Part of the Second Age of Middle-earth Exploratory Series
A everyone knows (spoiler alert), The Lord of the Rings is a book which concerns Sauron in his final days (the last six months of his existence in Middle-earth, to be specific). He was the ‘big bad’ of The Lord of the Rings, the Dark Lord whose personage we never actually saw, but — through Tolkien’s exceptional writing — whose menace we felt throughout the story. If Sauron obtains once again the One Ring (held by our protagonist, Frodo), he will regain the greater part of his power (which is already considerable) and conquer the world completely. So much is common-knowledge to anyone who’s read the main narrative or seen the films.
Like Darth Vader, Sauron has a backstory. Unlike Darth Vader, Sauron’s backstory is a corker. Whence came Sauron, and for what purpose? The Appendices tell us that during the Second Age (SA), c.500, Sauron begins to stir again in Middle-earth. Notably, this was a mere 58 years (the blink of an eye in Middle-earth terms) after the death of Elros (SA442) who, as we learned in our last post, was not only the brother of Elrond, but he also eventually became the first king of Númenor. Was it perhaps the death of Elros that “encouraged” Sauron to begin “stirring” once more? Was Sauron merely biding his time for the mortal King to perish? Was it all left to chance, if chance you call it? (Answer: we don’t know, but it’s fun to speculate.)
But we’re getting off-track. What does it mean that Sauron began to stir again? What was he actually up to? Where was he prior to the year SA500 and what caused him “stop stirring” in the first place?
To answer all of these questions, we need to travel back to the very beginning of the world. Indeed, we shall travel further. We will go back in time to the beginning of the Universe itself.
Tolkien’s Legendarium, like any good mythology, has a creation myth. It is called Ainulindalë [eye•new•lynn•da•lay] and it may be found in Tolkien’s seminal work, The Silmarillion.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God;John 1:1
There was Eru, the One, who in Arda is called Ilúvatar;The Silmarillion, ‘Ainulindalë‘, pp1
Like Genesis, which is the first book of the Christian Bible, and tells the tale of the creation of the Earth, Ainulindalë is the first chapter of The Silmarillion and tells of the creation of Arda (the world). And, just as the Judeo-Christian God of Abraham has his Angels and Archangels, so too does Eru, aka Ilúvatar, aka The One (who, let’s be clear from the outset, is the Judeo-Christian God), have his Ainur (eye•noor). The short version of the story is these “angelic beings”, these Ainur (singular Ainu) were essentially demigods, who could be further subdivided into other groups such as the Valar (vah •lar; singular Vala) and Maiar (my•ar; singular Maia). All were Ainur, but the Valar were those who left Ilúvatar’s side so as to enter into the World to shape and form it; to create the world, in essence, and make it ready for the coming of the Children of Ilúvatar (Elves and Men). The Maiar, on the other hand, were essentially “assistants” to the Valar. They were vaguely less powerful (we are not told precisely how) than the Valar themselves, but essentially demigods nonetheless.
Each Vala had an area of focus: the airs, the waters, the plants/animals, etc. Aulë (ow•lay) was one such Vala. It was the task of Aulë and his Maiar to look after the very materials that make up the Earth itself: rock, soil, minerals, etc. And if you’re already thinking of precious metals, such as gold, and that’s leading you to think of rings, or perhaps Rings with a capital R, then you’re on the right track.
You see, another Vala called Melkor (aka Morgoth) decided to rebel against Ilúvatar. He desired to hold strength and power over others; to rule; to create or destroy at will; to claim the Earth as his very own; and he wasn’t alone. No, he managed to corrupt many Maiar to his cause and way of thinking. One of these Maia, called Mairon, was under the ‘domain’ and tutelage of Aulë . Mairon was one of those whom Melkor managed to “snare”. He corrupted Mairon, who became his chief lieutenant, and would eventually become Sauron.
So what happened? As Gandalf tells Frodo, ‘If I were to tell you all that tale, we should still be sitting here when Spring had passed into Winter.’ But the short version is that the First Age of Middle-earth came and went. Over thousands of years, Morgoth fought constantly with Elves, Men, Dwarves, and the Valar for the mastery of Middle-earth. The lands themselves were changed and broken in the Wars that followed. Countless numbers perished. The First Age eventually ended, and it came to a close with the War of Wrath, wherein Melkor/Morgoth was finally overthrown. He was utterly defeated by the Valar, and cast out of the world itself into the Void (completely outside of space and time). Sauron was also, seemingly, vanquished alongside most of Melkor’s other servants (yet not banished to the Void…he escaped that fate).
But that’s the thing about demigods: you can’t really kill them.
So began the Second Age of Middle-earth. The Men who participated in the war against Morgoth were rewarded for their troubles, and Elros became King. 500 years later, Elros is dead and Sauron begins to stir. But there isn’t really much to tell for another 200 years or so, when Eregion enters the story.
Eregion was that region just outside the Western gates of Moria (Khazad-dûm). It was a wondrous realm, founded by Galadriel and Celeborn around the year SA700. It was through the close relationship between the elves of Eregion (who were mostly Noldor or ‘High Elves’) and the Dwarves of Moria that each of these regions became fabulously wealthy, successful, and renowned. There was constant trade and commerce between the two realms, and they flourished.
Among the many great craftsmen of Eregion was Celebrimbor, who was the grandson of Fëanor, probably the greatest Elf to ever exist (more on him another time). It was Celebrimbor who, along with a dwarven craftsman, Narvi, created the Doors of Durin as the Western entrance to Moria (the password for which Gandalf so infamously struggled to recall). So it was that two of the greatest settlements of the peoples of Middle-earth were linked in mutual respect and friendship. The Dwarves had their great Dwarven-city of Khazad-dûm, and the Elves established the capital city of Eregion, Ost-in-Edhil.
What Celebrimbor became most famous for, however, was not his partnership with a good, Dwarven joiner and the production of solid, magical entryways; he and those who worked closely with him were jewel-smiths beyond compare. But more on that in a bit.
As has been said, Sauron was “stirring” once more during this time period. Indeed, he was becoming rather concerned about the growing power being established in Eregion, to say nothing of the Númenóreans who, now being great mariners, were sailing in their great ships and landing in the South of Middle-earth near Harad. So it was that around the turn of the first millennium (c.1000SA), Sauron abandoned the land of Eriador in the Northwest to abide instead in the Southeast in order to attempt to resist the new threat from the West. This realm of Sauron’s would of course come to be known as Mordor.
There he dwelt for around 200 years until he at last began to launch his master plan. He travelled back to Eriador (having first sent emissaries), but this time he did so in a fair disguise: Annatar, “The Lord of Gifts”. He claimed to be an emmessary of the Valar themselves, and offered to teach the Elves many things. In Lindon, at the Grey Havens where Cirdon the Shipwright dwelt along with Gil-galad, the High King, Sauron’s disguise was not entirely successful. Gil-galad refused the offers of Annatar and turned him away. But the folk of Eregion were more willing to listen.
Galadriel had possibly already left Eregion to establish the realm of Lórinand east of the Misty Mountains (exactly when this occurred is not clear). But Celebrimbor was still there with his jewel-smiths, and they desired greatly to become masters of their craft. So when an emissary of the Valar came calling and offered to teach them many great secrets, they reached out with both hands and greedily accepted Annatar’s offer.
In another couple of hundred years, things were seemingly going well. The Elves who desired it learned greatly from Sauron and this led eventually to what would become Celebrimbor’s most famous works: the forging of the Rings of Power, which were completed in the year SA1590.
Update: It’s notable that Sauron/Annatar left the region of Eregion around the year 1500 when the forging of the rings was begun. Thus, although he taught Celebrimbor (et al) what they needed to know to make the Rings of Power (and, through following his guidance, they unwittingly incorporated measures for Sauron to be able to control said rings in the future), Sauron was not, it seems, actually around while they were being made. This may go some way to explain why when the Three were completed in 1590, it is said that Sauron’s hand “never touched them” (LotR, I, 2, ‘The Shadow of the past).
Around the year SA1600 Sauron forges the One Ring and completes the building of his fortress in Mordor, Barad-dûr. However, when Sauron set the One upon his finger, Celebrimbor became aware of him and his designs … the One is meant to rule over all the other Rings of Power and all that they do and control. Perceiving Sauron’s true nature, Celebrimbor takes off his ring and hides the Three, which were made by him alone without Sauron’s interference and were thus especially precious to him.
Naturally, this angered Sauron rather a lot. He gathered his forces to him and in the year SA1693, he began his war to claim the Rings of Power and subdue the peoples of Middle-earth. Along the way, Eregion is entirely destroyed; the gates of Moria are closed and cannot be re-opened by force. Sauron manages to recover sixteen of Celebrimbor’s Rings of Power. But the Three he could not find.
And as for Celebrimbor? Well, Sauron took that ‘betrayal’ extremely poorly. He captured Celebrimbor and tortured him to find the locations of the Three. But Celebrimbor was no soft captive, and he refused to give up the goods. At last, he was killed. But as if torture and death were not enough, Sauron really drove the message home concerning his distaste for Celebrimbor and all who would resist him by hanging the corpse of Celebrimbor upon a pole, which his forces used as a banner.
From the ruin of Eregion many elves fled. Elrond established Imladiris/Rivendell in the year 1697 and many of those who fled the destruction of Eregion found refuge with him.
There is little else to tell for some time. War continued for centuries. The Númenóreans grew stronger in the West of Middle-earth and on its coasts. Sauron continued to spread his power eastward, drawing the peoples of the Harad and far-east under his dominion. Also during this time, Sauron distributed the sixteen Rings:
Seven for the Dwarf-lords in their halls of stone,
Nine for Mortal Men doomed to die…
The Seven and the Nine, Sauron himself assisted in making. Therefore, he was able to corrupt all that was done with them. The rings would forever and always betray their users. This was not true, however, of the Three, for Celebrimbor had made those alone and in secret (and thus Sauron wanted them all the more).
Sauron found Men weak and easily corruptible, for Men wanted power and longevity of life. Sauron offered them these ‘gifts’ and as the years passed, the nine to whom Sauron entrusted a Ring grew great. They were mighty leaders among men. And what’s more, they seemed to have unending life. But, as was the case with Bilbo and Gollum during their years with the One, these Men began to feel tormented by their longevity, and yet could not give up their Rings. Eventually (much later), they would fall completely under the power of the One, and became Ringwraiths, which first appeared in Middle-earth around the year SA2251.
Sauron found Dwarves difficult to corrupt. The reason for this was their maker. Remember Aulë, whom Sauron served for awhile before being corrupted by Melkor/Morgoth? Well Aulë has another claim to fame, and one better than being the original ‘tutor’ or ‘master’ (for want of a better word) to Sauron: Aulë made the Dwarves. That tale is a separate rabbit-hole which we won’t go down at this time. However, suffice it to say that Aulë foresaw that the Dwarves would have difficult times ahead of them and so made theme exceedingly tough and difficult to dominate. It is for this reason alone that the Seven do not turn the Dwarves into Dwarven Ringwraiths. It was said, however, that the dwarves were not unaffected by their rings. The dwarves became wrathful, and they became especially greedy for gold (which is why, no doubt, that it is also said that at the foundation of each of the seven dwarven hoardes of gold, there was a golden ring).
It is no small thing, then, that to Gimli the dwarf, Galadriel says, But if hope should not fail, then I say to you, Gimli son of Glóin, that your hands shall flow with gold, and yet over you gold shall have no dominion. [LotR, II, 8, ‘Farewell to Lórien’]
In the next part of our look at Sauron during the Second Age, we’ll find out what led to the end of the wars between Sauron, Men and Elves, and the ultimate fate of Númenor.
Other Works Consulted:
- The Lord of the Rings: Appendix B – The Tale of Years
- Unfinished Tales: Part Two: IV: The History of Galadriel & Celeborn
- The Silmarillion: ‘Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age’