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I was just finishing the audio books of The Lord of the Rings and I'm a little bit confused.

When Sauron's armies march to Minas Tirith they light the beacons to warn their neighbours and send a messenger with the red arrow calling for Rohan's help. As far as I understood it, Sauron had a lot of spies in the ranks of the Humans, the connection via the Palantíri in Denethor's possession and the contact to Saruman (at least for a long time) also via the Palantíri.

So he must have known that Denethor would send a Messenger with this arrow.

If the Messenger hadn't arrived Rohan maybe would have been too late.
And if the Beacons were not lit, they maybe would have thought that Gondor was not in actual distress.

My question is, Why didn't he attack/destroy/control the beacons, or try to catch the Messenger?

  • 19
    The Messenger was actually killed later on. Because of his death Gondor wasn't warned of Rohan's coming. – Mat Cauthon Jun 26 '17 at 10:09
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    Sauron's forces were pretty prone to burning stuff, might not be the best idea to have them go after the beacons. "Attack the beacons, burn them down..... errr, so who's gonna tell Sauron we accidentally summoned Rohan to Gondor's aid?" – DisturbedNeo Jun 26 '17 at 11:22
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    As far as I understood it Sauron had a lot of spies in the ranks of the Humans -- where in the book do you get that from? -- the connection via the Palantíri in Denethors possession -- one person of strong will who gave into despair, not acting as a spy -- and the contact to Saruman (at least for a long time) also via the Palantíri Saruman isn't part of Gondor. You are making stuff up that Tolkien didn't write. He must have known that Denethor will send a Messenger with this arrow Must he? You are engaging in speculation, but you need to support this from the story as told. – KorvinStarmast Jun 26 '17 at 12:50
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    Hm.... wasn't the host sent forth from Isengart supposed to break Rohan's might in the first place? If that part of the plan had succeeded, there's no-one to send a message to. So we're talking about contingency planning here, and where would heroes end up if the enemy were good at that? – DevSolar Jun 26 '17 at 14:31
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    There was no apparent need to disrupt communication between Gondor and Rohan. Sauron sent an army that outnumbered the Rohirrim across the Anduin at Cair Andros, and this army blocked the road to Gondor. He didn't know about the alternative route, any more than Theoden did. Only Ghan-Buri-Ghan's unexpected intervention prevented a total disaster. – Ian Thompson Jun 26 '17 at 19:20
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A clever leader might have tried to intercept the call for aid, yes. However, it is a common theme in the trilogy (and all of Tolkien's works to be honest) that the powers of evil are cunning, but also easily blinded by their arrogance.

Remember, the assault on Minas Tirith, as fearsome as it was for the humans, was not a critical part of Sauron's plan. If it worked, great, but even if it didn't, it would wear down resistance for the next wave. After Minas Tirith is barely defended with the help from Rohan and the Undead, Sauron is still looking to win (the good guys have all their chips on Frodo at this point with absolutely no plan B as their tiny army is heavily outnumbered by the forces that are still waiting in Mordor).

The only thing Sauron really is concerned about is finding the Ring. And sure enough, the only party of orcs that we know of to cross the great river Anduin has one task only: Escort the Ring or at least the hobbits that know of it to Mordor. Apparently, he couldn't infiltrate Rohan with greater numbers of orcs yet, so in Sauron's eye (pun intended), not a single orc can be spared to look out for some random puny human messenger. Or even larger groups to attack the beacons.

Also, intercepting the message so that Rohan can't help Gondor isn't Sauron's plan A anyway. Plan A is to use Saruman to distract and possibly subdue Rohan so that they couldn't send reinforcements no matter what. That Saruman falls so quickly was not expected on Sauron's part. Plan B could have been "If Saruman fails in his attack on Helm's Deep, he can at the very least turtle in Isengard and send some guerilla uruks to intercept that messenger / tie down Rohirrim forces". The Ents screwed that one up.

In the end, Sauron decided to not bother and just let the battle play out. If he's about to crush all human resistance sooner or later anyways, might as well let them all come into one place to slaughter them together. To his credit, it almost worked already - the intervention of the Undead is another unforeseen event that barely saved the good guy's skins. But as said already, he had enough reserves to try again as often as he wanted. So, yeah, from his point of view, messengers from Gondor are only minor distractions from the big picture, really.

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    Correct. But they destroy the Corsair reinforcements en route to Minas Tirith to secure the victory. – CGriffin Jun 26 '17 at 17:56
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    And they permit Aragorn to rally another army to boot. – Joshua Jun 26 '17 at 18:18
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    Yes, they frighten them away, some to their deaths. And in so doing, destroy the army. Not sure why this point is seemingly open for debate. – CGriffin Jun 26 '17 at 21:21
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    I am often surprised that I have long-held beliefs about these stories that turn out to be false. I think sometimes we just need to examine our assumptions to see if what we thought all along is actually true. – Quasi_Stomach Jun 26 '17 at 23:08
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    Sauron didn't 'decide to not bother'. He placed an army larger than Theoden's on the road, to prevent the Rohirrim from coming to the aid of Gondor. Ghan-Buri-Ghan prevented a disaster by showing Theoden a long forgotten alternative route. – Ian Thompson Jun 27 '17 at 8:35
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It's probably because the Beacons were inaccessible to Sauron. Gandalf notes:

Pippin became drowsy again and paid little attention to Gandalf telling him of the customs of Gondor, and how the Lord of the City had beacons built on the tops of outlying hills along both borders of the great range, and maintained posts at these points where fresh horses were always in readiness to bear his errand-riders to Rohan in the North, or to Belfalas in the South. 'It is long since the beacons of the North were lit,' he said, 'and in the ancient days of Gondor they were not needed, for they had the Seven Stones.' Pippin stirred uneasily.

Outlying [as adjective]

-situated far from a centre; remote. "an outlying village"


It is entirely possible that the horses of the errand-riders outpaced Sauron's army's. Elfhelm notes of his journey:

'We need no further guidance,' said Elfhelm, 'for there are riders in the host who have ridden down to Mundburg in days of peace. I for one. When we come to the road it will veer south, and there will lie before us still seven leagues ere we reach the wall of the townlands. Along most of that way there is much grass on either side of the road. On that stretch the errand-riders of Gondor reckoned to make their greatest speed. We may ride it swiftly and without great rumour.'

Clearly, the errand-riders of Gondor used this road. Later on in the book we are told Hirgon came this way and was subsequently killed. It's very certain that, days before, he used this road to get to Rohan. If any orcs were going to waylay him they'd probably be outpaced.

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    @MartinWalzl you remember wrong. The beacons were lit days before the enemies even get to Minas Tirith - as Beregond tells Pippin: "It is over-late to send for aid when you are already beseiged". And of course the beacons were in the other direction from there, towards Rohan. – Daniel Roseman Jun 26 '17 at 10:19
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    @MartinWalzl he had the Black Numenoreans/Harads/Easterlings in his service. He didn't have any "high-ranking human spy" in Gondor that is mentioned. – Mat Cauthon Jun 26 '17 at 12:22
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    @Voronwë Other than Denethor, of course. :) – Spencer Jun 26 '17 at 12:50
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    It is long since the beacons of the North were lit -- and in Middle-Earth, "long" means "a really, really long time." It's possible that few besides the Kings and Stewards of Gondor were even aware of the beacons' existence, let alone the locations. – Mike Harris Jun 26 '17 at 14:22
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    @Spencer Denethor wasn't a spy. That would imply he had transferred his loyalty to Sauron, which never happened. He was always loyal to Gondor, though his jealousy of Aragorn and his grief over losing Boromir and Faramir caused him to act against Gondor's best interests. In addition to that, in attempting to use the Palantir to learn what Sauron was up to, he was instead only allowed to see things which made his cause seem hopeless. All these things add up to a loyal leader who literally saw no way his side could win and despaired. – Alarion Jun 26 '17 at 14:30
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You misunderstand Sauron's motive.

This wasn't a planned, careful attack - instead he was drawn out before he was ready, by Aragorn looking in the Palantír (note that this happens much later in the movie; in the book it happens while Aragorn is still at Helm's Deep):

'I did so ere I rode from the Hornburg,' answered Aragorn. 'I deemed that the time was ripe, and that the Stone had come to me for just such a purpose. It was then ten days since the Ring-bearer went east from Rauros, and the Eye of Sauron, I thought, should be drawn out from his own land. Too seldom has he been challenged since he returned to his Tower. Though if I had foreseen how swift would be his onset in answer, maybe I should not have dared to show myself. Bare time was given me to come to your aid.'

(Return of the King Book V Chapter 9, 'The Last Debate', my emphasis)

If Sauron had not been drawn out to attack before he was fully prepared, he might indeed have assaulted the Beacons and blocked the messenger. However, that's not what happened.


A note on book vs movie.

The movies use a quite different sequence of events, and if you only know (or primarily remember) the movies you may think that I'm referring to the wrong battle. I'm not - in the books the battle that Aragorn drew Sauron out to was the Battle of the Pellenor fields, and Aragorn had looked in the Palantír before he had even taken the Paths of the Dead.

  • 1
    You are thinking of the wrong battle – amflare Jun 26 '17 at 13:51
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    @amflare He is not – Edlothiad Jun 26 '17 at 13:59
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A coordinated commando strike on the beacons would be difficult for a medieval army without things like watches (to synchronize time) or radio (to coordinate maneuvers over large distances). You would need to sneak strike teams of orcs or men into Gondor, and have them spread out over a large area. Then they would need to take the beacons with sufficient stealth or speed that they would not be lit in response to the attack. And they would have to do so before the invasion was noticed, but not so soon before that anyone would have time to come investigate.

Such an operation would be difficult and likely to fail for a modern army, much less a fantasy medieval one.

  • It would only be necessary to remove a single beacon from the chain though, no? – Celestialgranturismo Jun 29 '17 at 0:00
  • @Celestialgranturismo Is every beacon really visible only to the next beacon in line? Or is there some overlap? When a beacon sees that the next in line isn't lit, how long will it take them to ride over and see what happened? I guess in an extreme case it might be a couple days climb. Or just send a messenger around to the second next beacon? Delaying the message several hours is not really significant in terms of armies taking several days or more to march, and even a delay of a couple days doesn't mean much when sieges can take months to resolve. – HamHamJ Jun 29 '17 at 16:24
  • Each of the 7 beacons are 20-30 miles apart, take one out of the series and now you have a distance of 40-60miles apart. The White Mountains are most likely higher than the Misty mts, therefore higher than 12,500 feet. "The formula for distance (miles) is 1.22 multiplied by the square root of the height (feet) of the aircraft. So, at 10,000 feet you can see 122 miles, at 30,000 feet you can see 211 miles, and at 40,000 feet you can see 244 miles." – Celestialgranturismo Jun 30 '17 at 17:35

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