In the few cases a fortification is attacked (Helm's Deep, Minas Tirith), the attackers don't besiege them, they start an assault as soon as they arrive.

In real life, assaults were only done when, after a long siege, the defenders were weakened enough (or when an overwhelming force was really in a hurry, and a very small fort was blocking their way), and even in those cases the casualties on the attacker's side could be an order of magnitude higher.

As neither Sauron nor Saruman seem to have any supply problems, why don't they besiege the fortresses of their enemies properly? Setting up a siege camp, complete with a palisade to guard against a cavalry charge, then slowly and meticulously grinding down the defenses (or just starving them out) seems to have had a high probability of success.

Was Sauron really that overconfident and impatient? Is there an in-universe justification for this? Sauron was gathering his strength for thousands of years, so a few months more shouldn't be such a big problem. He also doesn't seem like someone too stupid to think about how a proper siege has to be organized.

  • 47
    You mean aside from the "Siege of Gondor"? – Valorum Sep 22 '15 at 22:07
  • 25
    @Richard : Although the chapter has the word "siege" in the title, it is used in the terms of a country being under siege, not as the military term. Maybe I should have expanded the title, but the point is that even in the "Siege of Gondor" the attackers don't really besiege it but attack it head-on as soon as they arrive. – vsz Sep 22 '15 at 22:11
  • 7
    If you have superior numbers and the ability to break someone's gate with trivial ease, why would you try to starve them out? – Valorum Sep 22 '15 at 22:13
  • 24
    A siege doesn't necessarily mean starving them out. I've studied a number of late medieval to early modern sieges, and the besiegers usually set up a well-defended camp to guard against a relief army. (Failure to do so was the main cause of defeat both at Helm's Deep and Minas Tirith) After that, they build fortifications closer and closer to the castle, each one supporting and providing cover fire to the next, meanwhile they bombard the fortress and slowly creep forward. So in case they do go for breaching the gates, they do it from a more favorable position, increasing the chance of success. – vsz Sep 22 '15 at 22:22
  • 38
    Tolkien was writing a mythology rather than a true history. Even Homer had to leave out almost all of the 10 year Siege of Troy from the Iliad because it is too boring. – Oldcat Sep 22 '15 at 23:11

10 Answers 10

up vote 124 down vote accepted

There are a few reasons:

Sauron

  • Sauron is REALLY afraid that at any moment his opponents will use the One Ring and become much more powerful. He currently has the advantage but he might lose it at any moment, so he attempts this blitzkrieg instead of a regular siege.
  • Mordor's orcs are too undisciplined for a longer siege: sooner or later they would start fighting amongst each other (if they didn't have an opponent to fight), which means every day would reduce the power of his troops.
  • Minas Tirith is a fortress, which means it is prepared for a long siege with supplies (or even inner source) of food and water. His huge army would have serious problems providing logistical supply.
  • He has a huge advantage of numbers and power so he believes in a quick victory.
  • Taking the city quickly would give him a chance to defeat Gondor before Rohan would have a chance to respond.

Saruman

  • Saruman is confident in the power of his new Uruk orcs and his technology. He also has a cunning plan to break the Helm's Deep fortifications.
  • Saruman probably wants to show off to Sauron, possibly to prove that he would not be a mere servant but maybe someone with almost equal power.
  • It would look VERY bad for him, if Sauron had taken Minas Tirith quickly while he was still besieging the Hornburg.
  • (As pointed out by @Scott) Saruman had Éomer exiled, greatly reducing the number of cavalry in Rohan's army. But exiled or not, Saruman could safely assume that Éomer would probably return (even without Gandalf's guidance) to harass the besieging orcs. So a quick attack would have greatly reduced the defenders' power and Saruman's losses.

In other words, both Sauron and Saruman have solid reasons for a quick attack instead of a long siege.

  • 8
    There is a difference in believing in your number superiority and being overconfident about it. He has CURRENTLY huge power advantage, Rohan's arrival would greatly diminish it, so he knows it will be easier to defeat his opponents individually. Yes, he is confident, but not stupid. – Yasskier Sep 22 '15 at 23:19
  • 4
    Pretty sure the books are the same, but certainly in the movies: Saurman had Eomer exiled, taking with him a large host of cavalry. They were too far away for any normal horse to reach them, and for them to return in time to affect the outcome of a quick storming of Helm's Deep. A protracted siege would have led to Eomer's return, to harass supply lines, break into Isenguard and generally cause a problem. – Scott Sep 23 '15 at 3:14
  • 6
    @Yasskier --- In the book, Eomer is not exiled. He is imprisoned. After Gandalf cures Theoden, Eomer is released and travels to the Hornburg with the army. The force that attacks Saruman's army from the rear is led by Erkenbrand of Westfold. – Ian Thompson Sep 23 '15 at 8:16
  • 4
    "prepared for long siege with supplies" - this has always bothered me about the films. In what appears to me to be a huge oversight, Minas Tirith has no farmland around it. No fields of crops, no livestock, no farms, nothing. Just bare grassland. So where does Minas Tirith get its food? Surely a fortified city of that magnitude would be surrounded by a large area of farmland to provide it with food for immediate consumption as well as stocking up in times of peace? – Pepijn Schmitz Sep 23 '15 at 10:14
  • 4
    @PepijnSchmitz I meant Jackson had used brevity when reading the books and didn't really understand them. The battle scenes take up one chapter each. Yet they are most of the movies. – user46509 Sep 23 '15 at 10:36

Firstly Sauron did have a blocking force, it was arrayed to the North to intercept any relief from Rohan. Moreover, because he was committing attacks on multiple fronts, he thought he could forestall any concentration of forces by the Free People, Dale and the Lonely Mountain were attacked by Easterlings, Lothlorien and Thranduil's Kingdom by forces from the Misty mountains and Dol Guldur.

Secondly Tolkien has sieges in Middle-Earth History, Angband was one, but the Last Alliance beseiged Barad-dur for seven years.

The reason Sauron couldn't wait was The Ring. The most likely thing to happen to it, in his estimation, was that someone of the Free Peoples would take it and use it to challenge him. He had to strike hard and fast to forestall the would be Lord of the Rings learning how to use it and subverting his control.

Saruman thought he had a trick that would make a long siege unnecessary, the Blasting Fire of Orthanc

BTW, in the book it is Erkenbrand who "has rebelled" against Theoden, Eomer is still with Theoden in Meduseld.

  • 2
    I don't think there is any indication that Erkenbrand rebelled against Theoden. According to the Battles of the Fords of Isen (Unfinished Tales), he asked for reinforcements from Edoras, and Grima made sure he didn't get any. I don't think he disobeyed any orders, though. – Ian Thompson Sep 23 '15 at 9:11
  • Angband was hardly a formal siege. Setting up nations hundreds of miles away from your enemy and fighting a battle every 100 years or so is not the same as a real investment. – Oldcat Sep 23 '15 at 16:49
  • @Oldcat: It might be if you're an elf and aren't going to die, unless you're killed in battle. – GreenMatt Sep 23 '15 at 19:01
  • No, since Angband was never cut off from resupply at any time. – Oldcat Sep 23 '15 at 19:04
  • Wow it's clearly an allusion to the second world war. – Darth Egregious Sep 25 '15 at 15:07

We know that sieges were used in Middle Earth from a remark by a man of Minas Tirith during the siege of Gondor:

He [Sauron] has a weapon that has brought low many strong places since the world begun. Hunger

We don't know what sieges he was referring to, but a lot of sieges are mentioned in the Lord of the Rings (even if you don't count the Hornburg or the prelude to the battle of the Pelennor Fields).

I don't think the siege of Angband is mentioned, but the siege of Barad Dur, which lasted for seven years is mentioned in a number of places. After that:

  • According to Appendix A (iv), Earnil I laid siege to Umbar around TA933. The men of Harad then laid siege to Umbar 'for many years' until Hyarmendacil destroyed their forces in TA1050.

  • Rivendell is said to have been besieged during the reign of King Arveleg I (Appendix A (iii)). There is no indication as to the duration of this siege.

  • During the Kin-Strife, Eldacar lays siege to Pelargir. Appendix A calls the siege 'long'; according to the Tale of Years, it started in 1447 and ended in 1448.

  • Minas Ithil is besieged by the Nazgul in TA2000 and taken in TA2002 (The Tale of Years).

  • Helm Hammerhand was besieged by the Dunlendings in the Hornburg during the Long Winter (TA2758-9) (The Tale of Years and Appendix A (II)).

  • King Brand and King Dain Ironfoot are besieged in Erebor during the War of the Ring, from March 17 to March 27, TA3019.

For the assault on Minas Tirith in particular, the other points made are all valid but one crucial plot point was missed: Aragorn revealed himself to Sauron via the Palantir, which forced the latter's hand. Sauron was going to take more time to build an unstoppable force that will crush Gondor and all the other nations in one stroke, but finding out about Aragorn's existence and intention to take up the throne freaked him out enough to attack early.

This point was made in this other question: Did Aragorn touch the Palantir in the book?

More detail is available here:

Fighting at the battle of Helm's Deep, Andúril returns to war. After the destruction of Isengard, Gandalf gives Aragorn the Palantir of Orthanc. Aragorn uses it to challenge Sauron and force him to hasten his plans. Learning of Gondor's dire need through the Palantir, Aragorn takes the Paths of the Dead. Leading the Dead Men of Dunharrow to fulfill their oath to fight against Sauron, Aragorn overthrows the army gathering at Pelargir and sails in the captured fleet to the Battle of the Pelennor Fields. Here the Hosts of the West are victorious. Aragorn leads the surviving forces to a desperate battle before the Gates of Mordor to buy time for Frodo.

http://www.thetolkienwiki.org/wiki.cgi?Aragorn

In order to prosecute a siege, you need a considerable amount of organization, skilled engineers and planners, well trained sappers, and a number of other professions. You also need some sort of organized supply train to forward the food and other consumables used by the army.

Evil Orcs driven by fear of the lash of the Nazgul don't provide any of that. The Nazgul themselves were kings once, not military engineers once.

Several points that I conjecture here regarding this, but I believe it all comes down to both being maniacal tyrants who despite having enslaved some smart people do not acknowledge any wisdom beyond their own (The Nine were great kings & warlords reduced to being powerful thugs). Their wisdom is consumed by unnatural desire.

  • Both Saruman and Sauron spent much time otherwise weakening their chief foes in Rohan and Gondor (examples being Wormtongue's "softening" of Theoden, and the madness of Denethor among them) to take out any serious leadership
  • Neither one of them demonstrate within the stories that they are military strategists
  • Once Saruman realized the One Ring was out of his reach, he knew to do whatever would please Sauron
  • Knowing the time is right, and life having no meaning except as a means to end any resistance to dominating Middle Earth, burning through orcs, trolls and other critters is a non-issue
  • 3
    Not sure I'd agree about Sauron not being a military strategist. – leftaroundabout Sep 24 '15 at 0:10

A simple summary: a siege is an attempt to lower the effective defence of the city in order to minimise the cost of an assault: you might even get the city without launching said assault. So,

a siege is a trade of time and money against own casualties

Sauron and Saruman have Orcs that they can create themselves. They have huge numbers, full control (no risk of rebellion), for virtually no price. But in both cases time was pressing. The trade isn't worth it.

As others have mentioned, the reason for Sauron's haste was probably the fact someone else could get hold of the Ring.

But also, one main reason for besieging an enemy is it conserves your troops' lives. If they're well-fed while the people inside are gradually starving, you win with much less loss of life. If you don't care about your troops, or you grew them not long ago, then this consideration is moot. Charge!

  • This is addressed in the accepted answer. "Minas Tirith is a fortress, which means it is prepared for long siege with supplies (or even inner source) of food and water. His huge army would have serious problem with providing logistical supply" Unless you add something new to this answer, it is likely to be deleted as "low quality." I see you have credibility in the network, but this is not an answer that seems to really add anything. This is not meant to discourage you, but hopefully prod you into editing this answer and creating better answers (and questions) in the future. – Meat Trademark Sep 23 '15 at 11:13
  • @MeatTrademark thanks for the feedback. I'm not sure how it nullifies my point that Sauron probably didn't care about his troops, and thus didn't need to behave the way a besieger normally would. Can you elaborate? – Robert Grant Sep 23 '15 at 13:02
  • 2
    @MeatTrademark Robert's point is mentioned nowhere in the accepted answer. Orc lives are worthless to Sauron, so he has no incentive to change his strategy to try to save more of them. He can always grow more. The last bullet point on Lynn's answer may be making this same point, but I find the wording confusing on that answer, so I'm not sure. – Molag Bal Sep 23 '15 at 15:00
  • 1
    @MeatTrademark - Minas Tirith might have been a fortress, but I would question its preparation for war. Denethor's despair due to Saruon's contact through the Palantir certainly led to a lack of preparation. Look at the underhand way the request for aid had to be gotten out, and the botched handling of the defense/retirement from Osgiliath. It is quite reasonable to assume that Denethor had not been stocking up for a long defense, what with him setting himself on fire the first day and all. – Oldcat Sep 23 '15 at 16:56
  • 1
    @MeatTrademark thanks for the feedback again. When you say "at the very least" are you saying that your original point was incorrect? Or am I still missing something about that? Your tone to my eye is coming across as a bit more aggressive than I'm used to on here, and I'm trying to puzzle out where you're coming from. – Robert Grant Sep 23 '15 at 20:36

Most likely the real explanation is, not the right circumstances to be dramatic enough. There have been events closer to real sieges in Middle-earth history, such as the Siege of Angband which lasted 400 years.

Obviously something like this wouldn't work for LOTR's timeframe. For in-universe, the undisciplined orcs argument may make some sense since it's the other side which typically did the besieging.

Well, sorry for telling the hard truth, but I think it's mainly because we are talking of a book, which needs a certain rhythm. Let's assume for a while Minas Tirith would have been besieged. They have internal water supplies, so the limiting factor would be food. Knowing that war was to come, it is likely that ample food was stored. So how would you write about that?

Month 3. Gandalf won the poker tournament. Again. Not bad, because half of the city now belongs to him, making him even more motivated to defend it. Bad news for Aragorn, though.

Month 5. Nothing new. Orks seem to be bored, too. Playing soccer with the head of one of their own again. Quite risky to take part. The loser's heads are used in the games to come.

Month 19. Nothing new. Hope that the others are well. But Frodo seems to have failed, otherwise Sauron would have been vanished by now. By the way: why didn't we ask the damn eagles wether they could fly the ring bearer with the damn ring to the damn mountain during a moonless night? Would have saved us a lot of trouble. Anyway, this is going to last. Only one third of the food was used. This is going to take a while...

Meh.

Your Answer

 
discard

By clicking "Post Your Answer", you acknowledge that you have read our updated terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy, and that your continued use of the website is subject to these policies.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.