Why did Aragorn not keep going with the army of the dead and overthrow Mordor and Sauron?

As unstoppable as they seem to be in destroying all physical armies without any injuries, taking on Mordor itself wouldn't be an issue. Thus clearing the way for Frodo to destroy the ring and Sauron, or even destroy Sauron himself.

In the battle of Dagorlad, the Alliance surrounded Barad-dûr, until Sauron has shown himself which means that Mordor could be taken by an army's might (if Sauron was an issue).

Considering that Sauron was far more powerful in the Second Age, he has only been lessened as a spirit once he possessed the ring of power, and he had far more powerful servants.


7 Answers 7


Aragorn had given his word to the army of the dead to release them after the battle.

Even though they could have easily overthrown Mordor and Sauron — but he knew that he was only as good as his word.

He therefore had to uphold his word and free them.

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    The war wasn't over, but the battle most certainly was.
    – Martha
    Commented Apr 14, 2013 at 4:39
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    But again Minas Tirith would have been lost and Aragorn alongwith his army would never have reached Mordor in time. By the time they would have reached Mordor, Gondor would have been destroyed and the Nazgul would be back in Mordor( they can fly therefore they are faster)
    – user13639
    Commented Apr 14, 2013 at 5:22
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    The destruction of the One Ring destroyed Sauron. I would be suprised to learn that The Dead Men of Dunharrow were stronger than Sauron!
    – Andomar
    Commented Apr 15, 2013 at 19:04
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    Yes, Sauron was a much older and stronger power than the oath breakers. Those who are contesting Aragorn's actions aren't looking at it from the proper perspective. If Aragorn abused their trust (his summons and promise of freedom given upon one word) then there is little to differ Aragorn from Sauron in this respect. Likewise, thematically it makes sense for Aragorn to use the oathbreakers to save the kingdom they abandoned, thus redeeming and freeing them and righting past wrongs. Commented Apr 15, 2013 at 20:16
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    @MishaRosnach You do realise it was disregard for their oaths that landed the Dead Men in this position in the first place, right?
    – Wlerin
    Commented Sep 16, 2015 at 22:57

I find this a very interesting sequence, not just because it's a bit different in the films to the books, but because it changed dramatically between Tolkien's first draft of the story, and the published version.

In published book, this section isn't told in the third person. Instead, it's recounted by Legolas and Gimli, to Merry and Pippin, on the morning after the battle.

The Bakshi film didn't cover that part of the book.

In the Jackson film, we see the whole action. Such is the nature of films, and I don't begrudge Peter Jackson that.

However, it's when we turn to Chapter XII of 'The War of the Ring' - part of the series of commentaries released by Tolkien's son Christopher, that bring together his father's notes that things get interesting.

In this, we learn of several distinct versions:

In the earliest outline, we have the following:

The Haradwaith try to fly. Some take ship back again down Anduin. But Aragon overtakes them and captures most of the ships. Some are set fire to, but several manned by slaves and captives are captured.' (The follows the passage about the Gondorian captives.) 'Aragorn embarks with men of South Gondor, the Shadow Host disperses, pursuing the Haradwaith about the vales.'

Later, however, we get a newer outline:

Many of the ships are stuffed with captives, and they are partially manned (especially the oars) by captives taken in raids on Gondor, or slave-descendants of captives taken long before. These revolt. So Aragorn captures many ships and mans them, though several are burned. He works feverishly because he knows that the doom of Minas Tirith is near, if he does not come in time. That night the Shadow Host vanishes and goes back into the mountain valleys, and finally disappears into the Paths of the Dead and is never seen again to come forth.

Next, we get a draft of the text, which talks about fighting the ships, but Tolkien struck out the whole page of that draft, and added a footnote:

No fight, but the Shadows [?flow into] the ships and all men leap overboard except the chained captives.

This version comes into the next draft text, after which Legolas describes what Aragorn said:

Now I will hold your oath fulfilled.

However, he says this, not to the King of the Dead, but to:

a tall figure of shadow.

It's only in the final version that we get the following:

And Aragorn spoke in a loud voice to the Dead Men, crying:

"Hear now the words of the Heir of Isildur! Your oath is fulfilled. Go back and trouble not the valleys ever again. Depart and be at rest"

And thereupon the King of the Dead stood out before the host and broke his spear and cast it down. Then he bowed low and turned away; and swiftly the whole grey host drew off and vanished like a mist that is driven back by a sudden wind; and it seemed to me that I awoke from a dream.

Let's dig into this a bit more...

Is there an explanation of why Aragorn didn't ask them to do more?

No. However, the first draft had them do more, and this was changed to them just drifting away. So it's clearly a conscious decision that Tolkien made.

Could the army have defeated Sauron?

No way!

Sauron is not human. He's a Maia. This is basically (in the words of Tolkien) an 'angelic' being.

The army are wraiths, capable of scaring men (and maybe orcs, but I'm not sure we know), but not much more. They don't fight. They just cause terror. This isn't going to work on Sauron.

Could Aragorn have forced them?

Not within the constraints of a prophecy. That is, the time would come when they gave Isildur's Heir a bit of help, after which he would release them. Aragorn, having promised to do so, couldn't himself betray his word.

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    +1 Awesome answer. This should be the accepted answer!
    – Andres F.
    Commented Apr 15, 2013 at 21:38
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    I don't know how to link to a specific answer but, if you look at the accepted answer to this question there are passages referenced about messing with the unbodied spirits of the dead: "To call on them is folly. To attempt to master them and make them servants of ones will is wickedness" and "such practices are of Morgoth". I think Isildur and Aragorn were essentially dabbling with dark powers with this curse even if it was for the greater good. Aragorn once again showed his nobility by releasing them.
    – Ron Smith
    Commented Jan 10, 2014 at 17:54
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    @RonSmith, click "share" at the lower left. scifi.stackexchange.com/a/47768/24067 Commented Dec 31, 2014 at 0:22
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    "Aragorn, having promised to do so, couldn't himself betray his word." I suppose if Aragorn did break his promise, he might have himself become an oath breaker?
    – RobertF
    Commented Nov 26, 2018 at 2:28
  • @RobertF Now that's an interesting notion: Aragorn becoming one with the dead
    – Voronwé
    Commented Sep 14, 2019 at 13:37

In the book version, the Dead Men of Dunharrow were cursed by Isildur after they broke their oath to aid him in the War of the Last Alliance. By later assisting Aragorn, Ilsidur's heir, the curse was broken. Since their task was to aid, they did not need to do more than drive away the Corsairs of Umbar, allies of Sauron, which allowed Aragorn to gather the living warriors of the region to him and sail with them on the Corsair's ships to the battle at Minis Tirith. Peter Jackson embellished the role of the cursed men of Dunharrow in the film by including them in the Battle of the Pelennor Fields.

So, the answer to the question is

In order to lift the curse, all they needed to do was to aid Aragorn in his quest to defeat Sauron, not defeat Sauron himself.


I think the army of the dead certainly could have destroyed all of Sauron's armies. It is said that they do not suffer the living to pass, which means that they have certainly maintained the capacity to kill.

I think perhaps Tolkien hinted at the reason for Aragorn's decisions (in the book) when Legolas recounts how seeing Aragorn leading the army of the dead made him wonder what Aragorn would have been like had he taken the ring. The insinuation here is that Aragorn is a different kind of king than Sauron and does not wish to have an army of slaves. I believe there was no risk of the dead men turning on him or the people of Gondor, even if Aragorn abused their trust. He had too great a leverage over their souls and they were desperate for freedom.

The oath however, was to come to Gondor's aid in a battle, not to become Gondor's army in a war. Aragorn believed strongly in the blood of Númenor and in their greater sense of values. The whole point of giving up the ring to be destroyed is that he does not believe that tyranny is a pathway to freedom.

All decisions in the book seem to give this absolute, non-compromising ideal of being ready to give one's life for the freedoms of others rather than threatening another person's life or liberty for the freedoms of oneself.

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    A good answer, albeit you might want to break this down into paragraphs and provide some referencing.
    – Valorum
    Commented Jan 25, 2014 at 3:03

Also consider that the Dead Men of Dunharrow were a dangerous, unscrupulous and perhaps unpredictable force to keep around.

After aiding Aragorn at Minas Tirith, if Aragorn demanded they march on Mordor, the Dead Men could have found unpleasant ways to compel Aragorn to declare their oath fulfilled. The armies of Rohan and Gondor were no match for the Dead Men.


I reread "The passing of the grey company" and it seems a little vague and even contradictory about what the Dead Men, or perhaps only the King of the Mountains, vowed to do, and what Isildur said would be enough to break his curse. If the Mountain Kingdom became a part of the greater kingdom of Gondor the mountain people might have to supply a certain number of men in time of war until the war was won, for example.

I suspect that Aragorn had the right to keep the Dead Men in his army until the end of the war, but changed his mind and decided to release them at Pelargir for various reasons. They might have frightened the rowers of his ships too much to do any rowing, and thus delayed reaching Minas Tirith in time. At Minas Tirith the Dead Men might not have frightened the orcs very much, and possibly not the men of Rhûn and Harad either, since Sauron might have had his allies and their horses get used to the Witch-king and other Nazgûl before the army marched.

During the Dark Years the Dead Men had worshiped Sauron, and possibly they had sworn oaths to fight for Sauron, which they also did not do. So they might get the idea that double crossing Aragorn and fighting for Sauron would be another way to keep an ancient oath and break their curse. I don't think Aragorn wanted to take the Dead Men too close to Mordor and Sauron's dark power radiating from Mount Doom.

Above all else, Aragorn could not know where in Mordor Frodo and the Ring were, and he dared not get the Sauron-worshiping Dead Men too close to the corrupting and deluding power of the Ring.


Aragorn said that when the last of Sauron's servants will be extinct he will release the dead army.

Yeah they might have scared all of the other people but he could solve that problem, it is said that they can travel very fast and they walked behind the grey riders only because Aragorn commanded them to.

  • But there were plenty of Sauron's servants left... Do you have anything else to add? Commented Apr 28, 2017 at 13:42
  • When did he say this? Can you add a quote or chapter number?
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented Apr 28, 2017 at 14:11
  • well i read it in hebrew so i can't really quote it but it was in the last page of the chapter that was called "passing of the grey company". i said that the oath was to exterminate the sauron's servants until the last of them dies. that was what i had to add. Commented Jun 2, 2017 at 17:53

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