The Sauron Strategies: Footsteps into Failure
In the First Age, Sauron was just one of several captains serving Morgoth. Sauron's generalship is never really explored. We learn more about his cunning ability to ferret out enemies, and his willingness to engage in personal combat at considerable risk to himself. Morgoth, on the other hand, relies upon stealth and massive, overwhelming, superior numbers. It seems to be Morgoth's perpetual weakness that he confuses numbers with force.
Of course, Morgoth pulled off a few major victories. In fact, he crushed the Eldarin civilization in Beleriand and reduced the Dwarves of Nogrod and Belegost to sideline players. But Morgoth missed the big picture. While he dithered around in the north with the Noldor, most of Middle-earth escaped his attention. The Valar took advantage of Morgoth's intense interest in Beleriand and the Noldor to isolate him there and inflict the final defeat upon him.
The outcome of the War of Wrath was that Morgoth was captured and his forces reduced to probably no more than a few vagabond groups of Orcs, Trolls, and Men. At most, only a handful of the corrupted Maiar probably escaped, and at least a couple of the winged dragons as well (since a breeding population of dragons survived into the Third Age and beyond). Of the Maiar, we can be sure that two were Sauron and the Balrog of Khazad-dum. The Balrog withdrew from all political entanglements for over five thousand years.
Sauron, on the other hand, was apparently apprehended. "Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age" (published in The Silmarillion) tells us that Sauron "put on his fair hue again and did obeisance to Eonwe, the herald of Manwe, and abjured all of his evil deeds." But Eonwe could not pardon Sauron, and instead commanded him to return to Valinor and await the judgement of Manwe. To that Sauron would not consent, and he remained in Middle-earth when Eonwe returned into the West.
For the next five or six hundred years, Sauron vanished from history. It is unlikely that Sauron "slept" in the sense that the Balrog seems to have curled up under a conveniently huge mountain and dreamed of past debaucheries for the next several thousand years. More likely, Sauron retreated into far eastern Middle-earth and there he could have done anything, such as plant a garden or found a monastery to teach ancient Elves, Dwarves, and Men the Way of Peace. Whatever he did, after a few hundred years Sauron realized he wasn't going to accomplish much -- or else that he could probably get away with doing whatever he wanted, so he launched a new initiative.
Sauron's gradual emergence into the affairs of Middle-earth did not go unnoticed, and it may be that the catalyst for his return was the eastward migration of Sindar. Tolkien observed that, "seeing the desolation of the world, Sauron said in his heart that the Valar, having overthrown Morgoth, had again forgotten Middle-earth; and his pride grew apace."
In the "notes on motives in the Silmarillion" essay (published in Morgoth's Ring), Tolkien wrote: "[Sauron] did not object to the existence of the world, so long as he could do what he liked with it. He still had the relics of positive purposes, that descended from the good of the nature in which he began: it had been his virtue (and therefore also the cause of his fall, and of his relapse) that he loved order and co-ordination, and disliked all confusion and wasteful friction."
Sauron fundamentally believed that he could set the world in order, bring it
out of the chaos that Morgoth and his wars with the Valar and Eldar had
created, and restore it to its original purposes. But, because of his pride,
plans...became the sole object of his will" (ibid.). Sauron forgot why
he wanted to bring order to the world, and simply focused on bringing order
He clearly saw the Elves as potential instruments of his will. They had the sub-creative abilities to affect the wider world in ways that other creatures, such as Men, apparently lacked. Dwarves don't seem to have figured broadly in Sauron's designs, and that may be due to either a lack of knowledge about them on Sauron's part (such a perspective is reinforced by the fact that Sauron failed to convert any Dwarves into Ringwraiths) or to their lesser abilities (although we have too little information about Dwarven capabilities to compare them with the Elves in that way).
However, Sauron at first began organizing the remnants of Morgoth's creatures. They would have been easy for him to recruit into his service -- he would have known them well and they might have remembered him -- but he seems to have worked slowly and subtly at first. Gil-galad suspected that a servant of Morgoth had begun organizing peoples or creatures in the east before the year 1000 in the Second Age.
He recruited Anardil, prince of Numenor, to serve as an ambassador to men living in northern and western Middle-earth. At the time, Gil-galad seems to have striven to collect information and to build up goodwill among peoples dwelling near his kingdom, which lay upon the northwestern shores of Middle-earth, in the last remnant of eastern Beleriand. Anardil's activities in Middle-earth, and the growing presence of Numenoreans in the coastlands (through voyages of exploration and seasonal camps or temporary colonies such as Vinyalonde), induced Sauron to select a permanent base of operations around the year 1000.
We can infer from the settlement of Mordor that Sauron had no permanent secure base in the east. He must have had one or more fortresses from which he directed his growing empire, but he apparently believed that he needed to be closer to the westlands in order to devise and implement a new strategy. This strategy was founded upon Sauron's hope of inducing the Eldar to accept him as a teacher and guide. Hence, either he initially populated Mordor with servants not likely to instill alarm in the Eldar, or else he suppressed knowledge of his presence in the region.
Sauron's diplomatic missions to the Eldar appear to have occurred in the brief period of a single year. The entry for 1200 in the Second Age of "The Tale of Years" (Appendix B in The Lord of the Rings) reads: "Sauron endeavors to seduce the Eldar. Gil-galad refuses to treat with him; but the smiths of Eregion are won over." He probably never visited the other Elven realms, where the Eldar were few or had adopted the ways of the less sophisticated Silvan Elves. Clearly, Sauron was going after the heart of Elven power.
Since his objective was to impose an order upon the world (presumably to
repair the hurts done by the war in Beleriand, and to eliminate or reduce the
chaos which had replaced Morgoth's regime at the end of the First Age),
Sauron had to appeal to the Eldar's own innate desire to bring order to the
world about them. The Elves, in Tolkien's view, "wanted to have their cake
without eating it." Or, more precisely, the Eldar "wanted the peace and bliss
and perfect memory of
The West, and yet to remain on the ordinary earth
where their prestige as the highest people, above wild Elves, dwarves, and
Men, was greater than at the bottom of the hierarchy of Valinor." (Letter
So, early on, Sauron's own desire to dominate Middle-earth was rivalled by the Eldar's (growing) desire to achieve a similar status. Both Sauron and the Eldar were seeking control, and influence. Rather than pursue an outright war, however, Sauron elected to bring the Eldar into his community through subtrefuge. By appealing to their strengths, he believed he would take advantage of a vulnerability he perceived. Yet, was that vulnerability really there? Could Sauron have succeeded with the Elves?
Probably no more than he did. That is, Sauron seems to have underestimated the Elves' powers of perception and understanding. He did not anticipate the Elven-smiths' awareness of his actions, when he created the One Ring and placed it upon his finger. At that moment, the Elves were aware of him, his true nature and designs, and they removed their Rings. Sauron never had the opportunity to begin influencing them as he had hoped to.
I have often wondered why it took almost 100 years from that point (Second Age 1600) for Sauron to launch the war with the Eldar. It would seem he just sort of waited around, allowing the Eldar and Numenoreans to build up their defenses. But most likely Sauron himself lacked the power to launch a massive campaign against the West. He knew fully well the capabilities of the Eldar. He had fought them in Beleriand, and had witnessed more than one Elven victory against overwhelming numbers.
The 90 years of preparation for war with the Elves would have afforded Sauron time to increase the ranks of his Orc-soldiery, but it would also have provided him with time to learn how to use his Ring to gain better control over his servants. Sauron must have used the One Ring to extend his influence over many peoples at that time, but it is apparent from the aftermath of the war that he did not fully control eastern Middle-earth. He was working with limited resources.
The Orcs had been driven from the northern lands by an alliance of dwarves and Men early in the Second Age. If Mordor was the only region where the Orcs dwelt in the year 1500, they could not have been very numerous. Sauron's preoccupation with the Eldar in Eregion from circa 1200 to 1500 suggests he paid little attention to the Orcs. They may have sustained their numbers but were not permitted to increase to a point where they would become unmanageable. That is, Sauron's strategy at the time did not call for unleashing hordes of Orcs upon the world. We can be reasonably certain of this because he did not launch an immediate invasion of the north in 1600.
If the Orcs required 90 years in which to increase their numbers, would Sauron have utilized that time to make inroads with other peoples? For example, how did he gain the trust of the Gwathuirim, especially those living in Enedwaith and Minhiriath? These Men helped Sauron during the war, but did they simply flock to his banner when he showed up with an army of Orcs, or did he perhaps spend time among them, winning their trust and playing to their fears and resentments. The Gwathuirim felt threatened by the Numenorean settlements and timber industries. The had been raiding Numenorean lands since Anardil (Tar-Aldarion) first built Vinyalonde in the late 800s.
- years would also have provided Sauron time to scout out the lands east of the Misty Mountains. In The Peoples of Middle-earth, we are told that Sauron overran the lands of the Edainic peoples who dwelt in the Vales of Anduin and east of Greenwood the Great, bringing down their ancient alliance with the Longbeard Dwarves. His objective in launching the war therefore appears to have been to destroy all possible resistance to his rule in Middle-earth. It would not have been sufficient for Sauron to seize Eregion and the Rings of Power. He wanted to eliminate all possible rival powers.
Hence, the Longbeard Dwarves themselves must have posed a considerable threat to Sauron's plans. Their kingdom had been strengthened early in the Second Age by an influx of Dwarves emigrating from the Ered Luin. These were mostly Belegostian Dwarves, former allies of the Eldar in Beleriand and enemies of Morgoth. Khazad-dum, the chief city of the Longbeards, provided a key avenue of supply and reinforcement between Eregion and the Vales of Anduin. Considerable trade must have passed through the Longbeards' hands. But more importantly, the Longbeards were the traditional central power of Dwarvendom. They were the guardians of Gundabad, where the Dwarven peoples had communed for countless years.
If the Eldar posed a threat to Sauron's control over Middle-earth, the Dwarves were at the very least an obstacle in his path. They would not have accepted his domination and they were, in the westlands, allied with the Eldar and the Edainic peoples who were friendly with the Eldar. Sauron well knew what the Edain were capable of, for he had fought them in Beleriand. Among Men, the Numenoreans may have presented the greater threat, but their homeland lay far beyond Middle-earth. Relatively few Numenoreans dwelt in Middle-earth. The Edainic peoples provided Gil-galad and his allies with a tremendous resource.
Therefore, Sauron's assault on the lands east of the Misty Mountains makes sense. While he lay siege to Eregion, Khazad-dum's priorities were divided. Sauron may not have anticipated the assault that Durin III launched against the invaders from Khazad-dum's west-gate. Or else he intended the battles in the east to draw off a great part of Durin's strength. The Edainic peoples were driven from their lands, and most were apparently killed. The survivors fled into the mountains, where the Dwarves could protect them, or the deeper woodlands, where they were isolated from other peoples. Most of them probably fled into the far northern lands anyway.
The Silvan Elves probably suffered terribly. They may have been incapable of mounting or sustaining the kind of war which the Eldar could achieve, but they were more numerous than the Eldar and, in some lands, were led by Eldarin princes. It may be that several smaller realms were wiped out or driven to seek refuge in Greenwood the Great and Lothlorien. Yet Sauron's failure to destroy the realms of Amdir (father of Amroth) and Oropher (father of Thranduil) implies that he lacked the resources to fight a woodland war. He must have had few if any troops trained to for warfare under the trees.
A failure to capitalize on his victories in the east may have been the reason for why Sauron decided to burn the forests of Eriador. His eastern armies must have cleared the open lands of Men and Elves and been stopped in the forests. Either the eastern forces were wiped out in pitched, desperate battles, or else they withdrew when they could go no further. Durin's attack on Sauron's western forces may have been completely unexpected, and Sauron could have realized that if he took his army through the great woodlands of Eriador, the Eldar and Edain would ravage his troops and supply lines.
Hence, after crushing Eregion, Sauron sent enough troops northward to ensure that Elrond's army was pinned down, and then he proceeded to eradicate the whole of Eriador. In a way, the devastation Sauron wreaked upon the world would serve as a statement, a sort of declaration of sovereignty. "This is mine to do with as I please." He would be telling the Elves in no uncertain terms that he, and not they, would control Middle-earth. The cake was his, not theirs. The Elves must have understood this, too.
After the war was over, and Sauron had been defeated, there apparently was no talk of marching into Mordor and taking Sauron down a peg. Many Elves fled Middle-earth and Gil-galad elected to establish a new outpost at Imladris, which was farther north (and distant from Mordor) and more defensible than Eregion had been. The army or armies which had pursued Sauron back to Mordor must not have had sufficient resources to force their way into the land. So the implication of their withrdawal is that the Eldar and Numenoreans ran into something they were not ready to deal with.
Mordor, surrounded by high mountains, was very defensible, and undoubtedly Sauron chose to make it his fortress because of the advantages offered by the geography. But Gil-galad had few if any resources for maintaining a lengthy siege so far from Lindon. Numenor had no bases in the area (Pelargir would not exist for another 600 years), and the only peoples in the area were unfriendly (except possibly for the Ent-wives, who may have been willing to support the cause, but might also have stood aside).
"The Tale of Years" says that, beginning around the year 1800, Sauron extended his power eastward. It would seem that Sauron, like the Eldar and Numenoreans, felt it was time for a change in policy. Rather than take on the Eldar directly, he elected instead to build up his power among other peoples (presumably among the Men of eastern Middle-earth, whose ancestors had once been loyal or friendly to Morgoth). The evolution of Sauron's goals emerges as a consequence of his several failures: he failed to accept responsibility for his rebellion and refused to go to Valinor; he failed to seduce the Eldar to his full service; he failed to crush the Eldar and eliminate them as potential rivals for control over Middle-earth.
Gil-galad's lack of ambition was Sauron's saving grace. While Gil-galad probably concentrated on healing the lands and peoples Sauron had nearly destroyed in the war, Sauron invested his time in developing new resources. And he did not forget the Dwarves. Having seized the Nine and the Seven Rings of Power from the Gwaith-i-Mirdain in Eregion, Sauron perverted the Rings and gave them out to Men and Dwarves. Three of the Rings were given to Numenoreans, possibly to captains or lords who led new colonization efforts in Middle-earth. Although the Numenoreans had begun making permanent havens around the year 1200, they began "establishing dominions on the coast [of Middle-earth]" around the year 1800 ("Tale of Years").
By dispensing Rings of Power to Men and Dwarves in the east, where he already had influence, Sauron probably achieved ironclad control over many lands very quickly, within the space of a few years or generations. Although the Men who received Rings eventually became wraiths, the Dwarven lords could not be so corrupted. And yet, the essay "Dwarves and Men" (published in The Peoples of Middle-earth) implies that all the eastern Dwarven peoples may have fallen into evil. If Sauron could not have dominated the Dwarves through their Rings, he may nonetheless have won influence and friendship among them through the bestowal of such gifts.
The Rings given to the western Dwarves are a more complicated issue. There is no indication that any of them ever fell into evil. Their Rings may have been the foundation of great hoards (and the implication of that tradition, recorded in Appendix A to The Lord of the Rings, is that the kingly houses of the Ered Luin not only survived but thrived in the Second Age). How did Sauron manage to give Rings of Power to the Dwarves? And when? He clearly did not visit them in the capacity of his former persona. Durin III, at least, should have resisted any such attempts at bribery.
The whole business with redistributing the stolen Rings of Power smacks of a poorly thought-out "Plan B". Sauron did not quite know what to do. He needed more powerful servants through whom to conquer Middle-earth, but those servants did not present him with advantages over the Elves. In fact, although Sauron continued to attack the Elves throughout the next 1300 years or so, he never again mounted the kind of massive campaign against the Eldar that he had attempted in the war. Why?
The Numenoreans certainly began to take on a larger role in the affairs of Middle-earth. As the centuries passed, new Numenorean strongholds and havens were established along the coastlands. Numenorean power slowly marched northward toward Mordor's borders. So Sauron found himself confronted by two rivals: the Eldar in the north and Numenor in the south. And yet, with the destruction of Eregion, all ambition seems to have fled the Eldar. As long as the Rings of Power existed, of course, the Elves would have some protection against fading. So their chief objective had been accomplished. But they appear to have had the stuffing beaten out of them. There would be no more great Elven realms in Middle-earth.
Sauron may have built up his strength, but he seems to have devoted more than 1,000 years to dueling with the Numenoreans over various minor regions. His strategy floundered as he pondered what to do about the two problems. Sauron's flexibility undoubtedly ensured that his realm survived. By changing directions and pursuing more easily obtained goals in the east, he established an empire capable of withstanding most of the incursions of Numenor. But he appears to have held back in confronting Numenorean power. There is no mention of massive assaults on any Numenorean fortresses. Once Umbar was established, it remained in Numenorean control. Once Pelargir was built, Numenor had a permanent foothold along the lower Anduin.
However, it may be that Sauron stumbled early on, and his apparent reluctance to launch a second massive war was due to a realization of his mistake. When the Elves realized that they had been betrayed, Sauron could have given in to anger and pride. He demanded that they surrender their Rings of Power to him. Of course, they refused to do so. Hence, Sauron reacted angrily and launched a war against them. Although he might have cooled off after a few dozen years, any setbacks he suffered early on in the war (such as losing his eastern armies, or at least failing to destroy the woodland realms) may have reignited or fed his anger. It would not be until Sauron and his bodyguard returned to Mordor, soundly defeated, that he may have calmed down enough to figure out that he wasn't going to seize all of Middle-earth through war.
Hence, the ensuing centuries where Sauron sparred with the Numenoreans for control over what must have been relatively minor territories (probably mostly in the south) may have been time well spent in Sauron's opinion. That is, he was able to probe the Numenoreans for weaknesses, and he must have studied them. It may be that Sauron studied the young prince who eventually became Ar-Pharazon, realized that here was an individual who could be manipulated, and eventually inticed Ar-Pharazon (from afar) to challenge Sauron for mastery over Middle-earth.
If that was indeed Sauron's goal, he blundered. For Ar-Pharazon brought such an immense army out of the west that Sauron's allies deserted him. Of course, Sauron resorted to subtrefuge, surrendering himself so that he could be taken to Numenor as a prisoner. There he gradually won the king's confidence and seduced the vast majority of Numenoreans, many of whom were already rebellious toward the Valar, into worshipping Morgoth and defying the Valar. "Akallabeth" implies that Sauron hoped to destroy Numenor all along, but it also records that he was astounded at what he found in Numenor, for the achievements of the Dunedain surpassed all his expectations.
Sauron's change in plans preserved Mordor as a base of power and opened up for him an opportunity to undermine the Numenorean civilization. He was clearly acting opportunistically, and perhaps making up things as he went along. But his sojourn in Numenor was a fresh approach, and one which though resulting in temporary setbacks (Gil-galad was able to extend his own power during Sauron's absence from Middle-earth), helped Sauron achieve one of his goals: the destruction of Numenor.
With Numenor out of the way Sauron returned to Middle-earth, wounded but not greatly weakened. He may have contemplated turning his full attention upon Gil-galad, but he would have quikly learned that Numenorean survivors led by Elendil were establishing two new kingdoms in the north. Although many of the Numenorean colonies would now support Sauron, the Faithful Dunedain were helping Gil-galad to consolidate his power in the north. In effect, Sauron had replaced an immensely powerful Numenor, which he could not overcome militarily, with an immensely powerful alliance of Elves and Men.
Sauron attacked Gondor without warning, but Appendix A says he "struck too soon, before his own power was rebuilt; whereas the power of Gil-galad had increased in his absence." "Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age" is less pessissmistic: "When therefore Sauron saw his time he came with great force against the new realm of Gondor, and he took Minas Ithil, and he destroyed the White Tree of Isildur that grew there." Although Minas Ithil fell, Anarion held out in Osgiliath and eventually drove Sauron back to the mountains. Sauron thus seems not to have fully integrated all his former allies back into his realm, or else he didn't wait long enough for their armies to arrive.
The attack on Gondor is similar in scope to the attack on Eregion. Sauron was selecting strategic targets and seeking to isolate them from allied powers. He succeeded partially with Eregion: Elrond was unable to break through Sauron's lines, although Durin III rescued some of Eregion's people. The assault on Gondor was a failure, and it underscored the weakness in Sauron's approach: he allowed his enemies to work for the benefit of each other, even if they could not coordinate their efforts against him. Elrond and Durin both saved a portion of Eregion's people because Sauron was focused on seizing the Rings of Power. Gondor withstood his attack becase he was too eager to launch his war.
Isildur was able to sail north and rouse Elendil and Gil-galad. The alliance they assembled proved to be strong enough to destroy Sauron's realm. In fact, they raised a larger army than Ar-Pharazon had broughht to Middle-earth nearly 200 years before. If Sauron's allies were incapable of facing Ar-Pharazon's army, it is to his credit that they stayed by him during the final war of the Second Age. But they were no match for the Last Alliance.
Through war after war, Sauron allowed his enemies to support one another and sometimes to work together. It would not be until Barad-dur was besieged and Sauron's plans lay dashed in blood across the landscape that he finally figured out what he was doing wrong. He needed to isolate his enemies from one another. He launched a final, desperate attack against Gil-galad and slew the Elven-king, but Elendil stood close by and was able to strike a mortal blow to Sauron. The last combat on Orodruin may have been more an act borne of frustration than anything else. Even without Gil-galad, the Last Alliance had won the war. Sauron's empire was dismantled. His personal realm of Mordor was occupied.
A second death gave Sauron a much-needed respite. Middle-earth settled into a long period of peace in which Men would forget the Dark Lord and the Elves could only hope he did not return. Sauron had plenty of time for reflection upon his mistakes, and when he finally returned he had a new strategy, one which encompassed millennia and took into consideration all the variables he had not considered well enough in the Second Age.
Michael Martinez is the author of Visualizing Middle-earth, which may be purchased directly from Xlibris Corp. or through any online bookstore. You may also special order it from your local bookstore. The ISBN is 0-7388-3408-4.