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This question addresses why (or whether) Gandalf was surprised at Sauron's return to Mordor at the beginning of Fellowship, but I'm wondering about events before that. When the Necromancer was in Dol Guldur, there does seem to be a period in which the Wizards (and everyone else) didn't know he was Sauron. In fact, they seem to assume that he couldn't be, because Sauron had been defeated. This article states (emphasis mine) that...

Suspecting that Sauron had returned and was guiding the Nazgûl, the wizard Gandalf infiltrated the fortress in TA 2063 to confirm his theory...

Again, this seems to support the idea that Sauron's return was unknown or surprising.

However, in that same article it mentions that the Istari were sent to Middle-Earth "around TA 1000", the same time when Sauron was secretly returning to physical form. Now, even if the timing was coincidental (which I doubt), the stated mission of the Istari was still "to oppose Sauron and rally the free peoples of Middle-Earth against him."

Why would Gandalf, or any of the Istari, or really anyone ever, be surprised that Sauron would return when (if you'll excuse my casual shorthand) five frickin' angels were sent by heaven to stop him? Wouldn't it be a foregone conclusion that Sauron was coming back, with the only question being how and where?

How could Sauron's non-demise at the end of the Second Age be at all surprising, when the Wizards arrived 1,000 years later to stop him?

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    something like the ring had never been made before, so they didnt know how long or in what way sauron would return, your article shows however that gandalf noticed that A the nazgul are back, B someone with non normal powers just showed up hrm its probably sauron, lets go see. hrm it is sauron problem solved. so yes it was a surprise in that oh look hes back "NOW", however it was not a surprise that he was coming back. the timing was the surprise, as they had no idea when. knowing your Friends going to slap you sometime tonight, doesn't stop you from being surprise when your slapped. – Himarm Nov 26 '14 at 18:57
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    Even if the wizards knew Sauron's return was going to happen at some point, that doesnt' mean they knew it was going down NOW. Or even HOW it would happen. Gandalf suspected this was it, but Saruman was all like "Naw, man, it's too soon. You're being paranoid." – Omegacron Nov 26 '14 at 20:58
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Not being aware that the Necromancer was Sauron is not the same thing as not believing that Sauron will ever return. The biggest surprise is that it actually took the Wise so long to put 2 and 2 together (or to even go and find out).

First of all, it was well known that the Ring was not destroyed. Elrond and Cirdan were both present when Isildur refused to destory it, and aside from that, the continued existence of the Nazgul (suspected in TA 1100, confirmed in TA 1300) is enough on it's own to confirm.

With the Ring not having been destroyed, and with Sauron's continued existence as a force for evil being dependent on the Ring, it naturally follows that it was well known that Sauron was still around and would return.

It then becomes a matter not of "if" but of "when". As is noted in Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age:

For Isildur would not surrender it to Elrond and Cirdan who stood by. They counselled him to cast it into the fire of Orodruin nigh at hand, in which it had been forged, so that it should perish, and the power of Sauron be for ever diminished, and he should remain only as a shadow of malice in the wilderness. But Isildur refused this counsel...

So even at the start of the Third Age, it would have been anticipated that Sauron would return.

Secondly, it's important to realise that there are two perspectives in this matter:

  • The perspective of those in Middle-earth.
  • The perspective of those in Valinor.

The Valar did indeed explicitly send the Istari for the purpose of contesting with Sauron, as we see from the Istari essay in Unfinished Tales (which was originally written for the abandoned index to Lord of the Rings):

Emissaries they were from Lords of the West, the Valar, who still took counsel for the governance of Middle-earth, and when the shadow of Sauron began first to stir again took this means of resisting him.

But while the Valar and the Istari too knew what their purpose was, those in Middle-earth did not (same source):

...for long they went about in simple guise, as it were of Men already old in years but hale in body, travellers and wanderers, gaining knowledge of Middle-earth and all that dwelt therein, but revealing to none their powers and purposes.

So while the non-destruction of the Ring and the possibility of Sauron's return were known to the Wise, these were matters that would have passed into legend so far as the common man (and common Man) in Middle-earth was concerned.

So in summary:

  • Nobody was surprised that Sauron had returned,
  • Yes, it was a foregone conclusion,
  • Yes, the only question was how and where,
  • Both Elrond and Cirdan knew that the Ring was not destroyed,
  • That the Wise initially suspected that the power in Dol Guldur was a Nazgul confirms that they knew that the Nazgul were still around as early as TA 1100, therefore they also knew that the Ring wasn't destroyed,
  • Sauron's non-demise at the end of the Second Age therefore wasn't surprising, it was known.

The only puzzling aspect in the whole matter is why did it take the Wise 1000 years before they decided to send somebody to check out Dol Guldur, and unfortunately that's something that as far as I know Tolkien never wrote an explanation for.

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    They might also have expected Sauron to manifest more cautiously rather than pop up a stone's throw from the three Elven kingdoms from the get-go. – Oldcat Dec 12 '14 at 23:42
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Actually, it's not really clear that the mission of the Istari was "to oppose Sauron". According to Unfinished Tales ("The Istari"):

It was afterwards said that they came out of the Far West and were messengers sent to contest the power of Sauron.

(emphasis added)

Christopher Tolkien's summary of the sketch of the origin-story of the Istari provided in Unfinished Tales doesn't specify why the Istari were sent: merely that a council of the Valar decided to send out three emissaries from Valinor, who "must be mighty, peers of Sauron". A note that C. Tolkien dates to approximately 1972—way, way after The Lord of the Rings—does state:

Now these Maiar were sent by the Valar at a crucial moment in the history of Middle-earth to enhance the resistance of the Elves of the West, greatly outnumbered by those of the East and South.

It's possible, then, that the Maia Olórin did indeed know that Sauron was not gone from Middle-earth. However, keep in mind that what Gandalf knew in Middle-earth and what Olórin knew in Valinor are two distinct things. The essay on the Istari described in Unfinished Tales includes the following passage:

For it is said indeed that being embodied the Istari had to learn much anew by slow experience...

Compare with this Gandalf's statement after his "resurrection":

I have forgotten much that I thought I knew, and learned again much that I had forgotten.

(Lord of the Rings, Book III, Chapter 5, "The White Rider")

It's quite possible, then, that when the Istari came into the world, they knew only vaguely why they were there, and didn't realize specifically that Sauron was going to return physically to the world (as opposed to just influencing it "spiritually").

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The White Council allowed themselves to be misled by Saruman on the issue - at least partially because for a good while he believed it himself. After he started to have his own aspirations to power it was in his best interests that the other councillors continue to believe Sauron was gone. He wanted to both use 'The Necromancer's' covert attempts to recover the Ring as a guide for his OWN search AND did not want anyone else thinking along the lines of thought that a revived Sauron's existence implied. His voice was very powerful and no one had any reason to doubt him - except Galadriel who never trusted him and never fell under his spell.

To a large extent he encouraged the other councilors to believe what they WANTED to believe all along; Sauron was a spent force and the matter of the ruling Ring should not be worried about.

And then Saruman was himself, little by little influenced by Sauron's own will...

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