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The many forms of Sauron


Feb 5, 10:16pm

Post #1 of 7 (1146 views)
The many forms of Sauron Can't Post

Ok, scholars – I’ve been trying to wrap my head around all the different forms that Sauron used during the ages. I’m fully aware that Tolkien never extensively described any of his guises, and sometimes all we can do is make educated (or not so educated) guesses to fill in the gaps. Nevertheless, I’ve attempted to compile a list over the different shapes he has been described or assumed to use in chronological order, but it’s probably incomplete and I might very well be completely in the wrong considering some of his forms.

Elder days / 1st age

1. Mairon – his original form, used when he still was one of Aulë’s pupils and before he was seduced by Melkor.

2. Morgoth’s lieutenant – I don’t know if this is described anywhere in Tolkien’s writings, but I’ve always assumed that Sauron took on a more terrible shape when he enlisted in Morgoth’s service. This could perhaps be considered his “default shape” during this age?

3. Werewolf – Sauron assumed the form of a werewolf during the battle with Huan at Tol-in-Gaurhoth.

4. Serpent – He also briefly assumed the form of serpent during the same fight.

5. Vampire – He took on the shape of a vampire bat when fleeing to Taur-nu-Fuin.

End of 1st age / beginning of 2nd age

6. Fair form no 1 – It is said that Sauron took on a fair form when yielding to Eonwë. Could this be considered as a shape separate than that of Annatar, which he assumed some 1500 years later?

2nd age

7. Annatar (fair form no 2) – The presumably Elf-like form he took on when seducing the Gwaith-i-Mírdain and helping them forging the Rings of power.

8. Dark lord – Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think it is said that Sauron shed his Annatar form after forging The One Ring and being exposed by the Elves, and that he instead assumed the form of a dark lord (although I presume that it was not quite as terrible as the dark shape he was forced to use after Númenor’s destruction – since he had the ability to take a fair form at this time, I’ve always imagined this shape as both horrifying and beautiful at the same time)?

9. Zigûr (fair form no 3) – This might totally be my own head canon, but I’ve always envisioned that Sauron used a more man-like shape when yielding to Ar-Pharazôn (as opposed to the Elven-like Annatar form, given the widespread animosity towards the Elves on Númenor).

10. Dark and terrible shape – After the destruction of Númenor, Sauron lost the ability to assume a fair form. He therefore materialized as a terrible and dark lord clad in black armor, with burnt, black skin and a body that radiated heat.

3rd age

11. The Necromancer – I know that Sauron’s Necromancer persona never was stated to be a separate form per se, but this is first identity during the Third age after being completely disembodied after losing the one ring. Could it be assumed that Sauron was more “wraith-like” during this period, given that the loss of the ring could have affected his ability to take physical shape?

12. The Dark and terrible shape re-embodied – Not much is said about Sauron’s shape during the late stages of the Third age, beyond the fact that he in fact had a physical body. Gollum mentioned that he had four fingers on his black hand, so it seems that he wasn’t able to regenerate the finger that was cut off by Isildur. Given that he wasn’t able to take a fair form, it’s safe to assume that his physical shape resembled the terrible shape from the end of the Second age (also implied by his hand being black (as in scorched)).

Please help to fill in any missing pieces of information and correct the mistakes that I’ve made.

Now now Bill, you swore this was a battle between warriors, not a bunch of miss nancies, so warriors is what I brought


Feb 5, 11:55pm

Post #2 of 7 (1109 views)
A great account of his transformations! I'd say it might be simplified, perhaps. [In reply to] Can't Post

#1. I believe Sauron's back-story as a Maia and disciple of Aule was invented quite some time after his creation as Morgoth's leading commandant, which dates back to the 'Lost Tales' version of Beren & Luthien. (Of course he was an evil cat at that point - not sure if you want to count Tevildo as an alternate #2, below!) But back to Valinor: I think we have to assume that all the Maiar were beautiful, as creations of Eru, until they were corrupted by Morgoth. Thus Mairon, so-called, would have been a good-looking dude originally. I think we can assume that that look was the basis of the 'fair-seeming' forms that he later was able to project when necessary.

For #2, as Morgoth's lieutenant, the early writings about Sauron in the Beren & Luthien tale refer to him (then called Thu) as a 'demon' with terrifying eyes. I agree that that is his 'default shape', whenever he wasn't skin-changing into wolves, etc. Nothing about a fair-seeming version at this point in his career.

#6 is one I've missed or don't remember, but I'll take your word for it. I do think we can consolidate the 'fair form' identity, as per my note for #1 above. Whenever Sauron looked nice, it was a recreation of his original form as a Maia of Aule.

#7 & #8 is tricky. The reference to Annatar being an assumed disguise encourages us to think of Sauron as basically demonic when not disguised, and I think that just goes back to #2. But your point about horrifying and beautiful at the same time is tempting - that is, as a corrupted and demonic Maia, he might well be both dark, evil-looking, and yet suavely handsome in the classic villain mode in romantic literature.

#9 is your idea, as you say, but it doesn't inspire me. As far as I can tell, the physical difference between noble Edain and noble Eldar is very slight, and Sauron's fair form (back to #1 again) should be enough to seduce Al-Pharazon and his people just as it was for the Smiths of Eregion.

#10, #11, and #12. I think it's all Dark Lord all the time after the fall of Numenor - both before losing the Ring and after rebuilding himself thanks to the Ring's continued existence somewhere in the world. I would suggest that if we grant Sauron some evil class - demonic good looks as it were - in his darkened form starting at #2 and continuing in #8 - it seems to make sense from the way the texts put it that there was nothing handsome at all in his final incarnation after fleeing the wreck of Numenor as a disembodied spirit. Just plain horrifying in every way.

So my main reaction is to simplify, as it were: starts fair, turns dark, can continue to look fair when needed but prefers to work in normal dark form whenever possible, then finally loses his ability to look fair and becomes completely, terrifyingly, dark for the end of the Second Age and the entire Third Age.

Thanks for putting this together!

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Tol Eressea

Feb 7, 12:19am

Post #3 of 7 (1042 views)
Intersting stuff [In reply to] Can't Post

I appreciate seeing all these forms listed out like this. The only addition I would make comes from The Nature of Middle-earth, wherein we hear that "[t]he arising and fall [of Men] took place during the 'Captivity of Melkor', and was achieved not by Melkor in person, but by Sauron" (p. 35). The fall of Men is not a prominent part of the legendarium since it occurred long before Humans reached Beleriand and entered into the Eldarin historical record, but Tolkien provided a Mannish legend of the fall in "The Tale of Adanel":

Then one appeared among us, in our form visible, but greater and more beautiful; and he said that he had come out of pity. 'Ye should not have been left alone and uninstructed,' he said. 'The world is full of marvellous riches which knowledge can unlock. Ye could have food more abundant and more delicious than the poor things that ye now eat. Ye could have dwellings of ease, in which ye could keep light and shut out the night. Ye could be clad even as I.'

Then we looked and lo! he was clad in raiment that shone like silver and gold, and he had a crown on his head, and gems in his hair. 'If ye wish to be like me,' he said, 'I will teach you.' Then we took him as teacher. (HoMe X, p. 346)

This figure is not definitively identified within the tale itself but, while the natural assumption is that it's Melkor, his description of himself as "the Giver of Gifts" recalls Sauron's pseudonym of Annatar (Q. "Lord of Gifts"), so there was a fan theory that this figure was Sauron even before the publication of NoMe. If we roll with this assumption, I think it's telling that Sauron, even when he was working with vastly more vulnerable and less knowledgeable targets than the Eldar or the Númenóreans, chose to appear in a beautiful form. This also seems to me consistent with what Tolkien wrote about Sauron's original name in Parma Eldalamberon 17:

Sauron’s original name was Mairon, but this was altered after he was suborned by Melkor. But he continued to call himself Mairon the Admirable, or Tar-mairon 'King Excellent', until after the downfall of Númenor. (p. 183; italics in the original)

In this telling, it's clear that the name Sauron (S. "The Abhorred") was given to him by his enemies, and was not a name he used for himself, at least not in the First or Second Age. Of course, we must remember the standard disclaimers about the risks of blending material from different phases of Tolkien's creative life. To the best of my memory, the name Mairon appears only in PE 17, which is a collection of material written in the 1950s and '60s. Other texts, written earlier in Tolkien's life, make no mention of Sauron's pre-corruption name, though he must have had one, and do not give the impression that he used it after openly joining Melkor. (Several of us discussed some of the questions surrounding Sauron's names at greater length in an excellent Felagund thread last year.)

Anyway, I tend to headcanon Sauron/Mairon as vain and not someone inclined to voluntarily give up his beautiful form just because others thought he was evil, especially since he himself thought his actions were justified and ultimately in everyone's best interest; what Tolkien called "the relics of positive purpose" (HoMe X, pp. 396–397). That said, there are quotes that can be used to argue against this view. Gorlim, the mostly unwilling traitor among Barahir's outlaws, was "brought ... into the dreadful presence of Sauron" during his interrogation (TS, p. 163), which may or may not tell us something about his appearance, depending on your interpretation. If Sauron approached the Elven-smiths of Eregion "wearing the fairest form that he could contrive" (UT, p. 236), that implies he wore a different, less fair form beforehand. That said, if Sauron had used the same form as a follower of Aulë in Almaren/Valinor and as Morgoth's lieutenant in Beleriand, he would've required a new form while going incognito in Eregion anyway.

I've previously argued that Sauron's fair form during the corruption of Númenor was likely different from his Annatar form for the same reason you mention—that he was targeting Men, not Elves—but I find myself in squire's camp these days. Even in the First Age, Eldar and Edain were similar enough in appearance that they could be confused for each other, as in the case of Túrin Turambar (TS, p. 210). If, like me, you're a pointy-ears skeptic, then the most obvious physical difference between Elves and Men is height, but the Númenóreans were also renowned for their height. Tolkien stated that Sauron's form in the Third Age "was that of a man of more than human stature, but not gigantic" (Letters, no. 246), and I'd imagine he chose to be tall in the Second as well, but I'm not sure there would be a significant difference between Elf-inspired and Human-inspired Sauronian forms. I'd call it an open question just how similar his Akallabêth-era appearance was to his pre-corruption or Annatar forms, though, since as noted above I think those were likely different.

For what it's worth, the Akallabêth does not describe Sauron as needing to assume a different form in Númenor, saying only that "he humbled himself before Ar-Pharazôn and smoothed his tongue" (TS, p. 271). LOTR Appendix A does not mention him changing his appearance either. This makes sense to me: Sauron had been the ruler of a major world power for some 1500 years, since his war with the Elves, so I doubt his appearance was a secret. Altering it would imply he had something to hide, which would be counterproductive when he needed to convince the Númenóreans to trust him. So I'm inclined to think that, hypothetical short-term changes notwithstanding, Sauron used what Elves and Men would consider an attractive form throughout the Second Age, with the only definite alteration being the way one he made in II.1200 before entering Eregion. He may have changed back once the Annatar ruse broke down, but I don't think he would have chosen an unpleasant form. That said, I'm influenced by my preexisting Sauron headcanons, and it's possible I'm forgetting a quote saying that Sauron used an ominous Morgoth-like form during the Dark Years.[1]

I've always assumed Sauron's form as the Necromancer was just as physical as his others, though I don't have a quote to definitively prove this offhand. I think you're correct that losing the Ring impacted Sauron's ability to take a physical form, but I assume he overcame this about a millennium into the Third Age, when he began to make his presence felt in Greenwood and the Istari were sent to counter him.

Thanks for starting an interesting thread! It's been a while since I've written a proper lore post. Smile


[1] There's a footnote in PE 17 which claims the corrupted Maiar who followed Melkor lost the ability "to appear beautiful to Elvish eyes ... after the great treachery of Melkor and the destruction of the Trees. After that Melkor (Morgoth) and his servants were perceived as forms of evil and enemies undisguised" (p. 175). However, I think this is difficult—not necessarily impossible—to square with Sauron's track record in the mid to late Second Age, and I prefer the idea that Melkor lost the ability to change his form due to the diminishment of his innate spiritual power (see HoMe X, p. 400).


Feb 8, 5:26pm

Post #4 of 7 (957 views)
Great stuff! // [In reply to] Can't Post


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Tol Eressea

Feb 12, 4:21pm

Post #5 of 7 (898 views)
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Feb 12, 11:11pm

Post #6 of 7 (890 views)
a list worthy of Mordor! [In reply to] Can't Post

There’s nothing quite like a Sauron thread! Thanks for kicking things off and great idea to list Sauron’s incarnations in this way. I’ve also very much enjoyed the contributions of squire (‘suavely handsome in the classic villain mode’ is a great turn of phrase!) and Eldy (a great lore-post from a great lore-poster). Some further thoughts below:

Sauron the shapeshifter

Your list is a great way of putting a spotlight on this motif. Sauron could, if he chose, move from ‘raiment’ to ‘raiment’, to put it in Ainur terms. To the best of my knowledge, all Ainur could do this, at least in the earliest days of Arda. Later, through the expenditure of their personal power, lesser such ‘spirits’ who had thrown in their lot with Melkor found themselves unable to shift between states, becoming “more and more earthbound” – as Tolkien explored in ‘Myths Transformed’ (HoMe 10). Even Melkor himself wasn’t immune to this dynamic, becoming essentially ‘stuck’ not long after his escape from Valinor (‘Of the Darkening of Valinor’, The Silmarillion) – a process likely begun through this earlier dispersal of his essence into Arda. I’ll speculate that the same general stasis may have been the case for the Balrogs and Ungoliant. Sauron, on the other hand, remains ‘fluid’ by comparison throughout the First and for most of the Second Ages of the Sun, long after his fall into darkness.

So, why is Sauron characterised as different? In one sense, it can be argued that he needed to be for narrative purposes. Two of his biggest set pieces rely heavily on him being able to shapeshift: his duel with Huan, in which Sauron attempts to cheat prophecy via changing into a werewolf and then into multiple forms in an effort to escape; and then his seduction of the Noldor of Eregion, via taking on the “fairest form he could contrive” (‘The History of Galadriel & Celeborn’, Unfinished Tales), leading to the forging of the Rings of Power. Whether it’s the rapid drama of the battle with Huan or the slow, insidious suborning of the Gwaith-i-Mírdain, both depend on Sauron as shapeshifter. While wary of applying the concepts of Tolkien’s later writings, specifically ‘Myths Transformed’, to how he conceptualised Sauron in his earlier works, I’ll note that Tolkien did conceive of early Second Age Sauron as a less ‘spent’ being in comparison to late First Age Morgoth. To be clear, I can find nothing in Tolkien’s works, even in the awesome ‘Myths Transformed’, to link Sauron’s prolonged ability to shapeshift to this junior Dark Lord’s more efficient husbanding of his native power. However, that’s more or less where my own head canon leads me. Combined with my suspicion that Tolkien was just able to have much more dramatic fun with a shapeshifting Sauron than not :)

Just how often was Sauron shapeshifting?

Shapeshifting is one of Sauron’s defining characteristics as a villain, penitent, seducer and Dark Lord. Your list captures nicely what can be seen as at least three distinct features within this characterisation: long periods of static incarnation; a very brief outburst of multiple shapeshifting; and two periods of being ‘between’ shapes as Sauron rebuilds a new physical form.

If we’d only read LotR (not including the Appendices!), Sauron would come across as the epitome of static and off-stage – even though he’s the titular antagonist. In fact, you wouldn’t even know he is, or at least was, a shapeshifter. The publication of The Silmarillion and so on changes that for us but even then, how often is Sauron depicted as shifting shape? Not much, as both squire and Eldy touch on in their respective posts. The fight with Huan brings with it a furious burst of shapeshifting and Sauron’s humiliating departure is also abetted by taking the aforementioned vampire form – after which he presumably changed back into something, er, more comfortable…! We get another shift some decades later, when Sauron slinks away from the ruin of Angrand and “put on his fair hue again and did obeisance to Eönwë…” (‘Of the Rings of Power & the Third Age’, The Silmarillion). You raise a very interesting point about whether his what I call ‘penitent’ form was any different from how he looked as Annatar / Aulendil / Artano (to give the full fun list). As per the passage quoted by Eldy from Unfinished Tales, posing as Annatar required the “fairest form he could contrive”. Was this the same as his “fair hue” of penitence or something more bespoke? The quote implies a transition of some degree. For the sake of due diligence, I’ll acknowledge that it may be the case that the two passages were drafted at different stages of Tolkien’s development of the history of the Second Age, and that no great difference between ‘fairest form’ and ‘fair hue’ was deliberately meant. If someone has more information about this, please jump in! As far as I can make out from CJRT’s notes in ‘The History of Galadriel & Celeborn’, the ‘fairest form’ line post-dates the publication of LotR. Dating content from ‘Of the Rings of Power’, on the other hand, is something I’ve long found difficult, although it’s the case that many of the otherwise scattered bits and pieces that make up the history of the Second Age date as far back as the late 1930s.

At any rate, a couple of other passages do lend support to the wider ‘relatively static Sauron’ thesis, namely [emphasis mine]:

“Sauron was indeed caught in the wreck of Númenor, so that the bodily form in which he long had walked perished…” (Appendix A, LotR).

“… while he [Sauron] was obliged for the cozening of Western Men and Elves to wear as fair a form and countenance as he could, they [the Eastern Orcs] despised him and laughed at him.” (NoMe XVIII).

With the latter drafted around 1970, there’s up to twenty years between the two passages. However, in different ways they point to something very similar. In the first, we have reference to Sauron not having shapeshifted for a long time. This could, of course, refer to either the attempted act of penitence or the Annatar ‘phase’ above. Both were ancient history by the time Númenor sunk beneath the waves. This also suggests that Sauron didn’t shift out of his Annatar guise for the sake of his project in Númenor.

The second passage suggests that Tolkien, in his very late writings, did not envisage Sauron as shifting his shape back and forth as he dealt with the Elves and Men, on the one hand, and the (Eastern) Orcs on the other. And that this was to Sauron’s immediate disadvantage – he got laughed at by the mean Eastern Orcs! This, then, is an example of when it would have actually been in Sauron’s interest to use his fabled shapeshifting powers but in this passage, at least, he did not. Why, I wonder? Did it ‘cost’ Sauron some of his native power to do so, and he was loth to spend up at that time for the sake of cowing wild Orcs? In addition, this passage lends support to something picked out by both squire and Eldy, in that Sauron was, at least in this telling, using the same shape to seek to influence Elves and Men, and not drawing a distinction between the two groups in this respect.

A final thought, and as much as a bit Devil's Advocacy (no play on words intended), as anything. Some of what we read as shapeshifting could also be interpreted as much about mien as form. From the Sauron repository, we have:

“A mask he [Sauron] could still wear so that if he wished he might deceive the eyes of Men, seeming wise and fair. But he ruled by force and fear; if they might avail…” (‘Of the Rings of Power & the Third Age’).

“… for he could assume many forms, and for long if he willed he could still appear noble and beautiful, so as to deceive all but the most wary.” (‘Of the Rings of Power & the Third Age’).

“And it seemed to men that Sauron was great; though they feared his eyes. To many he appeared fair, to others terrible; but to some evil.” (‘The Lost Road’).

“… [Sauron] could appear as a commanding figure of great strength of body and supremely royal demeanour and countenance.” (Letter 246).

Lots of cherry-picking here, despite my earlier caution about mixing and matching passages from different periods of Tolkien’s writings…! My point though is that an Annatar-style incarnation could equally be capable of flattery, exhibiting humility and nobility, terrible cruelty, great beauty (“beautiful and terrible”, to borrow from Galadriel’s moment of revelation…) and so on, all without necessarily shifting his shape. His actions, for example ‘ruling by force and fear’, may vary but his physical form need not shift in accompaniment. The big shift, in this regard, is when Sauron no longer has much of a choice, after his then body is destroyed in the drowning of Númenor: no more beautiful penitent/seducer/Dark Lord, just a monstrous-looking tyrant.

Anyway, I reckon I’ve pushed the ‘Sauron the occasional shapeshifter’ stuff to breaking point, so best to move on!

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Feb 14, 12:37pm

Post #7 of 7 (806 views)
And not in the third age [In reply to] Can't Post

In this telling, it's clear that the name Sauron (S. "The Abhorred") was given to him by his enemies, and was not a name he used for himself, at least not in the First or Second Age.

At least Aragorn tells Gimli that he does not use his right name, not permit it to be spelt or spoken. (I'll assume here that by right name Aragorn means Sauron)

And that was at a time when he could no longer even assume a fair form

The use of this name by the herald at the black gates, may be considered a mistake, or else, the people who wrote down the stories that led to the Red Book, may have refused to use any other name for him.

Not sure what he thought about other imagery to represent him, like the red eye? Maybe he didn't see that as something undesirable

(This post was edited by InTheChair on Feb 14, 12:41pm)


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