Lord of the Rings’ Sauron eye, explained by cut Middle-earth lore

Think of the following: The Lord of the Rings’ baddie Sauron, chances are a big, flaming eyeball comes to mind. Why wouldn’t it? J.R.R. is synonymous with the Eye of Sauron, one of its most iconic symbols. Tolkien’s trilogy — it’s even plastered on the cover of several editions of the books. The Great Eye also features heavily in Peter Jackson’s blockbuster big screen adaptations, an ever-watchful flaming orb atop a massive stone obelisk.

The Lord of the Rings films’ 20th anniversary is in 2021. We couldn’t have imagined exploring the entire trilogy in one story. Each Wednesday, throughout 2019, we will go back and forth between the two locations, looking at how and why these films are still considered classics. This is Polygon’s Year of the Ring.

So, it makes sense that when the average Middle-earth fan thinks of Sauron, they think of him as a honking great peeper made of fire — but that’s not what Tolkien originally intended. Jackson and his colleagues made several significant changes to Sauron during the production of The Hobbit. Lord of the Rings films, and they’ve colored how we all picture the Dark Lord of Mordor ever since.

One metaphor is the Eye of Sauron

If Sauron is more than the evil eye to end all evil eyes depicted in Jackson’s movies, just what the heck is he? Did Tolkien ever describe Sauron’s appearance in the books? Where does the Great Eye fit in? Like a lot of Middle-earth lore, it’s complicated.

Tolkien makes it clear that when Isildur cut the Ring from the Dark Lord’s hand, only his physical body died. His spirit lived on, and (according to Middle-earth’s meticulously detailed timeline) he spent the next 1,000 years or so recovering until he was able to manifest a new form. From here on out, Sauron is literally a shadow of his former self but, crucially, he’s also decidedly humanoid.

Tolkien did inject a lot of lyricism. Lord of the Rings And there are There are many references to Sauron as the Great Eye. One particular passage in The Return of the King This means that it is possible to have a truly wonderful experience. It is a flaming eye perched atop Barad-dûr tower, at least temporarily.

However, just because Sauron occasionally goes full “flaming eye” mode, that doesn’t mean the Great Eye is the Dark Lord’s only form — and it’s certainly not the only one he can take. There are many other ways to get in the spirit of Sauron. Two Towers, Gollum even recalls seeing Sauron’s four-fingered hand, which kinda shoots down the whole “just an eyeball” argument.

So how did the “Eye of Sauron” become such a big deal? It’s Middle-earth marketing. The Great Eye, which the Dark Lord uses as a brand for himself and his armies to project an aura of omniscience, is what the Dark Lord calls the Great Eye. As propaganda, the Eye of Sauron is the most potent symbol in Middle-earth — and its effectiveness is built on the genuine power of Sauron’s gaze, literal and otherwise. But ultimately, it’s just that: a symbol.

Who doesn’t need symbolism?

Frodo looks into the flaming eye of Sauron from the Seat of Amon Hen in The Fellowship of the Ring.

Image by New Line Cinema

The same doesn’t apply in the Lord of the Rings Movies. Here, Jackson portrays Sauron almost exclusively as a flaming eyeball (save for the odd Second Age flashback) and there’s nothing metaphorical about it.

HisFellowship of the RingSaruman asserts that Sauron can’t take any physical form. Even a darkened, weak one. Jackson’s statement makes clear that he believes that the best Sauron could do for a human body is to be a semi-ethereal eyeball. He clarifies this belief in his commentary with the Extended Edition. Here, Jackson talks openly about his literal interpretation of the Eye of Sauron, lamenting that Tolkien lumped him, a filmmaker, with a villain “[who] is in the form of a giant eye and can’t really participate in the story to any great degree.”

Yet this misreading of Sauron’s true nature does little to hurt Jackson’s movies. Weta Digital realized that the Eye of Sauron continues to radiate exactly the same level of terror as Tolkien. One look at that cruel cat-eye pupil wreathed in fire and crackling with lightning, and you know you’re dealing with a dangerous, demonic presence. And if nothing else, the Great Eye makes for a more distinctive, less generic “dark lord” visual than the shadowy figure that Tolkien describes in the books (and which appears in Jackson’s later Hobbit films), and one that’s infinitely more memorable.

Admittedly, Jackson’s take on Sauron does have its shortcomings. The most infamous of these is what disgruntled fans call the “Lighthouse Sauron” effect: a handful of shots in The Return of the King where the Eye of Sauron projects a beam of light that scans the plains of Mordor far below, and it… it looks goofy. Frodo and Sam manage to escape the beam even after it lands on them.

It should have sufficed to bring down the archvillain in the whole trilogy and make him an ineffectual star. Yet many fans of the movies — even fans who know the original books inside out — seem cool with the Kiwi director’s less-than-accurate spin on Sauron, lighthouse and all.

So, how did Jackson get away with such a radical departure from Tolkien’s text?

With Sauron, there’s more than meets the eye

Saruman gestures with his hand claw-like over the Palantir — which shows the eye of Sauron wreathed in dark smoke — in The Fellowship of the Ring.

Image by New Line Cinema

In the end, it doesn’t really matter what form Sauron takes in The Lord of the RingsAs long as the Dark Lord is playing his part in the story, it’s okay. His function is to serve as an overarching threat and drive the narrative, regardless of whether Sauron’s a dark ghost, a flame eyeball, or anything else. In a sense, he’s as much of a McGuffin as the One Ring itself.

As far as the story itself is concerned, Sauron’s not there for our heroes to confront directly (although that nearly happened in previous versions of the film) even if his true form means that they actually could. Instead, he’s a perpetual, ominous presence in every scene. He is a menace as a villain because of the potential danger that he might pose. pose — that he Could regain his power through the One Ring and become unstoppable — and that’s something a fiery eyeball can represent just as easily, perhaps even better, than a sinister shade.

All we need for Jackson’s Sauron-as-eyeball interpretation to pay off is to believe in the threat of Sauron’s relentless hunt for the Ring. And for the majority of the trilogy’s runtime, we do; so much so that, for most of us, even the Dark Lord’s embarrassingly half-assed search efforts late in the game are easy to ignore. Flawed or not, the unique aesthetic of Jackson’s Sauron is too great to resist, and the appearance of his incandescent eye bopping about atop a ebony pillar in other media — including parodies like South Park The Lego Batman Movie — is a testament to how deeply ingrained it is in our collective pop culture consciousness.

Tolkien purists could argue that Jackson’s modifications to Sauron make the original story unfair, no matter how great the films are. The beauty of Middle-earth fandom, however is the fact that not everybody has to agree with you.

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