Tolkienian Speculative Guessing: Rational Ringwraiths at Weathertop
I have previously listed Weathertop as one of the more logically flawed moments in The Lord of the Rings. In near-perfect conditions – night-time, an isolated company far from aid – the Witch-King and his band of merry former-men fail to press the attack, letting Frodo and the Ring slip away. But let us suppose, for a moment, that the Ringwraiths do press the attack. Let us suppose, ignoring the threat of fire in the face of the prize, they grab the unconscious Frodo, sling him over a horse, and gallop full-tilt for Mordor.
It goes without saying, Aragorn and the rest have no means of catching them. The Ringwraiths are on horseback, the party has Bill the Pony. Aragorn has no option but to hurry to Rivendell, and explain his failure to Elrond and Gandalf. What do the latter do?
I think there are four options:
(i) Run to the Havens. Frodo and the Ring are written off as lost – Rivendell is evacuated, with messages sent to Galadriel (she’s stuck in Middle-earth, but her people are not). A highly unlikely scenario, as the non-Elvish population of Middle-earth would be left stranded – but not an impossible one. Gandalf might conceivably try to return to Aman, and plead for the Valar’s intervention, on the basis that the peoples of Middle-earth cannot withstand Sauron without assistance. However, the Valar did not intervene during the Second Age – when Sauron’s might was altogether more impressive – and they continue to let Sauron rule whole swathes of the East and South, so such a plea might well be a long-shot.
(ii) The Denethor Option. No, I don’t mean suicide. I mean accepting that the War is lost, and taking prudent steps to delay the inevitable. Rivendell and Lothlórien are fortified, messages are sent to Rohan and Gondor – though Denethor might already know (Anor Stone). Perhaps there will be an attempt to rehabilitate Saruman, on the basis that there is nothing to lose (though this might get complicated, as we shall see). None of this works, of course, and everyone dies miserably. Or gets enslaved, but we shall get to that. I think this is the most likely option, with perhaps a desperate and futile attempt to plead with the Valar thrown in.
(iii) Hide. The Rangers of the North have been a secretive, nomadic people for a millennium. It is not impossible that one winds up with quite a few other such groups, forming a hopeless (but hardly unprecedented) La Résistance of outlaws. Turning Rivendell or some other refuge into a latter-day Gondolin would not work, however, for multiple reasons – far fewer resources, far fewer fortifications, and Sauron has a palantír to spy out opposition in a way Morgoth did not.
(iv) Invoke the eagles, and try to intercept the Black Riders before they reach Mordor. It would make for terrible storytelling, but in-universe, one could conceive of our protagonists launching this last, desperate gamble – unlike the Ring Quest, secrecy is no longer an issue here. However, seeing as there would be a twelve day window between Frodo being captured in this timeline (6th October), and Gandalf’s arrival at Rivendell to hear the news (18th October), I do not see this as particularly viable. The Ringwraiths can cover a fair bit of ground in twelve days.
So our protagonists can do nothing to stop Sauron. But there is one massive wildcard: Saruman.
The Ringwraiths will return to Mordor via the Gap of Rohan, which will take the Ring close to Isengard. Saruman might have the means of ambushing the Riders as they cross the Isen – it would be a mindbogglingly high-stakes act of him, but I think it far more feasible than an attempted eagle intervention. Saruman has the Orthanc Stone, of course, so likely has no need to wait for news from a desperate and conciliatory Rivendell. He then must weigh up the cost of Sauron’s vengeance (albeit, the Witch-King already knows that Saruman is crooked, so objectively Saruman has less to lose than one might think), versus the payoff of getting his hands on the Ring. I see Saruman trying. Whether he succeeds is another matter.
This branches off into two further scenarios:
(i) The fun option: Saruman succeeds in ambushing the Ringwraiths, and claims the Ring for himself. Sauron learns of this very quickly, but his problem is geographical: he cannot attack Isengard directly without going via Gondor… and Denethor is not about to co-operate. In fact, I could almost imagine a truly unholy alliance between Denethor and Saruman here (managed via palantír) – Denethor might well consider this the lesser evil (a Gondor-Mordor pact is impossible, and the Steward knows Mordor defeating Isengard means the defeat of Gondor). Meanwhile, Saruman needs Gondor to buy time for him, while he masters the Ring. Even if such an alliance does not eventuate, Sauron will greatly accelerate his invasion plans, since he now knows exactly where the Ring is, and how it will be used.
Saruman will not send Uruk-hai to help fortify Minas Tirith against Sauron, but he might send his Dunlendings (I am sure he can be very persuasive..).Without Gandalf in Edoras to free Théoden, Wormtongue might similarly persuade the King to set aside animosities, and let them pass. Denethor will, of course, request the aid of the Rohirrim anyway (though Théoden does not fight in person here).
So the alternate Pelennor Fields features Gondor, Rohan (stronger than the book version, due to there being no Helm’s Deep), the Dunlendings, and whatever magic Saruman can conjure at a distance, versus a desperate Sauron. To call this messy does not even begin to describe things – and what, exactly, do Gandalf, et al, do here? Remain neutral, knowing that they are next? Try to mitigate Saruman’s evil, in the hope that there might be an opening for them to reclaim the Ring later?
(ii) The less-fun option. Saruman fails to grab the Ring, and the Ringwraiths arrive back in Mordor. Sauron tortures Frodo into a gibbering wreck, but holds back on his invasion plans for now. Recall that in the book, Aragorn tricks Sauron into launching a premature attack – here, Sauron has no such fear. He can organise the war-effort as he wants.
So Sauron emerges victorious, through a series of cautious military campaigns, each projecting incredible and unstoppable force. What does his end victory look like?
I think the Vichy-esque terms offered by the Mouth of Sauron at the Morannon are a red herring. They are thoroughly humiliating, yes, but Sauron never keeps his end of the bargain – it’s more his style to humiliate then backstab in a vindictive manner. I can imagine Minas Tirith razed, the surviving inhabitants of Gondor forced to accept Sauron as a God-King, any captured Elves tortured to death (I suspect a similar fate awaits both Saruman and Gandalf), the Mouth of Sauron put in charge of Isengard, the hobbits genocided out of spite, and forests burned. Even Tom Bombadil will not hold out. In contrast to Jackson’s film, we will not see the extermination of mankind, just its enslavement. A boot stamping on the human face forever, with Sauron hunting down hold-outs, and basking in the worship of a thousand conquered peoples. Every so often, he might even deign to visit the dungeons of the Dark Tower, where he keeps a few select prisoners. Sauron is very petty.