Dark Lord Musings: Why Sauron Joined Team Melkor
It has often been noted that Tolkien’s two great Dark Lords had quite distinct motivations for their villainy, Melkor/Morgoth being what we might today term ‘Chaotic Evil,’ and Mairon/Sauron being ‘Lawful Evil.’ One was obsessed with destroying Creation because it was not his, the other was obsessed with governing Creation “for its own good.”
To refresh, I can strongly recommend reading Tolkien’s Notes on Motives in The Silmarillion (http://fair-use.org/j-r-r-tolkien/notes-on-motives-in-the-silmarillion/), as found in Morgoth’s Ring (The History of Middle-earth Volume X). Specifically these relevant paragraphs…
… when Melkor was confronted by the existence of other inhabitants of Arda, with other wills and intelligences, he was enraged by the mere fact of their existence, and his only notion of dealing with them was by physical force, or the fear of it. His sole ultimate object was their destruction. Elves, and still more Men, he despised because of their weakness: that is their lack of physical force, or power over matter; but he was also afraid of them. He was aware, at any rate originally when still capable of rational thought, that he could not annihilate them: that is, destroy their being; but their physical life, and incarnate form became increasingly to his mind the only thing that was worth considering. Or he became so far advanced in Lying that he lied even to himself, and pretended that he could destroy them and rid Arda of them altogether. Hence his endeavour always to break wills and subordinate them to or absorb them in his own will and being, before destroying their bodies. This was sheer nihilism, and negation its one ultimate object: Morgoth would no doubt, if he had been victorious, have ultimately destroyed even his own creatures, such as the Orcs, when they had served his sole purpose in using them: the destruction of Elves and Men.
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 coordination, 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’s love (originally) or (later) mere understanding of other individual intelligences was correspondingly weaker; and though the only real good in, or rational motive for, all this ordering and planning and organization was the good of all 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.
Well and good. But this distinction – fascinating though it is – creates an interesting quandary. How did Sauron square his desire for rational ordering of the world with his support for the entity hell-bent on destroying the world? One cannot very well order the world for the material benefit of its inhabitants if both the world and its inhabitants are non-existent. Tolkien cites Melkor’s ability to Get Shit Done as something attractive to Sauron… which is vaguely unsatisfying, since being effective at wrecking Creation ought to still conflict with Sauron’s fundamental temper.
(Tolkien in a subsequent paragraph does note “Sauron had not served Morgoth, even in his last stages, without becoming infected by his lust for destruction”. But being infected by such tendencies is still a long way from wanting to see the world burn, especially because enslavement, rather than annihilation, remains the chief tool in Sauron’s toolbox).
So what, exactly, is going on here? In my opinion, it’s an issue that Tolkien rather leaves dangling… at least so far as his essays are concerned. This question does not impact so much on the actual stories. But if ever there was a fandom that likes to fill in world-building and philosophical gaps, it is this one. I myself have a few ideas, some of which potentially overlap with each other. Which is why I’m writing this blog post at all…
(i) Morgoth lied to Sauron
I have a soft spot for this rationalisation, in part because it is oh-so in-character for Morgoth to lie to even his chief servant, and it even adds a whiff of genuine tragedy to Sauron’s storyline. Under this hypothesis, Morgoth hid his nihilism from Sauron, essentially telling him that “when Arda is mine, you shall have your desires fulfilled.” And poor Sauron – star-struck and intoxicated by the prospect of power – bought the lie wholesale, deluding himself for millennia that Morgoth’s destructive behaviour was simply a means to a positive end. After all, a bit of destruction can be fun, after a hard day’s work running bureaucracy…
(ii) It’s Just Business
Here, Sauron had a much better idea of what he was getting into. He knew full-well what Morgoth was up to, but thought he could still steer his boss in a particular direction (or leech off the opportunities presented by the rebel Ainu), rather like Saruman thinking he could deal with Mordor in The Lord of the Rings. The underlying differences in worldview can be dismissed as Sauron realising that Morgoth’s end-goal was actually impossible, and that his master’s destructive tendencies were self-limiting. Moreover, Morgoth’s power had dispersed into Arda itself. With Morgoth having done the hard metaphysical work, Sauron could simply piggy-back off him, for his own advantage… without his precious plans being overruled or constrained by the Valar.
(iii) Sauron as Macbeth
“I am in blood Stepped in so far that, should I wade no more, Returning were as tedious as go o’er.”
Under this scenario, Sauron was initially lured in… realised his mistake, but decided that it is simply too damned hard or painful to repent of his misdeeds, so he might as well double-down on Team Evil. This, of course, is floated as an explicit possibility at the end of the First Age – that Sauron really did sincerely repent, but could not quite bring himself to subject himself to the judgement of the Valar. But such thoughts might actually have occurred earlier in Sauron’s career, potentially multiple times, once he saw Morgoth in action. On the other hand, Sauron does not generally strike me as the self-loathing sort.
(iv) The Lesser Evil
In the beginning, Sauron “adored” Melkor – but did it entirely stay that way? Strange though it sounds, it is potentially possible that Sauron grew to dislike Morgoth, a dislike kept hidden by out-and-out fear. It’s just that he might have seen his master’s destructive eccentricities as less irritating than the dithering, incompetent, and inefficient Valar – Melkor may be an idiot, but he can at least Get Shit Done!
Such are my contrived explanations for how a sophisticated planner and administrator could wind up as chief servant (and spiritual successor) to an Anarchistic Toddler. It is also interesting to note that Sauron’s post-First Age career is an ever-deepening descent into cynicism, so far as his treatment of Morgoth goes. The Valaquenta suggests Sauron was less evil, in that “for long he served another and not himself,” but in the Second and Third Ages, the homages become decidedly self-serving. Sauron setting himself up as Melkor’s High-Priest in Númenor was naked pragmatism, not devoted sincerity, while in the Third Age, Sauron was telling his followers that he was Morgoth Returned, which would not have gone down well had his old boss ever learned of it.
(I cannot yet get my hands on The Nature of Middle-earth, but I am aware it includes references to eastern Orcs, who took a dim view of Sauron’s attempt to assume his master’s old mantle. Sauron’s pragmatic motivations for draping himself in Morgoth’s legacy cannot be understated, regardless of what he actually thought of his old boss).