In this blog post, I intend to add one more name to today’s discussion of a handful of important characters and the tough choices they make—Sauron. Just as Aragorn and Sam make difficult decisions with incomplete information, so too does Sauron, who must decide what to do when he learns that his enemies possess the Ring. Sauron’s failure in making that choice is, in my opinion, particularly instructive.
At the Council of Elrond, Gandalf correctly apprehends where Sauron will go wrong: “[Sauron] is very wise,” he says, “and weighs all things to a nicety in the scales of his malice. But the only measure that he knows is desire, desire for power; and so he judges all hearts. Into his heart the thought will not enter that any will refuse it, that having the Ring we may seek to destroy it. If we seek this, we shall put him out of reckoning” (262). And indeed, instead of defending Mount Doom against an attempt to destroy the Ring, Sauron expends energy and attention in preparation for battle with a new Ringlord. Those preparations become all the more frenzied—and distracting—once he thinks that that Ringlord is Aragorn. His mistake allows Frodo to cross Mordor’s borders and complete his objective.
W.H. Auden puts it perfectly in his review of The Return of the King: “Evil…has every advantage but one—it is inferior in imagination.” How might Sauron’s defect in imagination—as Auden puts it, the fatal failure of Evil to “imagine anything but itself”—be one more way in which Tolkien makes “visible and physical the effects of Sin or misused Free Will”?
This quote, of course, is how Tolkien describes one of the moral purposes of The Lord of the Rings in his letter to Peter Hastings (153). In that same letter, Tolkien characterizes his novel as a mirror which (he hopes) reflects moral truths—though he is conscious that those “truths may not be true, or they may be distorted: and the mirror…may be dim and cracked.” Yet in the characters of Galadriel and Balin we glimpse another troubling possibility: that mirrors, like texts, need to be read in the right way, and that to do so is no easy task. Galadriel’s mirror is (in her own words) “dangerous as a guide of deeds” and, when Sam despairs of his vision of the Shire, Galadriel has to convince him not to abandon the Quest. “You did not wish to go home without your master before you looked in the Mirror,” she says, “and yet you knew that evil things might well be happening in the Shire” (353). Her appeal seems to be, at least in part, a reminder to Sam of his sense of self—after all, his “right rule” is to never leave his master (725)—which might intimate the importance of self-knowledge in the correct interpretation of mirrors and texts. As Jane Chance writes, “It is no accident that Balin dies at Mirrormere, a very dark mirror in which he is blind to himself” (157).
What does all of this have to do with Sauron’s choice? (If I were allowed an allegorical moment, I might suggest that the decisions we discussed in class—Aragorn’s choice to follow Merry and Pippin, for example—stage our activity as readers and the stakes thereof. In fact, I might even claim that Aragorn’s interpretation of the tracks left by Merry, Pippin, and their captors represents a kind of hermeneutics!)
At the very least (setting aside any parenthetical allegories), the characters making these decisions—like Sam when he looks into Galadriel’s mirror—have to make sense of both present reality and future possibility in such a way that leads them to efficacious action. And, as with Sam, self-knowledge—which includes knowledge of our own limitations—is vital to making that choice correctly.
Sauron’s error—what Auden calls his lack of imagination—is indeed a failure of self-knowledge. (A ring, no matter how polished, does not make a good mirror!) Unlike Aragorn, Sauron is incapable of recognizing his own limitations as a decision-maker. In particular, his chief motivation, lust for domination, is so powerful that he cannot conceive of his enemies being motivated by anything else.
Aragorn admits his own fallibility, but Sauron’s certainty is so great that he leaves Mount Doom entirely undefended. Sauron’s sin is his certainty—and his certainty is the consequence of his lack of knowledge of himself and his lack of imagination of the ways of others.
To return to the earlier question, how does Sauron’s sin of certainty reflect a moral truth that is relevant to our lives? Throughout this post, I have made references to reading—reading signs, choices, ourselves, others, mirrors, and texts. Perhaps the answer is in reading, too. Ursula Le Guin claims that fantasy is a journey to self-knowledge, in which the hero discovers the monster in himself. His knowledge advises us in turn that “there is incredible potential for good and for evil in every one of us” (65). Moreover, as we learned early in the course, a journey to Faery is an escape from certainty—from the certainty of our laws of physics, and our situation in time and space, and so on. Faery allows us to imagine not only Suns that are not yellow, but also senses of value that are not our own. This imagination—unlike the certainty of Sauron—is sensitive to the incompleteness of our own minds as representative of the full and varied richness of the human experience.