A physicist loose among the liberal arts

What the One Ring Does

If you believe Peter Jackson, the Ring doesn’t do much of anything. It’s just a MacGuffin. With the Ring, someone who’s a hundred feet tall can knock down dozens of soldiers with one sweep of a thirty-foot mace, but I’m pretty sure I could do that without a Ring. (It’s all in the wrists.) The Ring blurs your vision and fills your ears with voices, which seems counterproductive when you’re trying to rule an evil empire. It enables you to see Ringwraiths, but who would want to?

The cost of Ringlessness

So what does the Ring actually do? We can try to figure that out by looking for things that only happened because Sauron didn’t have it. Here are a few:

The Nazgûl aren’t very effective, without their Lord

When the Black Riders split up they can scare people, but they can’t accomplish much useful. Granted, there is power working against them in the Shire, but it would have to be stronger than the military of Gondor to neutralize the Nazgûl to that extent, and I don’t think it is. Besides, the Riders seem kind of disorganized. The One Ring may be the only channel of control that works on all nine of their rings.

Saruman attacked Rohan too soon

Time to take another swipe at Peter Jackson. Saruman in his movie is a willing slave of Sauron, which makes his attack on Rohan ridiculous. If he’d held off a week,  until about March 8, the Rohirrim would have still been pinned down in Helm’s Deep as the gates of Minas Tirith were shattered. War over.

In the book, this makes perfect sense. Saruman thinks he’s an independent agent, pursuing his own ends. I can’t find any evidence that he knows Sauron’s timetable for the attack on Gondor. Sauron can’t give him a direct order without revealing his dominance, which would provoke some kind of resistance. Considering the distance and Saruman’s considerable power, resistance could have done quite a bit of damage to Sauron’s plans. All this is because Sauron doesn’t have his Ring. With the Ring, Saruman’s own ring would have bound him to Sauron’s will, with no need to keep up a pretense, and the synchronized attacks on Gondor and Rohan would have been devastating.

The fight among the orcs in the Tower of Cirith Ungol

Sam called it “lucky” that Shagrat’s and Gorbag’s forces wiped each other out, so we should keep an eye out for the hand of Providence. And everything worked out so neatly that it must have been there, but in this case it’s hardly needed. The natural centrifugal instincts of Orcs aren’t held in check by the Ring (even though it’s just a few feet away). A bit of “binding” would have kept the lines of command clear, and made sure that either Shagrat or Gorbag would have known to shut up and obey.

The chaotic orders Shagrat gets from Lugbúrz

Look at this mess:

“Any trespasser found by the guard is to be held at the tower. Prisoner is to be stripped. Full description of every article, garment, weapon, letter, ring, or trinket is to be sent to Lugbúrz at once, and to Lugbúrz only. And the prisoner is to be kept safe and intact, under pain of death for every member of the guard, until He sends or comes Himself.”

VI, i.

Shagrat’s reporting path upwards goes through the bureaucracy of Barad-dûr, but the path back down does not. This is a recipe for disaster: the middle-managers aren’t kept apprised of the actions at the top, so who knows what they’ll screw up, even if they’re following orders to the letter.

Let’s put these together into an Orc Chart. This graphic shows a disaster waiting to happen. Shagrat has three directions from which orders can arrive; that’s the obvious point of failure of this organization.  (JRRT’s military experience shows up again.) The Nazgûl don’t have any lines between their boxes. If I were Lord of the Nazgûl, I’d have designated two deputies, with three wraiths reporting to each one. Put one team at each Bree-gate, and LotR ends in Chapter 11. The green boxes are characters called “lieutenant”. Not very similar roles. The Ring can be thought of as a set of command and control channels among the characters that clear up that disorderly network.

organization chart of forces of Mordor

Organization of Morgul & Cirith Ungol Divisions

Looking for the Ring in our world

From the 1950s through the 1970s, people who were looking for real-world analogues of the Ring usually thought of the atomic bomb. I was never comfortable with that because of one salient feature of the Ring: when it’s destroyed, Sauron will fall. This was a very puzzling thing to a teen-aged first-time reader. What kind of tool or weapon reduces its user to nothingness when it’s taken away? Stephen Winter wrote an essay recently about Sauron’s project, which gets at that important point.

Stephen reminds us that Sauron can not create. He calls Sauron a “false maker” (which seems to be a deliberate counterpoint to the word “sub-creator”). Previously in the history of Middle-Earth, Sauron had worked via the psychology of individuals. He was effective at sowing discord, but it didn’t help him build an empire of evil because it generally led to the destruction of the place he was working in. He needed something more tangible for his attempt to conquer and hold the world. But what tangible thing is available to a false maker? Sauron found the loophole: organizing is not creating. Matter can be rearranged almost indefinitely without overstepping any bounds. In particular, people and things can be arranged into a hierarchy.

A hierarchy is a tremendous tool for multiplying the force of a leader. In the mid-twentieth century, it reached a peak of implementation in Nazi Germany, Stalin’s Soviet Union, and Mao’s China. In fact, the word “totalitarian” could be defined as a state that allows no interactions among its citizens outside the hierarchy. There’s a pattern here. I am reminded of the comment by a (probably apocryphal) German officer in World War 2: “The reason the Americans do so well in war is that war is chaos, and Americans practice chaos every day.” The forces of the West in Middle Earth are the same way. If there’s any clear path of authority across the races, it’s hard to see. This came up in the comments at Middle-Earth Reflections, a while back. Leadership among Elves and post-Numenoreans is a matter of personal relationships between a commander and the troops. (Éowyn: “They go only because they would not be parted from thee — because they love thee.” V, ii) It’s not a hierarchy, or any kind of structure you can draw on a PowerPoint chart.

To make a hierarchy work, though, the boss has to pay a price. He has to delegate both authority or responsibility. Or, in Ring-terms, “let a great part of his former power pass into it.” (I, ii). The hierarchy can be turned against the boss, or if it’s destroyed the boss finds himself sitting at a desk, with a dead telephone, commanding nothing. Powerless.


Organization was missing in the First Age, so it’s what Sauron added when he set up on his own. Hierarchy is the key, a thing Morgoth never had. Théoden King of Rohan had more levels of structure in a 6,000-man (ok, 5998-man) detachment than you can find mentioned in the entire Silmarillion. For us in the Information Age, the closest thing to the Ring is not a weapon, it’s a hierarchical org chart.


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Maslow’s Hierarchy of Fictional Genres


  1. That’s a great write-up. Baddies fail because of this chaos inside their ranks. It struck me first as I was reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and then re-reading LOTR that the followers of bad guys are only their followers until the head baddy is in power. Once he loses it, his supposed followers run away shrieking and don’t seem to support the cause they were loyal only a minute ago any more. There’s no sense of unity inside these evil forces: they follow out of fear, want of power or just for the sake of it, having no choice. Just the opposite of why most good armies follow their leaders – love, respect, desire to fight for the common cause.

    • Joe

      Mustn’t forget bribery!

    • I know that I would rather follow someone that I can respect and even love. Éowyn directs some strong words to Aragorn on this subject when he refuses to allow her to go with him on the Paths of the Dead.

  2. Jeff Snider

    “Single points of failure in Mordor’s C4ISTAR: an architectural framework analysis.”

    Natural follow-on article is “Cyber in the 3rd age: the paramount asymmetric threat.”

  3. Michael

    Good article, but love the phrase “Orc Chart.”

  4. My father was part of the British forces that landed (in an American constructed landing craft specially equipped with a machine that would make ice cream!) on the Normandy beaches in June 1944. He used to comment that while the Allied forces would fight “to the last man” the Germans would give up once there was no officer to give the orders. I don’t think that is too far from your insightful comment on chaos. And who can help but note that when Sauron falls the hosts of Mordor descend immediately into chaotic retreat even though they still massively outnumber the hosts of the West . Only a few from the forces of Sauron’s allies fight on. They, of course, have their own reasons to fight.
    Thank you so much for including a link to my piece here. It has meant that I have had a number of readers of that post. I hope that we will have many more conversations about this. Your experience and expertise means that you ask me questions and make challenges to my thinking that no-one else does.

    • Joe

      And the same to you, Stephen. It kind of amazes me, given that our backgrounds are so different, that we’ve ended up where reading one of your essays is like having binocular vision. Our two points of view are distinct, but close enough that I can use them to see depths I could never see on my own.

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