Thursday, January 29, 2015

The Red Eye and the White Hand: Antagonist Characterisation in Tolkien

I haven't written an article about Tolkien in a good long while. If you're still expecting reviews of the most recent (as of writing) three episodes of New Who, or of the third Hobbit film, I'm afraid you're going to have to wait a bit longer. In the case of New Who, I simply couldn't be bothered re-watching three mediocre, forgettable episodes at present. In the case of The Hobbit, I need to do the pictures and a bit more writing about the changes from the source material, and those are other things I couldn't currently be bothered doing either. So let's instead talk about The Lord of the Rings (the book, of course).

This isn't a topic I consider particularly academic, or else I'd probably try to save my ideas for a publication of some kind, but here's a thought which has recently occurred to me: that the characterisation of the main antagonist in The Lord of the Rings is kind of sketchy. We can't say the same about Saruman, of course. We hear plenty about who he used to be, what he's become, and why, but not so for Sauron. I feel like when we read The Lord of the Rings, we're left wondering what Sauron's "deal" is. Why does he, apparently, want to "beat down all resistance, break the last defences, and cover all the lands in a second darkness"? (LR 50) Just because he's evil? It's not a question to which The Lord of the Rings really offers an answer. Now I don't want any book enthusiasts here to think I'm dissing The Lord of the Rings. I'm not. It's one of my favourite books. But at the same time I don't think it's unfair to say that Tolkien didn't always find it necessary to give extensive characterisation to every fictional person in his narrative. At the same time, I think The Lord of the Rings is not always given its full due when considering the matter of characterisation: I think Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin are all fairly roundly characterised and undergo significant development and change over the course of the story. Even secondary protagonists like Aragorn go through a fair amount of change, as well as characters who only appear in a few chapters, like Denethor. My point is, there's more characterisation to go around in The Lord of the Rings than we might think, but I don't feel like Sauron gets allocated very much of it.

What are we told in The Lord of the Rings about Sauron? There is of course a great deal to know about him, but most of it is to be found elsewhere. I particularly recommend the short essay 'Notes on motives in the Silmarillion' published in Morgoth's Ring for a number of extremely interesting insights about Sauron's character. The main argument is that Sauron desired order above all things, that he turned to the service of Melkor/Morgoth believing that Morgoth's power would bring about a swift and efficient order, but in doing so quickly came to be beguiled instead by the authority and license for cruelty which being Morgoth's first lieutenant permitted. After Morgoth's fall he repented, but being too proud to submit to the Valar instead decided to try to bring order to Middle-earth on his own. He was still sufficiently corrupt, however, that this desire swiftly gave way to mere tyranny and a lust for power, initially for the better implementation of his plans and desires, but ultimately for its own sake as he became more mired in evil. This brings about, more or less, Sauron as he exists in The Lord of the Rings and its backstory.

Obviously one of the most important aspects of Sauron as he occurs in The Lord of the Rings is that he is mysterious: he never appears directly in any scene of the text, and none of the main characters ever meet him, although Pippin briefly speaks to him through the palantír of Orthanc. This of course has led to the misconception, one I still see people holding, that Sauron is literally disembodied and only exists as some kind of intangible spirit. Of course we know from the Letters that he did eventually reform a body in the Third Age. In The Lord of the Rings itself we are at least informed that he has a hand. This is revealed in the recollection of Gollum, who was tortured by Sauron seemingly in person in an effort to discern the location of the Ring: "'He has only four on the Black Hand, but they are enough,' said Gollum shuddering." My response to those who argue that Gollum is being metaphorical is that the "shuddering" implies that Gollum is recalling something he saw. It's also notable that in The Lord of the Rings the reader is never even actually told what manner of being Sauron is. While the Valar are referred to extremely tangentially in the book, the term "Maiar," which came to describe Sauron's type of being, was not yet in use by Tolkien at this point. I believe that early students of the history of Middle-earth, operating purely on the information in The Lord of the Rings, usually came up with two conclusions as to Sauron's identity: that he was either a very powerful Elf, or a fairly weak Vala. Obviously the second suggestion is closer to the mark, but it's interesting nonetheless. I suppose given that he is referred to at points as the 'Necromancer' suggests that he's a magician or sorcerer of some kind, and therefore of the same manner of being as Gandalf and Saruman, not that that would have really shed any further light on the issue.

But Sauron's identity and body are not really the issue here. The question remains as to what we know about Sauron as a person according to the text of The Lord of the Rings. We know that he is "the Dark Lord," (LR 50) whatever that means, and that he desires strength to achieve the aforementioned policy of covering the lands in darkness. We also discover that "hobbits as miserable slaves would please him [...] There is such a thing as malice and revenge." (LR 48) So we know he's dark, malicious and vengeful. We also discover that he "ensnared" the Elven-smiths of Eregion through their "eagerness for knowledge" (LR 236) before betraying them and forging the One Ring. So we also discover that he's knowledgeable but also manipulative and treacherous. It's worth noting that the history of his involvement with the Elves is provided extremely succinctly in part of the already very long 'The Council of Elrond' chapter, which touches upon a lot of material properly detailed in the Appendices to The Lord of the Rings as well as even touching upon the fall of Morgoth, which is detailed more fully in The Silmarillion. It's actually surprising, if you look into it, how much you can learn about the plot of The Silmarillion by assembling bits of throwaway dialogue and historical dressing scattered throughout The Lord of the Rings.

The portrait we are shown of Sauron's character is obviously a completely negative one. We also learn his main motive: "the only measure he knows is desire, desire for power; and so he judges all hearts." (LR 262) Thus we also learn that he's power-hungry and cynical, believing everyone to be as ambitious as himself. This, I would argue, fairly well concludes the depiction of Sauron in The Lord of the Rings: a warmongering tyrant whose main personality traits are mendacity, ambition, ruthlessness, cruelty, hatred and wrath. We also get hints that he has a tendency towards brooding in a way that affects the weather (LR 595) and an unmistakeable arrogance suggested by Denethor: "he will not come save only to triumph over me when all is won." (LR 800) There is, however, one significant caveat to all this provided by Elrond: "nothing is evil in the beginning. Even Sauron was not so." (LR 261)

We have hints to the effect that Sauron has been mired in evil for a very long time, with reference to "the Great Enemy, of whom Sauron of Mordor was but a servant." (LR 189) That is, of course, to say, Morgoth, dating back to "when the world was young." So we know that Sauron is so steeped in evil that he in fact came to succeed an earlier and more formidable evil power. If Sauron was not evil in the beginning, however, what lured him to the service of that Great Enemy and corrupted him? We know now of course, but in The Lord of the Rings it's completely obscure. One of the reasons I would argue that Sauron might come across as an arbitrary villain is that we don't know why he's doing what he's doing, why he's obsessed with power, why he wants to be tyrant over all of Middle-earth. So how can we figure it out without turning to The Silmarillion or any other text? Enter the White Wizard.

When we first learn about Saruman it's a bit of a surprise to learn that there are other wizards, beyond the mention of Radagast in The Hobbit. I think Frodo says what is on every reader's mind at that point: "Who is he? [...] I have never heard of him before." (47) We are informed straight away, however, that Saruman is not exactly a pleasant character even before we know what has become of him: "His knowledge is deep but his pride has grown with it, and he takes ill any meddling." (47) In Saruman's case we learn his motivations very distinctly: "The time of the Elves is over, but our time is at hand: the world of Men, which We must rule. But we must have power, power to order all things as we will, for that good which only the Wise can see." (252) So Saruman wants power supposedly for the sake of order, and ordering to a benevolent purpose, albeit one which may not seem obvious. He further proposes that they ally with Sauron in an effort not, as in the films, out of subservience, but rather in a belief that he may be manipulated: "there will be rich reward for those that aided it. As the Power grows, its proved friends will also grow; and the Wise, such as you and I, may with patience come at last to direct its courses, to control it." (253) His intentions are strictly consequentialist, arguing that the ends justify the means: "We can bide our time, we can keep our thoughts in our hearts, deploring maybe evils done by the way, but approving the high and ultimate purpose: Knowledge, Rule, Order." (253) His true plan, of course, is in fact to take the One Ring for his own and in fact replace Sauron: "If we could command that, then the Power would pass to us." (253)

So we see here why Saruman becomes a tyrant: out of a desire for order, and ultimately a belief that he will bring about "that good which only the Wise can see." He thinks that tyrannical power and force are what is necessary to create a better world, and an ordered world. Thus he too becomes obsessed with his own plans and, with his war on Rohan, clearly forgets much of the reason he began in the first place. It's basically all part of this argument Tolkien makes about the corruptive nature of power, particularly externalised power, and of possessiveness. What does this have particularly to do, however, with Sauron? How does one, more explained character, Saruman, reveal the characterisation of another, Sauron?

The answer is seen in the way Saruman's own ambitions are characterised. That is to say, Saruman is presented as an imitator of Sauron. When the company travels to Isengard after the Battle of the Hornburg and gaze upon the Wizard's Vale, the narrator makes the following remark: "Saruman had slowly shaped it to his shifting purposes, and made it better, as he thought, being deceived - for all those arts and subtle devices, for which he forsook his former wisdom, and which fondly he imagined were his own, came but from Mordor; so that what he made was naught, only a little copy, a child's model or a slave's flattery, of [...] Barad-dûr, the Dark Tower, which suffered no rival, and laughed at flattery." (542) When they meet Saruman, Théoden tells him: "You hold out for hand to me, and I perceive only a finger of the claw of Mordor." (566) Saruman is a facsimile for Sauron, an imitation of him.

In this way, I would argue, we do not require an explicit characterisation of Sauron, which would probably have not been something the protagonists could conceivably have revealed anyway. We can't expect that even Elrond or Gandalf or Galadriel particularly know when or how Sauron became evil because it happened so long ago: as a Wizard, Gandalf has hazy memories of the ancient past, and Sauron fell to evil in Almaren before Elrond or even Galadriel were born, and we know Sauron must have left Valinor before the coming of the Elves to Aman because the Valar were looking for him when they attacked Angband during the Battle of the Powers (although they could not find him). (The Silmarillion 51) It would be implausible if the characters did know that much of Sauron's personal history. What the reader sees, however, is the corruption of Saruman, and they are told that Saruman is essentially an inferior copy of Sauron. Thus we can deduce, as is borne out in the other material written by Tolkien, that Sauron too desired order and good (which he did) and turned to power and tyranny in order to achieve it (which he did) such that eventually all the tyranny and power-lust became an end in itself, just as Saruman did after him. As such, it's not explicitly necessary to turn to additional material in order to discover Sauron's motives.

Thus, perhaps, in a tangential way, we actually do receive a characterisation for Sauron in The Lord of the Rings: just one that may not be terribly clear at first glance. I'm not going to use this idea as an attempt to propose that this is some kind of master-stroke on Tolkien's part. It may not have been intentional, and it may not be especially important to understanding The Lord of the Rings. That being said, I think it's worth bearing in mind that Tolkien was not as incapable of writing deep and complex characters as is sometimes argued, and it is hardly the case that his characters are symbols or ideas rather than people. I would argue that even without much evidence for his motives above a level of subtext, we do still get a fairly clear portrait of the kind of person Sauron is - not a very nice one. In the same way more generally we shouldn't write off characters in romances, rather than novels, as necessarily two-dimensional and lacking in depth. It may simply involve drawing connections and considering the possibility that the ideas that romance characters represent may speak to who they are as well as what they mean.

J.R.R. Tolkien. The Lord of the Rings. London. Harper Collins, 1997.
------------------ The Silmarillion. London. Harper Collins, 1999.

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