Q: Could Sauron Have Risen Again after the One Ring Was Destroyed?
ANSWER: J.R.R. Tolkien all but completely ruled out the possibility that Sauron might return as a Dark Lord to trouble Middle-earth. Sauron had placed most of his “native strength” in the Ring, and when the Ring was destroyed Sauron was reduced to an extremely weak spirit incapable of taking physical shape again. So Tolkien wrote in one or two places.
But some readers have asked if Sauron could not find a way to “reintegrate”, given enough time, since (supposedly) Morgoth would be able to. This is, in fact, a question that Tolkien addressed directly in one of the philosophical essays that Christopher Tolkien published in Morgoth’s Ring, the 10th volume of The History of Middle-earth. Tolkien noted several distinctions between Melkor/Morgoth and Sauron.
First, Melkor was the mightiest of the Ainur — by far originally more powerful than Sauron. Hence, that Melkor might regain his composure enough to take physical form again does not imply that any other Ainu would be able to do so without assistance.
Second, Sauron stored the greater part of his power in the One Ring; but Melkor imbued all of Middle-earth with his power in an attempt to identify the world with himself, and thus have greater control over it. So when the One Ring was destroyed Sauron’s power was forever diminished; but when Melkor was executed by Manwë and Namo (Mandos) at the end of the First Age, most of Melkor’s native strength remained intact.
Finally, Tolkien noted that Melkor was essentially anchored to Middle-earth itself. Because of that connection it would be almost inevitable that Melkor would eventually recover enough strength to take physical form again. But Sauron was anchored to the One Ring and after that was destroyed there was nothing left for him to connect with.
George R.R. Martin recently gave an interview in which he speculated (perhaps only as an illustrative point) that as soon as Christopher Tolkien’s vigilance over his father’s works is removed, some publisher will step in with a lot of money to commission Sauron Strikes Back (which figurative title seems to be a dig at George Lucas over “The Empire Strikes Back”).
There is no doubt in my mind that many publishers, given a chance to publish a “sequel” to The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion, would attempt to resurrect The New Shadow. But if anyone writing such a book were to revive Sauron — rather than bring up some other great evil menace instead — I think most readers would treat the book with scorn and ridicule.
Tolkien abandoned The New Shadow because he felt that the departure of the Elves and the destruction of the One Ring — heralding the advent of the “age of Men” — signified an end to the great legendary dramas from which later mythologies should later arise. The Fourth Age represents a transition from long-forgotten legendaria to near-historical times. Tolkien felt there would never be another dark lord like Sauron or Morgoth — at least not until the End Times.
Tolkien’s fans have often speculated on what the New Shadow could have been: perhaps a less powerful Umaia, maybe one of Sauron’s unnamed lieutenants, or some Melkorian servant who managed to survive hidden away for thousands of years. I think, however, that had Tolkien finished The New Shadow, he would have revealed the new evil to be nothing more than a man, perhaps a man who was dabbling in necromancy and seeking lost artifacts. Tolkien suggested in Letter No. 264 that he would not have written a very interesting (to him) story:
I did begin a story placed about 100 years after the Downfall [of Mordor], but it proved both sinister and depressing. Since we are dealing with Men it is inevitable that we should be concerned with the most regrettable feature of their nature: their quick satiety with good. So that the people of Gondor in times of peace, justice and prosperity, would become discontented and restless — while the dynasts descended from Aragorn would become just kings and governors — like Denethor or worse. I found that even so early there was an outcrop of revolutionary plots, about a centre of secret Satanistic religion; while Gondorian boys were playing at being Orcs and going round doing damage. I could have written a ‘thriller’ about the plot and its discovery and overthrow — but it would be just that. Not worth doing.
Christopher Tolkien published the two fragments of The New Shadow in The Peoples of Middle-earth, volume 12 of The History of Middle-earth.
You or I, writing such a story, might imagine something beyond a mere thriller about a James Bondian plot to overthrow the rightful king — but Tolkien felt that he had told the great story from beginning to end, even though the beginning had not yet been published.
Hence, for Sauron there was no return — not in Tolkien’s view.