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After the battle on Weathertop the Nazgûl learn Frodo has the one ring and follow him to Rivendell, where Glorfindel defeats them.

They have however by that time acquired the knowledge about the one ring's location. Why didn’t Sauron march his troops over to Rivendell and simply take it?

And if the answer is, he didn’t have enough troops / power, why didn’t the reverse happen, with elves, Rohan and Gondor joining forces to attack Mordor? And if the answer to that is they weren’t allies anymore, then what would have prevented Sauron from attacking then?

Note Similar but not equal to Did Sauron have the military power to control all Middle-earth? as that one talks about needing the ring to take over “all middle earth”. While Sauron doesn’t have enough power to do that, this is more of a focused attack on Rivendell to get the one ring

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    I can't quite remember offhand, but I think there was some mention about the Nazgûl taking some time to return to Mordor and be restored to corporeal form. Maybe Sauron didn't get the word right away.
    – HorusKol
    Mar 29 at 22:21
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    You don't need as many troops to defend as to attack. It's plausible that neither side had enough troops to be confident in an invasion scenario
    – Valorum
    Mar 29 at 22:23
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    Besides, most of Sauron's forces were still in Mordor, east of the Anduin, or in the south. It would take time to muster a host and march on Rivendell - pretty sure it takes the Fellowship a few weeks just to get to Lothlorien. So even if he did march on Rivendell, it would be much too late to capture the One Ring.
    – HorusKol
    Mar 29 at 22:24
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    How on Earth could he even attack Rivendell by this point? How to get there, even? There were only a few passes in Misty Mountains, and even Fellowship didn't manage to get through one. Not to mention Rivendell, Lindon and Lothlorien never fell, even when Sauron conquered, like, whole rest of Middle-earth.
    – Mithoron
    Mar 30 at 1:01
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    Middle-earth is big, and it seems no land-based travel is faster than a horse... Walking Rivendell to Mordor is about the same as walking from Champaigne, Illinois to Jacksonville, Florida (about 900 miles), but doing it without infrastructure, having to either carry or catch food and camp etc. And all in winter. Mar 30 at 3:00

4 Answers 4

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I don't think we can give a definitive answer, because Tolkien never did, but a pretty clear answer can be worked out.

First, it's clear that Rivendell had substantial powers of resistance -- doubtless due in large part from Elrond's Ring. It's impossible to imagine that over thousands of years the Orcs never discovered its location, so they knew of it, but didn't dare attack (or attacked and were repulsed.) So Rivendell may have been a homely house with restful scenery and good food, but it was also a formidable fortress. The nearby orcs -- even if they chose to follow Sauron's orders -- could not have taken Rivendell.

Second. Take the Ring with Orcs? "How very trusting you have become in your old age, Mr. Sauron." The only entities Sauron could trust to take the Ring were ones he utterly dominated. So the only local forces were untrustworthy and couldn't be used even if they had the power to take Rivendell.

Third, So he had to bring up forces from Mordor. But logistics. By the time Sauron knew the Ring was in Rivendell, the Fellowship had left or was about ready to leave. There simply was no time to move trustworthy resources that far. (See What's the big deal about the Nazgûl losing their horses? for some discussion on timing.)

(This is a bit of a weak spot, since while there was insufficient time in 'reality', how could Sauron have known that? If he expected the Ring to go to earth in Rivendell, then he should have started a mobilization to send forces that he dominated north to get it. But apparently he didn't.)

Fourth, as @Valorum noted, it's much harder to take a fortress than to defend it. Elrond knew that he lacked to power to attack -- and in fact, he knew that he lacked the power to defend Rivendell indefinitely against Sauron.

... 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 [referring to the just-mentioned Cirdan, and the rulers of Lórien]'

Bottom line: There was no practical way for Sauron to take the Ring by forces before it left Rivendell, and Elrond did not have to force to take on Sauron.

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  • I vaguely remember reading that Gandalf, sometime after the sundering of the fellowship (early in book 2, when he met what was left of the fellowship), had overestimated Sauron's strength. That's probably the reason why Sauron could not have attacked Rivendell - Sauron lacked the strength.
    – Allure
    Mar 30 at 7:58
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    Remember many of Sauron’s forces hate sunlight. That’s why he starts his main campaign by having Orodruin create a canopy of smoke which blots out the sun and allows his forces to comfortably and effectively move and fight at any time. He probably needed to muster enough power to create the canopy, and it probably didn’t extend as far as Rivendell at any time. That seems to be another reason not to try to attack Rivendell directly with “conventional” forces (trolls and orcs). Mar 30 at 10:26
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    For your weak spot. I would argue he DID start the mobilisation. The paths from mordor to rivendell are the same options available to the fellowship. Send your orcs through Moria and risk the Balrog, over the mountains and lose many to the environment, or through Isengard after neutralising Rohan and securing a path through Gondor.
    – Scott
    Mar 30 at 22:06
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    If an orc were to get the Ring, it would only delay Sauron's recovery of it. That orc would be instantly filled with visions of becoming chief of his warband, and then chief of all chiefs, and then the RIng would goad him into challenging Sauron, and Sauron would rub him out like a cigarette butt. To overthrow Sauron, a Ring-bearer would already need to be a formidable individual in his/her own right. A fellow Maia could, a supremely powerful Elf, maybe, but it's doubtful that any Man, even Aragorn, had what it took.
    – EvilSnack
    Mar 31 at 4:48
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    @ToddWilcox One does not simply walk into Rivendell. The sunshine and freshair...revolting.
    – DKNguyen
    Mar 31 at 22:20
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In addition to Mark Olson's great answers, there are two other factors.

  1. Gondor is still a military threat to Mordor - a premature attack on Rivendell opens an opportunity for Gondor to attack Mordor. If the attack on Rivendell fails, Sauron is now in a much worse position, which ties into 2.

  2. If the Ring is unavailable, Sauron will eventually be able to dominate Middle-Earth - but if the Ring is at Rivendell, Sauron must fear that someone intends to use it, and Gandalf, at least, is someone who could use the Ring to overthrow Sauron. Sauron must take that possibility into account (and in his mind, that is a much more likely thing to be happening than a council of the mighty deciding to try to destroy the Ring). Marching on Rivendell might be what Gandalf wants Sauron to do. Better to control and expand his realm in Mordor and its environs than to take the chance.

Note: In response to the comment below from Gallifreyan: "Corruption" is an ambiguous word. Given enough time, the less-powerful (Hobbits, dwarves, most or all men, most or all elves) will be corrupted by the Ring into tools of Sauron, who would turn the Ring over to him and serve him (we see a shadow of that in the relationship between Gollum and Frodo). The truly powerful, however, might master the Ring - they will still be corrupted into becoming devoted only to power, and having all their good goals twisted into evil - but they would retain enough will to overthrow Sauron. Sauron gets no pleasure out of the fact that his defeater would be corrupted in that sense - Sauron himself would be destroyed (or turned into a servant). I don't know if Aragorn or Elrond has enough power to master the Ring (note that the Ring tries to convince people that mastering it is possible even for people like Samwise for whom it is not possible, as a means of corrupting in the other sense), but Gandalf, a Maia, is certainly someone who could, if he chose, master the Ring, and thus is a mortal threat to Sauron.

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    Excellent additions -- it's a pity there's no way to join the answers and split the points!
    – Mark Olson
    Mar 30 at 0:42
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    Thanks! Tolkien's work can bear a great deal of analysis - and it's nice to be a part of the discussion.
    – Andrew
    Mar 30 at 1:02
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    Given the Ring's formidable corruption powers, doesn't your second point actually play in Sauron's favour? Is it possible to destroy Sauron himself with the ring, and isn't it more likely that whoever tries to wield it would be corrupted as well, a la Saruman? Mar 30 at 16:29
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    Elrond would have also been a great candidate, nearly the same as Galadriel (which, I believe, was established by herself). Aragorn could potentially have done something dangerous to Sauron, but Sauron didn't know about Aragorn at the time (remember that he reveals himself to Sauron after Helm's Deep). Perhaps Sauron also thought that Elrond was capable (or would at least think himself capable), and in that case waiting until Elrond and Gandalf are at each other's throats could also be a strategy.
    – Blueriver
    Mar 30 at 19:02
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    Yes. The point about the ring's power to corrupt is spelled out by Galadriel when she is offered the ring, in what is probably the most powerful scene in the entire work. She certainly could master the ring, and to start with her use of it would appear benevolent, but she has the wisdom to know that it could not stay that way,.
    – nigel222
    Apr 6 at 10:04
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Why didn't Sauron march his troops over to Rivendell and simply take the ring? Because he couldn't.

It's about 900 miles from the Gates of Mordor to Rivendell. An army on the march, facing no opposition, can cover about ten miles per day*. If Sauron somehow had an army ready to depart on October 20, the day the Ringwraiths were defeated, that army could arrive at Rivendell no earlier than January 17, 23 days after Frodo departed.

But that assumption of "facing no opposition" is wrong. This is taking place in late fall and early winter. The northern route, going over the Misty Mountains at Redhorn Pass or the pass Thorin's company took, is blocked by snow. The middle route, going through the Gap of Rohan, involves fighting a protracted campaign against Rohan (you don't want to leave a hostile cavalry force as good as Rohan's in your rear). The southern route goes through the heart of Gondor, and results in combat very similar to what actually happened in the books.

Between weather, terrain, and opposition, it's unlikely that Sauron could begin an attack on Rivendell earlier than mid-June. In the actual timeline, the Ring was destroyed well before then, on March 25.

*A raiding force can move much faster, but a raiding force is exactly what Glorfindel just destroyed.

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  • +1, but where did you get these dates from? Do the books mention Roman-calendar months?
    – ruakh
    Mar 31 at 4:17
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    If I recall correctly the detailed timeline in the appendices has dates translated into modern month/day format.
    – Andrew
    Mar 31 at 13:15
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    "you don't want to leave a hostile cavalry force as good as Rohan's in your rear" Nor do you want to leave it on your flank. This turned out to be something of a persistent problem for the orc armies.
    – reirab
    Mar 31 at 22:06
  • @reirab That's mostly Jackson's problem. In the books, Eomer defends caves in the Helm's deep along Gimli, and the Rohirrim make an unexpected move through the White Mountains, as Mordor had some hundred thousand orcs waiting for them on the road they took in the movies.
    – dedObed
    Apr 1 at 7:07
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    @ruakh yes, in the appendices
    – OrangeDog
    May 1 at 15:51
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He apparently lacked the strength.

'The the Nine had indeed arisen I felt assured, apart from the words of Saruman which might be lies. Long ere I came to Isengard I had heard tidings by the way that could not be mistaken. Fear was ever in my heart for my friends in the Shire; but still I had some hope. I hoped that Frodo had set forth at once, as my letter had urged, and that he had reached Rivendell before the deadly pursuit began. And both my fear and my hope proved ill-founded. For my hope was founded on a fat man in Bree; and my fear was founded on the cunning of Sauron. But fat men who sell ale have many calls to answer; and the power of Sauron is still less than fear makes it. But in the circle of Isengard, trapped and alone, it was not easy to think that the hunters before whom all have fled or fallen would falter in the Shire far away.'

-- Gandalf, The Council of Elrond (emphasis mine)

As for why not march over and attack Mordor then - supply lines come to mind. Marching an army across a continent is not something easily done, and the further away you are from your home base the harder it gets to keep them supplied. This applies to modern armies, and presumably also to Tolkien's armies.

One more thing comes to mind: it's said that Saruman might have been able to resist the Nine even after Gandalf shattered his staff, as long as he remained in the Orthanc. If something applies to Sauron & Barad-Dur, attacking Mordor might not be wise even if it's practical.

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