Though Tolkien seemed to have a fairly good idea what happened to Sauron after Isildur cut off the Ring, he told it in several differing ways across the years, and usually in conjunction with the Isildur story (seriously, I don’t think I’m ever going to get out of the Isildur story).
Gandalf explains to Frodo in “The Shadow of the Past” chapter of Lord of the Rings: “Then Sauron was vanquished and his spirit fled and was hidden for long years, until his shadow took shape again in Mirkwood.” All Elrond says in the “Council of Elrond” was the “Sauron was diminished, but not destroyed.”
In the Silmarillion, it’s written: “Then Sauron was for that time vanquished, and he forsook his body, and his spirit fled far away and hid in waste places; and he took no visible shape again for many long years.”
The differences seem trifling, but in the latter account (written several years after he wrote the Lord of the Rings, it almost seems as if Sauron willingly left his body – “he forsook his body” – he renounced it, abandoned it. The earlier accounts don’t mention anything of his will, so it’s not a contradiction, really. But you certainly wouldn’t assume that Sauron willingly gave up his body from the Lord of the Rings accounts.
So where did all this start? If we look back on the early drafts of the Lord of the Rings, we’ll see that Sauron (still the Necromancer) hadn’t been nearly-slain by Isildur until a few drafts in. Through the whole “First Phase” of the writing, which took about seven or eight months, nothing is mentioned of it.
Then, a few months later, he wrote a chapter that would eventually be divvied out between the “Shadow of the Past” and “Council of Elrond” chapters.
“But he forsook his bodily shape and fled like a ghost to waste places until he rested in Mirkwood and took shape again in the darkness.”
This sounds like a mashing of Gandalf’s account and that from the Silmarillion (which seemed to be a retelling of Elrond’s account).
Interestingly, Elrond didn’t mention the Isildur/Sauron story during the Council of Elrond through the first three “phases” of writing. It wasn’t until the fourth draft of the Council of Elrond (written probably around August of 1940 – a year and a half after he started) that Elrond brought up the Isildur story. But in that, he only said: Then Elrond spoke of the winning of the Ring, and the flight of Sauron, and the peace that came to the West of Middle-earth for a time.” In the fifth and “final” (for a long time) draft, nothing was more was added.
And that leads us to the published version of both Lord of the Rings and the Silmarillion. While Tolkien’s later writings explore Isildur, they don’t really mess with Sauron’s abandonment of his body.
But in a 1957 letter (No. 200), written three years after Fellowship of the Rings was published, Tolkien had explained that Sauron was “always de-bodied when vanquished.” He was, originally, spirit, but like any Maiar, he had the ability to take a body.
“They were thus in the world, but not of a kind whose essential nature is to be physically incarnate. They were self-incarnated, if they wished; but their incarnate forms were more analogous to our clothes than to our bodies, except that they were more than are clothes the expression of their desires, moods, wills and functions.”
He goes on to explain that the Maiar had a “pre-occupation” with Elves and Men, which is why many of them took a human-like form.
“It was thus that Sauron appeared in this shape. It is mythologically supposed that when this shape was ‘real’, that is a physical actuality in the physical world and not a vision transferred from mind to mind, it took some time to build up. It was then destructible like other physical organisms. But that of course did not destroy the spirit, nor dismiss it from the world to which it was bound until the end.”
This goes not just for Sauron, but any Maiar who took physical form, including Ganalf, Sarumon, etc. Their physical bodies were created by themselves (or given by the Valar), but could be destroyed – just as Gandalf’s was when he battled the Balrog.
Tolkien continues, explaining a bit more about Sauron specific case:
After the battle with Gilgalad and Elendil, Sauron took a long while to re-build, longer than he had done after the Downfall of Numenor (I suppose because the building-up used up some of the inherent energy of the spirit, which might be called ‘will’ or the effective link between the indestructible mind and being and the realization of its imagination).”
This doesn’t really answer the question whether Sauron willingly gave up his body or if it was completely destroyed. Either way, the battle clearly rendered his body useless or broken. If Sauron willingly left it, he did so because the only other option would have been to wait until he was forced to leave it.
A Few Notes
Every time I give a date for when Tolkien wrote something, I have to look it upon the the JRR Tolkien Companion and Guide by Scull & Hammond. I have no idea why I don’t just make my own timeline and refer back to that.
When I started writing this, I was really hoping that there would be more diversity in Tolkien’s writings about this. But sometimes subtle differences are more fun.
About the Photo
I guess when I think of someone leaving their body, I think of abandoned buildings. When a building is abandoned, it quickly falls apart. Just like when there’s no life left in the body, it quickly decomposes. This is, of course, along Route 66. In Arizona, I think.
- Day 132
- Miles today: 5
- Miles thus far: 651 (197 from Rivendell)
- 143 miles to the Doors of Moria
- 270 miles to Lothlórien
- 1,128 miles to Mt. Doom
Today’s stopping place in the narrative: Book II, Chapter 3. Marching south along the western foothills of the Misty Mountains. Seventh night out from Rivendell. January 5 – 6, 3019 TA. (map)