In TA 2942, the Council of the Istari was able to marshal their forces and drive Sauron, in his guise as the Necromancer, from Dol Goldur. The language suggests that they did this alone: that is, the six-odd wizards and elves of the Council, with the Blue Wizards presumably having gone to the east. There is no indication of their having any assistance.

In the late summer of that same year (2941) Gandalf had at last prevailed upon Saruman and the White Council to attack Dol Guldur, and Sauron retreated and went to Mordor, there to be secure, as he thought, from all his enemies.

The Return of the King

This more or less fits with the language in The Hobbit, which again implies that the Council drove out Sauron on their own.

The movie presents a version of this, but it is not the same as what happens in the book: Gandalf is said to have gone to the Council before driving the Necromancer out of Mirkwood, for instance.

However, after leaving Mirkwood, Sauron simply fled to Mordor, where he joined up with his Nâzgul, who had been rebuilding his armies of orcs and his alliances with other human nations. Within 80 years, he was sufficiently powerful that his military strength could be sent against virtually all his enemies at once. It is implied that he fled intentionally during this attack.

Sauron having made his plans abandons Dol Guldur.

The Return of the King - Appendix B

What explains the strategy of the Istari here? We know that Sauron had a corporeal form, so they could, in theory, have imprisoned or killed him, though of course the latter would have been temporary. If they were unwilling, that raises the question of why they preferred to exile such a threat. If they were unable (say, because Sauron fled as soon as they attacked him) why did they not seek to gather a larger force of the enemies of Sauron in order to properly subdue or kill him? For instance, from Gondor, or for that matter particularly appealing to the elves of Mirkwood, who were nearby and had a vested interest in his defeat. Why, by all indications, did they attack Dol Goldur alone, giving Sauron the opportunity to flee, rather than arranging a force that might have subdued or destroyed him? Even for reasons of safety, why confront Sauron unaided, with only a handful of people, perhaps not even knowing what allies he would have?

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    6 wizards ????? – TheMadHatter Jul 3 at 10:08
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    There were only two Istari in the White Council: Gandalf and Saruman. – Mat Cauthon Jul 3 at 14:10
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    The boring out of canon explanation is probably that Tolkien repeatedly wants his various heroes to face perils and adventures without Gandalf being present to save the day. This is a recurring pattern from Bilbo to LotR. So he needed a dramatic excuse for Gandalf to leave Bilbo and the dwarves just as they are about to enter Mirkwood, the most dangerous part of their journey. The excuse being "dealing with the Necromancer". Then far later, when writing LotR, he has to piece together these events so that they make sense in the broader picture. – Amarth Jul 3 at 14:32
  • @MatCauthon the value counts both Istar and Elves – Edlothiad Jul 3 at 16:06
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    It’s a dangerous game to guess at who is a member, it’s incredibly unclear and vague, possibly more so then this event (the attack on Dol Guldur) – Edlothiad Jul 3 at 18:02

Different members of the Council may have various reasons for expelling the Necromancer (known to be Sauron) from Dol Guldur. Some may suggest that Sauron had planned to leave, however I disagree that he would've done so willingly, certainly not abandoned it to then have to be recaptured.

1Firstly, it is important to set the context. In 2063 (Around 1000 years before the events of The Lord of the Rings) Gandalf goes to Dol Guldur and snoops around. At this time Sauron flees to the far East in hiding. 397 years later in 2460, Sauron returns to Dol Guldur this time with increased strength. 3 years later Déagol finds the Ring. Another 387 years pass, in 2850, before Gandalf re-enters Dol Guldur. It is at this time he discovers that its master is Sauron and that he searches for the One. A year later, Gandalf urges the White Council to attack Dol Guldur. Saruman however, overrules him and begins to search for the Ring around the Gladden Fields. After another 88 year spell, Saruman discovers Sauron's agents are also searching the Gladden Field, he is alarmed. It is then 2 years later that the White Council attacks Dol Guldur and Sauron flees.

Now we must look at individual motivations for characters.


From the above context it seems extremely clear that Saruman's intentions were to find the Ring and wrest control of it. Saruman had hoped (and correctly so) that Sauron's presence would coerce the Ring out of hiding. He could not, however plan for Déagol the Stoor to discover the ring and Sméagol to steal it and go into hiding. It is only once Saruman discovers that Sauron's agents are actively searching for the Ring where it disappeared that he begins to become inclined to attack Dol Guldur. Saruman's motivations seem to be not to dispose of Sauron (as he needed him to tempt the Ring out of hiding) but to ensure he was further away from where the Ring was last known to be.

The White Council meets; Saruman agrees to an attack on Dol Guldur, since he now wishes to prevent Sauron from searching the River.
Appendix B: The Third Age


To discover Gandalf's motivations might require a bit more speculation. Gandalf had been an advocate for attacking Dol Guldur from soon after he discovered the power there-in was Sauron. It is possible that Gandalf would've wanted to capture Sauron, but he also knew that it was not his duty to use his divine force against Sauron, but to inspire the people of Middle-earth to rise against him.

were messengers sent to contest the power of Sauron, and to unite all those who had the will to resist him; but they were forbidden to match his power with power...
Appendix B: The Third Age

This is when the speculation is required. It is possible that upon discovery of the Necromancer being Sauron, Gandalf feared that the Dark Lord would utilise the power of the Dragon in any wars to come, and in doing so would strike devastating blows. Furthermore, with a stronghold in the North, Sauron would have a better position from which to operate throughout Rhovanion and possibly gain control of the Misty Mountains improving access into Eriador.

Among many cares he was troubled in mind by the perilous state of the North; because he knew then already that Sauron was plotting war, and intended, as soon as he felt strong enough, to attack Rivendell. But to resist any attempt from the East to regain the lands of Angmar and the northern passes in the mountains there were now only the Dwarves of the Iron Hills. And beyond them lay the desolation of the Dragon. The Dragon Sauron might use with terrible effect. How then could the end of Smaug be achieved?

It was even as Gandalf sat and pondered this that Thorin stood before him
Appendix A, Part III: Durin's Folk

From the above quote it seems clear that to some extent Gandalf had thought about the possibility of the Dragon, the fate of Rhovanion and Sauron's attacks on Rivendell.

Finally, Galadriel and Elrond. While they, similar to Gandalf, may have had a vested interest in capture, their main priority would've been to move him further away from the Golden Wood and Eriador, respectively. In doing so they could protect their realms from being in direct fire, but also to remove him from one of his fortresses, weakening his reach to the North.

In the late summer of that same year (2941) Gandalf had at last prevailed upon Saruman and the White Council to attack Dol Guldur, and Sauron retreated and went to Mordor, there to be secure, as he thought, from all his enemies. So it was that when the War came at last the main assault was turned southwards; yet even so with his far-stretched right hand Sauron might have done great evil in the North, if King Dáin and King Brand had not stood in his path.

So it was that Gandalf, Galadriel, and Elrond succeeded in their motivations, by reducing the strength of Sauron in the North the main assault was turned to Gondor. Although without the aid of the Dwarves of the Lonely Mountain and the Men of Dale Sauron's destruction may have been significant, it would've been severely reduced from the greatest potential.


As we know Sauron fled at the arrival of the White Council. This time, unlike in 2063, Sauron returns to Mordor where he'd been gathering his strength. As is speculated in the answer to this question: Why didn't the White Council destroy Dol Guldur after driving Sauron out?. It's possible the Council had no physical presence at Dol Guldur and hence could not capture Sauron. This would explain why his forces at Dol Guldur (presuming he had some) went entirely untouched. Sauron likely was able to predict the attack of the Council and in doing so left before they could do anything.

You suggest that a larger army might have sufficed, however if the army had been bigger (assuming the council was physically present). They would only have made their arrival or the more obvious and given Sauron more time to flee back to Mordor.


2063 Gandalf goes to Dol Guldur. Sauron retreats and hides in the East. The Watchful Peace begins. The Nazgûl remain quiet in Minas Morgul.

2460 The Watchful Peace ends. Sauron returns with increased strength to Dol Guldur.

2463 ... The White Council is formed. About this time Déagol the Stoor finds the One Ring, and is murdered by Sméagol

2850 Gandalf again enters Dol Guldur, and discovers that its master is indeed Sauron. Who is gathering all the Rings and seeking for news of the One

2851 The White Council meets. Gandalf urges an attack on Dol Guldur. Saruman overrules him. Saruman begins to search near the Gladden Fields.

2939 Saruman discovers that Sauron's servants are searching the Anduin near Gladden Fields, and that Sauron therefore has learned of Isildur's end. He is alarmed, but says nothing to the Council.

2941 ...The White Council meets; Saruman agrees to an attack on Dol Guldur, since he now wishes to prevent Sauron from searching the River. Sauron having made his plans abandons Dol Guldur.
Appendix B: Third Age

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The White Council's attack on Dol Guldur is one of the most mysterious events of the third age, so it's hard to give a definitive answer to some parts of your question. However, the motivations are known.

  • Saruman wanted to prevent Sauron seaching the Gladden Fields, where he thought the ring might still lie hidden. This is made clear by the Tale of Years entry for TA2941.

  • Gandalf wanted to prevent Sauron searching the Gladden Fields and also to disrupt Sauron's original plan of attack. This is discussed at the start of 'The Quest of Erebor' in the Unfinished Tales. In short, Sauron intended to attack in the north first, with the intention of destroying Lorien and Rivendell, leaving Gondor and Rohan until last. Gandalf notes that this 'would have been a much better plan for him [Sauron]'.

  • The rest of the Council was acting on advice from Gandalf. Quoting from the Quest of Erebor:

    I [Gandalf] must find some means of dealing with Smaug. But a direct stroke against Dol Guldur is needed still more. We must disturb Sauron's plans. I must make the Council see that.

(Emphasis mine)

Thus the Council did not believe there was any chance of destroying Sauron at this point, only that they could upset his plans. The exact means by which the Council attacked Dol Guldur are not known. In the Silmarillion (Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age) we find

Therefore, for the last time, he [Saruman] aided the Council, and they put forth their strength; and they assailed Dol Guldur, and drove Sauron from his hold, and Mirkwood for a brief while was made wholesome again.

Similarly, at the Council of Elrond, Gandalf says

It was by the devices of Saruman that we drove him [Sauron] from Dol Guldur.

Finally, returning to the Quest of Erebor, we find

I [Gandalf] ... persuaded the Council to attack Dol Guldur first, before he [Sauron] attacked Lorien. We did, and Sauron fled.

Exactly who participated in the attack is unclear. One possibility would be a small army from Lorien, but I cannot find any mention of a battle at Dol Guldur in any of Tolkien's writings. My own theory is that the attack was some sort of targeted assualt aimed at Sauron himself, using whatever devices Saruman provided, and carried out by the members of the Council alone. This fits with the fact that the fortress appears to have been left in tact for the Nazgul to reoccupy ten years later. Had the fortress actually been taken, it could have been destroyed, which is precisely what Galadriel does at the end of the War of the Ring (see the text describing the events following the fall of Barad-Dur in the Tale of Years).

Could the Council have gathered a larger force and attacked in a more conventional way? It's possible, but the rulers with large armies (Ecthelion II and Thengel) were a long way away and constantly dealing with problems of their own. A major expedition sent 250 miles north would be noticed, and probably attacked by forces from Mordor or Minas Morgul. I think the chances of destroying Sauron in this way would have been close to zero.

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In addition to the Istari, the council also had Galadriel, Elrond and Cirdan (and 'other Lords of the Eldar') as members. Galadriel mentions calling the Council and intending Gandalf to be the head; other members are mentioned in Unfinished Tales.

the Council put forth its strength and drove the evil out of Mirkwood

Then he gave way before us, but only feigned to flee, and soon after came to the Dark Tower and openly declared himself.

I always read this as the Council choosing to attack Sauron and do whatever damage they could; it appeared that they had overpowered him and he was defeated (if not destroyed), but ultimately is was part of his plan to return to Mordor.

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  • All those Answers are well researched and well presented and, I suggest, over-engineering something much more simple. The real clue is in the name The Necromancer. Can you truly see even Hitler or Stalin, Pol Pot or their like reduced to anything so mundane as Black Magician? If they thought they were dealing with Sauron-as-was, they'd have said so. In the unlikely event anyone at the time really thought Necromancer and Sauron one and the same, they clearly didn't think either could get anywhere without the ring… which all but Saruman "knew" lost, irretrievably. – Robbie Goodwin Jul 4 at 20:59
  • "2850 Gandalf again enters Dol Guldur, and discovers that its master is indeed Sauron." Uncertainty initially, but by the time they drove him out, they knew it was Sauron. – Michael Jul 4 at 21:27
  • Yes, Michael, and to me that seems like an afterthought, at best. Either way, it doesn't change the underlying theory that no-one thought without the ring, either could get far enough to matter… which let's remember, turned out to be correct! – Robbie Goodwin Jul 4 at 21:40

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