The Lord of the Rings ranks as one of the greatest works of fiction of all time. Few great stories would be complete without a great villain – and J.R.R Tolkien’s masterpiece is no exception. In Sauron, the eponymous Lord of the Rings, Tolkien crafted one of the most malign, power-hungry antagonists ever to grace the pages of fantasy fiction. Over his millennia of influence on Middle Earth, Sauron oversaw the destruction of nations, the conquest of kingdoms, and the deaths of great and noble warriors who sought to stop him. He twisted heroes into monsters, corrupted proud people to the worship of evil, and reduced kings to slaves.
The story of Sauron’s later life is familiar even to those with a rudimentary knowledge of Tolkien’s work: the dark lord who invested a great part of his power into the one ring, with which he hoped to dominate and control all life. This would prove his undoing when the ring fell into the fires of Mount Doom, vanquishing Sauron in the process.
Ian McKellan, who played the wizard Gandalf in Peter Jackson’s epic film adaptation, said in an interview ‘I don’t think there are any Saurons around today, but in 1939 there was one.’ 1939 was the year of McKellan’s birth, and by the Sauron of that era he of course referred to Hitler.
McKellan was right, but he didn’t have the full picture. There is a Sauron now just as there was then: the state.
One of the main criticisms levelled at Tolkien is that his characters are very black and white; his works are said to portray an unrealistically clear demarcation between good (e.g. the elves) and evil (e.g. the satanic Sauron), as opposed to the more morally complex fiction of the likes of George R.R. Martin.
But a dive into Tolkien’s legendarium reveals a different picture. There is a duality of good and evil inherent in many of Tolkien’s characters – among them, surprisingly, Sauron, who has a much deeper history than the events covered in The Lord of the Rings. As a quote from the book makes clear, ‘nothing is evil in the beginning. Even Sauron was not so.’
In his beginning, thousands of years before the events of the books or films, Sauron was a surprisingly good character. His great loves were for order, coordination and perfection. But when he beheld the world, in all its chaos and apparent wastefulness, he came to understand that the only way to achieve the order and perfection he craved was to impose it – by force. This was the impulse that corrupted him into the dark lord we know, and that led him to hate those who resisted his attempts to impose his order.
Tolkien, by all accounts, hated allegories. But his Sauron bears some uncanny similarities to the modern state – the all-encompassing state that now desires to organise and control every facet of our lives. Undoubtedly, the build-up of the apparatus of the state over the past century was not conceived as an evil, and was intended to improve the lives of citizens much as Sauron (originally) desired a better life for those who submitted to his rule.
But just as Sauron became consumed with his thirst for power, the excesses of the modern state have become a threat to the very people the state was designed to protect, through rampant spending, taxation and regulation. In Sauron’s thirst for control, opposed by the free peoples of Middle Earth, we see the contrast between central planning (as dictated by the state, most acutely in Communism) versus the chaos of the market – chaos which has created the greatest innovations and wealth the world has ever seen.
Like Sauron, the state is also a corruptor. In Tolkien’s works there are no better examples of this than the Ringwraiths, Sauron’s chief servants. They were once men who achieved great power and immortality – at the expense of eternal thraldom to Sauron. As well as corrupting people in power, the cult of the state has also embedded itself – with devastating effects – in our society. Much as Sauron’s corruption of Numenor saw the downfall of that once great civilisation.
Unlike Sauron, the power of the state is not tied up in a trinket in need of destruction. But likewise, we do not need to embark on a perilous quest to Mount Doom to undo the excesses of the state. All that is needed is to wake people up to the folly of excessive state interference in our society and in our lives, and make sure this manifests in the political sphere.
It’ll be easier said than done. Conservatives have a long struggle ahead. But in reality as in fiction, few great evils are cast off without a struggle. And what a story of triumph we will have to tell at the end.