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Alright, so there is a great, incredibly well informed community here so let me ask a question that's been bothering me since I finished the Silmarillion. I'll lay out my reasoning for why it's a question as well, so bear with me.

Tolkien states

Among [Melkor's] servants that have names the greatest was that spirit whom the Eldar called Sauron, or Gorthaur the Cruel.
-The Silmarillion, p.28

What exactly does Sauron do in the Silmarillion to earn this distinction? The Dragon Glaurung is far more of a terror to Morgoth's enemies than Sauron. He annihilates whole legions of First Era elves; more or less singlehandedly breaks the siege of Angband and uses his magic stare to mind control/soul crush pretty much anybody he wants to. Not only that but he exhibits significant cunning and is a successful leader of Morgoth's forces in his own right. How is this murder-addicted hyper-dragon not number one? When Morgoth needed to kill Elves dead he went to Glaurung, handing him command in the most critical battle in the war thus far. The result was a victory so one sided and absolute that in an instant the entire dynamic of Middle-earth shifted completely.

"Man, I wish we were fighting Sauron."

It's also a battle where Sauron is conspicuously absent (this is a recurring theme). Not exactly what you'd expect from Morgoth's 'greatest servant'. If he was really that useful you'd think he would have had some role in a battle Morgoth had been preparing for for over 400 years.

Sauron's biggest contributions to his Master's First Age war effort were

  1. Hiding from the Valar...twice
  2. Effectively begging for mercy when unable to hide.
  3. Losing Tol Sirion to an overwhelming army of two people.
  4. Messing with the the wrong girl and getting choked out by her talking dog.

Picture may not be an accurate depiction of Huan

Seriously, all joking aside Sauron's first era resume is pretty bad. And let's not forget that everything past the First Age was more or less an afterthought; paling in comparison in terms of magic, power, epicness, etc.

I get that Sauron is the most 'dark-lord-like' and the heir apparent to Morgoth. The only answer I can think of is just that; Sauron is the only one who'd 'pick up the torch if Morgoth fell, whereas Glaurung would have probably just found a pile of gold under a mountain somewhere and been content. He needed direction and wouldn't be 'independently' menacing to Middle-earth in anything but a localized way (a la Smaug).

But Tolkien is talking about Sauron in the context of a servant, not based upon some hypothetical future-dark-lord skill set. I'm fairly sure the thought of being permanently defeated never entered Morgoth's mind and 'being able to take over for him' was never a looked-for qualification in subordinates. The only thing that makes Sauron special is that he seemed to be the only guy who was good enough at hiding/begging to survive Morgoth's fall.

Sauron's Dark Lord tenure wasn't exactly Hall of Fame caliber either. Nothing he ever did on his own was ultimately successful and each of his schemes backfired in some way. His plot to destroy Númenor cost him his body; and his attempt to buff himself with the One Ring ultimately led to his end as a force in Middle-earth.

So what am I missing or misinterpreting? Am I looking at this the wrong way?

TL;DR: Dragon Glaurung accomplished much more nefarious deeds than Sauron according to The Silmarillion. Doesn't make sense that Sauron is Morgoth's #2.

  • 17
    Disagree that everything after the First Age was an afterthought: Sauron is, with the aid of the corrupt Numenoreans, responsible for sinking The Gift (of the Valar) to Men. Sauron is also responsible for subjugating much of Middle Earth during the Second Age... don't see a lot of other big bads doing that... wait what did Sauron's nearest competitor, the Balrog of Moria, do? Hid underneath a mountain like a whiny jerk before and after kicking out a bunch of Dwarves. Last of the Red Hot Drakes? Well he laid waste to Erebor... but then slept. Sauron rocked it after the First Age, yo. – Lexible Mar 4 '15 at 19:21
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    @Oldcat - it can be viewed as evading capture twice, which is twice more than Morgoth managed to do! – user8719 Mar 4 '15 at 19:26
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    I think the real issue here is that the OP is massively underestimating how much of a kickass hero Luthien Tenuviel is. – Oldcat Mar 4 '15 at 19:29
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    “murder-addicted hyper-dragon” — give it five years, and this will be the title of a Sharknado-esque straight-to-video fantasy Tolkien knock-off. – Paul D. Waite Mar 5 '15 at 11:26
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    Sauron's primary power is deception. I believe he even deceived Morgoth. – a_a Mar 5 '15 at 14:41
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Who is more powerful, the President of the United States or the marine guarding him? In personal one-on-one combat I'm certain the marine would defeat the President. However, it is the President that commands the military of the United States.

Similarly, other Middle-earth creatures may have been more powerful individually (Balrog, Dragons, etc) but Sauron worked by organization, corruption, deceit, and over long periods of time.

As @DarthSatan says, without leadership Balrogs, dragons, etc. just wander off and do their own thing. Yes they are powerful, but how much damage does a Balrog do deep in the mines of Moria? How much damage does Smaug do sleeping deep under the Lonely Mountain?

Sauron not only organized the armies of evil (including the lesser ones like the Easterlings, Uruk-Hai, etc. and the greater ones), he used his knowledge and power to corrupt his opposition (Saruman & the Palantír), and sap it of strength (Lord Denethor & the Palantír).

Even his magic items (without direction) were capable of corrupting and turning beings like Smeagol to evil and nearly turned Boromir too. Brief interaction with them posed severe tests of will to others like Faramir & Galadriel.

Although not covered in The Hobbit & The Lord of the Rings, Sauron also caused the fall of Númenor. At their heights, the men of Númenor by some measures were more powerful than the Elves. It was the Men of Númenor who created the walls and tower of Orthanc which, at the time of the Third Age, no power on Middle Earth had the ability to bring down - not even the Ents.

Sauron caused the fall of Númenor not through direct firepower but by persuasion, lies, deceit. He corrupted the men of Númenor and had them use their power against Valar.

Prompted by Sauron and fearing old age and death, Ar-Pharazôn built a great armada and set sail into the West to make war upon the Valar and seize the Undying Lands, and by so doing achieve immortality. Sauron remained behind. This force was quoted by Tolkien as the 'greatest force ever assembled on Arda'.

As described in the History of Númenor.

Sauron's greatness is similar to that of Gandalf's. Their's is not brute physical or magical power like that of the Queen chess piece, it is more like that of the chess master - moving the pieces around.

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    Ah, what I meant was Gollum started off as a creature very much like a Hobbit. The ring turned him to evil. He was not naturally evil. – Jim2B Mar 4 '15 at 20:50
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    Individually a dragon has huge capacity for destruction, but "yet we see that Sauron can torture and destroy the very hills" (Galdor, Council of Elrond). I don't agree with (or like) the tendency to equate "power" with "capacity for destruction". Tolkien would probably say that Galadriel was more "powerful" than Smaug, but she wouldn't beat him in a fight; her power was in preserving, nurturing, resistance and providing aid: a different kind of power. – user8719 Mar 4 '15 at 20:56
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    @DVK Well, Deagol didn't give it to him, even though it was his birthday. There's only so much a man can take. – KSmarts Mar 4 '15 at 21:24
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    @Jim2B "Did you see what a brief exposure did to...Faramir...?" Er, you mean when he said "I would not take this thing, if it lay by the highway"? Or are you talking about Peter Jackson's version of Faramir? – Kyle Strand Mar 5 '15 at 4:49
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    Another interesting observation - Sauron is "powerful" in the same way the Gandalf is. They collect & disseminate information, gather forces, form alliances, and influence other powers to do what needs to be done. They work more like chess masters than front line soldiers. – Jim2B Mar 5 '15 at 15:54
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From the Valaquenta:

In all the deeds of Melkor the Morgoth upon Arda, in his vast works and in the deceits of his cunning, Sauron had a part, and was only less evil than his master in that for long he served another and not himself.

Sauron was therefore involved in everything that Morgoth did, even if not explicitly stated, but presumably with obvious exceptions (such as destroying the Trees).

Notably also, he evaded capture twice, which was twice more than Morgoth managed to do.

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    +1. This was going to be my answer. Alfred is present for very few of Batman's adventures, but he's still Batman's greatest ally and most loyal servant. You don't have to be on the battlefield to help fight the war. – Nerrolken Mar 4 '15 at 19:46
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    tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/InformedAttribute ? OTOH, a lot of LoTR stuff works this way; for example, we never see Elrond or Galadriel actually doing anything very much (at least not in the main novels) but we're still left with the distinct impression that they're pretty darn awesome. – Harry Johnston Mar 5 '15 at 0:05
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    +1. Glaurung might well have been better at laying waste to armies on a battlefield; but if Morgoth wanted something done which required cunning and subtlety, he would have turned to Sauron. It's the difference between dropping a nuclear weapon on your target, and sending in an elite special forces unit. – Royal Canadian Bandit Mar 5 '15 at 10:12
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    +1 This is a good answer and I think is ultimately correct. Though I'll probably give the correct answer to the much longer and flushed out one below, this is also on the money. I wish I could accept both. – BubbleRobble Mar 5 '15 at 15:42
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    Damn you @HarryJohnston! Another hour lost to tvtropes.org ! – Vincent Vancalbergh Mar 5 '15 at 19:58
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Since you invite challenges to your premise, I'm going to offer some.

How controlling is the context?

You make a lot of "But Tolkien is talking about Sauron in the context of a servant", and use the phrase "greatest servant" more than once. But the quote from the Silmarillion is

Among [Melkor's] servants that have names the greatest was that spirit whom the Eldar called Sauron, or Gorthaur the Cruel.

If we substitute "cruellest" for "greatest", you wouldn't say that it was calling Sauron the cruellest at being a servant. So I don't see that it's necessary to read the actual quote as calling him the greatest at being a servant. The easier reading seems to be that of a certain group of beings, Sauron was "the greatest" in some unspecified way.

What does "greatest" mean?

In a work that's not shy about appearing antiquated, "greatest" could easily mean "biggest", but physically that doesn't seem to be the case.

However, it's still a fairly generic superlative. You seem to be taking it as the most effective or the most destructive, but it could be the most powerful, knowledgeable, cunning, brave, difficult to defeat, or even (if we do allow the context to control our interpretation to some extent) loyal.

Should it be taken literally anyway?

The Silmarillion is not intended as a work of science but of epic history. If you look at works in that genre as a whole, what's the ratio between absolute superlatives and qualified superlatives? If you're a couple of dozen pages into a book and you read "Among his servants that have names the third greatest was that spirit whom the Eldar called Sauron, or Gorthaur the Cruel" then surely your reaction will be "Don't tell me about the third greatest: tell me about the greatest!" Within the constraints of the genre, is there any other way in which Sauron could be introduced?

  • An interesting take on my question. I do love a good rhetorical analysis. – BubbleRobble Mar 5 '15 at 16:16
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    Sauron's greatness is also indicated by the fact that he succeeded Melkor as the chief evil of the world. He rose to "greatness". – Matthew Read Mar 16 '15 at 19:53
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Things Sauron managed to pull off:

  • Leading the greatest Men on the planet, the ones most beloved of the Valar, Eldar, and presumably Eru as well, astray, leading to the damnation of pretty much all Men for a long time afterwards. Part of this corruption of the Numenoreans included making the majority (who worshipped him and his bestie, Morgoth) perform human sacrifices of the minority (who remained loyal to Eru).

  • Provoking a nearly successful invasion of what almost amounts to Heaven, which caused so much fear and alarm among the Valar that they laid down their power and begged Eru to intervene on their behalf.

  • Caused Eru to literally tear the planet in two, completely reshaping it, turning the flat earth into the sphere we know and love today, and removing Aman to become its own planet elsewhere in space.

  • Deceived the wisest beings on earth, the Firstborn, aka Elves, into becoming his unwitting henchmen.

  • Turned one of the beings sent to fight him, a Maia, roughly equal in power to himself, into his servant. When that Maia, Saruman, tried to cheat Sauron, he was ruined and reduced to being a beggar with the most demeaning and humiliating name ever- "Sharkey". He sounds like a street urchin from a Dickens novel.

  • Started several world wars, and although he lost, he took many of the greatest figures of his time- both Elves and Men - with him.

  • The aforementioned wars also destroyed significant portions of the planet, forever.

  • Created and ruled a kingdom of horror and fear, poisoning the very land itself.

  • Created 9 immortal(ish) servants who instill fear in the hearts of all who encounter them, and who have flying death monsters as mounts.

  • Captured the jewel of the greatest kingdom on earth, Minas Ithil, and turned it into a hellish vision of suffering and terror, tainting it so thoroughly that it could not be cleansed, and had to be destroyed.

  • Helped destroy the capital city of the greatest kingdom on earth, Osgiliath, and after the capital was relocated to Minas Anor/Tirith, he destroyed much of it as well.

  • Ruled much - perhaps even most - of the planet, and many - perhaps even most - of the Men who lived there, for thousands of years.

  • Had a pet volcano. Yes, a pet volcano.

  • Controlled hundreds of thousands of Orcs, trolls, fell beasts, and who knows what else, simultaneously, with his mind. They were so dependent upon his will that when he was distracted by the whole "Frodo is inside the volcano with my Ring" situation, the enormous army of his servants was totally paralyzed and didn't know what to do.

  • Covered most of the continent in darkness for several days.

  • Could only be destroyed by someone performing an almost impossible task.

  • Even after he was destroyed, he still exists, and will return at the end of time to destroy the world with his bestie, Morgoth. He was basically banished and weakened by the destruction of the Ring, but only Eru or someone specifically chosen by Eru will be able to truly kill him.

  • Dominated the course of events in Arda/Earth for the better part of 7,000 years. Almost everything that happened, and was worth mentioning, had to do with him. Most of the time that Morgoth was active, Arda didn't exist, or was largely uninhabited. Sauron determined the history of the inhabited world for an incredibly long time. In fact, Tolkien said that about 6,000 years have passed since Sauron was defeated. That means that Sauron was around and causing trouble for 1,000 years longer than all the time that has passed since his fall.. And he isn't done yet - at some point in the (hopefully distant) future, he will come back and try to kill us all again.


For sake of comparison, let's take a look at the man who is widely regarded as the most evil person of the last century - Adolf Hitler - and what he accomplished:

  • Started a World War, the most destructive in history; however, when the First World War ended, everyone in the know realized that a second war was inevitable, and would happen within 20-30 years.

  • Ruled one country for 13 years.

  • Ruled most of Western Europe for 4 or 5 years, but began losing ground almost as soon as he had conquered it.

  • Killed millions of innocent civilians.

  • Was stupid enough to try to invade Russia, apparently unaware that Napoleon had tried the same thing and failed in a spectacular fashion; Hitler was therefore surprised when things didn't work out any better for him.

  • Promised the Germans that he would redeem them in the eyes of the world and restore Germany to its proper place as the greatest nation on earth; instead, made the world despise Germany, and put the pieces in place for a humiliating 50 year long partition of Germany under Soviet oppression and American exploitation.

  • Spent the last months of his life in a claustrophobic hole in the ground, where he eventually shot himself in the face, and was then wrapped in a dirty carpet and dragged up several flights of stairs into a trash-strewn courtyard, where he was doused with gasoline and partially incinerated, then buried in a shallow grave. He will never come back.

  • Was ridiculed by Tolkien himself as "that ruddy little ignoramus, Adolf Hitler". Was ridiculed more famously by Charlie Chaplin, whose mustache he stole, and the Three Stooges. Looks like an absurd, spastic buffoon to modern eyes.

  • His incompetently managed regime gave rise to the phrase "the banality of evil" ("banal" is described as "so lacking in originality as to be boring and uninteresting"). That's right - he was so ridiculous that he made the murder of millions seem unoriginal and predictable.


In this light, Sauron seems pretty accomplished and effective, don't you think?

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    Yeah, but what was his childhood like? – EricLeaf Feb 29 '16 at 22:08
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    Some people will say it is wrong to compare anyone to Hitler, perhaps because they confuse “compare” in the senses of “liken to” and “compare and contrast”; in this case it is illuminating. What it illuminates, however, is not the question whether Sauron really was Morgoth’s greatest servant but the difference between evildoers in much fantasy and real life. In real life much evil is indeed done for banal reasons, though the term applies more to Eichmann than to Hitler. For an analysis of what makes people do evil I recommend The Lucifer Effect (Zimbardo, of the Stanford Prison Experiment). – PJTraill Mar 3 '16 at 0:13
  • And to add insult to injury, conversations even more banal than anything Hitler ever really said are now regularly put into his mouth for the enjoyment of YouTube viewers. – EvilSnack Oct 2 '16 at 20:07
  • To be fair, Germany defeated Russia in World War I. – Paul Chernoch Jan 3 '17 at 16:25
  • N.B. This answer motivated me to ask how one can best clarify the sense of compare one means on English Language and Usage. – PJTraill Dec 17 '17 at 17:11
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In the same sense as Peter's answer - Tolkien often uses the word "greatest" to describe relational strength or power, something that I personally think Tolkien uses as a rather absolute and indiscriminate descriptor in the sense that relative power is always explicitly clear and rarely nuanced.

Seeing each personality as a unitary expression within a greater theme - the "magnitude" of a particular unit can always be described as being greater or lesser any other existing unit. We can see other examples in his descriptions of the Valar or the Istari.

From "Unfinished Tales":

In the The Two Towers III 8 it is said that Saruman was "accounted by many the chief of the Wizards," and at the Council of Elrond (The Fellowship of the Ring II 2) Gandalf explicitly stated this: "Saruman the White is the greatest of my order."

or

"But also to be remarked are the coming of the Istari to Middle-earth at different times; Círdan's perception that Gandalf was the greatest of them; Saruman's knowledge that Gandalf possessed the Red Ring..."

Anyhow I've always seen the explicit nature of unitary power structures throughout the books as very helpful in communicating the balance of things that is so thematically important to everything in the universe. With the theme that everything exists purely within a static set (all things coming from and ending in Iluvitar), calculated balance is key to the thematic tension and resolution at an abstract level just as much as it is to understanding the motivations of groups or individuals within the various histories.

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Sauron was the greatest servant of Morgoth because he was faithful, skilled, subtle and powerful, in fact probably the most powerful of Maiar who were drawn to allegiance of Morgoth. While Gothmog Lord of Balrogs, or Glaurung, Father of Dragons, might have been good field generals leading armies and bringing destruction, Sauron was also more subtle and wiser, as additional texts from HoME say:

"While Morgoth still stood, Sauron did not seek his own supremacy, but worked and schemed for another, desiring the triumph of Melkor, whom in the beginning he had adored.He thus was often able to achieve things, first conceived by Melkor, which his master did not or could not complete in the furious haste of his malice."

"He still had the relics of positive purposes, that descended from the good of the nature in which he began: it had been his virtue (and therefore also the cause of his fall, and of his relapse) that he loved order and coordination, and disliked all confusion and wasteful friction. (It was the apparent will and power of Melkor to effect his designs quickly and masterfully that had first attracted Sauron to him.)"

Certainly the organizing talents of Sauron allowed him to raise high in Morgoth's favour enough so he was part of everything his master did:

"In all the deeds of Melkor the Morgoth upon Arda, in his vast works and in the deceits of his cunning, Sauron had a part."

It is even noted that Sauron was less evil than Morgoth because for long he served another and not himself, that he could acknowledge superiority of other being. Of course in later times he arose to the position in which he was lord.

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