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Strategy of Sauron


Second Age

Sauron’s strategy was logistically and tactically sound, but he made a very basic mistake. Essentially, he failed to understand his enemies, whereas his enemies understood him.

Through history, Sauron has adapted his strategies to overcome obstacles. But one constant weakness was his pride. He refused to subject himself to judgment of Valar – and thus refused repentance – out of pride. After few centuries of freedom in Middle Earth, he came to believe that Valar had forgotten Middle Earth in their bliss, and in his pride he thought that there was no force which could stop him.

His love for order meant that he necessarily wanted to conquer whole of Middle Earth. But he forgot why he was trying to bring order, and simply set order as his end goal. By year 1 000 of Second Age at latest he already started organizing remnants of Morgoth’s creatures – Gil-Galad learned of his activities by then, though he did not know it was Sauron. Gil-Galad thus contacted Anardil, crown prince of Numenor (later king Tar-Aldarion) and started reinforcing Middle-Earth.

In answer, Sauron – who may not have had a permanent base before then – went to Mordor and fortified it. But he also attempted to win Eldar to his side, choosing a fair face of Annatar – bearer of the gifts. In 1200., he wins over the smiths of Eregion, the heart of Elven power. His wish to bring order to the world was innately appealing to the Eldar, who wanted to create image of Valinor in Middle Earth, but one where they would be at the top, not the Valar.

Sauron and Celebrimbor

Both Elves and Sauron were thus seeking control and influence. While this may have easily brought them into open conflict, Sauron decided to use this desire to coopt the elves for his own goals. He however underestimated Elves’ powers of perception and understanding, failling to anticipate Elves’ sensing of his putting on One Ring. He also may have failed to plan for the possibility of failure, thus having to spend a hundred years building up his strength before he could launch a war, though different interpretation would be that he did not want risk Elves finding out about his goals. At any rate, he spent those 90 years well, breeding more orcs and mastering the One Ring. He also launched many diplomatic endeavours. Sauron used Numenorean devastation of forrests in the west to gain himself alliance with Gwauthirim. He also overran the Edainic peoples of Anduin and east of Greenwood, bringing down their alliance with Dwarves. That is, he sought complete dominion.

Longbeard Dwarves controlled Khazad-dum, most direct connection between Eregion and Lothlorien (and thus also Vale of Anduin). They were also the central power of dwarvendom, and were allied to Edainic peoples living in Middle Earth. Thus Sauron used his two-pronged attack to divide dwarven attention. While dwarves launched attack against his force in Eregion, Sauron used the opportunity to clear out the Edain from Vale of Anduin. But he failed to destroy the wooden elven realms in Lothlorien and Greenwood. This failure may have caused him to burn the forrests of Eriador, thus negating the Elves their greatest advantage and also making a statement on Dominion of Middle Earth. With Eriador eradicated, Elves were besieged in Imladris and the Harbours.

Yet this failed, for a simple reason: navy. Much like in real life, naval superiority has proven a tremendous boost in warfare in Middle Earth. While Sauron was one step from defeating his enemies, that one step never happened. Numenoreans brought in army from overseas, with Tar-Minastir’s fleet landing reinforcements at Lhun, which threw back Sauron’s army. But the retreating host was then surprised and cut off by further Numenorean reinforcements which landed at Gwathlo. The result was a complete obliteration of Sauron’s forces. He would not make the same mistake of neglecting the navy again. But for the time, he withdrew to Mordor – which with its mountains was extremely defensible, probably explaining why the Elves and Numenoreans did not march and finish him off. In fact, armies which had pursued him to Mordor had withdrawn – possibly for logistical reasons, as neither elves nor Numenoreans had ports in the area.

Sauron’s failed conquest

Around 1800, Sauron extended his power eastward, building up his power among other peoples as he could not hope to face Eldar backed by Numenor at his present strength. But while Sauron expanded his power, Gil-galad focused on rebuilding what was devastated. Sauron gave out Rings – Nine, of which three went to people of Numenorean stock; and Seven for the Dwarves. Numenorians had started their colonization of Middle-Earth in 1800., thus there were enough ambitious captains who could be seduced.

By giving out Rings, Sauron probably achieved ironclad control over lands in the East. Both Men and Dwarves in the East became corrupted and came into his service. But this was not enough – Sauron himself was likely at a loss of what to do once Numenor started settling the shores. Sauron was “sandwiched” between Elves to north-west and Numenor to south. Of two, Numenor was the pressing threat as Elves had withdrawn. But next thousand years was spent in a back-and-forth “war of the mice” as Numenor and Sauron both deployed comparatively minor portion of overall forces to fight over colonies. Neither Pelargir nor Umbar, so close to Mordor, suffered serious attacks after they were established.

This, however, does not necessarily indicate inability of making a decision. Numenor was an unknown element, and first encounters with it will have informed Sauron that it is a significant military power – yet the exact extent of its power remained unknown. Sauron in any case had no naval strength with which to launch an assault on Numenor itself, so his apparent reluctance may well have been an attempt to gain more information before committing himself to a certain course of action.

But even then, that information was not enough. While Sauron was well-informed about Numenorean power and activities in Middle-Earth, he remained uninformed about true extent of Numenor’s power at home. As such, when he finally did challenge Numenor to a head-on conflict, he was utterly unprepared for power that Numenor brought in to confront him. Sauron surrendered, and eventually won king’s confidence, becoming his chief advisor. With that, he brough about the downfall of Numenor from within.

Akallabeth by GRROD @ DeviantArt (no longer there)

This downfall destroyed Numenor and devastated colonies along the coasts of Middle Earth. While Sauron temporarily lost his bodily form – Ring he apparently left behind in Mordor – he managed to return to Mordor, and could draw upon the resources of colonies of King’s Men, who now worshipped him as a god. But in northwest, Faithful Numenoreans had established alliance with Gil-Galad.

Sauron attacked Gondor, and managed to take Minas Ithil and besiege Osgilliath. But unlike Eregion, he failed at isolating Gondor from its allies. Isildur sailed north, and after rousing Elendil and Gil-Galad, they marched against Sauron – with an army that may have been larger than that of Ar-Pharazon. Sauron could not prevent it, as his forces were cut off by Anduin, and specifically Osgilliath which he failed to take. This time, Sauron’s forces stood and fought, but were destroyed. Sauron himself was vanquished for a time, but he realized his mistakes.

These were many:

  1. he failed to account for Elven insight
  2. he failed to build up a navy, leaving himself open to enemy naval operations
  3. he attempted to destroy enemies in a quick maneuver warfare campaign (what is commonly called blitzkrieg today), but these were too powerful and too far away to be subjugated quickly
  4. geography limited freedom of action – Misty Mountains forced his armies through Gap of Rohan, thus preventing quick solution in Eriador
  5. he failed to cause division among his enemies; indeed, his multi-pronged campaign only succeeded in bringing them closer together
  6. he committed forces to too many fronts at the same time, and failed to pioritize
  7. he failed to secure naval superiority or at least naval parity, and thus allowed his enemies massive advantage in operational and strategic maneuver
  8. he failed at fully understanding the military potential of forces arrayed against him

Third Age

Sauron would not repeat these mistakes in the Third Age. Instead of attempting to crush his enemies in battle – and as a result, either waiting too long or acting too soon – he chose to focus on attrition.

Gondor of 11th century was far too strong to take head-on, and so Sauron established himself in Greenwood, thus exploiting the fading power of the Elves. At the same time, he established Angband, giving himself basis near Arnor, dividing his enemies’ attention, and preventing his enemies from figuring out his return as multiple hostile states rising would not have been difficult to ascribe to his servants. Minalcar pushed Sauron’s Easterlings away from Mirkwood, and civil wars among Easterlings arose – these may have delayed Sauron’s plans but also allowed the rise of warrior culture among them. At the same time, Arnor largely destroyed itself in civil wars, potentially helped by cults promoted by Sauron.

In 1636. Sauron unleashed Great Plague, weakening Gondor to the point that it could no longer afford to maintain the garrisons in Mordor. Once garrisons were withdrawn, Sauron sent his creatures to reoccupy Mordor, but without going there himself. Some 200 years after the Great Plague, Sauron sent Wainriders against Gondor. Westerners were defeated, and Sauron pushed his control to Anduin. After destruction of Arnor by Angmar and Khazad-dum by a Balrog, Sauron turned his attention fully to Gondor, the only remaining significant military threat. Lindon and Imladris remained in the North, but had no major military forces, and Lothlorien and Mirkwood were also only a limited threat. Still, Galadriel’s arrival to Lothlorien meant that there was a force strong enough to counter Dol Guldur in the elven kingdom.

After Gondor’s losses and retreat of Eotheod to vales of Anduin, there was no force which could cut off flow of reinforcements to Mirkwood and Mordor. Minas Ithil fell in 2002., after a siege of only two years. While Sauron was forced to retreat in 2063., he had deep background which enabled that, as well as providing him the area in which to prepare his counterattack. Balchoth rose in the East, Uruks were bred in Mordor, and Umbar was reinvested. This last factor is perhaps among most significant, for it meant that Gondor will no longer have uncontested mastery of the sea.

In 2460. Sauron returned to Dol Guldur and Minas Ithil released Uruks on Ithillien. Orcs and Trolls colonized Misty Mountains, and Corsairs beset Gondor. But Sauron’s northern enemies – Longbeard Dwarves and Eotheod were gaining in power, and both Lothlorien and Mirkwood were still powerful. He also realized that One Ring had remained whole, and feared that some of his more powerful enemies (such as Elven lords) might use it against him. He thus used Balchoth to push Gondor away from Gladden, but intervention of Eotheod and their settlement to Calenadhorn – later Rohan – meant that this objective was a failure. Worse than just being a failure, settlement of Eotheod meant that the Gap of Rohan was closed to Sauron’s armies for good, despite Gondor’s weakness.


After Helm’s killing of Freca, Freca’s son Wulf went to Dunland for help. In 2758., Freca’s outlaws, with help from Dunlendings, launched attack on Rohan. Simultaneously, Rohan and Gondor were attacked by Corsairs and Easterlings. Rohirrim were defeated and forced to mountain fortresses, but Gondor managed to eventually defeat the attackers and send help to Rohan. In 2770., Erebor and Dale were destroyed by Smaug. But in 2990s dwarves formed an alliance which destroyed the orcs of the Misty Mountains, thus preventing the encirclement of Lothlorien.

In 2851. White Council finally confirmed that Necromancer was in fact Sauron. Sauron himself had to content with Saruman – who sought the Ring – and still-powerful Gondor. In 2941. Sauron retreated from Dol Guldur after White Council moved against him (most likely in an armed assault), taking many if not most of his creatures from Mirkwood.

After Smaug’s death, Bolg launched attack on Erebor. Had the attack been successful, it would have prevented the renewal of Kingdom under the Mountain, made position of Lake Town untenable, and threatened Mirkwood elves from their right flank. It did lead to loss of control over Misty Mountains, but Moria was still infested by Balrog and a significant army of orcs. It is unclear whether they were under Sauron’s control, but this force would have been more than enough of a threat even on its own. Sauron himself returned to Mordor. Bolg’s defeat destroyed three-quarters of the orcs in the north, and kingdoms of Dale and Erebor were renewed.

When Sauron returned openly in 2951., Elves started leaving Middle Earth en-masse. Due to massive emigration, neither Lindon nor Imladris could any longer raise armies. Sauron forged alliances with Easterlings and Haradrim, and subjugated Saruman to his will. By the time war broke out, even Gondor – still the most powerful of Sauron’s enemies – was incapable of achieving a conventional victory. Even so, Sauron still attempted to offer friendship to some of his enemies, such as kings of Dale and the Mountain. Had he been successful, he would have neutralized a portion of opposing forces, and also opened new avenues of attack against those who continued to resist him. Others he attempted to neutralize by different means: Denethor by convincing him of futility of resistance, Saruman by recruiting him, and Theoden by making him incapable (through Grima and Saruman); in this, he was more-or-less successful, but was quickly countered by Gandalf. Saruman’s recruitment was potentially the most damaging, as he had inside knowledge of the White Council and its allies, and commanded a fortress which could close off the Gap of Rohan and neutralize Rohirrim at a single stroke.

Presence of the orcs in Moria, Misty Mountains, Dol Guldur, and Sauron’s allies in Rhun and Harad, meant that Free Peoples would be unable to give each other any aid. The reverse also held true to an extent – barrier of Misty Mountains, Lorien, Mirkwood and Dale meant that Sauron could not attack Rivendell and Eriador directly. Indirect path around the mountains would have stretched supply lines impractically long, and still required the defeat of Dale and Mirkwood. Navy could have been used to bypass Gondor, but that was not practical option as most of Sauron’s servants fear water, meaning that proper conquest would have still required taking control of and reconstructing bridges at Osgilliath.


Sauron himself, once the war begins in earnest, chooses the least effective way of achieving his goals: direct attack. Helm’s Deep, Minas Tirith, Lothlorien, Mirkwood, Dale – they are all attacked directly and by an overwhelming force. This, however, does not mean that overwhelming force is the only way of achieving his objectives that Sauron understands. Sauron’s actions are governed by the knowledge that his enemies have One Ring. The only possibility Free People had for victory was finding, taking and subjugating the One Ring, and so Sauron still had to ensure no one had it. Thus, when Aragorn used Palantir, the only recourse left was an all-out assault against Gondor, and then against Aragorn’s expeditionary force. As Gandalf points out, speed is imperative; and Sauron sacrifices all other considerations at its altar.

But this left Mount Doom open. How thoroughly Sauron failed to consider the possibility of anyone destroying the One Ring can be seen from the fact that he did not even seal the entrance to Mount Doom, or posted the guards – and while Ring could still have been thrown from the crater itself, that would have been a far more difficult and uncertain prospect. While (unnatural) geography of Mordor makes any attack on the country a daunting, nearly impossible prospect, infiltration is much less difficult – as Frodo and Sam had proven. Yet Sauron does not appear to have done anything to fortify Mordor, and when his army goes to confront army of the West, no guards are left at Samnath Naur. This is made worse by the fact that Sauron had the opportunity to personally question Pippin at his leisure when latter looked into the Palantir. But instead he makes a series of logical yet incorrect assumptions, and thus loses the best opportunity for victory that he had. Witch King likewise makes too many assumptions, focusing on Minas Tirith while neglecting to look for any less-than-obvious ways city could receive assistance in – such as a passage through the forrest.

Attack on Minas Tirith may have been necessary for logistical reasons. But there is a question of why nothing was done to fortify the rear of Mordor lines – indeed, the Rammas Echor was destroyed for no other reason than simple hatred (which, to be fair, is an all-too-common mode of behaviour through human history). There is also a question of whether such number of troops was necessary to begin with – a smaller force could have neutralized Minas Tirith (using intact Rammas Echor for outward defence or at least early warning) while other troops went to raid and ravage Gondor and Rohan. But Sauron, or rather the Witch King, fails to consider anything but usage of overwhelming force against the heart of enemy’s power – which, then, makes a direct assault the only option available. This, however, need not say anything about Sauron as a strategist under normal circumstances, as his belief that the enemy would use the Ring is dictating his choices.

One repeating weakness of Sauron is his lack of imagination. Being evil, he is completely incapable of understanding people who are not evil. Further, while he is capable of adapting his strategies, he appears to only do so after a long period of self-reflection upon a defeat. When he attacks Gondor, he bets everything on fall of Minas Tirith – once that fails, he is back where he started. While far from finished, need to regroup means that initiative passes to his enemies. And his preconceptions means that he allows himself to get distracted from the real threat.


Basics of Sauron’s warfare were:

  • Psychological warfare
    • Appeal to pride
  • Vegetian warfare
    • denial of resources
      • destruction of forrests
    • misdirection
  • Attrition warfare
    • defensible military base
    • playing the long game
      • alliances
      • gradual attrition of enemy of resources
  • Surprise
    • multi-pronged attacks
  • Information
    • gaining information
    • denying information to the enemy
  • Long-term adaptability
  • Logistics
    • establishing an advanced base close to the enemy homeland

Some of these were not in evidence immediately, but over time, Sauron’s strategy grew more sophisticated – at least when he was not acting under time constraints.

Main weakness of Sauron’s always was his inability to understand people with motivations different from his own. This was perhaps a consequence of overly-centralized command structure Sauron employed. Because of this, and his own pride, he also lacked short-term adaptability: he had to actually experience a serious defeat before he would even consider adapting a strategy that was not based on brute force.

Further reading:

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