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Sauron's Guise As The Necromancer In The Hobbit Explained

Everyone and their mother knows who Sauron is. The Dark Lord is one of the primary antagonists in Middle-earth's long, turbulent history. He lurks on the edge of The Hobbit story and then takes center stage in The Lord of the Rings – which is named after him, by the way.

During Bilbo's story, though, Sauron isn't reigning supreme in his fortress of Barad-dûr yet. In fact, he's nowhere near Mordor — he's far to the north, quietly tucked away in the southern part of the vast wooded region of Middle-earth known as Mirkwood. To gain some perspective, during The Hobbit, Legolas and Sauron actually live in the same woodland forest — even if they're still technically hundreds of miles apart, on opposite ends of the overgrown thicket.

While in Mirkwood, the Dark Lord lives a weird witness-protection-program-esque lifestyle, as he tries to hide from his enemies and gather his strength. During this interesting period in his career, Sauron is given the mysterious name of "the Necromancer." While the dark honorific seems appropriate, it got us wondering, if he's known as Sauron before this point and after it, why does the Dark Lord spend a chunk of time going by such a prophetically morbid title? We dug into the source material to try to find some answers. The results? The full breakdown of Sauron's guise as the Necromancer in The Hobbit.

Sauron's early history

While everyone may know the Sauron from The Lord of the Rings, the villain actually has a very long history that stretches back to the beginning of time — a history that's essential if you want to fully understand the Necromancer persona. Sauron starts off as an angelic being named Mairon. When the world is created, Mairon pretty quickly joins the then-Dark Lord Morgoth, and once he breaks bad, he never looks back. He serves Morgoth through the First Age, which ends with his master's fall during the cataclysmic War of Wrath.

During the Second Age, Sauron picks up the mantle of "Dark Lord" and begins to scheme how he, himself, can conquer Middle-earth. Rather than waging open war, he first tries to beguile the Elves by putting on a handsome physical form and befriending them under the fake name Annatar, the Lord of Gifts. While in this fake persona, Sauron helps the Elves forge most of the Rings of Power. After centuries of time spent worming his way into his enemies' affections, though, the ruse finally runs out of steam when the Dark Lord forges the One Ring in secret to try to control those wearing the other Rings of Power.

Sauron goes to war

Once Sauron creates the One Ring, the Elves become aware of his betrayal and hide their own Three Elven Rings — which Sauron did not help create. Furious that his carefully laid plans blew up in his face, Sauron gives up on the whole secretive schtick and decides to go all-in on the full-force, bully option. He gathers his servants and declares open war on all of the free peoples of Middle-earth.

The next 1,500 years or so go pretty well for the Dark Lord. He gathers most of the other Rings of Power, creates the Ringwraiths with the nine rings for mortal Men doomed to die, and spreads his power across most of the continent of Middle-earth, with the exception of a few strongholds where Men and Elves still resist him. Eventually, the powerful race of Men called the Númenóreans arrives from their island nation in the west to put a stop to the madness. Seeing the hopelessness of resisting these new, superpowered opponents, Sauron shifts back into mischievous mode and decides to slyly surrender to them rather than fight. However, once back on their island, he corrupts their king, leading to the Atlantis-like sinking of their island underneath the waves.

Sauron loses his shape for the first time

When the Númenórean homeland sinks beneath the waves, Sauron goes down with it, losing his physical form for the first time since he became the Dark Lord. But his demonic spirit doesn't die. It returns to the mainland and takes a new shape. The Silmarillion explains that once back in Mordor, Sauron "brooded in the dark, until he had wrought for himself a new shape; and it was terrible," adding that his handsome form "had departed for ever."

With his appearances now limited, the Dark Lord opts for the look that can be seen in the opening sequence of The Fellowship of the Ring. His new form is tall, hideous, and "clothed...in power." His gaze, in particular, becomes terrifying, feeding into the later concept of the "eye of Sauron" — which Tolkien never meant to be an actual fiery eyeball, by the way. The eye of Sauron is a symbol that his soldiers wear in fearful honor of his malicious glare.

It also turns out that Sauron isn't the only survivor of the Númenórean catastrophe. A group known as "The Faithful" managed to escape in their ships, too. Arriving in Middle-earth, they set up two sister kingdoms: Arnor in the north and Gondor in the South. Furious that even a small fraction of his worst enemies survived, Sauron immediately begins plotting their destruction. This sets up the scenario for the War of the Last Alliance.

Sauron loses his form again

In the War of the Last Alliance, the exiled Men join forces with Elves, Dwarves, and anyone else who will fight against the Dark Lord. As a quick aside, this is the point where one group of allies becomes cursed when they refuse to attack Sauron. This turns them into the Army of the Dead that Aragorn later summons during the War of the Ring.

Cowardly allies aside, the armies of the Last Alliance attack Mordor, and eventually, the Númenórean king Isildur cuts the One Ring off of Sauron's hand. This event ends the Second Age, scattering Sauron's surviving servants and leaving the scoundrel once again wandering bodiless across Middle-earth.

With so much of his power wrapped up in his lost Ring and having already taken a new form multiple times, Sauron physically disappears from the history books for the first millennium of the Third Age. The appendix to The Return of the King succinctly explains that during this time, "Sauron slept and the One Ring was lost." The next time he appears on the scene, he's officially in the shadowy, hard-to-make-out shape that will earn him the cognomen "Necromancer" — but before we get to that part, we need to clear a few things up.

The evolution of the Necromancer

All right, at this point, Sauron has had quite a few shapes. He's been a spiritual angel, the handsome Annatar, a bodiless demon, the terrifying Dark Lord, and then a bodiless spirit once again. After that, Sauron takes on the shadowy shape of the Necromancer, a move that initially feels a bit offbeat, considering his previous forms. It turns out, though, that the Dark Lord's Necromancer persona is actually distantly connected to Tolkien's earliest version of his archvillain.

How so? Well, in earlier versions of Tolkien's stories collected in The Silmarillion and Beren and Lúthien, one of Morgoth's chief lieutenants is Tevildo, the "Prince of Cats." Over time, as the author characteristically rewrote the narrative over and over again, the odd character was eventually replaced by a fellow named "Thû," who is described as a magician, a sorcerer, and a werewolf. He's also the earliest clearly identifiable version of Sauron in Tolkien's mythos.

Interestingly, it's this early, underdeveloped, and abandoned iteration of the miscreant that is the most closely aligned with his later character as the Necromancer. In fact, Tolkien's posthumously published book The Lays of Beleriand refers to Thû as a "necromancer" who "held his hosts of phantoms and of wandering ghosts."

A crossover villain

The question is, though, why does the power-hungry Dark Lord ultimately become associated with a character title like "the Necromancer" at this random point in his timeline? The answer seems to lie in Tolkien's simple desire to connect his first wildly successful book, The Hobbit, to his larger, then-private mythology.

Basically, according to Tolkien's own words, the Necromancer was initially just a veiled reference to Sauron, then unknown to the public. In a letter to his publisher, he explained that "the presence (even on the borders) of the terrible" is what gives The Hobbit a sense of reality, adding that "A safe fairyland is untrue to all worlds." In another letter, he mentioned that Sauron "peeped over the edge" of the story, indicating that the Necromancer was always supposed to be a personal connection between his family-friendly novel and his more intense private universe.

The thing is, The Hobbit wasn't originally supposed to be consistently integrated with The Silmarillion, so Tolkien appears to have thrown the character in as a half-thought-out tip of the hat for his own personal amusement. Then he wrote The Lord of the Rings, and everything changed. With Sauron and the One Ring taking center stage, it suddenly became important to reconcile the Necromancer of Mirkwood with Morgoth's second-in-command, Sauron. The end product? A character that dominates the Second and Third ages and ultimately has a trilogy named after him.

But what about the necromancy part?

All of this still doesn't answer one obvious question: why necromancy? After all, Sauron isn't particularly associated with communing with the dead. Likely, the title started out as a run-of-the-mill villainous name for a peripheral threat on the edges of a story for his children. Over time, though, Tolkien does seem to have gone back and woven enough factors into both Sauron's story and behavior to at least have the title make a little sense.

Take the Ringwraiths, for instance. Tolkien described the Nazgûl as supernatural slaves to the Dark Lord's will that walk "in the twilight under the eye of the dark power that rules the Rings." They exist in an "unseen" shadow realm and wield otherworldly weapons. And then there's the Dead Marshes, too. Filled with the specters of dead warriors, the marshland next to Mordor clearly reeks — both literally and figuratively — of the unsettled dead.

Finally, in another posthumous publication titled Morgoth's Ring, Tolkien mentions that "necromancers are of the host of Sauron." All of this seems to hint at the author gently trying to perpetuate the idea that dealings with the dead have always been part of the Sauron/Necromancer package.

Taking shape again

Sauron started as second-in-command to Morgoth, spent the Second Age as the Dark Lord, and then went on to begin the Third Age in bodiless, wandering exile. In the part of Sauron's story where he begins to take shape as the Necromancer, the transformation is vague and takes quite a while.

For instance, in the appendix to the Return of the King, the first time we hear of Sauron's return, it simply states that roughly 1,050 years into the Third Age, "a shadow falls on Greenwood, and men begin to call it Mirkwood." Over the next 2,000 years, Sauron slowly builds his power and attempts to take a new form. Tolkien's details are very scarce during this time, but it seems likely that he doesn't regain a solid form, such as he used to have. Instead, he probably only manages to take on the shadowy appearance that leads to his "Necromancer" title. Of course, since his primary existence is spiritual in nature, that hardly stops him from actively working behind the scenes to stir up trouble.

The Necromancer stirs up trouble

Fifty years after Sauron's shadow is first felt in Mirkwood, the wizards arrive in Middle-earth with the express purpose of resisting the possibly resurgent (though still unidentified) Dark Lord. Over the next few centuries, several events begin to reveal that the Sauron has, indeed, returned again.

A fortress, called Dol Guldur, is founded in southern Mirkwood, and it's guessed that a Ringwraith, or some other nameless evil, dwells there. Easterlings — that is, Men from the fierce tribes living further east in Middle-earth — begin to push westward, displacing the local settlers. These Men used to serve Sauron, and their arrival gives their old master some local muscle to man his new fortress. These migrations also seem to be what pushes the newbie Hobbit-folk, who lived in the area just west of Mirkwood at the time, to migrate further west, over the Misty Mountains and eventually all the way to the Shire.

By the 1,300th year of the age, the Nazgûl have officially returned, and evil is beginning to stir everywhere. Then, roughly 1,600 years into the Third Age, a sickness called the Great Plague devastates Middle-earth. In The Return of the King, it reads that the plague, "came with dark winds out of the East," and also points out that, "Later it was noted that these things happened even as the Shadow grew deep in [Mirkwood], and many evil things reappeared, signs of the arising of Sauron."

The Necromancer retreats

About 1,000 years after Sauron relocated to Dol Guldur in Mirkwood, several of his chief enemies begin to suspect that the Dark Lord himself, rather than a lone Ringwraith, is hiding in Mirkwood, and Gandalf decides to go and investigate. When he arrives in Dol Guldur, Sauron, disguised as the Necromancer, opts to evacuate for the time being so that the Grey Wizard doesn't discover who he is and spoil his comeback plans. Apparently, a millennium just isn't enough to time plot the downfall of your most bitter foes.

The Dark Lord withdraws far into the eastern regions of Middle-earth, where he has many followers and a ton of clout. In the meantime, the western portion of the continent proceeds to enjoy a 400-year stretch of peace and quiet known as the Watchful Peace. During this time, Sauron continues to prepare from far away, and even the Nazgûl stay on the down-low.

At the end of the Watchful Peace, Sauron decides that he's through cooling his heels out east, and he returns to Dol Guldur with greater power and more servants in tow. Coincidentally, just three short years later, Gollum happens to murderously stumble on the One Ring, and the White Council — the supercharged group that includes Elrond, Galadriel, Gandalf, and Saruman — is officially formed as a counterstroke to the Necromancer's return.

The Necromancer is finally revealed

At this point, the pieces are all set for the showdown between the White Council and the Necromancer — as seen in The Hobbit films. But then something strange happens. Almost 500 years go by before they attack. Why so much time? Well, initially, the group is content to watch and wait for the villain to make a move. Remember, they still haven't officially identified who this Necromancer dude is.

Eventually, Gandalf heads back to Dol Guldur and starts snooping around again. This time, he finds out that the Necromancer really is Sauron, that the Dark Lord is gathering the Rings of Power, and that he's desperately searching for the One Ring. He also discovers that the enemy is trying to hunt down the heirs of Isildur, i.e. Aragorn's family. In the books, Gandalf finds Thorin's dad, Thráin II, at this point, too, and the captured Dwarven king gives him the map of the Lonely Mountain and the key that Bilbo later uses to unlock the secret door on the mountainside.

Sauron is officially revealed

Equipped with all of this new knowledge, Gandalf urges the White Council to attack the Necromancer's stronghold. However, Sauron gets one final window of prep time when Saruman, already secretly evil at heart, delays the assault. He isn't exactly trying to help Sauron at this point, but he wants to observe the Dark Lord's movements in the hopes that he'll find out where Sauron thinks the One Ring is — so he can find it himself.

This delaying pattern goes on for several decades, until, in the same year that the events of The Hobbit take place, the White Council finally attacks the Necromancer in Dol Guldur. The fighting isn't described in the book, leaving us with Peter Jackson's slapstick duel from The Hobbit trilogy as the only real visual. Optical details aside, the Necromancer appears to be defeated and retreats, only to appear shortly afterward in Mordor. Safely ensconced in his ancient home, he finally openly declares himself as none other than the Dark Lord Sauron himself, bringing an end to his time masquerading as the Necromancer.

Poor visual portrayals

We can't officially wrap things up without a final word on a major problem with turning books into movies: when something that is vague or conceptual is taken far too literally, as is the case with Sauron. Peter Jackson provides us with a Necromancer that is shadowy yet able to confront Gandalf and then the White Council in a WWE-style duel. The Necromancer in Tolkien's original writing, though, is never portrayed as a physically capable being, especially since, with so much power and so many servants, he doesn't need to be.

Sauron in The Lord of the Rings is portrayed as a literal flaming eyeball. The "eye of Sauron" is supposed to reference his intensely malicious glare, not his actual physical form. Nevertheless, Sauron does appear to have some sort of a bodily form by the time of the War of the Ring. In The Fellowship of the Ring, Frodo sees the Eye of Sauron in Galadriel's mirror, and it's "rimmed with fire...glazed, yellow as a cat's, watchful and intent," — a creepy description but not the Dark Lord's only physical feature. In The Two Towers, Gollum also explains that "[Sauron] has only four [fingers] on the Black Hand," indicating that the Dark Lord does, at least, have a visible hand, too. What the rest of him looks like, either as the Necromancer or as Sauron, we'll never really know.