Of J.R.R. Tolkien and status quos: Part XI

Last time with McGarry and Ravipinto we focused on the heroes. Today, it’s Sauron’s turn. In fact, the Dark Lord of Mordor ‘s shadow has grown so long that he has earned himself a two-parter (this being the first part). As Peregrin Took would say, “make way for the Lord of the Ring.”


Facing such heroes are the enemies of the status quo, represented as evil and transformative forces. In The Lord of the Rings, these forces are led by Sauron, Lord of Barad-dûr and master of the One Ring that is the very symbol of doom… These forces are obviously not merely destructive; they do not leave a void in their wake. Instead they transform all they touch, a process that is presented respectively by Tolkien and Martin as both perverse and disturbing.

McGarry and Ravipinto in this paragraph offer a conclusion that is technically correct but thoroughly misleading, painting an image of the Dark Lord standing in heroic opposition to the oppressive monarchical (or pseudo-monarchical) class system prevailing in the West. In actuality, while Sauron does technically offer a break from the status quo as Middle-earth found itself, in the year 3018 of the Third Age, the offer cannot be viewed as undermining the status quo in any real sense – unless one considers a God-King sending social organisation backwards thousands of years a “progressive change”.

What is Sauron actually planning? We have several bits of evidence, both within the text of The Lord of the Rings and external to it. Let us now consider each in turn:

(1) Gandalf to Frodo (p.62.):

“It would be a grievous blow to the world, if the Dark Power overcame the Shire; if all your kind, jolly, stupid Bolgers, Hornblowers…, and the rest, not to mention the ridiculous Baggineses, became enslaved.”

Frodo shuddered. “But why should we be?” he asked. “And why should he want such slaves?”

“… He does not need you – he has many more useful servants – but he won’t forget you again. And hobbits as miserable slaves would please him far more than hobbits happy and free. There is such a thing as malice and revenge!”

This is essentially the very first thing we are told about Sauron’s motivations, and it is not couched in the language of social transformation. Gandalf does not tell Frodo that Sauron is planning to take all his money away, or that he will be forced to share Bag End with refugees from Harad. There is no reference to chopping down forests and polluting rivers with industrial waste. Rather, Sauron wants to enslave and dominate others, even if it isn’t practical to do so, simply because the Dark Lord has a petty vindictive streak: he likes to see those who opposed him suffer.

(2) Gandalf to Frodo (p.64.)

“The Enemy still lacks one thing to give him strength and knowledge… to cover all the lands in a second darkness…”

A second darkness. The peak of Sauron’s power was the Second Age (the Black Years of Middle-earth), and he aspires to regain that level of control: to reunify the lands under his thumb. Insofar as there is transformative change here, it is a malign and more extreme version of Elvish conservatism: whereas the Elves were trying to hold onto an unchanging world, Sauron is actually focused on bringing back the Old Days. And these Old Days are anything but Good.

(3) The Barrow Wight’s chant (p.156.)

Cold be hand and heart and bone, and cold be sleep under stone: never more to wake on stony bed, never, till the Sun fails and the Moon is dead. In the black wind the stars shall die, and still on gold here let them lie, till the dark lord lifts his hand over dead sea and withered land.

A delightfully creepy verse. Recall that Sauron moonlighted as the Necromancer for a while, and Tolkien did not give him that title by chance. The Barrow Wight is an evil spirit out of Angmar, haunting the graves of dead Kings – it is there courtesy of the Witch-King, and thus indirectly of Sauron himself. The Wight (in contrast to several other villains, such as the Balrog) is therefore clearly on Team Sauron, and the verse here anticipates the Dark Lord’s coming dominion “over dead sea and withered land”.

This is transformative change, but on a scale far darker than anything before hinted – rather than mere disruption of the status quo, this is a prophecy of a dead world. In fact, it is not out of the realms of possibility that the Wight is actually referring to Morgoth’s return: the imagery is not only apocalyptic, but such total devastation is more his style than Sauron’s. But in any case, it should be enough to indicate that the War of the Ring is not a mere political struggle, but something much more existential and serious.

(4) Gandalf to Frodo (p.238.):

“You would have become a wraith under the dominion of the Dark Lord; and he would have tormented you for trying to keep his Ring, if any greater torment were possible than being robbed of it and seeing it on his hand.”

Sauron’s petty streak is again referenced. Note also the mention of “his hand”: Sauron has a bodily form and is not a Giant Eye.

(5) Saruman to Gandalf (p.276.):

“The time of the Elves is over, but our time is at hand: the world of Men, which we must rule. But we must have power, power to order all things as we will, for that good which only the Wise can see… A new Power is rising… We may join with that Power… As the Power grows, its proved friends will also grow; and the Wise, such as you and I, may with patience come at last to direct its courses, to control it. We can bide our time, we can keep our thoughts in our hearts, deploring maybe evils done by the way, but approving the high and ultimate purpose: Knowledge, Rule, Order…”

Saruman is floating the image of transformative change to Gandalf. But what sort of transformation does Saruman perceive Mordor to be offering? Knowledge, Rule, Order. A change that brings Order out of Chaos, domination of the elite few over others for their own good. A “useful evil” that can be steered in the right direction. If this is the sort of change on offer, it is not a change that any real-world supporter of socio-economic emancipation ought to welcome. Least of all in 2016, where we have enough dark shadows of our own to deal with.

(6) Gollum to Frodo (p.663.):

“… Don’t take the precious to Him! He’ll eat us all, if he gets it, eat all the world.”

Gollum, more than anyone else, is in a position to make informed commentary on Sauron, in that he has actually experienced the Dark Lord’s hospitality first hand. Gollum realises that getting the Ring off Sauron would be more difficult than getting it off Frodo, so he has an ulterior motive here, but even so, the “Sauron will eat the world!” plea fits perfectly with what Gandalf (and the Barrow Wight) have told us about a future where Sauron is triumphant. The transformative change on offer is an all-conquering tyranny.

(7) Gandalf to Imrahil (p.913.):

“If he regains it, your valour is in vain, and his victory will be swift and complete: so complete that none can foresee the end of it while this world lasts.”

That Sauron with the Ring would be unbeatable is well-established. What is notable about this quote is that it suggests that the victory would be perpetual and permanent. So Sauron not only offers a return to the Second Age of Middle-earth, but a world where he will be God-King forever more. An allegedly transformative change that prevents any further social change once it has occurred?

(8) The Mouth of Sauron (p.924.):

“The rabble of Gondor and its deluded allies shall withdraw at once beyond the Anduin, first taking oaths never again to assail Sauron the Great in arms or in secret. All lands east of Anduin shall be Sauron’s for ever, solely. West of the Andui as far as the Misty Mountains and the Gap of Rohan shall be tributory to Mordor, and the men there shall bear no weapons, but shall have leave to govern their own affairs. But they shall help to rebuild Isengard which they have wantonly destroyed, and that shall be Sauron’s, and there his lieutenant shall dwell : not Saruman, but one more worthy of trust.”

Looking into the Messenger’s eyes they read his thought. He was to be that lieutenant, and gather all that remained of the West under his sway; he would be their tyrant and they his slaves.

Never mind Gandalf or Gollum, this is direct from the horse’s Mouth (capitalised for pun value), and reveals a fair bit about Sauron’s plans: he offers an absolutely humiliating peace deal in exchange for one captive (which he may or may not know he doesn’t have). Leaving aside the veracity of the deal – as the shade of Gorlim could point out, Sauron doesn’t keep his side of the bargain – it shows a figure completely obsessed with domination and control. Sauron does not promise transformative change in an emancipatory sense, but rather a world divided between his own personal tyranny and the tyranny of his puppet. One ought to resist the temptation to draw analogies between Tolkien and the Second World War, but there is more than a whiff of Vichy France to this.

(9). Tolkien’s 1958 essay on Morgoth and Sauron:

Sauron had never reached this stage of nihilistic madness. He did not object to the existence of the world, so long as he could do what he liked with it. He still had the relics of positive purposes, that descended from the good of the nature in which he began: it had been his virtue (and therefore also the cause of his fall, and of his relapse) that he loved order and co-ordination, and disliked all confusion and wasteful friction. (It was the apparent will and power of Melkor to effect his designs quickly and masterfully that had first attracted Sauron to him.)

Sauron had, in fact, been very like Saruman, and so still understood him quickly and could guess what he would be likely to think and do, even without the aid of the palantíri or of spies; whereas Gandalf eluded and puzzled him. But like all minds of this cast, Sauron’s love (originally) or (later) mere understanding of other individual intelligences was correspondingly weaker; and thought the only real good in, or rational motive for, all this ordering and planning and organization was the good of all the inhabitants of Arda (even admitting Sauron’s right to be their supreme lord), his ‘plans’, the idea coming from his own isolated mind, became the sole object of his will, and an end, the End, in itself.

While some might consider an extra-textual source cheating, this paragraph is entirely consistent with how the previous quotes have portrayed Sauron. Sauron, basically, wants to conquer the world for its own good; he wants to dominate, unify, and control as an End unto itself, not emancipate the victims of the status quo.

(10) Tolkien’s essay, continued:

But though Sauron’s whole true motive was the destruction of the Númenóreans, this was a particular matter of revenge upon Ar-Pharazon, for humiliation. Sauron (unlike Morgoth) would have been content for the Númenóreans to exist, as his own subjects, and indeed he used a great many of them that he corrupted to his allegiance.

This quote again testifies to Sauron’s extreme pettiness (along with the House of Fëanor and the Dwarves, he is certainly one of Tolkien’s more revenge-obsessed characters). It also reinforces the idea that Sauron, first and foremost, is about making others his subjects. The contrast between this control freak and Aragorn – who shows incredible amounts of mercy, and who consciously surrenders power at various points – could not be more stark.

Essay continued.

4 thoughts on “Of J.R.R. Tolkien and status quos: Part XI

  1. Pingback: Of J.R.R. Tolkien and status quos: Compendium | A Phuulish Fellow

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