In the same work, he is revealed to have been "the Necromancer" from Tolkien's earlier novel The Hobbit. In Tolkien's The Silmarillion (published after The Lord of the Rings but begun decades before), he is also revealed to have been the chief lieutenant of the first Dark Lord, Morgoth. Tolkien noted that the “angelic” powers of his constructed myth “were capable of many degrees of error and failing”, but by far the worst was “the absolute Satanic rebellion and evil of Morgoth and his satellite Sauron.”
In the terminology of Tolkien's invented language of Quenya, these angelic spirits were called Ainur (sg. Ainu). Those who entered the physical world were called Valar (sg. Vala), especially the most powerful ones. The (relatively) lesser beings of the same race, of whom Sauron was one, were called Maiar (sg. Maia). In Tolkien's letters, the author noted that Sauron “was of course a 'divine' person (in the terms of this mythology; a lesser member of the race of Valar)”. Though less mighty than the chief Valar, he was more powerful than many of his fellow Maiar; Tolkien noted that he was of a "far higher order" than the Maiar who later came to Middle-earth as the Wizards Gandalf and Saruman.
Rebellion originated with the Vala Melkor (Morgoth). According to a story meant as a parable of events beyond elvish comprehension, Eru let His spirit-children perform a great Music, the Music of the Ainur (Ainulindalë), developing a Theme revealed by Eru Himself. For a while the cosmic choir made wondrous music, but then Melkor tried to increase his own glory by weaving into his song thoughts and ideas that were not in accordance with the original Theme. “Straightway discord arose around him, and many that sang nigh him grew despondent ... but some began to attune their music to his rather than to the thought which they had at first.”
The Discord of Melkor would have dire consequences, for this singing was the very Song of Creation, a kind of template for the world to be: “The evils of the world were not at first in the great Theme, but entered with the discords of Melkor.” However, “Sauron was not a beginner of discord; and he probably knew more of the Music than did Melkor, whose mind had always been filled with his own plans and devices. Apparently Sauron was not even one of the spirits that immediately began to attune their music to that of Melkor, since it is elsewhere noted that his fall occurred later (see below).
Soon it was as if the discords of Melkor were at war with the themes of Eru – the cosmic Music now representing a conflict of good and evil. Finally, abruptly, Eru brought the Song of Creation to an end. To show the spirits, faithful or otherwise, what they had done, Eru gave independent being to the now-marred Music. This resulted in the manifestation of the material World, Eä, where the drama of good and evil would play out and be resolved. Eru allowed the spirits who so wished to enter into the new world of Eä and follow its history from inside. Many did so, Sauron among them. By granting free will to enter into Eä, Eru allowed great evil, as well as great good.
Entering Eä at the beginning of time, the Valar and Maiar tried to build and organize the world according to the will of Eru. In their vast demiurgic efforts, Sauron emerged as “a great craftsman of the household of Aulë”. As the Vala of all crafts, Aulë taught his subordinate Maiar much about the structure, laws and substances of the world, and Sauron would always retain this “scientific” knowledge: “In his beginning he was of the Maiar of Aulë, and he remained mighty in the lore of that people.”
As for Sauron's motives, Tolkien noted that "it had been his virtue (and therefore also the cause of his fall ...) that he loved order and coordination, and disliked all confusion and wasteful friction." Thus "it was the apparent will and power of Melkor to effect his designs quickly and masterfully that had first attracted Sauron to him.
For a while, Sauron apparently kept up the pretence that he was a faithful servant of the Valar, all the while feeding Melkor information about their doings. Thus, when the Valar made Almaren as their first physical abode in the world, “Melkor knew of all that was done; for even then he had secret friends and spies among the Maiar whom he had converted to his cause, and of these the chief, as after became known, was Sauron.”
Almaren was destroyed by Melkor, and the Valar established a new abode in the Uttermost West: the Blessed Realm of Valinor. They still did not perceive Sauron’s dubious loyalties, for he too became “a being of Valinor”.
At some point, Sauron left the Blessed Realm and went to Middle-earth, the central continent of Arda. In one text, Tolkien wrote of Sauron that “in Valinor he had dwelt among the people of the gods, but there Morgoth had drawn him to evil and to his service”. It would seem that Sauron now definitely sided with Melkor. No longer just a spy and secret sympathizer, he deserted his service to the Valar and openly joined their great enemy: “Because of his admiration of Strength he had become a follower of Morgoth and fell with him down into the depths of evil.”
In chapter 3 of The Silmarillion, Tolkien writes that by the time the Elves awoke in the world, Sauron had become Melkor’s lieutenant and was given command over the newly-built stronghold of Angband. To protect the Elves, the Valar made war on Melkor and captured him, but could not find Sauron.
Thus, “when Melkor was made captive, Sauron escaped and lay hid in Middle-earth; and it can in this way be understood how the breeding of the Orcs (no doubt already begun) went on with increasing speed.” In the Blessed Realm, Melkor feigned reform, but eventually breached the trust of the Valar and escaped back to Middle-earth. By then, Sauron had “secretly repaired Angband for the help of his Master when he returned; and there the dark places underground were already manned with hosts of the Orcs before Melkor came back at last, as Morgoth the Black Enemy.”
Shortly after the return of Morgoth, the Noldorin Elves also left the Blessed Realm of Valinor in the Uttermost West against the counsel of the Valar to wage war on Morgoth, who had stolen the Silmarils. In that war, Sauron served as Morgoth's chief lieutenant, surpassing all others in rank, such as Gothmog, the Lord of Balrogs. Known as Gorthaur the Cruel, Sauron was at that time a master of illusions and changes of form; werewolves and vampires were his servants, chief among them Draugluin, Father of Werewolves, and his vampire herald Thuringwethil.
When Morgoth left Angband to corrupt the newly-created Men, Sauron directed the war against the Elves. He conquered the Elvish island of Tol Sirion, so that it became known as Tol-in-Gaurhoth, the Isle of Werewolves.
Ten years later, Finrod Felagund, the king of Nargothrond and former lord of Tol Sirion, came there with Beren. He duelled Sauron and was defeated (in part because of the curse of Fëanor). Later, he died fighting a wolf in Sauron's dungeons to save Beren.
Soon afterwards Lúthien and Huan the Wolfhound arrived, hoping to rescue Beren. Aware of a prophecy to the effect that Huan would be killed by the greatest wolf ever, Sauron himself assumed a monstrous wolf-like form and attacked him. But the prophecy actually applied to the still-unborn Carcharoth, and Wolf-Sauron could not prevail against Huan.
In a frenzy of shape-shifting, Sauron slipped in and out of various animal-like shapes and finally back into his accustomed (apparently humanoid) form, but Huan had him by the throat. Lúthien gave him two choices: either to surrender to her the magical control he had established over Tol-in-Gaurhoth, or to have his body killed so that his naked ghost would have to endure the scorn of Morgoth. Sauron yielded, and Huan let him go. He fled in the form of a huge vampire bat, and Lúthien rescued Beren from the dungeons. Afterward Sauron spent some time as a vampire in the woods of Taur-nu-Fuin.
Following the voyage of Eärendil to the Blessed Realm, the Valar finally moved against Morgoth. In the resulting War of Wrath, the Dark Lord was defeated and cast into the Outer Void beyond the world. But "Sauron fled from the Great Battle and escaped."
Shocked by the overthrow of his master, Sauron repented (truly at first, if only out of fear). He assumed his most beautiful form and approached Eönwë, emissary of the Valar, who however could not pardon a Maia like himself. Through Eönwë, Manwë as Lord of the Valar "commanded Sauron to come before him for judgement, but [he] had left room for repentance and ultimate rehabilitation." Thus Sauron now had a genuine chance of rejoining the forces of good, but he would obviously risk being sentenced to long servitude as proof of his good will. Having wielded great power under Morgoth, Sauron was unwilling to face this humiliation, and so hid in Middle-earth.
About five hundred years into the Second Age, Sauron reappeared. "Bereft of his lord...[he] fell into the folly of imitating him. "Very slowly, beginning with fair motives: the reorganizing and rehabilitation of Middle-earth, 'neglected by the gods,' he becomes a reincarnation of Evil, and a thing lusting for Complete Power," eventually rising to become "master and god of Men."
As for Sauron's "fair motives", Tolkien emphasized that at this time he "was not indeed wholly evil, not unless all 'reformers' who want to hurry up with 'reconstruction' and 'reorganization' are wholly evil, even before pride and the lust to exert their will eat them up". "[T]hough 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. ... [H]is capability of corrupting other minds, and even engaging their service, was a residue from the fact that his original desire for 'order' had really envisaged the good estate (especially physical well-being) of his 'subjects'.
In his early career as an independent power, Sauron did bring material wealth to his subjects: "He made himself a great king in the midst of the earth, and was at first well-seeming and just and his rule was of benefit to all men in their needs of the body; for he made them rich, whoso would serve him. But those who would not were driven into the waste places... [He desired] to be both a king over all kings and as a god to men. And slowly his power moved north and south, and ever westward.
With Sauron's assistance, the Elven-smiths forged the Rings of Power, which conferred great power upon their bearers. The Elves did not seek "political" dominion, but rather magical powers that would let them maintain all things unstained. Sauron, however, saw that the Rings of Power could also be made into instruments of domination. He secretly forged the One Ring in the volcanic Mount Doom in Mordor. This "One Ring to rule them all" had the power to dominate the other Rings and enslave their wearers to Sauron's will. The Rings of Power were extremely potent, however, and to create an instrument that could dominate even them, Sauron was forced to place a great part of his native power into it. Yet "while he wore it, his power on earth was actually enhanced".
Sauron never intended others to use this Master-ring, and at the time he ignored the possibility that anyone of sufficiently strong will who possessed the Ring would acquire much of Sauron's own power of domination:
If that happened, the new possessor could (if sufficiently strong and heroic by nature) challenge Sauron, become master of all that he had learned or done since the making of the One Ring, and so overthrow him and usurp his place. ... There was another weakness: if the One Ring was actually unmade, annihilated, then its power would be dissolved, Sauron's own being would be diminished to vanishing point, and he would be reduced to a shadow, a mere memory of malicious will. But that he never contemplated nor feared. The Ring was unbreakable by any smithcraft less than his own. It was indissoluble in any fire, save the undying subterranean fire where it was made – and that was unapproachable, in Mordor. ... It was in any case on his finger.
When Sauron put on the One Ring, the Elves became aware of his intent. They recognized who "Annatar" really was, removed their Rings, and did not wear or use them anymore. Enraged, Sauron responded with military force, initiating the War of the Elves and Sauron and conquering much of the land west of Anduin. This began the Dark Years. He overran Eregion, killed Celebrimbor, leader of the Elven-smiths, and seized the Seven and the Nine Rings of Power that had been previously forged with his assistance (though Durin had already been given one of the Seven by Celebrimbor). The Three Rings, however, had been forged by Celebrimbor himself without Sauron's help. These rings were saved and remained in the hands of the Elves. According to The Lord of the Rings, Celebrimbor entrusted the Three to Gil-galad, Galadriel, and Círdan; but according to Unfinished Tales Gil-galad received two Rings and Galadriel one, and Gil-galad subsequently entrusted one to Círdan.
Sauron besieged Imladris, battled Moria and Lórien, and pushed further into Gil-galad's realm. The Elves fought back, however, and with the aid of a powerful army from Númenor, they destroyed Sauron's army and drove the remnant back to Mordor. The Númenóreans were descended from the Three Houses of the Edain who helped the Elves in their war against Morgoth. They lived on the island of Númenor in the seas between Middle-earth and Valinor, and theirs was the most powerful kingdom of Men at this time.
The second Dark Lord was now at the height of his power, having become “almost supreme in Middle-earth. … He rules a growing empire from the great dark tower of Barad-dûr in Mordor, near to the Mountain of fire, wielding the One Ring.” Toward the end of the Second Age, Sauron assumed the titles of Lord of the Earth and King of Men.
In many ways, the new Dark Lord exceeded the first:
Sauron was ‘greater’, effectively, in the Second Age than Morgoth at the end of the First. Why? Because, though he was far smaller by natural [spiritual] stature, he had not yet fallen so low. Eventually he also squandered his power (of being) in the endeavour to gain control over others. But he was not obliged to expend so much of himself. … [He] inherited [from Morgoth] the ‘corruption’ of Arda [the world], and only spent his (much more limited) power on the Rings; for it was the creatures of earth, in their minds and wills, that he desired to dominate. In this way Sauron was also wiser than Melkor-Morgoth.
(Morgoth had rather desired to control the very matter of the world.)
One of Sauron’s more peculiar achievements in the Second Age was a constructed language: "It is said that the Black Speech was devised by Sauron in the Dark Years, and that he desired to make it the language of all those that served him, but he failed in that purpose.” (LotR, Appendix F). A few samples of Black Speech are cited in Tolkien’s narratives, and he noted that it "was meant to be self-consistent, very different from Elvish, yet organized and expressive, as would be expected of a device of Sauron before his complete corruption." Sauron must have devised the Black Speech before he made the Ring, since the Ring bore an inscription in that language, and it is interesting that Tolkien indicates that this was "before his complete corruption." Compare the above-cited statement that Sauron "had not yet fallen so low" as Morgoth had.
The time would come, however, when Sauron was almost wholly consumed by evil. Tolkien wrote that he did not think there could be such a thing as "Absolute Evil" ("since that is Zero"), but "in my story Sauron represents as near an approach to wholly evil as is possible. He had gone the way of all tyrants, beginning well, at least on the level that while desiring to order all things according to his own wisdom he still at first considered the (economic) well-being of other inhabitants of the Earth. But he went further than human tyrants in pride and the lust for domination, being in origin an immortal (angelic) spirit."
This was, however, part of a cunning plan to corrupt Númenórean civilization from inside. "Sauron's personal 'surrender' was voluntary and cunning: he got free transport to Númenor." When Ar-Pharazôn in his arrogance took Sauron as a prisoner-hostage, he failed to realize whom he was dealing with: Sauron "was of course a 'divine' person ... and thus far too powerful to be controlled in this way. He steadily got Arpharazôn's mind under his own control, and in the event corrupted many of the Númenóreans."
The Akallabêth, the account of the history of Númenor, does not specifically mention the Ring. In his letters, however, Tolkien noted that Sauron "naturally had the One Ring, and so very soon dominated the minds and wills of most of the Númenóreans. (I do not think Ar-Pharazôn knew anything about the One Ring. The Elves kept the matter of the Rings very secret ...)"
With the power of the Ring, Sauron quickly grew from captive to adviser of the king. His influence would lead to great religious changes in Númenor. Sauron "destroyed the conception of Eru, now represented as a mere figment of the Valar or Lords of the West (a fictitious sanction to which they appealed if anyone questioned their rulings), and substituted a Satanist religion with a large temple, the worship of the dispossessed eldest of the Valar (the rebellious Dark Lord of the First Age)."
Thus Sauron established himself as High Priest of Melkor, "Lord of the Dark," and made the Númenóreans worship Morgoth with human sacrifice. Tolkien commented:
But there was seen the effect of Melkor upon Sauron: he spoke of Melkor in Melkor's own terms, as a god, or even as God. This may have been the residue of a state which was in a sense a shadow of good: the ability once in Sauron at least to admire or admit the superiority of a being other than himself. ... But it may be doubted whether even such a shadow of good was still sincerely operative in Sauron by that time. His cunning motive is probably best expressed thus. To wean one of the God-fearing from their allegiance it is best to propound another unseen object of allegiance and another hope of benefits; propound to him a Lord who will sanction what he desires and not forbid it. Sauron, apparently a defeated rival for world-power, now a mere hostage, can hardly propound himself; but as the former servant and disciple of Melkor, the worship of Melkor will raise him from hostage to high priest.
Instructed by Sauron in their new religion, the Númenóreans hoped that Melkor could free them from death and give them immortality. When it turned out that they aged and died as before, Sauron ultimately suggested to the King that eternal life could only be attained by conquering the "deathless" Blessed Realm in the Uttermost West.
Sauron "finally induces Arpharazôn, frightened by the approach of old age, to make the greatest of all armadas, and go up with war against the Blessed Realm itself, and wrest it and its 'immortality' into his own hands". Actually the land could not confer immortality to Men; moreover, Sauron knew perfectly well that it was utterly impossible for the Númenóreans to conquer the Valar. Sauron was deftly creating a situation where (as he thought) the Valar would wipe out the military force of Númenor and remove this threat to Sauron's own plans for world dominion. But Ar-Pharazôn did believe the lies of Sauron, and after years of massive armament, the greatest armada the world had ever seen landed on the shores of Valinor.
Though the Valar could not actually be overthrown by any army of Mortal Men, there was "real peril" insofar as "the Númenóreans directed by Sauron could have wrought ruin in Valinor itself". Even so, the Valar did not react quite as Sauron had expected. "The Valar had no real answer to this monstrous rebellion — for the Children of God [Elves and Men] were not under their ultimate jurisdiction: they were not allowed to destroy them, or coerce them with any 'divine' display of the powers they held over the physical world. They appealed to God; and a catastrophic 'change of plan' occurred."
This appeal by the Valar to Eru resulted in a massive divine intervention, demonstrating that Eru was not just an invention of the Valar. "At the moment that Ar-Pharazôn set foot on the forbidden shore, a rift appeared: Númenor foundered and was utterly overwhelmed; the armada was swallowed up; and the Blessed Realm removed for ever from the circles of the physical world."
This development had not been foreseen by Sauron; he had expected only that the Valar would destroy Ar-Pharazôn and the Númenórean armada. "Sauron was, of course, 'confounded' by the disaster, and diminished (having expended enormous energy in the corruption of Númenor)". In the Downfall of Númenor, Sauron's handsome body was destroyed, and he lost forever the ability to take beautiful and charming forms.
Yet his spirit rose out of the abyss, and he was able to carry with him the one thing that mattered most. Wrote Tolkien, "I do not think one need boggle at this spirit carrying off the One Ring, upon which his power of dominating minds now largely depended.".
In the essay Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age, Tolkien wrote that Sauron "took up" the Ring after returning to Middle-earth. This has made some readers conclude that Sauron had somehow hidden it before his cunning surrender to Ar-Pharazôn, only to recover it when he returned to Middle-earth. From the quotes above, however, it is clear that Tolkien did imagine that Sauron possessed and used the Ring during his years in Númenor. He "took up" the Ring on his return simply in the sense that he started using it again.
The few faithful Númenóreans were saved from the Downfall. With Elendil as their leader, they escaped the cataclysm and founded the kingdoms of Gondor and Arnor among the Númenórean colonists and the natives of north-western Middle-earth. At first they believed that Sauron had perished in the Downfall, but it soon became evident that the Dark Lord had returned to Mordor.
In The Fellowship of the Ring, Tolkien wrote that Elendil and his sons forged the Last Alliance of Elves and Men with Gil-galad to fight Sauron. The Alliance won a great victory on the plain of Dagorlad and invaded Mordor, laying siege to Barad-dûr for seven years. During the siege, Elendil's younger son Anárion was killed by a stone cast from the tower. Finally, Sauron was forced to emerge from his tower and fight in person.
In the battle on the slopes of Mount Doom, Sauron slew both Gil-galad and Elendil, though he himself was destroyed in the process. When Elendil fell, his sword, Narsil, broke beneath him. Taking up the hilt-shard of Narsil, Elendil's surviving son, Isildur, cut the One Ring from Sauron's hand. "Then Sauron was for that time vanquished, and he forsook his body, and his spirit fled far away and hid in waste places.
Elrond and Círdan, Gil-galad's lieutenants, urged Isildur to destroy the Ring by casting it into Mount Doom, but he refused and kept it for his own: "This I will have as weregild for my father's death, and my brother's. Was it not I that dealt the Enemy his death-blow?
A few years after the battle, Isildur's army, marching to Rivendell, was ambushed and overwhelmed by a band of Orcs: the Disaster of the Gladden Fields. Isildur put on the Ring and attempted to escape by swimming across Anduin, but the Ring — which had a will of its own and a desire to return to Sauron — slipped from his finger. He was spotted and killed by Orc-archers. The Ring would remain lost beneath the water for thousands of years.
The traumatic loss of the Ring greatly weakened Sauron. He did not swiftly rebuild, as he had done following the Downfall of Númenor. Sauron spent the first thousand years of the Third Age as a shapeless, dormant evil.
The Elves were now able to use the Rings of Power according to the original intentions of the Elven-smiths, and “for long they were at peace, wielding the Three Rings while Sauron slept and the One Ring was lost”. Galadriel used the power of the Ring Nenya to maintain her realm in Lothlórien, and Elrond using the Ring Vilya did the same in Rivendell. With the healing and maintaining power of the Rings, pockets of the ancient "Elvish world" could be maintained. In Lórien, visitors might feel that they had stepped back in time, as experienced by the Fellowship of the Ring later.
The Elves were however aware that this situation might not continue indefinitely. Indeed "many voices were heard among the Elves foreboding that, if Sauron should come again, then either he would find the Ruling Ring that was lost, or at best his enemies would discover it and destroy it; but in either case the powers of the Three [Rings] must then fail and all things maintained by them must fade, and so the Elves should pass into the twilight and the Dominion of Men begin.
As he started to rebuild, Sauron’s ultimate aim was the same as before: world conquest. "Sauron desired to be a God-King, and was held to be this by his servants; if he had been victorious he would have demanded divine honour from all rational creatures and absolute temporal power over the whole world.
By now, the shock of Eru intervening at the Downfall of Númenor had worn off, and Sauron "probably deluded himself with the notion that the Valar (including Melkor) having failed, Eru had simply abandoned Eä, or at any rate Arda, and would not concern himself with it any more...he had ceased to fear God's action in Arda". Indeed he had arrived at a self-serving interpretation of the Downfall, assuming that Eru had acted not only against the Númenóreans, but also against the Valar: As the Blessed Realm was removed from the physical world, "Valar (and Elves) were removed from effective control, and Men [were] under God's curse and wrath." To Sauron, it seemed that the world was free for the taking.
Actually the Valar were still concerned with the events in Middle-earth, and they were able to send agents back into the physical world. But according to the divine master-plan, Mortal Men were meant to inherit the world from the Elves. Thus "Sauron...was a problem that Men had to deal with finally: the first of many concentrations of Evil into definite power-points that they would have to combat."
The Valar would not act to defeat Sauron in a massive intervention comparable to the War of Wrath that overthrew Morgoth; rather they made arrangements so that Sauron's enemies would themselves have a chance of defeating him. They sent a group of five Maiar incarnated in a humble form, as old (if agile) men: "[T]he purpose was precisely to limit and hinder their exhibition of 'power' on the physical plane, and so that they should do what they were primarily sent for: train, advise, instruct, arouse the hearts and minds of those threatened by Sauron to a resistance with their own strengths; and not just do the job for them. They thus appeared as 'old' sage figures.
These figures arrived in Middle-earth about a thousand years into the Third Age, just as Sauron began to take shape yet again. For the longest time, they kept a low profile about their origin and purpose. In Middle-earth, they were known as the Wizards, and the most prominent of them came to be called Gandalf and Saruman. Círdan of the Havens, one of the few who knew that they had come from the Blessed Realm, perceived Gandalf as the wisest of the Wizards. He therefore gave to him Narya, the last of the Three Rings of the Elves.
Around the year 1100, “the Wise” (the Wizards and the chief Elves) became aware that an evil power had made a stronghold at Dol Guldur. Initially it was assumed that this was one of the Nazgûl rather than Sauron himself. About the year 1300, the Nazgûl did indeed reappear, and their influence would have serious consequences for the nations established by the Númenórean exiles.
Over the ensuing centuries, the Witch-king of Angmar (actually the chief Nazgûl acting on Sauron’s behalf) repeatedly attacked the northern realm of Arnor, first in 1409 and finally overrunning the realm in 1974. Six years later, comparatively quickly, the Witch-king was able to enter Mordor and gather the Nazgûl there. In 2000, the Nazgûl issued from the Black Land and took the city of Minas Ithil (later known as Minas Morgul) in one of the mountain-passes. Thereby they also captured an object that would prove most valuable to Sauron: a palantír, one of the seven Seeing Stones that Elendil’s people had brought with them from Númenor at the eve of the Downfall.
In 2050 the Witch-king challenged Eärnur, childless king of the southern kingdom of Gondor; the King rode to Minas Ithil, but was never heard of again. From that point on, Gondor was ruled by Stewards.
As the power of Dol Guldur kept growing, the Wise came to suspect that the controlling force behind the Witch-king and the other Nazgûl was indeed their original master, Sauron. In 2063, Gandalf the Wizard went to Dol Guldur and made the first attempt to ascertain the truth, but Sauron retreated and hid in the East. It would be almost four centuries before he returned to his stronghold in Mirkwood, and his identity remained undetermined.
Sauron finally came back with increased strength in 2460. About the same year there occurred an event that went quite unnoticed at the time, but it would prove very decisive: The long-lost Ruling Ring was finally recovered from the river. It was found by a member of the river folk named Déagol. His relative Sméagol killed him for the Ring, and was eventually corrupted into the creature Gollum. He took the Ring, which he called his "Precious," and hid in the Misty Mountains.
In 2850, Gandalf made a second attempt to spy out Dol Guldur. Stealing into the stronghold, he was finally able to confirm the identity of its lord, later reporting to the White Council of Elves and Wizards: “True, alas, is our guess. This is not one of the Úlairi [Nazgûl], as many have long supposed. It is Sauron himself who has taken shape again and now grows apace; and he is gathering again all the Rings to his hand, and he seeks ever for news of the One [Ring], and of the Heirs of Isildur, if they live still on earth.”
Eventually the Wizards and chief Elves combined to put forth their might, and Sauron was driven out of Mirkwood in 2941. He had already planned his next move, however, and was willing to abandon Dol Guldur temporarily.
Just before Sauron fled Dol Guldur, the peace-loving Hobbit Bilbo Baggins, on an improbable adventure with a party of Dwarves, stumbled across the Ring deep within the Misty Mountains. The Ring had abandoned Gollum, perhaps sensing the increasing power of its Master and wishing to return to him. By now, Gollum himself had become completely addicted to the Ring’s presence; he would spend the rest of his life in a pathetic search for his “Precious”.
Bilbo used the power of the Ring to make himself invisible on several subsequent occasions, but was not evil himself and was slow to corrupt; Gandalf later remarked on the "sterner stuff" trait of Hobbits. Just like Gollum, he still developed a sinister attachment to the Ring, but with Gandalf’s help he was barely able to pass it on to his heir Frodo on his 111th birthday. (Any mortal possessing the One Ring stopped ageing normally.)
Sauron's power had now recovered to the point that he was able to extend his will over Middle-earth. The Eye of Sauron, as his attention and force of will was perceived, became a symbol of oppression and fear. Following his expulsion from Dol Guldur, he returned to Mordor in 2942, publicly declared himself nine years later, and started raising Barad-dûr anew. In preparation for a final war against Men and Elves, he bred immense armies of Orcs, augmenting them with Men from the East and South who (through their leaders) were in his service.
In The Fellowship of the Ring, Gandalf deduced that the Ring of Power that Bilbo had found in Gollum’s cave was indeed Sauron’s lost Master-ring. He informed Frodo about the true nature of the sinister heirloom Bilbo had left for him, and its terrible potential if Sauron should ever regain it: "The Enemy still lacks one thing to give him strength and knowledge to beat down all resistance, break the last defences, and cover all the lands in a second darkness. He lacks the One Ring... So he is seeking it, seeking it, and all his thought is bent on it.
Gandalf went for advice to Saruman the White, leader of the White Council, but discovered that Saruman had been corrupted by his long studies of Sauron. Using the palantír in the tower of Orthanc, Saruman was now in communication with the Dark Lord and acted as his ally, though he also secretly hoped to gain the Ring for himself and use its power to supplant Sauron. In either case, Saruman had totally betrayed the original mission of the Wizards, as defined by the Valar who sent them. Gandalf was held captive atop Orthanc for a time, but soon escaped with the help of one of the giant Eagles of Manwë.
Having seized and tortured Gollum, Sauron learned that the Ring had been found by a Hobbit named "Baggins." Sauron sent the Nazgûl to the Shire, Bilbo's home, but Bilbo had left years earlier. The current possessor of the Ring, Frodo, was likewise on his way out of the Shire (on Gandalf's advice). The Nine Nazgûl pursued Frodo and his companions and nearly killed Frodo, but were defeated near Rivendell.
In Rivendell, Elrond convened a high council of the peoples of Middle-earth to decide how to handle the crisis. The council determined that the Ring must be destroyed where it was forged, since it was utterly impervious to any other flame than the volcanic fires at its place of making. Frodo and his friend Sam (Samwise Gamgee) joined the Fellowship of the Ring, accepting the council's mission to cast it into the volcano.
Such a desperate quest would require them to penetrate Mordor itself and make it all the way to the Mountain right under Sauron’s nose, but otherwise the only conceivable way of defeating Sauron would be to actually use the power of the Ring against its maker. Then the one using the Ring would inevitably become infected by its evil and soon emerge as a new Dark Lord, as bad as Sauron or worse. This was a viable option only to a person like Saruman, who had already lost his moral compass.
To the extent the Elves went along with the plan, they were deliberately bringing about the end of the Elvish age, which had been artificially prolonged and maintained by the power of the Elven-rings: "Indeed the Elves destroyed their own polity in pursuit of a 'humane' duty. It was widely expected that the Elven-rings would stop functioning if Sauron's Ring should ever be destroyed, since the Dark Lord had made sure that all the lesser Rings were wholly bound up with the power of his own Master-ring. The dilemma of the Elves can be perceived in Galadriel's words to Frodo when the Fellowship came to her realm in Lothlórien: "Do you not see now wherefore your coming is to us as the footstep of Doom? For if you fail [to destroy the Ring], then we are laid bare to the Enemy [when Sauron recovers it]. Yet if you succeed, then our power is diminished, and Lothlórien will fade, and the tides of Time will sweep it away [because the Elven-rings can no longer hold back time]."
In The Two Towers, Saruman used his own army on Sauron's behalf and invaded Rohan. Gandalf, Théoden King of Rohan and the Ents, led by Treebeard, finally defeated Saruman's forces. His stronghold at Isengard was overthrown and Saruman left trapped within the Tower of Orthanc. Thus, one of Sauron's most powerful allies was neutralized.
During Saruman's confrontation with Gandalf, the palantír of Orthanc fell into the hands of the Fellowship. Gandalf handed it over to Aragorn, a direct descendant of Isildur and Elendil and hence the rightful owner of the Stone. In The Return of the King, Aragorn used it to show himself to Sauron (who still controlled another Seeing Stone, the one captured from Minas Ithil centuries earlier). Aragorn was leading Sauron to think that he, a valid heir to the throne of Gondor, now had the Ring and was preparing to turn its power against its maker. The Dark Lord was troubled by this revelation, and therefore attacked sooner than he had planned by sending an army to overthrow Minas Tirith, capital of Gondor. (See Battle of the Pelennor Fields.)
Immediately after the huge army left Mordor through the pass of Cirith Ungol, Frodo and Sam attempted to enter the Black Land the same way. They had been met by Gollum, whom Sauron had earlier released from captivity while letting him think that he escaped by accident (apparently Sauron hoped that Gollum would somehow lead him to the Ring). For a while, Gollum had acted as a guide for Frodo and Sam. However, he finally betrayed them to Shelob – a monstrous spider-like creature that Sauron regarded almost as a pet of sorts, using her to guard the pass. (Gollum was in no way trying to help Sauron, but since the gargantuan spider would have no interest in the Ring, Gollum hoped to recover it from Frodo's remains when Shelob had finished her meal.)
In the end, Sam drove off both Gollum and Shelob, but not before the monster had bit Frodo and he appeared to have died from her venom. The Orcs found Frodo’s body and stripped him of his gear, but Sam (thinking his master dead) had already secured the Ring. Frodo regained consciousness and was freed by Sam, and the two started the gruelling journey across the plains of Mordor towards Mount Doom. At their closest approach to Barad-dûr, the Dark Tower was still about 30 miles away, and yet the horror of Sauron’s presence was almost like a physical sensation – a “threat that beat upon them as they went: the dreadful menace of the Power that waited, brooding in deep thought and sleepless malice behind the dark veil about its Throne”.
The Orcs had sent Frodo’s gear to Barad-dûr, and apparently it was brought to Sauron’s own attention: His spokesperson (the Mouth of Sauron) would later taunt the Captains of the West by displaying Frodo’s equipment, letting them think the Hobbit had been captured. However, Sauron apparently dismissed the incident in Cirith Ungol as a foolhardy attempt to spy out the borders of Mordor. It literally never occurred to Sauron that his enemies were attempting to send the Ring into Mordor to unmake it at Mount Doom. Rather he took it completely for granted that they would try to access and use its power. Sauron regarded all his opponents, even up to Manwë Lord of the Valar, simply as rivals for world dominion and just as cynical as himself: “His cynicism, which (sincerely) regarded the motives of Manwë as precisely the same as his own, seemed fully justified in Saruman. Gandalf he did not understand. Exploiting this blindspot in Sauron's psychology had been Gandalf's strategy all along: "Into his heart the thought will not enter that any will refuse [power], that having the Ring we may seek to destroy it. If we seek this, we shall put him out of reckoning.
Although the army Sauron sent against Minas Tirith was defeated and the Chief Nazgûl destroyed, the Dark Lord still had sufficient armies in Mordor to recover his strength and, over the long term, win the war. Gandalf urged the captains of the West to march on Mordor to divert Sauron’s attention long enough to allow Frodo to complete his mission. If the Dark Lord saw Aragorn attempting to attack Mordor with an obviously inferior force, he would hopefully conclude that the Ring was giving Aragorn delusions of grandeur:
“We must march out to meet him at once. We must make ourselves the bait, though his jaws should close on us. He will take the bait, in hope and in greed, for he will think that in such rashness he sees the pride of the new Ringlord.”Failure on the part of Frodo would return the Ring to Sauron, and with its power he would swiftly achieve dominion over all life on Middle-earth, so a "suicide" mission would be justified if only Frodo succeeded in the end.
Aragorn marched on the Black Gate of Mordor with seven thousand men. After a brief encounter with the Mouth of Sauron, the battle was joined and went very poorly for the outnumbered Gondor/Rohan armies. Now convinced that Aragorn had the Ring, Sauron apparently reacted just as Gandalf had thought he would: “I will crush him, and what he has taken in his insolence shall be mine again for ever.”
Even as the Captains of the West were about to be utterly defeated by the superior might of Sauron's grand armies, Frodo reached his goal, entering the fiery interior of Mount Doom. However, his will failed at the last moment. Unable to resist the growing power of the Ring, he put it on his finger and claimed it for his own.
Sauron was instantly aware of him, and his gaze turned immediately to the Door in the Mountain. The fatal fallacy of Sauron’s entire way of thinking exploded into the Dark Lord’s face:
“The magnitude of his own folly was revealed to him in a blinding flash, and all the devices of his enemies were at last laid bare. Then his wrath blazed in consuming flame, but his fear rose like a vast black smoke to choke him. For he knew his deadly peril and the thread upon which his doom now hung.”Despite his shock, Sauron responded swiftly to the threat he suddenly faced. Instantly recalling his remaining Nazgûl from the ongoing battle, he commanded them to hasten to Mount Doom in a desperate attempt to secure the Ring. Even riding their monstrous winged steeds, they were not to arrive in time: Gollum viciously attacked Frodo and bit the Ring from his finger. Ecstatic to finally recover his long-lost “Precious”, Gollum teetered on the edge of the abyss, then lost his footing and fell with the Ring into the fire.
With “a roar and a great confusion of noise”, the One Ring perished along with all the power Sauron had invested in it – Gollum inadvertently achieving the Quest after Frodo’s failure. In the words of critic Paul H. Kocher: “The irony of evil is consummated by its doing the good which good could not do.”
At the Ring's destruction, Sauron's power was immediately broken and his form in Middle-earth was destroyed. His departing spirit towered above Mordor like a black cloud, but was blown away by a powerful wind from the West (the direction of the Blessed Realm and the Valar). His vast empires collapsed, his armies lost heart and dispersed, the Dark Tower of Barad-dûr crumbled and the Nazgûl were consumed in a hail of fire from the Mountain. Sauron himself was crippled for all time. Thus, on March 25th, Third Age 3019, the long reign of terror of the second Dark Lord finally came to its ruinous end.
Gandalf had predicted what the destruction of the Ring would mean to Sauron: "If it is destroyed, then he will fall, and his fall will be so low that none can foresee his arising ever again. For he will lose the best part of the strength that was native to him in his beginning, and all that was made or begun with that power will crumble, and he will be maimed for ever, becoming a mere spirit of malice that gnaws itself in the shadows, but cannot again grow or take shape. And so a great evil of this world will be removed.
As had been feared, all the lesser Rings of Power no longer worked once the Master-ring was gone. There was nothing more for the Elves in Middle-earth ; they were "shorn of power to hold back time", and with the coronation of Aragorn the world moved into the Dominion of Men. The end of the Elvish age was the price that had to be paid for the downfall of Sauron. Galadriel, Elrond and many other great Elves took ship from the Grey Havens, sailing beyond the "Circles of the World" and going to the Blessed Realm by the grace of the Valar. Gandalf went on the same ship; after two millennia he had completed his mission as Sauron's adversary and returned home to Valinor. Frodo and Bilbo were also allowed to come. For their efforts and sufferings, the two Hobbits would be allowed to experience the Blessed Realm (unmarred by the evil of Morgoth and Sauron) before they fulfilled their destiny as mortals and moved beyond the world of Eä altogether.
As for Sauron's own final state, Tolkien noted that he was said "to have fallen below the point of ever recovering, though he had previously recovered. What is probably meant is that a 'wicked' spirit becomes fixed in a certain desire or ambition, and if it cannot repent then this desire becomes virtually its whole being. But the desire may be wholly beyond the weakness it has fallen to, and it will then be unable to withdraw its attention from the unobtainable desire, even to attend to itself. It will then remain for ever in impotent desire or memory of desire. Thus Sauron was "damned" in the sense that he was "reduced to impotence, infinitely recessive.
Defeating Sauron was not the final victory over "evil" as such. Even before Sauron's downfall, Gandalf told the captains of the West: "Other evils there are that may come, for Sauron is himself but a servant or emissary." While Sauron in the Third Age surely perceived himself as his own master, he was ultimately serving the principle of evil itself, as introduced by Melkor before the world was even created. Though other "power-points" of evil were bound to arise in a world that was fundamentally marred, Sauron was indeed "the last of those in 'mythological' personalized (but non-human) form." "Never again (unless it be at the Great End) will an evil daemon be incarnate as a physical enemy.
If any personal demon is ever to seek world dominion once again, it will happen in an eschatological perspective and involve Morgoth himself. It is foreseen that the spirit of Melkor-Morgoth will eventually recover and grow and take shape again in the Dagor Dagorath. "It would do this (even if Sauron could not) because of its relative greatness." But of another arising of Sauron, no prophecies foretell.
The name Sauron (from an earlier form Þauron) originates from the adjective saura "foul, putrid" in Tolkien's invented language Quenya, and can be translated as the Abhorred or the Abomination. In Sindarin (another Elf-language created by Tolkien) he is called Gorthaur, the Abhorred Dread or the Dread Abomination. He is also called the Nameless Enemy. The Dúnedain (the descendants of Isildur) call him Sauron the Deceiver due to his role in the Downfall of Númenor and the forging of the Rings of Power. In the Númenórean (Adûnaic) tongue he was also known as Zigûr, The Wizard.
His two most common titles, the Dark Lord of Mordor and the Lord of the Rings, appear only a few times in The Lord of the Rings. His other titles or variants thereof include Base Master of Treachery, the Dark Lord, the Dark Power, Lord of Barad-dûr, the Red Eye, the Ring-maker, and the Sorcerer.
In the First Age (as detailed in The Silmarillion) he was called the Lord of Werewolves of Tol-in-Gaurhoth. In the Second Age he assumed the name Annatar, which means Lord of Gifts, and "Aulendil" meaning friend of Aulë, as well as Artano, meaning High-Smith, with which he assumed a new identity and tricked the Elves into working with him to create the Rings. In the Third Age he was briefly known as the Necromancer of Dol Guldur because his true identity was still unknown.
According to Russian historian Alexandr Nemirovsky, it is likely that the name Sauron is meaningful in the language of Mordoth and Hurrian language. He etymologized the name from the hurrian word Sau-ra-n(ne), meaning "possessing the weapon" or "armed".
According to The Silmarillion, Sauron was initially able to change his appearance at will. In the beginning he would have assumed a beautiful form, but after switching his allegiance to Morgoth, he apparently took a far more sinister shape. In the First Age, Gorlim was at one point brought into "the dreadful presence of Sauron", but the only concrete hint about his appearance is a reference to his daunting eyes.
As part of a plan to destroy Huan, Sauron took the form of the greatest werewolf in Middle-earth's history till then. When the plan backfired, he assumed a serpent-like form, and finally changed back "from monster to his own accustomed form". The implication is that his "accustomed form" was not, at least, overtly monstrous. It is understood to have been humanoid.
Sauron took a beautiful appearance once again at the end of the First Age in an effort to charm Eönwë, near the beginning of the Second Age when appearing as Annatar to the Elves, and again near the end of the Second Age when corrupting the men of Númenor.
One version of the story describes, in general terms, the impression Sauron made on the Númenóreans: He appeared "as a man, or one in man's shape, but greater than any even of the race of Númenor in stature... And it seemed to men that Sauron was great, though they feared the light of his eyes. To many he appeared fair, to others terrible; but to some evil.
Like Morgoth, Sauron eventually lost the ability to change his physical form (his hröa). After the destruction of his fair form in the fall of Númenor, Sauron was unable to take a pleasing appearance or veil his power again. Thereafter, at the end of the Second Age and again in the Third, he always took the shape of a terrible dark lord. His first incarnation after the Downfall of Númenor was extremely hideous, "an image of malice and hatred made visible". Isildur recorded that Sauron's hand "was black, and yet burned like fire..." Gil-galad perished from Sauron's heat.
Throughout The Lord of the Rings, "the Eye" (the Red Eye, the Evil Eye) is the image most often associated with Sauron. Sauron's Orcs bore the symbol of the Eye on their helmets and shields, and referred to him as the "Eye" because he did not allow his name to be written or spoken, according to Aragorn (a notable exception to this rule was the Mouth of Sauron). Also, the Lord of the Nazgûl threatened Éowyn with torture before the "Lidless Eye at the Battle of the Pelennor Fields.
In the Mirror of Galadriel, Frodo had an actual vision of this Eye:
"The Eye was rimmed with fire, but was itself glazed, yellow as a cat's, watchful and intent, and the black slit of its pupil opened on a pit, a window into nothing.
On a later occasion, Tolkien writes as if Frodo and Sam really glimpse the Eye directly, not in any kind of vision. The mists surrounding Barad-dûr are briefly withdrawn, and:
"one moment only it stared out...as from some great window immeasurably high there stabbed northward a flame of red, the flicker of a piercing Eye... The Eye was not turned on them, it was gazing north...but Frodo at that dreadful glimpse fell as one stricken mortally."
There are many other instances where Sauron is referred to as the "Eye". Some readers take this to mean the Eye was Sauron's physical form in the Third Age. This interpretation appears in film adaptations (see below) and in David Day's Tolkien: The Illustrated Encyclopedia (1996).
"The Eye: that horrible growing sense of a hostile will that strove with great power to pierce all shadows of cloud, and earth, and flesh, and to see you: to pin you under its deadly gaze, naked, immovable.
From various quotes it is clear that Tolkien cannot have intended the Eye as such to be Sauron's complete or sole manifestation; the Dark Lord's spirit did inhabit some kind of body.
Gollum (who has previously been tortured by Sauron in person) tells Frodo that Sauron has, at least, a "Black Hand" with four fingers. The missing finger is a sustained injury from when Isildur cut off the Ring; apparently Sauron then lost part of his basic template for a humanoid form, so that the finger was still missing when he materialized a new body centuries later. (Another instance of Sauron's injuries being sustained from one form to another is found in the tale of his battle with Lúthien and Huan, in which an injury to his throat is maintained even after transformation.)
In the third volume, The Return of the King, the heralds of the Army of the West call Sauron out before the Battle of the Morannon, telling him to "come forth", which would seem redundant if he did not have a body.
In one of his letters Tolkien does state that Sauron had a physical form in the Third Age:
"...in a tale which allows the incarnation of great spirits in a physical and destructible form their power must be far greater when actually physically present. ... Sauron should be thought of as very terrible. The form that he took was that of a man of more than human stature, but not gigantic.
The sum of the textual evidence allows for different interpretations: the Eye is part of the physical body, or the Eye is a mental or psychic manifestation (of Sauron's will, thought, power or presence) coexisting with the physical body. The Eye cannot be purely metaphorical, as Frodo's encounter with it in the Mirror shows.
Those who favour the mental/psychic interpretation have appealed to a similar comment about the first Dark Lord Morgoth, Sauron's mentor:
"...Morgoth held the Orcs in dire thraldom; for in their corruption they had lost almost all possibility of resisting the domination of his will. So great indeed did its pressure upon them... if he turned his thought towards them, they were conscious of his 'eye' wherever they might be.
Here "eye" (in quotes) represents Morgoth's attention. Plainly Sauron's Eye can likewise stand for Sauron's attention, whether or not there is also a physical reality to the Eye. Thus, when Sauron ponders what to do after Aragorn showed himself to him in the palantír, it is said that "the Dark Power was deep in thought, and the Eye turned inward. In other words, Sauron was introspective.
Arguments in favour of the physical reality of the Eye (regardless of a physical body) would primarily focus on the fact that Frodo and Sam had a "dreadful glimpse" of it with their own physical eyes (though this may only mean the Eye exists in their senses and minds). Also, the same chapter of the novel refers to "the Window of the Eye" in Barad-dûr, facing Mount Doom. When Sauron finally perceived Frodo on that mountain, "his Eye piercing all shadows looked across the plain" towards Mount Doom (though Tolkien may here be using "the Eye" to refer to Sauron himself, as in other passages).
In the draft text of the climatic moments of The Lord of the Rings, "the Eye" stands for Sauron's very person, with emotions and thoughts:
"The Dark Lord was suddenly aware of him [Frodo], the Eye piercing all shadows... Its wrath blazed like a sudden flame and its fear was like a great black smoke, for it knew its deadly peril, the thread upon which hung its doom... [I]ts thought was now bent with all its overwhelming force upon the Mountain..."
Christopher Tolkien comments: "The passage is notable in showing the degree to which my father had come to identify the Eye of Barad-dûr with the mind and will of Sauron, so that he could speak of 'its wrath, its fear, its thought'. In the second text...he shifted from 'its' to 'his' as he wrote out the passage anew."
The exact nature of the Eye, and its relationship to the never-seen body used by Sauron, remains a matter of debate among Tolkienists. Tolkien never elaborated further on these matters. Indeed he may intentionally have left many aspects of the Sauron character vague and mysterious.
So far, all adaptations of the story in visual media go with the interpretation that the Eye really exists physically. Obviously the Eye of Fire is visually effective, whereas the references to Sauron's never-seen body are so few that even readers of the novel often overlook them.
Since the earliest versions of The Silmarillion legendarium as detailed in the History of Middle-earth series, Sauron undergoes many changes. The prototype of this character was Tevildo, Prince of Cats, who played the role later taken by Sauron in the earliest version of the story of Beren and Lúthien in The Book of Lost Tales. Tevildo was later replaced by Thû, the Necromancer. The name was then changed to Gorthû, Sûr, and finally to Sauron. Gorthû, in the form Gorthaur remained in The Silmarillion.
Prior to the publication of The Silmarillion (1977), Sauron's origins and true identity were unclear to those without full access to Tolkien's notes. In early editions of Robert Foster's The Complete Guide to Middle-earth, Sauron is described as "probably of the Eldar elves." Yet there were other critics who essentially hit the mark. As early as 1967, W. H. Auden conjectured that Sauron might have been a Vala, long before it became known that Tolkien had indeed described him as "a lesser member of the race of Valar" (see full quote above).
In film versions of The Lord of the Rings, Sauron has been portrayed as either a humanlike creature (as in Ralph Bakshi's 1978 animated version, The Lord of the Rings) or a physical, disembodied Eye (as in the 1980 animated The Return of the King), or both.
This last option is shown in the 2001-2003 film trilogy directed by Peter Jackson. Here, Sauron is shown to have a large, human-like form during the forging of the Ring, then being "limited" to the disembodied Eye form throughout the rest of the storyline.
Though the 1978 animated film and the 2001 live-action film both contain a prologue featuring the forging of the Rings of Power, the War of the Elves and Sauron goes unmentioned and the films jump straight to the much later War of the Last Alliance. In both, Sauron does not have the form he wore as "Annatar" when he forges the One Ring, but rather the one reflecting his identity as Dark Lord, and he is defeated by Isildur alone.
In Jackson's series, Sauron is originally portrayed as a towering "black knight" wielding a huge black mace (reminiscent of Tolkien's descriptions as well as conceptual artist John Howe's illustrations of Morgoth); in this form, he is portrayed by Sala Baker. This body is lost after Isildur cuts off his fingers with the hilt-shard of the sword Narsil. (In this version, the Dark Lord seems to be more or less unhurt until the moment he is deprived of his Ring; then his body swiftly disintegrates with explosive force.) After this defeat, he is thereafter portrayed as the Eye, which is presented as an actual physical manifestation.
Later in the first film, Jackson lets Saruman remark that Sauron cannot yet take physical form, so the audience is apparently to assume that the flaming Eye of Sauron is his disembodied spirit. This Eye hovers above Barad-dûr. In the novel, Sauron was inside the tower, gazing out through "the Window of the Eye in [his] shadow-mantled fortress". Sauron's humanoid form appears one final time when Aragorn looks into the palantír in the extended edition of The Return of the King.
In interviews, Jackson repeatedly refers to Sauron as "just a giant floating eyeball." In the novel, even if one interprets the text as saying that the Eye exists physically, it is never clear whether it is disembodied or not.
In the Jackson films, Sauron wears plate armour, as do many others, while Tolkien never explicitly mentions any use of plate armour in Middle-earth, though there are references to mail and scale armour. The author nowhere specifically discusses what kind of armour (or even clothing) Sauron may have worn during his physical incarnations.
According to Saruman in the first film, the Eye of Sauron "sees all" — though this appears to be contradicted in the third film. Here, the Eye of Sauron is shown scanning Mordor rather like a lighthouse, and can only observe one location at a time. The effect in Mordor is seen as a red beam that moves across the land, forever probing. The third movie version of Sauron's observational powers is more akin to the novel, as Gollum says at one point that Sauron can see everything, but he cannot see everything all at once. It also seems to be visible to Frodo (and to see him in turn) any time that he is wearing the Ring.
Pippin has a brief and frightening encounter with the Eye, after gazing into the palantír of Orthanc. In the book, Pippin indicates that he somehow perceived Sauron, but it is not made clear exactly what he saw, whether the Eye or some other manifestation of the Dark Lord.
Curiously, before the Battle of the Black Gate, Aragorn says a line from the book, "Let the Lord of the Black Land come forth!" despite earlier references in the films that Sauron lacks a physical form. The Dark Tower crumbles with the destruction of the Ring, and as it does so the Eye appears to turn more yellow and the dark clouds of Mordor swirl in around it before finally being wiped from existence with a final massive explosive force, which in turn destroys anything under the control of Sauron (the Black Gate, the Ringwraiths, and the Orcs)
In earlier versions of Jackson's script Sauron would indeed "come forth" at Aragorn's challenge, and do battle with him: The extra materials published together with the extended DVD version of the third movie indicate as much. Scenes of the fight were shot, but later this idea was discarded and was replaced by a scene (in the extended version) where Aragorn kills the "Mouth of Sauron" (a representative of Sauron) before fighting a Mordor troll. In fact, the footage of the battle with the troll was the same footage of Aragorn fighting Sauron, with the CGI troll mapped over a painted-out Sauron, as seen in the DVD special features.
Sauron appears in merchandise of the Jackson films, including computer and video games. These include The Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle-earth II, The Lord of the Rings: Tactics and The Lord of the Rings: The Third Age. He is also a playable character in the tabletop wargame The Lord of the Rings Strategy Battle Game published by Games Workshop Ltd. It has also been stated that Sauron will appear as a playable character in the upcoming game, The Lord of the Rings: Conquest.
Now [Flagg] had joined with the night. He was eye of crow, eye of wolf, eye of weasel, eye of cat. He was the scorpion, the strutting trapdoor spider. He was a deadly poison arrow slipping endlessly through the desert air. ...Flying effortlessly, the world of earthbound things spread out below him like a clockface.
The Shadows, the primary antagonist in the hit television series Babylon 5, use an "Eye of Z'ha'dum" that has the ability to see across space. The exact mechanics and workings of the Eye are left somewhat vague, and its inner workings were only explored somewhat in the Technomage trilogy novels. The Eye is like a supercomputer which drives "the will" of the Shadows and also oversees the operation of Shadow technology (i.e. planetary defenses of Z'ha'dum), as well as acts as a long-range sensor of some sort. The Eye, like many elements of Babylon 5, was inspired by Tolkien. Like the Eye of Sauron, the Eye of Z'ha'dum also has a metaphysical form, as witnessed by Cmdr. Susan Ivanova when she was using the great machine to locate First Ones. However, unlike the Eye of Sauron which is only one eye, the Eye of Z'ha'dum (like those of the Shadows themselves) is comprised of fourteen eyes.
The Eye of Sauron appears as a visual reference in the Waking the Dead story Double Bind.
Jackson's Eye of Sauron was parodied in an episode of Family Guy. In it, the Eye had lost its contact lens, hence its seemingly erratic movement.
In his Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz repeatedly characterizes Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo as "our Sauron." Multiple references appear throughout the novel.