The corruption of Sauron – Timeline(s)

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We all know that Sauron was not evil in the beginning ; he was a Maia, created before Arda itself, and was involved in its creation first during the Music of the Ainur, and then during the Shaping of Arda. But we also know that he was corrupted by Melkor at one point and turned to the ‘dark side’. But when did it exactly happen? At which point did Sauron turn away from his previous master, the Vala Aulë, to join Melkor?

The answer isn’t that simple, first because we do not have a lot of specific information in Tolkien’s texts about it, secondly because the few pieces of information we have are very often contradictory. But, we can try to compile them and make a few speculations.

[Note: In order to keep it clear, I’ll only call him ‘Sauron’, even though he had quite a lot of different names and this one was given to him by the Eldar probably quite long after he was corrupted]

What do we know about Sauron? We know that he was good until Melkor took him into his service:

“Among those of his servants that have names the greatest was that spirit whom the Eldar called Sauron, or Gorthaur the Cruel. In the beginning he was of the Maiar of Aulë….” (The Silmarillion)

So far so good. But the term ‘beginning’ remains quite vague, right? So which options do we have ? quite a lot actually…

  • During the music of the Ainur

It seems to be most obvious answer for a lot of readers: during the Music, Melkor disrupted the songs and many Maiar got enmeshed in this disruption.

“…. straightway discord arose about him, and many that sang nigh him grew despondent and their thought was disturbed and their music falter; but some began to attune their music to his rather than to the thought which they had first”. (The Silmarillion)

This idea that Sauron was one of the Maiar corrupted before the actual making of Arda also appears more or less explicitly in The Unfinished Tales II where we can find a note saying that Sauron was one of the ‘Aulëan Maiar corrupted before Arda began.’ Though, I must admit this is still quite unclear, and that it can be interpreted in several ways…

Besides, in “Myths Transformed”, in which we can find an alternative version of the beginning of the world, we learn that “there were many of the Ainur of the Song willing to follow him and serve him, if he called.” (HoME X), and we can imagine that Sauron was one of them.

  • During the shaping of Arda

I’m talking of the “great labours” of the Valar, when they gave shape to the Vision of Arda they had beheld, and built lands and seas and mountains. It’s not far-fetched to imagine that the corruption of Sauron happened at this point, since we already know that “in the making of Arda, he [Melkor] endeavoured to draw Ossë to his allegiance” (The Silmarillion) – I understand ‘making’ as ‘shaping’. If he tried with Ossë, why not with Sauron?

Indeed, while the Valar were busy with the shaping of the world, Melkor smashed down their work, or corrupted it, until Tulkas showed up. Then “Melkor fled before his wrath and his laughter, and forsook Arda“ (The Silmarillion). Therefore it is possible to understand that, before Tulkas arrived, Melkor tried to corrupt more servants, including Sauron. And indeed, in “Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age”, we are told that “in the beginning of Arda Melkor seduced him to is allegiance”. ‘Beginning of Arda’ could refer to this period.

Once the world is finally well-shaped, the Spring of Arda begins. While Melkor is brooding “in the outer darkness”, the Valar decide to rest on the Ilse of Almaren. But he’s not alone in the outer darkness since “he gathered to himself spirits out of the halls of Eä that he had perverted to his service, and he deemed himself strong”(The Silmarillion). Sauron could be one of those spirits, as part of the host that came back to Arda with Melkor, oooor…. we can legitimately imagine that Sauron (who would have been corrupted during the Shaping of the world) remained in Arda after his lord left, and become one of his spies in Almaren:

“And Melkor knew of all that was done, for even then he had secret friends and spies among the Maiar who he had converted to his cause.” (The Silmarillion)

And indeed, some versions agree with this :

“Melkor knew all of that was done ; for even then he had secret friends and spies among the Maiar whom he had converted to his cause and of these the chief, as after became known, was Sauron, a great craftsman of the household of Aulë.’ The first Year of the Valar in Arda (“The Annals of Aman”, HoMe X)

In this version, it is clear that Sauron was already corrupted when he was in Almaren; it obviously happened at any point before. Moreover, in the notes of this passage, Christopher Tolkien mentions a typescript of it, with a few changes:

“Now Melkor knew all that was done ; for even then he had secret friends among the Maiar, whom he had converted to his cause whether in the first playing of the Ainulindalë or afterwards in Ëa. Of these chief, as afterwards became known as Sauron, a great craftsman of the household of Aulë.”

Those two versions not only agree about Sauron as a spy in Almaren, but it seems also to corroborate the idea of Maiar being perverted during the Music or later during the Shaping of Arda.

  • During the Spring of Arda

Yet, in most texts the name of Sauron isn’t mentioned as one of those spies, therefore we can imagine that he was corrupted only after Melkor’s return to Arda from the outer darkness, that is, during the Spring of Arda, before the destruction of the Lamps.

I think it’s quite complicated to justify this theory, if only because I don’t really see how Melkor and Sauron could meet at this point: Melkor never went to Almaren before he attacked it, so Sauron would have to leave the Isle to wander around the world and that’s how we would eventually meet Melkor, who would thus corrupt him. In this case, Sauron would be corrupted precisely during the marring of the Spring.

Anyhow, in several texts it seems obvious that Sauron was perverted before the Chaining of Melkor and served his master ever after, which could mean that he was with him when he attacked the lamps:

“…but Melkor trusting the strength of Utumno and the might of his servants, come forth suddenly to war…” (The Silmarillion)

We can also mention this excerpt from “The Later Quenta Silmarillion”, right after the destruction of the Lamps:

“In the darkness and the confusion of the seas the Valar could not at that time overcome Melkor; for his strength had increased with his malice, and he had now gathered to his service many other spirits, and many evil things also of his own making. Thus he escaped from the wrath of the Valar and far in the North he built himself a fortress, …” (HoMe X)

Sauron could be one of the “spirits”, who join Melkor before the destruction of the Lamps. Though here in the “LQS”, it is said that the construction of Utumno started after the destruction of the lamps, which contradicts the facts given ion The Silmarillion.

Nonetheless, although there are texts in which Sauron is never directly mentioned before the chaining of Melkor, one of the versions given in “Myths Transformed” explains that “When Melkor was made captive, Sauron escaped and lay hid in Middle-Earth (…) Sauron, also, who secretly repaired Angband for the help of his Master when he returned.” (HoME X), which means that he had become Melkor’s servants at one point before the Valar attacked Utumno. Christopher Tolkien explained that this quote refers to “the later story that Angband was built in the ancient days and that it was commanded by Sauron”. And indeed, we find this element in The Silmarillion or “the Later Quenta Silmarillion”, :

“The chief of his fortress was at Utumno in the North of Middle-Earth; but he made also a fortress and armoury not far from the north-western shores of the sea, to resist any assault from Aman. This was called Angband, and was commanded by Sauron, lieutenant of Melkor.” (HoME X)

  • Later?

Could Sauron be corrupted in Valinor? Before or after the captivity of Melkor ? I must admit this is not my favourite theory, and not only for the aforementioned elements. Here’s what bugs me: Obviously, Melkor never came to Valinor before his captivity. So it would imply that (not yet corrupted) Sauron would go to Middle-earth (to explore/wander?) and would there be ensnared by Melkor. It’s possible, since Melian Oromë or Yavanna would left Aman to wander in the world, so why not? But, I don’t know… it doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.

As for a corruption later, after the unchaining of Melkor, it’s not my favourite option either. It really seems to me that Sauron was already serving Melkor when the Dark Lord was chained and taken to Mandos. And quite a lot of versions agree on that. Remember what we learn in The Silmarillion about the chaining of Melkor:

“Nonetheless the Valar did not discover all the mighty vaults and caverns hidden with their deceit far under the fortress of Angband and Utumno. Many Evil things still lingered there, and others were dispersed and fled into the dark and roamed in the vast places of the world, awaiting a more evil hour; and Sauron they did not find.”

Or in the “LQS”:

“… Melkor had made also a fortress (after called Angband) as a defence against the West, if any assault should come from Valinor. This was in the command of Sauron. It was captured by the Valar, and Sauron fled into hiding; but being in haste to overthrow Melkor in his great citadel of Utumno, the Valar did not wholly destroy Angband nor search out all its deep places; and thither Sauron returned and many other creatures of Melkor., and there they waited in hope for the return of their master” (HoME XI)

Yet, there are earlier versions in which Angband is built only after Melkor left Valinor with the Silmarils, whereas in The Silmarillion, Angband hasn’t yet been rebuilt when Melkor returns :

“ … far beneath the ruined halls of Angband, in vaults which the Valar in the haste of their assault had not descended, Balrogs lurked still, awaiting ever the returns of their lord”.

Balrogs indeed, but no Sauron here… And indeed, in several versions, it appears that Sauron was perverted in Valinor, after the unchaining of Melkor ; for instance, in “The Quenta Silmarillion” that we can find in HoME V, Christopher Tolkien commented :

“The statement that Morgoth suborned Sauron ‘in Valinor from among the people of the Gods’ is notable. The implication must be that at this period my father conceived Sauron to have followed Morgoth when he fled to Middle-Earth accompanied by Ungoliantë.”

And indeed, in the “Quenta Silmarillion” in HoMe V, this idea appears several times. Likewise, in, the « Quenta » (HoMe IV), a note for chapter 9 mentions “Sauron his servant in Valinor whom he suborned”, while in The “LQS” there’s a passage which obviously follows that idea:

“Sauron was the chief servant of the evil Vala, whom he had suborned to his service in Valinor from among the people of the gods” (HoME XI),

A sentence which Tolkien himself altered:

“Now Sauron, whom the Noldor call Gorthu, was the chief servant of Morgoth. In Valinor he had dwelt among the people of the Gods, but there Morgoth had drawn him to evil and to his service.”

In the famous letter to Waldman, Tolkien wrote:

“In the Silmarillion and tales of the first age, Sauron was a being of Valinor perverted to the service of the enemy and becoming his chief captain and servant.” (Letters 131)

We see that in some texts, Sauron is said to have dwelt among the Valar in Valinor, so after the destruction of the Lamps (unless you take the later version given in “Myths Transformed” in which there’s no lamp at all); he was good when he arrived in Valinor, and would have been perverted while living there. Therefore he wasn’t lieutenant of Angband, he wasn’t a spy in Almaren, and he has never been to Utumno.

Yet, in the “LQS”, there’s a note about another alteration made by Tolkien himself :

“Sauron…Who served Morgoth even in Valinor and came with him’ changed to ‘… Who served Morgoth long ago and came with him into the world.” (HoME XI)

Both sentences are interesting : the first one seems to imply that Sauron went to Valinor as a servant of Melkor ; does it mean he would have been corrupted before, as we saw above, and followed the Valar as a spy? Or does it mean that he was corrupted during his time in Valinor? Anyway, Tolkien discarded this version to return to the idea that Sauron was corrupted before his coming into Arda.

So this is something that existed: Sauron who would have never been to Utumno, and Melkor who wouldn’t have been alone with the spider during the Darkening of Valinor. It questions a lot of things and appears only in some early texts, but it can be a thing.
Let’s sum-up our speculations:

  • During the Music – Or at any point before they descend into Arda
  • During the Shaping of Arda
  • During the time of Almaren where Sauron would have been corrupted between the moment Melkor came back into Arda and the destruction of the Lamps
  • After the destruction of the Lamps, when Sauron was in Valinor; Sauron would go to Middle-earth for some reasons, and Melkor would find him there (?)
  • After Melkor’s captivity in Valinor

To make it somewhat clearer, I created this rough timeline ; the time-laps aren’t respected and I only mentioned the main events that interest us in the scope of this post, but it might help. (Italics for the events which happened at different periods depending on the texts)

timeline Sauron

My opinion?

Personally, I favour the idea of the corruption happening during the Shaping of Arda, or at least at any point before the Spring of Arda. Indeed, I like the idea of Sauron being a spy in Almaren, I think it matches the character pretty well and the implications are remarkably interesting both in terms of characterization and relationships to the other Ainur (I think of Curumo aka Saruman, among others). Besides, Sauron being the lieutenant of Angband long before the destruction of Utumno is also something I think is worth imagining, along with his possible involvement in the destruction of the Lamps and later, the reconstruction of Angband in his master’s absence.

By the way, we know there are “fell beasts” and “evil” creatures in and around Beleriand before the return of Melkor.

“Wolves there were, or creatures that walked in wolf-shape, and other fell beings of shadow; and among them were the Orcs, who afterwards wrought ruin in Beleriand: but they were yet few and wary, and did but smell out the ways of the land, awaiting the return of their lords.” (The Silmarillion)

We know that Sauron was Lord of werewolves, and could turn into a wolf, so that’s a first hint about his presence in Beleriand during Melkor’s captivity.

Furthermore, in one of Tolkien’s late thoughts about the Orcs in “Myths Transformed” (one in which the Orcs are not corrupted Elves but corrupted Men, whose awakening happened sooner than in The Silmarillion), Sauron takes an important part in the creation of the Orcs; it seems to me that it can be the case only if he was with his master before the Awakening of the Elves, that is at least since the destruction of the Lamps.

“While Morgoth still stood, Sauron did not seek his own supremacy but worked and schemed for another, desiring the triumph of Melkor, whom in the beginning he had adored. He thus was often able to achieve things, first conceived by Melkor, which his master did not or could not complete in the furious haste of his malice.

We may assume, then, that the idea of breeding the orcs came from Melkor … the details of the accomplishment of this wickedness were, however, left mainly to the subtleties of Sauron. In that case the conception in mind of the Orcs may go back into the night of Melkor’s thoughts, though the beginning of their actual breeding must await the awakening of Men.

When Melkor was made captive, Sauron escaped and lay hid in Middle-earth, and t can in this way be understood how the breeding of the Orcs (no doubt already begun) went on with increasing speed during the age when the Noldor dwelt in Aman.” (HoME X)

I find this version absolutely fascinating and I must confess it is my favourite, because here we have all the wickedness and cruelty of Sauron already at work before the First Age of the Sun, along with an undying loyalty to his master that makes the character of Sauron so interesting.

I have no real conclusion to this article, as you ca see there are a lot of different and incompatible versions. but I’d love to know what you think of all this. Do you have other theory? Which timeline do you favour and why??

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