Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Not-So-Gaping Plot Hole

The first times I read the Lord of the Rings I absolutely loved it of course, but something in it nagged at me. Why was the Sammath Naur unguarded? How costly would it have been for Sauron to staff it with, say, 5 orcs? Sam and Frodo’s incredibly arduous journey, not to mention the efforts of the rest of the Fellowship and mankind in general, could have all amounted to naught if Sauron had just defended the entrance to the one place in Middle-Earth where the Ring could be destroyed. I reasoned that it was protected: the Morgai was a daunting barrier, inside of which Mordor teemed with orcs. However, it seemed reasonable for Sauron to place at least a couple of orcs guarding the entrance to the mountain! He has orcs running around all over Arda, but can’t spare some at Orodruin? I would have been kind of disappointed if after 900 pages the quest had failed, but still, it lacked some realism. The answer lies in the nature of evil in Tolkien’s mythology, specifically the stories and motivations of Morgoth and Sauron.

Morgoth and Sauron at their core try to supplant Ilúvatar. Morgoth begins residing in the shadow (the Void) implicitly created by Ilúvatar’s creation of good from the beginning, creating discordant themes in the Ainulindalë:

“He had gone often alone into the void places seeking the Imperishable Flame; for desire grew hot within him to bring into Being things of his own, and it seemed to him that Ilúvatar took no thought for the Void, and he was impatient of its emptiness. . . But being alone he had begun to conceive thoughts of his own unlike those of his brethren.
Some of these thoughts he now wove into his music, and straightway discord arose about him. . .”

He greatly desired to do and create independently of Ilúvatar, and so sought independence by means of the Void. Ultimately, of course, Ilúvatar said that “no theme may be played that hath not its uttermost source in me, nor can any alter the music in my despite.” In addition, “he that attempteth this shall prove but mine instrument in the devising of things more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined.” No matter what evil Morgoth or Sauron attempt to perpetrate, in the end they are still participating in the ultimate Good that is Ilúvatar’s creation (a neat example being Sauron’s orders to capture halflings leading directly to the speedy deliverance of Merry and Pippin to the Ents, who were instrumental in the Saruman’s downfall). Morgoth sought power and domination over Arda: he wanted to be God, Creator instead of merely sub-creator, and therein lay his Evil.

Sauron’s obsession lay less in God status and more in the domination of wills. He was worshipful of Morgoth and Sauron recruited others to worship him as well. His gift of knowledge to the Elves was a duplicitous act, enticing them with rings of power in order to bind their wills to his by his creation of the One Ring. As is seen in Frodo’s long journey with the One Ring, it attempts to bend the will of the ring bearer and make him succumb to Sauron. It is constantly pressing Frodo to wear it, and thus reveal himself to Sauron, and only through great acts of will is Frodo able to resist. Even this will can’t stop him in the end though, and at the Cracks of Doom Frodo refuses to give it up, being saved in the end by his own acts of pity towards Gollum, who bites the Ring off of his finger and falls into the fires of Doom while gloating. Men fell to similar temptations, attempting to reverse their mortal fates. Rather than seeing their fate of mortality as a gift in the same way that immortality was a gift to the Elves by Ilúvatar, they longed for immortality. Sauron was able to use this against them, giving them 9 rings which gave them a form of immortality, but also bound them permanently to his will.

So how does this help me with Sauron’s overlooking of the entrance at the Cracks of Doom? It never occurred to him that the for Good in the world would not attempt to use the Ring. Or maybe it did, but the thought of them not attempting to use its enormous power was inconceivable. He was following the model of those before the end of the Third Age: the kings of Men who lusted for power and immortality, Isildur who wavered at the last possible moment, Gollum etc. The King returned, but he was not as corruptible as the Kings of old that lusted for power and immortality. The forces that showed up to defend Arda from Sauron were full of incredibly humble people: Aragorn, Sam, Gandalf, and others who were faced with the temptation of the Ring were able to resist. Gandalf’s position was especially elucidating. He reasoned that he would attempt to use the Ring for good and not evil, but the power of dominating wills such as the Ring gives to the bearer is inherently an evil one. Had he forced people into Good, it would have made it seem Evil. People need to be able to choose Good, otherwise it ceases to be Good. Evil will always exist in the shadow of Good. They of the Council were wise enough to see that the Ring had to be destroyed. They realized that power gained through the domination of free will would be a dark one, and so they sought a more humble victory. Sauron thought they would want a tyrannically good Arda, not an Arda left up to its own machinations, which in the end is what happened, just how Ilúvatar would have wanted it.



  1. I have to admit that it never occurred to me to wonder why Sauron left the Sammath Naur itself unguarded, but now that you mention it, it does seem odd. My sense had always been that he considered Mordor as a whole impenetrable, but after receiving Frodo's mithril coat from Minas Morgul, you'd think he would be more worried about what happened to the spy. Perhaps he was not worried because he had no evidence that that spy had been carrying anything other than what was taken off him. It is hard to know how to think about the extent of Sauron's knowledge at any given point: how far could the Eye see? You've got me wondering!


  2. It honestly never struck me as odd that the Sammath Naur was unguarded, but now that I'm thinking about it, it does seem rather strange and discordant, at least at first. But you're right, and I think that your exploration of these themes is spot-on.

    It's an oversight, and that oversight exposes Sauron's great failing and the one which ultimately leads him to his doom: his inability to see, in all his desperate desire for more power, more dominion over the wills of others, that perhaps his enemies are working toward a different goal. He believes that his enemies all have as their ultimate end the desire to contest him or even to supplant him by using his own power, the Ring; this is why he is so desperate to get it back, I think. He cannot even imagine that they would try to destroy it, and this, I think, is at the core of the conflict and at the core of Sauron's eventual defeat and downfall as well. -MJ

  3. Had Sauron possessed any knowledge of the plans of the Fellowship, then he probably would have taken more protective measures. Mordor itself was already quite heavily defended, at least from armies, with troops and by geography. The Black Gate was a massive fortress as was Minas Morgul being the home of the Nazgul Lord, which were the two primary points of entry into Mordor. The land itself was barren, dessert-like and subject to temperature extremes. I am certain that a couple of spies infiltrating hear and there was hardly considered a great threat, since they would likely be discovered/captured before long (as Frodo was). Furthermore, Sauron being ever in the quest for more power, could not conceive of anyone wanting to destroy the Ring of ultimate power—hide it perhaps, but not destroy it.

    We know that Gandalf, Galadriel, and their ilk would have tried to use the ring to impose goodness if they took it. Aragron, Boromir, and such likely would have become tyrants like Ar-Pharazon. We don’t really know what Frodo’s temptation was. He seems tempted to take the ring to Sauron ,or simply to keep in at the end, but we don’t know what he was inclined to do with it knowing the power that it has. What does this say about him?

    -Jason A Banks

  4. I actually had the same thought! While initially my response was to say something along the lines of “well, you might lock you doors at night, but you don’t guard your own kitchen,” I was eventually left dissatisfied with that answer, partially because of what Professor Fulton-Brown pointed out, that Sauron certainly should have doubled up his security after ‘spies’ were found in his territory, but also because Sauron seemed like the kind of fellow who would in fact guard his own kitchen. The (relatively unsatisfying answer) that I eventually had to settle on was that I imagined that the Eye was in fact usually guarding it. At the time that Sam and Frodo entered, the captains of the West were at the Black Gates making exactly the distraction that was miraculously needed (the timing of this episode was actually more of a problem for me in terms of believability). Basically, I have an inclination that Sauron himself was usually keeping an eye on the Cracks of Doom and incidentally wasn’t at that point, but your interpretation is entirely more satisfying.

    E. Moore

  5. In one of my blog posts I had suggested something very similar to what Michaela says here; that Sauron was so utterly convinced that others would want to use the ring for the same purposes as himself i.e. domination that he could not conceive of anyone destroying it.
    However, I would like to pose a question from within Middle Earth's own history. Was Sauron aware that Isildur had once been very close to destroying the ring? If he was aware of this then perhaps he had to have been open to the possibility that the ring being destroyed was a plausible possibility. Furthermore, Elrond who counseled Isildur to destroy the ring is still alive in this age and would doubtless be urging the same counsel as before. The return of Isildur's heir would also suggest that this heir would be striving to correct the past wrongs of his ancestor. Is Sauron's crime 'ignorance' not only in a Boethian sense but in a far more simple sense? Was the Dark Lord simply not up to date with Middle Earth's history?

    R Rao