The Dark Lord. A fantasy antagonist more frequently used than even dragons. The numbers of stories featuring one or even multiple is beyond count. Hell, a good many of them have ‘The Dark Lord’ somewhere in their title!
And as with most fantasy, it takes its roots in Tolkien. Specifically with the Lord of the Rings himself: Sauron.
Morgoth? Who’s that?
Sauron is the root of most evil in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. All the orcs, pirates, traitor humans and traitor wizards that go around slaughtering people and burning villages? That’s him. The Nazgûl? He made them. The Uruk-hai? Made on his orders. The ring itself? Well, you know that one already. And through the ring, even more evil, like Gollum, is born into the world.
But when people point at LOTR antagonists, they’ll usually point at characters like the aforementioned Gollum or Saruman. Rarely does Sauron himself come into the discussion. And for good reason; he’s more of a force than a character. He spends the entire story as a giant eyeball made of flame that just stares at our characters and occasionally says something. It’s a threatening visual, especially in the movies, but it doesn’t make for the most memorable force of evil.
So, is Sauron a bad antagonist? No. In fact, I’d argue he works rather well. At least thematically.
Sauron is a force of pure evil. He gathers evil to him like moths to his flame. He lusts for control of all life on Middle-Earth and yearns to plunge the land into darkness. Everywhere his armies go, lands are burned and people are slaughtered. His ring preys on the desires in the hearts of those who carry it, driving them mad and manipulating them. Everywhere he goes, death and destruction follow.
Not to mention that he’s seemingly unstoppable. His magic gives him the ability to manipulate the minds of practically all things that are evil, hence why basically every orc in Middle-Earth serves him. Even without them, he’s a force to be reckoned with. Cunning, armed with mighty dark magic, and even physically capable (when he still has a body), Sauron seems to be the superior to everyone at everything. Even more so with the ring. The dark lord seems truly unstoppable.
The polar antithesis to the primary protagonists of the trilogy: the hobbits.
Hobbits love nothing more than peace. Well, aside from maybe food, ale, and pipe weed. Sure, they’re hardly powerful; they’re small and weak and hardly the most intelligent or wise of creatures. But they’re content with that. All they really want is to chill out and tend to their gardens.
That’s why hobbits make such good bearers for the One Ring. It preys on the desires in one’s heart, feeding it with false promises like wood to a flame. Men fall for it easily because their desires are many and strong. Dwarves fall, but their desires are so singular (riches and ale) that they’re not of much use. Elves are vulnerable to it, as we see with Galadriel, but their magic grants them protection that the other races do not have. But hobbits? They’re content with the way things are. They don’t really want anything aside from peace, which the ring cannot offer.
Sauron and hobbits are the polar opposites of one another in every conceivable way. Sauron is an ambitious force of pure evil and destruction, an unstoppable force. Meanwhile, hobbits are lovers of the peace and all things that grow and live, physically and mentally weak. On one end, power and destruction. On the other, gentle life.
The conflict between the two is so engaging because of this. Frodo and his friends struggle to overcome Sauron because they are weak, inexperienced, and lacking in wisdom. Meanwhile, Sauron struggles to conquer the hobbits because their very natures make them stronger against his manipulations and magic than any other race on Middle-Earth. Each one has strengths that target the other’s weakness.
Yes, Sauron isn’t the most compelling villain when it comes to his character. I doubt many people would say that he’s as complex or compelling as someone like Gollum. Few people would say that he’s their favorite fantasy antagonist ever.
That being said, Sauron is still the perfect antagonist for The Lord of the Rings. On every single level, he is built to oppose our protagonists. Yes, Gollum and Saruman and all the others are more memorable. But as the primary force of evil for our heroes to overcome, Tolkien absolutely hit it out of the park with Sauron.
Sorry Morgoth. You didn’t really stand a chance. You’re still cool though.