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Sauron wanted his ring back

Fans of the book The Hobbit and three volume epic the Lord of the Rings by J.RR Tolkien, plus the equally epic films directed by Peter Jackson based on the books will be relieved to hear that this article will not attempt to whitewash Sauron, the arch-villain of the books and films. Several ship loads of bleach would not be enough to wash away his many black deeds.

   But a closer look at these histories suggests that there are streaks of grey in the  character portrayed as the blackest of the black in the books and films. Similarly, a closer examination of the story of Bilbo, the hobbit thief hero of The Hobbit, the prequel to the Lord of the Rings, indicates he is something less than the shiny white character of the book and films. Much the same could be said of Frodo, the nephew-apprentice of Bilbo and hero of the Lord of the Rings.

   Sauron was certainly an arch-thug-warlord who maintained an army of orcs in Mordor and made a considerable nuisance of himself to his neighbours. But as previously noted in this series of articles, history is written by the victors, and the elves have a particular hatred of the Orcs and of Sauron, not least because he used machinery and was into technology.

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   For the elves are deep green environmentalists, uninterested in any sort of development or progress and they regard orcs, dwarves, humans and hobbits as threats to the environment, in that order – a point to which we shall return. Tolkien’s viewpoint was similar in that, as is evident in his books, he hated machinery. If he had been a farm laborer required to labor day in and day out, rather than  an academic, his attitude may have been different, but as it was he detested machinery. However, he does seem to have had a soft spot for dwarves.

   All that means the elfish historians, with the considerable help of Tolkien, never gave Sauron the slightest credit at all. So the part about Sauron being a shapeless, malevolent spirit controlling a lidless, all-seeing eye pivoting on top of  his tower Barad Dur, much like a searchlight, can be dismissed out of hand. It is akin to Tudor playwrights who wanted to stay out of Royal prisons, as well as tell a better story, claiming that Richard III was hideously deformed.

   The motivation of Elfish historians is a little different to that of Tudor playwrights in that, aside from their general hatred of development and technology, like Roman historians, they are rewarded for telling a good story that agrees with the preconceptions of their audience, or perhaps reinforces the Elfish moral code. Telling the truth is a secondary consideration. But Sauron was bad enough, as we have noted, and as one sign of a particularly black character he was uninterested in going through legal due process to re-acquire his ring which, through a series of events, had ended up in the possession of Frodo Baggins of The Shire.

When J.R. R Tolkien wrote what remains undoubted  masterpieces and classics of the English language, he portrayed Bilbo Baggins much as the Elfish historians and Bilbo’s own writings had done, as a sort-of local squire from good family, a gentry type who had a very nice house, Bag End, that might be described as gentleman’s country seat. He lived the life a gentle hobbit, meaning that he didn’t seem to do much in particular, until a load of dwarfs and a wizard of doubtful appearance with a slight claim to fame in the neighbourhood came calling, asking him to become a thief – a sequence of events portrayed in The Hobbit films.

Right! So Bilbo took to thievery only because a group of dwarves and a wizard he had never met before, asked him to go to a place he had no knowledge of to disturb a dangerous dragon with a notably bad temper. In the story Gandalf recommended Bilbo to the dwarves although he hardly knew the hobbit. He knew Bilbo’s family, or so he said, and in the film he indicates that he had known Bilbo as a child, but how did any of that make him decide that Bilbo had the skills to be an adventurer-thief?

Let us set fiction aside. Bilbo would not be the first thief to invent a genteel background for himself and claim that, really, he was a very respectable person who only exercised certain skills he possessed in a righteous cause, namely to help the dwarfs regain their lost treasure and kingdom. A far more likely series of events is that Bilbo was down on his luck, living in a shack, and was being dogged by the rangers who keep the peace in the shire. Those rangers were becoming increasingly suspicious about Bilbo’s involvement in a series of thefts in the neighbourhood. Time to move on. Enter another doubtful character, Gandalf, a supposed wizard who also does not seem to have any means of support or occupation beyond that of freelance organiser of expeditions.

In the Lord of the Rings films it is implied that the Halfling “tobacco” leaves had special qualities and that Gandalf was fond of it. Perhaps he was sufficiently fond of it to organise its export and sale? In the films his dress and long hair recalled the excesses of the drug-taking hippie era of the 1960s, although his clothes were somewhat more threadbare than that of any hippie. As Hobbit “tobacco” was not illegal or prohibited anywhere in Middle Earth, at least nothing is said about this in any of Tolkien’s material, he would not have been the only distributor. A poor living it seems. No doubt he became interested in the claims of one Thorin Oakenshield during a tobacco session, and agreed to help organise the expedition, and even go with it for a time, for a fee, as a means of supplementing his meagre income.

Very likely the dwarven kingdom had been lost. (Dwarven kingdoms get lost a lot in Tolkien’s books, but then the dwarves like to accumulate riches, and that makes them a target.) Very likely the dwarves had been members of that kingdom and Thorin Oakenshield might well have had a claim to the throne. I will make no judgement on that point. But 13 dwarves and one hobbit is not a formidable expedition, particularly as the dragon Smaug had wiped out the army of the lonely mountain kingdom, seemingly without trying very hard. Granted Oakenshield’s band had a scheme for sneaking a few items from the dragon’s stolen horde through a back door they knew about, but it was still all quite mad and very likely Bilbo knew it, but he needed to move on and doubtless expected to sneak away before the dwarves got anywhere near the dragon.

In the books and film Bilbo stumbled into the lair of the unsavoury Gollum, originally a hobbit-like creature called Smeagol  twisted out all recognition by his long possession of the ring, after becoming separated from the dwarves in the Misty Mountains. At the time of their meeting this creature was scavenging for a living in the bowels of the mountain, or so we are told.

A more likely story is that Gollum was a petty hobbit thief whom Bilbo encountered in a drinking and tobacco session and stole from him. The books depict much of middle earth to be wilderness depopulated in wars centuries ago and never resettled. This is difficult to believe. The reality is that some areas were lightly settled with a few towns where life was cheap and taverns dangerous. One exception was the elf-run Rivendell, but unless you were a tree, or prepared to eat nuts and berries and the ghastly concoctions the elves drink instead of beer, you were advised to stay out of Rivendell proper. The Elves tolerated riffraff (non-elfs) who stayed at an inn designated for such creatures as the business earned money, just as they tolerated the associated markets, where the dwarves bought what they needed for the next stage of their journey.

Whether it was at the Rivendell tavern or, more likely, one of the other unsavoury dens on the road, Bilbo met Gollum and somehow came away with the ring, is not known. There is no honour among thieves, and even less among hobbit-thieves. The part about Gollum living in the wild, killing smaller creatures when he could, and the two playing a game of riddles for the ring was invented later to give some moral gloss to the fact that Bilbo, by one means or another, had come into the possession of someone else’s ring – a valuable, magical ring. Gollum, almost certainly, had no legal title to it either, and had probably killed whoever scavenged it from the battlefield on which Sauron had been defeated, but stealing from a thief is still theft.

Having somehow pilfered this ring, with its power of making the wearer invisible, an invaluable item for  a thief, Bilbo must have thought it advisable to keep going with the dwarves, rather than sneak away as he had planned. Gollum was not to be under estimated and knew that Bilbo came from the Shire. It was best to go in the other direction for a time. In addition, very likely, he became interested in the many tales the dwarves told of the horde of gold and precious items on which Smaug sat. With a ring that made him invisible, he reasoned, once down the secret passage and inside the treasure room he could take a few items for himself. This is essentially what happens although this gets a good spin in the books. The claim is that he took the Arkenstone of Thrain but then used it in an effort to buy peace when various other parties came calling. Right! The reality is that he took the precious stone for himself and a clumsy attempt to broker his one way out of trouble and gain some loot on the side was found out, and it was the first plausible lie he could think of. Whatever the truth of these matters Smaug was killed through no particular fault of Bilbo or the dwarves, although Bilbo did identify a vital piece of intelligence – a vulnerable spot that led to the dragon’s downfall. Smaug’s death was marked by a major battle at the lonely mountain which Bilbo survived.

He then collected a token payment – he would never have expected to get an equal share of the gold horde and wisely never asked for it – recovered the loot he had pilfered, minus the Akenstone, and made his way home. He had enough to buy Bagend and live in comfort there for many years, his unsavoury past gradually being forgotten – the ring did stretch his life span. By a few well-chosen charitable acts, as well as by throwing a series of excellent parties, he even became a respectable figure.

The loose end in this happy ending of respectability remained the ring. Bilbo kept it, of course, and was smart enough to keep his mouth shut about it, as well as use it sparingly, particularly as he had no reason to resume his career as a thief. In real middle-earth history, as in fiction, for a long time there was no trouble. When Bilbo acquired the ring, Sauron had re-established himself in the southern region of Mirkwood (the Necromancer in the film), after a heavy defeat of some years previously. As the lag of 3,000 years indicated in the films and books does not seem credible, let us say 30. However, as he was quickly driven out of Mirkwood he was no position to reclaim his property for many years. The books say he let himself be driven out of Mirkwood as he had already established a Site B at Barad-Dur in Mordor, but the delay in reclaiming his property suggest another, heavy defeat and that he was allowed to re-established himself in Mordor as it was a place that no-one else wanted.

Gollum could have found the ring very quickly, but before he could do much he was probably scooped up by Sauron’s agents who wanted to know where the ring was and would not have been satisfied by answers that he lost it to a strange hobbit (what’s a hobbit?) from the shire (where was that?). The questioning would have been hard and thorough, albeit delayed by the circumstances of Sauron having to abruptly shift abode and take up meaner quarters for a time.

Having settled in Mordor, by one means or another, he started to amass power. He was a rogue but a clever rogue. He turned the lands around the Sea of Nurnen in Mordor itself into a wheat belt, and gained control of some of the pasture lands between Mordor and the Sea of Rhun to the North West. These are marked as Brown Lands on the map and are barely mentioned in the stories, but were suitable for cattle. The area around Barad Dur itself in North Western Mordor, an area rich in iron ore and coal, became an industrial zone. Hence the reference to poisonous fumes. As far as the elves were concerned, any industrial activity made the area uninhabitable. After his power had grown, as noted in the books, he formed alliances with powers to the South and East of his land.

Most of this occurred without his immediate neighbour among the human powers, Gondor to his west, paying much heed. North Western Mordor was, after all, a dreadful, out of the way place – a wasteland – and Sauron had already been heavily defeated twice. There were more pressing matters to spend money on, than border defences and watch towers facing a non-threat. By the time Gondor realised what was happening, Sauron he had grown too big to easily handle and, among other matters, he was thinking of reclaiming his ring.

The part about the ring being the one ring which controlled a heap of other rings, can be dismissed as wild exaggeration. It was undoubtedly a very good ring, which made the wearer invisible and also gave them some ability to control others, but the part about this item of personal jewellery holding a large slice of Sauron’s power, so that when it was destroyed he also went away, is too farfetched. No, Sauron’s power was like all other power in middle-earth or any other earth; it was based on pure, simple economic clout – clout gained through production and trade. Financial self-interest is a fundamental force in the universe; as inevitable as gravity and far more important. Whether they are hobbits, dwarves or men, sentient creatures want to know what’s in it for them. One, partial exception are the deep green elves, but even they won’t reject a chance to make money if there is no damage to the environment (or they can persuade themselves there will be no damage to the environment).

Sauron was sufficiently clever to comprehend the importance of financial self-interest and did not care a rap about the environment. He was prepared to let merchants do what they do and enforce rule of law, provided taxes were paid. To do evil requires money. Orc armies have to be paid for. The Gondor-Rohan alliance, in contrast, relied on the medieval approach to raising armies. A major lord had his own troops but also called on minor lords who owed him allegiance to bring their soldiers. Each lord paid for his own troops. This is not a very efficient method of raising armies for various reasons, and the army does not stay in the field very long. Sauron’s approach of paying for his orcs, who also expected to supplement their wages with plunder, is more efficient but orcs seem to have had a low fighting value.

Having established himself and before attacking Gondor, as the kingdom would neither trade with him or let through his trade caravans to other regions, Sauron occupied some of his time looking for his ring. A thorough interrogation of Gollum (his mistreatment accounts for his appearance in the films) had produced enough leads for Sauron to send out agents. In the books, his agents are defamed as black riders with all sorts of nasty allegations being made about their personal habits and appearance, and even worldly existence. Admittedly Sauron would not have hired his agents for their appearance, manners or even personal hygiene, but much of this is over the top, even for elfish historians. Whatever else they may have been, these agents were competent enough to find Bilbo, and fearsome enough to make that now elderly hobbit-thief hurriedly turn the ring over to his nephew and heir Frodo, not without some regrets, and take refuge in Rivendell.

That refugee had its price. Eating nuts, drinking the ghastly bark beer which the Elves insist is delicious, listening to interminable elfish songs about trees and merry times and ancient kings that were wise until the climate changed or some such, is bad enough, but being forced to sing such nonsense is even worse. The films show Rivendell as a bunch of beautiful buildings but in reality, the Elfish nature lovers were more like their pals in Lothlorien, in that they hung out in trees and slept on tree roots, insisting that it was comfortable and put them closer to nature. We will skip over their bathroom habits and waste disposal, as this was also in line with their aim to live naturally.

Why didn’t Bilbo keep the ring and hide out at Rivendell? By living a long time he had outlived his retirement package, spending all the money he got from his Smaug adventure (this is noted in the books) with lavish parties not helping. Bagend and been mortgaged, and the little left had been paid to the elves so that so that he could hang out at Rivendell. The elves will tolerate Hobbits, just. In any case, there was nothing left for either himself or Frodo except for a doubtful chain mail shirt, pumped up as a fabulously expensive shirt of mithril in the books but unlikely to be worth much in reality, and the ring.

Then Frodo hatched a mad scheme for turning the ring into another fortune. After dodging the black riders, why not take it close to Mordor and threaten to drop it in a fire, unless Sauron paid up. Difficult? Certainly. Dangerous? You bet. But if they took care with the ransom drop, Frodo and his companions, who would all have to be given equal shares of the loot, could flee and scatter. Perhaps Sauron would deal with them later, or perhaps Gondor would deal with him? Whatever happened Sauron would have his hands full for a time, and he would have his ring. Maybe he would forget, or maybe the gang could head out west, across the sea, beyond his reach.

This may sound farfetched but as stories go it is infinitely better than the insane scheme set out in the books, that the ring was to be taken into the heart of Mordor’s industrial district and cast into a volcano, as the only way to destroy Sauron That suicidal mission was entrusted to two hobbits who had never been near the place before, had no maps of any kind, no equipment worth mentioning apart from a couple of items of survival gear, or any experience that would even begin to fit them for the job. Right. That piece of tobacco session-induced lunacy was explained away a result of the nature of the ring, in that no-one with any power to begin with dared wield the ring, or even carry it, because it would corrupt them. So it was left in the hands of two blundering amateurs, Frodo and Sam who, by a series of miracles, actually won through. No, the tale bears all the hallmarks of Elfish historians telling a good story.

In the reality of Middle-earth at the time, there were no real heroes, and no safe options. If the ring was simply handed to one of Sauron’s agents, the agent might then vanish in all senses of the word, possibly after killing Frodo outright to cover his trail. If he had been left alive, all the hobbit could have given the next set of agents to turn up would have been a vague description of the man he had handed the ring to, along with a possibly false name. The interrogation would not have been pleasant.

It was, in fact, somewhat safer to demand a ransom for the ring, as then Sauron and all his henchmen would at least know that Frodo had the ring and was prepared to surrender it for a price. However, the negotiations had to be conducted in a crowded populous city, with all negotiation sessions in public places, and with due precautions against being followed. Minas Tirith is such a city so they went there. However, Frodo needed companion/bodyguards to keep the Dark Lord’s agents at bay. He  ended up with the previously mentioned Gandalf, who also seems to have been long-lived and was of some use as a councillor in such shady dealings, plus Strider, a pretender to the throne of Gondor, and Boromir, a man who had left the service of Gondor’s armies for whatever reason and hoped to gain something by supporting Strider. Then there was Gimli, a dwarf, the Elven Legolas and three other hobbits, including servant Sam.

These characters are all treated well in the histories and even given decent pedigrees, which is unusual for Elven historians, but they were telling a good story not recounting history and the coming of the ring helped destroy Sauron, as we shall see. So they were prepared to look favourably on this collection of odd characters and even give it the fancy name of The Fellowship of the Ring. Strider’s doubtful claim to the throne is transformed into an overwhelming case, and Boromir is turned into the eldest son of the Steward of Gondor. Legolas is made a prince of the Elves of Northern Mirkwood and Gimili becomes well connected indeed. Only the Hobbits are not given classy background, probably because the Elfish historians didn’t know what to make of them, particularly as the shire had gentry (including upstarts such as Frodo and Bilbo) but no nobility or royalty. So why not turn servant Sam into a hero, and Pippin and Merry into well-born (for hobbits) ne’re do wells who come good?

Then Sauron miscalculated. He was a smart thug, but also a greedy one, and he was about ready to attack Gondor anyway, so why not hit the capital Minas Tirith, while the ring was inside, and kill two birds with one stone. As ideas go, it was not a bad one, but it meant he went a year or so earlier than he planned, against opposition he had under-estimated. As Sauron also had the aid of Saruman, a war lord with a base at the Southern end of the misty mountains who styled himself as a wizard like Gandalf (an old tobacco-session mate of Gandalf it seems), his confidence is understandable, albeit ultimately misplaced. For he lost again. He loss was a narrow one but it occurred before the Gondor-Rohan coalition had been able to draw up its full forces. They had unexpected help from the Ents and, in one move Sauron never foresaw, Frodo and his companions, on hearing the Sauron was on the march just as negotiations had begun, overcame their greed to sell the ring at a knock down price to the Steward of Gondor, Denathor.

Although the ring was not as powerful as is made out in books, it was still of considerable use, albeit with its use coming at a price. Having beaten off the attack on his capital, Denathor went crazy and tried to burn his surviving but badly wounded son to death, and ended up on the pyre himself. Unfortunate, but it was a war. With the steward dead and his heir out of action, Aragorn was able to leverage his shaky claim to be the heir to a long absent king and his prominent role in fighting the army from Mordor, into a successful grab for power (Boromir died in this fighting). Like any other adventurer newly come to the throne, he needed a military victory all his own, preferably a quick, relatively bloodless one, and Sauron was close at hand, his army having been defeated. No doubt Aragorn stitched together a deal with the Rohanites to keep their army in being for a few more weeks in return for territorial and trade concessions, so that both armies were able to march straight for the Black Gate and another hard fought battle.

Sauron made a last stand of it rather than slip away quietly as was his custom after every defeat, but he had lost so many of his battles that it would have been the end for him anyway. So much for the Dark Lord. His lands and commercial interests were quietly annexed by Gondor, with much of it parcelled up and distributed to the new King’s supporters in order to consolidate his power. Some of it became part of the king’s private estate.

After Sauron’s defeat, the Fellowship split up. With the resources of Gondor at his disposal Aragorn was able to kick in some money in exchange for the departure of his colleagues. It would never do for the people to be reminded that their new king had such down at heel companions before coming to the throne. The Hobbits at least had enough money to make their way back to The Shire and, by great good fortune, were on hand to lead a rebellion against some of Saruman’s rowdies who had grabbed control of the place. Like any good adventurers they took care to acquire estates for themselves in the process. Frodo ended up with Bag End unencumbered by a mortgage, and brought the now elderly Bilbo back to live with him, on the condition that there would be no more expensive parties. Sam, the political operator, managed to get himself declared Mayor for life. Legolas, as far as it is known, went west over the sea and Gimli opened a tavern in Erebor.

This story differs in many details from that set out in The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings, but it has just as much support by scholars and is far more likely. As this series has frequently noted, there is often a vast difference between real life events and the films supposedly based on those events. To take one example at random, all attempts to portray the adventures of a squad of real life American prohibition treasury agents, dubbed The Untouchables by the media of the time, have virtually no connection with the actual exploits of that squad. The name is catchy. The Lord of the Rings is a masterpiece but, as always, reality does not arrange itself in neat, dramatic and moral tales. It has to be massaged, sometimes a lot.

On the other hand, those who prefer the story in the books can visit the excellent battle museums at both Minas Tirith and Barad-dur, where the exhibits and material have been carefully arranged to support the version of events in the books, as well as take the regular, conducted tours of the battle fields. Unfortunately the Mines of Moria cannot be toured at the time of writing, following the disappearance of Gandalf while preparing for his new role as mine tour guide. A legal action is pending. But there is a cafe-museum near the old Eastern entrance of the mine which contains a detailed model of the dwarven kingdom. It’s worth the trip.