If you haven’t read The Hobbit for some years, you might struggle to remember the Necromancer’s role in the story. The stand-alone book is, after all, more focussed on the discovery of treasure and the battle against the dragon Smaug.
The Necromancer does appear very briefly in The Hobbit book. He is given as the reason why Gandalf must leave the Dwarves and Bilbo alone in Mirkwood. But while the Necromancer is only mentioned in passing, he is an essential character.
The Necromancer in The Hobbit is Sauron in disguise, the main villain in The Lord of the Rings. Sauron is recovering from his defeat in the War of the Last Alliance and is hiding his true identity as he replenishes his power.
How Did Sauron Become the Necromancer?
Sauron becomes the Necromancer after he was defeated and had the Ring cut off his finger in the war of The Last Alliance. Though Sauron isn’t killed, his power is greatly diminished. He disguises himself as the Necromancer while regaining his former strength.
Sauron’s backstory and the forging of the Rings of Power are described in The Lord of the Rings trilogy prologue.
Sauron’s power was only threatened with a group of Men from an island nation across the sea, known as the Numenorians, who came to Middle Earth. They were incredibly powerful, and Sauron decided to seduce them rather than try to defeat them outright. He pretended to surrender to them and then returned to their island, where he corrupted their king.
Here, we can draw parallels with what Saruman did with Theoden, the King of Rohan, in The Lord of the Rings. Sauron’s plan ends in the destruction of the island.
He was almost destroyed in the destruction and lost his physical form. Sauron returns to Middle Earth as a kind of demonic spirit.
The Faithfull Numenorians led by Elendil escaped Numenor before the destruction. They set up the kingdoms of Arnor and Gondor in Middle Earth. Now mortal enemies, the strife between the newly reformed Sauron and the Nemonorians continues on Middle Earth.
This culminates in the War of the Last Alliance, that alliance being between the Elves, led by Elrond, and Men, led by Isildur, the last king of Gondor and the forefather of Aragorn.
The allied army defeats Sauron, and Isildur cuts the Ring from Sauron’s finger, seemingly defeating the villain. But, while the Dark Lord perhaps could have been entirely defeated at this time, Isildur fell under the enchantment of the Ring and decided to keep it rather than destroy it.
Tolkien suggests that Sauron poured so much of himself into the Ring that it anchored him to Middle Earth and allowed his demonic spirit to hold on. However, it was greatly weakened, and he was forced to go into hiding to regenerate himself.
There are some strong similarities between what happens to Sauron here and the story of Voldemort in Harry Potter. No doubt J.K. Rowling was in part inspired by Tolkien. The defeated Voldemort held on to life because of his Horcruxes but was a shadow of his former self needing time to build himself back up.
Taking advantage of his assumed death, the now shadowy version of Sauron set himself up in a place called Greenwood. But the malevolent presence of his spirit starts to corrupt the wood. Giant spiders begin to dominate parts of the forest (we meet them in The Hobbit), the food becomes inedible, and the plants themselves become hostile to those who enter their domain.
As Sauron regains his power, he also establishes the stronghold of Dol Guldur in Mirkwood. While the people of Middle Earth recognize that it is a dark force that has created this fortress, they are not aware that it is Sauron. Instead, they call the entity the Necromancer.
Why Was Sauron Called the Necromancer?
While we associate the word Necromancer with a sorcerer who communicates with or raises the dead, these are things that Tolkien never describes Sauron as doing during his time as the Necromancer.
Instead, the people of Middle Earth called the evil entity in Mirkwood the Necromancer because of the dark influence that he was having on the surrounding forest. He also had a shadowy visage, and his true identity as Sauron was unknown.
But Sauron does have some apparent necromantic powers. One example is the Ringwraiths, nine evil men destined to die but who live on as servants as Sauron. His own ability to cheat death is also a classic necromantic gift.
His period as the Necromancer is not the only time that Sauron used an alternative name to hide his identity and execute his plans.
When Sauron hatched his plot to create the Rings of Power to gain control of Middle Earth, he first ingratiated himself with the Elves to help forge the rings. He took on a beautiful and beguiling form and used the name Annatar, which means Lord of Gifts.
It was by assuming this persona that he was able to trick the Elves into helping him. He was only exposed when he created the One Ring.
How Was the Necromancer Revealed to Be Sauron?
Sauron hid his identity well while he was in Mirkwood. He lived there in the guise of the Necromancer for 2,000 years.
It took Gandalf almost 1,000 years of investigation of Dol Guldur to recognize that the Necromancer was Sauron and convince his fellows on the White Council of this fact. Key to his discovery was encountering Thrain II, the father of Thorin Oakenshield, at Dol Guldur.
According to Tolkien, Sauron established Dol Guldur about 2,000 years before the events of The Hobbit. He used it as a base to restore his power while looking for his lost Ring and seek out his enemy Isildur’s heirs.
Gandalf seems to have been first alerted to the presence of the Necromancer at Dol Guldur about nine hundred years before the events of The Hobbit. He goes to investigate, but Sauron is still vulnerable and flees the area rather than face Gandalf. But Sauron returns to his stronghold and his work after about 400 years.
Then, only about 100 years before the events of The Hobbit, Sauron imprisons Thrian II, the father of Thorin Oakenshield, at Dol Guldur. He is the holder of the last of the Seven Rings of the Dwarves. Sauron believes that the dwarf king can help him find his Ring.
Gandalf returns to Dol Guldur about five years later and finds Thrain there. This is when he acquires Thror’s Map and the Key to the Side Door. Gandalf passes on to Thorin some years later. This allows the dwarves to plan the journey to the mountain described in The Hobbit. This is also when Gandalf learns the true identity of the Necromancer.
Here is Gandalf finally discovering the Necromancer’s true identity:
Gandalf takes this information to the White Council, a group comprising himself, Saruman, Elrond, and Galadriel, and shares his findings. However, Saruman convinces the council that this is not possible. We learn in The Lord of the Rings that this was for notorious reasons of his own.
Only around 100 years later, during the events that take part in The Hobbit, Saruman is forced to lead the White Council in an attack on Dol Guldur. This is after Sauron reveals himself while searching the Gladden Fields for the One Ring. Sauron again flees his Mirkwood stronghold. But this time, he returns to Mordor as the Dark Lord and announces his presence.
In The Hobbit book, this confrontation is mentioned in passing. But Peter Jackson tried to bring it to life, with questionable success, in his films.
Here is the scene of the White Council vs. Sauron and nine Ring Wraiths:
What Is the Point of the Necromancer in the Hobbit?
The Necromancer doesn’t get much airtime in The Hobbit, especially in the book. Plus, even when you re-read the book, you will see that the connection between the Necromancer and Sauron is never clearly stated. So why is he mentioned at all?
The Necromancer is a plot piece to separate Gandalf from the Dwarves and Bilbo to let them face a few challenges on their own.
But why use Sauron as the Necromancer? Why not create a different character?
Letters written by Tolkien suggest that he included a reference to the Necromancer into The Hobbit only for his close family and friends who were familiar with his stories and were, therefore, “in the know.” So, it was more of a personal “Easter egg” for his friend rather than a carefully planned plot device.