Sympathetic and humanized villains are all the rage these days, but I’ve got a soft spot for the classic dark lord. You know the type: They’ve got a fortress and spooky magic, they’re evil because they love evil so much, and if they have any backstory at all, it’s not used to help us understand them.
So what better way to celebrate this kind of villain than by comparing two of its most well known examples: Lord of the Rings’ Sauron and Chronicles of Prydain’s Arawn.* These two are similar at first glance, as they are both ancient lords of evil kingdoms who are obsessed with a magic artifact. However, not all villains are created equal. JRR Tolkien wrote Sauron to be a terrifying foe even today, while Lloyd Alexander made sure Arawn is barely present in his own story.
Arawn Has Better Minions
Arawn actually starts out with the edge, because he has the Cauldron-Born as his basic foot soldiers. These undead warriors are way scarier than orcs, and also a lot less racist! Orcs are just people who the heroes can kill without any remorse; they’re not any more dangerous than an angry human. Cauldron-Born, on the other hand, cannot be killed or even significantly damaged.
When our heroes encounter Cauldron-Born, the best they can do is run. If the situation is really desperate, they might try to delay the undead soldiers so others have time to get away. When I first read about the Cauldron-Born, I was sure they’d get weaker or otherwise easier to defeat as the books went on, but nope! They’re just as dangerous in book five as they are in book one.
As a cherry on top, the Cauldron-Born also have a limitation to explain why Arawn doesn’t use them to steamroll over everything. They can only be away from Arawn’s kingdom, Annuvin,* for so long before the magic animating them fades. This leaves them powerful, but not too powerful for the story. Top notch minions if ever I’ve seen them.
However, Sauron closes the distance with his elite minions, the Nazgul. These Ringwraiths are powerful and swift, perfect for chasing down little hobbits or for leading their lord’s armies into battle. Their backstory as the nine human monarchs who took Sauron’s ensorcelled rings makes them extra intimidating and basically walking advertisements for Sauron’s power.
To match the Nazgul, Arawn has only the Huntsmen. In theory, these guys get stronger whenever one of their comrades is killed, which sounds scary. In practice, they mostly die like regular humans. Their backstory can’t measure up either, as they’re mostly just criminals who like murder.
Finally, each dark lord has a named lieutenant: Arawn’s Horned King and Sauron’s Witch-king of Angmar. Two kings for the price of one! The Horned King spends most of the first Prydain book offscreen and is unceremoniously killed because a side character learned his true name, also offscreen. The Witch-king leads Team Evil into the LotR’s biggest battle, causes mayhem and destruction, and is killed in an epic duel against Eowyn. Sauron definitely got the better deal on lieutenants.
Even so, Arawn scores a point on the strength of the Cauldron-Born. It’s just hard to top invincible killing machines. Maybe my bold pronouncement will be proven false!
Sauron’s Realm Shines (With Darkness)
You can’t have a classic dark lord without an evil realm to be lord of – that’s just the rules! Arawn rules Annuvin, land of death, while Sauron rules Mordor, where the shadows lie. This is where the disparities between our evil doers become more apparent.
When Annuvin is first described as the “land of death,” it sounds like part of the afterlife, like if hell were a place you could drive to instead of another dimension. But as the books go on, that idea quickly fades. My best guess is that the title comes from the Cauldron-Born, which isn’t as cool, but the story is actually super vague about it.
In fact, the first four Prydain books are remarkably vague about Annuvin in general, even though the characters talk about it all the time. When we finally go there in book five, it seems to be a pretty normal place. The characters talk about how it’s evil and wrong, but there’s little to back that up. The only thing that sets Annuvin apart from any other kingdom is that the fair folk can’t survive there. Except for Doli when he’s invisible, for some reason.*
In comparison, Mordor is actually a land of shadows, just like the rhyme says. It’s poisoned by Sauron’s evil, leaving it a barren wasteland. Granted, that does raise questions about where the orcs grow their food, but that’s pretty far from most readers’ minds.
More important than aesthetics, Mordor is dangerous. There’s Shelob the giant spider, of course, but she’s just a garnish on the main dish of deadly terrain. Mordor is full of steep cliffs, jagged rocks, and swamps that will pull down anyone unwise enough to tread upon them. When Frodo and Sam hike their way across Sauron’s kingdom, they’re in as much danger from the land itself as they are from orcs.
Prydain does have a location that can compete with Mordor: the ever dreaded Marshes of Morva. The problem is that these marshes have nothing to do with Arawn. Instead, they’re the home of three witches who sometimes fill in as secondary antagonists but usually give out cryptic advice. The realm contest goes to Sauron, no question.
Sauron Inspires Better Betrayal
Another thing dark lords are always doing: getting the hero’s allies to turn traitor. This is an odd trope, since siding with the blatantly evil Satan-figure seems like an obviously bad idea no matter who you are, but it persists nonetheless.
The characters in Prydain get betrayed by several NPCs, but only one of them is directly attributable to Arawn: King Pryderi. This character’s introduction is awkward, to say the least. For most of the series, he’s not even mentioned, and then in book five, no one can shut up about him. He’s supposedly an amazing warrior from out west, with the strongest army around, and he’s totally going to make sure the good guys defeat Arawn.
This near-fawning praise can mean only two things: either Alexander is introducing a replacement protagonist or this guy is a traitor. Fortunately, it’s option two, but it’s still annoyingly predictable.
Meanwhile, his motivations are bizarre. For some reason, he thinks Arawn will bring peace to the land, which is so out of left field I don’t know what to do with it. If we’re charitable and say he’s lying to cover a more selfish motivation, it still doesn’t make sense. Arawn is basically the devil in this setting, and it doesn’t occur to Pryderi that the devil might not be great at keeping promises.
For all that, Pryderi is only in the story long enough to oversee one battle, where it doesn’t feel like he was even necessary since Arawn sends in his unkillable Caldron Born anyway. After that, he dies in an interlude when he activates the wards on a magic book. Bye bye, traitor dude!
Sauron’s answer to this is Saruman the White, whose main problem is having a name too similar to his boss. While Saruman’s betrayal isn’t the world’s most surprising plot twist, he’s introduced much more naturally, so betrayal isn’t a foregone conclusion either.
Saruman’s motives also make way more sense. He wants to be on the winning side, and he’s a supernatural being with special powers, so it’s more likely that Sauron will keep him around after the war. The story also gets more out of Saruman’s treachery than a single battle. Instead, he’s the main antagonist for an entire book, and he does a pretty good job threatening the heroes. Granted, the battle of Helm’s Deep is way more of a cakewalk in the book than in the movie, but it’s still much better than dying to a cursed book.
Another point to Sauron.
Sauron’s Evil Plan Is Eviler
In broad strokes, Sauron and Arawn have the same goal: to take over the world. Why? Reasons! Neither Tolkien nor Alexander are especially concerned with their villain’s motivation. What matters is the execution.
Sauron has a big advantage because his plans for conquest revolve around a single magical item: the One Ring. If he gets the Ring, he’ll be unstoppable. If the ring is destroyed, Sauron dies. This gives us clear stakes that don’t require a Middle-earth geography lesson so we know what Sauron has conquered and what he hasn’t. Granted, Tolkien absolutely gives us that geography lesson anyway, but we don’t have to pay attention!
Arawn doesn’t have anything like that, he just has to conquer Prydain the old-fashioned way. This isn’t great because Prydain is a nebulous place. It’s hard to conceptualize how big it is or where important locations are. When Arawn’s army destroys Caer Dathyl, how big a problem is that? I have no idea.
More importantly, Sauron’s evil plan is the focus of the entire LotR trilogy. In book one, his forces chase after the Ring. In book two, his lieutenant Saruman attacks the good guys. In book three, Sauron sends his armies directly. And through all that, Frodo is trying to get the Ring to Mount Doom so he can destroy it. Just as important, it feels like Sauron is winning, even when his forces suffer setbacks. Saruman’s defeat is particularly notable for not diminishing his boss’s threat level, because it feels like Saruman is one of many tools at Sauron’s disposal.
In contrast, Arawn’s plans are thoroughly foiled in the first Prydain book, and he’s barely present in books two, three, and four. Instead, the characters mostly fight other villains with no relation to Arawn at all. The most we hear of the big bad is when his most powerful magic item is stolen offscreen by the marsh witches I mentioned earlier.
When Arawn returns at the start of book five, it’s less “oh no, he’s back!” and more “wait, who is this guy?” He’s been gone for most of the story, and his last major appearance was a failure, so he has to build up his threat level from scratch.
Sauron racks up another point.
Sauron’s Defeat Is More Satisfying
Both Arawn and Sauron have good lead-ups to their final confrontations. For Sauron, it’s the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, plus Frodo and Sam trudging through Mordor. For Arawn, it’s protagonist Taran and friends fighting a delaying action to keep the Caldron Born from returning to Annuvin. I’d even put Arawn ahead here because the Caldron Born remain very scary.
But from there, Arawn’s star falls hard, as the confrontation itself has almost no tension. His Cauldron-Born are destroyed when Taran finds a MacGuffin sword under a rock, and hitting one Cauldron-Born destroys them all. Even more irritating, Team Good’s leader had this sword before, so they’d apparently have won if he’d ever gotten into a fight with Arawn’s main minions. No wonder Arawn was absent for three books!
With his only source of threat gone, Arawn uses his shapeshifting powers in an attempt to trick Taran into handing the sword over. That fails because Arawn is a terrible actor. It’s not clear if having the sword would even help at that point, since Arawn’s army is gone. When trickery doesn’t work, Arawn turns into a snake to bite Taran. This is supposed to be scary, but comes across more like a cartoon. A side character sacrifices herself so Taran can kill Snake-Arawn, but it’s all fairly perfunctory.
Sauron, on the other hand, never directly appears in his final battle, and that’s a good thing. He’s more of an all-pervading evil force than a single being, showing up in person could only have been a disappointment.
Instead, Sauron works through his minions until the last, as Aragorn and a number of other characters launch a diversionary attack on the Black Gate so Frodo can get the Ring into Mount Doom. This attack is pretty tense, and it means the final confrontation still feels dangerous rather than like a mopping-up exercise.
Meanwhile, destroying the Ring is the conclusion of Frodo’s character arc, an arc he actually fails as the Ring’s influence finally takes hold. Fortunately, Gollum is there to be even more influenced, taking the Ring from Frodo and falling into lava with it. I wouldn’t recommend this kind of ending to most authors as it can seem contrived, but it works okay in LotR because it’s a kind of prior achievement turning point for Frodo sparing Gollum’s life earlier.
Sauron’s defeat-by-lava works much better than Arawn’s because Tolkien established ahead of time that destroying the Ring would be Sauron’s end. With Arawn, we first have to accept that Taran finds the MacGuffin sword under a rock, then accept that the sword can kill Cauldron-Born, then finally accept that killing one Cauldron-Born kills them all. It’s too many degrees of contrivance, and it hands Sauron the final point.
The literary analysis doesn’t lie: Sauron is unquestionably the superior dark lord. That’s not super surprising, considering that he’s present for his entire series, while Arawn appears to be a big deal at first and then disappears for three books. But even if Arawn was more involved in the story, he just doesn’t have the same menace or mystique as LotR’s most dangerous jeweler. Those two qualities are absolutely essential for a dark lord.
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