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Inspired by here: Why was the ring necessary for Sauron to control Middle-earth?, but not a question about the Ring itself, but about Sauron's military power.

TL/DR: Could Sauron conquer Middle-earth by force without the Ring, and if so why does he still need it to "break the last defences, and cover all the lands in a second darkness", and what use would hiding it be?

To clarify: I'm not looking for answers to why Sauron would want the Ring (eg. to stop it being used against him, or to dominate the Three Rings), but whether a Ringless Sauron was resistible at all, without using the ring being used on either side.

In the Second Age Sauron made the One Ring to give him an edge over the Elves, who were strong enough to resist him otherwise. He succeeded partly, in at least forcing the holders of the Three Rings to stop using them.

By the time of the events of LOTR, however, Sauron appeared to have total "conventional" dominance. He still needed to get the Ring to stop anyone using it against him, but could achieve his goals without it.

To quote Gandalf:

‘Hardly has our strength sufficed to beat off the first great assault. The next will be greater. This war then is without final hope, as Denethor perceived. Victory cannot be achieved by arms, whether you sit here to endure siege after siege, or march out to be overwhelmed beyond the River.

Book V (The Last Debate)

The picture painted here is one where Sauron would be basically as well-off if the Ring was at the bottom of the Sea, or anywhere else where no-one could use it against him. He would win anyway with his armies and retained powers.

However this doesn't fit well with a lot of the dialogue in the beginning of the story, which gives the impression that Sauron could be resisted, as long as the Ring was kept from him:

...The Enemy is fast becoming very strong. His plans are far from ripe, I think, but they are ripening. We shall be hard put to it. We should be very hard put to it, even if it were not for this dreadful chance.

The Enemy still lacks one thing to give him strength and knowledge to beat down all resistance, break the last defences, and cover all the lands in a second darkness. He lacks the One Ring.

Book I (The Shadow of the Past)

The above implies that Sauron needs the Ring to 'beat down all resistance' etc., and that the 'dreadful chance' makes things worse. If Sauron is so strong, he can crush all resistance and defenses without the Ring.

Furthermore, the Council of Elrond has suggestions to send the Ring over the Sea, or to hide it somewhere.

...What power still remains lies with us, here in Imladris, or with Cirdan at the Havens, or in Lórien. But have they the strength, have we here the strength to withstand the Enemy, the coming of Sauron at the last, when all else is overthrown?'

I have not the strength,' said Elrond; `neither have they.'

Then if the Ring cannot be kept from him for ever by strength' said Glorfindel, two things only remain for us to attempt: to send it over the Sea, or to destroy it.'

And a few lines later:

Then, said Glorfindel, 'let us cast it into the deeps, and so make the lies of Saruman come true. ...in the Sea it would be safe.

'Not safe for ever,' said Gandalf. `There are many things in the deep waters; and seas and lands may change. And it is not our part here to take thought only for a season, or for a few lives of Men, or for a passing age of the world. We should seek a final end of this menace, even if we do not hope to make one.'

Book II (The Council of Elrond)

The above, with Gandalf's response, indicates that there would be safety in hiding the Ring from Sauron without using or destroying it, with the danger only returning for later generations. Once again, throwing the Ring into the Sea ought to result in everyone being conquered by Sauron's armies, if he indeed had the power to do so. [Confusingly, the passage also implies at the same time that Sauron could "overthrow all else" and take Rivendell without the Ring]

The above quotes imply that keeping the Ring out of Sauron's hands would allow some hope of survival, which doesn't fit well with Gandalf's statements in the Return of the King about Sauron's armies being unbeatable anyway.

TL/DR: Could Sauron conquer Middle-earth by force without the Ring, and if so why does he still need it to "break the last defences, and cover all the lands in a second darkness", and what use would hiding it be?

  • This seems to have a very simple answer. No. Otherwise he would’ve done it. The ring was destroyed and his power was lost. I’m also not sure what the difference is between your question and the linked one. Both ask why the ring was necessary to hold dominion over Middle-earth. – Edlothiad Feb 6 at 14:28
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    @Edlothiad Regarding the difference to the linked - I'm questioning the assumption that Sauron could rule ME by force. The linked wants to know what use the Ring was if he couldn't (I know the answer to that one!), and none of the answers there clarify the military question. – AKA Feb 6 at 14:38
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    You have assembled a nice set of quotes which contradict each other. This should not be surprising! It happens all the time in real life: When the result is uncertain, even experts will come to different conclusions and even contradict themselves. It's also worth remembering that people more frequently overestimate their enemies than underestimate them -- even the wise can't avoid being influenced by their fears. About all you can say for sure is that there is no sure path to victory for anyone which doesn't involve either the destruction of the ring or Sauron's regaining of it. – Mark Olson Feb 6 at 18:53
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    @Edlothiad, "Otherwise he would’ve done it". Sauron did though. Or at least he was doing, until the Ring was destroyed. The movie shows Pelennor fields as a great defeat for Sauron; the book makes clear it was a very temporary set back. – Paul Draper Feb 7 at 18:39
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    @Edlothiad, the answer to what happened is simple. The question is about a hypothetical military vs military engagement; i.e. one where the Ring is out of play (being hidden). – Paul Draper Feb 8 at 19:18
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There's a world of difference between

(...) beat down all resistance, break the last defences, and cover all the lands in a second darkness.

and

This war then is without final hope (..) Victory cannot be achieved by arms, whether you sit here to endure siege after siege, or march out to be overwhelmed (...)

In the Second Age, during War of the Elves and Sauron, Sauron had almost all of Middle-earth. Still, a few small points of resistance withheld, like Lorien and Rivendell, and help of Numenoreans turned the tide. Even without them, it would be very difficult to "break the last defences". While he might "defeat" elves I don't see why they wouldn't make guerilla warfare for hundreds of years.

While at the time of War of the Ring elves had less military power, as long as Sauron didn't have the One Ring, they could use their Rings. Lorien and the elves of Mirkwood drove off multiple attacks.

Three times Lórien had been assailed from Dol Guldur, but besides the valour of the elven people of that land, the power that dwelt there was too great for any to overcome, unless Sauron had come there himself.

Even if they didn't withstand, say, the tenth attack (or Sauron himself stormed) and forests were "occupied", such victory of Sauron would be by no means final.

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    Galadriel and Elrond make clear that, if Sauron were to come in person, their realms would fall, even without the One Ring. – Shamshiel Feb 6 at 18:21
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    @Mithoron I noticed that the terms offered by the Mouth of Sauron (vassalage from west of the River to the Misty Mountains) are surprisingly lenient for the representative of an unstoppable force. That would support your contention that even in the Third Age he would have been unable to conquer and hold everything. – AKA Feb 6 at 23:34
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    @AKA I think this offer was more of a ploy and Gandalf disbelieved it. My point is that perhaps he could theoretically "conquer" it, but it would be very difficult, and even then much resistance would persist for a long time. – Mithoron Feb 7 at 0:12
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    @AKA: Lenient? He effectively demanded the surrender of everything the people present had the power to give! Complete de jure cession of all lands east of the river, complete de facto surrender of the lands of Gondor and Rohan west of the river, with the Mouth of Sauron installed in Isenguard as their de facto tyrant. – Shamshiel Feb 7 at 1:27
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    @AKA: He owns a huge factory, Mordor Industries Inc., with a really tall excess-gas-torch at Barad-Dur. They say the soot from the coal covers everything there - it's like everything is black. – einpoklum Feb 11 at 9:13
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Not only could he, Sauron nearly did in his very first assault, which he started before he was actually ready.

As far as we know, the only opposition Sauron faces in the west of Middle-Earth; everyone in the south and east are his allies or tributaries: the Haradrim, the people of Khand, the Easterlings of Rhun.

So, by and large, the only people we know of in the West with any substantial military force are the people of Gondor. And Gondor was very nearly completely overrun in his first major assault, saved only by an unlikely conjunction of miracles - Aragorn deceiving Sauron into accelerating his war-plans, the Paths of the Dead, the restoration of the King of Rohan, the secret paths the Rohirrim were guided down by Ghan-buri-ghan. When the Rohirrim and Aragorn arrive, the city is already on the verge of being lost, and the Battle of Pelennor fields is very hard-fought. And after the battle, as you quote, Gandalf verifies Denethor's prediction that

‘Hardly has our strength sufficed to beat off the first great assault. The next will be greater. This war then is without final hope, as Denethor perceived. Victory cannot be achieved by arms, whether you sit here to endure siege after siege, or march out to be overwhelmed beyond the River.

But occurring at the same time as the assault on Gondor is a general assault on virtually every realm in West. Dale and Erebor are attacked, and:

Battle of Dale. King Brand and King Dáin Ironfoot fall. Many Dwarves and Men take refuge in Erebor and are besieged.

Lothlorien was attacked from Dol Guldur:

Three times Lórien had been assailed from Dol Guldur, but besides the valour of the elven people of that land, the power that dwelt there was too great for any to overcome, unless Sauron had come there himself. Though grievous harm was done to the fair woods on the borders, the assaults were driven back.

The Elves of Mirkwood were attacked:

The realm of Thranduil was invaded, and there was long battle under the trees and great ruin of fire; but in the end Thranduil had the victory.

The West survived the initial assault through luck. We know, and they knew, that Sauron still had vast armies and resources - he had extended only a "finger" of his might.

As to your specific questions:

The above implies that Sauron needs the Ring to 'beat down all resistance' etc., and that the 'dreadful chance' makes things worse. If Sauron is so strong, he can crush all resistance and defenses without the Ring.

What is being said here is that, right now, they are 'very hard put to it.' That is, they are already facing an immense struggle. But if Sauron gets the One Ring, they lose even faster, almost immediately - Sauron will rapidly be able to subvert and dominate the peoples of Middle-Earth, and the Three Rings will become useless.

It is probably also worth considering that when the 'Shadow of the Past' chapter took place that Gandalf was likely not as fully informed as to the nature and extent of Sauron's military preparations as Denethor and Gandalf as of the siege of Gondor. For example, he did not even know, at the time, that Saruman was a traitor.

Similarly, the Council of Elrond took place on October 25th, 3018. Aragorn forces Sauron to accelerate his war-plans in March of the following year. Even presuming that Elrond had perfect intelligence of the military situation at the time of the Council, nearly half a year elapsed during which Sauron continued to levy forces and prepare for war. But Elrond did not have perfect intelligence: he knew only what his spies (the sons of Elrond, Aragorn, the other Rangers) told him, which could not have been much. Elrond was, necessarily, simply gauging the situation from his rough knowledge of the military situation of the West (disunited and poor) against the East (united under Sauron, large and numberless with immense industry), his wisdom, and his thousands of years of experience. It also seems unlikely that Elrond, or anyone in the Council, would immediately preach utterly hopeless doom and gloom, especially before the audience they had.

On the other hand, Denethor has looked into a palantir regularly, leading up to the Battle of Pelennor, Denethor has the Rangers of Ithilien, he has a much better understanding of the exact war situation at the time of the war, when he and Gandalf make their statements about the unwinnable situation.

It's also important to remember that, as far as anyone can see with human reason, the quest to destroy the Ring is a suicide mission. It's crazy and insane, and Gandalf essentially argues that's why it stands a chance of working. It seems perfectly natural that people are going to want to discuss doing something else with the Ring, until they understand that the crazy suicide mission really is their only option.

Thus we return once more to the destroying of the Ring,’ said Erestor, ‘and yet we come no nearer. What strength have we for the finding of the Fire in which it was made? That is the path of despair. Of folly I would say, if the long wisdom of Elrond did not forbid me.’

‘Despair, or folly?’ said Gandalf. ‘It is not despair, for despair is only for those who see the end beyond all doubt We do not. It is wisdom to recognize necessity, when all other courses have been weighed, though as folly it may appear to those who cling to false hope. Well, let folly be our cloak, a veil before the eyes of the Enemy! For he is very wise, and weighs all things to a nicety in the scales of his malice. But the only measure that he knows is desire, desire for power; and so he judges all hearts. Into his heart the thought will not enter that any will refuse it, that having the Ring we may seek to destroy it. If we seek this, we shall put him out of reckoning.’

Anything other than destroying the Ring is false hope.

...What power still remains lies with us, here in Imladris, or with Cirdan at the Havens, or in Lórien. But have they the strength, have we here the strength to withstand the Enemy, the coming of Sauron at the last, when all else is overthrown?'

I have not the strength,' said Elrond; `neither have they.'

Then if the Ring cannot be kept from him for ever by strength' said Glorfindel, two things only remain for us to attempt: to send it over the Sea, or to destroy it.'

This is Elrond confirming that Sauron will win. All else will be overthrown, and when Sauron comes in person to the hiding-place of the One Ring, the Three will not be able to withstand him. But of course, if he had the Ring now, the Three would not hold out until the end, but fall almost immediately.

Glorfindel is simply throwing out ideas. How can they keep Sauron from his instant-win condition? Well, he's just heard that they can't keep it from him. What if they send it over the sea or destroy it? I mean, he has to come up with something, what else are they going to do, just surrender and not even try to fight?

The above, with Gandalf's response, indicates that there would be safety in hiding the Ring from Sauron without using or destroying it, with the danger only returning for later generations. Once again, throwing the Ring into the Sea ought to result in everyone being conquered by Sauron's armies, if he indeed had the power to do so. [Confusingly, the passage also implies at the same time that Sauron could "overthrow all else" and take Rivendell without the Ring]

Gandalf's response confirms they cannot win.

We should seek a final end of this menace, even if we do not hope to make one.'

He's simply addressing the hypothetical - if we could win, we need more than a temporary victory.

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    +1 for the approach. I'm inclined to disagree with your characterization of the Council in FotR as "throwing out ideas" - the vibe I got was more "How can we keep this dangerous Ring from Sauron" than the "we're doomed unless we can kill Sauron via his Achilles heel" that comes out of the RoTK narrative. But that's just a subjective opinion. – AKA Feb 6 at 23:30
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    @AKA: Setting aside that Elrond likely didn't want to start out with the bald declaration that Sauron was unstoppable and their only hope was an insane suicide mission - not likely to be a popular opinion amongst the assembled people - I would return to my point that Elrond, wise though he was, was not wholly informed as to the full extent and nature of Sauron's military preparations which of course were also about a year away from completion at this time. Elrond was not in a position to know then what Gandalf and Denethor knew later. – Shamshiel Feb 7 at 1:30
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    I concur with @AKA, the Council of Elrond was clearly to decide to fate of the Ring of Power. They weren't devising military strategies. I agree it was not a sudden revelation that Sauron's strength was increasing. (Unfortunately, Rohan and Gondor were handicapped by their leaders.) And that likely no one really knew how bad their situation was until later. The Council was meant to counter only one part of Sauron's strength; not until RotK did they realize it was their only hope. – Paul Draper Feb 7 at 8:41
  • @Shamshiel It is fairly plausible that the Council (or Tolkien ;)) were unaware of Sauron's true power - though they suspected he could eventually break Gondor. It's still odd that the whole discussion there centres around the Ring and not the fact that they'd at least possibly lose the war if they don't destroy it anyway. I had a reread and I'm not even sure they mention the "minor perk" that Sauron would be defeated by destroying the Ring! – AKA Feb 7 at 9:02
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tl;dr: Yes, Sauron was in the process of conquering Middle Earth and would succeed, so long as no one else wielded the Ring.


There are four possibilities:

  1. No one has the Ring
  2. Sauron has the Ring
  3. Someone else has the Ring
  4. The Ring is destroyed

At one time or another, Gandalf describes the definitive outcome of each situation.

1. No one has the Ring

Outcome: Sauron eventually conquers Middle Earth

When Gandalf says "The Enemy still lacks [the Ring] to give him strength and knowledge to beat down all resistance, break the last defences," either

  1. He does not yet fully realize Sauron's overwhelming military superiority.
  2. He does realize Sauron's strength, but he ways talking about the next few years or decades, not centuries or ages.

Regardless of what Gandalf knew at the Council of Elrond, the inevitability of Sauron's military victory is evident when the Fellowship reaches Gondor. Denethor saw as much in the palantír:

For a little space you may triumph on the field, for a day. But against the Power that now arises there is no victory. To this City only the first finger of its hand has yet been stretched...It is time for all to depart who would not be slaves.

Gandalf uses Denethor's revelation as proof of Sauron's strength:

‘My lords,’ said Gandalf, ‘listen to the words of the Steward of Gondor before he died: You may triumph on the fields of the Pelennor for a day, but against the Power that has now arisen there is no victory. I do not bid you despair, as he did, but to ponder the truth in these words.

‘Hardly has our strength sufficed to beat off the first great assault. The next will be greater. This war then is without final hope, as Denethor perceived. Victory cannot be achieved by arms, whether you sit here to endure siege after siege, or march out to be overwhelmed beyond the River. You have only a choice of evils; and prudence would counsel you to strengthen such strong places...for so shall the time before your end be made a little longer.’

We have not the Ring...Without it we cannot by force defeat his force...We cannot achieve victory by arms, but by arms we can give the Ring-bearer his only chance, frail though it be.

Sauron would eventually defeat Middle Earth without the Ring of Power, though it would take time. Also it doesn't preclude the possibility of #3 or #4 which would turn the tide.

(Unfortunately, the movie implies Sauron is largely defeated after the Battle of the Pelennor fields; this is not the case in the book.)

2. Sauron has the Ring

Outcome: Sauron quickly conquers Middle Earth, and his victory is absolute and indefinite

There is no delay in Sauron's victory, nor hope of overturning it later.

If he regains [the Ring], your valour is vain, and his victory will be swift and complete: so complete that none can foresee the end of it while this world lasts.

3. Someone else has the Ring

Outcome: They could defeat Sauron and take his place.

Galadriel and Gandalf are tempted by the prospect of using the Ring to defeat Sauron, though Middle Earth would be no better off for it.

'No!' cried Gandalf, springing to his feet. 'With that power I should have power too great and terrible...Do not tempt me! For I do not wish to become like the Dark Lord himself.

[Gladrial:] The evil that was devised long ago works on in many ways, whether Sauron himself stands or falls...In place of the Dark Lord you will set up a Queen...Dreadful as the Storm and the Lightning! Stronger than the foundations of the earth. All shall love me and despair!

Sauron himself knows this is possible, which is why he seeks the Ring despite his otherwise assured victory:

Indeed he is in great fear, not knowing what mighty one may suddenly appear, wielding the Ring, and assailing him with war, seeking to cast him down and take his place.

This is why Sauron so completely and single-mindedly empties Mordor when Aragon attacks the Black Gate; the only thing in all of Middle Earth that could possibly defeat him is supposedly there.

So long as the Ring is at large, Sauron can be supplanted by another.

4. The Ring is destroyed

Outcome: Sauron is defeated forever

This is of course what happens, though Sauron does not expect it nor plan for it.

If it is destroyed, then he will fall; and his fall will be so low that none can foresee his arising ever again.

That we should try to destroy the Ring itself has not yet entered into his darkest dream.

This was the only option to prevent Middle Earth from plunging into darkness, whether now or a little later.

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    Galadriel's scene in the film is one of my favourite parts of the films. Not the "dark queen" effects - those are fun, but ultimately a bit cheesy. But Cate Blanchett's delivery of "I pass the test. I will diminish, and go into the West, and remain Galadriel." is priceless. Tolkien's version is that she laughs, like this was never in doubt - and that's why we all know Tolkien couldn't write characters. The power of Blanchett's performance is that she clearly was tested, and she hadn't known beforehand that she'd be strong enough. – Graham Feb 7 at 11:23
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    @Graham the movie was virtually identical to the book there. The laughter was at Frodo's folly and her great gain. "Galadriel laughed with a sudden clear laugh. 'Wise the Lady Galadriel may be,' she said, 'yet here she has met her match in courtesy'...from the ring that she wore there issued a great light that illuminated her alone and left all else dark. She stood before Frodo seeming now tall beyond measurement, and beautiful beyond enduring, terrible and worshipful. Then...the light faded, and suddenly she laughed again, and lo! she was shrunken...'I pass the test,' she said." – Paul Draper Feb 7 at 17:42
  • I read that as being genuine amusement. Of course she's playing with Frodo, but not maliciously. For me it doesn't feel like there ever was any real risk behind it. And in the book the light and power come from her ring, Nenya, so it seems to me more like Frodo realising just how powerful she really is, in the same way as the moments where Gandalf ramps up his power. For Galadriel it's a choice between essentially suicide (taking the Grey Ships) or losing her soul, and she's put on the spot with that unexpected choice. Blanchett's version feels more true to me. – Graham Feb 7 at 18:02
  • @Graham, genuine amusement wouldn't accompany that kind of performance: "And now at last it comes. You will give me the Ring freely! In place of the Dark Lord you will set up a Queen. And I shall not be dark, but beautiful and terrible as the Morning and the Night! Fair as the Sea and the Sun and the Snow upon the Mountain! Dreadful as the Storm and the Lightning! Stronger than the foundations of the earth. All shall love me and despair!" Which I suppose is your point. Fortunately, I have imagined that scene similar to the movie (though movie effects make her face ugly not beautiful IMHO). – Paul Draper Feb 7 at 18:07
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    This is a great, clear breakdown. – Shamshiel Feb 7 at 23:00
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Yes, Sauron likely did have enough military power

Firstly, during the events of The Lord of the Rings, he was assaulting the Men the hardest, although there are mentions of his forces attacking the Dwarves as well. The main thing is that he hit the Men with a huge army in The Return of the King, but the Men of Gondor (with some help) were able to repel his attack. However, Gondor only just pulled through, and only because of the aid of Rohan, etc.

A paltry force was then sent with Aragorn to the Black Gate as a distraction, and it was not expected that such an assault was to be successful save for serving as a distraction. It was a suicide mission, and even had they not done that (let's assume that they had given up on Frodo and just decided to hole up in Minas Tirith), Gondor did not have the manpower to repel another attack like that, where Sauron did have plenty more forces for a second battle, as was evident when the Black Gate opened to answer Aragorn's challenge (after "negotiations were concluded"). Gondor would likely not have survived a repeat performance.

If not for the Ring being destroyed, Sauron would have presumably launched another attack on Gondor and won, and at that point, there would not have been enough soldiers left among the Men to repel any further attacks (on Rohan, for example). The Elves were leaving Middle-earth and were "fading", so they wouldn't have been able to put up a fight like during the Second Age (e.g. when Sauron lost his ring), and with the Dwarves being the only militarised people remaining, Sauron could concentrate solely on them, and they likely would have fallen too.

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  • So how do you explain the sources I quoted that support him being resistible without the Ring? – AKA Feb 6 at 17:02
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    @AKA Nathan's answer is based on the narration, especially as regards the force at the Black Gate. The idea that Sauron without his Ring could be resisted is from Gandalf. The hope that Gandalf offered was necessary for the Fellowship to even form. He was not all-knowing. – Verdan Feb 6 at 17:52
  • Have you read the books? The Army of the Dead take no part in the battle of Minas Tirith. They rouse the men of South Gondor to arms to join Aragorn. The Army of the Dead being this all powerful swarm is a film invention... By the time Aragorn sailed from the ports of Pelargir their oaths were complete and they were freed. – Edlothiad Feb 7 at 8:38
  • @Edlothiad I have, but it's been a while, and the films are how I discovered LOTR so they stick in my mind easier. I shall remove that detail, though, if it contradicts the books. – NathanS Feb 7 at 8:52
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The key question, among the several you ask, is I think whether a Ringless Sauron was resistible at all, without using the ring being used on either side?

Clearly, we know from history that Sauron has plenty of peoples under his dominion. Much of the East and South of Middle Earth worship him as a god. We also know from history that if he could mobilise his entire dominion against the West he could probably overpower the free peoples eventually in what for the West would become a war of attrition.

Military might and armies are, of course, entirely beside the point. It is the Ring and what it sacramentally symbolises that matter. Sauron is an angelic being, living embodied within the physical world and bound by its fundamental nature. Even in his glory, he still needs spies and agents and powerful artifacts in order to learn what's going on in the world.

The greatest artifact of all is the Ring itself. It contains his malice, his hatred for all life and even the world itself and his purely evil & corrupt will. When it was taken from him, he lost those powers most fundamental to his nature. He suffered what might be likened to a spiritual stroke. He is now much reduced in native power and relies on his Ringwraiths to accomplish his will.

And herein also lies the great opportunity for the free peoples and Sauron's greatest fear. Without the Ring, clearly Sauron has the military might to overwhelm any army that stands against him; but he can not destroy or even defeat the great theological virtues, in particular Hope. Hope springs eternal in the hearts of Men, especially, and even if he has slain Aragorn, sent the Elves packing over the Sea and put the Hobbits to real work, without anything to counter it, hope in rebellion would ever arise among Men and Sauron could never know where it would happen or when. He would eventually be overthrown again.

The Council of Elrond shows clearly that very few choices exist and none of them but one will spell Sauron's doom. Sending it into the West over Sea is the worst idea of all: sooner or later some Elf or Maia or Vala is going to take interest and the Ring will work its enticing magic on that person and we'll just have a new Dark Power arise who might come down the sundered way and crash upon the western shores of Middle Earth, taking Sauron by surprise. Throwing the Ring into Sea is a bad idea. It lay hidden under the Earth for 500 years, and Sauron waited. Sauron could wait 5000 or 50000 years for it to wash up on some desolate beach where it could work its alluring spell on some wayward wood Elf or barbarian Man and Sauron could take it easily. Using the Ring in an attempt to usurp Sauron, surely his greatest fear & expectation, is also a bad idea because Sauron would be able to militarily challenge the upstart and the Ring itself would ever seek its true master.

With the Ring, Sauron has that which might just be powerful enough to counter those great virtues. He could stride across all lands and cow the peoples of the West into true despair (the againvirture that counters hope) from which there could never be any resistance and no chance at all of deliverance. He would become the absolute sovereign of all the Earth: he would cement forever his dominion over the East and South and would now be able to at last "cover the world with a new darkness".

Until Iluvatar himself puts an end to the shennanigans.

Summation: Sauron had armies, spies & agents plus raw materials and industrial capacity sufficient to overwhelm & militarily occupy the West, and indeed the whole world. But this is insufficient to his plan, which is dominance of others' wills & destruction of native resistance to his own will. He needs to exercise utter and complete dominion of will; he needs for there be none to oppose him; he needs to destroy all hope within his enemies; and he also needs to be reunited with his severed capacities, those parts of himself that he poured into the Ring -- the Ring not only symbolises his malice and hatred, but it is his malice & hatred and reunited with its master would bring about, into actuality, his malice & hatred upon the Earth. Without the Ring, Sauron was certainly resistible and perhaps even defeatable. Who is to say that, long after the defeat of Aragorn, Gandalf might not seek to keep alive the spark of hope, ever a thorn in Sauron's side?

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  • Throw it into a subducting plate. Oh wait. They don't know plate tectonics. But I think Aule would be able to both reject the ring's enticing power and destroy it. – Joshua Feb 7 at 2:55
  • @Joshua -- Possibly...Of course, "throw it into a subducting plate" is pretty much the option they went for. – elemtilas Feb 7 at 3:20
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    +1 simply for being able to notice that Sauron wanted to dominate the wills of the Elves, not destroy them. – Edlothiad Feb 7 at 8:35
  • Victory was achievable for neither of them "by arms". He wants them mind, body, and soul; we just want him dead. – Mazura Feb 7 at 12:15
  • @Mazura -- Precisely! From the perspective of the tormentor, the worst possible outcome is the death of one's subject. Keep them alive, keep them writhing, keep them in a state of utter despair. Weapons and war only grant reprieve for the lucky few who die in battle --- and those are usually the ones you want to suffer most! In this case, I'm sure Sauron's short list runs: Galadriel, Olórin, Elrond, Cirdan, Thranduil and every Hobbit in the Shire, Curumo. – elemtilas Feb 7 at 18:03
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I have always thought that a major thread throughout Tolkien's ME works was that evil tended to do very well largely because of the disunity of the free peoples. This is a major issue in the Sil, LOTR and the Hobbit. Driving wedges between the free peoples (although they often don't help themselves with their own narrow interests clouding the big issues) is a major strategic technique of both Morgoth and Sauron.

When the free peoples are singing from the same hymn sheet they tend to do rather well. Consider the Last Alliance or the Battle of the Five Armies for example. So, I don't think, throughout much of the history of ME (especially after the fall of Morgoth and Sauron becoming bad guy #1) that Sauron was actually as powerful as he liked to portray himself and the free peoples feared. This is why Gandalf is so keen on hope, why Aragorn is also known as Estel ("hope" in Sindarin?). This can be contrasted with the despair of the likes of Denethor and Saruman (to a certain extent they are fed Mordor propaganda via their Plantiri).

So, in strict military terms I don't think Sauron had it quite all sewn-up. Another thing to ponder is the unity of Sauron's forces. He was betrayed by Saruman of course which must have been a major strategic blow but could the Easterlings and Haradrim be relied on to fight what was essentially someone else's war for that long without tangible reward?

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Sauron needs the Ring to be assured that others do not have it. It was his greatest weakness.

This is, of course, for two reasons:

  1. His enemies could use the Ring to bolster their own military might (he thinks this likely after Aragorn uses the Palantir)
  2. The Ring could be destroyed (Sauron did not think anyone would have the audacity to do this)

This thread goes into some great detail about what was going through the mind of Sauron when the Ring was destroyed.

The actual passage that user @Valorum posted is below.

And far away, as Frodo put on the Ring and claimed it for his own, even in Sammath Naur the very heart of his realm, the Power in Barad-dûr was shaken, and the Tower trembled from its foundations to its proud and bitter crown. 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. From all his policies and webs of fear and treachery, from all his stratagems and wars his mind shook free; and throughout his realm a tremor ran, his slaves quailed, and his armies halted, and his captains suddenly steerless, bereft of will, wavered and despaired. For they were forgotten. The whole mind and purpose of the Power that wielded them was now bent with overwhelming force upon the Mountain

[The Return of the King: Being the Third Part of the Lord of the Rings][1]

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  • I know that! But the quotes imply that there would be some important positive benefit to Sauron by having the Ring, and that hiding the Ring in the Sea would help things. I wasn't asking why Sauron wanted the Ring back, but whether he could have won the war without it. – AKA Feb 6 at 14:45
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    The question seems to be more focusing on Sauron's military strength rather than anything specific to the Ring (else it would just be answered by the linked questions no?) so I'm not sure if this is answering the question. – TheLethalCarrot Feb 6 at 14:47
  • @TheLethalCarrot Correct! Note that if Sauron lacked the power to conquer ME, the ring would have been certainly useful for same reason as he made it - to get an edge over the Elves and the Three Rings. – AKA Feb 6 at 14:49
  • If the question is "How would throwing the ring in the sea keep them safe, even for a while, if Sauron was so strong without the ring?" . . . I do not think the council yet knew how strong Sauron had become. Given Glorfindel's knowledge at that time, it may have seemed a more reasonable solution. – Aww_Geez Feb 6 at 14:55
  • @Aww_Geez A good suggestion - though at the council themselves they speak of Sauron being able to conquer Rivendell when "all else is overthrown", without the ring. – AKA Feb 6 at 15:03
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The question says "control" but your TL/DR says "conquer"

I think there's a subtle difference there. Sauron is a demon, not just an emperor. The concept of "to beat down all resistance, break the last defences, and cover all the lands in a second darkness" suggests to me a permanent condition. Sauron doesn't just want political power, he wants to permanently darken the world, to wipe out all hope of renewal.

The actual military defeat of the remaining free powers (Gondor, Rivendell, etc.) would not have the same permanence. Empires eventually fall apart as they grow corrupt and decadent. The spirit of the West might live on in the fringes of its former territory, or there might eventually rise some new civilizations in the East or South.

So maybe the way to answer your question is to say that Sauron could have achieved military victory without the Ring, but could not have wiped out all goodness and hope forever. There is a lot of allegory in LOTR: Sauron is trying to establish the rule of Hell on earth, not trying to create something tempororary like the Mongol empire.

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    +1. Not "allegory" of course - Tolkien didn't like that word ;) – AKA Feb 6 at 23:36
  • This is answer is, to an extent, false. It was the aim of Morgoth, the first dark lord, to destroy everything and create hell. For Sauron his Will was merely to dominate. He had hoped to ensnare Elves with the 20 rings they produced and through them twist the firstborn under is will and command. – Edlothiad Feb 7 at 8:33
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According to the LotR timeline, the Council of Elrond happened on October 25 while the Last Debate happened on 16 March, nearly five months later. When Gandalf said:

The Enemy is fast becoming very strong

he meant exactly that. Sauron was merely a big threat when the Council of Elrond took place, but when the Last Debate was held it was all over, there was no hope of defeating Sauron militarily.


Also, the Ring itself could potentially be used to overthrow Sauron. Gandalf refused to do this of course, but Saruman was actively seeking the Ring for this purpose, and came quite close to getting it.

But even if Gandalf was willing to use the Ring's power against Sauron during the Last Debate, this was no longer an option because he did not have the Ring.

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