There he took up again his great Ring in Barad-dûr, and dwelt there, dark and silent, until he wrought himself a new guise, an image of malice and hatred made visible; and the Eye of Sauron the Terrible few could endure.

The Silmarillion, Akallabeth


There now he brooded in the dark, until he had wrought for himself a new shape; and it was terrible, for his fair semblance had departed for ever when he was cast into the abyss at the drowning of Númenor. He took up again the great Ring and clothed himself in power; and the malice of the Eye of Sauron few even of the great among Elves and Men could endure.

The Silmarillion, Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age

Which serve to destroy the palantir theory as they refer to Sauron's reoccupation of Barad-dur in the Second Age. They do I think, support the idea of the Eye as a physical presence.

In fact with every step towards the gates of Mordor Frodo felt the Ring on its chain about his neck grow more burdensome. He was now beginning to feel it as an actual weight dragging him earthwards. But far more he was troubled by the Eye: so he called it to himself. It was that more than the drag of the Ring that made him cower and stoop as he walked. The Eye: that horrible growing sense of a hostile will that strove with great power to pierce all shadows of cloud, and earth, and flesh, and to see you: to pin you under its deadly gaze, naked, immovable. So thin, so frail and thin, the veils were become that still warded it off. Frodo knew just where the present habitation and heart of that will now was: as certainly as a man can tell the direction of the sun with his eyes shut. He was facing it, and its potency beat upon his brow.

The Two Towers, The Passage of the Marshes

The important point here is that the Eye has an actual physical impact on Frodo. It bows his head and can be felt as a malignant sun on the body.

The Eye of Sauron has always fascinated me for a long time in the way it's used in a metaphorical sense then in some senses as if some characters actually saw and felt an eye watching them.

Which is it? Is the Eye a physical entity, or a metaphorical one?

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    Highly related: scifi.stackexchange.com/q/27657/3804 – AncientSwordRage May 6 '16 at 23:41
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    @AncientSwordRage Related, yes, but I don't agree it's a dupe. This question seems focused on the Eye as an entity largely independent of Sauron, which is going to have very different answers – Jason Baker May 7 '16 at 3:56
  • @Jason, thanks for the input, I've amended my comment – AncientSwordRage May 7 '16 at 6:36
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    @JasonBaker is right. The old question asked about whether Sauron == Eye, and got the answer no, he had a physical body; this question is asking about whether the Eye is also physical. – Rand al'Thor May 7 '16 at 10:33

This is a question of some controversy among Tolkien fans.

There probably is a physical component of the Eye; though we don't know what form that takes (whether it is a red flaming eye, or whether it's just Sauron magically enhancing his own vision), there are references that are hard to reconcile otherwise.

However, I would argue that most references to it are not referring to a literal Eye on the top of a tower, but rather to one of two more abstract concepts:

  • The focus of Sauron's attention
  • Sauron's malicious will, hunting for the Ring

The Physical Component

In Return of the King, we have the following passage (emphasis mine):

[R]ising black, blacker and darker than the vast shades amid which it stood, the cruel pinnacles and iron crown of the topmost tower of Barad-dûr. One moment only it stared out, but as from some great window immeasurably high there stabbed northward a flame of red, the flicker of a piercing Eye; and then the shadows were furled again and the terrible vision was removed. The Eye was not turned to them: it was gazing north to where the Captains of the West stood at bay

Return of the King Book VI Chapter 3: "Mount Doom"

Shortly before this we're told of a "Window of the Eye" in Barad-dûr. I'm at a loss to explain either of these passages without the Eye being at least partially physical.

One of the main argument brought forth for the Eye being physical, however, I do disagree with; the passage is from Frodo's vision in the Mirror of Galadriel:

[S]uddenly the Mirror went altogether dark, as dark as if a hole had opened in the world of sight, and Frodo looked into emptiness. In the black abyss there appeared a single Eye that slowly grew. until it filled nearly all the Mirror. So terrible was it that Frodo stood rooted, unable to cry out or to withdraw his gaze. The Eye was rimmed with fire, but was itself glazed, yellow as a cat's, watchful and intent, and the black slit of its pupil opened on a pit, a window into nothing.

Fellowship of the Ring Book II Chapter 7: "The Mirror of Galadriel"

I've questioned this interpretation elsewhere on the site, and I stand by that argument.

The Metaphorical Component

As I said, there seem to be, broadly, two metaphors involving the Eye. The simplest one is simply Sauron's attention, the same way "eye" is often used idiomatically in English. Consider the following passages:

I Grishnákh say this: Saruman is a fool. and a dirty treacherous fool. But the Great Eye is on him.

The Two Towers Book III Chapter 3: "The Uruk-Hai"

There was some link between Isengard and Mordor, which I have not yet fathomed. How they exchanged news I am not sure; but they did so. The Eye of Barad-dûr will be looking impatiently towards the Wizard's Vale, I think; and towards Rohan. The less it sees the better.

The Two Towers Book III Chapter 10: "The Voice of Saruman"

[T]hey couldn't get Lugbúrz to pay attention for a good while, I'm told.'

'The Eye was busy elsewhere, I suppose,' said Shagrat. `Big things going on away west, they say.'

The Two Towers Book IV Chapter 10: "The Choices of Master Samwise"

It was then ten days since the Ring-bearer went east from Rauros, and the Eye of Sauron, I thought, should be drawn out from his own land.

Return of the King Book V Chapter 9: "The Last Debate"

The more interesting case is the use of the Eye as a metaphor for Sauron's hunt for the Ring; I've argued elsewhere that Frodo's vision in the Mirror of Galadriel is this, but this seems to be what is generally meant by "the Eye" when it's referred to in Frodo's context; the first time we see this iconography, though, is actually from Bilbo:

[The Ring] has been so growing on my mind lately. Sometimes I have felt it was like an eye looking at me.

Fellowship of the Ring Book I Chapter 1: "A Long-expected Party"

This is unquestionably a metaphor, and bears some similarity to some of Frodo's later descriptions of the Eye as a malicious presence, that seems to be watching him; for example:

[F]ar more he was troubled by the Eye: so he called it to himself. It was that more than the drag of the Ring that made him cower and stoop as he walked. The Eye: that horrible growing sense of a hostile will that strove with great power to pierce all shadows of cloud, and earth, and flesh, and to see you: to pin you under its deadly gaze, naked, immovable.

The Two Towers Book IV Chapter 2: "The Passage of the Marshes"

Despite what is claimed in the question, this seems pretty unambiguously metaphorical to me; note that the Eye is "what he called it to himself," where "it" is that hostile will (of Sauron's, clearly). I also find this description quite similar to the one given when Frodo puts on the Ring at Amon Hen:

And suddenly he felt the Eye. There was an eye in the Dark Tower that did not sleep. He knew that it had become aware of his gaze. A fierce eager will was there. It leaped towards him; almost like a finger he felt it, searching for him. Very soon it would nail him down, know just exactly where he was. Amon Lhaw it touched. It glanced upon Tol Brandir he threw himself from the seat, crouching, covering his head with his grey hood.

Fellowship of the Ring Book II Chapter 10: "The Breaking of the Fellowship"

I find it notable here that Frodo doesn't see an Eye; he feels it. I seems to me that this is also a metaphorical description; Frodo is experiencing some manner of malicious, hunting will, and he describes that using the image of an Eye.

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  • I'm not sure what your answer to the question actually is, but here's my impression of what you've written: The physical examples are obviously physical, and even the "metaphorical" examples just seem like the same kind of idiomatic references we might make to our own, physical eyes: "I'll have my eye on you". There's absolutely nothing here to suggest in any way that there's not a physical eye on the top of the tower. – DCShannon May 7 '16 at 5:44
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    @DCShannon I don't entirely agree. There certainly is a literal eye at the top of the Tower: the one (or ones) in Sauron's physical body. But I don't think that's what the metaphorical references to "the Eye" are referring to; my argument is that "the Eye" is principally a metaphor for the attention and perception of Sauron, which is a related but broader concept than his literal eyes – Jason Baker May 7 '16 at 5:48
  • Whatever you're trying to say, it's not making sense. It seems like you're agreeing with me, but the first thing you said was that you don't agree. We use idioms involving our eyes to talk about paying attention to things. That doesn't imply we don't have eyes. Maybe we agree completely, and I'm just confused about what point you're trying to make. Maybe add a clear thesis statement to your answer? – DCShannon May 7 '16 at 6:10
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    @DCShannon I suppose my point is that "Sauron's attention" and "Sauron's search for the Ring" are larger concepts that just "Sauron's eyesight." Anyway, I've tried to be more clear – Jason Baker May 7 '16 at 16:55
  • I've always figured that the emphasis on the Eye is related to Sauron's use of the palantir: Sauron is supernaturally aware and far-seeing even for a Maia thanks to that. Maybe there even is some kind of physical manifestation like a great flaming eye when he channels his will into it. – Shamshiel May 7 '16 at 17:45

IMHO Sauron had a physical humanoid body, and references to the Eye were mostly metaphorical.

However, it is possible that Sauron had, in addition to his palantir, and possibly used to amplify its vision, some type of magical analog of a telescope or TV camera. With our limited knowledge of Middle-earth magic, we can't say whether such a magical analog of a telescope or TV camera might have resembled a giant floating eyeball.

The palantir could see for thousands of miles, and thus through or around the curvature of the Earth. It is possible that Sauron's magical analog of a telescope or TV camera could only see in a straight line, and thus was limited in range to nearby regions of Mordor visible from the top of Barad-dur. Sauron might have used that eye to prove to his people he could see everything they did (within north west Mordor) without admitting it had any range limitations, and used it as the symbol and coat of arms of Mordor.

Thus the Eye of Sauron could refer to various concepts:

1) A metaphor for Sauron's interest and attention.

2) A metaphor for Sauron's quest to regain The Ring.

3) Sauron's use of his palantir.

4) Sauron's hypothetical magical analog of a telescope or TV camera, kept at the top of Barad-dur, probably near or with the palantir, and complementing it.

5) The coat of arms or badge or symbol of Sauron and Mordor ("Big Sauron is Watching You") during that era.

And we can't be certain which selection of these concepts were consciously intended by Tolkien.

The movies might have been correct that something looking like a giant eyeball was at the top of Barad-dur, though that eyeball was certainly not the physical body of Sauron who certainly had a humanoid body.

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  • I like this answer for some different takes on the matter. The limitations described ring true: Sauron was in a sense "tricked" more easily than might be expected given his general power and intellect. It seems the reconnaissance power were limited so he made assumptions that often were inaccurate. A number of surprises awaited the army of Minus Morgul on the plains of Pelennor: why did Sauron not see/foresee these? – StephenBoesch Feb 25 at 10:51

Sauron must have had some humanoid physical appearance as he gave Gollum personal attention when the latter was captured and tortured.

At least if we assume that in this case Gollum is telling the truth.

Book 4, The Black Gate Is Closed

'That would be Minas Ithil that Isildur the son of Elendil built,' said Frodo. 'It was Isildur who cut off the finger of the Enemy.'

'Yes. He has only four on the Black Hand, but they are enough,' said Gollum shuddering. 'And He hated Isildur's city. [emphasis mine]'

There's no advantage to Gollum for lying in this scene, plus he's still under his oath to Frodo (for what that's worth). Meaning he met Sauron, who even reincorporated had only 9 fingers. Maybe as a limitation, just like he couldn't appear fair anymore after Numenor, or maybe as a badge of pride and reminder.

Sauron is known to have had shapeshifting abilities, essentially a werewolf, as he took on wolf shape to fight Huon in the First Age. But we have little to no indication that he still had this ability on easy recall in the Third Age, especially without the Ring.

Meaning, it's highly unlikely - but I suppose far-fetchedly possibly - that he changed shape between Eye and humanoid.

If not, then there was one Sauron in humanoid shape, making the Eye a metaphor.

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    How does this answer the question about the Eye of Sauron? – AncientSwordRage May 7 '16 at 6:40
  • @AncientSwordRage As data to indicate that - unless Sauron actually appeared in dual form, similar to his young days as werewolf - the Eye would be metaphorical, as he himself was a humanoid physical manifestation. I'll update that. – Marakai May 7 '16 at 6:56
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    and how is it he couldn't have created the eye from scratch? – AncientSwordRage May 7 '16 at 7:04
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    My past is meant to imply it suits have a form, but not a physical one. Metaphysical != Metaphorical. – AncientSwordRage May 7 '16 at 7:21
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    @AncientSwordRage A "projection" brought about by Sauron's will/power/magic, you mean? Hadn't thought of that! – Marakai May 7 '16 at 7:31

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