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In the trilogy, The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien describes Sauron's fortress of Barad-dûr as having a high tower, within which there exists the Eye of Sauron.

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.
[The Fellowship of the Ring, Book II, Chapter 8]

And throughout the story, there are scattered references to the lidless eye in connection with Sauron. The Lord of the Nazgul, for instance, warns Dernhelm -

'Come not between the Nazgûl and his prey! Or he will not slay thee in thy turn. He will bear thee away to the houses of lamentation, beyond all darkness, where thy flesh shall be devoured, and thy shriveled mind be left naked to the Lidless Eye.'

Frodo physically possesses an Elven artifact, the Ring, which confers upon its bearer a power to see things from far away, as he experiences upon Amon Hen at the conclusion of Book II. In The Two Towers Sauron, Saruman and Denethor all possess Elven artifacts, the surviving palantíri, which confer upon their keeper a power to see far away. Gandalf refers to other Elven artifacts of power, the Silmarils stolen by Morgoth in the First Age; and he turns out to possess, himself, one of the Three Rings of the Elven Kings. And Galadriel has yet another Elven artifact with the power to see far away: namely, the Mirror of Galadriel.

Is the Eye of Sauron an Elven artifact, obtained or stolen by Sauron in the Elder Days? Like the Ring, it evidently confers a power to see far away (for Sauron uses it thus, at a time when he no longer possesses the Ring). But I am not as familiar with The Silmarillion, or Unfinished Tales, or The History of Middle Earth, or The Letters of JRR Tolkien as I am with the trilogy.

I am not asking whether the Eye is a real object rather than a metaphor. For myself, I am satisfied that it is not a metaphor, for Frodo sees it as an actual object, in the Mirror of Galadriel: in the passage I have quoted above, both the Mirror and the Eye appear to be real objects having a physical existence.

Is there evidence, anywhere in the writings of Professor Tolkien, which casts light on the nature, or origin, of the lidless eye? Is it in fact an artifact? If so, is it Elvish in origin (like the Silmarils, the palantíri, the Mirror of Galadriel, and the Elven Rings)?

Is there any suggestion that Sauron's power to see far away derives simply from his possession of the Ithil Stone (rather than being an innate power of the Eye of Sauron)?

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    I think that the Eye is Sauron. – Mithrandir Jan 3 '17 at 14:05
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    The One Ring is not an Elven artifact, Sauron forged it separately from the rings Celebrimbor fashioned – Cearon O'Flynn Jan 3 '17 at 14:06
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    @Ed999 No, other way 'round. Celebrimbor learned everything he knew about making magic rings from Sauron; that's why the Three were also bound up in the power of the One – Jason Baker Jan 3 '17 at 14:19
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    Not sure why Frodo seeing the eye in Galadriel's mirror would preclude it from being a metaphor. In the same way that tarot cards use concrete figures to describe abstract concepts, it's reasonable to understand the images in her mirror as symbolic. – Harris Jan 3 '17 at 14:53
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    I don't think there's any reason to believe that the One Ring "confers upon its bearer a power to see things from far away." Amon Hen, we're told, means "The Hill of Sight", and Aragorn at least plans to "see what may be seen" (Book II chapter 10). Nor does it appear clear to me that the Eye is physical at all. – Matt Gutting Jan 3 '17 at 15:33
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No, there is no evidence for this

You're just going to have to trust me on that; the nature of the Eye of Sauron is never really discussed in any kind of satisfying detail. Whatever physical component may exist is likely related to one or more concepts:

  • Sauron's enhanced powers as a Maia
  • The palantír of Minas Ithil, in Sauron's possession

If the palantír is a component of the Eye1 (which seems likely, though, again, there's no direct evidence for this), then it's (at least partially) an artifact in that sense. However, there is no reason to suspect that the Eye is a separate item from the Elder days.


1 See Shamshiel's answer for more on this

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    I thought it's heavily implied that the "eye of Sauron" is his Maia use of the palantir, which allows him to see across Middle Earth. – Edlothiad Jan 3 '17 at 15:03
  • Yeah, I thought it was clear that the "eye of Sauron" referred to Sauron's attention and gaze through the palantir he seized from Minas Ithil. – Shamshiel Jan 3 '17 at 17:16
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    @Shamshiel I don't entirely disagree, though I do think the Eye has more nuanced meaning in different contexts (as I've expounded on elsewhere), but I was focusing on different parts of the question. I've edited somewhat, but I think your answer makes a detailed discussion somewhat redundant – Jason Baker Jan 3 '17 at 17:41
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    Isn't it also a heraldic symbol, like the Hand of Saruman or the White Tree of Gondor? – Neal Jan 4 '17 at 10:32
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I think you've actually answered your own question.

In The Two Towers Sauron, Saruman and Denethor all possess Elven artifacts, the surviving palantíri, which confer upon their keeper a power to see far away.

As you say, Sauron possesses the palantir, which allows someone of sufficiently strong will to see (almost) anything, (almost) anywhere. The easiest, and most logical explanation, is that the "Eye of Sauron" is at times a metaphor for Sauron's use of the palatir, and other times, as when Frodo looks into the Mirror of Galadriel, literally Sauron's eye looking into the palantir.

Is there any suggestion that Sauron's power to see far away derives simply from his possession of the Ithil Stone?

Mostly just Occam's Razor. The 'Eye of Sauron' was never referred to prior to Sauron's takeover of Minas Ithil. We are told that Sauron's gaze is particularly terrible, but there's no reason to believe he had a supernatural ability to see faraway events.

Now Gorlim would have drawn back, but daunted by the eyes of Sauron he told at last all that he would know. (Silmarillion)

Sauron is a sorceror, an illusionist, a torturer, a shape-changer, a teacher, a bringer-of-gifts, a priest, but never is there a reference to omniscience. Nor would it make much sense for an embodied Ainur to be omniscient.

Then, as you say, Sauron is known to be in possession of a palantir. We know not only that he has it, but that he uses it often: Denethor and Saruman almost cannot use their palantirs without communicating with Sauron.

‘In this way Denethor gained his great knowledge of things that passed in his realm, and far beyond his borders, at which men marvelled; but he bought the knowledge dearly, being aged before his time by his contest with the will of Sauron. Thus pride increased in Denethor together with despair, until he saw in all the deeds of that time only a single combat between the Lord of the White Tower and the Lord of the Barad-dûr, and mistrusted all others who resisted Sauron, unless they served himself alone. (LotR, Appendix A)

Keep in mind that almost the very minute Pippin looked in the Stone, Sauron was there.

In a low hesitating voice Pippin began again, and slowly his words grew clearer and stronger. ‘I saw a dark sky, and tall battlements,’ he said. ‘And tiny stars. It seemed very far away and long ago, yet hard and clear. Then the stars went in and out - they were cut off by things with wings. Very big, I think, really; but in the glass they looked like bats wheeling round the tower. I thought there were nine of them. One began to fly straight towards me, getting bigger and bigger. It had a horrible - no, no! I can't say.

‘I tried to get away, because I thought it would fly out; but when it had covered all the globe, it disappeared. Then he came. He did not speak so that I could hear words. He just looked, and I understood. (LotR, The Two Towers)

Similarly, Sauron is right there when Aragorn uses the stone to trick him, and we're told that the reason that using the stone is dangerous is precisely because Sauron possesses the Ithil stone.

So given that we know that Sauron has a stone which lets him see far away, and he's constantly using the stone that lets him see far away, the easy conclusion to come to is the all-seeing Eye of Sauron is Sauron's Eye, looking through the palantir.

As a final note, consider how Denethor's use of the palantir was described:

'It was in the very hour that Faramir was brought to the Tower that many of us saw a strange light in the topmost chamber,’ said Beregond. ‘But we have seen that light before, and it has long been rumoured in the City that the Lord would at times wrestle in thought with his Enemy.’(lotR, RotK)

A 'strange light' at the top of a tower certainly seems reminiscent of the depictions of the Eye of Sauron.

Addendum: Frodo's visions on Amon Hen probably have more to do with the magical properties of Amon Hen, possibly in combination with the Ring, than the Ring alone.

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    Sauron was waiting for respawn in spectator mode (granted by palantir) – Daerdemandt Jan 3 '17 at 22:16
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    @Daerdemandt: Not to ruin the joke with pedantry, but Sauron had respawned long before the events of the Lord of the Rings. :) – Shamshiel Jan 3 '17 at 23:19
  • "Sauron is known to be in possession of a palantir. We know not only that he has it, but that he uses it often: Denethor and Saruman cannot use their palantirs without communicating with Sauron." That's not entirely accurate -From Unfinished Tales "The Palantiri "Whether Denethor ever thus made contact with the Orthanc stone and Saruman is not told; probably he did & did so with profit to himself.Sauron could not break in on these conferences :only the surveyor using the Master Stone of Osgiliath could "eavesdrop. – turinsbane Jan 4 '17 at 14:12
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    @Jelsema: Oh, sure, but the point is that (evidently) Sauron seems to have been almost always around or holding the stone, else it wouldn't be necessary to struggle against Sauron in the first place; that also explains why Sauron 'just happened' to be using the Stone when Pippin and Aragorn used it - he always was. – Shamshiel Jan 4 '17 at 15:36
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    @Ed999: Sauron tortured Gollum in person, and Jelsema's quote from UT has a Word of God statement he wasn't using the stone literally constantly. Sure, he didn't sleep, but he still had to run his business; lieutenants can't do it all for you, especially when you're a God-King with a love for total control and order. No doubt he used it as much as he possibly could, just not 24/7. – Shamshiel Jan 5 '17 at 0:18
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It's mostly a metaphor

As it is used across the books, the "eye" often refers to Sauron himself, to his power, his will or the effect he has on the world.

When seen on Galadriel's mirror, the mirror itself is showing dream-like images, and the burning eye is portrayed as a representation of Sauron's power.

The reference to "the window of the eye" quite possibly refers to the windows atop the dark tower from where Sauron oversees his domain and projects his power.

The movie took the metaphors relating to the "eye" and translated them into Sauron taking the form of a literal flaming eye, while in the books he is corporeal (Gollum has seen him in person).

As has been commented, there is no specific discussion on this subject, but the people's of Middle Earth (as well as Tolkien's descriptions) seem to be quite prone to referring to symbols and metaphors when speaking of things, particularly magical things, rather than factual definitions, which leads me to my interpretation.

As another example, see the controversy regarding whether the Balrog had wings or not, which is not very clear based solely on how the book describes it.

  • The Hobbit movies do end up reconciling the "literal flaming eye" with his corporeal form, as mentioned in @Mithrandir's answer. – Random832 Jan 3 '17 at 18:28
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    @Random832 Sauron wasn't truly corporeal in The Hobbit movies, and Saruman states that Sauron can not take physical form in the Lord of the Rings movies. The books, on the other hand, imply that Sauron has a physical body, albeit a relatively weak one. The movies chose to be more literal with the Eye of Sauron, which works better in a visual medium. – Oskuro Jan 3 '17 at 18:47
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Book canon:

No idea. As @JasonBaker said, this isn't really discussed.

Movie canon:

Taken from this answer:

In The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, the pupil of the great eye is shown to be the fiery silhouette of Sauron.

So it would appear that the Eye is fire surrounding Sauron, which gives the appearance of a giant eye.

See this gif, which shows him appearing like the pupil in an eye made of flame.

3

In the chapter Mount Doom, in The Return of the King, there is evidence that the eye is physical artifact:

Thence, turning and encircling all its [the path up Mount Doom] wide girth from south to north, it climbed at last, high in the upper cone, but still far from the reeking summit, to a dark entrance that gazed back east straight to the Window of the Eye in Sauron's shadow-mantled fortress.

I argue that either:

  1. The Eye is a physical, stationary artifact placed in it's own window, or
  2. The Eye is actually that of Sauron's when he looks out onto the path of Mount Doom, in which case the window is only special that it is pointing in a certain direction

My own interpretation is in line with point 1. I support the first conclusion because of the capitalisation in the quote. It is the Eye, not the eye. Also, it is the Window, not the window. From the answer to Why Did J.R.R. Tolkien Capitalize Certain Words Throughout His Books?:

Tolkien is capitalizing words that refer to proper nouns or concepts that would unceremoniously get capitalization if expressed directly.

Therefore, the Window and Eye are not normal windows or eyes.

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    What leads you to go with (1) rather than (2)? – Matt Gutting Jan 3 '17 at 15:32
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    The Eye of Sauron is literally the eye of Sauron. – Verdan Jan 3 '17 at 16:40
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    @MattGutting and Verdan: edited the answer. It's based on the use of capitals implying they are not mundane windows or eyes. – Accio_Answer Jan 3 '17 at 17:04
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    The use of capitals implies (as the answer you quote states) that this is a proper noun, and important in some way - not that it's a physical artifact (just as "The Shadow" isn't a physical artifact or even a literal object). I don't see any reason to believe that the Eye of Sauron is any different. – Matt Gutting Jan 3 '17 at 17:19
  • @MattGutting by that logic, since only one eye is mentioned, Sauron is likely to be a one-eyed creature! ... there appeared a single Eye that slowly grew, until it filled nearly all the Mirror notice also that Mirror is capitalized, denoting that physical artifacts are indeed as important as other proper nouns or concepts. – CPHPython Jan 3 '17 at 17:29

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