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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

and 

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
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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.

  • 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
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    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
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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 '20 at 10:51
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This is an interesting question but there is no explict answer in either the Silmarillion or LotR. However given an understanding of how Tolkien saw the Ainur (such as Sauron) the answer is pretty clear.

To start, I'd be very careful about trying to make a sharp distinction between physical and metaphysical in Tolkien's world, since it does not seem to exist there. The 'higher' a being is, the more their 'physical' appearance is simply a function of their nature and derived from it. The Ainur didn't have for need sense organs to perceive the world, and when they assumed forms possessing sense organs it was the purpose of appearing in the world, not because they needed them. The physical forms of the Ainur reflected their personalities and even their whims, but not their needs.

From the Silmarillion:

Now the Valar took to themselves shape and hue ... Moreover their shape comes of their knowledge of the visible World, rather than of the World itself; and they need it not, save only as we use raiment, and yet we may be naked and suffer no loss of our being.

Therefore the Valar may walk, if they will, unclad, and then even the Eldar cannot clearly perceive them, though they be present. But when they desire to clothe themselves the Valar take upon them forms some as of male and some as of female; for that difference of temper they had even from their beginning, and it is but bodied forth in the choice of each, not made by the choice, even as with us male and female may be shown by the raiment but is not made thereby. But the shapes wherein the Great Ones array themselves are not at all times like to the shapes of the kings and queens of the Children of Iluvatar; for at times they may clothe themselves in their own thought, made visible in forms of majesty and dread.

and later

here is told in brief their likenesses, such as the Eldar beheld them in Aman. But fair and noble as were the forms in which they were manifest to the Children of Iluvatar, they were but a veil upon their beauty and their power. And if little is here said of all that the Eldar once knew, that is as nothing compared with their true being,

Of Melkor (Morgoth):

For he was yet as one of the Valar, and could change his form, or walk unclad, as could his brethren; though that power he was soon to lose for ever.

So the Ainur (of which Sauron also was one) were, in the beginning, creatures for whom physical form was like clothing people in a tropical climate: Mostly a social convenience.

Melkor and Sauron lost the ability to take on any shape, not because they lost "powers" extrinsic to themselves, but because in their evil desires and because of the destructive deeds they did, they diminished themselves, they diminished their own essential being, and the limitations in their physical forms reflected that.

When Morgoth destroyed the Two Trees and escaped to Middle-Earth he took on a dreadful aspect to physically dominate Middle-Earth and that choice costs him the ability to walk "unclad". After causing the Fall of Numenor, Sauron became unable to take on a "fair form" and when he lost the Ring to Isildur (into which he had poured part of himself, part of his vitality), he became unable to take on any physical form at all for for thousands of years. What happens when the Ring is destroyed:

[Gandalf says that with the destruction of the Ring, Sauron will lose] the best part of the strength that was native to him in his beginning, and all that was made or begun with that power will crumble, and he will be maimed for ever, becoming a mere spirit of malice that gnaws itself in the shadows, but cannot again grow or take shape.

Once again, his diminished shape will reflect his diminished spirit.

[And when the Ring goes into the fire] there rose a huge shape of shadow, impenetrable, lightning-crowned, filling all the sky. Enormous it reared above the world, and stretched out towards them a vast threatening hand, terrible but impotent: for even as it leaned over them, a great wind took it, and it was all blown away, and passed; and then a hush fell.

Sauron's embodiment (like Morgoth's and like all the Ainur's) is a reflection of his spirit, his vitality, not the source of it. When his spirit is gravely weakened by the destruction of the Ring his body blows away into nothingness.

Bottom line: Sauron, being an Ainur, did not rely on the senses of his body. His body was to him as clothing is to us: Perhaps useful, but not essential.

Consequently, the Eye of Sauron is something that Sauron posseses that is independent of his body. What it is exactly, we don't know of course. (Tolkien was far too great a writer to try to spell out the details of the supernatural.) It seems likely that Sauron was simply using the perception that all the Ainur had. For example, Manwe and Varda see (and hear) far beyond actual eyesight (or earshot):

When Manwe ...ascends his throne and looks forth, if Varda is beside him, he sees further than all other eyes, through mist, and through darkness, and over the leagues of the sea. And if Manwe is with her, Varda hears more clearly than all other ears the sound of voices that cry from east to west...

and even Frodo and Aragorn seem to be temporary gifted with this persception at the Seat of Seeing on Amon Hen

At first he could see little. He seemed to be in a world of mist in which there were only shadows: the Ring was upon him. Then here and there the mist gave way and he saw many visions: small and clear as if they were under his eyes upon a table, and yet remote. There was no sound, only bright living images. The world seemed to have shrunk and fallen silent... Eastward he looked into wide uncharted lands, nameless plains, and forests unexplored. Northward he looked, and the Great River lay like a ribbon beneath him, and the Misty Mountains stood small and hard as broken teeth. Westward he looked and saw the broad pastures of Rohan; and Orthanc, the pinnacle of Isengard, like a black spike. Southward he looked, and below his very feet the Great River curled like a toppling wave and plunged over the falls of Rauros into a foaming pit; a glimmering rainbow played upon the fume. And Ethir Anduin he saw, the mighty delta of the River, and myriads of sea-birds whirling like a white dust in the sun, and beneath them a green and silver sea, rippling in endless lines....

Whatever the source of Sauron's ability to perceive afar, it wasn't based on whatever physical eye he posessed; Neither he nor anyone else who had that ability needed flaming eyeballs to use it.

Note also that people repeatedly feel the presence of powerful evil creatures near them. (I'll spare the quotes, because there are many.) They feel horror and fear and this is entirely due to the presence nearby of those powers. There is no reason to think that this fear is mediated by anything physical and it is certainly not mediated by the sight of the evil creature since they are frequently explictly stated to be unseen. How much more Sauron?

It seems most likely that the Eye of Sauron was how people who were under the gaze of his perception, the lucky person perceived the combination of present evil, the force of Sauron's terrible will, and the pressure of whatever power of perception Sauron possessed. They perceived this as a fiery eye. Sauron's Eye was more, then, than a metaphor, but not an actual eyeball in Sauron's head.

(Of course it's possible that the final form that Sauron possessed may not have been simply oversized-though-otherwise-normal. He may have had flaming eyes for all we know -- his form is not described. But we can be confident that if he had flaming eyes (or a flaming eye) in his head, it was there to scare the troops, and not as the engine of his perception.)

In the end we don't need to assume his body had flaming eyes to account for the terrible impact he had on people.

In summary:

  1. The Ainur existed independently of their bodies and even when bound to a body, it was because they had diminished their beings. Their bodies 'reflected' their being and were not the source of it.

  2. The Ainur (and occasionally others) could see at beyond visual range using some sort of mental or spiritual -- not physical, anyway -- perception.

  3. The presence of evil creatures (even weak evil creatures) could be sensed by anyone so unlucky to be near to them or watching them.

The Eye of Sauron was how people perceived being perceived by Sauron and feeling the edge of his terrible will. If it had a manifestation in his physical body, it was a reflection of his will and his perception, not the cause of it.

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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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