Every year on March 25, the anniversary of the Downfall of Sauron, the Tolkien Society hosts Tolkien Reading Day. This year’s theme is Nature and Industry. The primary goal is to promote the reading of the works of J.R R. Tolkien! To celebrate, Pages Unbound will be hosting two weeks of Tolkien-related posts. In addition to our own thoughts, we will be featuring a number of guest posts!
We all know and fear the story of Sauron, master of the One Ring. He’s often depicted as a physically massive, all-powerful being that takes many forms, as well as shrouded in shadow and made to look like the monster under our beds. He is a terrifyingly well-done villain because of that—we fear him because he represents all of our darkest nightmares. And while Tolkien does an excellent job of assuaging those fears by giving the ability to defeat this horror to the smallest of his characters, he’s also already told this story before we ever meet Sauron. For Sauron was not just born evil—he was carefully curated.
Taking it back all the way to the First Age, before Frodo and the Ring, before Elves and Men hated each other, before war was even a thought, there was Melkor. Perhaps Tolkien’s most powerful villain, Melkor was also not born evil, though everything that followed—including Sauron’s ascent to power—could have been avoided if he’d maybe talked to someone about the issues he was facing instead of declaring war against all of Arda.
For a time, Melkor was nothing more than one of many. He toiled away at his work like his brethren, enjoyed being among his family, and generally led a quiet life. However, in a very Biblical way, Melkor had questions. Thoughts of his own. Desires and dreams that he wished to fulfill. And when he began seeking answers, those he had considered friends and family began to turn against him. Melkor, enraged at the impossibility of individuality, lashed out. He decided that he would strike out on his own and seek revenge against those who had tried to silence him.
From there, his story is that of most villain origin stories. After he took the land that would become Angband, his terrible and evil dominion, Melkor sought his revenge. After destroying all light in the world, stealing the most precious jewels ever made, and killing the high king of elves, Tolkien gifts Melkor with a name change:
“Then Fëanor rose, and lifting up his hand before Manwë he cursed Melkor, named him Morgoth, the Black Foe of the World; and by that name only was he known to the Eldar ever after.”
– The Silmarillion, QS Ch 9, Of the Flight of the Noldor
Morgoth then goes on to seek his revenge via war, and the whole world is in turmoil. Morgoth is, arguably, Tolkien’s most powerful villain. Even when he is eventually defeated, the most they can do to him is banish him from the world. He is so powerful that killing him is impossible; so powerful, even, that his legend continues to live on.
However, in this villain origin story, Melkor’s name can easily be replaced with Mairon’s, the man Sauron was before. Mairon, though considerably less powerful than Morgoth, was still respected for his prowess as a smith, and he drew attention to himself via that skill. Attention that even Morgoth could not ignore, for he started to slip back into his old home to see what all the fuss was about.
Melkor made decisions that directed him straight on his path toward becoming Morgoth. Mairon, arguably, did the same thing on his path toward becoming Sauron. Mairon led a life very similar to Melkor’s—it was quiet, surrounded by friends and family, and centered on his work as a smith. He had questions and doubts, but he kept them mostly to himself until Morgoth stepped into his life. Morgoth had come to his answers on his own, and he readily shared them with Mairon, who was still malleable. Mairon saw not the Black Foe of the World, but someone he had grown up revering. This was Melkor, someone so powerful that all of Arda feared him, and Mairon willingly gave his service to him:
“Among those of his servants that have names the greatest was that spirit whom the Eldar called Sauron, or Gorthaur the Cruel.”
– The Silmarillion, Valaquenta
From the beginning, Mairon and Melkor’s stories are very similar, and as they progress, so do the similarities. As they become, respectively, Sauron and Morgoth, their paths continually intertwine and echo one another. They are two individual characters, yes, but they represent much of the same.
Though Sauron became Morgoth’s commander in his war against all of Arda, the arc of their characters continued to reflect one another. Morgoth stole the Silmarils, the most exquisite jewels ever created, and fastened them to his crown so that he might always be with them. Sauron, hungry for power, created the Nine Rings, but secretly created one for himself, as well, that he might wear on his finger and keep with him always. Morgoth stole into Mairon’s heart using the breadth of his power and legend, and Sauron deceived the elves with his beauty and wonder to help him forge the rings.
Even their physical places of power are similar to one another. Angband, Morgoth’s central base, is deeply entrenched in mountains and difficult to enter. Mordor, Sauron’s eventual lair, is pitted inside a crater of mountains and massive stone walls. They each hide themselves behind formidable soldiers like balrogs and orcs, dragons and Ringwraiths. They seek out servants in the hearts of men, humans they know are susceptible to their wicked ways, and slowly eke out their power throughout the world.
They say history repeats itself, and in Tolkien’s legendarium, there is nothing truer. The world of Arda might have learned from its mistakes in the great war against Morgoth, but instead, it allowed Sauron to seek power, to gain a throne, to prove himself worthy of his mentor. Perhaps the only difference between Morgoth and Sauron, then, is that Sauron is defeated. Eventually, he is killed, and peace comes to Arda. And while Sauron’s legend lies in ruin, Morgoth is still waiting on the fringes of existence, banished, but not gone.
The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings have widely different fan bases and received vastly different responses when they were published. For decades, it seemed The Silmarillion might never see the light of day, and even when it did, it was still The Lord of the Rings that struck people to the core. The defeat of Sauron from a small, unlikely hero is something that will always stand out in Tolkien’s legendarium. It is, perhaps, because Morgoth was never defeated by a single small, unlikely hero, but many, that he is forgotten and ignored. But the defeat of Sauron might never have been possible without the rise of Morgoth, and the two are inextricably linked.
About the Author
Mary Drover finds adventure along the New England coastline, deep in the White Mountains, and always on a yoga mat. She spends her days in an office, her nights drinking tea, and all the in-between moments snuggling her sister cats or writing about magic, pirates, witches, faeries, planets, and romance. She has a BFA in Creative Writing & a BA in English from the University of Maine at Farmington, practices Tibetan Buddhism, has too many candles, and cannot stop buying crystals or plants. She is a registered yoga teacher, a sorted Gryffindor, and a part-time witch. Visit her at marydrover.com.
5 thoughts on “History Repeats Itself: Tolkien’s Primary Villains (Guest Post by Mary Drover)”
A beautiful post, Mary! I’ve often thought about the similarities between Morgoth and Sauron, but I have yet to read The Silmarillion. I merely know of Morgoth’s legend from reading books about Tolkien himself. I find these parallels fascinating… I will certainly look more closely next time I read The Lord of the Rings. And, for once, I’m finally intrigued to read The Silmarillion.
Do you think that Tolkien knew he was writing parallels between Morgoth and Sauron when he wrote The Lord of the Rings, or do you believe these parallels came during his and Christopher’s many revisions after LotR was published?
I am late to this post, but great post! I have a really hard time choosing between LotR and The Silmarillion, personally; I love both so much!
Jackie: Sauron appears in Tolkien’s writings before he was working on LotR (like the Lay of Leithian), and he was definitely associated with Morgoth early on.