Why Sauron is definitely a serious depiction of evil, not just a stock fantasy-baddie

Extollager

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N. S. Lyons, a Substack writer, commented:

In his book The Psychology of Totalitarianism, the Dutch clinical psychologist Mattias Desmet breaks down how generalized anxiety, often produced in part by overly mechanistic thinking, can lead to a (narcissistic) psychological need to exert more and more control over the external world – and ultimately to the delusional need to control all of reality itself. An individual or society’s “flight into [this delusion’s] false security is a logical consequence of the psychological inability to deal with uncertainty and risk.”

For Sauron, the “confusion” and “friction” he could not tolerate was the product of the unpredictability of the free will of other living beings, and so it was all “the creatures of earth, in their minds and wills, that he desired to dominate.” This led him to forge his own technological devices of total control: the rings of power and the “One Ring to rule them all.” His single-minded need for order – “swollen to madness” in its isolation – had cut him off from humanity, and from the Tao.


(By "the Tao," Lyons means natural law or objective morality. Tolkien's friend C. S. Lewis used "the Tao" to refer to it in his little book The Abolition of Man.)

Sometimes people fault Tolkien on account of Sauron, saying Sauron is just a stock character, pure evil, that they find unconvincing. I'm not sure Lyons will budge them, but I think his point is insightful. Sauron as a sufferer from "generalized anxiety" might sound unlikely to some, but they should remember, among other things that he knows that his lord, Morgoth, was cast by the Valar into darkness, and Sauron himself was disembodied at the end of the Second Age as a result of their action. His "Eye" is always peering... an image of being anxious. It could be said that perfect love casts out fear, but perfect fear casts out love. I think of Winston Smith brought face to face with his greatest fear and crying out, "Do it to Julia, don't do it to me." It could be argued that, for all his power and all his effort to increase his power, and for all his ill-founded confidence, Sauron is perfectly afraid.

Thoughts?
 
@Extollager Thank you for sharing.

First, The Silmarillion was published when I was a teen. I did not know that CJRT had culled his father's writings to create a narrative from the creation of the Ainur to the establishment of Numenor. I took every jot and tittle as gospel. I still consider it canon when trying to understand the Ainur... especially a character like Sauron.

Sauron was a servant of Aule, the Smith. He might have been the chief Maia under Aule and was most likely among the very mightiest of the Maiar along with Eonwe and Osse. As Aule's assistant, he must have been fully aware of the creation story of the Dwarves... he might have been present when Eru intervened. Speaking of Eru, Sauron was not only present, but actually participated in the Ainulindale... the song very of creation.

The ainur who joined Melkor in the song are not named. I don't know if Sauron joined Melkor's singing, but he sure knew the result. I'd dare say that anyone who has lived in the presence of omnipotence and omniscience and still persisted in rebellion would be driven "ultimately to the delusional need to control all of reality itself" as the author says. Sauron knew there was no way out. If he has not deluded himself, he wants to take as many down with him as possible.
 
His "Eye" is always peering... an image of being anxious.
It is interesting that the eye is used for analysis. A human, of limited energy and attention, is observably paranoid if they are constantly watching everything. But a godlike being isn't limited by sleep, having only two eyes or narrow attention spans.

I imagine that the unblinking eye reflects more the terror of those being watched, rather than the unknowable magic being producing the surveilance. Flipping the analysis requires first anthromorphizing Sauron.
 
It is interesting that the eye is used for analysis. A human, of limited energy and attention, is observably paranoid if they are constantly watching everything. But a godlike being isn't limited by sleep, having only two eyes or narrow attention spans.

I imagine that the unblinking eye reflects more the terror of those being watched, rather than the unknowable magic being producing the surveilance. Flipping the analysis requires first anthromorphizing Sauron.

Why not both? The terror of the watched and the terror of the watcher?


I find the analysis convincing but would stress that to anyone who's just read LotR and not the Silmarillion, it's not going to come through.
 
Why not both? The terror of the watched and the terror of the watcher?


I find the analysis convincing but would stress that to anyone who's just read LotR and not the Silmarillion, it's not going to come through.
It could be both, but a god-like being cannot be judged by the biological necessities of a mortal. A being that doesn't require sleep can't be said to have insomnia, for instance.

In LOTR, Sauron is not an active character. He takes fewer actons than Fu Manchu. It just seems weird to get into the psychology of a character that never speaks or appears to directly command. One could just as easily theorize that Sauron is the unwilling prisoner of the Nazgul; a pawn whose power is necessarily harnessed to keep them alive.
 
It could be both, but a god-like being cannot be judged by the biological necessities of a mortal. A being that doesn't require sleep can't be said to have insomnia, for instance.

In LOTR, Sauron is not an active character. He takes fewer actons than Fu Manchu. It just seems weird to get into the psychology of a character that never speaks or appears to directly command. One could just as easily theorize that Sauron is the unwilling prisoner of the Nazgul; a pawn whose power is necessarily harnessed to keep them alive.

Sauron is a alve to his slaves then ? interesting thought .
 
Sauron is a alve to his slaves then ? interesting thought .
Sauron was out of commission for a millennia, yet the Nazgul didn't backside into decency. Arguably they were instrumental in creating his last incarnation.
 
It could be both, but a god-like being cannot be judged by the biological necessities of a mortal. A being that doesn't require sleep can't be said to have insomnia, for instance.

In LOTR, Sauron is not an active character. He takes fewer actons than Fu Manchu. It just seems weird to get into the psychology of a character that never speaks or appears to directly command. One could just as easily theorize that Sauron is the unwilling prisoner of the Nazgul; a pawn whose power is necessarily harnessed to keep them alive.

This premise is based on all of Tolkien's works though, if perhaps prompted by the "pay no attention to the dark overlord behind the curtain" positioning of Sauron in LotR, and the argument here is more psychological than biological. Just because having a big honking fiery eye is no big shakes to a Maia doesn't mean all Maiar do it, or that the Valar do it either. Being special and different raises the question of why Sauron feels the need for such panopticon. I find the idea that it's a manifestation of his fear of a lack of control plausible.
 
This premise is based on all of Tolkien's works though, if perhaps prompted by the "pay no attention to the dark overlord behind the curtain" positioning of Sauron in LotR, and the argument here is more psychological than biological. Just because having a big honking fiery eye is no big shakes to a Maia doesn't mean all Maiar do it, or that the Valar do it either. Being special and different raises the question of why Sauron feels the need for such panopticon. I find the idea that it's a manifestation of his fear of a lack of control plausible.
It's all plausible, including my idea that he is in thrall to his servants. My point was simply that Sauron's anxiety isn't in the text, and requires the misapplication of the "science" of psychology to even exist as a theory. Maybe Sauron has Oedipal issues? Maybe Sauron suffers from lack-of-body dysmorphia?

Fan theories are entertaining, but their plausibility starts and ends with the fact that these aren't actual beings but words on a page. Sauron's anxiety is neither text nor subtext. Sauron is not semi-autobiographical. There is no person there to peel apart.
 
Interesting conversation. I read the Lord of the Rings at age 13. I read the Silmarillion at age 14. My perception of the character of Sauron is built on both. In discussing Sauron of the third age, I automatically apply his known actions and motivations of the first age.

40 years after first reading Tolkien, I wonder if the Silmarillion was a good idea.

I do not think that the Nazgûl have any lasting control over Sauron. I think their continued existence and lust for power stems from their rings. Sauron put great expertise into making the wearers of these rings subservient to his will. I understand to arrive at that conclusion I am using knowledge of the Lord of the Rings, text and appendix concerning Sauron during the second age. And yet his whole plot for the One Ring, and his motivation to hate elves, dunedain, and dwarves stems from his interactions with them in the first age.
 
I've been reading Tolkien's letters and came across something last night.

In letter #131, to Milton Waldman of the publisher Collins, he sets out a condensed version of what both the Silmarillion and LOTR are about. Of Sauron in the Second Age he says this:

"He lingers in Middle-earth. Very slowly, beginning with fair motives: the reorganising and rehabilitation of the ruin of Middle-earth, 'neglected by the gods', he becomes a reincarnation of Evil."

The bold bit is interesting. Tolkien doesn't say "fair-seeming motives". Is this a mistake on his part, or is he saying that even after his corruption by Melkor, Sauron became a potential force for good, before turning to evil again? That would seem to me significant. I've not seen anything like this mentioned elsewhere, though I haven't read The History of Middle Earth.
 
I've been reading Tolkien's letters and came across something last night.

In letter #131, to Milton Waldman of the publisher Collins, he sets out a condensed version of what both the Silmarillion and LOTR are about. Of Sauron in the Second Age he says this:

"He lingers in Middle-earth. Very slowly, beginning with fair motives: the reorganising and rehabilitation of the ruin of Middle-earth, 'neglected by the gods', he becomes a reincarnation of Evil."

The bold bit is interesting. Tolkien doesn't say "fair-seeming motives". Is this a mistake on his part, or is he saying that even after his corruption by Melkor, Sauron became a potential force for good, before turning to evil again? That would seem to me significant. I've not seen anything like this mentioned elsewhere, though I haven't read The History of Middle Earth.
Even Satan is depicted as a well meaning revolutionary. Are there any realistically evil figures in life or literature who's backstory doesn't contain some kind of good intention?
 
There are some interesting ideas and suggestions here.

Whilst Sauron is without his Ring, his 'body' becomes that of the Nazgul. Sauron's whole operation is based on fear; his own fear of the Ring being owned and controlled by others, the Nazgul's fear that someone other than their master will possess the Ring and dispense with their service, all the way down to the orcs and their fear of punishment.

I don't think that the Nazgul have any control over Sauron, because without their rings of power they are nothing. The One Ring contains a greater part of Sauron, so one can only assume that the 'lesser' rings hold a smaller part of him too. The Wraiths are essentially avatars that Sauron controls.

Sauron is not alone in his hatred of elves dwarves and other folk who inhabit the realms featured in LOTR, as is shown with the Corsairs of Umbar and the other vast columns of people that Frodo and Sam see heading into Mordor.
 
By the way, if anyone is inclined to just gatecrash and let the consequences be what they may....

 
I've been reading Tolkien's letters and came across something last night.

In letter #131, to Milton Waldman of the publisher Collins, he sets out a condensed version of what both the Silmarillion and LOTR are about. Of Sauron in the Second Age he says this:

"He lingers in Middle-earth. Very slowly, beginning with fair motives: the reorganising and rehabilitation of the ruin of Middle-earth, 'neglected by the gods', he becomes a reincarnation of Evil."

The bold bit is interesting. Tolkien doesn't say "fair-seeming motives". Is this a mistake on his part, or is he saying that even after his corruption by Melkor, Sauron became a potential force for good, before turning to evil again? That would seem to me significant. I've not seen anything like this mentioned elsewhere, though I haven't read The History of Middle Earth.

Clearly this wasn't a mistake on Tolkien's part, as he repeats it later on, that Sauron almost turned over a new leaf at the beginning of the Second Age. I hadn't clocked this before when reading the Letters, but this doesn't strike me as at all credible, given the depth of Sauron's evil in the First Age. People don't genuinely change from evil to good just because their former leader has been defeated, not unless they are shown a convincing argument as to why their former side was wrong -- they only pretend to. And the Valar don't present any argument to Morgoth's followers as to why they were wrong to follow him: they only show that they have the more powerful forces.

I'm intrigued as to why Tolkien made this the case, when it didn't affect the plot of the Second Age in any way. Things would have happened just the same if Sauron had only pretended to reform. It only seems to muddy his character (to the extent that he has one).
 
HareBrain, your argument assumes that Sauron is basically a powerful human being, so that what is unlikely regarding a human being must be unlikely with regard to one of the Maiar. And reasoning thus has plenty of justification in the text -- persons such as Gandalf do it all the time.

I'd have to check the text, but doesn't Tolkien's narrator hedge a bit -- stopping short of an authoritative statement that Sauron did indeed almost turn over a new leaf?

I'm just trying to introduce a nuance or two here.
 
HareBrain, your argument assumes that Sauron is basically a powerful human being, so that what is unlikely regarding a human being must be unlikely with regard to one of the Maiar. And reasoning thus has plenty of justification in the text -- persons such as Gandalf do it all the time.
It's true that the Valar don't seem subject to the human moral weaknesses that bedevil the Greek or Norse gods for example, but I do think it unlikely that, given that we can't imagine Sauron repenting of evil at any point in the Third Age, he should do so after the First, when he was just as evil in the First as in the Third. (If that makes sense.) He just doesn't seem prone to any sign of goodness in either of LOTR or the Silmarillion (though we don't know what he was like before he began to follow Melkor), so it seems odd that Tolkien should seemingly introduce such a different and interesting aspect of his character outside of the texts themselves.

I'd have to check the text, but doesn't Tolkien's narrator hedge a bit -- stopping short of an authoritative statement that Sauron did indeed almost turn over a new leaf?
This isn't Tolkien's narrator, but Tolkien himself, in letters. I quoted letter #131 above; the second example is #148, to Kathleen Ferrer:

"He was given an opportunity of repentance, when Morgoth was overcome, but could not face the humiliation of recantation, and suing for pardon; and so his temporary turn to good and 'benevolence' ended in a greater relapse..."

Again (though the quotes around 'benevolence' might suggest some hedging) Tolkien does state that Sauron turns to good (temporarily) at the start of the SA, but I don't believe anywhere in the published texts is this told, or even suggested as a possibility. I find this omission just as odd as the idea itself.
 
Would you accept the possibility that Tolkien was extending even to Sauron the possibility of repentance, as he did to Gollum in that poignant scene in LotR?

Tolkien might think we have approached this from the wrong angle. The point is not one of psychological credibility (that a person as evil as Sauron or Gollum could repent), but that divine grace could be extended even to such -- and, in each case, refused.
 
But, HB, many tyrants convince themselves that they act for the "common good" and also that the cruelty they practice is necessary to keep good order (and since what Sauron wants is a perfectly orderly world that would be particularly true in his case). Some of the worst deeds done in human history have been perpetrated by people who acted from"good motives," but cruelty and evil remain cruelty and evil regardless of the motivations behind them. And that would be even more true of the sort of monstrous evil that a maia like Sauron was capable of perpetrating.

Sauron's original sin is one of pride, the conviction that he can remake the world in a better pattern than that designed by Eru Iluvatar. That sort of conviction in itself may be understandable in mere mortals, for whom their God is distant and whose acts and plans are beyond their understanding, mortals who may even doubt his existence, or not believe in him at all. But Sauron has come face to face with the Supreme Creator and the Valar his servants, he has seen the whole plan, he even took part in the original song of creation. And yet he thinks that he can do better—if only he could overcome all that messy free will that Eru allows to mortal creatures.

And that sin of pride has led to others, particularly an obsession with power and control, which has become increasingly addictive. Which led to what Tolkien considers the ultimate evil, manipulating the orcs and Sauron's other servants in such a way that they were robbed of free will. Presumably after the fall of Morgoth he thought he could give that all up, and may have sincerely tried to do so for a while, but the hunger for that sort of power was always going to come back, and ultimately became a stronger motivation than the better motives he started with. And so he forged the Ring. Perhaps it was only when he first put the Ring on his finger that he understood himself, that he had reached a point where power was all.
 
Would you accept the possibility that Tolkien was extending even to Sauron the possibility of repentance, as he did to Gollum in that poignant scene in LotR?

Tolkien might think we have approached this from the wrong angle. The point is not one of psychological credibility (that a person as evil as Sauron or Gollum could repent), but that divine grace could be extended even to such -- and, in each case, refused.

I'm sure Tolkien wouldn't deny the possibility of any being repenting of their actions. But he specifically says that Sauron refused to repent, and yet despite not repenting, he began the Second age with "fair motives" and had a "temporary turn to good". And this isn't Sauron's own prideful assessment of his motives, by the way -- it seems, as Tolkien has written it in these letters, to be "objective". Maybe Tolkien meant something else and wasn't as clear as he could have been, I don't know. But it doesn't seem to fit with the rest of the history as published.
 

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