would have been absolutely terrible. He might even have been worse than Sauron.

      1. I’ll rely on what Tolkien wrote in a letter. He implies that only Gandalf had sufficient power to take possession of the Ring and oust Sauron from his place. If there had been an actual confrontation between Gandalf and Sauron, Gandalf would have had the mastery. Firstly, Sauron did’t possess the Ring, which didn’t let him use his power to the full, and, secondly, because Sauron was weaker due to his dissipating his power (putting a lot of it into the Ring as well as long corruption and domination of his subjects). And I’ll quote Tolkien himself: “Gandalf as Ring-Lord would have been far worse than Sauron. He would have remained ‘righteous’, but self-righteous. He would have continued to rule and order things for ‘good’, and the benefit of his subjects according to his wisdom (which was and would have remained great).”
        Gandalf had an intimate understanding of Middle-earth and its inhabitants, he knew a lot about them. His actions were clever and wise, and to Sauron’s mind he was unpredictable. It was easier for Sauron to understand Saruman as their minds worked in a similar way. Gandalf was stronger than Sauron in the Third Age, especially after becoming Gandalf the White. If his power and wisdom had been enhanced by the Ring, he would have become terrible. I think he would have achieved what Sauron partly failed to do: control the wills and minds of others. Sauron mostly relied on force and fear in his ruling.

  2. I think that it is so important to recognise that Gandalf, or Galadriel for that matter, would have been worse than Sauron. They both recognised that in themselves and feared it above everything. I have long thought that the phrase in the “Our Father” when we pray, “Deliver us from evil” is less about the evil that others might do to us and more about the evil that we might do to others. As with Saruman later I don’t think that Sauron ever had much capacity for insight into his own capacity for evil. It is a capacity that one has to actively develop and Sauron’s desire for order (which you so helpfully explain) outweighs any other consideration for him.
    Whoever accused Tolkien of writing a simple “good guys and bad guys” story!?

    1. Absolutely. It is so often that we perceive evil as an outside thing, but fail to see when it might come from us — from inside. We just don’t always look for it there. It is very clear when Tolkien explains that they (e.g. Gandalf or Sauron) did something according to their wisdom. And that personal wisdom could be very different from what others considered wise.
      Indeed! There doesn’t seem to be such a thing as “simple” when it comes to Tolkien 😄

  3. I am intrigued by the way Aulë shows up in the fallen and almost-fallen: Aulë himself, who in creating dwarves almost commits the sin of Melkor. Fëanor, the most skillful of the Noldor (beloved of Aulë) whose pride of possession leads him and all the Noldor into tragedy. Sauron is originally a Maia of Aulë, as is Saruman. They are all proof of the saying “Love not too well the works if thy hands”. Gandalf is a Maia of Nienna, which associates him with pity for the grief of Arda. I think it is very insightful of Tolkien to realize that a twisted desire to do good is worse than a selfish desire to be great.

    1. So true! Probably, Tolkien shows one of the areas where it’s the easiest to fall. Once we see what we can make, sub-create, it’s easy to leave the good path. But, still, if one is humble and knows their limits, falling even in this area can be avoided, just like Aulë himself shows. His reaction to his own almost falling is exemplary.

  4. Fantastic!
    readign just LotR and even the Silmarillion it isn’t easy to understand Sauron’s reasons. But searching for his reasons (and he does have a few) makes him a far mor einteresting character.
    His story’s sounds a lot like Feanor’s. I wonder if Feanor might have followed the same path, had he lived, or if (as I believe) he would have seen the light in the end.

    1. I guess it’s usually rather challenging to understand villains, but they’re usually (if we speak about well-written books) are rather complex characters and exploring their motives is very interesting.
      That’s an interesting comparison with Fëanor. I think he could easily have followed Sauron’s path, or even Melkor’s. At his own level, of course, but still with no less devastation caused. An optimistic part of me wants to believe that Fëanor would have changed for the better in the end.

      1. Ah! You didn’t follow the Christmas discussion about Feanor in the Green Door Podcast group!
        I actually think the other way around, about Feanor. I think he was destined to be a great hero (he has all the characteristics), but something went horribly wrong in the course of the Ainur song abotu him, and his destiny was completely twarted. Personally, although he made a lot of mistakes, I don’t think he would have never ended on the side of Evil… and this is what I think it’s extremely fascinating about him.

      2. No, I didn’t. I don’t use Facebook much, so I missed that one.
        That’s a very interesting point of view. It would have been really curious to see which direction he could have headed in if he hadn’t perished so untimely.

  5. So what do people think: did Sauron take the ring with him on his island vacation? And if so, how did he get it back again in time for the third age?

    1. I personally think Sauron had it when he went to Númenor. The text is dubious and uncertain about it, but in his letters Tolkien stared that Sauron had the Ring because it helped him dominate the wills of the Núnenóreans. I think it makes sense for him to have it and not leave it back in Mordor firstly for the reason stated by the Professor himself: he needed it to dominate others. Besides, leaving the Ring in Mordor was the same as leaving a great part of you behind. A lot of Sauron’s native power went into forging the Ring, so leaving it behind was rather risky, to say the least. Anything could happen to the Ring in its master’s absence. Besides, I don’t think Sauron could bear parting with the Ring of his own free will because of the grip it had.

  6. Despite the accusations of his critics Tolkien did not create a simplistic universe of good and evil. All of his characters are capable of wicked acts. The wise ones, such as Gandalf, are those who are aware of their capacity for evil. Dare I contradict Tolkien when I say that Saruman and Sauron are both extremely self-righteous believing themselves to be more moral than the gods? Perhaps Gandalf can see this capacity for self righteousness in himself too. He certainly seems to allude to it when he refuses Frodo’s offer of the Ring.

    1. That’s a wonderful point, Stephen! That’s what I like about Tolkien’s writings – there are no absolutely good or absolutely evil characters. There’s always some debate possible about this or that person in the Legendarium. They are all well-rounded and not flat. That’s probably why we find most of them so plausible and real.

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