How Sauron Died and Lost His True Form on Rings of Power
Deciphering the Dark Lord's Mysteries in the Amazon Series
Mae govannen, friends! Josh here. This week’s newsletter is a guest piece from, a Jokien with Tolkien subscriber who is a media scholar and film critic specializing in essays about multiple versions of movies who also writes film and TV criticism both on his Substack and on Medium.
In today’s piece, Mikhail analyzes the depiction of Sauron in Amazon’s The Rings of Power, specifically investigating his various forms and comparing it to the source material such as The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion. I enjoyed his thorough exploration of the subject and it prompted a lot of thoughts and even some follow-up discussion between the two of us! (Always a good sign in these sorts of things). I am excited for you all to read it too, so I’ll wrap this introduction up and let you get to the good stuff! Be sure to subscribe to his Substack if you enjoy and appreciate it!
Final note: this article—naturally—has many spoilers for season 1 of The Rings of Power. If you still haven’t seen it but don’t want anything spoiled, bookmark this article and come back after you’ve watched the first season.
How Sauron Died and Lost His True Form on Rings of Power
Deciphering the Dark Lord's Mysteries in the Amazon Series
In this article, I provide a deep dive into the portrayal of the villainous Sauron in the Amazon Original series, The Rings of Power (ROP), which adapts the Second Age storylines from J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic fantasy The Lord of the Rings (LOTR).
Specifically, I posit that, contrary to expectations, Sauron as we see him throughout the show’s first season is not a powerful shapeshifter that can willingly change form, but rather a crippled sorcerer who lost his true form after dying and returning to life.
To illustrate this, I will analyze textual evidence from the show’s first season, connecting it to the depiction of Sauron in the literary source material. I will then extrapolate Sauron’s backstory in the show prior to his first true appearance in the present-day plotline and speculate about what this could mean for his future in the series.
Table of Contents
The Sauron Mystery and the Halbrand Reveal
Evidence that Sauron Can’t Change Form
Source Material Limitations
The Stranger’s story
Analysis and Speculation
The Sauron Mystery and the Halbrand Reveal
The first season of ROP follows a number of parallel storylines. One of the primary threads follows the elven Galadriel as she pursues the Dark Lord Sauron across the world. It thus sets up the mystery of Sauron, getting the audience to wonder:
“Where is Sauron? Who is Sauron? Is Sauron one of the main characters?”
The very first time we see Sauron is during a prologue that Galadriel narrates about the destruction of the Elven Tree and the fall of the shadow. Here, Sauron appears as a tall humanoid figure clad head to toe in spiky black armor, much as he does in the prologue sequence of Jackson’s LOTR trilogy.
It is safe to assume that this is Sauron's Original or “True” form, given his description as a “Dark Lord” and the fact that this is Sauron’s first form in order of appearance. From here on in then, I will also refer to this as his Armored Dark Lord (ADL) form.*
* This is supported by the fact that in 1.08, when Sauron shows Galadriel a potential future, his reflection in a lake corresponds to his ADL form. Now, it is possible that Sauron might have an actual face underneath his armor, but this is not pertinent here.
As the plot progresses, the series raises the suspicion that Sauron is possibly walking around Middle-Earth in a new guise. Several suspects arise in Galadriel’s thread, while others are introduced in the other characters’ storylines. But eventually, the finale reveals that Sauron is actually Halbrand (Charlie Vickers), a human from the Southlands, whom Galadriel first meets while lost at sea in Episode 2.
It is under the guise of Halbrand that Sauron manipulates the Elves in the S1 finale to produce 3 Rings of Power. Upon this reveal, it becomes evident that at some point after his first chronological appearance, Sauron had taken on a human form, one considerably smaller and less imposing than the towering ADL Form of the prologue.
Now, I’m pretty sure that this led many fans and casual viewers to believe that Sauron is a shapeshifter and that he had specifically taken on the guise of Halbrand to deceive and manipulate Galadriel. This would certainly correspond to The Silmarillion, where Sauron is defined as an immortal spirit called a “Maia” with the ability to take on many forms at will, allowing him to deceive and manipulate others to his own ends.
“Of old there was Sauron the Maia… Melkor seduced him into his allegiance, and he became the greatest and most trusted of the servants of the Enemy, and the most perilous, for he could assume many forms, and for long if he willed he could still appear noble and beautiful, so as to deceive all but the most wary.”1
However, the plot of ROP S1 presents a lot of evidence that indicates that Sauron, in fact, is NOT capable of changing forms at will, at least within the story’s present.
Evidence that Sauron Can’t Change Form
To begin with, we never actually see Sauron perform any shapeshifting on-screen whatsoever. To an extent, this is a means of concealing Halbrand’s true identity from the audience until the finale. But at the same time, Sauron doesn’t change form even when it logically would make sense for him to do so. When first introduced as Halbrand, he’s adrift on a small raft, stuck with a bunch of sailors who lost their ship to a sea serpent two weeks after setting off for parts unknown.
Now, why would Sauron, despite being a shapeshifter, choose to travel in the form of a man from the Southlands? And why would he remain in this form after the serpent attack? Wherever he was going, couldn’t he have taken a form better suited for travel, such as that of a bird, or a vampire?* He clearly had no idea he’d come upon Galadriel.
*At one point in The Silmarillion, he is said to turn into a vampire and fly away after being bested in battle.
Similarly, why does he remain as Halbrand in Númenor? Why not take the form of a Númenórean to better blend in with the crowd? Why not quickly change shape after leaving the tavern and stealing the guild crest? He could’ve avoided engaging the group of rowdy Númenóreans in a fight and getting himself arrested.
One might argue that Sauron appears as Galadriel’s brother during the reveal in 1.08. However, once again, we don’t actually witness any act of shapeshifting. Instead, Sauron makes Galadriel see a series of illusions, literally getting inside her head.*
*This notably occurs in contrast to the final battle of the Stranger with the Mystics, where we see The Ascetic actively shapeshift multiple times.
Then, there is the final scene of S1, where Sauron still appears as Halbrand while overlooking Mount Doom, which is reflected in his eye. It is clearly foreshadowing Sauron’s future as the ‘Great Eye’ from the LOTR novels and films.
It also functions as a statement of purpose, letting the audience know that Mount Doom is where Sauron is next headed. The fact that Sauron remains as Halbrand is thus accentuated by its placement as the final scene of the season. In other words, it is presented as significant that he doesn’t transform. But why?
Why does he not shapeshift back into his True ADL Form?
At this point in the story, he is all by himself, with nobody else surrounding him. He has also been exposed, at least to Galadriel, and ousted from Eregion. Thus, it now makes no logical sense for him to maintain the disguise.
The simplest explanation then is that Sauron can’t change into his true form. And this is supported by the source material of ROP, which is NOT The Silmarillion.
Source Material Limitations on Sauron
It is important to keep in mind that what we see and hear in an adaptation always depends on which source material the producers legally have access to. To produce ROP, Amazon initially secured the rights specifically to the Second Age material within the plot and Appendices of LOTR, as well as The Hobbit.
This means the ROP writers and producers were restricted from adapting anything exclusive to the larger and more detailed account of the Second Age’s history from The Silmarillion, not to mention other Tolkien-related sources, such as Unfinished Tales.
““We have the rights solely to The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, The Return of the King, the appendices, and The Hobbit,” Payne says. “And that is it. We do not have the rights to The Silmarillion, Unfinished Tales, The History of Middle-earth, or any of those other books.”
“There’s a version of everything we need for the Second Age in the books we have the rights to,” McKay says. “As long as we’re painting within those lines and not egregiously contradicting something we don’t have the rights to, there’s a lot of leeway and room to dramatize and tell some of the best stories that [Tolkien] ever came up with.””
Source: Joanna Robinson, Vanity Fair, Feb 14. 2022
Outside of LOTR and The Silmarillion, other Tolkien sources are largely irrelevant to the Second Age. Both books delve into the history of this era, describing how Sauron had seduced the Elven Smiths into forging the Rings of Power, created the One Ring, manipulated the Númenóreans into taking actions that lead to the fall of Númenor, and was overthrown in a final battle by the Last Alliance of Elves and Men.
But there are some crucial differences between these sources when it comes to the topic of Sauron and his role during that time period.
In contrast to The Silmarillion, the text and Appendices of LOTR never delve into Sauron’s origins as one of the Maiar, who are “spirits whose being also began before the World of the same order as the Valar but of less degree.”2
Sauron is certainly said to have a spirit in LOTR multiple times, but information concerning the divine nature of his spirit and its related context concerning the origins of the world via song are all exclusive to The Silmarillion.
When recounting the history of the Second Age in LOTR, Lord Elrond claims Sauron was able to manipulate the Elves as he was “not yet evil to behold.”3 Similarly, the Appendices mention that he had appeared in a “form fair to the eyes of men….”4
But Sauron is never referred to as “Annatar, the Lord of Gifts,” which per The Silmarillion, is the name he gave to himself “in that time when he appeared in a fair form” to the Elves.5 Instead, it is repeatedly described that Sauron, or more specifically his spirit, changes shape in response to death and/or defeat.*
*I’d argue that, contrary to what Patrick McKay has claimed in an interview with Vulture, this is the actual reason why the showrunners of ROP ultimately chose to create the character of Halbrand for the series. The source material permitted them to have Sauron appear in a ‘form fair to the eyes of men,’ but Annatar and the narrative specificities pertaining to him were legally unavailable. Halbrand is thus the ROP stand-in for Annatar, designed to work within the limits of what the show is allowed to adapt.
Consider the following dialogue from Gandalf to Frodo in Chapter 2 of Fellowship of the Ring (“The Shadow of the Past”), where he describes Sauron as a Shadow:
“Always after a defeat and respite, the Shadow takes another shape and grows again.”6
When describing the battle that ended the Second Age one page later, he states:
“Then Sauron was vanquished and his spirit fled and was hidden for long years, until his shadow took shape again in Mirkwood.”7
In The Appendices, it is explicitly stated that Sauron changes form after dying during the drowning of Númenor. Per the Books then, this is the event that leads to him appearing in the iconic ADL Form that we see in the openings of LOTR and ROP:
“Sauron was indeed caught in the wreck of Númenor, so that the bodily form in which he long had walked perished; but he fled back to Middle-Earth, a spirit of hatred borne upon a dark wind. He was unable ever again to assume a form that seemed fair to men, but became black and hideous, and his power thereafter was through terror alone.”8
Now, the last line of this passage may be read as an implication that Sauron previously could take on different forms at will, but this cannot be explicitly confirmed unless one takes into account the background info about Sauron provided in The Silmarillion.
What we know for certain from the specific context of LOTR then is that Sauron only assumes a new form after his current form is destroyed, a process that also appears to diminish his power. After physically dying, he needs time to rest, recover, and rebuild/resurrect himself. It can also be inferred that, per the Books, his Original Form was the one that appeared fair to men and was not evil to behold. At the very least, I have not found any references to his shape-changing that suggest otherwise.
Given that the producers of ROP were limited only to Second Age material from LOTR, they’d have to ascribe to this internal logic when it comes to depicting Sauron in the series. If so, then it would mean Sauron did not willingly assume Halbrand’s form. Rather, he was forced to do so after suffering a physical death, which led to the loss of his original form and, with that, a measure of his power. This would certainly fit together with the show’s implications that Sauron cannot shapeshift at will.
Strengthening this possibility is the fact that there is much evidence throughout ROP S1 that Sauron had died prior to assuming the Halbrand identity. To illustrate this, I am going to discuss the plot threads concerning Adar and The Stranger.
Initially introduced as a potential alias for Sauron, the mysterious Adar (Joseph Mawle) quickly proves himself to be a distinct antagonist and easily one of the most interesting characters in ROP. Much about him is revealed in Episode 6 when Galadriel interrogates him after defeating his Orc army with the Númenóreans.
We learn that Adar was once an elf, who was transformed into a proto-Orc and so became the father of a new race. According to Adar, for a time after the fall of Morgoth, Sauron was his master but one who had no love for Adar’s children, the Orcs (or ‘Uruks’ as he puts it). In the North, Sauron repeatedly experimented on the Orcs to find a way to forge a new form of power (which would ultimately lead to the titular Rings), killing many of his servants in the process.
Eventually, Adar couldn’t take it anymore. He turned against his master and murdered him, taking over leadership of the Orcs. As far as he knows, Sauron is dead.
“He bid as many as he could follow him far north. But try as he might, something was missing…. No matter how much blood he spilt in its pursuit…. For my part, I sacrificed enough of my children for his aspirations. I split him open. I killed Sauron.”
Adar to Galadriel, ROP - “Episode 6: Udun,” 47:00
I’m certain that first-time viewers, especially those versed in the source material, are disinclined to believe that what Adar says is true, much like Galadriel. However, there’s a great deal of proof that Adar is NOT lying.
For one thing, consider what we see in Episode 5.
When Waldreg – one of the Southland humans - first encounters Adar, he mistakes him for Sauron and swears loyalty. Incensed, Adar quickly dispels his mistake by having him murder his friend as proof of fealty. This establishes that not only is Adar not Sauron, but that he hates being mistaken for and associated with him.
For another, there is the fact that at no point does Adar express an interest in the creation of a new power over flesh. Rather, his agenda is always shown to be that of conquering the Southlands and creating a new home for the Orc race. This would put him at odds with Sauron and signifies that he does not recognize Sauron’s authority.*
*Heck, Halbrand later refers to him as his ‘enemy’ when Galadriel learns the truth.
Finally, there are Adar’s interactions with Halbrand. In Episode 6, a clearly furious Halbrand corners Adar and is about to kill him before Galadriel gets him to stay his hand. The dialogue here is very intriguing, especially in hindsight:
H: “You remember me?”
A (beat): “No.”
G: Stop! We need him alive! I need him alive.
H: “You don’t know what he did!”
A: “Did I cause someone you love pain? A woman? Perhaps a child?”
Source: ROP - “Episode 6: Udun,” 44:00
Later on, after Halbrand similarly convinces Galadriel to not kill Adar in a fury, Adar asks Halbrand: “Who are you?”
When you revisit these exchanges with the knowledge that Halbrand is really Sauron in disguise, it becomes evident that Adar does not know that Halbrand is really Sauron (which is why he doesn’t remember or recognize him) and that he clearly did something to Sauron previously that is enough to make Sauron really, really hate him.
So, let’s summarize what we know about their history following the identity reveal:
Adar clearly hates Sauron.
Adar evidently usurped Sauron, as he is in command of the Orcs in the present, and has his own agenda distinct from Sauron’s attempt to find control over flesh.
Sometime between the end of the First Age and his reappearance on the raft where he meets Galadriel, Sauron transformed into Halbrand.
Halbrand personally hates Adar for something Adar did to him.
Adar doesn’t recognize Halbrand and is puzzled by his animosity toward him.
Altogether, these details suggest that Adar indeed killed Sauron and it was only after this that Sauron changed form, meaning his death and his assumption of Halbrand’s appearance are causally linked events. This is why Halbrand hates Adar: Adar stabbed him in the back and took his original form from him. It is also why Adar doesn’t recognize Halbrand, for the last time he saw his master, Sauron looked very differently. All this fits the logic of Sauron’s form-changing per LOTR.
The Stranger’s Story
Now, let’s talk about the plotline of The Stranger (Daniel Weyman).
Prior to the Halbrand reveal in the S1 finale, the series positions him as the most likely Sauron suspect, introducing multiple red herrings. First, his arrival visually connotes a sort of birth, as though something new or other arrived in this world, a reading supported by his childlike behavior and display of immense magic power.
Then there is also the fact that multiple Sauron loyalists believe that the ‘starfall’ in the premiere episode is a sign of Sauron’s return following a period of absence or disappearance. In 1.04, Waldreg tells Theo that Sauron “was lost, but shall return” and that what occurred in the sky “means his time is near.”
Later on in 1.05, three ‘Mystics’ locate the scorched remains of the Stranger’s meteorite and begin tracking him. We get confirmation at the start of 1.08 that they were looking for Sauron, as when they find the Stranger, and announce to him that he IS Sauron and they are there to serve him.
As they and the viewers later discover, however, this is a case of mistaken identity. The Stranger is not Sauron, but an “Istar,” aka a ‘wizard.’ He is not of darkness but of light, the same type of being as Gandalf and Saruman. Nonetheless, the encounter he has with the Mystics allows us to infer a great deal of things about Sauron himself.
For one thing, it is evident that Sauron and the Stranger are very similar entities, which is why the Mystics were certain they knew The Stranger’s true identity. Sauron apparently returned the same way that The Stranger first arrived: plummeting from the sky as a meteorite. Upon arrival, he was expected to be without memory (a veil on his mind) and without full control of his powers. The Mystics claim that they are there to welcome him to the Eastern lands (Rhûn) where he will learn control, allowing him to command the elements, and will “be known at last, for who you truly are.” This suggests that Sauron was expected to walk around under an assumed identity and in a diminished state before getting to Rhûn, where he would recover his powers, his memories and his true identity.
Furthermore, it is evident that the Mystics met Sauron before yet do not recognize that The Stranger is someone else, indicating that Sauron had a different form the last time they saw him. They reference him having been ‘cast down,’ which taken with Waldreg’s reference to him being ‘lost,’ implies that Sauron had been killed previously, in turn meaning that his ‘return’ via meteorite is a type of resurrection.
Once again then, much as in the Adar storyline, a causal link between Sauron’s death, resurrection and shapeshifting is hinted at. Overall then, we can ascertain that the Mystics confused the Stranger with Sauron, because they were looking for a physically (re)incarnated supernatural being that fell from the stars. They were aware that Sauron had previously been killed and that he would resurrect in a new physical form, but they evidently didn’t know where he would arrive or what he would look like.
Having established that Sauron only changes form as a consequence of dying and that he had died prior to resurrecting as Halbrand, I am now going to put together a grand unifying narrative for what happened to Sauron from all available information.
Sauron was once a powerful, otherworldly being similar to the Istari. At a certain point, he became a servant to the Dark Lord Morgoth, who attempted to conquer the world. After Morgoth was defeated, Sauron became the new leader of Morgoth’s armies of Orcs. Apparently desiring forgiveness and atonement for siding with Morgoth, Sauron decided to ‘heal’ Middle-earth by bringing it together under his rule and so began seeking to craft a new kind of power that would be “not of strength, but of spirit” and “not of the flesh but over flesh.”
To this end, he began experimenting on his minions, leading to the deaths of many Orcs. One day, his lieutenant Adar could no longer take it, and so murdered Sauron by ‘splitting him open.’* Sauron then died, or rather his physical body did. But his spirit endured and returned to the stars, from where it presumably originated.
*I like to think he struck him with an axe in the back of the head.
Perhaps this was an instinctual reaction to his death or maybe an inherent trait of his kind: to return home upon physical death. Whatever the reason, Sauron spent some time in the stars before crashing back down to Middle-earth as a meteorite and emerging in a new physical form - that of a fair-looking Man that would take on the name ‘Halbrand.’ As Halbrand, Sauron was initially suffering from a loss of memory but at some point, he came to recall who he really was.
This led to the discovery that he was not whole. His innate powers, though still above that of a normal Man, were considerably diminished from his original form, one that he could no longer assume. And his former minions had now turned against him, uniting under the leadership of the treacherous Adar.
He then set off to find a ship that could take him to the lands of Rhûn, where he still had loyalists who could help him rest and recover the full measure of his power, possibly allowing him to reassume his original shape.
Being trapped in the diminished body of Halbrand, however, he had to move as a man through the lands of Men, relying more on cunning and manipulation than strength or magic to survive. At some point along the way, he pocketed a necklace from a dead man in the Southlands (presumably its last king) because it suited him.
“He’s been brought low. He’s been humiliated, almost humbled. So when you see him drifting on a raft, it’s basically as low as you can get.”
Source: The Hollywood Reporter, Charlie Vickers interview - Oct. 2022
He finally succeeded in getting on a ship sailing east, but about two weeks later, it was unexpectedly attacked by a giant sea worm, leaving him trapped on a small raft with a handful of survivors. It was at this point that he met Galadriel.
Analysis and Speculation
Now, it’s important to note that backstories and mythologies in serialized television are not always stable. I strongly believe that, at the time the first season of ROP was completed, that my theory was mostly, if not down to the last detail, correct. But there’s always the possibility that the writers may deviate from the internal logic of Sauron’s depiction and retcon certain details and developments in future seasons for whatever reason. * Regardless, I will now proceed, based on the assumption that my theory is correct, to speculate about what it could mean for the series going forward.
*Indeed, some recent leaks (which I am not linking to avoid possible spoilers) regarding the second season by a group called ‘Fellowship of Fans’ suggest that the producers may have secured additional permissions from the Tolkien estate to use previously off-limits elements of The Silmarillion. But I have no idea of whether or not the leaks are true, or to what extent they can actually modify the implied backstory for Sauron’s transformation if they are.
First of all, I believe that at some point S2 will use flashbacks to fill in the many gaps in Sauron’s S1 narrative, showing the death of his Original Form and his rebirth as Halbrand. To me, this is only logical, given how the first season is constructed and how integrated flashbacks have become into serialized genre storytelling in the past 20 years or so. I don’t know if Sauron will get one big mytharc episode or perhaps a flash-storyline spread out over multiple episodes, but it’s all but guaranteed to happen.
Second, going forward, one of Sauron’s key motives will be to regain the full measure of his power and in turn his original form. No doubt, this should contribute to his desire to forge The One Ring, which could help him restore himself by tapping into the Unseen World, in addition to giving him control over all other Rings of Power.*
*In fact, this might explain Halbrand’s desperation in Númenor to become a blacksmith.
Of course, all this raises some interesting questions in regard to Sauron’s future.
Are the writers planning to deviate from the source material by having Sauron die thrice in ROP, as opposed to twice? Is his death at the hands of Adar meant to replace the death at Númenor, in other words? Or is ROP Sauron still going to die by drowning at the fall of Númenor and then gain a new hideous shape (and perhaps a new actor) in the aftermath? Could his current incarnation as Halbrand remain intact until the very end of the series, when he will have been overthrown in the battle with the Last Alliance? Or will he regain his true form prior to the last battle?
Keep in mind, in the context of the books, Sauron lost his fair form and then assumed the ‘black and hideous’ ADL Form that we know from the Jackson films. In ROP, it seems that Sauron began in ADL Form (though perhaps one can imagine him still being beautiful underneath all that black armor) but lost it after dying. So, who knows?
However things turn out, I appreciate the choices and decisions the producers (writers, actors, directors, etc.) have made thus far when it comes to depicting Sauron, as it gives him room to develop as a character and allows him to be more relatable than he would be at full power. Here’s hoping the series gets to deliver a complete four-or-five season arc for the Dark Lord!
But what do you think?
What do you think of the show’s approach to Sauron’s in general?
Does the theory that Sauron already died and so is currently in a diminished state hold water?
Or is he indeed be a full-blown shapeshifter that can change form at will?
Is there a beautiful face behind all that black armor or is the armor itself what Sauron really looks like?
Will he die at the fall of Númenor?
Special shout-out and thank you to Lisa N, who became a member of the Jokien with Tolkien: Extended Edition this week! Want to join the Extended Edition yourself? Hit the button below for more details:
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion, ed. Christopher Tolkien, 2nd edition (New York: Del Ray, 2020), 341.
Tolkien, The Silmarillion, 21. The term ‘Maiar’ never even comes up once in the text.
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: 50th Anniversary One-Volume Edition (Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004), 242.
Tolkien, Lord of the Rings, 1037.
Tolkien, The Silmarillion, 381.
Tolkien, Lord of the Rings, 51.