Middle-earth and the Lord of the Rings movies have no shortage of evil-doers. From ambitious politicians, conniving viziers, and even powerful sorcerers, Tolkien’s magical world is bursting at the seams with bastards. Still, if you had to choose the two most evil beings ever to darken Arda’s door, you’d have to give it to the dark lords Sauron and Morgoth.
Morgoth is, of course, Tolkien’s version of Satan and a powerful demi-god who rebelled against his creator Eru Ilúvatar. His crimes include destroying the Two Trees of Valinor, stealing the Silmarils, and scarring Arda with his ruinous wars against the Elves and Men of Middle-earth.
Sauron, meanwhile, was Morgoth’s greatest servant. Like Morgoth, he was a demi-god (although he was a lesser being known as a Maia while his master was a Valar) and a powerful shapeshifter. During the First Age, he was subservient to Morgoth, but once his master was deposed, he took control of the forces of evil and nearly conquered the world. But which of these two dark lords was the more powerful?
Well, as you can probably guess, Morgoth was the greater of the two. Morgoth was a Valar and, at the height of his power, the mightiest being in existence aside from Ilúvatar. In a one-on-one battle, Morgoth would clearly be the winner. Even if Sauron managed to get his claws on The One Ring, he’s just no match for Morgoth’s might.
Or at least he wouldn’t compare to Morgoth in his prime. You see, Morgoth made one big mistake while on Arda. He poured part of himself into Middle-earth, just as Sauron would later do with The One Ring, in an attempt to bind himself permanently to the planet.
“Just as Sauron concentrated his power in the One Ring,” Tolkien wrote. “Morgoth dispersed his power into the very matter of Arda. Thus the whole of Middle-earth was Morgoth’s Ring.”
While this act worked to corrupt the mortal races of Middle-earth, making them vulnerable to evil, it had the side-effect of greatly diminishing Morgoth. So much so that Tolkien eventually claimed that at the height of Sauron’s power, he was probably a match for Morgoth.
“Sauron was ‘greater’, effectively, in the Second Age than Morgoth at the end of the First,” Tolkien wrote. “Why? Because, though he was far smaller by natural stature, he had not yet fallen so low… To gain domination over Arda, Morgoth had let most of his being pass into the physical constituents of the Earth – hence all things that were born on Earth and lived on and by it, beasts or plants or incarnate spirits, were liable to be ‘stained’.”
“Morgoth at the time of the War of the Jewels had become permanently ‘incarnate’: for this reason, he was afraid and waged the war almost entirely by means of devices, or of subordinates and dominated creatures,” Tolkien continued. “Sauron, however, inherited the ‘corruption’ of Arda and only spent his (much more limited) power on the Rings…”
While there’s some debate about the word “effectively” in this passage, several Tolkien scholars take it to mean that when Sauron was at his most powerful during the Second Age, he was probably a match for Morgoth once he’d weakened himself at the end of the first.
Still, I’d debate this. It took the combined efforts of the Elves, Numenoreans, and the Valar themselves to finally defeat Morgoth. Sauron was stamped out without the need for divine intervention (unless Ilúvatar really did knock Gollum into Mount Doom).
That said, it’s undeniable that Sauron came closer to conquering the world than his old boss. While Sauron’s army of orcs wasn’t as great as Morgoth’s, he was battling the elves when they were in decline, when the races of Men were at their weakest. Sauron may not have been as mighty as his master, but fighting against weaker opponents meant he didn’t really need to be.