Sauron’s History in Middle-earth, Explained

The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power will take us back to Middle-earth on September 2. The show will almost definitely tackle the most major event of the Second Age: the rise and fall of the island kingdom of Númenor. That means, we’re also likely to see the major villain of that particular storyline. And even if you’ve only seen Jackson’s films, you’ll recognize this baddie. The Dark Lord Sauron played a major role in Númenor’s downfall. He also survived into the Third Age, when The Lord of the Rings takes place. But where does he actually come from and how did he rise to such destructive power in Middle-earth? Here’s everything you need to know about Sauron and his influence in The Rings of Power.

Sauron forging the One Ring in Mount Doom from The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.
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The History of Sauron and the first Dark Lord Morgoth

Before we get into Sauron, it’s best to start with his predecessor and the first Dark Lord of Middle-earth: Morgoth. First known as Melkor, he was a Valar—or one of the most powerful beings in Arda. He was created by Eru Ilúvatar, the supreme deity. Melkor was there from the beginning of creation, and came to Arda with the other Valar. Originally a pure being, he eventually rebelled against his creator, obtained the name Morgoth, and was ultimately cast out of Arda and into the Void. But before all that happened, he attracted the attention of another soon-to-be Dark Lord.

Sauron began his days as Mairon (“the admirable”), a powerful Maia—spirits who came to Arda to help the Valar shape the world. (Other Maia include Gandalf and Saruman.) He was a pure and orderly being in the beginning, who studied the craft of forging. But he grew selfish, and eventually aligned himself with Morgoth. Though he served the Dark Lord Morgoth, he didn’t necessarily believe in the exact same things. While Morgoth was obsessed with conquering, Mairon wanted to dominate the minds and wills of Arda’s creatures.

During his time with Morgoth, Mairon was deceptive. He maintained appearances, pretending to be faithful to the other Valar, But when Morgoth established his place in Middle-earth, Mairon dropped the charade and made his allegiance with the Dark Lord known. It is then that he came to be known as Sauron, or “the abominable.”

Sauron dressed in armor wears the One Ring during battle in a scene from The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.
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Sauron in The First Age

Sauron was Morgoth’s servant during his war against the Elves in the First Age of Middle-earth. He ruled the fortress of Angband during Morgoth’s reign, a location he later escaped during the War of the Powers—the first time Morgoth was seized by the Valar. Sauron gained a fearsome reputation during this time, conquering the Elvish island Tol Sirion that he renamed Tol-in-Gaurhoth, or “The Isle of Werewolves.” To make things extra metal, Sauron had a servant named Thuringwethil on Tol-in-Gaurhoth who took the shape of a Vampire. Sauron himself would shape-shift into a Werewolf or Vampire during this time, when he was at the height of his power.

While Morgoth was the enemy of Elves, Sauron was the enemy of Men. He also factors into the epic love story of Beren and Lúthien, that fated romance between a mortal man and Elvish woman. (Aragorn sings about them in The Lord of the Rings, as their love reminds him of his romance with Arwen.) Sauron captured Beren and the Elven king Finrod at one point, and imprisoned them on Tol-in-Gaurhoth. Though Finrod later died, Lúthien helped Beren escape when she arrived at the Werewolf island with the wolfhound Huan. Sauron, in werewolf form, fought with Huan—and lost. He yielded his power to Lúthien, took the form of a vampire, and went into hiding.

He emerged after Morgoth was finally defeated, and pled the Maia Eönwë for mercy. But out of fear of judgment, he fled and went into hiding in Middle-earth once again.

The Elves with their Rings of Power from The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.
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Sauron and the Forging of the Rings of Power

After about 500 years, Sauron emerged once again and established himself in Mordor, where he built the tower of Barad-dûr. He raised armies of Orcs and Trolls, as well as Men, luring them with promises of wealth. Though he originally meant only to rebuild after Morgoth’s war, once he recognized his power and sway over his armies, he began plotting ways to overtake Middle-earth. To do this, he took a new shape, as the handsome Annatar. This disguise was meant to fool the Elves, and it worked on some, though not everyone. (Galadriel and Elrond were among the Elves who didn’t fall for this trick.)

As Annatar, Sauron persuaded the Elven-smiths of Eregion to craft the Rings of Power, using his knowledge of craftsmanship to advise on their creation. Once they were made and distributed to the Men, Dwarves, and Elves, Sauron secretly created another ring: the One Ring. This ring, forged in Mount Doom in Mordor, controlled the other rings using dark magic. On the ring, Sauron inscribed this phrase in Black Speech:

Ash nazg durbatulûk, ash nazg gimbatul, ash nazg thrakatulûk, agh burzum-ishi krimpatul. (Translation: One Ring to Rule Them All, One Ring to Find Them, One Ring to Bring Them All, and in the Darkness Bind Them.)

Sauron’s plan quickly backfired. Once he wore his One Ring, the Elves immediately sensed his treachery. They hid their rings from him, and the Dwarves proved fairly resistant from Sauron’s influence over theirs. However, the nine Men who received rings were all corrupted. They became the Nazgûl (seen prominently in Jackson’s The Fellowship of the Ring, as the hooded figures stalking Frodo), Sauron’s greatest servants.

Sauron declared war on the Elves, and nearly conquered all of Middle-earth. But the Men of the West intervened, led by Tar-Minastir, King of Númenór. Sauron was defeated, and retreated to Mordor. There, he slowly regained power, and began calling himself “The King of Men.” This pissed off the Númenóreans, who arrived in Mordor and took Sauron as a hostage back to Númenor.

Sauron dressed in armor looks out at a group of soldiers in a scene from The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.
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Sauron’s Evil Plans for Númenor

This imprisonment proved fruitful for Sauron. Though he feigned unhappiness, he was actually thrilled at the opportunity to corrupt Númenor from within. He cozied up to King Ar-Pharazôn, slowly corrupting him until he was the king’s most trusted adviser. He convinced Ar-Pharazôn and other Númenóreans to worship Morgoth, as he sensed in them a fear of death. Sauron helped them erect a temple on Númenor devoted to Morgoth, where the king performed human sacrifices. Eventually, he even convinced Ar-Pharazôn to rebel against the Valar and take their home of Valinor for themselves.

Like many of Sauron’s plans, this one also backfired. When the Men stormed the West, Eru Ilúvatar himself intervened. He sank Númenor, and bent Arda from flat to round so that Men could no longer reach Valinor. During his time on Númenor, Sauron had disguised himself in a handsome mortal form, but its sinking destroyed his body and permanently robbed him of the ability to shape-shift. His spirit fled back to Mordor, where he built a new body and regained his strength. This time, he wasn’t concerned about minds—he started to rule and attack with blunt force and terror.

The Men of Númenor who remained faithful to the Valar were able to escape the island’s destruction. They came to Middle-earth and established the kingdoms of Arnor and Gondor. Sauron learned that these men were led by Elendil, whom he despised. He led a war against these Men, but they teamed with Elven king Gil-Galad and created the Last Alliance. During this war, Sauron himself fought and killed Elendil and Gil-Galad, killing them both. But Elendil’s son, Isildur, took up his father’s broken sword, and cut the One Ring from Sauron’s hand. Because the ring was Sauron’s ultimate source of power, he lost his body and power when it was taken from him. His armies fled and Sauron’s broken spirit escaped to Mordor, where he went into deep hiding.

Sauron's fiery eye as seen in The Lord of the Rings film trilogy by Peter Jackson.
New Line Cinema

Sauron in The Lord of the Rings

This is where the story starts sounding pretty familiar. Isildur took control of the One Ring, but couldn’t bring himself to destroy it. He was killed by Orcs, the ring was lost, and it lay dormant for many years. That is, until it was discovered by the Hobbit relatives Sméagol and Déagol. Sméagol took possession of the ring, hid away in the mountains, and became the creature Gollum. This marks the beginning of the Third Age, and leads us into the story of The Hobbit and then The Lord of the Rings. The title of the later refers to Sauron himself, who sought to once again regain ultimate power. (Spoiler alert: he didn’t.)

Sauron’s time on Númenor will be a part of The Rings of Power‘s story. So it’s important to have all of this context heading in. Sauron is the literal Lord of the Rings, the biggest bad in all of Middle-earth with so much power, and one of the greatest fictional villains of all time. I can’t wait to see him come to screen in a brand new way.

Originally published March 22, 2021.

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