Sauron! One of the greats, a poster child for the power and effectiveness of the unseen villain. Or would be, but you can’t exactly be a poster child if no-one knows what you look like. Of course, the film version of The Fellowship of the Ring had a rather disappointingly generic Black Knight figure, which went flailing into the midst of the Last Alliance and then exploded. And of course there was the peculiar decision to turn the metaphorical Eye of Sauron into his actual form; a strangely impractical manifestation, considering its lack of ring fingers. But as awesome as those films were, they didn’t have the real Sauron, the Sauron whose menace has hung over road-weary hobbits and the readers who love them since 1954.
Funnily enough, a Google Image Search for Sauron’s master Morgoth, the Satan-figure of Tolkein’s sprawling mythology, will offer up a fairly impressive selection of artistic renderings. There’s something about the original Dark Lord that captures the imagination, and many of these fan-made depictions are genuinely intimidating, capturing the merciless inhuman spirit of the Black Foe of the World. The best ones go beyond a mere scaled-up human in uncomfortable-looking plate armour, and capture the sense that we are dealing with the mighty vessel of a spirit of rage and arrogance and cruelty that predates the created universe. Up and up our eyes travel, to either a vicious-looking visor concealing some madness-inducing terror, or a brutish face that resembles humanity only in the most mundane sense. Either way, the blazing eyes are, as the master would put it, “windows into nothing.”
Yet a similar Google search for Sauron, a far more recognizable character for anyone who isn’t a Silmarillion-reading ultra-nerd, yields far more disappointing results, unless you like seeing Peter Jackson’s Black Knight from a hundred different angles. Perhaps Yours Truly isn’t looking hard enough, but Gorthaur the Cruel (you can tell how dangerous/impressive someone is by their portfolio of spare names and titles) seems to defy memorable artistic depiction. Even Tolkein himself struggled with it. His own idle drawing only produced the merest suggestion of some terrible, semi-formless shape, reaching out over the land.
That’s the key to the lasting appeal and potency of Sauron. His body, a mere garment that the immortal spirits of the Maiar adopt for convenience, is presumably terrifying, but the occasional teasing reference to it in the text is all we need. By the closing act of the Third Age, Sauron’s body is almost an afterthought, needed to anchor him to the world of matter and keep him as something more than a wraith. After losing his ability to shape-change in the Downfall of Numenor (it’s a long story, non-geeks) the standard Dark Lord body doubtless offers him little joy. He’s become a creature of pure mind, locked up in the prison of his own thoughts, brooding and scheming for centuries at a time with only his own harsh and loveless voice for counsel. He recognises no equal, after all. His Ringwraiths and Orc-captains are valuable slaves, not advisors or even courtiers. He’s already existed in Middle-Earth for millennia, and seen sights that the slow drain of magic out of the world ensures can never be seen again. Been there, killed and desecrated that. Dominating and terrorising lesser beings is such second nature by now that he doesn’t even need to leave Barad-Dur (an awesome structure I always desperately wanted to see the inside of) to do it.
In essence, imagine an obsessive, psychopathic personality with no sense of any kind of personal limitation, shut up in a building trying to figure out the best way to run the world. Now imagine that this personality is an immortal god-king who has had a long, long time to brood and fester and pump up his own ego, while stubbornly declining to allow any consultation or acknowledge any rival. Now give him vast resources, and a step-by-step plan, and you have Sauron.
One of the many, many criticisms levelled at Lord of the Rings is that its Evil is too vague, too generic. It’s understood that a victory for Sauron would be a Bad Thing, but not exactly why. This is why. If Sauron conquers the whole of Middle Earth, then the rise of humanity will not occur. Mankind has a unique ability to change and grow and refashion itself and the world around it in ways undreamed of. As Elves and other static fantasy races fade into obscurity, humans accomplish greater and greater works, even as they lose the potency of the heroic age represented by Aragorn. Sauron’s triumph would have brought history to a stop. With a single all-powerful ruler, there is no competition, no dynamism, none of even the most rudimentary freedoms of an ancient monarchy. Everyone is no better than an Orc, marching where they are told. After a while, perhaps everyone starts to look like an Orc. Worst of all, unlike even the most absolute tyrannies of Real Life, there is no hope that Sauron will ever die, or weaken, or be overthrown by anything less than a contient-destroying Divine Intervention. With no ability to grow or develop (according to Tolkein, evil is sterile and can only pervert already existing things), Sauron would simply stare out over his vast kingdom forever, with nowhere left to expand to and nothing left to do, his ultimate victory also his ultimate despair. Seen in this light, Frodo is a hero of liberty beyond a thousand Thomas Jeffersons.
I mean, not that any of this is real or anything.