In my house, there’s an old argument that surfaces every once in a while–can Superman actually be defeated? Usually, it comes down to a “well if xyz happens, and the circumstances are right, and this particular villain is involved, probably” kind of answer, and while that’s all well and good, I like more substantial answers. And, in the last few years, I’ve been wondering a similar question–can Sauron actually be defeated?
The answer? No.
We’ve got to rewind it a bit for this to actually make sense. Back in the First Age, before Sauron was, well, Sauron, he was a Maiar, which is basically an angel-like creature. There’s Ilúvatar, the One, most powerful, creates everything, basically God, and then there are the Valar, which could be considered god-like creatures? Or archangels, whatever you want, they’re the step between Ilúvatar and the Maiar. Of those Valar, there’s one who’s got a bit of a Lucifer complex, except more on the wants to destroy everything just because vibe than Lucifer’s okay but I’ve got some questions about our morals. Melkor is a punk, and most of The Silmarillion can be boiled down to everyone else shouting MELKOR NO and Melkor cackling in the distance, shrieking MELKOR YES, and running off into the sunset with a bunch of stolen gems on the back of a giant spider just because.
Melkor is The Worst, and half of all bad things that have ever happened in Middle-earth as his fault. (The other 50% belongs entirely to Fëanor.) One of the horrible just because things that Melkor does, though, is, pretty soon after he’s renamed to Morgoth, the Black Foe of the World, to sneak back into one of the Valar’s strongholds, seduce one of the Maiar, and then squirrel him away to Angband (the more badass Mordor).
Before he was Sauron, the Maiar that Morgoth convinces to join his side is known as Mairon, and he’s hella bitter about a lot of things. Now, all of this is important to know because Sauron is not just an evil dude, he’s basically an angel. He’s immortal, he’ll one day go into the West and return to the land of the Valar, no matter his evil deeds, and, much like Morgoth, he cannot actually be killed.
When, eventually, Morgoth is “defeated”, all they can really do is banish him. He’s too powerful, and given that he’s legit immortal, not like the elves where if you stab them enough, they’re dead, like–stab Morgoth as much as you want, his spirit will live on and eventually form a new body. And so, when Morgoth is finally defeated at the end of the First Age, they banish him into the far reaches of the universe, and he’s locked away for the rest of eternity. But he’s still there, and Sauron? Well, it’s a pretty similar story.
When Sauron rises to power in the Second Age, and the Battle of Dagorlad is fought, he’s not actually defeated. We all know this, given that he comes back in the Third Age for the War of the Ring, but what, exactly happens in that interim? His physical body is destroyed, but his spirit wanders, weak and furious, slowly building its strength again until, eventually, Sauron can reclaim his physical body again. The only problem with that is, unlike Morgoth, who fully embodied all of his chaotic power, Sauron has split his a bit, and the only true way to rise back to his former glory is to reclaim his ring first, which will give him enough strength to reclaim a physical body again.
And so, after this very long introduction, we come to Frodo. We’ve got this little hobbit who doesn’t really think he’s capable of this enormous task, who definitely believes that it’s going to kill him in the end, but who’s willing to try anyway, and he is literally holding the fate of the world in his hand. If, for whatever reason, Frodo fails, the world ends. That’s it. If Sauron gets the ring back, he will do what Morgoth did not and destroy everything.
In Tolkien’s Letters, he breaks down this question in a much longer fashion, so if you’re really curious, it’s the From a letter to Mrs Eileen Elgar (drafts) letter on pgs 325-333. I’ve talked about this in my review of his Letters, but it’s such a curious topic for me that I wanted to give it its own spotlight.
Because, the thing is, Frodo doesn’t actually destroy the ring at the end. (Aside: this is in no way judgement on Frodo’s part, I adore him, just breaking down the lore here.) When it comes down to it, when he’s inside Mount Doom and he’s holding the ring over the fiery pits, he decides not to throw it in. And, really, this is no fault on his part. Much of Sauron’s power & strength is contained in that ring. Throughout the story, Frodo’s whole self is falling apart, piece by piece, until he’s literally dragging himself up the mountain at the end. The closer the ring gets to the place of its birth, to the core of Sauron’s power, the stronger it gets. I mean, think about it. All Sauron truly has to do to regain all of his former glory is to have the ring in his grasp again. That’s an immense amount of power in one small thing. Of course Frodo is unable to destroy it. Because, at that last moment, when all hope for Sauron is about to be lost, he fixes all of his current strength on swaying Frodo’s will, on drawing him back from the edge.
When we see Frodo enter the mountain, the Nazgûl immediately turn away from the battle at the Black Gate. Sauron draws his strongest warriors back to the heart of his power because he knows that the tide is about to turn. Forget Gollum for a moment. Say Frodo gets around Sam, leaves the mountain, and is just waiting there, a sitting duck, when the Nazgûl arrive at Mount Doom. They would immediately kill Frodo, take the ring, and return it to Sauron.
And so, it begs the question, if Frodo can’t, can anyone?
The answer, again, is no.
I know what you’re thinking because it’s exactly the thought I had, too. But Gandalf! Tolkien addresses this in his Letters, as well, and it’s just fascinating to me. Because Gandalf is the ultimate good, right? Not only can he not physically touch the ring, he can’t touch the palantír, he’s loathe to do any harm to Saruman, and he says to Frodo that, even if he did try to take hold of the ring, it would twist him. Gandalf is too good, in the end.
Tolkien argues that, yes, if Sauron reclaimed the ring and there was only one last chance before all of Middle-earth was destroyed, Gandalf might be able to save the day. However, in order to do so, he would not only need to kill Sauron’s physical body again, but also take the ring, overcome its immense power and understand that it was going to sway him toward evil, and then also destroy himself. And, if you look at the history, once Gandalf got to Mount Doom and was holding it over the fiery pits, is it really likely that he’d be able to destroy it? No, honestly. Because, at the end of it all, as Galadriel says, if Frodo can’t, no one can.
The thing about Frodo is that he doesn’t need to also destroy himself in order to destroy the ring. Gandalf would need to because his will is way stronger than Frodo’s, and resisting both the lure of the ring and his own will would be impossible, and so, Gandalf would need to throw himself into the fire with the ring in order to assure that all would be at an end. And it’s not like Gandalf could just hand it off to someone else once he killed Sauron. The ring would corrupt literally anyone else. We see how fast it works. With Boromir, it takes hold immediately, and though it sits in his mind and slowly withers his will, eventually, Boromir succumbs to that first glance of it that he had. It’s even faster with Sam, who’s only had it in his possession for a couple of hours when he nearly refuses to give it back to Frodo. Even Aragorn, the greatest of all men, pauses when Frodo offers it to him.
Really, it’s an impossible task to expect Frodo to be able to destroy it, but, in the end, he’s the only one that can.
Yes, I know that Gollum, truly, is the one that destroys the ring, even if it’s by accident. And I know that Frodo turns away from the fire, that he intends to take the ring for himself, but think about all the circumstances for a second. This is definitely a Superman moment, when all the right things need to fall into place in order for the defeat to actually happen, but, if we’re actually going to destroy Sauron, as well as we’re able, this is how it’s got to happen.
Gollum was always going to be the one to destroy the ring. He’s the one that, arguably, it’s corrupted the most. He’s been in its thrall the longest, and it’s a nice sort of symmetry that he’s the one to destroy it. But Gollum was also always going to be at Frodo’s side, too. And so, really, no matter what, Frodo was always going to be the one that needed to carry it into the fire. Not only that, he is the only character that would have been able to get it that far, too.
I don’t care what you say about any of the other characters, this is just a fact. Every other character would have had some ulterior motive for wanting to hold onto it. Yes, even Aragorn! Though he knew, rationally, that it needed to be destroyed, the ring would twist him eventually into believing that the right thing was to bring it to Gondor and give his home that great power, much like Boromir. Legolas, much like Galadriel, wouldn’t have even taken it, even if Frodo offered it freely. None of the elves ever would, which is why Elrond leads up Isildur up to the fire rather than just doing it himself. It’s a Gandalf sort of situation, where the ring is too evil and they’re too, inherently, good to be able to touch it and survive. Sam, I think, falls in this category, too, because while Pippin & Merry are wonderful, they would succumb to the ring and think, maybe, that it could save the Shire from whatever doom was inevitably coming. But Sam is too good at heart to be able to withstand the ring, and though he’d never think of bringing it to the Shire, the ring would destroy him before he got very far. Gimli would end up taking it back to the dwarves, and Bilbo would probably become a Gollum-like creature. In the end, Frodo, who wants nothing more than a quiet, peaceful afternoon to drink tea and read a book in a field, is the perfect adversary for Sauron. He is the only one that could both not be truly corrupted by the ring and would not be wholly destroyed by it. Even though he does falter at the end, no one else would have gotten even kind of that far.
Flower crown Frodo is my new favorite, just sayin’.
Long story short, Sauron is an impossible foe. He cannot truly be defeated. Even now, his immortal spirit lingers on, seeking out eventual rest in the West. He’ll never return to Middle-earth, so that’s a sort of defeat, but he’s not dead. But, at the same time, the only person that can actually go up against Sauron & the ring and come to this sort of defeat is always going to be Frodo. Say what you will about the rest of Tolkien’s cast of characters, but none of them have the heart to understand that this task is not only impossible, but will likely result in one’s death, and still say, “Which way to Mordor?”