Sauron’s Strategy


Well-Known Member
"He (Sauron) believed that the One had perished; that the Elves had destroyed it, as should have been done. But he knows now that it has not perished, that it has been found. So he is seeking it, seeking it, and all his thought is bent on it. It is his great hope and our great fear.”

Thus said Gandalf to Frodo in The Shadow of the Past.

First, this implies that Sauron (like everyone else until the Meeting of the Captains of the West, in the Return of the King) has no conception that the destruction of the Ring would functionally destroy him. (At least that is Gandalf’s belief.)

(I know that it is hard for people to recover the perspective of the first-time reader, and realize that during the Council of Elrond, no one assumes that destroying the Ring will destroy Sauron and win the war. They only assume that destroying the Ring will deny it to Sauron and any other potential wielders. However, I don’t think that close reading permits any other view.)

If Gandalf is correct, and Sauron believed the Ring to have been destroyed, then one thing is clear. Sauron does not fear the destruction of the Ring. He has no belief that he will be functionally destroyed if the Ring is destroyed. (This passage by Gandalf also implies that Gandalf has no belief that Sauron would be destroyed through the destruction of the Ring, as he might have added a modifier to indicate that the assumption he attributed to Sauron might be flawed.)

So, what happens to Sauron’s mind-set and strategy when he discovers, from Gollum, sometime between 3009 and 3016 (I guess later in that period) that the One Ring still exists?

Is “all his thought bent on it”? Is Gandalf correct in thinking, “it is his great hope and our great fear”?

I suggest that Gandalf is not exactly correct in his assessment of Sauron’s emotions. I think Sauron’s first emotion is not hope, but fear. Sauron fears that someone powerful might gain control of the Ring, and be able to challenge him and defeat him in the struggle for control of Middle-earth. Although Sauron's knowledge of the existence and finding of the Ring changes Sauron's strategy fundamentally, I do not think that "all his thought is bent on it", in the obsessive way which Gandalf's comment might imply. Sauron is rather slow to act on this startling news.

Sauron’s entire strategy, since his return after defeat in the War of the Last Alliance, has been very long term. Very gradual.

Sauron learned, from his more bold and aggressive strategies during the Second Age, that even with the Ring, he was not powerful enough to overcome the Numenoreans directly through combat. That even with the Ring, he was not powerful enough to overcome the forces of the Last Alliance in war. His creation of the Ring was flawed in that it did not achieve all of his intentions. The Three were not bound. Nor were the Seven.

Sauron has been very cautious in his strategy in the Third Age. Concealing his presence in Dol Guldur. Being willing to take 565 years, between the first attack by the Witch King on Arnor and the final destruction of the Numenorean kingdoms in Eriador. Why so circumspect? What does Sauron fear?

Well, the first-time reader may only have a very dim perception of this, but Sauron must fear the Valar. They defeated his lord, “The Great Enemy, of whom Sauron of Mordor was but a servant,” as Aragorn tells on Weathertop. Best not to get them involved again. Then, more clearly to the first-time reader, Sauron must fear the Elves, and the remaining Numenoreans. They defeated him once, even when he had the Ring. They could well defeat him again. However, both are in decline. Time is on Sauron’s side. He is not in a hurry. His strategy is slow and cautious. Let the Elves decline. Let the Numenorean exiles decline. Whittle away at their strength. Build up the defences and strengths of Mordor gradually. No rush. World domination will come in time.

Now though, Sauron has new intelligence. The One Ring was not destroyed! It is not even lost! It has been found!

Suddenly, Sauron has a new fear. What if someone powerful gains mastery of the Ring?

Sauron does not fear the destruction of the Ring. He has no conception that this would damage him.

Sauron does want the ring, as it would make him more powerful, and accelerate his domination. However, he is already the most powerful being in Middle-earth, with few doubts that he will dominate eventually. So, although he lusts for the Ring. I think he fears more that another will wield it against him, than he hopes that he will reclaim it and wield it again himself.

Still, it takes Sauron time to break out of his slow and cautious strategy and adopt a more urgent approach. We are not sure exactly when Sauron captures Gollum. Nor when he is convinced that the One exists and has been found. But, we know that Gollum is released from Mordor some time in 3017. He is found in the Dead Marshes by Aragorn. He is dragged to the Wood-elves. He is interrogated by Gandalf. He is held in captivity. He is rescued. It is not until after June 20, 3018, that the Nine cross the Anduin, and begin seeking the Shire.

Why not start the hunt immediately? Sauron is not ready. He wants to gather his armies and allies from the South and East. He wants to strike a blow at Gondor, smash the bridge at Osgiliath and prevent a pre-emptive strike against Mordor or his allies from Gondor. He wants to increase his influence over Saruman, so that co-ordinated attacks on Gondor and Rohan might be achieved.

Sauron does not panic. He does not spring into precipitant action when he discovers that the Ring exists and is found. He plans. But, curiously, his very first action in his quest to recover the Ring, seems to be the release of Gollum from Mordor. His second action seems to be to send an emissary to Erebor. Neither is a very forceful, predictable, or controllable course of action. Why such restrained actions in response to such important and alarming information?

Sauron must be hoping that Gollum may be able to find and obtain the Ring. Sauron, at this point, has no knowledge as to whether any powerful and potentially opposing people have any idea that the Ring exists and has been found. Gollum on the hunt is less likely to cause alarm and suspicion than the Nazgul in pursuit. 'If the Ring is still secret, let’s keep it so', is probably Sauron’s thought. Besides, he needs the Nazgul back at home for a while to accelerate his preparations for offensive or defensive war should that be needed earlier than he had planned.

“Let’s start small, cautious and secret, by seeing if Gollum can get the Ring”, might have been Sauron’s thought. He is not worried that Gollum can wield the Ring against him. He is impressed by Gollum’s cunning in tracking, and stealth in remaining undetected on the fences of Mordor for more than 50 years. He thinks that Gollum might be able to find and acquire the Ring. He thinks that Gollum might be able to evade and hide from any powerful ring-rivals who might appear. He does not think that Gollum will be able to evade his own spies, or, even if he does, that Gollum will be able to resist returning again to Mordor to deliver the Ring.

However, this secret Gollum-plan is disrupted when Gollum is captured by Aragorn and dragged north. Sauron’s alarm multiplies when his spies inform him that Gandalf has been interrogating Gollum. Even if Sauron did not identify Aragorn as a potential ring-rival at this time, he quite likely did identify Gandalf as such. Now his urgency and panic grows. Now he must act more forcefully, decisively, and swiftly!

Sauron accelerates his plans again. He will launch the Nazgul on the hunt for the Ring much sooner than he had thought. Waiting only for the attack on Osgiliath. Meanwhile, Gollum will be rescued, to keep that plan in play. But Gollum is now much more of a back-up or fall-back plan, as the main thrust of the hunt for the Ring is entrusted to the Nazgul.
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Kate Neville

Active Member
These are good points. I hadn't previously considered that no one -- White Council or Sauron -- believed that destroying the Ring would effectively destroy Sauron. He'd survived the fall of Numenor, and the loss of the Ring to Isildur, after all. I imagine that Sauron was heartened by the fact that Gollum hadn't become some sort of Mini-Me-Sauron under the Misty Mountains, and there had been no rumor of a dictatorial society anywhere in the Northwest of Middle-earth since Gollum lost the Ring. It's no wonder he and his minions underestimated hobbits during FotR. One wonders how much enlightenment on this issue Gandalf 2.0 had. Aragorn apparently intuited Sauron's misapprehension when he showed himself as Isildur's heir in the Palantir. Sauron has been proving the truth of Galadriel's statement, that she could read his thoughts but hers were closed to him. Perhaps that's why Saruman got the drop on him at Rauros: Sauron couldn't imagine that the Ring would get to Lothlorien and not be used by Galadriel.


Well-Known Member
Hi Kate,

I wonder if the story of TLOTR has not become so embedded in culture now, 66 years after first being published, that even more recent first-time readers start reading TLOTR 'knowing' that destroying the Ring will destroy Sauron? I think they tend to miss that no one in the book actually has this assumption until the Meeting of Captains, after the Battle of Pelennor Fields.

However, I am convinced that close reading indicates that neither the first-time reader, nor the participants in the Council of Elrond should have had (did have) this assumption. They all thought that destroying the Ring would deny it to Sauron, and deny its temptation to any other prospective future Dark Lords. None of them thought that destroying the Ring would destroy Sauron (for all practical purposes) and win the war.

Did JRRT think that destroying the Ring would win the war, even while not revealing that through most of the book? I suspect he did.


It's an interesting contradiction. There seems to be some degree of understanding of this among the characters who should know from the earliest part of the story. Gandalf tells Frodo in "The Shadow of the Past" that "he let a great part of his own former power pass into it, so that he could rule all the others." So Gandalf clearly understands that it represents a significant part of Sauron's native power or 'soul'. And they do say quite clearly at the Council of Elrond that he would be able to win even without recovering it. And yet, the very foundations of Barad-dur cannot be removed until it is destroyed.

The Dark Tower was broken, but its foundations were not removed; for they were made with the power of the Ring, and while it remains
they will endure.
Well then, if they can be removed after it has been destroyed, this must imply at least some diminishment of Sauron's power? And there is then a further implication that he would be diminished enough that the chances to defeat him would be increased, else why bother trying to destroy it?

So while the stated goal seems to be destroying the Ring simply to deny it to Sauron, there is clearly an implication that he would be diminished by its destruction. They just don't seem to realize how completely it would ruin Sauron. They might see this 'diminishment' as simply the diminishment of his hold over others through the Rings of Power? Or maybe they don't yet realize that the 'native power' imbued in the Ring would be lost rather than returning to Sauron? Which is to say, they don't understand the direct implications for Sauron, they are only thinking of how to break his power over others. Like so many of the questions around Rings of Power, we need someone with a degree in 'Magical Law' or 'Magical Physics' to explain the rules to us. :)

But it's not surprising that the resistance didn't quickly or easily understand that Sauron had so utterly committed himself to domination in creating the Ring and imbued so much of himself into it. Like Sauron, they have their own habits of thought, their own habitual assumptions. As the original post says, I think his chief fear is that someone else would use it against him, not that it would be destroyed. He is consumed with the desire for power, and doesn't easily understand other ways of thinking. Just as Sauron could not easily understand the desire to destroy the Ring (only realizing the true goal of the resistance at the last moment when Frodo is revealed in the Sammath Naur) and have the option of absolute power in Middle-earth completely removed, the 'Wise' on the side of the Free People might not easily understand how far Sauron would have gone to attain that power and the risk it had put him at. Given that Gandalf doesn't openly state this until that meeting of captains after the Battle of Pelennor Fields, I think it's a good guess that he had some 'consultations' in his time away from Middle-earth and this was pointed out to him so that he could make that definitive statement in "The Last Debate".

For he will lose the best part of the strength that was native to him in his beginning, and all that was made or begun with that power will crumble, and he will be maimed for ever, becoming a mere spirit of malice that gnaws itself in the shadows, but cannot again grow or take shape. And so a great evil of this world will be removed.
But no, I do not think that Tolkien realized how the story would end, with the end of the Ring also ending Sauron, until he got very close to that end. And then in the revision, of course. He had all sorts of false turns. At one point Dol Guldur in southern Mirkwood was "The Dark Tower", the home base of Sauron, and Mordor was a forgotten region subsumed by the later appearance of the forest. And "Treebeard" was an evil giant, who held Gandalf captive before Saruman took that role. Faramir just pops up once he reaches Ithilien and Tolkien spends a long time letting him run on about Gondor (much of that was the basis for the extensive appendices), before he can continue the story. He revises and revises for years before he really gets to the ending that we all now see as so inevitable.


Well-Known Member
Some good thoughts there, Forodan.

They bring some other questions to mind:

When did Sauron realize that the destruction of the Ring endangered him? Gandalf states that Sauron thought the Ring had been destroyed by the Elves after the Battle of the Last Alliance. If Gandalf was correct, then Sauron had no conception that the destruction of the Ring would functionally destroy him. (If he thought it had been destroyed, and he was still around and powerful, then, obviously, destruction of the Ring was not a threat to Sauron.)

However, Sauron obviously did realize the danger, when Frodo claimed the Ring at Mt. Doom. "The Dark Lord was suddenly aware of him, and his Eye, piercing all shadows looked across the plain to the door that he had made, and the magnitude of his own folly was revealed to him in a blinding flash, and all the devices of his enemies were at last laid bare. Then his wrath blazed in consuming flame, but his fear rose like a vast black smoke to choke him. For he knew his deadly peril and the thread upon which his doom now hung."

I would say this passage makes it pretty clear that it was only now that Sauron suddenly realized that the destruction of the Ring would destroy him. Gandalf appears to have been correct that this had not been his assumption.

Why was Sauron so ignorant (until the last minute) about the calamitous effects that destruction of the Ring would have upon him? One might think that the creator of the Ring would have a better idea of its effects?

If even Sauron did not know about the effects of Ring destruction, how did Gandalf come to know them before Sauron did? (I like your idea that it was something to do with Gandalf becoming The White.)

As to when JRRT knew that destroying the Ring would destroy Sauron and win the war, I think that I have found at some time in the past, somewhere in 'The History of Middle Earth', or in 'Tolkien's Letters', evidence which indicated that JRRT knew this very early on. But someone more familiar with those sources than I may be able to shed more light on when JRRT came to this conclusion.

Jim Deutch

Well-Known Member
I would say this passage makes it pretty clear that it was only now that Sauron suddenly realized that the destruction of the Ring would destroy him. Gandalf appears to have been correct that this had not been his assumption.
I disagree: I would say that it was only now that Sauron suddenly realized that anyone could actually ever want to destroy the Ring. He was so sure that all sentient beings lusted for power that this had never occurred to him. I suspect that he knew from the start that all his power was in the Ring and its destruction would destroy him; he just never considered that a possibility before.


Well-Known Member
Hi Jim,

It is certainly possible that Sauron knows that destroying the Ring would destroy him. Gandalf does not seem to think that Sauron knows this, however, as Gandalf says that Sauron thought the Elves had destroyed the Ring after the Battle of the Last Alliance.

I also think it is likely that Sauron did not know. The main reason is his relaxed and non-urgent attitude towards finding the Ring after he learned from Gollum that it still existed. Sauron did not get urgent until after his spies presumably reported that Gandalf had been interrogating Gollum.

This indicates to me, that Sauron's main concern was that someone else powerful would wield the Ring against him. If he thought that the Ring represented a potential mortal peril to him then, even if he thought that no one would want to destroy the Ring, I think his search would have been more urgent, and his defences of Mt. Doom stronger and more secure.

Jim Deutch

Well-Known Member
Gandalf does not seem to think that Sauron knows this, however, as Gandalf says that Sauron thought the Elves had destroyed the Ring after the Battle of the Last Alliance.
Gandalf isn't always right.

Still, you make good points. It's possible that Sauron discovered -- or realized -- that destroying the Ring would destroy him only at the very last minute.