A Question of Evil: Who was the Greatest Tyrant of Middle-earth?
J.R.R Tolkien’s works regarding Middle-earth are about a world plagued by cyclical conflict. The most devastating and profound of these conflicts seem to be caused by one main antagonist, most often referred to as a ‘dark lord’.
This title usually went to a tyrant who was the main antagonist of Middle-earth of their era and often described as dressed in black or wearing black armor and bent on conquest. Most people today look on this trope as being very one-dimensional and try to walk a fine line between its inclusion and the villain being more nuanced. Take Game of Thrones’ Cersei Lannister and Daenerys Targaryen for example.
Within the universe of Middle-earth, specifically the Silmarillion, there have been three beings who have been described as holding the title of ‘tyrant’, with two them specifically referred to as dark lords: Melkor, Sauron, and Ar-Pharazon. The last one might be a little surprising but I’ll get to that. What I wanted to look at was that from an in-universe perspective, who was the greatest of the tyrants?
Morgoth A.K.A Melkor was the first tyrant, the OG dark lord that first gave birth to both the behavior, the titles, and set the standards for what made an evil ruler. He was one of the original spirits who entered Arda from beyond when Illuvatar created it and commissioned the Valar to govern and shape it according to his grand design. From the beginning, Melkor tried to hijack the project out of envy, trying to commandeer the vision and wanting to create things of his own as his own creator would. Yet though he was described as the greatest of the Valar at that time, the ability to create life was beyond his power set. Aule, another of the Valar ran into a similar problem when he created the race of the Dwarves. Yet they had no spirit to them and were not truly alive until Illuvatar chose to ‘adopt’ them and give them the fire of life.
Yet while Aule was grateful, Melkor was bitter, which only grew until all he could truly do was to hijack the world by force from his brethren in spite of them and Illuvatar’s plan. Melkor had a share of all the other Valar’s abilities, so that made him the natural strongest at first. The conflict resulted in Middle-earth being much less than what it should have been. Though ultimately pushed back, Melkor had succeeded in turning a number of other spirits to his cause: probably by virtue of strength as he was still one of the strongest within that realm. Melkor showed that his true talents were destruction, corruption, and perversion, and this tendency continued through the primordial era and the First Age.
All throughout his career, Melkor is driven by his sense of entitlement, being the first above all others. Melkor’s preferred tactic was intimidation and brute force. He was the school yard bully, but on a much more malicious level. He saw the other Valar as rivals, especially those who either had the ability to compete with him, subvert his intentions, or controlled something that he could not. Everyone else was inferior and servants and he maintained this belief even after he had become weaker later on. Melkor hated being shown up as the actual lesser person by anyone, but especially weaker species. Feanor, Fingolfin, Hurin, and Melian are prime examples of this.
Melkor is the one who sets up the field for his successors and everything else that happens in Middle-earth. He successfully damaged it to such a degree that the Valar retreated to a portion of it they were able to save called Valinor. He kidnaps and tortures Elves to create their offshoot, the Orcs, who were perversions of the Elves and a mockery to Illuvatar. Again he took something as his own that he did not create and twisted it. Like Aule, he knows how to create biological vessels for the spirits he converts. This is I think is another type of copycat mockery in that where Illuvatar created the bodies of Middle-earth and gave them the Spirit of Fire that gave them life, Melkor could only create bodies that his servants then inhabited, but not souls.
What he cannot control, he hates. And what he hates he destroys. Even when he is forced to take slower, softer tactics, the goal remains the same: because he didn’t make it.
This obsession however drains him. The more he pours his essence into corrupting Middle-earth and empowering his armies, the less power he has within himself until even powerful Miar, who are still less powerful than Valar, are able resist him. He is also only able to effectively control the northwestern half of all Middle-earth by the time of his final defeat. So Melkor was powerful, but was a blunt object and blind or unable to focus on events and individuals that could subvert and ultimately ruin him.
Sauron is a name even non-Lord of the Rings fans know and is synonymous with ever-present evil and ambition in modern pop-culture. In-universe, he was a powerful Miar who originally worked under the Vala, Aule. At some point, Melkor turns him and he goes AWOL to join his cause, eventually becoming the greatest of his generals during the First Age. Sauron was the one who controlled Melkor’s armies and ran his base at Angband while the dark lord was imprisoned after his first defeat. He is also the one who led an assault on the strategic Elven fortress of Minas Tirith during the Dagor Bragollach war. It’s here he starts to show what later becomes his stock and trade.
Instead of simply trying to overrun the fortification with brute force as his master would have done, the Miar resorts first to a Middle-earth equivalent of psychological warfare. By the time he does bring in Orcs and werewolves to take Minas Tirith down, the defenders were already too terrified to put up much of a fight, fleeing or dying if they stood their ground.
This tactic becomes Sauron’s staple and is what truly sets him apart from both the other generals of Melkor during the Beleriand wars, and also both Melkor and later Ar-Pharazon themselves. Sauron’s default is to undermine his enemies to get what he wants. He discovers the whereabouts of the rebels of Dorothinion by deceiving one of them into thinking he has his wife. He ‘holds back’ when dealing with Beren and his Elven companions instead of outright killing them all, believing that one of them knows more than the others, killing them one by one instead to see who cracks.
By the Second Age, Sauron has perfected this craft, embodied in the rings of power created with the very help of the deceived Noldor Elves of Eregion. Not to first overrun them as Melkor would, but to rule through their minds. Melkor had been a blunt instrument whereas Sauron was a scalpel. This lessened physical resistance to his reign and deeper entrench his control into the societies of Middle-earth. His greatest accomplishment with this technique however was accelerating the fall of his greatest rival, Ar-Pharazon and the Numenorean empire. Sauron understood what the other two tyrants did not: the best type of control is not through the fist, but the mind. Perhaps this was a lesson he learned from the fall of his master, who was defeated when greater powers of the Army of the West still defeated his own vast hordes.
Yet, just because he used psychological warfare doesn't mean Sauron couldn’t bring the hammer down when he needed to.
When the Noldor of the Second Age catch on to his plans for controlling them through the rings, Sauron changes strategies to the more traditional approach, starting all out war throughout Middle-earth until defeated by the might of Numenor. During the Third Age, he continues to inspire warfare against the surviving Numenorean empires via his proxies of allied Human nations and the Orcs.
And Sauron was still a Miar. And not only a Miar, but one of the strongest of that race. His very presence was enough to break most enemies. It’s said even Gandaolf was reluctant to face him because he was stronger, though the real question being if that remained the case after his resurrection.
Still, Sauron was not a kinder, gentler dark lord. If anything, his softer tactics hid Sauron’s more malicious and sadistic nature that even exceeded Melkor’s. Both Melkor and Ar Pharazon were clearly not beyond cruelty, but they served as means to an end. Sauron actually enjoyed torture and tormenting others and this was something that was his and his alone. He was a psychopath and had a fetish for death by werewolf during the First Age, even taking the form himself to challenge Huan, the great hound of Valinor. And burning people alive during the Second Age when he had control over Ar-Pharazon, turning it into an industry. He laughed when the Numenor was about to fall while people were still being burned alive, probably assuming he knew how it would play out and anticipated his survival.
Still, Sauron’s use of overwhelming force when necessary and jealousy/vindictiveness when he could not overcome an opponent, show that he had learned from his master. One potential reason why he chose not to resort to force from the get go during the Second Age maybe that he did not have the numbers or the power to control the numbers of evil forces in Middle-earth that Melkor did. The twice imprisoned Vala had not just Orcs, werewolves, and allied Easterlings at his disposal, but Balrogs and greatest of all, dragons. The last two often either used at the beginning of his campaigns or as reserve force when the other armies could not prevail, since the Noldor, Dwarves, and Humans could take them if they had the numbers.
After the First Age though, the Orcs were depleted and later generations were less than they had been in the First Age. The Balrogs were all but gone and the dragons that survived the War of Wrath had scattered to the northeast of Middle-earth. It’s interesting to note as well that Sauron did not try to recruit the last Balrog, Durin’s bane, and Smaug, the last winged-dragon into his service. Both beings were great enough threats that Gandolf spent many decades hunting them down and awaiting the opportunity to remove them. One would think that Sauron would want such advantages. Were they too independent? Did Sauron not have the ability to seduce or cow them into his service as he had others?
Either way, though his available resources were still great, they were still lesser compared to what Melkor had. So using psychology and being more creative in his use of hard and soft methods would have benefited Sauron better.
Yet Sauron also suffered under the same restrictions that Melkor did: the more power he poured out into a proxy (the rings of power) the more vulnerable his own person was. And he still only controlled a portion of Middle-earth. And though he was not blind as Melkor was to being undermined or when force would not avail him, Sauron was still arrogant enough to fall into a false sense of security if he believed he had all the cards.
Ar Pharazon is an interesting mention because I think most people would not put a mortal king, even a Numenorean, anywhere close to the same tier as evil, immortal divine beings. Melkor and Sauron were older than Arda itself and had powers that any mortal could only dream of. And they had long established records of evil that no mortal could seemingly ever match . Yet there’s a reason why I included the last High King of Numenor.
Ar Pharazon and Numenorean culture had begun their fall on their own. They grew and prospered during a time where there was no dark lord. They were the blessed survivors and descendants of the mortals that fought against Melkor, living twice or three times as long as other Humans. They had enhanced senses, intelligence, and strength and spent those abilities exploring the known world and evolving their culture to the point where they even outmatched the Noldor. Numenor had become so successful that with the exception of Valinor, no part of Middle-earth was foreign to them and their influence was global.
The problem was that they were never made for having increased lifespans. This began to crossover into the deeper mysteries of Arda where the sensitivity between the spiritual, physical, and time itself becomes much greater and intense. As time drew on, it became a gnawing sensation that the Numenoreans had increasing difficulty just accepting and wanted more. By the time of Ar-Pharazon, it had gotten so bad that the race became more like an oppressive empire and severing all ties with the High Elves in Middle-earth and of Valinor.
Their amazing abilities were now applied to warfare, which fortunately for Middle-earth, was directed against the the armies of Sauron, the only real challenge to their power. Ar Pharazon was a veteran of these wars and therefore well respected by all Numenoreans. Yet his line was even more under the influence of desiring immortality than the rest of his people, so much so that he took the throne as his own against his culture’s tradition and immediately set about building up a large enough force to overrun Sauron’s armies.
To this end, he nearly had his chance, had Sauron not surrendered as soon as he saw the army himself. It is a testament to the power of Numenor and Ar-Pharazon that even a divine dark lord from days before Arda and superior in almost every other way to a Human, backed down and submitted to them without a fight. In fact it had been the king’s idea to bring Sauron to Numenor and not the Miar’s because he wanted a divine spirit as a trophy and was not yet under his influence.
By nature, Ar Pharazon was more alike to Melkor than arguably Sauron. He too ruled through intimidation of power and brute force because of a narcissistic sense of entitlement. The High King had zero subtlety and tolerated no rivals to his power.
And like with Melkor and Sauron, this was not without merit either as the Numenoreans effectively controlled all of Middle-earth except for parts controlled by Sauron, Valinor and the small provinces where the Elves and Dwarves still had some power. And even they, who had fought with Melkor, dared not challenge the Numenoreans.
To this end, Ar-Pharazon had achieved something that neither Melkor nor Sauron had: total control with no resistance. That had been both darklords’ dream all along.
Now this all happened even before Sauron appeared in Numenor, so he had no hand in those developments except as a rival power. That said, the Silmarillion does point that once in Numenor, the Miar successfully manipulated and controlled Ar Pharazon and through him, Numenor, causing them to become much more cruel and to declare war on the Valar. This was perhaps Sauron’s tactics working to near- perfection, with the only detriment being the rebellion of the faithful Numenoreans and the unforeseen, direct intervention of Illuvutar himself in Numenor’s destruction and changing the shape of the world. Yet, Sauron was still just the accelerator, not the ignition.
Yet even so, this also speaks to the power of this tyrant, Ar Pharazon. Melkor sought to take control even during Arda’s planning and for a time controlled it or large portions of it. Sauron too controlled large portions of Middle-earth at the height of his power before the intervention of the Numenoreans, the Noldor and Sindar Elves, and the Dwarves of Khazad Dum blocked his progress. In both cases, the responsibility of checking the dark lords’ power was left to the Valar and usually the armies of Middle-earth, with Iluvatar only intervening in small matters such as the fate of Beren and Luthien.
Then Ar Pharazon rises to power, whose corruption was magnified by Sauron and becomes such a threat that now Illuvutar decides he needs to intervene in the most powerful and destructive way that Middle-earth had ever or will ever see. In an earlier blog, I had posited that the reason for this apocalyptic and drastic measure was because for whatever reason, neither Melkor or Sauron were truly a threat to the Illuvutar’s grand scheme. In the beginning in fact, the maker says that he was going to incorporate Melkor’s chaotic efforts into his plan just to prove to his omniscience.
Ar Pharazon and Numenor I believe were not part of that plan-or rather their longevity was not. Though it was clear that war in Valinor would have resulted in their loss anyway because of the power of the Valar and Miar living there, the conflict itself would have damaged the last vestiges of the near-pristine vision of Arda preserved from the primordial times and exposed mortals to even more supernatural elements they were not designed for.
"And Sauron came. Even from his mighty tower of Barad-dûr he came, and made no offer of battle. For he perceived that the power and majesty of the Kings of the Sea surpassed all rumour of them, so that he could not trust even the greatest of his servants to withstand them; and he saw not his time yet to work his will with the Dúnedain. And he was crafty, well skilled to gain what he would by subtlety when force might not avail."- The Silmarillion
The Worst of the Worst
So all three tyrants were evil, violent, cruel, and maliciously ambitious. All three had caused much suffering to the peoples of Middle-earth during their respective eras. All three were nuanced in their own particular way that made them more than just a rolling tidal wave of evil. Yet who was the greatest?
I suppose it depends on your definition of ‘greatest’. What are the qualifications to claim the title? For me, I would have to judge it by the level of effort to stop their ambitions. And for that, I would have to say Ar-Pharazon was most likely the greatest tyrant.
In terms of sheer power and longevity of control, the natural consensus would be Melkor. Especially since he was the blueprint for what defined a tyrant and his essence corrupted the world. However, Sauron had improved upon Melkor’s methods and devised a better way to rule via psychology and proxy, with direct force being a secondary measure. And though he controlled Middle-earth through Numenor, that had never been his original intention, but an forced improvisation. Taking advantage of the state that the culture’s downward spiral was already in.
Numenor was also already in control by the time Sauron turned their efforts against Valinor. Ar Pharzon had achieved the ultimate goal of the other dark lords by controlling the world with no opposition until he picked a fight with Valinor, which neither spirit had been able to do with all their power. And the result of this forced Illuvatar himself into a more hands-on approach, causing the greatest damage to Middle-earth that even the combined might of all the powers of Valinor would not have been able to pull off and that left Sauron astounded.
© 2020 Jamal Smith