Ash nazg durbatulûk, ash nazg gimbatul,
Ash nazg thrakatulûk agh burzum-ishi krimpatul.
—inscription on the One Ring in the Black Speech of Mordor, The Fellowship of the Ring, J.R.R. Tolkien
When it comes to the “Big Bads” of sci-fi and fantasy fandoms, the great flaming Eye of Sauron is right up there with Darth Vader.
So what exactly is a Big Bad? Maybe the Dark Side of the Force explains it best as a pervasive power that threatens to corrupt an entire fictional universe if someone doesn’t obliterate it soon, but Sauron was possessing rings and casting shadows over Mirkwood before the Force was ever dreamed into existence. Or Lex Luthor. Or the Joker. Or Voldemort. Or anything that came into being after 1925.
This Dark Lord is far beyond just another stereotypical hooded character with a devilish grin and a bubbling cauldron. J.R.R. Tolkien’s concept of Sauron, first spawned in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings during the mid-'20s, is both an unfathomably evil character who wants Middle-Earth in his claws and the consuming force that sends the entire realm plunging deeper and deeper into a darkness that will warp the mind of even the most valiant warrior (think Aragorn’s temptation when faced with the Ring).
Sauron emerges in the Silmarillion as the henchman of even bigger bad Melkor, but he saw the opportunity to take over as soon as his master was chained. Unlike shady characters such as Saruman or Wormtongue, who are clearly defined personas, or even the Nazgul who are either there or not there, Sauron has infiltrated Middle Earth as both the freakishly armored commander of dark armies and the very idea of catastrophic evil. He’s in the mountains, he’s in the mist, he’s in the Misty Mountains, he’s in Mirkwood, he’s seeping into Lothlorien, he’s in every shadow that ever falls as the sun sinks helplessly below the horizon.
What makes Sauron so successful at lingering in the back of your skull as the original He Who Must Not Be Named is that he was spawned from a powerful metaphor. Tolkien, who survived the trenches of World War I, was haunted by the specter of war and the industrial takeover of nature that most people of that era saw as progress and prosperity. This is visible in every corner of Middle Earth his burning eye can see. Mass graves are choked with the casualties of battle. Forests burn, rivers are tainted, poison gases rise from marshes and fens, and orcs operate crude machinery in the fiery bowels of the earth.
You only need to turn on the nightly news to peer into a Palantír showing the death and destruction that Tolkien feared would come to pass. What was personified as Sauron is now called many things, but the nature of this Big Bad is echoed in many dystopian novels that grapple with the destructive forces of today. The impact of Sauron can still be felt everywhere—if you only pause and listen to the whispers of madness.