Before the events of The Lord of the Rings, Sauron spent hundreds of years rebuilding his strength in the abandoned fortress of Dol Guldur. When this is brought up in The Hobbit, Sauron is referred to as “The Necromancer,” a name that also appears a few other times in Tolkien’s notes. Because of this, there’s some confusion surrounding Sauron’s necromantic powers and ability to raise the dead.
In fantasy writings, the term necromancer usually refers to someone who can communicate with the dead. But the modern-day necromancer is somewhat different from classic fiction, as the popularity of games like Dungeons & Dragons painted the image of a dark wizard who raises skeletons from the ground as their minions. So the idea of Sauron being a necromancer has caused some debate in the fandom.
Author J.R.R. Tolkien took the name Necromancer from old mythologies, with the term necromancy being used in Greek tales of Odysseus visiting the realm of the dead. However, most uses of necromancer simply refer to someone who uses dark magics, not necessarily one who communicates with the dead. Thus, when Tolkien gave Sauron the name “Necromancer,” he was just referring to his evil powers in general — although that’s not to say Sauron had no connection to the undead.
The question of “Could Sauron raise the dead?” is not as simple as it may seem. On the surface, the answer is no; he had no power that could simply raise the dead from the ground. However, Tolkien made it clear that everyone in Middle-earth has a spirit and that Sauron was able to commune with many of them at will. His loyal Nazgûl servants are a prime example, as their spirits were trapped in the shadowy Wraith-world of the dead, while their bodies were (somewhat) alive in the physical world. Therefore, the Nazgûl could be seen as living dead, even if they never died in the traditional sense.
Wights were shape-shifting phantoms who dwelled in the darkest places of Middle-earth. These creatures appeared dead with blue glowing eyes and skeletal hands and are a prime example of undead serving under Sauron. While little is known about their origin, it’s heavily implied that the Wights of the Barrow-down area were once Men who succumbed to a plague and had their spirits trapped by the Witch-king — who got his powers from Sauron.
There’s even mention of Sauron tricking Elven spirits before they pass on to “the other side.” Deceased Elves were judged by Mandos, a god-like being who decides if a spirit is worthy of joining their kin. Those who are denied passage to the Halls of Mandos were left adrift and often contacted by the Dark Lord himself. He would entice them with the promise of new bodies, with the goal of binding them as a servant.
While Sauron may not casually raise zombies during The Lord of the Rings, his title of Necromancer still works with modern fantasy. He surrounded himself with death and exploited any corrupted spirits he could find; plus, he could be seen as a living dead himself, as he still returned after Isildur destroyed Sauron’s body on the slopes of Mount Doom.
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