What Did Sauron Know?


First posted in The Tolkien Forum, where you may comment and read comments on this essay.
This version of the essay has no footnotes, Wednesday 22 July 2020.



What did Sauron think was happening in The Lord of the Rings? What did he know? We always focus on the protagonists, the heroes, the Good Guys. Tolkien spent a lot of time thinking about the Bad Guys: what they knew, what they surmised, what they believed. We know the Good Guys guessed wrong and made mistakes, sometimes missing disaster by only a hair. What about the Bad Guys’ point of view?

Beginning from his defeat at the hands of Gil-galad, Elendil, Isildur, Elrond and Círdan near the end of the Second Age,

1.           After Isildur takes his Ring, Sauron reassembles himself somewhere in the East. He quietly comes back into the West in secret, settles on Amon Lanc near the east bank of Anduin, the highest point in that part of the great forest there, and builds Dol Guldur. We can surmise that he has already learned where Isildur died, and that the Ring was lost in the river in that vicinity.

2.           The Valar send Maiar to oppose Sauron’s re-arising. At some point, Sauron discovers this, and identifies them.

3.           I think he’s learned about the palantíri. (I don’t know that they were necessarily state secrets in the early Third Age.) He realizes he can use a palantír both to hunt for his Ring and to spy on his enemies. He dispatches the chief Nazgûl to Carn Dûm, where he becomes known as the Witch King, and sets about trying to obtain one or more palantíri from the weaker Númenórean kingdom, Arnor, which has fragmented into three subkingdoms. The most powerful palantír in Middle-earth is at Amon Sûl, so his focus is getting control of that one.

4.           Gondor suffers a civil war driven by fratricidal factions in the royal family. (Cf. the Wars of the Roses.) Gondor loses control of Umbar to the losing royal faction; Umbar becomes an enemy state to Gondor. Gondor is deprived of its navy and merchant marine, a significant source of power and revenue. A series of wars are launched upon Gondor by Umbar and its allies in the Harad that do not culminate until the War of the Ring, draining Gondor of resources and manpower.

5.           The Great Plague comes from the East, devastating Rhovanion, Gondor and Cardolan. It is implied, but not stated, that the Plague was the work of Sauron.

6.           Wainriders from the East overwhelm Rhovanion, an important ally of Gondor’s, and invade Gondor. They are eventually defeated, but not before Rhovanion is decimated and many of its people migrate into the Vales of Anduin to the north of Dol Guldur.

7.           Arthedain collapses, and its palantíri (two, effectively: Elendil’s Stone is in control of the Eldar of Lindon) are lost. However, Gondor sends an auxiliary force to Lindon, from which it launches an attack on the Witch-king’s army, which is utterly annihilated.

8.           Khazad-dûm is destroyed by the last of the Balrogs. Sauron makes contact with him, and sends some Orcs to Moria – not many, but enough to keep an eye on a potential rival or ally, and enough to help him keep interlopers out of the Mines. Sauron and the Balrog are without question old acquaintances!

9.           Sauron switches his focus to the southern Dúnedain and against Minas Ithil, which is now poorly defended. After a siege, he overthrows the city and obtains the object of his desire, its palantír, in addition to a major strategic victory over his primary military opponent, Gondor, the only remaining Númenórean kingdom.

10.      The last king of Gondor foolishly ventures to Minas Morgul, where he is taken captive by the Witch King.

11.      One of the Istari, Gandalf the Grey, comes to Dol Guldur. Sauron retreats into the East.

12.      Sauron returns to Dol Guldur and foments an attack on northern Gondor. The descendents of the cavalry of Rhovanion, the Éothéod, appear unexpectedly and turn the tide of battle, destroying Sauron’s army of Orcs and Easterlings. The Éothéod migrates to northern Gondor.

13.      During a bitter Long Winter, Orcs invade Eriador, the Dunlendings invade Rohan, while Gondor’s coasts are attacked by Umbar. The Orcs are overcome in Eriador, where they were apparently not very numerous. Eventually Gondor and Rohan extricate themselves with difficulty. Saruman the Wizard is given control of the old Númenórean fortress of Isengard, where there remains one of Gondor’s palantíri.

14.      Smaug the Dragon invades the Dwarf-kingdom of Erebor, the successor kingdom to Khazad-dûm, killing many of the Dwarves and scattering the rest.

15.      The Dwarves begin a massive war against the Orcs of the Misty Mountains, destroying most of the armies of both races; but Dwarves propagate much more slowly than Orcs. The Dwarves are unable to retake Khazad-dûm because of the Balrog, which they do not challenge.

16.      Saruman discovers Sauron searching for the Ring near Anduin. We can be sure Sauron noticed Saruman searching for it, too. Sauron prepares for an attack, if he has not already laid his plans.

17.      The Eldar and their allies the Wizards (i.e., the White Council) drive Sauron from Dol Guldur. Already prepared, he retreats into the East once more. Shortly afterwards, Smaug is killed near Erebor, and Men and Dwarves return to take possession of the mountain and its environs. Gandalf the Grey is somehow involved in this.

18.      Sauron returns to Mordor and declares himself.

19.      The last of the Heirs of Isildur is killed in Eriador. (Sauron knows nothing of Aragorn: he believes Arathorn II the last of that line.)

20.      Dwarves from Erebor enter Moria, but are killed by Sauron’s Orcs under the command of the Balrog there.

21.      Sauron catches Saruman using a palantír. They also know one another! both are Maiar of Aulë. He understands Saruman’s heart, that Saruman desires the Ring, too. Saruman allies with Sauron. Sauron probably realizes Saruman isn’t revealing his whole hand, but doesn’t yet believe Saruman will betray him.

22.      At some point, Sauron also discovers Denethor using the palantír of Minas Anor (Minas Tirith). He cannot daunt or control Denethor, but he can influence much of what the Steward of Gondor sees in his stone. Denethor and Sauron begin to wrestle psychologically. (As the rightful Steward of the King, Denethor has lawful use of the Stone, which aids him in his contests with Sauron.)


That brings us to shortly before Sauron discovers that his Ruling Ring has been found. Throughout these three millennia, the Elves have been growing weaker and weaker as an opposing force, with more and more of them leaving Middle-earth, until none of the Elf-kingdoms poses any offensive threat against him, though they still remain fairly tough defensively. It was probably Sauron’s policy to attack Lórien and Galadriel, his most dangerous opponent, in alliance with the Balrog, and possibly Smaug, too, then Rivendell and Elrond, and finally Lindon and Círdan. After that, the Dúnedain of Gondor could also be eliminated with the Balrog, the dragon, Easterlings, and the Men of Umbar and Harad. The Dúnedain of Gondor were no longer in alliance with the Eldar, so I suspect Sauron thought he could safely attack the Eldar before addressing the Dúnedain in the South.


During all this time, Sauron has suffered only three major setbacks since Isildur took the Ring.

a.           Although the Witch-king destroyed the Northern Dúnedain kingdom of Arnor, his army was subsequently annihilated, eliminating his advantage in the north between Rivendell and the principal concentration of remaining Elvin power in Lindon.

b.           The Éothéod came to the rescue of Gondor during the Balchoth invasion, although Sauron probably supposed they were no longer in any position to help Gondor, consolidating his enemies in the South.

c.            His most serious setback, however, was the unforeseen destruction of Smaug, which not only eliminated the dragon as an offensive weapon against the Elves and possibly Gondor, but worse, placed Dwarves and Men in a strong defensive position along the frontier of Sauron’s northern attack route.


Sauron’s best advantages were:

a.           the estrangement of Elves and Men, making both weaker;

b.           utterly destroying Arnor as either an offensive or defensive opponent;

c.            greatly reducing the offensive power of the Dwarves, and until the death of Smaug, effectively crippling their defense;

d.           the increasing weakness of the Elves, reducing them to merely a divided defensive force;

e.            the weakness of Gondor, rendering it only a defensive opponent; and

f.             all the Maiar the Valar sent against him have been neutralized but one, Gandalf the Grey.


In addition, Sauron’s enemies are also unaware of the Balrog in Moria (though Celeborn is deeply suspicious of the nature of Durin’s Bane).


Up to this point, no one knows the Ruling Ring has been found. Gandalf is suspicious of Bilbo’s Ring, but even he does not know for certain what it is. Sauron seems to be biding his time, wearing his enemies down little by little.


Now we’ve reached the time of Bilbo’s Farewell Party. Things begin to accelerate. 

1.           Sauron captures a Halfling on the borders of Mordor. It has responded to his summons for the Ring. He questions the creature and learns it has held one of the Great Rings, he discovers where it was found, and determines that was his Ruling Ring! Although the Halfling reveals the name of the person who took it from him and the place that creature lives, he proves very tough. Sauron decides to follow it, believing it will lead him to the Ring.  (His one error seems to be that he believes “Baggins” is a Man: he did not discover “Baggins” was another Halfling.)

2.           Sauron releases the Halfling and his agents follow it. Somewhere near the Dead Marshes, however, the Halfling is captured by a Man and taken to the Elves in northern Mirkwood. Almost immediately, Gandalf the Grey also enters the Elven kingdom in northern Mirkwood. Gandalf has proven problematic on several occasions. Sauron takes notice, and sets a plan to recapture the Halfling.

3.           The Halfling is recaptured, but escapes Sauron’s Orcs. They lose its trail and cannot find it. Sauron eventually becomes aware that Saruman is frustrating his search for the Halfling, but restrains his anger and conceals his knowledge from Saruman.

4.           Sauron sends the Nazgûl to search for his Ruling Ring. He attacks Gondor at Osgiliath to make it seem that he is merely using the Nazgûl as part of a new war against Gondor. The Nazgûl move into the Vale of Anduin, where Sauron supposes “Shire” is located. (Sauron has still not yet discovered that “Baggins” is not a Man, but another Halfling.)

5.           When the Nazgûl report that they have searched the Vale of Anduin for “Shire” without success, Sauron sends them to confront Saruman. The Nazgûl are unaware that Gandalf has only just escaped; whether Sauron was aware that Saruman had captured Gandalf, I do not know.

6.           Upon their return from Eriador, Saruman learns the following:

a.           The Ringwraiths found one of Saruman’s spies, his maps, and his list of names. They discovered the location of “Shire” and of “Baggins”.

b.           Khamûl came upon the Bearer, but was prevented from seizing him by a group of Noldor.

c.            The Bearer escaped across the Baranduin.

d.           The Bearer appeared in Bree but escaped the Nazgûl there, too.

e.            Elves and Rangers are shadowing the Nazgûl and harassing them.

f.             Gandalf was also searching for the Bearer. Six Nazgûl confronted him at Amon Sûl but were unable to overcome him; he escaped northwards, and four followed after him, hoping to discover the Bearer.

g.           The Witch-king, Khamûl, and the three remaining Nazgûl discovered the Bearer soon after at Amon Sûl. Though a small, spiritless creature, he had somehow defeated a Barrow-wight and obtained a knife designed to destroy the Nazgûl! There was also a Man with him, apparently a great power although “only a Ranger.”

h.           The Nazgûl subsequently lost track of the Bearer, but found him again at the Ford of Bruinen, where they almost captured him before being overwhelmed by a flood and attacked by a great Elf-lord.

i.             The Bearer somehow survived an attack with a Morgul knife for almost three weeks. Normally these attacks kill or “wraithify” a victim in a matter of hours or days.

7.           The Bearer set out from Rivendell with eight companions, including Gandalf the Grey.

8.           They defeated Sauron’s necromantic wolves in Eregion.

9.           They tried but were prevented from crossing over the Redhorn Pass.

10.      They entered Moria, where Gandalf fought the Balrog, destroying them both.

11.      They entered Lórien and stayed there about one moon.

12.      They floated down Anduin. Along the way, one of them shot a Nazgûl’s flying mount from the sky.

13.      Two Halflings were captured at Parth Galen, and one powerful Dúnadan was killed there.

14.      Sauron became aware that someone wearing his Ruling Ring had seen him in Barad-dûr. He searched for him (probably with the palantír), but did not find him. If he continued to search, as seems likely, then he saw a Man, one of the Bearer’s company, sitting upon Amon Hen in the Seat of Seeing. (That would be Aragorn, who saw nothing from the Seat of Seeing except that the sun was darkened: possibly Sauron searching for the Bearer.)

15.      The Orcs carried the Halflings to Saruman rather than to Sauron: Saruman’s treason against Sauron was complete.

16.      Saruman’s forces, which far outnumbered the Rohirrim, were all but annihilated in western Rohan. Sauron must have wondered how Saruman failed so miserably to defeat such a weakened foe: he probably knew about the bewitchment of Théoden, but not his cure.

17.      Sauron unexpectedly finds a Halfling using Saruman’s palantír. He assumes Saruman made the Halfling look into the stone in order to torment him, and sent a Nazgûl to retrieve it. Perhaps Saruman was not a traitor after all?

18.      Only hours later, though, Sauron finds a Man using Saruman’s palantír, one of the companions of the Bearer set out from Rivendell. But this Man is not just any Man: he is the Heir of Isildur, and he bears Elendil’s sword reforged! This Dúnadan then wrenches control of the Orthanc Stone away from Sauron and refuses further contact with him. How did the Heir of Isildur manage to take the Stone from Saruman in Orthanc?! Isengard has been overthrown! The most logical conclusion is that the Heir of Isildur accomplished this using the Ring.

19.      The Heir of Isildur rides to Dunharrow with a small group of Men.

20.      Sauron decides to attack Gondor at once with all the force he can quickly muster in order to prevent the Heir of Isildur from using it a base of operations.

21.      Sauron makes certain Denethor knows about the Heir of Isildur in order to incense Denethor’s pride and arouse his jealously, splitting his opponents operating in Gondor.

22.      Sauron causes Orodruin to belch a tremendous cloud of volcanic dust, obscuring the sky and the sun.

23.      Sauron attacks Minas Tirith with three armies: one in the north to block any assistance from Rohan, one from Minas Morgul led by his chief commander, the Witch-king, and one from Harad. In addition, a large marine invasion of the coasts of Gondor is launched from Umbar to prevent any help arriving in Minas Tirith from the populous southern fiefs.  Sauron probably believes his northern force blocking the road from Rohan has cut off the Heir of Isildur from Minas Tirith, too.

24.      Gandalf the Grey (Sauron doesn’t know the difference) reappears. He was supposed to be dead, but you know, accidents happen.

25.      Minas Tirith is quickly enveloped and its Gates broken. But an unexpected wind from the Sea breaks Sauron’s darkness. The cavalry of Rohan arrives unexpectedly, somehow evading his northern army commanding the road. The Witch-king is destroyed! Then the Heir of Isildur arrives in Sauron’s own ships from Umbar with a powerful force from the coastal fiefs, completely defeating his remaining armies outside Minas Tirith. Very few escape.

26.      Sauron subsequently learns that the Heir of Isildur attacked his naval expedition using wraiths.


We have now reached the “Last Debate” in Return of the King.  I see no reason Sauron should not believe that Aragorn is using the Ruling Ring, but every reason he should.  Gandalf said that Sauron would wait for a time in which one of the allies would seek to seize the Ring for himself and put down any opposition. It seems to me that for Sauron, this might be a slim hope if the Heir of Isildur had possession of the Ring, unless he believed Gandalf would try to wrest it from him.


As far as I can tell, Sauron made one critical error, succumbed to one major deception of his enemies, leading him deeper into the oversight that Elrond and Gandalf foresaw and exploited. 

a.           He initially believed “Baggins” was a Man.  His Nazgûl were sent to search for a Man rather than a Halfling. This was his critical error, delaying and misdirecting the Nazgûl’s hunt for “Baggins”.

b.           He believed Aragorn had the Ring. This is due to deliberate deception by Aragorn, using himself as bait to distract Sauron from his real peril.

c.            As Elrond and Gandalf foresaw, Sauron failed to realize that his enemies had determined to destroy the One Ring until that bitter end came upon him.