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I've recently re-read the Lord of the Rings and one thing that simply bugs me and makes Tolkien's books seem lesser is the fact Sauron and Saruman seem to lose every battle. I sincerely hope that I've missed some info or forgot some battles that Sauron or Saruman won, because like I said the fact that both always seems to lose kinda takes any danger away from the story.

Battles Saruman and Sauron both lose during war of the ring or slightly before (e.g. time of The Hobbit)

  • Sauron defeated by white council
  • Nazgul fail to capture ring at Weathertop (I know they thought they had finished Frodo off by stabbing him with a Morgul blade)
  • Siege of Minas Tirith
  • Battle of Helm's Deep
  • Sauron personally losing a battle of wills with Gandalf when trying to pinpoint Frodo while he is wearing the ring at Amon Hen
  • Saruman defeated by the Ents

Anyway you get my point, and I know that some defeats that both suffered couldn't be helped but the fact both never seem to win any battles takes a little bit away from LOTR for me.

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    My recollection says you're correct, Sauron and Saruman lose every major engagement. However, the books always give the impression that every victory is a Pyrrhic one; the victories are always close run affairs, the forces of good are always badly wounded, Sauron will always have more armies and can afford to grind down his enemies. This, for me, kept the tension. – Schwern Mar 15 '15 at 23:09
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    all the major victories for Mordor happened before the books started; the capture of Osgiliath is a rather big deal, since it puts Mordor right on Gondor's doorstep. – KutuluMike Mar 15 '15 at 23:34
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    I don't think Sauron personally had a battle of will with Gandalf when Frodo was at Amon Hen - I'm pretty sure Gandalf had no connection to those events at all – The Fallen Mar 16 '15 at 0:01
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    Related, regarding Sauron's power: scifi.stackexchange.com/questions/83076 – KSmarts Mar 16 '15 at 15:34
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    The battle of Helm's Deep happened only after the forces of Isengard had swept all over Rohan. That's about the same as saying the Germans didn't win any major battles in WWII because they lost at Stalingrad and Kursk. Rommel? El Alamein. Japan? Midway. General Lee? Gettisburgh. It's tempting to reduce the losing party of a war to its decisive defeat(s), but it does the strife that usually happened up until that point a disfavor. A century later you start to wonder why they made such a fuss about it, because the loss was inevitable, wasn't it? I mean, they didn't win much, did they? – DevSolar Mar 17 '15 at 10:19

10 Answers 10

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Sauron's victories that happened before the events in Tolkien's books include annexation and conquest of the eastern lands of middle earth, such as the kingdoms of Harad and Rhun. Eastern half of middle earth was unexplored by Tolkien. If the west was based on Germanic, Viking and semitic cultures, the east was based on middle east, asian (Indian and chinese) and far east culture. Legends of the east are as numerous as that of the west. But not preserved since in those legends, Sauron is victorious. History favours the victors. Hence the dire requirement for each nation/philosophy to win the great wars.

123

You have hit upon a very astute observation about LotR and the nature of Sauron's power. Sauron loses every major military engagement in LotR. But where are his victories?

  • Turning Saruman.
  • Enfeebling Théoden.
  • Clouding the Steward of Gondor.
  • Causing the Fellowship to squabble and split.
  • Goading the people of Harad to fight for him.

Without a shot, Sauron has...

  • Turned his most powerful enemy (Saruman) into an ally.
  • Divided the powerful Rohan/Gondor alliance set to oppose him.
  • Paralyzed their armies.
  • Broken up the one real threat to his power, the Fellowship.
  • Gained an endless supply of troops in the form of Orcs and men from Harad.

I think Sauron's victories and defeats say something about the nature of his power. He allows his enemies to think he is a mighty military power, but in fact his power lies in deception. He avoids open combat whenever possible, only sallying forth when he feels his enemy is divided and clouded. By the time they united and act, their strength has been whittled away and Sauron has had the time he needed to gather his armies.

His artifact, the Ring, and his use of the Palantíri party line have the same nature. People think they will bring them great power, when in fact they will only bring them under Sauron's control.

A united Middle Earth has defeated Sauron again and again. Rather than fighting, Sauron is in the business of convincing each individual player that Sauron is too powerful or the cost will be too great. He plays on their petty interests to think "maybe I'll be spared" or "maybe I'll be too weak afterward and my neighbor will take advantage".

This is all likely influenced by the political climate of late 1930s Europe (LotR was written between 1937 and 1949) with Hitler using the exact same bluff (Germany was not fully prepared for war in 1939) to befuddle the Allies into being too slow to react.

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    @SSumner Sorry, a lot of people have never used a party line. Anyone with a Palantir could listen in on conversations and influence other users, and Sauron did so to control Saurman and the Regent of Gondor. I've added a link which explains. – Schwern Mar 16 '15 at 0:11
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    @Schwern - no problem. I know what those are, but I really it in the context of a party line like a group's agenda or 'platform' - that's where the confusion came from – The Fallen Mar 16 '15 at 1:09
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    Great answer except for the last paragraph. Tolkien explicitly denies historical allusion. I think theological allusion is far more powerful (and closer to his intent). – jcuenod Mar 16 '15 at 11:36
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    @jcuenod External influences still occurred and are easier to find ex post facto, whether Tolkien knew or was willing to admit it. We're a product of our environment. – TylerH Mar 16 '15 at 18:15
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    @KRyan I don't think it's particularly American, I think it's particularly old. I'm nearly 40 and I never used a party line, it's something my parents remember, and fittingly would have been familiar to Tolkien. Its an idiom for "listening in". I'm going to leave it in so you whipper-snappers learn something! With your cell phones and your angry birds, maybe if you weren't gabbing on your cell phones all the time those birds wouldn't be so angry! ;) – Schwern Mar 17 '15 at 19:03
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There was the rout of the Gondorian forces in Osgilliath which resulted in Faramir's deep injuries.

There was the breaking of the fellowship at the foot of Amon Hen just upstream of the Falls of Rauros, where Boromir was slain and Merry and Pippin abducted.

There was also the Isengard infiltration and occupation of the Shire, ultimately installing a staff-broken Saruman as boss.

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    But they are fairly minor victories imho. – user31546 Mar 15 '15 at 23:04
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    I think Osgiliath is a bigger deal that you probably realize, given how strategically important it was, especially for bringing in reinforcements right on Gondor's doorstep. Imagine if the boats that docked there had contained the men of Umber and not Aragorn. – KutuluMike Mar 15 '15 at 23:39
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    @user31546 Whether or not they are minor, your original question was about any victories for Sauron or Saruman. The answer to that is yes. – Lexible Mar 16 '15 at 0:56
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    The attack on Amon Hen was my first thought as well. The orcs were sent to attack the Fellowship and capture the hobbits. They captured Merry and Pippin, who at that point were the only hobbits there, and killed the heir to the Stewardship of Gondor. So, that was definitely a success. – KSmarts Mar 16 '15 at 15:27
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    Saruman also won the battle at the Fords of Isen where he gave the heir of Theoden mortal wounds. – Oldcat Mar 16 '15 at 17:01
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During the course of the Fellowship and the War of the Ring:

  • The ring-bearer received potentially mortal injuries twice.
  • The ring-bearer was captured twice.
  • Rohan was invaded twice. Both times it was rescued by the Ents, who only entered into Gandalf's calculation of forces.
  • Pelargir was saved by men who had been dead for 3,000 years. The Dead Men only entered into Aragorn's calculation of forces, and could only serve once.
  • Huge swathes of Gondor were conquered. Major fortresses were seized. During the siege of Minas Tirith, the Witch-king achieved a "practicable breach" of the First Circle's gates.
  • The Kings of Erebor and the Long Lake were killed.
  • The King of Rohan, and his heir, were killed.
  • The Steward of Gondor, and his heir, were killed.
  • There was no hope of victory by force of arms.

From Appendix B of The Lord of the Rings -- "The Great Years":

June 20, 3018. Sauron attacks Osgiliath. About the same time Thranduil is attacked, and Gollum escapes.

February 25, 3019. First Battle of the Fords of Isen; Théodred son of Théoden slain.

February 26, 3019. Breaking of the Fellowship. Death of Boromir; his horn is heard in Minas Tirith. Meriadoc and Peregrin captured.

[In the Shire calendar, every month has 30 days.]

March 2, 3019. Second Battle of the Fords of Isen; Erkenbrand defeated.

March 10, 3019. Faramir rescued by Gandalf outside the gates of the City.… An army from the Morannon takes Cair Andros and passes into Anórien.

March 11, 3019. Eastern Rohan is invaded from the north. First assault on Lórien.

March 12, 3019. Faramir retreats to the Causeway Forts.

March 13, 3019. Frodo captured by the orcs of Cirith Ungol. The Pelennor is overrun. Faramir is wounded.

March 14, 3019. Minas Tirith is beseiged.

March 15, 3019. In the early hours the Witch-king breaks the Gates of the City. Denethor burns himself on a pyre.… Battle under the trees in Mirkwood; Thranduil repels the forces of Dol Guldur. Second assault on Lórien.

March 17, 3019. Battle of Dale. King Brand and King Dáin Ironfoot fall. Many Dwarves and Men take refuge in Erebor and are besieged.

March 22, 3019. Third assault on Lórien.

March 25, 3019. The Host is surrounded on the Slag-hills.

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    I would even say that the breaking of the outermost gate of Minas Tirith counts as something of a "major military victory." Lots of dead civilians, a major part of Minas Tirith's defense is broken, the army retreats...etc. (I suppose it depends on the definition of "major.") – Kyle Strand Mar 18 '15 at 19:24
  • @KyleStrand -- That is what the "practicable breach" referred to. – Jasper Jun 4 '17 at 4:02
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Others have provided good answers about some of Sauron's victories before and during the War; one other thing that hasn't been addressed in the answer is that not all of the encounters you list in your question were in fact losses for Sauron or Saruman. In particular:

  1. Sauron was not defeated by the White Council when they drove him out of Dol Guldur in 2941 Third Age. Even though Sauron had lost the Ring, he still had all his power; and his exit from Dol Guldur was less a defeat than a strategic retreat. He had previously had the Ringwraiths prepare for his occupation of Mordor, and he went there immediately after leaving Dol Guldur.

  2. The Nazgûl's non-capture of the Ring at Weathertop was not a failure on their part. As you point out, the Witch-king stabbed Frodo with a Morgul-knife which was intended to finish him off. This was, however, the whole intent of the assault—at least as soon as the Ringwraiths saw that Frodo had put on the Ring. They intended not simply to take the Ring, but to torture Frodo by making him a wraith himself, and forcing him (as a wraith) to turn the Ring over to Sauron directly. Gandalf says as much to Frodo as he's recovering in Rivendell:

    'What were the Riders trying to do?'

    'They tried to pierce your heart with a Morgul-knife which remains in the wound. If they had succeeded, you would have become like they are, only weaker and under their command. You would have became a wraith under the dominion of the Dark Lord; and he would have tormented you for trying to keep his Ring, if any greater torment were possible than being robbed of it and seeing it on his hand.'

    (Fellowship of the Ring, Book II, Chapter 1, "Many Meetings")

  3. Sauron and Gandalf never had a direct confrontation of wills. Both Gandalf and Sauron's will as embodied in the Ring were attempting to convince Frodo to do something with the Ring; but ultimately the action Frodo took was his own, not a result of the action of either of the others:

    The two powers strove in him. For a moment, perfectly balanced between their piercing points, he writhed, tormented. Suddenly he was aware of himself again. Frodo, neither the Voice nor the Eye: free to choose, and with one remaining instant in which to do so. He took the Ring off his finger.

    (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book I, Chapter 10, "The Breaking of the Fellowship")

    Gandalf, in fact, is not very optimistic about his chances in a direct confrontation with Sauron:

    I am Gandalf, Gandalf the White, but Black is mightier still.

So I think your evidence of Sauron's inferiority to the forces of good is quite as unequivocal as your examples make it out to be.

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It is important to remember how Gondor used to look, and what's happened to it after Sauron came to power. Probably the most devastated area was ithilien - once flourishing, fertile and beautiful, during the war - ruined, abandoned and pillaged. Osgiliath was under constant siege, and people had to hide behind a wall, presumably because of constant raids. So people of Gondor had it pretty tough, which boromir mentions a couple of times.

Rohan didn't have it easy, either. We don't know the exact amount of lost battles, because of the king living in denial, but we know that Saruman wasn't idle - he was making a huge army, pillaging nearby villages and burning forests (which was probably the biggest lost battle for Treebeard that cannot be undone). Rohirrim army was scrambled and the only resistance was a group of horsemen loyal to Eomer.

All in all, war was going pretty well for sauron. His enemies were basically guerrillas, there was no regular army that could be a threat, while he was gaining more and more allies.

7

In addition to the victories Lexible mentioned (Osgiliath, Amon Hen, The Shire) there were also many early victories for Sauron's forces against the men of Dale and the Dwarves of the Lonely Mountain.

IIRC, most of the territory was captured, besides the Lonely Mountain itself, and the King of Erebor killed.

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    Bard also fell right? – LepelLeLama Mar 16 '15 at 10:51
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    @LepelLeLama Bard's grandson: Brand son of Bain son of Bard. As well, Dain died in the battle. – Matt Gutting Mar 16 '15 at 13:40
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    @MattGutting - Thanks, I wan't too sure :) – LepelLeLama Mar 17 '15 at 6:42
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Another thing to keep in mind is that Sauron had yet to make his final move. The good guys are racing against time - to destroy the One Ring before its master destroys them all.

Most people understood that Sauron was a power to be feared, but only a handful of the Wise really understood what they were up against. And the two with probably the best idea (because they were shown it via the palantir) were Saruman and Denethor - and they both gave up the fight.

Sauron was still looking for the Ring, fearing that someone else might wield it. So the story takes place during the opening moves of the game, where Sauron is feeling out his opponents. They barely survive those probes.

When they get to the Black Gates, they see what Sauron's been holding back - and it's only the destruction of the Ring that prevents the strength of the West from being utterly destroyed.

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    I think you mean Saruman and Denethor – fifaltra Mar 18 '15 at 9:32
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    Yep, thanks, @fifaltra – Nygma Mar 20 '15 at 5:47
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It seems to me that each and every battle shown in LOTR with one or more viewpoint hobbits participating was a battle the free people HAD to win or they would be totally defeated.

Sauron or Saruman won almost every other, unseen battle in the War of the Ring, part of the reason why the situation got so bad that the protagonists absolutely had to win every battle they were in or be totally defeated.

After Sauron was overthrown his armies were defeated everywhere. But before that they won most of the battles we are told about during the War of the Ring.

And for 2,000 years before that, Suaron won a lot of battles and lost a lot of battles. And his forces and allies won a lot of wars and lost a lot of wars. And the overall effect was to gradually weaken Sauron's enemies and strengthen his subjects and allies until by the time of the War of the Ring it seemed inevitable that Sauron would win the war.

So Sauron had been winning overall for two thousand years, so naturally he had to lose a few battles in the War of the Ring to delay his plans of conquest for a while, or else Frodo and Sam would have destroyed the One Ring and overthrown Sauron only to find that all the free peoples had been killed or enslaved already.

3

As others have said, most of the battles won by Sauron/Saruman were off-screen.

Here are other victories by the evil forces not mentioned:

  • The occupation of Rohan (which only failed because of Saruman's hubris in attacking Helms Deep - if he'd hunted down the Horradrim and destroyed them first he'd have had total control of Rohan)
  • The Mines of Moria

With Rohan conquered and Moria in the hands of the goblins, the forces of evil had effectively divided and conquered Middle Earth. It would only have been a matter of time before Gondor fell. The Shire and other free lands would also have fallen easily and swiftly.

The key evil-guy blunder in the War of the Ring was the attack on Helm's Deep. Saruman should have sieged Helm's Deep with a third of his forces. With the rest he should have hunted down and destroyed the riders of Rohan and then gone after Gondor. It was only after the victory at Helm's Deep that Rohan was able to cobble together a fighting force of significance.

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    How were Uruk-Hai going to chase down the riders? Also, didn't it mainly come down to Frodo getting the ring to Mount Doom? If Frodo hadn't done that, didn't Mordor supposedly have plenty more trolls and orcs legions with which to finish off Gondor and Rohan eventually? – Dronz Mar 16 '15 at 6:21
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    Surely the Uruk-Hai could have used Wargs? And yes, the ring going to Mt Doom was the thing which ultimately cost Sauron the war, but that wasn't so much a blunder as a brilliant and totally unexpected strategic move on the part of the good guys. The only real blunder that the bad guys made (which was obvious, even without the advantage of hindsight) was charging headlong at Helms Deep with the bulk of their forces. – Stephen Mar 16 '15 at 7:27
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    @Stephen To be fair, we don't know about the complexities of orc logistics. From other incidents, it seems quite possible that orcs would kill themselves during a prolonged siege, for food or fun. It's not a problem on a typical battlefield or campaign, but it doesn't sound like orcs have the discipline and logistics to hold a siege. – Luaan Mar 16 '15 at 8:48
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    @Luaan That's true, we don't know a huge amount about the orcish culture and whether they would have been able to maintain a siege. But from a classical strategic perspective, trying to take Helms Deep was ultimately what undid Saruman. It depleted his forces which left him vulnerable to the ents. – Stephen Mar 16 '15 at 23:22

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