Monday, May 2, 2011

The Choices of Master Sauron

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.



  1. During today’s discussion of Frodo and the crack of doom I also dwelled on Sauron’s apparent failure to adequately safeguard his realm, but I came to a very different conclusion. Sauron’s strategy is indeed an error, in that it leads to his destruction, but it is not a “failure of self-knowledge.” Sauron judges that no one will successfully seek to destroy the ring, and he is right.

    If I have one complaint about this class it is that too often in looking for the literary significance of a passage we overlook its narrative function. I believe the most important point of Frodo’s failure is that he did indeed fail and that neither he (nor anyone else) could have succeeded, as discussed by Tolkien in his letters. If Frodo, by sheer dint of will or purity of heart is able to voluntarily destroy the ring, than Sauron is an idiot who left a gapping whole in his defenses. In the diminishment of the antagonist in this way there would come a diminishment of the heros’ struggles and thus of their own heroism. But if no one can destroy the ring than Sauron is a reasonable tactician who expended no unnecessary resources plugging an already invincible wall, who is undone only by fortune (or perhaps the manifest will of Eru). In view of the knowledge that the ring is invincibly corrupting, that Sauron’s read on human (or elvish, hobbitish, Istari’ …) nature is correct, than he seems less a blind fool and more a brilliant chess master, a more befitting threat to be conquered.

    David Gittin

  2. Dear David,

    Thanks for your response. But I would like to push back a little bit against your portrayal of Sauron. I think you have smuggled in something very important by writing, "Sauron judges that no one will successfully seek to destroy the ring" (my italics). I do not think this is Sauron's judgement. Rather (in my view, and I think Gandalf's) his reasoning begins and ends with the idea that any possessor of the Ring will use it to dominate others, just as Sauron himself would, rather than even attempt (successfully or not) to part with or destroy it.

    To place the emphasis on the word "successfully" brings in a separate issue -- whether, at the Cracks of Doom, Frodo or anyone else would have the power to part with the Ring. I am not so sure even Sauron thinks this is an "invincible wall" -- if it were, and he knew Frodo to be completely incapable of parting with and destroying the Ring, why does he react so desperately to the knowledge that Frodo has breached Sammath Naur?

    Now that we are discussing Frodo's failure, though, I would enter two other pieces of evidence so as to respond to your objection: one, the possibility of destroying the Ring without parting with it (a hypothetical offered by Tolkien in letter 246); two, the distinction between the failure of an individual member of a cause and the failure of the larger cause. Even though Frodo -- one member of a larger cause -- fails, the cause itself succeeds (as Tolkien says in letter 192). This distinction seems rather important, especially from Sauron's perspective.


  3. I think an element of Sauron's choices, about how to address the recovery of the Ring by his enemy, echoes an important theme in Tolkien's work, especially LOTR. Elrond puts it best, at the Council: "This quest may be attempted by the weak with as much hope as the strong. Yet such is oft the course of deeds that move the wheels of the world: small hands do them because they must, while the eyes of the great are elsewhere." (FotR 269) Tolkien will go on to reference hope, or ideas, or even people who come "unlooked for" repeatedly, often through the words of Aragorn and Gandalf in addition to the narration. I believe this was also mentioned in a letter we've read, though I seem unable to find it. The theme of the unexpected hero is important to the work (Frodo humbly embarks on the quest, Pippin helps save Faramir, Merry fights at Pelennor, Sam as the unsung hero)and I think that Sauron's inability to think that the likes of a hobbit could sneak into Mordor is an important element of that. He (Sauron) clearly knows that "Baggins" a hobbit has the Ring in the "Shire", but it is Aragorn whom he believes intends to wield the Ring. Boromir's frustration at Frodo mirrors that lapse on Sauron's part in smaller scale: Boromir believes it only fitting that the heir to the Steward of Gondor should have a go with the Ring before a silly hobbit tries to march off to Mordor to throw it in the Cracks of Doom. That shortsightedness on his part is evident from our introduction to him at Rivendell, when he scoffs at Bilbo for suggesting that he undertake the Quest while the rest of those present treat the old hobbit with reverence.
    With the element of unexpected heroes considered, I think Sauron's choice is even more complicated than you present it: his choice to assume Aragorn will use the Ring to rise up against him is not simply an overlooking of the ability of anyone to conceive of destroying the Ring. It is, also, an inability to conceive of any small, 'insignificant' creature possessing the great thing at all.

    E. Minehart

  4. I think that it is important to note the reasoning behind Sauron's belief that no one will succeed in destroying the ring is because he innately believes that the ringbearer will be overcome by the ring and will become so attached to it he won't be able to destroy it much like what happens to Isildur. Isildur fought in the final battle against Sauron's forces at the end of a many year struggle. Elendil and Gil-galad are both killed by Sauron, but Isildur manages to destroy Sauron's eathly form by cutting the ring from Sauron's hand.
    Isildur had only had the ring in his possesion for a short while before he decided to keep it for his own despite Elrond's pleading with him. The ring ends up being Isildur's downfall, as he is killed for it (ranted Tolkien writes various different accounts of Isildur's death... all of them involve him being killed by Orcs assumedly for the ring).
    Isildur's story illustrates Sauron's belief in why the ring won't be destroyed. It's not that he assumes everyone will use the for evil as he himself would. It's that he knows that the ring will corrupt anyone who has it in their possession so that they will never destroy the ring. It is truly fitting that the ring is destroyed by a former ringbearer trying to obtain possession of the ring once again.

  5. After last week’s spirited discussion of the Númenóreans, and some of the more critical choices made in their history, your post reminds me of Isildur. It is Isildur who, taking advantage of that vulnerability of certainty and lack of self-knowledge, “dealt the Enemy his death blow,” and so eliminated his threat for a time. Yet with that victorious killing (if we can call it that – it is perhaps more rightly disembodiment) came the transmission of the Ring, and the same blindness of certainty that plagued Sauron. While Isildur’s choice to go northward following the Battle of Dagorlad, leaving the south under the command of Meneldil and the line of Stewards, and the subsequent orc-attack in which he was killed, cannot be directly attributed to some folly of vain judgment, the very choice to keep the Ring cast a moral pall over what remained of the brief king’s life. It is interesting to see that, once apart from its true master, the Ring, while clouding the judgment and insight of its bearers (as it once did for Sauron), possesses and kind of self-awareness and volition of its own. Its deception of Isildur bears evidence to this, as does its movements (and hidings) throughout the Third Age. Only in active resistance to it is volition (and the disembodied will of Sauron) is any success met in this cause, and at great psychic cost to the Ringbearers.

    - j. wetherell

  6. This is intriguing and excellently stated. It would be unfortunate (and incorrect) to diminish Sauron to a simple-minded, arrogant fool who just overlooked the possibility of the Ring's destruction. I never liked the argument that Sauron failed to notice Frodo because he was simply distracted by the forces at the Black Gates, because that makes him sound, well, stupid (and, as David nicely pointed out, diminishes the glory of our heroes). This is an unfair interpretation of both the protagonists and antagonist.

    I'm not sure that I agree, however, that Sauron's failure to understand others' desire for the Ring to be anything but hunger for power to result from a lack of self-knowledge. I would argue that Sauron is even less in-touch with the peoples of Middle Earth than he is with himself, therefore suffering from a lack of understanding of others. You hint at this as a “lack of imagination of the ways of others,” but I think it goes farther than this – it points to a fundamental misunderstanding of the motivations and inclinations of all the races of Middle Earth. Sauron is so corrupted by evil that he can no longer understand the world he lives in and the hearts of those who protect it.

    -Merry Herbst

  7. I think these are all good points about Sauron's lack of understanding of something (hearts of others or self knowledge) leading to his downfall, and I'd like to throw in another for consideration, namely free-will itself.

    We know that Sauron was corrupted almost from the beginning by Melkor, though we don't know how. This must have been an exercise of will, but it places him under the dominion of another will, that of Melkor, as at best the greatest of many servants. If we assume that Melkor's will was bent towards the domination of all other wills, this would suggest that the drive of Sauron is the same; in fact we see in Numenor when he begins the worship of Morgoth that he is still following the path of his master.

    It is conceivable, then, that to Sauron the idea of a superior will not being obeyed, the strength of will required to not give in to the dominion of a greater strength, is unknown. It would be inconceivable to him that Frodo, or any other Bearer, would neither give in to the lure of power offered by the Ring, to the lure of dominion, or allow themselves to be dominated by his will embodied in the Ring. These are the choices he has made since his corruption, either to be dominated by a greater will or to dominate other wills.

    Looking at this now, I'd say its more of a synthesis of the ideas proposed earlier, lack of imagination/self knowledge and knowledge of the hearts of others, in that through his initial corruption Sauron lost, or became irrevocably distant from, the concept and practice of undominated, free, will, which we see as a mark of all the creations of Illuvatar. Therefore he is unable to fathom the strength of will and heart necessary to deny both the lure and the domination of the Ring.

  8. The above posters seem to be split between thinking that it was Sauron's inability to see into the true hearts of men that led to his downfall, or
    that it was was a twist of fate, so to speak, that led to the downfall of the Ring. I think there is a way to reconcile these two views. Both of
    them play an equally important part in understanding the nature of the Quest.

    So on that note, I would like to bring people's attention to the passage in Mount Doom after Frodo claims the Ring for his own. Sauron,
    upon realizing what has happened, "is suddenly aware of him, and his Eye piercing all shadows looked across the plain to the door that he had made;
    and the magnitude of his folly was revealed to him in a blinding flash,..."

    So of course, there are interpretations of this, and one could argue that the book itself is an interpretation of how Sam, when he wrote
    the Red Book, envisioned the reaction of the Dark Lord. However, I think there is still merit in discussing the significance of "Sauron's
    folly". So in this passage Sauron himself realizes that he has made a terrible miscalculation, and in that instant he realizes that
    Aragorn marching out in arms against him was not, as he had assumed, because he had taken posession of the Ring and wished to challenge
    the Dark Lord. Continuing to read the passage reveals some of Sauron's fear and wrath when he realizes what is happening and he realizes
    that he is now sitting under the proverbial Sword of Damocles. However, this is not the whole story. Yes, the passage of the Ring into the
    Cracks of Doom was due to the lack of his insight into the tenacity of mortals, but the destruction of the Ring as an act was due to a
    different kind of insight.

    I think it is equally important to realize that Frodo does indeed fail in the end,
    and Sauron's assumption that no being would be able to throw the ring into the fire was actually true; that any being who came into contact
    with the Ring would continue to desire it over all other things, including their own lives. This is particularly important. One of the
    greatest things we must pay attention to is that Frodo indeed failed the Quest in the end, and so we must respect the foresight of Sauron
    in this matter. He in fact, made no miscalculations about the nature of the Ring and the Ring Bearers. It was in fact due to Tolkien's
    'eucatastrophe' that the heroes were able to succeed in the end. Neither Frodo nor Gollum was able to give up the Ring, and it was finally
    this greed that led to the destruction of Ring. The manner of the Ring's destruction is just as symbolic as the journey that Frodo had to
    undertake in order to get there. Although some of you may recognize this quote (kudos to those who do), "the greatest
    miscalculation of Sauron's was that there were no miscalculations". I would venture as to say that Sauron actually had a remarkable understanding
    of the hearts of Mortals, truly a good obstacle for our heroes to overcome.

    James T.

  9. JuPe, good post, but I think you're letting the movies cloud your memory. Isildur straight up kills Sauron's earthly form, and recovers the ring from his corpse latter. Cutting of his finger was Peter Jackson's idea.

    If I might clarify and expand my first post a bit, I agree with everyone's claim that Sauron is so corrupted he can't conceive of anyone voluntarily resisting temptation and destroying the ring. That's stated pretty explicitly in the text and is well supported as an in-universe explanation of Sauron's decisions.

    My explanation is not an in-universe justification of Sauron. I don't mean to say that Sauron consciously ignored defending mount doom because he knew it was safe. He clearly never expected a ring-bearer to attempt to reach mount doom, is absolutely shocked and terrified when one does, and thinks (incorrectly) that Frodo might still destroy the ring, or else (correctly) that simply having it so close to the fires is a risk. What I was driving at more is that the ending Tolkien choose allows a reader to ex post facto analyze Saruon's actions and think that, while he was blinded by evil and arrogance, his very near success means these flaws are not egregious enough to spoil his villainous mystique.

    David Gittin

  10. Meanwhile, I would like to say how much I like your observation about the effect all of this theorizing about Sauron's choices has on the reader: yes! I do not think it is at all far-fetched to see in Aragorn's reading of the tracks a gesture towards the hermeneutics in which the reader is invited to engage--as, indeed, the comments on your post demonstrate. The text becomes our mirror for looking at the decisions that we make: beautifully put!


  11. A few things (directed mostly at J.R., but also at James T.):

    I agree that Sauron has a good grasp of the hearts of most mortals. He very deeply understands one of the most basic flaws of their hearts: ambition, or a desire to dominate. The Ring is designed to corrupt this desire, as we said in class. However, neither Sauron nor the Ring (for it is it’s own existence, on one level or another) take into account the nature of the hobbit heart of the Ringbearer. In many ways, a hobbit is the ultimate Ring-bearer because they have no ambition. Hobbits have never sought to dominate, only to be left alone to eat, brew beer, and lead simple lives. Throughout the book, the Ring lacks power over those who have no wish to dominate. The most prominent examples are Tom Bombadil, who realizes most clearly that he is his own master and no one else’s, and Sam, who is not only a hobbit, but fully believes Frodo to be his master.

    Unlike Sam and other hobbits, however, Frodo has a desire: to destroy the Ring. Rather than greed, as James T. would suggest, I would propose that it is because Frodo has this desire that he fails only at the last moment: in the end, it is the one thing the Ring is able to corrupt within him. His noble goal turns out to be his only weakness.


  12. One of the perennial problems of literary analysis is how to account for the narrative events and to form a discursive argument that is in proportion to them. Often, as here, the literary work pulls away from our argument, in another direction, to something inside itself that’s much harder to get at. It might be possible to think of this question as one of Sauron’s omniscience. I don’t think he’s omniscient, but, like the devil, he has a kind of understanding of the nature of his enemies. What is omniscience? Might it be something like insight into total possibility? In this sense, Auden is right about Sauron’s lack of imagination. Tolkien’s was much bigger, as he could see the conflict (as in the letters) reaching different resolutions. But LOTR doesn’t really finish in a way that one expects. What happens at Mt Doom seems almost accidental, circumstances so colliding that, etc.… What Sauron seems to be ignorant of – if I may make a moral-symbolic interpretation – is that evil will defeat itself. In this sense, the ring might be conceived of as a character too, not just the object of action (possession), but moving as well. When I read the climatic scene, I want Frodo to die with the ring, because it strikes me as merciful. Instead, he has to go back to the shire in which he can no longer live. The actual event at Mt. Doom is more perplexing. Not only is it a good commentary on the frailty of the will, but, as LeGuin makes clear, evil must be acknowledged too as one of the great possibilities. Boromir sees the circumstances as a battle of good against evil, but he’s wrong. To exclude evil is like Sauron’s excluding the complexity of actually noble motives, and there are some of these. And so, evil is not simply vanquished. It is by no means victorious, but neither is good victorious. Both simply abide. What gives Tolkien hope perhaps (he does think his a hopeful universe, as he suggests in his letters) is that evil will extinguish itself. Is it not even said of Ungoliant that she would come to feed upon herself?

  13. I am incredibly tardy to the party, but this post is too interesting not to respond to.

    I have to agree with those who say that Sauron mostly got it right: Mount Doom need not be guarded, because the Ring can guard itself. The power withing the Ring, and its ability to dominate the will of those who bear it, is not overestimated. There is the exception of Sam, but Sam is not the Ringbearer, and knows it isn't his place.

    What I do think is interesting about the scene at Mount Doom is that Sauron's attention is not captured by the hobbits until Frodo claims the Ring as his own. Sauron is aware that the Ring is moving throughout the story, of course, but, as others have pointed out, he believes Aragorn will wield it. Sam's usage of the Ring doesn't attract Sauron's attention, but Frodo's claiming of it does. There is the obvious distinction between Sam and Frodo as servant and master, but the fact that Frodo, for the first time, claims the Ring as his (and not the duty of destroying it) plays a great part it turning Sauron's Eye upon them.