Sauron should be thought of as very terrible. The form that he took was
that of a man of more than human stature, but not gigantic.
In his earlier incarnation he was able to veil his power
(as Gandalf did) and could appear as a commanding
figure of great strength of body and supremely
royal demeanour and countenance.
(Letters, № 246)
Readers of The Lord of the Rings are well aware of Sauron’s being the chief menace of the Second and Third Ages after the capture of Morgoth and the War of Wrath. What is rather obscure, though, is what the great Middle-earth adversary looked like. In his writings and letters Tolkien gave a few clues concerning the looks of Sauron, leaving all the rest to his readers’ imagination.
Our journey into what Sauron looked like should start with his origins. Sauron was a Maia, and that is an angelic spirit created by Eru Ilúvatar before the physical world. Such spirits could assume any form they wished to, in accordance with their desires, characters and nature. Thus their looks were more like clothes for people. Enamoured with the Children of Ilúvatar (Elves and Men) seen in the vision Eru presented to them, most of such spirits, greater and lesser, took their shapes in the manner of the Children. Sauron was no exception. Being among those spirits that descended into Arda after its creation, he took the form in the likeness of the Children of Ilúvatar.
Early on Sauron followed Morgoth and became his most trusted and terrible lieutenant. For a long time, and that is the whole of the First Age and a considerable part of the Second Age, he could change his shape and assume a fair form, alongside many others. We get a glimpse of Sauron’s abilities in his confrontation with Huan and Lúthien. First, he took on a form of the greatest werewolf that ever walked the earth in order to defeat Huan in accordance with the old prophecy. But that did not help, and Sauron in his werewolf shape was not meant to overcome Huan the Hound. When Huan had him by the throat, Sauron underwent several changes:
Then Sauron shifted shape, from wolf to serpent, and from monster to his own accustomed form; but he could not elude the grip of Huan without forsaking his body utterly.
(Silmarillion. pp. 205-206)
After Huan released him, Sauron turned into a vampire and departed to Taur-nu-Fuin. At that time he still did not utterly dispense his powers and could still change shapes at will.
Following the War of Wrath Sauron “put on his fair hue again” (ibid., p. 341) and made an attempt of repentance when appearing before Eönwë, the herald of Manwë. Tolkien’s using ‘again’ in this line might suggest that during Sauron’s time in Angband his appearance was far from fair, but looking fair in general was not new to Sauron: he must have been so before following Morgoth. Assuming this fair hue before the victorious army was his move to appear more credible and trustworthy. Truly, Sauron’s repentance was genuine at first, but was later averted by the thought of humiliation that he would encounter in Aman facing the Valar.
Instead of returning to Aman, Sauron stayed in Middle-earth and not long had passed until he began to sow discord there. His ability to appear fair came in handy when he tried to trick the Elves to his side. Calling himself Annatar, Sauron rather succeeded in it as “his hue was still that of one both fair and wise” (ibid., p. 343), but Elrond and Gil-galad were not fooled. Fair looks could trick some into believing his good motives, but Elrond and Gil-galad were far-sighted and perceptive, and they felt that there was something wrong about Annatar: appearances did prove deceptive in this case.
It was in those stages when Sauron could still decide on his looks. Upon his arrival to Númenor before its Downfall many Númenóreans perceived him differently:
And it seemed to Men that Sauron was great; though they feared the light of his eyes. To many he appeared fair, to others terrible; but to some evil.
(The Lost Road, p. 67)
However, Sauron was to lose this ability to appear fair forever and, it seems, to change shapes at will, after the Downfall of Númenor. Being an immortal spirit, he did not die in the disaster. His physical form was destroyed, but his spirit fled back to Middle-earth, to Mordor, where he dwelt like a shadow for quite a long time: it took Sauron a while to re-build his body. But this time he could no longer appear fair: the destruction in the Downfall and his inherent powers he had previously spent corrupting the Númenóreans had taken their toll. Thus, Sauron “wrought himself a new guise, an image of malice and hatred made visible” (Silmarillion, p. 336) All the corruption of his spirit was beginning to show: having squandered a lot of his powers on dominating others Sauron could no longer veil his malice behind a fair face.
Following Sauron’s destruction by Gil-galad and Elendil, it took the Maia even longer to re-build his body. Tolkien provided an explanation in his letters:
After the battle with Gil-galad and Elendil, Sauron took a long while to re-build, longer than he had done after the Downfall of Númenor (I suppose because each building-up used up some of the inherent energy of the spirit, which might be called the ‘will’ or the effective link between the indestructible mind and being and the realization of its imagination).
(Letters, № 200)
From that defeat we can find a few more bits concerning Sauron’s appearance. Isildur, who cut the One Ring from Sauron’s finger, described that his hand “was black and yet burned like fire” (Fellowship of the Ring, p. 331). Later Gollum claimed that there were only four fingers on Sauron’s hand: the one Isildur had cut off was not there.
By the time of the battle with Elendil and Gil-galad Sauron he had not fully restored his dominion in Middle-earth after the Downfall of Númenor and, besides, had already used up a lot of his inner powers to bend those around him to his will. It had not passed unnoticed, especially with his investing a lot of his inherent powers into the One Ring. In this Sauron partly, but not totally, followed Morgoth’s path. By dissipating and putting a great amount of his powers into the physical matter of Arda, Morgoth could no longer hide his malice or change his shape at all, becoming stuck in his body. He never left Angband because he had become more vulnerable for attacks. A similar thing is true about Sauron. Though he acted more wisely than Morgoth did, and only spent his inherent powers on the Rings of Power and corrupting others, such actions left their trace. The destruction of the One Ring, however, rendered Sauron unable to ever restore his body again.
Tolkien’s specifically using the words ‘fair’ and ‘terrible’ to talk about Sauron’s appearance is quite suggestive of what he looked like, too. ‘Fair’, in its archaic sense, means ‘beautiful’, and it comes from the Old English fæger (‘pleasing’, ‘attractive’). ‘Terrible’ means ‘causing terror’, ‘sinister’ or ‘unpleasant’, ‘disagreeable’. Its origin lies in Middle English where the word meant ‘causing terror’, via French terribilis, from terrere meaning ‘to frighten’. Thus with his ongoing corruption Sauron underwent the change from being able to look attractive and nice to the eyes to causing fear with his looks alone. In those later stages, when Sauron could no longer appear fair, very few could endure the very presence of the Dark Lord.
In the overview it should be said, that Sauron had a physical form until the moment the One Ring was destroyed. At the early stages he could change his shape at will and appear fair, but the long years of inner corruption did not pass unnoticed for him. It was taking Sauron longer and longer to re-build his body after being vanquished, and then he lost the ability to appear fair at all. His terrible look betrayed his inner self and showed his malice and evil.
- J. R. R. Tolkien – The Silmarillion (edited by Christopher Tolkien); HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 1999.
- J. R. R. Tolkien – The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2001.
- 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 – The Lost Road and Other Writings; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2015.