Collections: The Battle of Helm’s Deep, Part VIII: The Mind of Saruman

This is is the eight and last part of a series taking a historian’s look at the Battle of Helm’s Deep (I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII) from both J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Two Towers (1954) and Peter Jackson’s 2002 film of the same name. Last time we looked at the overall impact of morale and cohesion, as well as the ‘general’s speech.’ This time, we’re concluding with a look at how the battle fits in to the overall strategic situation.

In particular, we’re going to look at how the battle fits into Saruman’s strategic situation and assess the quality of his strategic thinking. Has Saruman effectively tailored his means to his ends? Can we chalk up the eventual failure of his plan to bad luck or unforeseen consequences, or was this entire plan broken from the beginning?

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I think those of you who have been reading this series from the beginning already know my verdict on Saruman: Saruman is a dummy-wummy whose plans failed because they were bad. And don’t take my word for it! Gandalf says of Saruman, “You have become a fool…and yet pitiable,” one engaged in “folly and evil” who “gnaw[s] at the end of…old plots” (TT, 221-2). He “should have been the king’s jester” and Gandalf is “beyond [his] comprehension” (TT, 220). An “unhappy fool” (TT, 224).

Gandalf, to be clear, does not talk this way about everyone – note how quick he is to stop Frodo when he calls Barliman Butterbur stupid (FotR, 267). I pull that out because I’ve noticed in the comments a tendency to treat the dialogue of certain characters a bit more frivolously than Tolkien does; ‘wise’ characters are very careful with their words and functionally never lie (this is less true in the films; the point is drawn out explicitly and analyzed by Matthew Dickerson in Following Gandalf (2003)). Statements from Gandalf – the incarnation of Olórin, the wisest of the Maiar – may be taken as nearly true and reliable as statements by the narrator itself. When the quasi-divine spirit of wisdom tells you someone is a fool, it is because they are a fool.

Gandalf, marveling at the foolishness of Saruman.
As I note below, I actually think this scene is one of the weaker ones in terms of adapting its source material. Jackson has, I think, fundamentally missed the motivations of Gandalf, who is not here to gain intelligence for things he already knows (that Mordor’s next strike will fall on Gondor is presented in the film as a mystery, whereas in the books it is obvious to anyone who can read a map), but rather an errand of mercy, offering one last chance at redemption to a fallen colleague.

And we could end the analysis there (who am I to argue with Gandalf?), but what fun would that be? So we’re going to dissect Saruman’s strategy. This post is essentially one giant book-note; as we discussed at the beginning, the film’s changes to the source material mostly serve to confuse this sort of upper-level reasoning. Moreover, the books simply have more detail and insight into Saruman’s strategy (which, I would argue, remains fundamentally the same in both works). So I’m not going to split out my book-notes, because they’re all book-notes.

I should also note that I am going to reference The Unfinished Tales here. I have generally avoided doing this; the Tales are, after all, unfinished. They sometimes offer multiple versions of events or conflict with each other. And, in any case, they are not apart of the core narrative. I don’t think they can be taken as a way to gainsay the primary text (read: the books). But here, they can help to fill in some of the gaps, explaining some of the events we cannot see and clearing up the timeline in important ways.

That’s enough preamble, onward!

What is Strategy?

We should start by returning to our three levels of military analysis: tactics, operations and strategy. We’ve dealt with tactics (how you fight) and operations (where you fight, and how you get there). Strategy is an often misunderstood term: most ‘strategy’ games (especially real-time strategy) are actually focused almost entirely on tactics and operations; as a rule, if ‘don’t have a war’ isn’t an option, you are not actually doing strategy. Likewise, a lot of basic planning in business is termed ‘strategy’ when it really is tactics; not a question of goals, but of means to achieve those goals. Because strategy is the level of analysis that concerns why we fight – and thus also why we might not fight. Let’s unpack that.

(Attentive readers who know their Clausewitz (drink!) will recognize that I am being both broader and narrower than he in how I use the term strategy. Clausewitz terms strategy as “the employment of battles to gain the end of war” which is more nearly what we today mean as operations. In contrast, strategy as it is used today in a technical sense corresponds more nearly to what Clausewitz terms policy, the third element of his ‘marvelous trinity.’ A full exegesis of Clausewitz’ trinity is beyond the scope of this essay, but I wanted to note the differing usages, because I’m going to quote Clausewitz below. And as always, every time Clausewitz gets quoted you must take a drink; it’s the eternal military history drinking game).

At the strategic level of analysis, the first question is ‘what are your policy objectives?’ (although I should note that grand strategy is sometimes conceived as an analytical level above strategy, in which case policy objectives may go there). There’s a compelling argument common in realist international relations theory that the basic policy of nearly all states is to survive, with the goal of survival then suggesting a policy of maximizing security, which in turn suggests a policy of maximizing the military power of the state (which ironically leads to lower the security of other states who then must further increase their military power, a reaction known as the ‘security dilemma’ or, more colorfully, the ‘Red Queen effect’). I think it is also possible for states to have policy goals beyond this: ideological projects, good and bad. But survival comes first.

From there, strategy concerns itself with the best way to achieve those policy objectives. Is peace and alliances the best way to achieve security (for a small state, the answer is often ‘yes’)? Would security be enhanced by, say, gaining a key chunk of territory that could be fortified to forestall invasion? Those, of course, are ends, but strategy also concerns itself with means: how do you acquire that defensible land? Buy it? Take it by force? And then – and only then, finally – do you come to the question of “what sort of war – and what sort of conduct in war – will achieve that objective?”

You may note that this is not the same kind of thinking that animates tactics or operations. Military theorists have noticed that for quite some time, often suggesting a sharp separation between the fellows who do operations and tactics (generals) and those who do strategy (typically kings or politicians). As Clausewitz says (drink!), “The political object is the goal, war is the means of reaching it, and means can never be considered in isolation from their purpose…war should never be thought of as something autonomous, but always as an instrument of policy [emphasis mine].” In short, Clausewitz stresses – and leaders have long ignored to their peril – that of all of the factors in war, policy ought to guide action (although no part of the trinity may be neglected).

This creates subordination between the three levels of analysis (to get technical, this is because operations and tactics are part of a side of the Clausewitzian trinity which ought to be subordinate to policy). Operations is subordinate to strategy; an operation which achieves something that isn’t a strategic goal accomplishes nothing. And tactics is likewise subordinate to operations. Thus the thinking pattern should always proceed from the highest questions of strategy down to the prioritization of ends (still strategy), to the means to accomplish those ends (still strategy); only then to the execution of those means (operations) and then to the on-the-ground details of that execution (tactics). Of course what this tripartite division is mean in part to signal is that all three of these stages are tremendously complex; just because tactics is the subordinate element does not mean it is simple!

There are three great strategic sins, and Saruman commits all three.

I love this shot. Isengard changes more than almost any location in the films. It begins as a tree-filled walled garden, is turned into a smoke-pit of industry, and then finally given (violently) back to nature, becoming the Isenpond.

The first sin is the sin of of not having a strategy in the first place, what we might call ’emotive’ strategy. As Clausewitz notes, policy (again, note above how what we’re calling strategy is closest to policy in Clausewitz’ sense) is “subject to reason alone” whereas the “primordial violence, hatred and enmity” is provided for in another part of the trinity (‘will’ or ‘passion). To replace policy with passion is to invert their proper relationship and court destruction.

The second sin is the elevation of operational concerns over strategic ones, the usurpation of strategy with operations, which we have discussed before. This is, by the by, also an error in managing the relationship of the trinity, allowing the general’s role in managing friction to usurp the state’s role in managing politics.

Perhaps the greatest example of this is the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor; an operational consideration (the destruction of the US Pacific Fleet) and even the tactics necessary to achieve that operational objective, were elevated above the strategic consideration of “should Japan, in the midst of an endless, probably unwinnable war against a third-rate power (the Republic of China) also go to war with a first-rate power (the United States) in order to free up oil-supplies for the first war.” Hara Tadaichi’s pithy summary is always worth quoting, “We won a great tactical victory at Pearl Harbor and thereby lost the war.”

How does this error happen? It tends to come from two main sources. First, it usually occurs most dramatically in military systems where the military leadership – which has been trained for operations and tactics, not strategy, which you will recall is the province of kings, ministers and presidents – usurps the leadership of the state. Second, it tends to occur when those military leaders – influenced by their operational training – take the operational conditions of their planning as assumed constants. “What do we do if we go to war with the United States” becomes “What do we do when we go to war with the United States” which elides out the strategic question “should we go to war with the United States?” entirely – and catastrophically, as for Imperial Japan, the answer to that unasked question of should we do this was clearly Oh my, NO.

(Bibliography note: It would hardly be fitting for me to declare these errors common and not provide examples. Two of the best case-studies I have read in this kind of strategic-thinking-failure-as-organizational-culture-failure are I. Hull, Absolute Destruction: Military Culture and the Practices of War in Imperial Germany (2005) and Parshall and Tully, Shattered Sword: The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway (2005). Also worth checking out, Daddis, “Chasing the Austerlitz Ideal: The Enduring Quest for Decisive Battle” in Armed Forces Journal (2006): 38-41. The same themes naturally come up in Daddis, Withdrawal: Reassessing America’s Final Years in Vietnam (2017)).

The third and final sin is easy to understand: a failure to update the strategy as conditions change. Quite often this happens in conjunction with the second sin, as once those operational concerns take over the place of strategy, it becomes difficult for leaders to consider new strategy as opposed to simply new operations in the pursuit of strategic goals which are often already lost beyond all retrieval. But this can happen without a subordination failure, due to sunk-costs and the different incentives faced by the state and its leaders. The classic example being functionally every major power in the First World War: by 1915 or 1916, it ought to have been obvious that no gains made as a result of the war could possibly be worth its continuance. Yet it was continued, both because having lost so much it seemed wrong to give up without ‘victory’ and also because, for the politicians who had initially supported the war, to admit it was a useless waste was political suicide.

The Plan

We should start with Saruman’s plan, sketching it out as far into the future as we can. The key period is actually going to be February 3019, particularly February 23-28th. The events of these days should have caused radical reconsideration in Saruman’s plans as the conditions – as he knew them – changed. Instead, Saruman sticks to the strategy he had conceived of before February, creating a situation by March where even if he achieved operational and tactical success, he was still effectively doomed. But we want a sense of what the plan was before it began to go wrong.

Pictured: Gandalf, reviewing Saruman’s strategic planning work.
“And what should happen if the Ents show up on your flank while you are engaged against Helm’s Deep” asked Gandalf. “One touch of the armored gauntlet!” said Saruman. Gandalf face-palmed.

First, what are Saruman’s objectives? The ideological project is painfully direct: Saruman aims to “have power, power to order all things as we will, for that good which only the Wise can see” to achieve “the high and ultimate purpose: Knowledge, Rule, Order; all the things that we have so far striven in vain to accomplish, hindered rather than helped by our weak or idle friends” (FotR, 311). While Saruman clearly imagines reordering quite a large amount of Middle Earth, he is clearly willing to accept lesser areas of control for the time being. Of course, for any of this to happen, the state Saruman controls – Isengard – must first survive. So we have a first-order aim (the survival of Isengard as a state and Saruman as a being) and then a second-order aim (the ordering of as large a territory as possible).

In pursuit of those goals, Saruman essentially opens his operations against Rohan simultaneously with his effort to obtain the ring: the first attack on the Isen Ford happens on the 25th and Uglúk’s forces reach the Fellowship and attack them at Emyn Muil on the 26th. Both forces must have been en route at the same time and it doesn’t seem like the success or failure of either was likely to have impacted the other. Saruman is thus running two operations in parallel: the effort to defeat Rohan and the effort to capture the ring.

The structure of the assault against Rohan is one thing Saruman does well, going to his strength in spying and PSYOP (psychological operations). Saruman’s spy network clearly stretches through Rohan and all the way to the Shire. In a strange way, these make his strategic failures all the more glaring, because he often cannot plead ignorance of the key conditions necessary to make better decisions.

Pictured: the only person in Saruman’s employ who comes even close to achieving his objectives.
I have to wonder if Wormtongue was in the loop on the plan to kill Théodred, or if it just completely blindsided him (I imagine the latter). Can you imagine? He’s executed this carefully, years-long PSYOP to studiously keep Rohan neutral while Saruman does provocative things and then wakes up one morning to realize that his boss just murdered the king’s son and he has to somehow smooth that over? I can’t say that the blame for the eventual failure of this operation falls entirely on poor Wormtongue.
Also, shout out to the actor, Brad Dourif, who just excels at playing creepy fellows and does a great job with Gríma. He was Piter De Vries in Dune (1984), but I noticed his face because of his single-episode appearance on Babylon 5, as the haunting Brother Edward in the truly excellent “Passing Through Gethsemane.”

But Saruman’s PSYOP efforts are the more influential. Through Wormtongue, he is able to effectively paralyze Rohan’s leadership as he prepares for a strike and it has to be remarked on how effective this is (if you are wondering why I give him little credit for this, it is because – as we’ll discuss – even if he succeeds at this, the rest of the plan is so poorly structured that he still looses). As the Unfinished Tales notes, he recognized that the key threats to this PSYOP operation were Théodred and Éomer (which seems about right, from the leadership we see the latter show). But here we run into trouble: the initial assault on the Ford of the Isen had the primary objective of removing Théodred (again, made clear in the Unfinished Tales). But this is putting the operation before the strategy: killing Théodred to enhance the PSYOP operation means making a strategic decision: war with Rohan. I should note that this is clearer in the book, where Théoden is merely tied down by bad counsel, not by obvious magic. By openly attacking the heir to the throne of Rohan, Saruman effectively guarantees there will be a war, even if Théoden remains effectively neutralized by Wormtongue.

Saruman has committed the second sin: asking how to go to war with Rohan, not if he should go to war with Rohan. His operational plan to neutralize Théoden has usurped the place of a strategic plan and dictated a strategic decision (war with Rohan) just to make an operation easier; as we’ll see, in doing this he’s closed down one of his most important opportunities for decision.

Saruman’s plan then is a very complicated three-pronged (technically four-pronged, given his operations in the Shire) effort where each prong operates on an independent time-table from the others (that is, the success or failure of each branch doesn’t influence the others). First he is sending out a party to get the ring and return, and he is using Wormtongue to disable Rohan and he is preparing open war against Rohan with the aim of capturing the kingdom. Ideally, he expects to have Rohan and the One Ring at the end of all of this. What he has actually done is created a clockwork system whereby the failure of any one part means the failure of the whole.

In practice, it ought to be conceded that every part of this plan was high risk, given that they all fail – but while the complete failure of Saruman’s plan was necessary for our heroes’ hail-mary pass to defeat the larger threat of Sauron, as we’ll see, the failure of any part would doom Saruman.

Certainty of Death? Small Chance of Success? What Are We Waiting For?

Let’s start with the effort by Uglúk’s force to capture the One Ring. The potential for failure here is immense but the strategic implications of even trying are huge. Much like the killing of Théodred, Saruman has crafted an operation that, succeed or failure, will dictate a strategic reality. Saruman ought to know that making a direct rush on the Fellowship would alert Mordor (in practice, his orcs end up grouped up with those loyal to Mordor); the very attempt will guarantee Sauron’s hostility.

And we don’t need to theorize very much, because Gandalf himself – being an immortal spirit of wisdom – figures this out and says it, noting to Saruman at Orthanc, “you have cheated your new master…when his eye turns hither, it will be the red eye of wrath” (TT, 221) and truth which is clearly confirmed by the Mouth of Sauron (RotK, 184). In fact (again, from Unfinished Tales) Sauron was already aware of Saruman’s duplicity, either due to Wormtongue or a stolen map letting out the secret of his search for the One Ring in the Shire (these conflicting stories are part of why I try to avoid relying too much on the Unfinished Tales – they are, after all, unfinished). But even had that not happened, succeed or fail, Uglúk’s mission was almost certain to disclose Saruman’s true intent – to gain the One Ring and use it against Sauron. Saruman ought to know this and it ought to factor into his plans.

Ironically, this is actually the decisive moment for Saruman’s survival and the survival of the Isengard state: Uglúk, insufficiently briefed on exactly what his mission is (he believes it to be ‘capture hobbits’ when in fact it is ‘recover the one ring’), grabs the wrong hobbits, closing off the only scenario in which Saruman could potentially win.

Given that such operation carried huge, almost entirely locked in risks which couldn’t be mitigated, what were the chances of success? Fairly poor, by my reckoning. The Uruk-Hai are sent to collect a high-value target they cannot recognize from among four possible decoys, facing significant opposition. They’re doing this over a very large geographic area and while Saruman clearly has good intelligence of the Fellowship’s route, there is hardly room for confidence here. Had the Mordor orcs not attacked from the eastern shore of the Anduin two days before (FotR, 455-6), Uglúk may well have arrived to find an impassable river between him and his quarry. Emyn Muil is not small and relatively easy to hide it (it is mountainous, rough-country split by an impassable river).

And that’s not even the end of the potential for failure. Of course there is the failure that did happen, which was grabbing the wrong hobbits. But Saruman can’t even know that the ring will be on one of the hobbits by this point – it was very nearly on Boromir. Since Uglúk and his minions have no idea what they are chasing, had Boromir taken the ring, Uglúk would have killed him, grabbed Merry and Pippin and then run off leaving the mission-critical item behind presumably to be recovered by what remained of the Fellowship. And of course, there is also the threat of the ring being commandeered by Mordor orcs (which doesn’t happen, but clearly could have) or the whole party being intercepted crossing Rohan, which obviously is a major risk, given that it happens.

In short, we can conclude that Uglúk’s mission had a high chance of failure. There are so many things that can go wrong. This is compounded by Saruman’s decision to send a small force, raising the risk that the Fellowship might escape, that Uglúk might simply get intercepted by the Rohirrim, or other failures. This is striking, because once Uglúk fails, Saruman has put himself in a situation where even if he wins, he loses.

Wizard Needs New Strategy, Badly

Now the argument I have seen in the comments is that Saruman isn’t really a dunderhead, he has merely been overcome by strategic complications outside of his control (wizards! Ents!). What I want to show here is that even if everything goes to plan, Saruman still loses. We can see this quite clearly if we ‘game out’ all of the possibilities.

Let’s start by completely removing the Ents and their Huorns. I am going to argue that it was unpardonably stupid for the Ents not to have factored into Saruman’s plans, but for now, let’s remove them from the table.

Once Saruman attacks the Ford and kills Théodred, he is essentially locked into a strategy of war with Rohan (and thus Gondor) and also because of Uglúk’s mission, hostility to Sauron and Mordor. Removing the Ents means that likely a major portion of Saruman’s army survives to defeat at Helm’s Deep. His diminished force might regroup and be able to hold the Ford in the near-term, prohibiting an immediate Rohirrim attack on Isengard. In the slightly longer term, the Muster of the Rohirrim still happens, leaving Théoden with at least six thousand cavalry and some number of infantry (presumably no less than the nearly two thousand he has from the Hornburg, RotK, 79). We’re actually under-counting here, because Théoden is clear when speaking to Gondor’s messengers that his army is quite reduced in size because he still has to garrison his own fortresses and that normally he might be able to ride to Gondor with 10,000 effectives, all apparently cavalry. But there’s no reason he couldn’t apply all of that force against Isengard, which is a more direct and immediate threat.

Pictured: Saruman’s almost literal crossing-the-Rubicon moment.

We can chart the branching possibilities, all of which are pretty good for Sauron and very bad for Saruman. Option 1: Rohan rides against Isengard; Saruman’s host is now badly outnumbered by a force it couldn’t defeat with 3-to-1 odds in its favor and demoralized by recent defeat. This could happen within a matter of days or weeks, so Saruman has no time to really prepare for the attack. Probably his host loses in the field, or else falls back to Isengard for a siege. Weeks later (with that siege perhaps still ongoing), the Witch King’s massive army – having taken Minas Tirith on the morning of the 15th of March – rolls up through Anorien and either conquerors or vassalizes Rohan and then crushes Saruman, if the Rohirrim haven’t already put his head on a pike.

Option 2: Rohan rides against Sauron. If they win, then Saruman holds out in Isengard with his few thousand remaining orcs for a couple of months, perhaps making a nuisance of himself (but probably being largely contained by Erkenbrand’s infantry force – remember, all of Rohan’s infantry is left behind in the ride to Gondor, so Rohan is not denuded of troops). A month or two later, the victorious combined armies of Aragorn II Elessar and Éomer King return from Mordor, the quest have succeeded, and smash Saruman flat. If they lose, then we’re back to the Witch king rolling out over Rohan was an unstoppable army.

But what if everything goes right? Saruman wins at Helm’s Deep. The immediate result is that he is…almost immediately crushed flat by Treebeard and the Ents, who blindside his army and his one fortress, because Saruman has failed to scout out the ‘nation’ of trees that he has been actively provoking for the better part of a year at least – but of course we’re not considering the Ents here (because Saruman sure didn’t). So let’s assume that, as per Saruman’s original plan, the Ents don’t intervene and Saruman wins at the Hornburg. Rohan is effectively removed as a military power; even if the Rohirrim retain military potential, it will take weeks for that potential to regroup around a new leader, since the king and all possible male heirs are dead (resistance might center around Éowyn, who we – having read the next book – might well know would be a far more dangerous opponent than Saruman might suppose).

Saruman will want to move quickly to make sure he can get control of as much territory as possible before that happens. Saruman’s host might reach Edoras, the political center, by the 6th or 7th of March. Minas Tirith, unaided, falls on the 15th. Remember from the Siege of Gondor that there was an entire column of Mordor’s troops in Anorien aiming to interdict the Rohirrim (because the Witch King seems to have planned on the assumption that Saruman would fail, because strategy recognizes lack of strategy, I suppose). Meaning that Saruman might be facing the advance guard of Mordor’s army rolling up through Anorien and into Rohan before the end of the month, with a main force an order of magnitude larger than his own.

The capabilities gap between Saruman’s vaunted ‘Uruk-hai’ and Sauron’s work-a-day army are just massive and deserve to be fully drawn out. Unlike Saruman, the Witch King has a cavalry force nearly the equal of Rohan’s, supported by elephants. He has several kinds of infantry (light corsairs, heavier Haradrim and Orcs) supported by trolls. He has siege artillery and the complex organization needed to dig works rapidly. He has nine magical, despair-and-fear-spreading wraiths. Saruman couldn’t beat 3,000 Rohirrim, while the Witch King’s army was on the verge of crushing 6,000 of them, while also engaging Minas Tirith. Saruman has no hope of doing this army meaningful damage, even with it depleted after a successful attack on Minas Tirith; I don’t think he even has enough forces to meet it in the field, especially with a force depleted by the losses at the Hornburg and the need to pacify Rohan. There’s simply no reason for Sauron to leave his treacherous underling in charge, so it seems fairly safe to assume that Saruman’s head ends up on a pike – probably presented to the remaining Rohirrim nobles as a way to incorporate them into Sauron’s new power-structure as obedient servants.

The only scenario in which Saruman survives, much less wins, is one in which he both defeats Rohan and captures the One Ring (it can hardly do Saruman much good if Uglúk returns with the Ring to a defeated or besieged Isengard, or if Saruman has the ring but no army), and that the ring does everything Saruman hopes it will do. Here

A strategy tree showing the position Saruman has locked himself into. Yellow outcomes are good for Saruman, purple outcomes are good for Sauron, and Green outcomes are good for the Free Peoples.

And here I have to note that last assumption: that the ring does everything Saruman hopes it will do. I am not convinced. I actually rather doubt that the One Ring works the way Saruman (or Denethor, or Boromir) imagine. Of these, only Saruman has any notable ring lore, and Saruman’s boast that he is a ‘ring-maker’ (FotR, 310) seems hollow. I tend to share CGP Grey’s understanding of how the ring works: the promises that it can be used to overthrow or replace Sauron are just lies, meant to lure a ring-bearer out of hiding to allow the ring to be recovered by Sauron. Saruman was a Maia of Aulë, like Sauron, so he may understand the ring better than most, but as I think we’ll see pretty clearly here, Saruman is deeply blinded by his pride and the real gap between his power and Sauron’s (ringless power, I might note) is enormous. Moreover, the one thing we do know is that having the One Ring does not render you unbeatable, because Sauron was – with tremendous effort – defeated while wearing it.

Indeed, in the final act of the War of the Ring, Sauron springs his army on Aragorn’s force of roughly 7,000 men assuming Aragorn has taken the ring and means to challenge him. Sauron plays with his prey before doing this. He is entirely confident of victory in this moment and but for Frodo he would have been right. There is one person in this entire story who actually knows how the One Ring works, and he does not think that the One Ring + 7,000 troops (higher quality and more cohesive troops, I might add, than Saruman’s forces, who even after a victory at Helm’s Deep, are unlikely to be much stronger than this) is actually a threat. I am inclined to believe that Sauron is right here and that even with the ring, Saruman is doomed.

Which in turn means that even if Saruman obtained the One Ring and defeated Rohan, he still loses, being smashed flat by the armies of Mordor only months later. And all of that is still without the intervention of Ents or wizards, but merely the conventional military assets already on the board. This is a terrible strategic plan.

Gnawing at Old Plots

Another way of demonstrating the weakness of the plan is to see how it could have been improved. The main problem of the plan is not that it can fail, but that it cannot barely succeed – a failure at any point causes a failure at all points in a plan where success is very often a low probability event. It is one thing if victory requires a hail Mary pass – that is Gandalf’s plan, after all. Desperate times sometimes call for desperate risks. It is quite another if success requires three hail Mary passes joined together by successful onside kicks. We may here again assume the first hail Mary: that the ring works as advertised and should Saruman get it, he would be in a position to ‘win’ so long as he could survive long enough to use it.

The main problem is actually the interaction of the two operations, because the results of the attack on the Fellowship fundamentally change the answer to the strategic question of attacking or not attacking Rohan. If Uglúk succeeds, the attack against Rohan makes sense: the Rohirrim represent the only uncommitted military force who might get to Saruman before he can use the ring to build his power. At the same time, he needs to broaden his resource-base so that he can utilize whatever powers of domination the ring give him to rapidly assemble enough force to oppose Sauron’s inevitable rush to defeat him.

If Uglúk fails but is not detected by Sauron, attacking Rohan still makes sense, as Saruman will both need a base of power but also a demonstrating of his loyalty and usefulness to Sauron. His goal at this point is mere survival as a vassal of Sauron in the near-term.

On the flip side, if Uglúk fails and is detected (the case in fact), Rohan suddenly becomes more valuable alive than dead to Saruman: he needs it (and Gondor) as buffers between him and Sauron. In this case, it is in his best interests to continue to be able to pretend to be a loyal ally of Rohan (using his agent, Wormtongue), a task which is fatally hindered by killing Théodred.

What ought Saruman do (assuming he’s still playing the bad guy)? It seems to me that Uglúk’s force needs to be both larger and also not carrying any distinctive markings indicating that they serve Saruman (whereas Uglúk’s force is liveried with Saruman’s insignia, TT, 20) and crucially it needs some way of signalling success or failure. Saruman can spy with birds and beasts, which might give him a way of having Uglúk signal. In order to signal, Uglúk of course needs to actually know what he is looking for – it does no good if Uglúk signals success on capturing only Merry and Pippin! If Saruman has no agents sufficiently trustworthy to be told what they seek, well then that speaks further to his errors of organization and training.

Pro-tip: When organizing your top-secret task force that is executing a mission where capture is likely, against a formal ally whose goodwill you absolutely must retain, do not paint them with your national emblem.

Saruman should then delay the action against Rohan until he knows with some confidence whether Uglúk has succeeded or failed. By holding off for a few more days, Saruman preserves his freedom of action; his force of 10,000 infantry is valuable/dangerous enough that should he suddenly declare neutrality or even throw in with Rohan and Gondor, no one is likely to look the gift-horse in the mouth. By retaining optionality, Saruman can continue to build strength and bide his time, rather than prematurely committing himself to a side in the conflict.

Instead, Saruman’s decision to simultaneously alienate both the Free Peoples and Sauron (within days of each other!) despite being the weakest local power is strategically catastrophic. It reminds me of Romania’s decision to enter the First World War on the side of the Allies, despite having only the weakest allied power (Russia) as a neighbor and otherwise being geographically beyond all help and far weaker than the Central Powers with which Romania shared a border. It’s not that Romania misjudged the ‘winning’ side (in the event, they didn’t!), but they charged aggressively into a room filled with enemies in hopes of securing the spoils before the war they were sure was ending ended. And to be fair, their war ended quite quickly, just not the way they intended – attacking in August, 1916, they were, by January 1917, effectively occupied and out of the war. To be fair to the Romanians, they lasted five full months; Saruman makes it only a handful of weeks.

The predictable consequences of alienating both sides in a two-sided war.

What we can see here is the third sin: the failure to update a strategy as conditions change. Once Uglúk fails – and Tolkien tells us “So ended the raid, and no news of it came ever back either to Mordor or to Isengard; but the smoke of the burning rose high to heaven and was seen by many watchful eyes” (TT, 74), which I take to mean that a watchful Saruman would have known it had been destroyed – Saruman ought to have known he needed to change plans. Rohan, a candidate for conquest if Saruman has the ring, becomes a valuable buffer-state if he does not, something to be preserved so that the angry claw of Mordor is that much weaker when it arrives at the Isen. This isn’t my idle speculation either. Gandalf says as much after after Saruman refuses his mercy. Whereas in the film, Gandalf is soley interested in intelligence gathering, book!Gandalf hopes to lead Saruman back onto a good path (though he knows it is unlikely) and alludes to the “great service” he could have rendered (TT, 224). Gandalf’s description of Saruman’s refusal as “folly and evil” (TT, 222) is more than apt.

The Power of Magical Thinking

To this folly we must now add the Ents. I want to make a few things clear. First, the Ents are not an outside-context-problem for Saruman; he is aware of them, knows their secrets and ought to have taken them into consideration. Treebeard himself tells us that Saruman used to walk in his woods and converse with him, and learned his screts (TT, 90). Moreover, they’re not unstoppable either; Treebeard, not knowing that Isengard is nearly totally emptied, thinks it very likely the Ents will be soundly defeated (TT, 106). Saruman has systematically antagonized this important regional power and yet never plans for them becoming a belligerent; indeed, he doesn’t even leave scouts near them and thus only becomes aware of their attack as they breach his fortress. I struggle to communicate how awful this is, as a matter of intelligence gathering and strategic thinking.

How do we account for this? After all, for all of my humor at the beginning, Saruman is not stupid. Why does he end up so deeply in error?

Clearly, part of the answer is overconfidence and arrogance. Saruman, armed with the power of his voice, is likely very used to his schemes and deceptions working and seems to have come to view all of the world, even figures like Gandalf and Sauron, as rubes to be fooled and exploited. That hubris born from easy success is sometimes called ‘victory disease‘ in military contexts (it comes from Fuchida Mitsuo, writing about the Imperial Japanese Navy; on this note Parshall and Tully (2005), 398ff).

Saruman simply assumes everything will go his way. He is blissfully unaware that his ruse to delay Sauron was detected almost immediately (Unfinished Tales) and his clockwork plan demands that every component part – even those likely to be opposed by direct enemy action – go perfectly or the whole thing falls apart, as we’ve seen above. The failure of any element causes the failure of the whole plan. Moreover, these vast clockwork plans make crucial assumptions about the intentions of key players (Théoden, the Ents, Sauron, the Witch King) which both turn out to be wrong in the event, but also betray a dangerously arrogant assumption that (to quote Parshall and Tully on the IJN’s strategic thinking) his oafish enemies, “never failed to go lowing obediently to their choreographed slaughter.” The plans have no failsafes and no contingencies if something should go wrong despite the fact that – as demonstrated above – such contingencies could have been added without changing the overall plan very much.

If I keep coming back to the IJN in WWII, it is because Saruman’s mistakes remind me so much of faulty Japanese thinking in 1941 and 1942. They allowed an operational consideration (‘how best to engage the US Pacific fleet’) to dictate strategic considerations (‘if, when and how should war with the USA be commenced’), produced dangerously complex clockwork plans with extremely narrow and demanding timetables where the failure of any one part could lead to disaster and generally worked under the arrogant assumption of qualitative superiority, which in turn produced a blind inability to accurately gauge their opponent’s resolve and intentions.

And getting to the level of character, what I think informs all of this is our first strategic sin: Saruman is in the end guided not by his planning, but by his anger. What we see in “The Voice of Saruman” is a manipulator who is at best only thinly in control of a deep well of anger. Briefly we glimpse Saruman’s mind, “they saw through the mask the anguish of a mind in doubt, loathing to stay and dreading to leave…then he spoke and his voice was shrill and cold. Pride and hate were conquering him” (TT, 221). Gandalf has, by offering to let Saruman leave, opened one last strategic decision to him – one it is clearly in his interest to take, and yet Saruman cannot do it. He knows his situation is hopeless, and yet the costs are too sunk and he is too deep in his own emotions – the pride and hate – to take the obvious path.

I suspect these emotional concerns were likely working on Saruman from a much earlier date. He has been Rohan’s neighbor for a long time and his outburst shows what he really thinks about them “What is the house of Eorl but a thatched barn where brigands drink in the reek, and their brats roll on the floor among the dogs?” (TT, 219). That such ‘lesser’ beings had been given lordship, had been able to set the world to their sort of order, I think, gnawed at Saruman, for much the same reasons it clearly gnawed at Sauron. I have met a great many very intelligent people who imagine in their formidable mastery of a field that if they could just order the world to their whims, things would be so much better than the current system whereby regular people are allowed to make their own decisions; experience tells us it is not so.

Conclusions

When I discussed the Siege of Gondor, I ended the series by noting that, for all of the flaws of Peter Jackson’s adaptation, I still found it one of the most successful book adaptations in film history, and easily the best fantasy adaptation. In part, this was because while Jackson had missed many of the details, he had managed to capture some of the more fundamental themes of the work; he managed to grasp the spirit of Tolkien, even if he occasionally missed the letter.

I have much the same verdict here. For all of the mess that Jackson makes of the operational timetable, the equipment and the battle tactics, he retains some of the core themes. The temptation to ‘beef up’ Saruman as a second-film threat, to make Helm’s Deep the equal of the Siege of Gondor – especially since, as I understand it, Helm’s Deep was far more difficult and involved from a film-making perspective – must have been intense. And certainly Jackson’s “union of the two towers” title-drop line seeks to put Saruman on a par with Sauron (but of course, it is Saruman who is speaking, so it instead communicates his arrogance). As an aside, while Tolkien wavered initially on which ‘two towers’ are The Two Towers, he settled not on Orthanc and Barad-dur, but on Orthanc and Minas Morgul. Saruman, presumably, would have been upset by the choice.

I will admit, I will never understand the supernatural fortitude it must take to continue delivering your lines with your hair blowing in your face. Truly, Christopher Lee was himself one of the Maiar, with such Deep Arts.

For as much as gets changed or warps, the essential Saruman – the overconfident amateur, miles out of his depth, whose over-intricate clockwork plans are thwarted by the workman-like generaling of Théoden and Éomer – remains core to the text. Indeed, the visual medium gives Jackson opportunities to really show us that, and the contrast between the duel-of-masters of the Pelennor fields and Saruman’s bumbling incompetence still comes out (even if Jackson has done both Denethor and Théoden quite poorly, in my view).

Jackson has had to drop a great many of the details behind Saruman’s bumbling, although – as we’ve seen – traces of them remain. Saruman’s operations are sloppy, his attack is ill-considered and poorly prepared, his lack of scouting arrangements is unpardonable and the fact that his plan has no contingency for the army of trees he has patiently needled is nothing short of stunningly awful. Film is a compressed medium, as always, and much of this material simply couldn’t fit into a movie that is already incredibly long.

What I wish Jackson had retained more clearly is the conclusion of this sad story. “The Voice of Saruman” makes it into his films (as part of Return of the King in the extended edition), but it is a pale shadow of the book chapter; an uncharacteristically weak adaptation. Gandalf’s motivations are changed from attempting to save the soul of his fallen colleague to a crude effort to gain information – one in which is he is all too transparent (by contrast, the book is clear that Gandalf lets Saruman tempt Théoden, knowing he will fail and hoping that this failure will humble Saruman enough to get him to come down; quite the clever plan, even if he openly admits it has little chance of success – unlike Saruman, he has a backup plan).

What I think is encapsulated in the book version of that dialogue that does not quite make it into Peter Jackson’s telling is that more important than the decision how to fight is the decision if to fight. Jackson retains this message elsewhere in the films – Gandalf’s line in Fellowship about the perils of giving “death in judgement” is kept almost word-for-word – but it could have also appeared here. Gandalf, being wise, retains the ability to choose not to fight to the last, whereas Saruman, in his folly, throws that decision away far too early.

The opportunity to stress the limits of the utility of violence was also lost, I think, in the exclusion of the Dunlendings from the fighting at the Hornburg. While the orcs are presented as implacably hostile, Aragorn’s address gives the Dunlendings pause, while after the battle they are “amazed” by the kind treatment they receive from the Men of Rohan (TT, 177). Yet in the compression, Jackson has kept a bit of this spirit in the film too, in the form of Faramir’s lament for the fallen Haradrim. I am glad that Jackson has kept some of this in the story, though he has missed much more than I would like.

I am reminded of a critique of Game of Thrones I wanted, which blasts the show for indulging in the ‘cult of the badass’ as a deviation from the ‘spirit of Martin.’ I think this is a valid critique; you will not in some of my other writings, I have appropriated this term, the ‘cult of the badass’ because I think it so neatly sums up a set of broken ways of thinking. But I don’t think that, as a critique, it applies only to literary adaptations. I think it is a critique of our fiction, writ large, because it conceals the most important choices that we make; not how to fight, but when to fight. The ‘badass’ is always prepared to leap to violence, often eager to do so. But not Tolkien’s heroes; they enter violent only reluctantly, only having exhausted other opportunities. When an off-ramp from violence presents itself, they try to take it, every time.

I think that is part of the ‘spirit of Tolkien’ to be sure, but I also think it is simply good strategic thinking. Violence, especially modern violence, is so incredibly destructive that leaping to it is rarely the right choice. Part of what makes modern strategy so complex is the layers upon layers of violence avoidance built into it – credibility, deterrence, mutual dependence, and so on. Saruman’s leap to violence destroys him, and his unwillingness to give up violence as a means then dooms him. While Jackson has removed the most potent instance of this message in Tolkien’s work – the scourging of the Shire – he has retained this spirit, which is why I think that Jackson’s adaptations, for all of its flaws, is still a triumph of film-making. For all that was lost, the most important things were preserved.

I want to end on the same note I ended the previous series on, a sort of thesis statement for a lot of what we do here. Relatively few people are going to dig into operational histories, organizational culture studies, or deeply into the primary sources for other, wildly different cultures. What we often, as a culture, understand about these things is what our fiction teaches us. Popular culture is often how we, collectively, wrestle with these issues, so it is worthwhile to ask how much truth and meaning there is in it, and what that means for our discourse.

It is especially important when it comes to the topic of this last post: strategy. As Clausewitz notes (drink!) policy is the domain not of generals, but of the state. Clausewitz is writing in the Prussia of the 1830s and so he has in mind a state vested in a single king and his handful of elite ministers. But most of us, I’ll wager (I don’t actually have to wager, I can see my readership stats sorted by country) live in some sort of democracy. And so that policy – the choice not of how to fight, but when to fight and what is worth fighting for – is left not to a king but to us. We have to be prepared to make those decisions, or to select leaders who make them on our behalf.

Tolkien presents a world where it is often necessary to employ violence, but just as often necessary to restrain it. Jackson may miss some of the details and opportunities, but he captures this spirit – where most modern ‘war’ movies and certainly most adaptations (looking at you, Game of Thrones) miss it entirely. And that’s worth taking a deeper look at.

Yes, I am reusing this picture. No, I am not sorry.

Next week, something different!

161 thoughts on “Collections: The Battle of Helm’s Deep, Part VIII: The Mind of Saruman

  1. Thanks for series! It was really great!

    A strategy tree showing the position Saruman has locked himself into. Yellow outcomes are good for Saruman, purple outcomes are good for Sauron, and Green outcomes are good for the Free Peoples.

    Welp, it gets worse the longer you look at it.

    I suspect that Sauron would enslave – not execute – Saruman, but it is not a real improvement for anyone involved except Sauron itself.

    I should note that this is clearer in the book, where Théoden is merely tied down by bad counsel, not by obvious magic.

    It is extremely blatant on movie (and that is one of few changes that improved things! this scene was magnificent!).

    But also in books it was not merely bad advise. “obvious magic” vs “just bad counsel” is a false dichotomy here, answer is rather “bad counsel and other influence”. Tolkien is subtler than binary “no influence” and “utter mind control”

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    1. Theoden in the book seemed rather to show the influence of mind over matter – the reason he was initially decrepit was because Grima had convinced him he was. Bad counsel turned into a sort of hypnotism that weakened him, corrupted his soul as it were; then Gandalf stepped in to break that up and helped him get strong by finding the good and strong in himself. Tolkien himself stated that the real difference between humans and elves wasn’t that one was super-enduring and had pointy ears; rather that their souls were different (and the hero Tuor transformed from human to elf *spiritually* rather than physically). I keep going to the movie scene and then to the book scene, and the more I do, the more I’m convinced that what we see with Theoden is a spiritual awakening and a removal of sloth imposed by Grima’s leechcraft, rather than an open exorcism as in the Two Towers movie.

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      1. I remember from reading the books where there seems an almost magical transformation of appearances. I think there’s some part where the Hobbits see Aragorn after he’s crowned and almost don’t recognize him, Eowyn’s change from “Dernhelm” comes almost like a falling of an explicit disguise, and I think maybe there is just a magical personality relation to appearance in the books, or at least literary metaphor.

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  2. Emyn Muil is not small and relatively easy to hide it (it is mountainous, rough-country split by an impassable river). -> Emyn Muil is not small and relatively easy to hide in (it is mountainous, rough-country split by an impassable river).\

    If they lose, then we’re back to the Witch king rolling out over Rohan was an unstoppable army. -> If they lose, then we’re back to the Witch king rolling out over Rohan with an unstoppable army.

    Here
    [image with caption]
    And here I have to note that last assumption:

    That first “Here” looks incomplete to me somehow. Was it supposed to be a link?

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  3. And a few more proofreading corrections:
    This is is the eight -> This is the eighth
    battle fits in to the overall -> battle fits into
    they are not apart of the core -> they are not a part of the core
    division is mean in part to signal -> division means in part to signal
    or ‘passion). -> or ‘passion’).
    that he still looses). -> that he still loses).
    The Uruk-Hai are sent -> The Uruk-hai are sent
    and relatively easy to hide it -> and isrelatively easy to hide in
    army survives to defeat -> army survives the defeat
    will do. Here -> will do. (delete word Here)
    but also a demonstrating of his loyalty -> but also a demonstration of his loyalty
    learned his screts (TT, 90). -> learned his secrets (TT, 90).

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    1. A couple more:

      “may be taken as nearly true and reliable as statements by the narrator itself.” -> “nearly as true”
      “reference The Unfinished Tales here.” -> “the Unfinished Tales” (with italics adjusted – I’m still not sure how to do italics in these comments.
      “which ironically leads to lower the security of other states” -> “lower security for other states” or “tends to lower” or probably some other versions as well.
      “is mean in part to signal” -> “is meant”
      “the sin of of not having a strategy” -> “sin of not”
      “the usurpation of strategy with operations” -> “by”?
      “he still looses” -> “loses”
      “and truth which is clearly confirmed” -> “a truth”
      “either conquerors or vassalizes Rohan” -> “conquers”
      “the quest have succeeded” -> “having”
      “powers of domination the ring give him” -> “gives”
      “you will not in some of my other writings” -> “note”
      “they enter violent only reluctantly” -> “violence”?
      “scourging of the Shire” -> “scouring” (refers to what the heroes, not the villains, do)
      “Jackson’s adaptations, for all of its flaws, is still a triumph” -> “adaptation” (or pluralise the verbs)

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  4. I had never really considered how much of a house of cards Saruman had built when putting his strategy together; that flowchart is brutally clear.

    It had also never occurred to me before, and I don’t think if there’s anything explicit in Tolkien to support it, but this:

    “Clearly, part of the answer is overconfidence and arrogance. Saruman, armed with the power of his voice, is likely very used to his schemes and deceptions working…”

    Clicked something in my head from another story I was reading not long ago, and I find myself wondering if Saruman’s Voice ever had any effect on himself. Can you be so persuasive that you talk yourself into believing everything will go the way you planned and that all your decisions are great?

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    1. I’ve seen something like that in other stories.
      In the Forgotten Realms series (I think the book was Prince of Lies), Cyric creates a magic book that enchants any who reads it to love and worship him. But he reads it himself and goes crazy (well crazier).

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    2. I have certainly seen people buying into their own line of BS more than once in my life – both professionally and personally. Businesses fail in many different ways, but there are not small number of them that failed because the owners or executives believed their own hype. I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to see people doing so in politics either. So personally I’d answer “yes” to your question.

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    3. I found a fantastic idea in a fan-fic that the person most vulnerable to a Jedi mind tricks is the Jedi performing it. The idea that you can self-hypnotize yourself into performing terrible and/or idiotic acts is a wonderful point of terror.

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  5. I’ve really enjoyed this series, and am sorry it is finished.

    Do you have any other book-film comparisons in mind? I suppose not, since these are the only two battles we see.

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      1. I would be very happy about book only Battle of Five Armies, but we have not seen much of it.

        In general, economics/world-building/history of Middle-earth analyzed in this way would be great.

        AFAIK the Hobbit moves are not worth watching – and looks like movie based on a computer game.

        Liked by 1 person

      1. One comment, based on Bret’s discussion about the Siege of Gondor.

        In books care more about will than tactics. The Army of the West is hopelessly outnumbered. Sauron has been supernaturally augmenting his armies’ wills, so when he gets distracted by Frodo claiming the ring (even before the ring is destroyed), his army’s will fails.

        The movies care more about tactics than will. But this battle is so hopeless that no tactics are good enough. So instead the ground falls out from under the opposing army when the ring is destroyed.

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        1. Concerning the failure of will, I’ve generally speculated (since this isn’t something that’s mentioned directly in anything I’ve ever come across in either the books or anything in History of Middle Earth) that it’s a sort of intentional weakness built into orcs.

          As we’ve seen, Tolkien orcs tend towards cowardly, ill-disciplined, prone to infighting, and have all those weaknesses in the sunlight. They only seem to be truly effective when you have some vaster supernatural force imbuing them with a will to fight, driving them forward in a way. This *might* be connected to how elves have a presence in both the Seen and the Unseen worlds, but that is of course dependent on accepting the “theory” that Orcs were primarily made by corrupting Elves, which is something Tolkien went back and forth over a lot and never settled upon a definitive canonical explanation for their origins.

          But you can see the level of attractiveness for someone like Morgoth, who is always afraid of his servants turning against him. If the Orcs that rebel will be markedly less effective than the Orcs that remain because he can imbue his will and his lust for fighting onto them, rebels can always be swiftly dispatched and don’t pose a real threat.

          Turning it over to Saruman, I’m pretty sure he knew about this property, however it is managed, and was already employing it. Remember that line about how there’s an unseen will in front of Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli, hindering their progress and speeding up the Orcs? If he knows how to fill the Orcs with the strength of his own will to drive them forward and keep them together, I’m willing to bet he was planning on using this in the larger scale battles. That would then imply the primary failure at the Hornburg was in again not anticipating the Ent assault on Isengard. With Saruman too busy trying not to get killed by the trees, he probably can’t spare the sort of magic or whatever it takes to fill his army with the right sort of spirit, and they’re left to their own devices, consequently do badly. It would also provide at least some sort of explanation as to why he doesn’t bother trying to do anything to build coherence in a more conventional manner.

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          1. A very interesting thought.

            I suspect that Tolkien thought that this is an inherent feature of evil, rather than something that needed to be designed. Evil is inherently tyrannical or self-destructive.

            The free people are free because they are capable of building a society on the basis of trust, instead of violence – the structure of the government is less important.

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  6. I think there’s some indication that Saruman could have posed a genuine challenge to Sauron if he’d gotten the Ring. Gandalf and Galadriel (who as noted are Wise and generally right) both seem to think that they might do so (and IIRC that’s backed up in Tolkien’s letters), and neither has a significant military force available.

    Possibly more tellingly, Aragorn chooses to show himself to Sauron in the palantir explicitly and successfully to provoke Sauron to move earlier than he might have planned and in the wrong direction, by letting him suspect that the Heir of Isildur has the Ring.

    In that case, Sauron clearly is concerned with Aragorn’s being able to consolidate military power as well (since he’s just a mortal man). But he’s nonetheless concerned that Aragorn will be able to wield its power independently and successfully. If not, a mortal ruler gaining the Ring would be a strategic win: let him take over Gondor and conquer the West, and just wait a few decades for him to fade and be drawn to Mordor as Gollum was.

    So the power of the Ring isn’t wholly a lie for those strong enough to use it. It’s inherently corrupting, but only inevitability subordinates the comparatively weaker. (And even Gollum was cowed but still able to work intermittently for his own interest and against the Master of the Ring, whether Sauron or Frodo.)

    (The corrupting nature of the Ring also makes it impossible for any level of training or discipline to allow Saruman to tell a servant what he’s looking for. Even Sauron’s instructions to Cirith Ungol are deliberately vague, with the only servants clued in the ones he utterly dominates via the Ring itself. Of course, that may just mean Saruman’s plan is that much more unworkable.)

    Saruman by Gandalf’s own report knew the most about the Rings. (And he’d apparently made one, presumably a lesser ring, when he captured Gandalf, though nothing came of that.) Even with his forces’ defeat he had immortality and an impenetrable tower from which to work, which gives him some breathing room while Mordor deals with cleaning up its other foes.

    Given that Saruman is also a Maia of Aule with supernaturally great persuasive powers, one possible danger to Sauron is Saruman’s suborning the very forces sent against him. The Nazgul are, after all, servants of the Ring, which was created precisely to master theirs. Frodo could command Gollum with it knowing nothing about how it worked. Saruman might well be able to do much more, especially in close negotiations while Sauron is hundreds of miles away.

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    1. In one version of “Hunt For the Ring”, Saruman’s voice (issuing from the gate of Isengard as from a D&D magic mouth spell) is able to divert even the Witch-king.

      Letter 246 says that Frodo, having claimed the Ring, would have some modest power over the Nazgul: they wouldn’t be able to attack or lay hands on him, though Sauron would have primary control of their loyalty through holding their Rings.

      Saruman, being already used to using his will to dominate others, specializing in that even, would take quite readily to the One Ring.

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    2. Galadriel and Gandalf have the advantage of being able to combine the power of the One Ring with that of the Elven Ring each of them wields. They almost certainly imagined themselves able to swiftly seize the other two Elven Rings as well. However, I’ve always interpreted their confidence as primarily an effect of the Ring itself working on them to its (or, really, Sauron’s) own ends.

      Sauron being concerned about what Aragorn might do with it is more telling, but how much of that is merely eagerness to have it back rather than concern that Aragorn could seriously challenge his power? Sauron’s main reason for subtlety up to that point has been that he doesn’t actually know where the Ring is. Once the Palantir conversation with Aragorn reveals the Ring’s location (as far as Sauron knows, anyway), there’s no need for subtlety any more and no further means for him to attain the Ring without open war.

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      1. “Combining with an elven ring” — Tolkien never hints at that being a thing, and the Three weren’t meant for war and domination, just preservation and healing.

        “how much of that is merely eagerness” — Gandalf says, multiple times, that Sauron *fears* a rival Ringlord.

        “Hunt For the Ring” reinforces this.

        > Now Sauron learning of the capture of Gollum by the chiefs of his enemies was in great haste and fear.

        > At length they returned; but the summer was now far waned, and the wrath and fear of Sauron was mounting. When they came back to the Wold September had come; and there they met messengers from Barad-dûr conveying threats from their Master that filled even the Morgul-lord with dismay. For Sauron had now learned of the words of prophecy heard in Gondor, and the going forth of Boromir, of Saruman’s deeds, and the capture of Gandalf. From these things he concluded indeed that neither Saruman nor any other of the Wise had possession yet of the Ring, but that Saruman at least knew where it might be hidden. Speed alone would now serve, and secrecy must be abandoned.

        > So any mission on which they were sent could hardly be conducted with secrecy; while the passage of Anduin and other rivers presented an obstacle. For such reasons Sauron long hesitated, since he did not desire that his chief enemies should become aware of his servants’ errand.

        > Sauron heard the disquieting news that the Wise were aware of Gollum

        If the Wise couldn’t use the One against him, what would he have to fear? If it only served to undermine them, why would he try to avoid them finding and using it?

        By the way, this also has Saruman as already a known traitor, so he doesn’t lose anything by grabbing for the One:

        > Two days after Gandalf had departed from Orthanc, the Lord of Morgul halted before the Gate of Isengard. Then Saruman, already filled with wrath and fear by the escape of Gandalf, perceived the peril of standing between enemies, a known traitor to both. His dread was great, for his hope of deceiving Sauron, or at the least of receiving his favour in victory, was utterly lost.

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        1. Also on the topic of The One Ring, whilst Frodo has difficulty even thinking about parting with it usually (and doesn’t want Boromir anywhere near it) he’s certainly fast enough to offer it to both Gandalf and to Galadriel in their turns (and even Bilbo in the books, once persuaded to part with it, tries to hand it over personally to Gandalf and gets told to leave it over by the fireplace instead.) I get the impression (from that comment Gandalf makes in, I think, ‘The Shadow of the Past’ that a Ring of Power looks after itself) that The One Ring (if Sauron’s not immediately available) certainly wouldn’t mind the chance to team up with Gandalf or Galadriel and to have some fun with either of them.

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    3. This comment and McAllen’s comment below made most of the points I wanted to. The ring is a valuable military tool.

      I don’t agree with the statement:
      “Sauron plays with his prey before doing this.”

      The narrator tells us the Sauron “had taken the proffered bait in jaws of steel.” He sent an massively overpowered army to deal with the threat, presumably to counter the military advantages of the ring. Even if Aragorn had mastered it (and Sauron would be a fool to not prepare for this possibility), the ring can be defeated by a large enough army. The difference in size between the army Sauron sends and the army Sauron would have sent if the ring were not potentially there shows the power of the ring.

      What is the intention of the Parley at the Gate from Sauron’s perspective?
      The result was a larger-than-expected hit to morale by showing them Frodo’s mithril shirt.
      Sauron might have thought that, if they didn’t have the ring, the army’s actual purpose was to negotiate a peace treaty / surrender. Why else would all of their leaders be there with an obviously insufficient army after a possibly Pyrrhic victory? If they were coming to negotiate and Sauron killed them all, then there is no one left in either Gondor or Rohan with the legitimacy to impose any surrender agreement. Even more so if Éowyn and Faramir hadn’t just been miraculously healed.

      CGP Grey’s video is not a good source for ring lore. They make the mistake of calling the Seven and the Nine lesser rings. Great Rings give long life and (except the One) have a gem. Lesser rings do not.

      At the Council of Elrond:
      “The Nine, the Seven, and the Three,” [Gandalf] said, “had each their proper gem. Not so the One. It was round and unadorned, as it were one of the lesser rings”

      To Frodo in The Shadow of the Past:
      “In Eregion long ago many Elven-rings were made, magic rings as you call them, and they were, of course, of various kinds: some more potent and some less. The lesser rings were only essays in the craft before it was full-grown, and to the Elven-smiths they were but trifles – yet still to my mind dangerous for mortals. But the Great Rings, the Rings of Power, they were perilous. A mortal, Frodo, who keeps one of the Great Rings, does not die, but he does not grow or obtain more life, he merely continues, until at last every minute is a weariness. … [Sauron] knows where Gollum found his ring. He knows that it is a Great Ring, for it gave long life. He knows that it is not one of the Three, for they have never been lost, and they endure no evil. He knows that it is not one of the Seven, or the Nine, for they are accounted for. He knows that it is the One.”

      The Three, the Seven, and the Nine are meant for the different races. The most important poem in the book tells us that. And their powers are designed for their race: preservation for elves, wealth for dwarves, war for men.

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      1. I disagree with your last bit. The elves made all the Rings of Power (except the One, of course), for the elves. Sauron had aided them in this, intending to enslave elf-lords through those Rings. But they perceived him and dodged. He waged war, captured most of the Rings, and handed them to humans and dwarves as a Plan B; the poem reflects what happened, not the original intention. It’s unclear if there was any real difference between the Seven and the Nine, though the Three were indeed different.

        As it happens, Plan B wasn’t that successful either: the dwarves proved immune to domination. And I’m not sure sorcerer-kings fading into wraiths was really what Sauron hoped for on the human side, either. He got useful slaves of sorts, but not immortal puppets to easily control human kingdoms with for the long term.

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        1. The evidence on who the Seven and the Nine were intended for is weak.

          Appendix A says that Celebrimbor personally gave a ring to Durin III of Khazad-dûm. Elsewhere, it says that Sauron gave rings of power to dwarves. I’m not sure if this is an inconsistency or if the dwarven rings had different histories. I don’t know of any evidence on whether or not Celebrimbor wanted men to have rings.

          Is there any evidence that Sauron pursued these plans sequentially? The video seems to think so (when Plan B fails, then we try Plan C).

          Sauron probably did have immortal puppets that controlled human kingdoms for hundreds of years. But we meet the Ringwraiths thousands of years later, after Sauron has suffered two major defeats (Númenor and the Last Alliance). Even then, they are much more than useful slaves. For example, the Witch-King destroys Arnor while Sauron is still in limbo.

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          1. Appendix A says “It was believed by the Dwarves of Durin’s Folk to be the first of the Seven that was forged; and they say that it was given to the King of Khazad-dûm, Durin III, by the Elven-smiths themselves and not by Sauron” That’s plausible, but not certain, with Tolkien’s oft-used hedging language. At any rate it’s calling out that one ring as an exception to the general trend of Sauron giving out the Rings.

            Gandalf tells Frodo “Nine he gave to Mortal Men”

            I don’t think LotR itself actually has much other detail. Though I’d note that if the elves made 16 Rings of Power to give away, that would be extraordinarily generous. I also note that it’s explicit Sauron was trying to ensnare the elves, but I think Celebrimbor had made the Three without his knowledge or guidance, so what hooks could Sauron have been counting on but the Sixteen?

            The last chapter of the Silmarillion has much more to say:

            > Men he found the easiest to sway of all the peoples of the Earth; but long he sought to persuade the Elves to his service, for he knew that the Firstborn had the greater power

            > In those days the smiths of Ost-in-Edhil surpassed all that they had contrived before; and they took thought, and they made Rings of Power. But Sauron guided their labours, and he was aware of all that they did; for his desire was to set a bond upon the Elves and to bring them under his vigilance.

            > As soon as Sauron set the One Ring upon his finger they were aware of him; and they knew him, and perceived that he would be master of them, and of all that they wrought. Then in anger and fear they took off their rings. But he, finding that he was betrayed and that the Elves were not deceived, was filled with wrath; and he came against them with open war, demanding that all the rings should be delivered to him, since the Elven-smiths could not have attained to their making without his lore and counsel. But the Elves fled from him; and three of their rings they saved, and bore them away, and hid them.

            Granted, in “Galadriel and Celeborn” it is said Sauron took the Nine “and other lesser works”, but had to torture Celebrimbor to find where the Seven had been bestowed. It doesn’t say on who they had been bestowed, though — elves or dwarves?

            I haven’t read the LotR volumes of HoME. It’s possible as usual that Tolkien revised his ideas, perhaps from something more poetical (rings for three races) to something more plausible (rings for elves).

            The Ringwraiths arise 600 years after Sauron attacks Eregion, so human sorcerer-kings lasted only a few centuries.

            Liked by 1 person

    4. @Mike S

      “(The corrupting nature of the Ring also makes it impossible for any level of training or discipline to allow Saruman to tell a servant what he’s looking for. Even Sauron’s instructions to Cirith Ungol are deliberately vague, with the only servants clued in the ones he utterly dominates via the Ring itself. Of course, that may just mean Saruman’s plan is that much more unworkable.)”

      Yes, but at a bare minimum Saruman could have said “There are four hobbits, bring them all” or “There are four hobbits, and also an elf, a dwarf, and two men who are mighty warriors. Slay them all and bring me their bodies, untouched.” Ugluk was given such a minimalist description of what he was looking for that “what if I catch some combination of Merry, Pippin, and Sam, but not Frodo” was a totally foreseeable failure mode that Saruman could probably have avoided.

      On the other hand, you make a good point that armed with both the Ring and his supernatural persuasiveness, he might well have been able to sway Sauron’s armies out from under him.

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      1. I suggest that with the Ring Saruman has a very good chance of taking control of Sauron’s armies. Not because he’s now waving a ring of power around – anyone working for an evil overlord is going to be very cautious about changing allegiance – but because he can give orders through the Nazgûl.

        The Nazgûl are bound to the One Ring, not to Sauron, so if Saruman has enough time to figure out how to use all the features he will take control of them. Sauron is a great and powerful spirit who provides motivation for his own forces and demoralises his foes, but he’s also a disembodied flaming eye stuck in in the middle of Mordor. (Can he even *speak* to anyone who isn’t a ring bearer or looking into a palantir?) I expect that Sauron’s allies, vassals, servants, and minions are all accustomed to taking orders from the Nazgûl, and probably won’t notice anything amiss if Saruman takes over.

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        1. Misconceptions like this are why many book fans hate the movies. Sauron is not a flaming eye, he has a humanoid form. Gollum met Sauron and can report he’s still missing a finger.

          We also know he has at least one human lieutentant, the Mouth of Sauron, the Lieutenant of Barad-dur.

          If Saruman doesn’t cut Sauron off from the One, the Nazgul will probably be tricky. Sauron holds the Nine Rings and thus the Nazgul. If Saruman can master the One enough to obviate that interference, he’s probably destroyed Sauron through such mastery.

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          1. You are right, book Sauron can take humanoid form, but “unable to ever again assume a form that seemed fair to men”. And many of the book characters refer to him as the Eye.

            I’m not saying that he doesn’t have human lieutenants, but it does seem that the Nazgûl are the highest ranking and most trusted. The Mouth of Sauron isn’t a general, and if there’s a conflict of orders between the Mouth and a Nazgûl, any vaguely prudent being is going to obey the immortal wraith.

            I can’t see how the Nazgûl are not wearing their rings. Sauron lost his power when the ring was forcibly detached from him by Isildur, and Gandalf says that Sauron is searching for the ring not just because he’s worried about someone else grabbing it, but also because if Sauron can wear it again, he’ll be more powerful. Bilbo starts to age when he’s no longer in close proximity to the ring.

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  7. Great article, as usual!

    Also as usual, I have one or two pedantic, nitpicky things to point out:

    At least according to the Tale of Years in the appendices at the end of Return of the King, Gandalf and company are in Isengard on March 5th, and that night, a winged Nazgul is in the area, on a mission of some sort to Isengard. He’d have seen that Isengard is now occupied by Ents and that the Rohirrim are triumphant. The army that attacks Cair Andros takes it on the 10th, and passes into Anorien then. Given the speed at which those things the Nazgul can fly on move at, and the magical signalling that Sauron seems to be able to employ with his top lieutenants, I’m not so sure that the Witch-King was anticipating Saruman’s failure so much as he simply knew about it already and either changed his plans on the fly or dusted off some contingency plan prepared beforehand.

    The second, and bigger one is I think you’re overlooking the effect of the Palantir on Saruman. Clearly, it does not afford Sauron complete mind control over Saruman, or else Saruman would have been unable to make the strike on the Fellowship and try to seize the ring for himself. But at the same time, Gandalf muses that Saruman was compelled to return to the orb to receive instructions. I do not think Saruman is entirely an indepndent strategic actor, and part of the narrowing of his choices is that at least some of his strategic thought is actually being done by Sauron, who would not shed any tears if Saruman got wiped out, and might even be trying to maneuver a possible future threat out of the way while he’s still too weak to do serious damage to his designs.

    Lastly, not directly related to Saruman’s strategic blunders, but if you haven’t already, I’d heartily recommend going through Letter 246 of Tolkien’s letters, you can get them here for free.

    Click to access the_letters_of_j.rrtolkien.pdf

    It deals with quite a few things, all of which I found interesting, but a lot has to do with how the ring functions and what it can and cannot do, and how it attempts to twist its possessors mind. However, it does too also offer real power, and when discussing the hypothetical of what would happen if Gandalf took the ring, JRRT thought that if he could maintain control, he could use its power to fight Sauron in personal combat and ‘kill’ him as completely as the destruction of the Ring did. Even lesser figures like Galadriel or Elrond could have done quite a bit of damage to Sauron’s designs with it in a less direct fashion, by building up powerful armies quickly with the Ring’s power. And even dying, (relatively) puny Frodo after claiming the Ring had enough power to at least stop the Nazgul from directly attacking him even if they wanted to, I imagine Saruman could do much better, maybe even seize control of the Nine, at the very least disrupt them severely. But given how Saruman is a wizard like Gandalf, I suspect that particular parallel is the best one to draw.

    But as always, please do not take my comments as an attack. I love what you’re doing and I want to see more. What will you be planning now that this Helms Deep one is concluded?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. If that is a selection of letters by Tolkien (keeping in mind that it *is* a ‘selection’, no doubt intended to convey an impression by whomever put it together, and that there seem to have been problems with ‘uploading’ the letters to the internet with some sentences partially garbled (e.g. letter 77: ‘…Neglecting other dudes…’ seems to me as if it should have been ‘…Neglecting other duties…’)) what comes across to me from the ones I looked at are:
      1) Tolkien, for all his world-building, had problems with continuity. (One of the letters (214) for example is a response to a correspondent who spotted that Gollum received presents on his birthday, whereas modern hobbits give them away; Tolkien’s response seems to me to be of a ‘I’m glad you noticed that’ waffle handwave.)
      2) Tolkien had some sort of thing about how evil will always inevitably win, unless Eru/god/Eru or god’s directive representatives step in and save the day. I don’t know if this comes from whatever real world religion he was involved in?

      I’m a bit disenchanted now. I suppose it’s like what’s said about sausage-making – you really don’t want to know how it’s done.

      Anyway: Thanks for the post.

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      1. Yeah, it’s clear OCR, probably pirate. ‘pan’ for ‘part’ occurs often.

        1) It’s not really a continuity error that widely separated hobbit populations might have different customs.

        2) Tolkien was Catholic, and believed we live in a fallen world, redeemed by Christ’s sacrifice.

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        1. I think I prefer The Aeneid (even in translation, and incomplete as it was due to what TV Tropes calls ‘author existence failure’) if we’re going for a story where the end results are predestined solely and exclusively by the whims and wills of the gods or ‘the fates’.
          Granted, though, Virgil’s primary profession *was* that of a poet/story-teller, whereas it was more of a passing hobby for Tolkien, which puts Virgil at an enormous advantage.

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  8. I’ve really enjoyed this series!

    I don’t agree with the idea that no one could challenge Sauron even with the Ring, or at least that Sauron knows that no one could challenge him. Gandalf plan, after all, relies on Sauron taking Aragorn’s attack seriously enough that he will focus his attention on it and away from his own lands. Sauron’s confidence in the Battle of the Black Gate does not seem to come from the idea that Aragorn can’t endanger him at all, but that he’s moving too soon. In The Last Debate, Gandalf says:

    We must make ourselves the bait, though his jaws should close around us. He will take the bait, in hope and in greed, for he will think that in such rashness he sees the pride of the new Ringlord: and he will say: “So! he pushed out his neck too soon and too far. Let him come on, and behold I will have him in a trap which he cannot escape. There I will crush him, and what he has taken in his insolence shall be mine again forever (RotK, 862)

    and later:

    ‘If the Dark Lord knows so much as you say, Mithrandir, will he not rather smile than fear, and with his little finger crush us like a fly that tries to sting him?’
    ‘No, he will try to trap the fly and take the sting,’ said Gandalf. ‘And there are names among us that are worth more that a thousand mail-clad knights apiece. No, he will not smile.’

    Now, it’s possible that Gandalf is simply mistaken, but his plan does go of as he expected; Sauron does turn his full attention on Aragorn’s army.

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  9. I wonder if Japan’s strategic objectives for Strike-South in 1941 could have been operationally achieved while bypassing US and British Empire holdings and just seizing the Dutch East Indies.

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    1. Which was precisely Admiral Nagano’s counterargument to Admiral Yamamoto’s plan to attack Pearl Harbor, that Roosevelt would have a hard time justifying a war that did not directly involve American interests. Add to the fact that Roosevelt was getting savaged in the Hearst papers at the time for a leaked possible war plan against Germany and the pro-Nazi, pro-isolation lobby was in a politically powerful position at the time, a declaration of war against Japan based on an invasion of Singapore, Malaya and the Dutch East Indies would have been a political disaster for Roosevelt, possibly even an impeachment.

      Yamamoto didn’t just hand Roosevelt the causus belli he needed; he also handed Hitler a perfect excuse to declare war on the United States, since Hitler had been growing tired of lend-lease and the obvious American assistance to Britain while being officially neutral and saw America as hopelessly corrupt anyway. Hitler had no obligation to go to war against America under the terms of the Axis agreement since Japan attacked first, but he did so anyway. Safe to say if Yamamoto hadn’t strong-armed Nagano with his threats to resign and bring disgrace upon the IJN if he didn’t get his way, Japan may have achieved its strategic objectives very well indeed, possibly even to the extent of prying India away from the British (which would have wrecked the British war effort). It wouldn’t just be Japan achieving its strategic objectives, the very course of the war may well have been very, very different.

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      1. I understand that the purpose of the Pearl Habit attack was to eliminate the United States’ ability to make war in the Pacific, assuming that that would also eliminate the will to make war. Yamamoto seems to have totally underestimated the degree of anger the attack would inspire, not to mention the manufacturing prowess that would salvage some ships and replace others.

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      2. The Philippines lies right across the routes from Japan to Malaysia and Indonesia. and was a US protectorate. Also, the US oil embargo was tied to Japan’s war with China. The message was clear – abandon your wars or suffer. The isolationist lobby made a lot of noise, but polls at the time show very solid support for supplying Britain and the USSR, even at the risk of war. Politically, Roosevelt had room to push both Japan and Germany much harder.

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  10. I think that although we know Saruman’s plan has completely failed at the point where Frodo and Sam get away, it’s not obvious to Saruman.
    Sauron doesn’t believe that the Council will try to destroy the Ring, and I suspect Saruman also believes that when push comes to shove they won’t do that. He also thinks that regardless of their overall goal their sensible subgoal is to get the Ring to Gondor. (If he hadn’t intervened Aragorn might have done that.) At that point he thinks the Company are committed to trying to cross Rohan. So his back-up plan for getting hold of the Ring if the raid on the Company fails is to catch the company as they try to cross Rohan thinking Rohan is safe. According to his lights, the presence of Aragorn and Gandalf in Rohan is a sign that the plan is still on: he can’t imagine that in the situation as it presents itself Aragorn or Gandalf would be anywhere other than where they think the Ring is.

    I haven’t worked out whether the timing issues are such that the above analysis spares any of Saruman’s blushes. His operational failings are still all there. And it does depend on Saruman assuming that everyone else thinks in the same way that he does only more stupidly (one of the failings repeatedly attributed to him and Sauron). It does I think mean that his overall plan doesn’t depend on the raid on Emyn Muil succeeding: only on it not failing in precisely the way it does fail.

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    1. > catch the company as they try to cross Rohan thinking Rohan is safe

      Why is it you think they would be crossing Rohan? The swiftest way to Minas Tirith would still be by following Anduin . . . at least until they passed the Mouths of Entwash, at which point they will be in Anórien, not Rohan. Aragorn argues for this path himself, pointing out how treacherous the crossing of the fens in fog would be.

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  11. “One touch of the armored gauntlet!” – I notice that Admiral Yama-saruman has turned into Commander Genda-saruman here. And yes, Shattered Sword is very quotable indeed.

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  12. Great article, as usual!

    Also as usual, I have one or two pedantic, nitpicky things to point out:

    At least according to the Tale of Years in the appendices at the end of Return of the King, Gandalf and company are in Isengard on March 5th, and that night, a winged Nazgul is in the area, on a mission of some sort to Isengard. He’d have seen that Isengard is now occupied by Ents and that the Rohirrim are triumphant. The army that attacks Cair Andros takes it on the 10th, and passes into Anorien then. Given the speed at which those things the Nazgul can fly on move at, and the magical signalling that Sauron seems to be able to employ with his top lieutenants, I’m not so sure that the Witch-King was anticipating Saruman’s failure so much as he simply knew about it already and either changed his plans on the fly or dusted off some contingency plan prepared beforehand.

    The second, and bigger one is I think you’re overlooking the effect of the Palantir on Saruman. Clearly, it does not afford Sauron complete mind control over Saruman, or else Saruman would have been unable to make the strike on the Fellowship and try to seize the ring for himself. But at the same time, Gandalf muses that Saruman was compelled to return to the orb to receive instructions. I do not think Saruman is entirely an indepndent strategic actor, and part of the narrowing of his choices is that at least some of his strategic thought is actually being done by Sauron, who would not shed any tears if Saruman got wiped out, and might even be trying to maneuver a possible future threat out of the way while he’s still too weak to do serious damage to his designs.

    Lastly, not directly related to Saruman’s strategic blunders, but if you haven’t already, I’d heartily recommend going through Letter 246 of Tolkien’s letters. It deals with quite a few things, all of which I found interesting, but a lot has to do with how the ring functions and what it can and cannot do, and how it attempts to twist its possessors mind. However, it does too also offer real power, and when discussing the hypothetical of what would happen if Gandalf took the ring, JRRT thought that if he could maintain control, he could use its power to fight Sauron in personal combat and ‘kill’ him as completely as the destruction of the Ring did. Even lesser figures like Galadriel or Elrond could have done quite a bit of damage to Sauron’s designs with it in a less direct fashion, by building up powerful armies quickly with the Ring’s power. And even dying, (relatively) puny Frodo after claiming the Ring had enough power to at least stop the Nazgul from directly attacking him even if they wanted to, I imagine Saruman could do much better, maybe even seize control of the Nine, at the very least disrupt them severely. But given how Saruman is a wizard like Gandalf, I suspect that particular parallel is the best one to draw.

    But as always, please do not take my comments as an attack. I love what you’re doing and I want to see more. What will you be planning now that this Helms Deep one is concluded?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. If the ring is indeed that powerful in Sarumans hands, i think he should have made it the absolute Top Priority, subordinating all other goals to this one. That means, he should have sent out most of his army to get it, even at the risk of pissing of Rohan at an inopportune time.

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      1. Forget his army; he should have avoided locking up Gandalf and manipulated him (Gandalf trusted him at this time, remember) into getting into contact with Frodo and convincing Frodo to give him the Ring personally, promising to figure out how to neutralize its Nazgul-attracting properties or whatever other excuse. Had he acted with greater subtlety and greater common sense, the One Ring would’ve been his and nobody would’ve known of his designs until far too late. Heck, he might’ve used the One Ring to build up Isengard’s forces, fought alongside Gondor and Rohan as an ally, defeated Sauron, and eventually conquered all Middle-Earth using the power of the One Ring (with Gondor and Rohan loath to go to war against a former ally until it was too late). Of course, that’s all assuming that the One Ring works for Saruman the way it works for Sauron – a point that is in doubt like Bret notes – but it’s at least more intelligent and rational than the emotionally fueled idiotic treachery that Saruman displays.

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        1. The big stumbling block for such a plan is that it would require Gandalf to knowingly surrender the ring to Saruman. Knowing Gandalf as we do, this seems unlikely even if Gandalf trusts him- because one thing Gandalf is very consistent on is “do not tempt the Wise with the offer of the Ring!”

          And Saruman, given his biases, would probably find it even more unlikely, because he would be more concerned about Gandalf coveting the Ring for himself.

          Saruman could easily have prevailed upon Frodo to surrender the Ring, had the two ever met and had Saruman not revealed his true colors in the process. Gandalf? Not so much.

          Furthermore, I may be wrong, but I think that by the time Saruman was in a position to try this “keep Gandalf’s trust and do not imprison him” strategy, it was already too late for him to do that. Gandalf had seen enough in Isengard to know that Saruman was building up his own orcs and industrial base, in imitation of Mordor, and would surely not trust Saruman with the Ring after that.

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      2. True enough: If the Ring can give Saruman enough power to challenge Sauron, all his efforts should have been on the seizure of the Ring.

        If he gets that much power from the Ring, Rohan will not be much of a problem afterwards.

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  13. Saruman and Gandalf both have the same problem that Albus Dumbledore does in the Harry Potter series of books. They’re in a story with a pre-determined ending (if I remember right, Tolkien says in the Foreword to The Fellowship of the Ring that the Scouring of the Shire was foreseen as how the book was going to end) and they’re not even the protagonists. The author (and the valar) are going to do whatever it takes to make sure that the story finishes as the author determined that it would, much as Rowling jerks Albus Dumbledore’s strings and ensures that the universe otherwise throws miraculous answers and events at Harry Potter to ensure the spectacular Voldemort-kills-himself-yet-again-with-his-own-Killing-Curse-only-this-time-it’s-permanent finale takes place.
    Although Saruman’s anger and impatience at all these foolish lesser people who just *will not do* what’s good for them is an effort by Tolkien to bake into his story motivations and character more than Rowling gives us for Albus Dumbledore knowing everything but seldom doing anything meaningful other than rely on the child soldiers he’s training up and testing to do the work.
    As this final part of the ‘Battle of Helm’s Deep’ series points out though, the first Battle of the Fords of Isen being initiated by Saruman makes no sense whatsoever, taking place before the outcome of the mission sent to attack and intercept the Fellowship on the Great River is known. It looks like a case of the author sticking their thumb on the scales for the sake of the narrative.

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    1. Saruman’s particular sort of treachery does have plenty of meaning in the larger setting, but Dumbledore as you say is jerked around to fulfill a particular set of plot requirements (Voldemort equally so). Tolkien beats Rowling when it comes to having characters do something that feels genuinely meaningful within the constraints of a predetermined ending.

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  14. Very nice post. I gotta say, I love your table and all the “massive army arrives, executes Saruman.” That gets the point across very well.

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  15. Since you quote Shattered Sword so much – one of my favorites, incidentally – I was wondering if you could do a series set around the battles and campaigns of the Second World War? I know your area of specialization is Roman military history, but you seem thorough at understanding the fundamentals underlying the success or failure of a battle or campaign, whether modern or ancient.

    And if not, I’m curious to know about how Hannibal’s campaign, although expertly waged, failed; or how Julius Caesar succeeded in the face of major odds against him both in Gaul and against Pompey? Any plans to cover that sort of thing, if it’s more up your alley?

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    1. “I’m curious to know about how Hannibal’s campaign, although expertly waged, failed”
      Yeah, I’d be very interested in that, too.

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  16. Very much enjoyed the series. I did have one part here that bothered me though; I’ve been interested by the question of the Ring’s capabilities before and read up on it somewhat. Here, it is presented as showing the potential for power and conquest only to reveal the bearer to Sauron, and while it clearly does so in the books, I’m unsure about the conclusion that it could not work for another. Doesn’t Gandalf say in RotK that one great enough could learn to wield it, even if it took a little while? Sure, for a hobbit like Sam, such visions of bringing armies to his banner and overthrowing Sauron are fool’s gold. But a common refrain in the books from the wise and powerful is that they will not wield the Ring because even in victory from it’s use, they would themselves be corrupted and overthrown. I think of Gandalf’s line, “Without it (the Ring), you cannot by force defeat his force.” Is that meant to be the being of wisdom again telling us what is? Or is this an instance of even Gandalf being fooled by the Ring?

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    1. Counterfactuals involving magic rings are always going to be difficult to assess for plausibility. I’m leaning towards the argument presented above that, though everyone believes that the Ring possesses great power, there’s little in the actual text to suggest it does so. It does grant the wielder some of the most overt magic in the trilogy which is pretty rare in Middle Earth which is a point for, but when you consider the Ring’s track record I have my doubts. Of all the people we know possessed the ring (even its creator) all of them failed in their aims except for the hobbits. And it’s debatable whether the hobbits really won over it’s power or just refused to play the game.

      It seems possible then, that even Gandalf has been deceived. Personally, I quite like the idea that this extends even to the narration. The Ring has power because it is perceived to have power by the story and those in it, rather than possessing any extraordinary quality of its own.

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      1. Someone quoted a letter believed to be by the author, J.R.R. Tolkien, himself somewhere in this chain of responses and responses, and the author’s own opinion (the letter cited, I think was 246, out of a collection) was apparently that if Gandalf took up The One Ring, that could have been an ‘ win’ button for Gandalf – at the cost of Gandalf becoming something *worse* than Sauron for the peoples he ended up ruling over, due to Gandalf’s own character.
        Th author’s own opinion in this matter seems to have been that in the right (or wrong) hands the Ring did offer real power. They were not deluded or chasing after only an illusion of power but what for some would be an all too real thing.

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      2. Try again, this time hopefully without the typing errors:

        Someone quoted a letter believed to be by the author, J.R.R. Tolkien, himself somewhere in this chain of responses and responses-to-responses, and the author’s own opinion (the letter cited, I think was 246, out of a collection) was apparently that if Gandalf took up The One Ring, that could have been an ‘I win’ button for Gandalf – at the cost of Gandalf becoming something *worse* than Sauron for the peoples he ended up ruling over, due to Gandalf’s own character.

        The author’s own opinion in this matter seems to have been that in the right (or wrong) hands the Ring did offer real power. They were not all deluded or chasing after only an illusion of power but what for some would be (unfortunately for the peoples of Middle-earth) an all too real thing.

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  17. Somewhat tangential, but the points made about theoretical divisions of war brought to mind a concern I had after reading Roth’s “The Logistics of the Roman Army at War” and Telp’s “The Evolution of the Operational Art” about applying modern terminology (and categories / concepts?) of war to pre-modern societies.

    Roth groups together many activities (gathering fodder, firewood, water, food, maintaining pack animals, etc.) under the modern category of logistics to analyze in his book even though he notes in the introduction that the Romans had no word that corresponded to logistics and that the word itself was a very modern addition to military theory. That seems like it was reflected in how Roman commanders did not have anything like a quartermaster-general and would freely involve themselves in what we would term logistical tasks as a part of their duties and warmaking rather than leaving it mostly to specialists.

    Telp notes the conceptual separation of war in 18th century European military thought into tactics (military techniques in combat) and strategy (military matters outside of combat) and how this separation was mirrored in the clear separation in phases of pre-battle maneuvering and actions in battle, with Frederick the Great merging levels of war in ad hoc fashion at times while the French revolutionary armies, Napoleonic generals, and later their enemies would begin to do consistently.

    If say, Roman generals or Medieval warrior-kings, did not see war in terms of modern divisions might we also obscure our understanding of their military actions by applying modern military categories to them rather than trying to analyze war in the way they saw it? Since ruler-generals were far more common and state capacity far lower in the pre-modern period, might talk of policy, grand strategy, and so on imply more continuity, information, bureaucratic decision-making, etc. than they necessarily had available or were capable of conducting?

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    1. OTOH, you could argue that the tripartite division makes more sense for a medieval war than many modern ones. Strategy would be the goal of the campaign, operations how the armies manoeuvred in the theatre of war, tactics how they fought in battle. But how do you apply that division to the Iraq or Vietnam wars? The Western Front in 1917? Bomber Command and the Eighth Air Force? The Battle of the Atlantic? What did the operational level look like in those campaigns? It cannot just be anything that one side called Operation Arbitrarily Chosen Word.

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    2. As Bret points out, Clausewitz (sip), the Western military thinker who most firmly codified the division of war into strategy/policy, operations-called-strategy, and tactics, was writing for the benefit of a king who was at least in theory the supreme and autocratic commander of his own armed forces. Note that as late as the Franco-Prussian War, the Prussian king accompanied his army out onto the field of battle against the French. And while he did not take personal command with a general as skilled as von Moltke, I doubt anyone would have opposed his right to do so.

      So the strategy/operations/tactics division definitely emerged within Western military thinking at a time when personal leadership of armies was still a well known and common paradigm.

      Furthermore, combining all three levels of wartime leadership into a single brain does little to remove the need to consider them. A king who expects to personally lead his armies is if anything doubly foolish if he fails to think about whether or not he should go to war at all, or about whether the army can be supplied. We often see criticisms of “warrior kings” on precisely these grounds.

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  18. Re: Saruman not telling his uruks they were looking for a ring, I always assumed that was because of the risk that they’d just take it for themselves and not deliver it at all. Even if they didn’t know what it did, the Ring is clearly able to exert an attraction on anyone who carries it, and given that orcs are treacherous and prone to evil at the best of times, I’d expect them to fall under its influence pretty rapidly.

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    1. Came here to say this. The only way that Saruman gets the Ring is if the orcs capture Frodo and Frodo still has the Ring on him when they present him to Saruman. If they know they’re looking for a ring, they’d search Frodo beforehand and find it.

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    2. This would be an issue regardless of if they knew what the Ring was or not. By contrast, the Mordor orcs know what they’re looking for much better. For Sauron it wouldn’t matter as much — he has orcs to spare and the Ring would attract the Nazgul like moths to a flame.

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      1. The Ring does seem more dangerous if you know more about it.

        Grishnakh seems to know about the Ring; it’s not clear that he was supposed to.

        The Nazgul weren’t that attracted to a quietly carried Ring, though one being used actively by a delusional orc would probably be found faster.

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        1. Presumably Sauron would be able to monitor the orc patrol and order one or more of the Nazgul to go check it out and see if there are any signs of an orc having stolen the ring. He couldn’t do that for *every* orc patrol, but he could definitely do it for one that he had reason to believe was carrying the Ring.

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      2. The Ring affects Frodo more strongly than Sam, so I take it that carrying the Ring yourself leads you more open to its influence than simply being in close proximity to someone else who is carrying the Ring.

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  19. “I have met a great many very intelligent people who imagine in their formidable mastery of a field that if they could just order the world to their whims, things would be so much better than the current system whereby regular people are allowed to make their own decisions; experience tells us it is not so.”

    This I think is the very heart of the question of wisdom and folly. Eru’s plan for Middle Earth involves allowing the free peoples the freedom to choose, including to choose wrong. Manwe does not prevent the Flight of the Noldor, and he is right not to do so, for all that it is born of Feanor’s pride and folly and will have terrible consequences. Saruman’s first folly, from which all the others flow, is rejecting this central aspect of Eru’s creation.

    To give just one example of the downstream consequences, this is precisely why as you note, “Saruman has no agents sufficiently trustworthy to be told what they seek” – no agent who could be trusted with the One Ring would accept Saruman’s goals or methods, and trust cannot exist without reciprocity. Gandalf, on the other hand, trusts the free peoples, trusts Eru’s vision, and is in turn trustworthy, which is why he is able to see that the Ring has (by dint of Elu’s design) come into the possession of the best possible bearer (despite appearances to the contrary) and argue forcefully and correctly that it should not be reallocated.

    Middle Earth is not a world of Bostromian orthagonility: goals and methods are tied in a more inextricable way, and as a consequence, becoming a dark lord is an unwise goal in the first place, even if it is achievable.

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  20. Typos:

    survives to defeat -> the defeat

    you will not in some -> will note

    scourging of the Shire -> scouring

    Comments:

    “the promises that it can be used to overthrow or replace Sauron are just lies” — No, this is wrong. Sauron is clearly afraid of Aragorn — a mortal! — having the Ring. Tolkien’s letter 246 waffles a bit, but comes down more on people being able to use the Ring to raise armies and try to defeat Sauron.

    That same letter also gives Gandalf, as a Maia, a chance of simply cutting Sauron off from the Ring, destroying him. Saruman would thus have a similar chance.

    “He is entirely confident of victory in this moment” — yes, but Sauron attacked Gondor early because he thought Aragorn had the Ring. He’s also thinking that Aragorn hasn’t had time yet to learn how to use the Ring, which is part of why he attacks early — the more time he gives, the bigger a threat Aragorn will be.

    “Sauron was – with tremendous effort – defeated while wearing it.” — true! three times! I agree the One is not an “I win” button in military terms. It *is* a potential “I lose button” for Sauron, though.

    (Amusing A/U: Saruman gets the Ring, cuts Sauron off, but then loses militarily to Ents/Rohan/Gondor… who then still have to dispose of the Ring.)

    In terms of outcomes, another one is that Aragorn et al. are destroyed by armies, but then Gollum falls with the One. The timing was pretty coincidentally tight. So Saruman could have been left as the only one standing, with Mordor, Rohan, and Gondor all decapitated. (Somewhat; Faramir was still back in Minas Tirith.) This isn’t really anticipatable, though; I don’t think Saruman even knew the “destroy the Ring” plot.

    Quotes:

    > To know that I lived and walked the earth was a blow to his heart, I deem; for he knew it not till now. The eyes in Orthanc did not see through the armour of Théoden; but Sauron has not forgotten Isildur and the sword of Elendil. Now in the very hour of his great designs the heir of Isildur and the Sword are revealed; for I showed the blade re-forged to him. He is not so mighty yet that he is above fear; nay, doubt ever gnaws him.

    Gandalf:

    > For it seems clear that our Enemy has opened his war at last and made the first move while Frodo was still free. So now for many days he will have his eye turned this way and that, away from his own land. And yet, Pippin, I feel from afar his haste and fear. He has begun sooner than he would. Something has happened to stir him.

    If you’re going to trust Gandalf as the Wisest of the Maiar, then trust him here: Sauron is afraid.

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  21. “The classic example being functionally every major power in the First World War: by 1915 or 1916, it ought to have been obvious that no gains made as a result of the war could possibly be worth its continuance.”

    This assertion can hardly have been obvious to Tolkien in 1915 or 1916, given that he volunteered to fight in the Battle of the Somme. For that matter, it is not obvious to me right now that Britain and France should have acquiesced to the status quo in 1915, leaving the greatest and least trustworthy power on Earth in possession of Belgium and much of the industrial areas of France.

    And if you want to criticise them for fighting on in 1915, what should you say about Churchill and de Gaulle in 1940?
    Note that Tolkien was writing LOTR in 1940; this sort of issue can hardly have seemed unimportant to him.

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    1. I don’t think the alternative to continuing WW1 that Bret is suggesting is just to leave everything as it was at any given moment in 1915 or 1916, but some kind of negotiated truce that might return things basically to the status quo before the war.

      Of course Britain and France are justified in fighting on if Germany refuses to give up anything for peace, but had the Germans seen their defeat coming (or the entry of the US at the very least preventing any hope of them gaining a decisive victory over France) they would also have had a reason to seek a return to the status quo. For the state of Imperial Germany to survive, that would likely have been the right call, if it had been politically possible – easy to say with hindsight, of course.

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      1. I’ve read, iirc it was in Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World by Margaret MacMillan — that the German peace offer in 1917, when Germany had no chance of victory, would have placed northwestern France under permanent German control and Belgium under a puppet government. Germany by that time had lost several hundred thousand people due to starvation (In addition to loss of farm labor as troops, nitrates, essential for fertilizer, explosives, and gun propellants, had been imported; these were unavailable due to the British blockade. Priority was given to munitions productions for nitrates produced via the Haber process.)

        In the east, where Germany did achieve victory, the Brest-Litovsk Treaty was very harsh, arguably harsh enough so that the Entente in the west felt that a negotiated peace with Germany was impossible.

        WW1 was certainly not the first war where technology and industrial production were important, but it seems that the generals didn’t pay attention to those wars where it was, which would include Crimea and the American Civil War (aka the War to Preserve Slavery), within living (well, long-lived) memory.

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        1. WW1 was certainly not the first war where technology and industrial production were important, but it seems that the generals didn’t pay attention to those wars where it was, which would include Crimea and the American Civil War (aka the War to Preserve Slavery), within living (well, long-lived) memory.

          The problem wasn’t that generals ignored previous wars (they didn’t), the problem was that the lessons learnt from those previous wars (basically, whichever side seizes the initiative wins — cf. especially the Franco-Prussian War, where Prussia’s superior mobilisation gave it an early edge which then rapidly snowballed into total victory) were no longer applicable.

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    2. Remember that these countries went to war over police powers in Serbia (except Britain, who went to war over the territorial integrity of Belgium). Surely, from a strategic perspective, that was hardly worth risking the continuance of every true monarchy in Europe – from the perspective of the monarchs? And what of Germany’s steadily scale-up demands as they seemed to be ‘winning’ the war – surely getting *out* of so destructive a conflict was more pressing?

      As for Britain and France, of course they couldn’t accept a ‘current positions’ peace, but they refused to even consider a status quo ante peace. It is hard, I think, to justify the idea that 1916, 1917 and 1918 were ‘worth it’ for the pathetic scraps of imperial territory and small adjustments of Versailles. Had there been no WWII, we might argue it was worth it to defang Germany, but Germany was quite evidently not defanged.

      It seems both very clear to me that from a pure policy perspective, a white ‘status quo ante’ peace was the correct move, and obviously so, in 1915 or 1916, for all parties. And it is equally clear that the reason this did not happen is that the political pressure to report victory in order to justify the mounting losses made it impossible. A situation where passion ruled policy, preventing a strategy from being updated to reflect new information (that an industrial war would not be short).

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      1. Problem for France and Britain was that a status quo peace was not on the table. In 1916 Germany took out Romania, so securing a lot of food. In 1917 Russia collapsed. Berlin thought it had the upper hand, and its demands reflected that. The Kaiser and his circle went to war with the dual aims of breaking the France-Russia alliance and using the victory to smash ‘socialism’ (social democracy). A peace that exposed them to the socialists was unthinkable – so they did not think it until far too late.

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      2. Multi Great Power wars are never short. There was a certain amount of ‘Christmas in Berlin’, but most of the statesmen were cognizant that this would be a longish haul. British Orders in Council on blockade and neutral trade reflected this, as did the preparations for financial and industrial war (eg orders for US arms). Most had been brought up on the history of the Napoleonic Wars (World War I was comparable in its casualties to those – although in a shorter time-frame and with less general destruction). The Germans placed the most faith in a short war – but then they had to, because they were stuffed in a longer one.

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      3. I think the difficulty in WW1 from 1915, 1916 and onwards wasn’t simply the sunk costs / mounting losses problem, but that for Germany, Britain and France particularly, it wasn’t at all clear that their original policies were dead ducks. If Germany’s original policy was to defeat Russia and France, Germany DID knock Russia out in 1917 and, from their perspective at least, came close to a positive outcome on the Western Front in 1918. And, if Britain’s and France’s policy was to prevent Germany overrunning Europe, of course, Britain and France did win in 1918 and achieved this policy objective. It’s not clear to the political leaders during the war, I feel, that the outcome of their own “victory” was going to be terrible in the long term because of the cost. Political leaders were still focused on the terrible penalty they would pay for defeat – Britain / France the domination of Europe by a militaristic and savage German Empire; the German leadership the failure of their state and therefore their personal position in totality. Pace Clausewitz (drink!), war tends towards extremes because of its inherent dynamics. It was pretty clear that Germany would not be content with a status quo ante peace before 1918, because she was in possession of huge conquered territories. And the major powers did have more resources to pour into the inferno after 1916.

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      4. I cannot think of wars that simply ended because both sides realized they had made a costly miscalculation. Has not a misguided sense of honor prevented this throughout history? Right now, the Afghanistan war has been dragging on for at least a decade more than necessary and France does not know how to leave Mali.

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        1. I can’t think of any examples of a government outright saying “We made a costly miscalculation,” for obvious reasons, but there have been plenty of wars which ended before either side’s situation got really desperate, and which saw relatively minor concessions made to the winning side.

          The problem with WW1, I think, was that everybody knew in the run-up that a major war would require mass mobilisation to win, and consequently that the civilian population would have to be thoroughly propagandised to ensure their support. But that in turn required the conflict to be portrayed in stark, Manichaean terms as a struggle between good and evil. “Fight to preserve the balance of power in Europe!” is a reasonable war aim, but as recruiting slogans go it’s a bit bland. “Fight to defend civilisation and decency against the evil barbarians!” is much more effective a slogan, but it also makes it much harder to sell anything but total victory to the people back home. After all, who wants to compromise with people who’d destroy civilisation itself?

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      5. The crucial thing to remember is that the Serbian thing is the spark. Tensions in Europe had been rising for decades, and, arguably most importantly, Germany was beginning to be very, very nervous about Russia’s modernization process. (It’s arguable that, had WWI happened even two or three years later, that the Russians might have managed to break through on the Eastern Front,) They saw winning a war with a punitive peace as the only way to ensure their position at the top of the heap–and, they believed, their survival.

        For the German leadership, a return to the status quo antebellum would simply put them in the same fix they were in before the war, and therefore was not an option.

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  22. Note that UT has two relevant chapters: Hunt For the Ring, and the Battle of the Fords of Isen. Some quotes from the latter:

    > The chief obstacles to an easy conquest of Rohan by Saruman were Théodred and Éomer

    > when the King’s health began to fail. This occurred early in the year 3014, when Théoden was sixty-six; his malady may thus have been due to natural causes, though the Rohirrim commonly lived till near or beyond their eightieth year. But it may well have been induced or increased by subtle poisons, administered by Gríma. In any case Théoden’s sense of weakness and dependence on Gríma was largely due to the cunning and skill of this evil counsellor’s suggestions.

    > It was clearly seen in Rohan, when the true accounts of the battles at the Fords were known, that Saruman had given special orders that Théodred should at all costs be slain. At the first battle all his fiercest warriors were engaged in reckless assaults upon Théodred and his guard, disregarding other events of the battle, which might otherwise have resulted in a much more damaging defeat for the Rohirrim. When Théodred was at last slain Saruman’s commander (no doubt under orders) seemed satisfied for the time being, and Saruman made the mistake, fatal as it proved, of not immediately throwing in more forces and proceeding at once to a massive invasion of Westfold[2]

    > f the invasion of Westfold had begun five days earlier, there can be little doubt that the reinforcements from Edoras would never have come near Helm’s Deep, but would have been surrounded and overwhelmed in the open plain; if indeed Edoras had not itself been attacked and captured before the arrival of Gandalf.

    > [2] But unless Gandalf could have brought about the rising of the Ents several days earlier (as from the narrative was plainly not possible), it would not have saved Rohan. The Ents might have destroyed Isengard, and even captured Saruman (if after victory he had not himself followed his army). The Ents and Huorns, with the aid of such Riders of the East-mark as had not yet been engaged, might have destroyed the forces of Saruman in Rohan, but the Mark would have been in ruins, and leaderless.

    Wolfriders: > They were very swift and skilled in avoiding ordered men in close array, being used mostly to destroy isolated groups or to hunt down fugitives; but at need they would pass with reckless ferocity through any gaps in companies of horsemen, slashing at the bellies of the horses. [Author’s note.]

    > They [Dunlendings] were without body-armour, having only among them a few hauberks gained by theft or in loot. The Rohirrim had the advantage in being supplied by the metal-workers of Gondor. In Isengard as yet only the heavy and clumsy mail of the Orcs was made, by them for their own uses. [Author’s note.]

    If you wanted to analyze more Tolkien battles, UT is probably the best book: there’s fairly detailed description of the Fords, and of the assault upon Isildur, shield-walls and all. Like, a lot more detailed than anything in LotR or the Silmarillion.

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    1. Back to the Two Towers:

      More on Sauron fearing a rival Ring-lord:

      > The Enemy, of course, has long known that the Ring is abroad, and that it is borne by a hobbit. He knows now the number of our Company that set out from Rivendell, and the kind of each of us. But he does not yet perceive our purpose clearly. He supposes that we were all going to Minas Tirith; for that is what he would himself have done in our place. And according to his wisdom it would have been a heavy stroke against his power. Indeed he is in great fear, not knowing what mighty one may suddenly appear, wielding the Ring, and assailing him with war, seeking to cast him down and take his place.

      And on Saruman:

      > But Isengard cannot fight Mordor, unless Saruman first obtains the Ring.

      And as other commenters have pointed out before:

      > Saruman does not know of this new shape in which the Ringwraiths have been clad. His thought is ever on the Ring. Was it present in the battle? Was it found? What if Théoden, Lord of the Mark, should come by it and learn of its power? That is the danger that he sees, and he has fled back to Isengard to double and treble his assault on Rohan.

      So there’s that in understand his motivations for war on Rohan: he’s gambling that Theoden has the Ring and Saruman can take it from him. Still seems a wild gamble.

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  23. How much of a difference does it make that Sauron’s timetable — of which Saruman appears to have some knowledge, if not perfect — was originally slower and is only accelerated as a consequence of Saruman’s failure? (Primarily Pippin’s and then Aragorn’s use of the palantir.) Admittedly this change was probably a matter of weeks, maybe months at most; it’s not like Saruman would have had years to consolidate power in Rohan. But had he succeeded, it seems likely that he would have had at least some time to strengthen his position before Sauron’s blow fell on Gondor on its original timeframe.

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  24. I think you underestimate Sarumon’s options and intentions for Rohan while Wormtongue remains in place. It’s been a long time since I read the books, so this may be contradicted by information there, but I think the same intentions still apply.

    The death of Théodred is a massive provocation that Rohan cannot ignore… Except that with Wormtongue in place Theoden can. Movie!Theoden is under Sarumon’s spell, and can be simply kept inactive. Book!Theoden can be convinced that the attackers must have been someone other than Sarumon. Perhaps it’s even a false-flag plot by his restless and warmongering nobles to provoke a war against his faithful neighbor and ally Isengard. The result is the same: Theoden loses face and faith with his nobility, for failing to defend them and even his own kin. At some point, various lords rise in revolt against Theoden. And Sarumon shows up with his army to support his puppet Theoden and put down the insurgency. Between his army, his silver tongue, and the tarnished but still potent symbol of the rightful king on his side, he can take Rohan more or less intact. This plan only blows up when Gandalf, who is supposed to be dead, shows up and breaks his hold on Theoden and the crown. If things work, Rohan isn’t a mere buffer state, it’s a forward base that he can use to do whatever he needs to against either Gondor or Mordor.

    This scenario has his timetable completely messed up from the beginning, though. Sauron’s moving too quickly, and Sarumon’s going to end up still trying to ease his way into Rohan when Sauron’s hordes have finished cleaning up Gondor and are ready for a new target. Maybe with Rohan neutralized and *mostly* under control they march in another direction…

    Sarumon’s ring hunting can likewise be excused, at least in his own mind. If Sauron confronts him after he has the Ring, it doesn’t matter-with the Ring he can overpower Sauron anyway. If Sauron confronts him before he’s found the Ring, he’s just being a loyal servant trying to find the enemy’s greatest chance, and will certainly turn it over to Sauron as soon as he’s verified that it is in fact the One Ring-no point in handing over a fake, of course! There’s a narrow window of vulnerability if Sauron finds out that he has the Ring before he’s been able to do something with it and marches significant forces immediately, but that should be short enough to accept a bit of pillaging through Rohan and maybe a short siege of Orthanc as Sarumon figures out how to sweep away all opposition. But Sarumon can surely dissemble for long enough to keep that from proving fatal, right?

    Of course, Sauron isn’t an idiot and is in fact paranoid about someone else getting his Ring. He’s likely to strike first and ask questions later, rather than allow Sarumon any sort of opening to betray him. I’m also of the opinion that you’re right and that the Ring will be of minimal help in defeating its master. The plan is definitely fragile and doomed, but I don’t think what’s in Sarumon’s head is quite as incompetent as you’re assuming. Rigid and unable to handle surprises, but every step of this plan is in principle something that plays to Sarumon’s strengths.

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    1. Tolkien seems rather obscure on just how Saruman attacked, and what excuse he gave if any, but “Battle of the Fords” seems to make it clear Theodred knew he was fighting the forces of Isengard.

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    2. Book!Wormtongue does an incredible job of spinning Théodred’s death.

      First, he convinces Théoden to do nothing. Then, Éomer confronts and threatens Wormtongue in Théoden’s hall. Wormtongue has Éomer arrested for the threat.

      Both Théodred and Éomer are taken out of the action – until Gandalf shows up.

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    3. ” If Sauron confronts him before he’s found the Ring, he’s just being a loyal servant trying to find the enemy’s greatest chance, and will certainly turn it over to Sauron as soon as he’s verified that it is in fact the One Ring-no point in handing over a fake, of course!”

      I must point out that there is no *possible* way Sauron would just smile and nod about that. Sauron is very, very jealous of the One Ring and Saruman has to know this.

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  25. Been reading your blog over the past couple of months or so (first showed up right when the first Helm’s Deep post was written), and it’s bee a fun read. (As a baby/wannabe economist researching mass transit, the ancient cities posts were very, very familiar. Different details, similar structure.)

    Another obvious question: What does Saruman do if he doesn’t want to play the bad guy? He can still want to take control of lots of territory to rule as he likes, but presumably could see Mordor is a huge threat to that, and everything will get eaten up if Mordor wins.

    Best guess would be: Join the fight against Sauron in whatever way as make sense, (sense his soldiers to help Gondor, or help other nearby places), and act as a general advice giver/leader with his skills, than after the war continue to act as an advisor to most kingdoms.while slowly gaining power behind the scene (Something an immortal creature good at persuading people would be good at). However, this does change things enormously, and effects how they handle the ring, and maybe doesn’t make sense with everyone’s character.

    Anyway, like others have said, this has been a fun series. I am very much one of those STEM guys you talked about in the first post, who does focus more on the numbers/technology/production/economics/etc. than on stuff like Morale, social structures, etc., so it is an interesting read.

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    1. _Can_ Saruman end up controlling territory — or, more in line with his speech to Gandalf, _order_ it — in the Fourth Age, if Sauron loses the War of the Ring? I do not have the books around to check the exact mission of the Istari, but I’d expect those who stayed sufficiently true to their mission to be called back to Aman, while those who didn’t or who refuse to return would be cut off from the source of their spiritual power. Which would throw a spanner in the whole “ordering the world” plan — even with a homemade ring which _might_ be useful to store some power or ward off decay… or not, if it has not been successfully decoupled from the One.

      Sharky tries to “order” the Shire after the One is destroyed, and fails even at that. Finessing the Kingdoms of Gondor and Arnor from King Elessar as he tried to do with Rohan? Even with his reputation intact that seems a long shot.

      I wonder how much of Saruman’s policy is motivated by him not wanting the game to end. The destruction of the One will leave him the options to go home and serve in Heaven, or to stay in Middle-earth and (at best) run a second-hand bookshop.

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      1. “would be cut off from the source of their spiritual power”

        As Maiar, they *are* the source of their power. Normally they’d be cut off no more than Sauron was for his sins.

        Saruman does seem to end up weak; unclear whether that’s because Gandalf, sent back to life as Eru’s direct agent, cut him down, or because he really did put a bunch of power into that ring of his and lost it when the One was destroyed. Or both.

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        1. Evil causing weakness is something of a theme for Tolkien. We can also see as examples Sauron becoming capable of being destroyed by the destruction of his Ring, and Morgoth going from the most powerful of the Ainur to someone capable of being wounded by an elf.

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          1. Morgoth at least seems to have invested a lot of power in dragons. And that was actually a winning move militarily, however much physically weakened it left him, against what he was facing (the Noldor were previously kicking his butt, and prior to The Fourth Battle actually had him besieged in his underground fortress-lair), until a whole new army showed up several battles and sacks/annihilations of Noldor strongholds later, from Valinor, backed up by a dragon-resistant flying ship.
            Absent that ‘divine intervention’ Morgoth had actually won and all but conquered Middle-earth.

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  26. An important note on timeline issues: one of the reasons that Saruman begins to turn from PSYOPS to open warfare against the Rohirrim is because when Gwaihir rescued Gandalf from Orthanc in September or October, he took him to Edoras and spilled the beans about Saruman building an army. It would have been too late in the year to campaign against Rohan (and probably the army wouldn’t have been ready yet anyways). March is the earliest time he could have sent out a force, while he knew that Grima was losing some of his influence in Edoras and Theoden’s commanders like Erkenbrand and Eomer were preparing for war on their own initiative.

    For Saruman, attempting to intercept the Ring and begining open warfare against Rohan while they were still disorganized may have seemed preferable to attempting to continue an OPERATION WORMTONGUE that was beginning to lose its effectiveness. It wouldn’t really be in keeping with the Rohirrim’s ethos, though it would be something Saruman would do, but the unpopularity of Grima at court and the popularity of Eomer could have led him to stage a coup d’etat: kill Grima (as he threatened to do) and use control of access to Theoden through the doorwards to announce that the King had “renounced participation” in state affairs due to age and illness and appointed a regency consisting of Theodred, Eomer, Erkenbrand and Hama. Again, I don’t that’s something the Rohirrim would contemplate, but it is the kind of thing Saruman would do and plan against.

    Also, it seems to me that if Saruman had Fremenized the Rohirrim instead of sneering at them he might have done better because he might have thought his army could be defeated or, at least, not victorious on his timetable

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  27. I find it ironic that Saruman’s most successful operation was the one that didn’t appear in the films.. the occupation of the Shire and the conversion of it into a logistical source for Saruman’s army. using “ruffians” as the hobbits call them (very likely dunlanders, given mentions of such men coming up from the south earlier in the books), alongside quisling hobbits like Lotho Sackville-baggins and Ted Sandyman to take over the Shire and gather its bountiful harvests for shipping of. (more covertly at first, in the form of Lotho’s ‘financial empire’ of properties he owned directly or indirectly, then gradually later in more open form with a more direct occupation.)

    this seems to have been one of his earliest operations (we hear of issues with ‘ruffians’ coming up from the south and causing issues in bree and the shire well before even Bilbo’s birthday party, which is also when we hear the first hints of lotho’s greed and efforts to obtain more and more properties. this indicates the operation started before Third Age 3001, over a decade and a half before the war of the ring even started (TA3018). and nearly two decades before the Scouring, TA3019)

    without his suborning Lotho into turning the Shire into a source of supplies, it is likely that Saruman would never have been able to field as large an army as he did. that the Shire effort was semi-independant was probably why it outlasted all the others.. from dialog with hobbits that lived under the occupation, it sounds like it was relatively low key (just aggravations from unjust actions by the ruffians) until saruman arrived from the fall of orthanc and started trying to take revenge by destroying everything. and even then it took an outside force (the four hobbits of the fellowship) to get everything actually kicked off and organized. to give the hobbits something to rally around and overcome their fear.

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    1. I suppose it’s not Saruman’s fault that Tolkien thought freighting supplies across hundreds of miles of empty land was a feasible idea…

      Anyway, I’m pretty sure Saruman was just buying stuff until the last year, then Lotho getting bigger somehow, and finally Sharkey’s occupation in the last month or two.

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    2. There’s no evidence that large quantities of goods were shipped out of the Shire, certainly not enough to cause comment or hardship — remember the Shire was watched by the Rangers and Elves, too. Certainly Saruman was interested in the Shire, but large scale commerce doesn’t seem to have occurred. At most it seems a few carts of pipe weed went south. Remember, Orthanc isn’t just a fortress, it has plenty of land within the Ring of Isengard to supply food for Saruman and his human servants, while Orcs can and will eat anything.

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      1. “Hunt”:

        > Saruman had long taken an interest in the Shire – because Gandalf did, and he was suspicious of him; and because (again in secret imitation of Gandalf ) he had taken to the ‘Halflings’ leaf’, and needed supplies

        > Some while ago one of Saruman’s most trusted servants (yet a ruffianly fellow, an outlaw driven from Dunland, where many said that he had Orc-blood) had returned from the borders of the Shire, where he had been negotiating for the purchase of ‘leaf’ and other supplies. Saruman was beginning to store Isengard against war.

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        1. from “the scouring of the shire”:

          ‘So much for your Big Man,’ said Merry. ‘We’ll see the Chief later. In the meantime we want a lodging for the night, and as you seem to have pulled down the Bridge Inn and built this dismal place instead, you’ll have to put us up.’
          ‘I am sorry, Mr. Merry,’ said Hob, ‘but it isn’t allowed.’
          ‘What isn’t allowed?’
          Taking in folk off-hand like and eating extra food, and all that, said Hob.
          ‘What’s the matter with the place?’ said Merry. ‘Has it been a bad year, or what? I thought it had been a fine summer and harvest.’
          ‘Well no, the year’s been good enough,’ said Hob. ‘We grows a lot of food, but we don’t rightly know what becomes of it. It’s all these “gatherers” and “sharers”, I reckon, going round counting and measuring and taking off to storage. They do more gathering than sharing, and we never see most of the stuff again.’

          and

          ‘Well now, what about a smoke, while you tell us what has been happening in the Shire?’ he said.
          ‘There isn’t no pipe-weed now,’ said Hob; ‘at least only for the Chief’s men. All the stocks seem to have gone. We do hear that waggon-loads of it went away down the old road out of the Southfarthing, over Sarn Ford way. That would be the end o’ last year, after you left. But it had been going away quietly before that, in a small way. That Lotho-‘

          and

          ‘It all began with Pimple, as we call him,’ said Farmer Cotton; ‘and it began as soon as you’d gone off, Mr. Frodo. He’d funny ideas had Pimple. Seems he wanted to own everything himself, and then order other folk about. It soon came out that he already did own a sight more than was good for him; and he was always grabbing more, though where he got the money was a mystery: mills and malt-houses and inns, and farms, and leaf-plantations. He’d already bought Sandyman’s mill before he came to Bag End, seemingly.
          ‘Of course he started with a lot of property in the Southfarthing which he had from his dad; and it seems he’d been selling a lot o’ the best leaf, and sending it away quietly for a year or two. But at the end o’ last year he began sending away loads of stuff, not only leaf. Things began to get short, and winter coming on, too. Folk got angry, but he had his answer. A lot of Men, ruffians mostly, came with great waggons, some to carry off the goods south-away, and others to stay. And more came. And before we knew where we were they were planted here and there all over the Shire, and were felling trees and digging and building themselves sheds and houses just as they liked. At first goods and damage was paid for by Pimple; but soon they began lording it around and taking what they wanted.

          spelled out in the text. under Lotho’s leadership, large amounts of the Shire’s output got shipped off (not said, but clearly to isengard and dunland). since he had mills and breweries and so on it is likely what was being shipped was processed goods, which be easier to transport long distances. when winter came and supplies were short and the shire upset (at the same time Saruman kicked off his big effort against rohan) a bunch of ruffians showed up to enforce a bunch of rules that let them take even more to ship off south.

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      2. I think the elves and rangers would kept a much closer watch on the Northern borders of the Shire, towards the ruins of Arnor, rather than in the direction of Isengard. And during the War of the Ring, both elves and rangers would be busy protecting the Shire and Rivendell from attacks coming from Gundabad and Angmar. And that’s not counting the ranges (in the books) that went to join Aragorn.

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  28. I read LotR many times but it has been a decade or two, so please bear in mind this is from memory.

    There is one flaw in this analysis, at least from my perspective: Isenguard IS Saruman and Saruman had ALREADY LOST!

    He tried to spy on Sauron and he got caught. He was, not exactly enslaved but under his Eye and possibly dominion. Further, as a smart, powerful ‘ally’, what Gandalf said in the movie still applies: “There is only one Lord of the Ring and he does not share power.”

    Saruman is powerful, not like the Witch King, as an adjunct to Sauron, but as his own entity. So like the pact between Germany and Russia, unlike Stalin, Saruman knows his days of not being at war with Sauron are numbered and that number isn’t big.

    And we can see that. Saruman is tasked by his monitor Orcs, to build an army on an impossible time table, to attack Rohan. Meanwhile, no matter who ‘wins’, Sauron sends a huge killing army to beat…someone. You assumed it was Rohan. What if it was assumed that Saruman might win? That army was still sent out on a tight timetable before that information was passed out. I think they were going to kack Saruman, winner or loser.

    This puts his multiple Hail Mary Strategy in context. He was already a dead man walking.

    As to why he stayed in Orthac? At that point, his hope was that maybe the two forces would destroy themselves. Plus Isenguard was still quite mighty at defense. The Ents and Gandalf don’t take it on.

    He only left when he knew that Gandalf won and they could now apply all their power to him! So he did a strategic retreat and made his own bolt hole.

    But that assumes that you believe that Sauron had a hook of some kind in Saruman. I do.

    Liked by 1 person

  29. > Also, shout out to the actor, Brad Dourif, who just excels at playing creepy fellows and does a great job with Gríma. He was Piter De Vries in Dune (1984), but I noticed his face because of his single-episode appearance on Babylon 5, as the haunting Brother Edward in the truly excellent “Passing Through Gethsemane.”

    Babylon 5 has such an amazing stable of guest characters. To this day I find that I occasionally recognize an actor first because of a role they played in that series.

    The series also, in my opinion, does a decent job at touching on the intersection between policy(strategy) and strategy(operations), ranging from Narn/Centauri bickering and border skirmishes in the first season to the “well, you’ve got a war!” speech in ‘And All My Dreams, Torn Asunder’ in the last season.

    That’s unusual, not just from the element’s common absence in media but also from the main characters’ (and consequently viewer’s) perspective as a captain more often engaged in tactics.

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  30. Up next … an analysis of the strategy and tactics of War of the Ring, Second Edition (by Areas Games). Does the Shadow player pursue the Fellowship or a military victory? Do the Free peoples march to war or try to win by dunking some jewelry in a fiery bin? We want to know!

    (A guy can dream, can’t he?)

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  31. BTW, regarding the Unfinished Tales, they vary a lot.

    Some are single-text or nearly so, well-developed, and with no inconsistency with other stuff. Narn i Hin Hurin, Aldarion and Erendis, Druedain, Palantiri, Fords of Isen. I figure we can take things as nearly canon, as at least as much so as the Silmarillion. Some of them seem not published elsewhere simply because they don’t have an appropriate place elsewhere, they’re basically Appendix type stuff.

    Others are a stinking hot mess. “Galadriel and Celeborn” would be in the lead here, it tells us almost nothing useful or solid unless you go with Tolkien’s latest ideas for everything — and in this case even Christopher seems to have looked askance at his father’s latest ideas about Galadriel. “The Istari” is only somewhat better, we can trust the core ideas but not any details.

    “Hunt For the Ring” is in the middle, it contains multiple versions in its own right (and there’s a longer version in the Reader Companion, which has some uniquely useful information, mostly on the Nazgul); like “The Istari”, it has a definite trend, though wobbles on some details.

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  32. “policy is the domain not of generals, but of the state.”

    Or should be.

    During the War of 1812, the politicians were all gung-ho to send Wellington to the United States. It was Wellington’s resistance that stopped that, and he resisted on the grounds that if they did that, the British populace would expect him to make the US sue for peace, and he didn’t think that was possible, there would have to be negotiations.

    Likewise, Joe Johnston’s long slug that led to the siege of Atlanta was carefully avoiding giving Sherman a striking victory and so letting Lincoln win re-election. Davis was having none of that, the army should be fighting battles, so he replaced Johnston and gave the Union forces a striking victory.

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  33. On the subject of the “cult of the badass” in ASoIaF I think that Martin goes to great lengths to tear it down while also recognizing how attractive that cult can be. Pretty much every “badass moment” in the books is an act of folly that backfires horribly.

    One thing that I like about Martin’s writing is that he doesn’t give us straw men like so many other writers who try to make the same points that he does.

    For example in a lot of pacifist fiction we’re told that violence is caused by misunderstanding and that we can make peace if everyone just learns to get along. In Martin’s writing a lot of the enemies do horrible horrible things (even the most misunderstood ones still commit atrocities) but making peace is a good idea ANYWAY because of just how horrible war is. You don’t make peace with your friends, you make peace with your enemies.

    The same with badassery. In a lot of pacifist fiction the badass is a staggering idiot, the Zap Brannigan type. Martin doesn’t give us fake badassery, he gives us real badassery that makes us want to fist-pump when we’re reading it the first time. And then he shows it backfire horribly. When you’re reading the first book and you get to the “the King in the North!” scene you want to cheer. It’s such a perfect badass moment. When you’re rereading the books you agree with Catelyn’s sense of growing horror that all of those badasses chanting have just doomed themselves.

    The closest that Martin comes to just coming out and telling us directly what he feels about violence is the broken man speech, which is just masterful:

    “Ser? My lady?” said Podrick. “Is a broken man an outlaw?”

    “More or less,” Brienne answered.

    Septon Meribald disagreed. “More less than more. There are many sorts of outlaws, just as there are many sorts of birds. A sandpiper and a sea eagle both have wings, but they are not the same. The singers love to sing of good men forced to go outside the law to fight some wicked lord, but most outlaws are more like this ravening Hound than they are the lightning lord. They are evil men, driven by greed, soured by malice, despising the gods and caring only for themselves. Broken men are more deserving of our pity, though they may be just as dangerous. Almost all are common-born, simple folk who had never been more than a mile from the house where they were born until the day some lord came round to take them off to war. Poorly shod and poorly clad, they march away beneath his banners, ofttimes with no better arms than a sickle or a sharpened hoe, or a maul they made themselves by lashing a stone to a stick with strips of hide. Brothers march with brothers, sons with fathers, friends with friends. They’ve heard the songs and stories, so they go off with eager hearts, dreaming of the wonders they will see, of the wealth and glory they will win. War seems a fine adventure, the greatest most of them will ever know.

    “Then they get a taste of battle.

    “For some, that one taste is enough to break them. Others go on for years, until they lose count of all the battles they have fought in, but even a man who has survived a hundred fights can break in his hundred-and-first. Brothers watch their brothers die, fathers lose their sons, friends see their friends trying to hold their entrails in after they’ve been gutted by an axe.

    “They see the lord who led them there cut down, and some other lord shouts that they are his now. They take a wound, and when that’s still half-healed they take another. There is never enough to eat, their shoes fall to pieces from the marching, their clothes are torn and rotting, and half of them are shitting in their breeches from drinking bad water.

    “If they want new boots or a warmer cloak or maybe a rusted iron halfhelm, they need to take them from a corpse, and before long they are stealing from the living too, from the smallfolk whose lands they’re fighting in, men very like the men they used to be. They slaughter their sheep and steal their chickens, and from there it’s just a short step to carrying off their daughters too. And one day they look around and realize all their friends and kin are gone, that they are fighting beside strangers beneath a banner that they hardly recognize. They don’t know where they are or how to get back home and the lord they’re fighting for does not know their names, yet here he comes, shouting for them to form up, to make a line with their spears and scythes and sharpened hoes, to stand their ground. And the knights come down on them, faceless men clad all in steel, and the iron thunder of their charge seems to fill the world…

    “And the man breaks.

    “He turns and runs, or crawls off afterward over the corpses of the slain, or steals away in the black of night, and he finds someplace to hide. All thought of home is gone by then, and kings and lords and gods mean less to him than a haunch of spoiled meat that will let him live another day, or a skin of bad wine that might drown his fear for a few hours. The broken man lives from day to day, from meal to meal, more beast than man. Lady Brienne is not wrong. In times like these, the traveler must beware of broken men, and fear them…but he should pity them as well.”

    When Meribald was finished a profound silence fell upon their little band. Brienne could hear the wind rustling through a clump of pussywillows, and farther off the faint cry of a loon. She could hear Dog panting softly as he loped along beside the septon and his donkey, tongue lolling from his mouth. The quiet stretched and stretched, until finally she said, “How old were you when they marched you off to war?”

    “Why, no older than your boy,” Meribald replied. “Too young for such, in truth, but my brothers were all going, and I would not be left behind. Willam said I could be his squire, though Will was no knight, only a potboy armed with a kitchen knife he’d stolen from the inn. He died upon the Stepstones, and never struck a blow. It was fever did for him, and for my brother Robin. Owen died from a mace that split his head apart, and his friend Jon Pox was hanged for rape.”

    “The War of the Ninepenny Kings?” asked Hyle Hunt.

    “So they called it, though I never saw a king, nor earned a penny. It was a war, though. That it was.”

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    1. If you watched the youtube video Bret linked to…. (which you should) the maker of the video says exactly what you said. He brings in Heinlein and starship troopers, with the use of the violence as the supreme exercise of moral authority.

      He points out that many movies and shows (not just game of thrones) have Heinleinian main characters whose authority seems to rely on their aptitude for inflicting artful violence. (Pretty much every super hero is Heinleinian in that respect. He inflicts violence with a magic hammer, she inflicts violence with magical blasts etc.)

      The youtuber says that the essence of the books is to show how poorly that works. George R.R. Martin wrote the books to show how every single use of violence for the sake of expediency seems rebound horribly for the users. He also shows that sometimes not using violence is also a bad call. He also shows how violence affects the uninvolved.

      The youtuber says that the show, instead of recognizing the book’s subversion of the use of violence., indulges in the badassery.

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      1. I would disagree with that view of Heinlein. The system in Starship Troopers isn’t “those who are violent should make the decisions”–the system is “those who are willing to lay their life on the line for the state should make the decision.” Note that everyone who volunteers for service has the franchise, including those who serve far, far away from the front lines in explicitly noncombatant roles.

        This tends to get lost in the fact that the primary focus of the book is on the Terran Mobile Infantry, but that is what’s going on–which is a good chunk of the reason why the book is so misunderstood by both its fans and detractors.

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  34. Loved this series, and love the blog – so very informative for an amateur medievalist and wannabe fantasy author.

    Thumbs up for the Gauntlet reference, and another for the shout out to Brad Dourif, who was also very good as Saavedro in the game Myst 3:Exile.

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  35. Another great series !

    I was not convinced by your analysis of Saruman as a STEM supremacist, and not just because I work in STEM myself.

    Saruman’s highest stat is charisma. His greatest and most enduring power is his voice. His PSYOPs plan comes closest to succeeding – Théodred’s death results in Éomer’s arrest, not war, until Gandalf comes. A key option in his larger plan to become a servant of Sauron and gain influence, then control.

    This is still a terrible plan. Sauron is the best at dominating and deceiving others, even without the ring. But it’s not a STEM plan.

    My first response is that Saruman is a rhetorician who believes his own rhetoric.

    Now, I think that Saruman is what James C. Scott calls a high-modernist. (If you haven’t read Seeing Like A State, you need to.) He has more in common with Haussmann or Niemeyer than with Elon Musk. All problems will be solved as long as everything runs according to my plan. He values science/rationality, but hasn’t done much of it himself, and so thinks that the rational (read: best) way to build a society & army is the way with the most straightforward organization. His plans falter any time people don’t behave in his prescribed roles.

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    1. As Maiar of Aule, Sauron and Saruman are both STEM by definition.

      They’re *also* into persuading/deceiving/dominating people. So they’re like engineer-managers (that is, managers who are/have been engineers.) Really arrogant and domineering managers. Who are all into time-motion studies and treating people as tools and pegs to be hammered into the desired hole.

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    2. I think a lot of STEM supremacists aren’t actually STEM, but STEM wannabe. (In the UK, Dominic Cummings, the notorious government advisor and breaker of lockdown rules, is a STEM supremacist whose background is in history.)

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      1. I think that there is a significant difference between people whose success in STEM makes them overconfident in everything and other people who are trying to borrow the legitimacy of STEM to promote their aims.

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      2. One wonders where the famous novelist and chemist CP Snow falls in the STEM supremacist spectrum. His 1959 Rede Lecture (which I presume Bret has read) was primarily a indictment of the British educational system, which tended to minimize the exposure to STEM education for the people who would be the leading civil servants, government officials, and business leaders of the country.

        While many of the bases of his Rede Lecture, “The Two Cultures,” never applied to the US and are probably now outdated in the UK, one of the basic observations of Snow is still true: STEM education generally involves much more exposure, in the form of course work, to literature, history, social studies, and liberal arts in general than occurs for people in the liberal arts (more precisely, the subset of the liberal arts included in the trivium; three-quarters of the quadrivium is “STEM,” the remainder is music ;)).

        Tolkien was a product of the sort of education system examined (excoriated?) by Snow; I suspect that he would not place a STEM supremacist in charge of anything.

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  36. ‘…But not Tolkien’s heroes; they enter violent only reluctantly, only having exhausted other opportunities. When an off-ramp from violence presents itself, they try to take it, every time…’
    Which might be how the occupants of Middle-earth end up in a situation where only a deus ex machina (Gollum taking a lava bath) can save them from the alternatives of either using the One Ring to fight Sauron or being conquered completely by Sauron.
    Even Gandalf has woken up (quite possibly belatedly, given the disasters such as the fall of Arnor and the Kinstrife of Gondor) to what a bad idea it is sitting around letting Sauron gather his strength and execute plans safely by 2941 of the Third Age, when Gandalf desperately organises a pre-emptive strike on Smaug and joins forces with Saruman and others to try to kick Sauron out of southern Mirkwood. And in ‘The Last Debate’ chapter of The Return of the King, Gandalf lambasts recent Gondor policy saying that Imrahil’s description of sitting ‘…like children on sand-castles when the tide is flowing…’ is a pretty exact summary of it. (Gandalf also says of Sauron in the same chapter ‘…he has not built up his power by waiting until his enemies are secure, as we have done…’)

    Tolkien knew how ghastly the results of letting the wicked gather their strength and power could get, having lived through it. And with the exception of a few late efforts such as Gandalf’s orchestrated Smaug takedown and Aragorn’s attack on Umbar (the latter mentioned in the ‘stewards’ subsection and timeline in Appendix A) his ‘heroes’ seem to sit around and let the wicked gather their strength and power. (Okay: behind the scenes with the pre-determined narrative there is a specific need for this to have happened, otherwise there wouldn’t be half the story – just a regiment of hand-picked Gondorian soldiers escorting Frodo from the frontier citadel at Minas Ithil across the empty and desolate lands of Mordor to Mount Doom and a brief argument, presumably, there.)

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    1. Gandalf was the one who twice investigated Dol Guldur on his own, discovering the Necromancer was Sauron, and had advocated for an early strike at the Necromancer; it was Saruman who persuaded the White Council not to act, since he was secretly hoping the Ring would reveal itself with its master nearby.

      His snark to Imrahil is “Have you not done this and little more in all the days of Denethor? But no! I said this would be prudent. I do not counsel prudence.” I’m not sure it’s actually a criticism of Denethor’s policies. They were prudent, as Denethor was; Gandalf will counsel them to act on hope beyond prudence, based on Frodo’s mission.

      Gondor has not been in a position to curb the growth of Mordor; it has lost substantial population to plague, possibly biowarfare sent by Sauron. Rohan exists because Gondor barely had anyone living there anymore, and handed it over ot new allies.

      Tolkien gives no clue what the Istari were doing during earlier events, other than maybe learning how things worked in Middle-earth. Saruman and the Blues were out east for a while, but yeah, no idea if Gandalf was active during the fall of Arnor. Doesn’t mean he wasn’t doing something. We do know he was less concerned with humans than Saruman; Tolkien writes somewhere that for most of its history Gondor was already decidated against Sauron, so Gandalf saw little to do there, until near the end when propping it up become something to do.

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  37. Well, I thought you missed an opportunity to make the “Strategic” versus “Operational” versus “Tactical” explanation even more relevant to your readers by taking a look at the US in Vietnam (Vietnam War), or more currently, in Afghanistan and Iraq (Global War on/of Terror). From right where I am sitting, I get the impression that the US has no strategy, only operational and tactical considerations, which means inevitably, the collapse of the US military and the blindsiding of the civilians who are supposed to be supervising said military.

    Another example of complete lack of strategy was the Israeli invasion of the Lebanon, during which the Shiites of southern Lebanon – Hizbullah: the Party of God – rose to prominence and saw the Israel Defense Force off – in return for ousting the supposedly invincible IDF, they got labelled “terrorists”. Tolkien understood that rather well – Saruman does that to the Rohirrim from Isengard tower.

    Be that as it may, it’s also an illustration of something that Dr Paul Myron Anthony Linebarger aka Cordwainer Smith mentions in his book Psychological Warfare – making contradictory offers to your audience, attempting to be both counsellor and tyrant, is generally a bad idea.

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  38. Was anyone in the comments actually saying Saruman wasn’t stupid? So far as I saw, all people were saying was that this or that particular decision wasn’t quite as stupid as it seemed—but nobody that I saw was defending his overall snowball’s-chance-in-hell strategy.

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  39. It is possible for the tactical and operational to drive the strategic. A good example is Alexander – his strategic goal of entirely overthrowing the Persian Empire was based on his confidence in his tactical and operational superiority over Persian forces. Mind you, it was a precarious endeavour – it could easily have ended at the Granicus, in which case he would be a footnote in history and Bret’s lesson reinforced.

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  40. “The Last Days of the Third Age” (TLD) mod for Mount & Blade: Warband tries to hew fairly closely to the canon of the book, and it provides an interesting perspective on Isengard’s strategy in the War of the Ring. Of course, being a Mount & Blade mod, the creators found it difficult to integrate the Fellowship of the Ring into the game in a way that didn’t make the campaign too linear, so TLD is basically premised on some alternate scenario where the Fellowship of the Ring neither succeeds nor fails catastrophically: Perhaps Frodo drowns when trying to cross Nen Hithoel and the ring ends up at the bottom of the Falls of Rauros. It’s not said either way. But TLD basically imagines how the War of the Ring might have gone if the ring had been taken out of the equation.

    When playing as a commander on the side of the Isengard faction (which includes Isengard itself, the Dunlanders, Moria orcs, and Gundabad orcs), the odds are stacked against you. After the free peoples are defeated, the “War of the Two Towers” between Team Saruman and Team Sauron begins. Here’s how TLD mod imagines the match-up:

    Isengard: 6 field commanders + 4 settlements (Isengard proper, an Uruk-Hai Outpost, an Uruk-Hai Hunting Camp, and an Uruk-Hai River Camp)
    Dunland: 3 field commanders + 1 settlement
    Moria: 3 field commanders + 2 settlements
    Gundabad: 4 field commanders + 6 settlements
    Total: 16 field commanders + 13 settlements

    Mordor*: 6 field commanders + 5 settlements
    Harad*: 4 field commanders + 1 settlement
    Umbar*: 4 field commanders + 1 settlement
    Khand*: 3 field commanders + 1 settlement
    *(Note that in the first part of the War of the Ring, poor Gondor has to take on all 4 of these by itself!)
    Dol Guldur: 3 field commanders + 2 settlements
    Rhun: 4 field commanders + 3 settlements
    Total: 24 field commanders + 13 settlements

    Additionally, there are a few free people’s settlements that can actually be captured rather than razed during the 1st phase of the War of the Ring. Unfortunately for Isengard, all of these settlements are closer to Team Mordor, so in a normal campaign it is far more likely that Mordor and its allies capture these cities:
    *West Osgiliath
    *Pelargir
    *Cair Andros
    *Dale

    Based on my experience playing this mod, the key for Team Isengard seems to be to quickly blitzkrieg Rohan during the 1st phase of the War of the Ring and dogpile onto Gondor while Gondor is still desperately holding out against Mordor+Harad+Umbar+Khand, and then swoop in after Gondor has been softened and try to capture the various cities/fortresses along the Anduin…perhaps while Gondor is distracted elsewhere. Canon-wise, we would need to believe that Sauron would allow Saruman to at least temporarily hold onto these cities and fortify them. Saruman’s charisma stats would certainly need to be working overtime to accomplish that! Then, when the War of the Two Towers starts, Saruman is in at least a slightly better position to go on the defensive and try to exhaust Team Mordor…although the odds are still stacked against Team Saruman, for sure! Isengard might have more settlements on the map, but Sauron will still tend to have 50% more forces, and those Team Mordor forces tend to be simply better.

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    1. “fairly closely to the canon of the book”

      Though to make game playable they reduced military power of Mordor about 10 times if not more.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. True, and the game’s computational limitations prevent any battle from being much larger than 1000 vs. 1000 at most, so instead of the big decisive campaigns in the books involving thousands, you end up with a smaller-scale back-and-forth involving armies measuring in the hundreds clashing. Still, I consider it the best LOTR game out there (which is impressive, considering it is only a fan-made mod).

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  41. I liked your last bit about the importance of thinking about when to fight and what to fight for in a democracy. Unfortunately though, this has often been the issue where the difference between the interests of our leaders and the interests of the average person has been most stark.

    We’ve seen again and again the tricks politicians and their allies in the media will resort to to sell an unpopular war: inflated threats, invented atrocities, cynical appeals to the rights of the people who will be worst affected. And many of our most glaring violations of the freedom of speech and the press happen when our elected leaders are trying to force us to stay in an unpopular war.

    I suppose my point, if I have one, is that even when the citizens of a democracy realize the need to prevent frivolous wars, it’s not always within our power to do so.

    Liked by 1 person

  42. I think the assumption that operational goals may never override strategic goals is only true for the strategic goal that the operative goal is derived from.
    An operative goal belonging to an important strategic goal may very well override a less important strategic goal.

    In the Saruman example, if we start from the assumption that the Ring really is a gamechanger, the operational need to send a force as large as possible after the ring should override the strategical goal of keeping peace with rohan.

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    1. Uglúk was in charge of a force presumably meant to secure the Ring. Appendix A gives a date for the fight at Amon Hen, where Merry & Pippin were captured as February 26. The first battle of the Fords of Isen is dated as February 25, by which point Uglúk’s force had already presumably successfully cross or bypassed Rohan without drawing attention. The First Battle of the Fords of Isen (taking place as it did in the west of Rohan) was too late for any attempt to provide a distraction or draw of attention away from Uglúk’s outbound journey, and also took place before any outcome of Uglúk’s mission could be known in terms of capturing hobbits, etc, etc. And if the First Battle of the Fords of Isen was meant to hold Rohan’s attention in the west, whilst Uglúk returned across eastern Rohan, to the cover of the forest, it utterly failed there, since Éomer ended up hearing about and intercepting Uglúk’s force anyway.
      The First Battle of the Fords of Isen makes no sense whatsoever as far as furthering Saruman’s interests go. It was too late to provide a distraction to cover Uglúk’s outgoing journey, and failed to focus Rohan’s attention away from Uglúk’s return journey. It caused potential trouble with a neighbour that Saruman already had mostly under control via Wormtongue’s position at court at Edoras, risked upsetting the status quo at Edoras and shaking Théoden out of his apathy and lethargy, and wasn’t immediately followed up by an assault onwards from the Fords whilst Saruman still had surprise and the initiative.
      It helps the narrative (Look! War is breaking out in Rohan and a king’s son has been slain!) and helps Gandalf make a case about how brutal and treacherous Isengard and Saruman are when he turns up at Edoras, but it doesn’t seem to help Saruman.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I think that, for the first battle of the ford of Isen, Saruman placed an operational goal (killing Theodred) above a strategic goal, committing a sin of the second category, as listed in the article. Killing Theodred would be an operational goal in the sense that it would remove a leader not under the control of Grima / Saruman, weakening Rohan, though doing it under Isengard’s flag seems like a big blunder. And since Theoden is under Grima’s control, no reaction will come from him (until Gandalf come wake him up, something that Saruman hadn’t foreseen).

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  43. Bret:
    If you feel like a return trip to Middle-earth at some point, an analysis of the collapse of the empires of Gondor and Arnor in the Third Age might be worth while it seems to me, because these guys went from world-beaters to destroyed (in the case of Arnor) and militarily inferior to a second-stringer fantasy villain like Sauron and in danger of being destroyed (in the case of Gondor). Along the way there are plagues, arguments over succession, civil wars, rebellions, and occasional pirate raids.
    I think Legolas and Gimli have a discussion about the works & realms of ‘Men’ at some point, and how they tend to implode and fail to fulfill their early promise.

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      1. We get occasional glimpses in the main story of The Lord of the Rings, too. Faramir talks about Gondor in ‘The Window on the West’, and we get a few lines of commentary about Gondor’s old border military outposts in ‘The Tower of Cirith Ungol’.
        But I see what you mean. Other sources (Silmarillion, etc) seem to be a lot more interested in the First Age and ‘Mythic’ history than in Gondor & Arnor’s history. The doings of gods and near-divine entities (with a side-order of hobbits) was more interesting to Tolkien than the doings and kingdoms/empires of Men, I guess.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Remember that Tolkien *started* with elven languages, and what would be First Age myths, great tales and all. None of the Third Age stuff existed until his publisher demanded a sequel to the Hobbit. First Age has a 30-40 year head start on Third.

          That said, I’m not sure there’s much of that sort of detail in First Age material either. Fall of Gondolin is the most detailed battle, but it’s also early with dragon mecha and weak Balrogs.

          Hmm, I suppose the chapter Nirnaeth Arnoediad is somewhat detailed, especally on morale and ruses. OTOH we’re hampered by not even knowing exactly where Angband *is*. Gwindor somehow rides from Hithlum to the gates of Angband in the course of battle.

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  44. Great post, as usual.

    But I am not as sure about the stupidity of Japanese strategy in WWII. The fact that they were by far a weaker power does not in itself mean they could not win. North Vietnam was far weaker than the US in what they call the American war (in, you know, Vietnamese). Weaker party in war might win if it is willing to sacrifice disproportionately more to achieve their strategic objective and if it is able to inflict enough damage on its opponent that it will give up. Japanese model for this outcome in 1941 would be their war with Russia in 1905.

    I don’t know enough about Japanese internal politics to adequately judge whether this was the case, but it is imho plausible that their failure to enslave China would result in an overthrow of the regime even without an American intervention. In that case, their war with China could be understood as a war of survival, of course not of Japanese nation, but of their thoroughly evil ruling regime. If this assumption is correct, increasingly hostile attitude of the US to that goal in combination with massive (especially naval) military buildup of US forces after the fall of France perhaps made it worthwhile for Japan to strike now in an attempt to get the US forces out of the Far East, while the Soviet Union is otherwise engaged.

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    1. The Japanese weren’t planning on waging an anti-colonial guerilla war though, but a conventional imperialist one, so they can hardly have hoped to evade American firepower; they’d have to surpass it. Something they had functionally no hope of doing, given the vast, vast industrial gap. The Japanese were trying to win a naval war against a country that built more ships in 1944 than Japan built in the previous *ten years* combined.

      In the event, the Imperial Japanese government did, in fact, assume that the United States would be unwilling to sacrifice to win the war. And the IJN repeatedly assumed that American fleets would flee or hide and have to be lured out, despite pretty good evidence in early ’42 that the Americans were spoiling for a fight. Here, the comparison with the Vietnamese is instructive; the North Vietnamese forces pointedly avoided doing things which might enrage the USA or strengthen its will to fight, they confined their effort to what was essentially a distant colonial war. Japan opened the war with a surprise attack on a major US military installation in Hawaii, functionally ensuring that US will would be sufficient to see the war to the end, even if that end meant nuclear fire.

      But Japanese planners never really thought that far forward. They had a plan for the first six months or year or so – defeat the US fleet, build a perimeter of defenses in the Pacific islands, and then…??????? until the USA gave up and handed over the oil and also the Philippines. The Vietnamese had a really good sense of the mechanism by which they would procure US Withdrawal. The Japanese never had a good sense of how the United States would be induced to give up, only that they ought to sink the fleet to make that happen by some nebulous means. That’s what I mean by them *not having* a strategy. They had operational plans and nothing more.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I haven’t read Shattered Sword, so don’t know if this was a factor in Imperial Japanese leadership thinking in 1941, but didn’t a stunning Imperial Japanese naval victory in 1905 at Tsushima bring a ‘great power’ to the negotiating table and result in Imperial Japan getting what it wanted then?

        Liked by 1 person

        1. It absolutely was, but in all the wrong ways. Japan essentially learned from Tsushima Strait that wars were all about big, decisive battles. They spent literal decades planning for a decisive battle (termed Kantai Kessen) against the United States, and spent the entire war chasing it. They finally got their desired “decisive battle” at Surigao Strait in 1944, but it was decisive in all the wrong ways.

          Tsarist Russia was a completely different animal than 1941 USA. Russia was also fighting an incredibly bloody land war against Japan and had lost their Pacific Fleet in a series of humiliating defeats, which is why the “Second Pacific Squadron” was even at Tsushima in the first place.

          Japan also got rather lucky in the Russo-Japanese War, as they stretched themselves near to the breaking point, but the Russians gave in because of internal struggles just before the Japanese broke. There was very little danger of that happening in the US.

          Liked by 1 person

      2. I mean, you could predict in 1904 that a surprise attack of Japanese fleet on Port Arthur functionally ensured that Russia would carry the war to the end, and that in conventional, imperialist, non-guerilla type conflict, Japanese will be sooner or later driven from Manchuria and Korea by the superior might of Russian armies.

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        1. Only Russian armies weren’t all that mighty. They were badly supplied and poorly led and at the far end of a long supply line. The Russian military, like the Russian state, was an awful mess in 1905. And no better ten years later.

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          1. But internal weakness of Russia in 1904 was not readily apparent. On paper Russia should be much stronger at least on land then Japan, just like US in 1941. In both cases Japanese government gambled that internal problems of their enemies will prevent them from fully mobilizing their strength. Only in first case this calculated risk turned out to pay off and in second one it did not.

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  45. > I can’t see how the Nazgûl are not wearing their rings.

    Tolkien says so. Gandalf says so within the story, and Letter 246 is more explicit. Sauron held the Nine Rings and thus control over the wills of the Nazgul, even without the One handy. This is why he thought he could trust him with retrieving the One.

    > Sauron lost his power when the ring was forcibly detached from him by Isildur

    Sauron had already been “overthrown” by Elendil and Gil-galad; Isildur looted the corpse.

    > Bilbo starts to age when he’s no longer in close proximity to the ring.

    There’s no mention of that when Frodo meets Bilbo in Rivendell after 17 years separation. Age has caught up to Bilbo when Frodo returns, *after* the One has been destroyed. Unlikely as it might seem, the One has been sustaining Gollum, Bilbo, and Frodo, even after separation from two of them; of course it was also sustaining the foundations of the Barad-dur despite 3000 years of separation.

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    1. I’m working from the three books alone, in which AFAIK Tolkien never says that Sauron holds the rings. Gandalf at the Council of Elrond specifically says “The Nine the Nazgûl keep.” Elsewhere Gandalf does say that Sauron has “gathered” the nine rings to him, but Gandalf also says that Sauron is “gathering” his forces, and I don’t think this means he is putting a Haradrim army in a cupboard somewhere.

      Sauron had been overthrown, but he very definitely lost power when Isildur cut the One Ring from his hand. Otherwise, and I’ll make this point again in a moment, why does Sauron want it back?

      When Frodo arrives in Rivendell Bilbo tells him “I am getting old” which he hadn’t said before in the Shire. Yes, the One Ring – probably all magical rings – does has some permanent effects on the wielder. And these effects finally ending when the original spellcaster dies is a common magical trope, not just in LOTR.

      Magical rings, in classical fantasy which Tolkien was well aware of and crafted LOTR in the style of, must be WORN for maximum effect. And we see this clearly in LOTR. Palantirs are impersonal, responding to anyone. Rings do not. Gandalf and Galadriel wear their rings instead of stashing them in a safebox. Being the ring bearer is not the same as actually putting on the ring.

      Even today, in fiction and real life putting on a wedding ring – or later taking it off – is important.

      In my modern day user interface geek persona, rings only switch on when worn on a finger. Removing the ring either switches it off, or for the One Ring at least puts it in some kind of “sleep” mode with reduced power.

      So I can’t see why Sauron would deliberately weaken the Nazgûl by removing their rings. Especially because I disagree with CGP Grey and believe like others that the One Ring gives direct control over the others, so it would be unnecessary.

      That said, I’ve working my way through Unfinished Tales and haven’t read the other “extended” books are the letters. I would be interested in reading them, are there any you particularly recommend? (Besides letter 246)

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      1. “So I can’t see why Sauron would deliberately weaken the Nazgûl by removing their rings.”

        Because that’s how he can keep control of them without having the One Ring to hand.

        Tolkien doesn’t say *when* he took their Rings, so the details aren’t worked out. Perhaps the reformed Sauron was able to hunt them down and intimidate them into handing over their Rings, I dunno.

        Some other notable letters are 130, 144, 154, 200. 207 and 210 for him grumbling about movie proposals. 212. 153.

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