I drafted 1/2 this post and the page died and it wasn’t saved in my drafts now I’m pissed.
While I am going to use Peter Jackson’s film adaptations of The Lord of the Rings (LotR) as a jumping off point for much of the discussion below, this post contains more literary analysis than it does thoughtful discussion of film. “But, Dori,” you say, “isn’t this a film blog? Yes, yes, I know. I’ll try to keep posts like this to a minimum. That said, I’m a former English major and a huge Tolkien fan. In fact, this is not the first time I have written about Jackson’s portrayal of Sauron, and a good portion of what follows is a revised and simplified version of a small section of much longer academic paper I wrote (which was about everyone’s favorite topics: Sauron, Voldemort, and an Augustinian conception of evil).
Sauron has a Body, but it’s Not Important
Though many viewers of Peter Jackson’s films (and even more casual readers of Tolkien’s novels) may not realize it, Sauron has a physical body at the time of LotR (yes, even after Isildur cuts the Ring from his hand. . . well, not immediately after. I’ll skip the details, but he does have a body in the LotR novels.). As Tolkien writes in one of his many letters on LotR, Sauron takes the form “of a man of more than human stature, but not gigantic” (of course, he isn’t actually a man. He’s an immortal Maia, but I’m not going to go into that either). Sauron has a body. He isn’t a giant eye made of fire. That said, his body and appearance aren’t really described at all in LotR. Tolkien (quite significantly) neglects to include any scenes in which Sauron is depicted directly or in-the-flesh. In fact, Gollum is the only character who demonstrates any knowledge of what Sauron looks like, and all he says about the Dark Lord is that he is missing a finger (because Isildur cut it off). Despite the fact that Sauron has a man-like body, Tolkien’s portrayal of him in LotR is not particularly descriptive or concrete. Readers may even have a hard time picturing him, and very little information is given about him as an individual (as a point of comparison, consider how much detail Rowling goes into concerning Voldemort’s personality and back-story).
The Lord of the Rings (Single Volume)
Sauron has a body, but it’s easy to forget that; Sauron has a body, but the novels would be pretty much the same if he didn’t. If Sauron isn’t a fire eye, what is “the Eye of Sauron?” Metaphor, yo. Peter Jackson does not totally invent the concept of “the Eye of Sauron,” but the idea that there is an actual giant eye made of fire atop Barad-Dur is not in LotR. In The Silmarillion (a sort of prequel to the events in The Hobbit and LotR) Tolkien writes the following of Sauron after his loss of his original, beautiful physical form: “[In Mordor] he took up again his great Ring in Barad-dur, and dwelt there, dark and silent, until he wrought himself a new guise, an image of malice and hatred made visible, and the Eye of Sauron the Terrible few could endure.” The “image of malice and hatred made visible” and “the Eye” are not one in the same. Jackson choose to conflate them, but he didn’t have to.
In Jackson’s adaptation of The Fellowship of the Ring, the first description of Sauron comes from Saruman who says, “Concealed within his fortress, the Lord of Mordor sees all. His gaze pierces cloud, shadow, earth, and flesh. You know of what I speak Gandalf: a great Eye, lidless wreathed in flame.” This line does not appear in the books; it’s a Jackson & co. invention. That said, what is says is pretty damn canon up to the bit after the colon. In Tolkien’s novels, Sauron does seem to remain (physically) confined to Mordor, but (thanks in part to his many servants, the Ring, and his palantir) his influence, knowledge, and sight are practically boundless. For Tolkien then, “the Eye of Sauron” refers to Sauron’s gaze (a gaze that controls, intimidates, and corrupts) and to his ability to see all with his palantir. In his films, Jackson effectively take a symbolic reference to Sauron’s gaze/evil influence and makes it into a embodiment of Sauron himself.
Not showing Sauron’s Body Makes Him More Threatening
With the exception of the flashback showing Sauron at the War of the Last Alliance (where he lost the Ring to Isildur), Sauron only appears in Jackson’s films as a giant eye looking down on all of Mordor from his fortress, Barad-dur. In the LotR novels, he doesn’t really “appear” at all; but Jackson’s decision to portray Sauron as “a great Eye, lidless wreathed in flame” achieves many of the same effects as Tolkien’s decision to forego description of his physical appearance.
In his book J.R.R. Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth: Understanding Middle-earth, Bradley J. Birzer writes that“By placing evil in the background of The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien created an evil that is outright ominous, for it seems to be everywhere, pervading the entire landscape of Middle-earth, surrounding the Fellowship of the Ring on all sides . . . Our imaginations, rather than Tolkien’s, allow us to contemplate the worst when considering the vaguely described but omnipresent evil encroaching upon the heart of Middle-earth.“
Choosing to portray Sauron as a terrifying, all-seeing Eye that never closes or sleeps is a pretty clever way of making the sort of ominous evil that Birzer describes visible on screen. At the same time, making Sauron visible as the Eye may reduce how much imagination audiences use when thinking about him, and this may, in turn, make Sauron somehow less scary to Jackson’s viewers than he is to people who have only read LotR. BUT, it also makes the fact that Sauron is a constant threat to all of Middle-earth until the Ring is destroyed more intensely apparent. Sauron’s body may be in Mordor, but he is everywhere. Sure, he is (in a sense) wherever the Ring is (which is scary enough), but there is more to it than that. Sauron and the Ring (which can be thought of as a tiny, portable Sauron) are the primary representatives of evil in LotR. So, Tolkien’s portrayal of him as a sort of dark and “omnipresent” influence with no bounds that threatens the entirety of Middle-earth (even the Shire!) is crucial.
Evil as Unavoidable and Corruptive
Not showing Sauron directly (like Jackson’s portrayal of him as the Eye) emphasizes the fact that, for Tolkien, fighting against evil is much less about entire armies winning wars with swords than it is about individuals resisting the temptations of evil within.
No one in Middle-earth (with the strange exception of Tom Bombadil [which I am most certainly not going to get into right now] is wholly immune to the effects of the Ring, to Sauron’s influence, or to all the evil both can be taken to represent. Given enough time, the Ring can corrupt anyone, no matter who they are or where they come from. Evil in Middle-earth cannot be avoided by hiding from Sauron; all can be tempted to evil. Frodo and Sam make it to Mount Doom, not because they could take Sauron in a fist fight, but because they actively resist the Ring long enough to get there
(plus some other reasons). According to Gandalf, if Frodo had taken up the Ring before getting to Mount Doom, Sauron would have regained it and all would have been lost; one individual failing to resist evil is a big fucking deal for Tolkien.
What I am trying to get across is simply this: portraying Sauron as the Eye (instead of some large man chilling in Mordor) emphasizes just how inescapable evil is in Middle-earth. This, in turn, ups the stakes of the Ring Quest, which is probably not something Tolkien would have any problem with at all (*tries not to think about all the things in the films that would have made the man crazy*). The members of the Fellowship don’t fight to kill Sauron, they fight to free all of Middle-earth of his (unquestionably powerful and pervasive) evil influence. Like the eye, that influence does not sleep, and none can hide from it forever; because this is the case, all who don’t want to see everything go to shit must fight against it (there be reasons the Fellowship is made up of people from so many different places and walks of life). If this weren’t the case, LotR would be quite different.
Failing to describe Sauron’s appearance in detail or to show characters interacting with him also dehumanizes him; in LotR, Sauron is evil and little else. Furthermore, evil in Tolkien doesn’t defeat others by sheer force, but by corruption from within. The giant fire eye may not be strictly canon, but the picture of evil it paints is firmly in line with Tolkien’s text.
Until Next Time
This one got away from me a bit, but I hope you enjoyed it anyway. Thanks for stopping by!
The Lord of the Rings Trilogy Extended Edition (Blu Ray)