So I noticed that in Lord of the Rings Sauron acts as a very interesting villain. He never makes a corporeal appearance, nor does he have any acting dialogue. He's mentioned plenty of times through other characters, history, and lore, but never makes an appearance himself. I know the canon mythology is that Sauron doesn't have a physical body from his rebirth, but what is significant about that?
Tolkien never explained the choice to leave Sauron off-stage, or at least he did not do so in the published letters. But I can see three ways in which the decision makes sense.
First, The Lord of the Rings is written largely from the down-to-earth point of view of the hobbit characters, a narrative strategy that Tolkien recognized was necessary to reach a large audience. Discussing the possible publication of the Silmarillion, he wrote:
But I am afraid that all the matter of the First and Second Ages is very ‘high-mythical’ or Elvish and heroic, and there is no ‘hobbitry’ at all: an ingredient that seems to have made the present mixture [that is, The Lord of the Rings] more generally palatable.
J. R. R. Tolkien (1955). Letter to Lord Halsbury. Number 174 in Humphrey Carpenter, ed. (1981). The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien. London: George Allen & Unwin.
It would have been difficult for Tolkien to reconcile the rural-comical tone of ‘hobbitry’ with the representation of a mythic figure like Sauron. For an example of how this could have gone wrong, consider the one scene of Sauron’s dialogue that made it into the novel. For although the question says that he does not “have any acting dialogue”, this is not quite true. Pippin speaks with him using the Palantir of Orthanc, and reports the conversation thus:
‘“So you have come back? Why have you neglected to report for so long?”
‘I did not answer. He said: “Who are you?” I still did not answer, but it hurt me horribly; and he pressed me, so I said: “A hobbit.”
‘Then suddenly he seemed to see me, and he laughed at me. It was cruel. It was like being stabbed with knives. I struggled. But he said: “Wait a moment! We shall meet again soon. Tell Saruman that this dainty is not for him. I will send for it at once. Do you understand? Say just that!”
J. R. R. Tolkien (1954). The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers III.11. London: George Allen & Unwin.
In this passage, Sauron is at risk of coming across as a pantomime villain rather than a mythic figure of evil, and it was surely a wise decision to include no more of his dialogue than this.
Second, the distance of Sauron from the events of the narrative conforms to the pattern of military leadership in The Lord of the Rings. The captains whom Tolkien approves (Aragorn, Theoden) have a heroic style of leadership, fighting in the first rank of battle and inspiring their armies with their personal bravery; while the captains whom Tolkien disapproves (Sauron, Saruman, Denethor) have a modern style of leadership, directing strategy from a safe distance in their fortresses. Denethor draws our attention to this in a conversation with Pippin:
‘Not—the Dark Lord?’ cried Pippin, forgetting his place in his terror.
Denethor laughed bitterly. ‘Nay, not yet, Master Peregrin! He will not come save only to triumph over me when all is won. He uses others as his weapons. So do all great lords, if they are wise, Master Halfling. Or why should I sit here in my tower and think, and watch, and wait, spending even my sons? For I can still wield a brand.’
J. R. R. Tolkien (1955). The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King V.4. London: George Allen & Unwin.
This is one of several passages in which Tolkien uses the word ‘wise’ ironically to describe conduct so prudent as to become self-defeating. Saruman says that “it would be wise” (II.2) for Gandalf to join him in an alliance with Sauron; Gandalf describes Sauron as a “wise fool” (III.5) for thinking that his enemies are “seeking to cast him down and take his place”; and Saruman’s enchanted voice “seemed wise and reasonable” (III.10).
The image of Denethor sitting in his tower and “spending even his sons” ought to remind us of the situation on the Western Front of World War I. Tolkien had fought at Thiepval Ridge on the Somme in September 1916, while General Haig directed the battle from the Château de Beaurepaire near Montreuil-sur-Mer, a hundred kilometres away.
Third, the physical absence of Sauron corresponds to the way that evil is conceptualized in The Lord of the Rings. In Tolkien’s world, goodness corresponds to light, and evil flourishes in darkness. Evil beings are hidden from the world in underground lairs: barrow-wights in the barrow-downs; the Balrog in Moria, Shelob in Torech Ungol. Sauron’s army advances under the darkness of “a great cloud [that] streamed slowly westward from the Black Land, devouring light” (V.4), and the turning point of the siege of Gondor is when a wind blows the cloud away “and the darkness was removed” (V.5).
Tolkien described the power of the Nazgûl as presiding in the fear of their victims, which is magnified in darkness:
Their peril is almost entirely due to the unreasoning fear which they inspire (like ghosts). They have no great physical power against the fearless; but what they have, and the fear that they inspire, is enormously increased in darkness.
J. R. R. Tolkien (1958). Letter to Forrest J. Ackerman. Number 210 in Carpenter (1981).
It is well known that the most frightening monsters in movies are those that are not shown in detail: nothing that the special-effects department can contrive is as fearsome as the viewer’s own imagination. Thus, Sauron’s threat would be diminished if he were brought into the light of the narrative.