The Military Structure and Ranking System of Mordor: Part I

Evil is on my mind lately. Or rather, Tolkien’s evil. Even better, an analysis of the presence of evil in Tolkien’s works.

Following the post on the Identity and Origins of the Nazgûl, I’m getting myself more into Sauron’s territory … a dangerous thing perhaps! 😀

Anyways, a few years back I had written an article trying to explain (mostly to myself) and to understand how Mordor functioned as a military organisation, also speculating on its ranking structure.

So I’ve decided to revise the text, altering some of my original ideas and post it here as a two-part article since, yes, it’s quite a long piece (again).

Needless to say, I’ve based myself on Tolkien’s texts but the arguments given are solely my opinions and are of a speculative nature … enjoy 🙂


The Military Structure and Ranking System of Mordor: Part I 

Orcs header

“ ‘Whose blame’s that?’ said the soldier. ‘Not mine. That comes from Higher up.’ ”

–  The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the KingBook 6, Chapter II

Just from this single phrase, one immediately understands that Mordor was not a disorganized force of evil that attacked its enemies at random. Instead, it was a military organisation based upon a solid structure and a specific ranking system.

1.0 The Ranking System

The main aim of this article is to focus on the order of rankings starting from Barad-dûr and proceeding to Minas Morgul. There is no question though that at the very top of everythingSauron creating the One Ring,  there is Sauron (after all, he’s the Lord of the Rings!).

He is the Dark Lord of his realm. As a start, there is no difficulty in finding who had command over all the land and its organisation.

Trouble starts when trying to establish (in a specific order) who was under Sauron himself, and had much power and control over the realm. One can well start mentioning characters who could have easily been “second-in-command” in Mordor, such as the Nazgûl and the Mouth of Sauron.

At the beginning of this article, I mentioned that there are a number of quotes in The Lord of the Rings that immediately establish the idea that a kind of command system really did exist.

Nazgûl, Nazgûl’, said Grishnakh … ‘you ought to know that they’re the apple of the Great Eye.’ ”

–  The Lord of the Rings: The Two TowersBook 3, Chapter III

Also, much of the following speculation will be based on the piece of the dialogue between the orcs, Gorbag and Shagrat from The Two Towers:

Gorbag – “ ‘They don’t tell us all they know do they? Not by half. But they can make mistakes, even the Top Ones can.’ “

Gorbag on the Nazgûl: “ ‘But He likes ‘em; They’re His favourites nowadays … it’s no game serving down in the city.’ “

 Shagrat on Gollum: “ ‘ He’s been here before. Came out of Lugbûrz the first time, years ago, and we had word from High Up to let him pass.”

–  The Lord of the Rings: The Two TowersBook 4, Chapter X

Chasing Ringwraiths by MoonlightThe words “Top Ones”, “His favourites”,  and “High Up” are but some of the many words indicating an authoritarian system. Understandably, the Nazgûl seem to have attained much power, although if we go back to Gorbag’s remark : “ ‘But He likes ‘em; They’re His favourites nowadays’”, we notice the word “nowadays”.

This can conjure up all sorts of questions: “Who were Sauron’s favourites before?”, “Why is it so nowadays”, “What did the Nazgûl do to achieve such preference?”.

Though, on this matter, we shall return later.

 1.1 Barad-dûr or Minas Morgul?

There is no question that when coming to commanding and issuing orders, Barad-dûr is at the top of the list, and it is only evident that it’s the main tower and the ‘home’ of the Dark Lord himself. But its accompanying structure, Minas Morgul, seems also to be a centre-piece in Mordor’s events. There was certainly a type of command chain between both towers, as seen from this quote:

“ ‘owing to the Great Signal going up, and the High Nazgúl going off to the war.’”

 – The Lord of the Rings: The Two TowersBook 4, Chapter X

Minas Morgul RingwraithsThe “Great Signal” was issued from Barad-dûr, signalling Minas Morgul to send its army against Gondor; before Frodo, Sam and Gollum proceeded to the Stairs of Cirith Ungol. The “High Nazgúl”, most certainly is the Witch-King himself.

This leads us to discuss the title in question: if the “Top Ones” and orders from “Higher Up” are referring to the Nazgûl, then under which tower was their authority present?

Under Barad-dûr (seat of their Lord) or Minas Morgul (their own city)?

It would be tempting to assume both. To explain this matter in simpler terms, let us take the Witch-King himself.

Throughout The Lord of the Rings he is given many names, one of which is the “Black Captain”. Now, looking at the meaning of the word “captain”, one can explain it as being: someone who holds a rank and is above a lieutenant.

1.2 The Mouth of Sauron

For now, keeping the above in mind, we will put aside the characters of the Nazgûl and shall discuss a second important figure – the Mouth of Sauron.

Mouth of Sauron 1

He is described as being the Lieutenant of the Tower of Barad-dûr. As I noted above, a Captain (the Witch King) has a higher rank than a lieutenant (the Mouth of Sauron). That is why the classification of the Nazgúl under one of the Towers is important. It is not made clear in The Lord of the Rings if the “Top ones” and “Big Bosses” are referring to the Nazgûl’s command in Barad-dûr.

So, let us assume again that the Nazgûl had high rankings in the Dark Tower, whilst also commanding at Minas Morgul.

(In a present day situation, Minas Morgul can be seen as the ‘home’ of the Ringwraiths, whilst Barad-dûr is their ‘work place’).

It would thus be tempting to lay out a diagram indicating (in order of importance) the rankings of the Dark Tower, taking into consideration the meanings of both “captain” and “lieutenant”.

The difficulty comes in trying to establish who had the highest rank, and therefore, the highest command and priorities (under Sauron); whether the Lieutenant of the Tower of Barad-dûr or the Nazgûl (more specifically, the Witch King of Angmar).

Highest Ranking Positions in Mordor

Ranking Diagram 1

I classified the rest of the 8 Ringwraiths separately and not on the same level as the Witch King, due to his title  of Lord of Morgul and of the Nazgûl – seriously suggesting the much-obvious among Tolkien fans – that he exerted almost supreme power in Mordor (just under Sauron himself).

1.3 Dates and Physicality

Let us first consider both the Ringwraiths’ and the Mouth of Sauron’s emergence. According to Appendix B in The Lord of the Rings, we can track the first appearance of the Nazgûl The Ringwraiths in true formunder the service of Sauron. This dates back to SA2251 and at the time of the War of the Ring, 4208 years had passed.

As to the Mouth of Sauron, “he was a renegade, who came of the race of those that are named the Black Númenóreans” (The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Book 5, Chapter X).

Considering he was under Sauron’s influence (and a Númenórean), his lifepsan would have far exceeded that of his own race – but certainly nowhere close to that of the Ringwraiths.

It would seem evident that the Nazgûl (being in a way immortal) retained their high status and power throughout the thousands of years; and that the title of Lieutenant of Barad-dûr (undoubtedly, through some form of inheritance) would have been occupied by dozens of other corrupt Men – before the one we meet during the War of the Ring.

Mouth of Sauron 3However, this issue of mortality still doesn’t prove that the title of the Mouth of Sauron was below that of the Ringwraiths.

Being the Dark Lord’s emissary and his own messenger (even, the ‘voice’ of Sauron himself) was undoubtedly a position of privilege and very high power.


Tolkien seems to mention the Nazgûl as Sauron’s “most terrible servants”; however, this doesn’t necessarily mean that they were his highest servants.

One could easily think that, since the Ringwraiths, being more or less spirits or wraiths, their physical power was certainly limited and it might be speculated that someone of much greater physical strength (or command) would claim their place directly beneath Sauron’s.

1.4 The Tyrant of the West

In this ongoing debate between the Nazgúl and the Mouth of Sauron, once again we need to examine a peculiar quote that seems to capsize the whole situation. During the parley in front of the Black Gates, the Mouth of Sauron assures his lord’s victory:

“But they [the men of Rohan] shall help to rebuild Isengard which they have wantonly destroyed, and that shall be Sauron’s, and there his lieutenant shall dwell: not Saruman, but one more worthy of trust … He was to be that Lieutenant, and gather all that remained of the west under his sway; he would be their tyrant and they his slaves.”

–  The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Book 5, Chapter X

Here is a typical example of the power the Mouth of Sauron exerted in Mordor. If Sauron’s domination was successful, he would have been in control of all the lands to the West and reside in Isengard as lieutenant – an honour certainly given to a high ranking servant.

Mouth of Sauron 2

The question at hand is this: if Sauron had control over Middle-Earth and the West was given to the Mouth of Sauron (with the East falling under the Dark Lord himself), what would the Nazgûl earn for their victory?

When we are told they’re the “greatest servants”, are they literally just servants? Pawns used for sheer fear impact and for controlling the armies on behalf of Sauron himself?

Whatever the answer, the above quote surely shows that the Lieutenant of the Tower of Barad-dûr exerted strong influence and would have been one of the favourites of the Dark Lord – unless his idea of a “Tyrant of the West” was only a deceit created by Sauron himself on his own highest of servants (“Sauron the Deceiver”)…

1.5 A definite truth?

So, who ranks higher? The Witch-King of Angmar or the Lieutenant of Barad-dûr?

It all depends on the way you look at it.

You can either say that Tolkien gave several clues that the Nazgûl were his greatest servants and that among them, the Lord of Morgul was the strongest.

Or else you can favour the Mouth of Sauron as being an alternative option.


In Part II of the article, an illustration will present the overall (speculated) rankings of Mordor’s military structure.

2.0 The Military Structureorcs2

It is no use denying that Sauron’s domination depended mainly on his army and his ability to keep control of its large numbers by using his captains. Orcs were the Dark Lord’s main forces and it was they who would do most of the work on his behalf.

2.1 Captains/Commanders

From The Lord of the Rings we learn that captains organized the entire army and they were set at various locations around Mordor and in appropriate orc divisions. Two of the most famous captains were Shagrat and Gorbag – the former under Cirith Ungol and the latter under Minas Morgul:

 Shagrat: “I’m in command of this pass [of Cirith Ungol]

‘Then not far inside, or so he [Sam] thought, he heard the two captains’ voices talking again. Perhaps Gorbag, who seemed to belong to Minas Morgul.’

Gorbag: “By all signs, Captain Shagrat, I’d say there’s a large warrior loose …”

–  The Lord of the Rings: The Two TowersBook 4, Chapter X

Both these characters (most probably uruks), control passages that, even though not really essential due to the guard of Shelob the spider, were still given priority by Sauron to be patrolled.

Apart from orcs, there would certainly have been Men who occupied positions as captains and most probably they would have commanded those who came from the East and from Harad. But of this matter, I will soon be discussing it in Part II.

2.1.1 Uruks vs Orcs

It’s a general fact that there exists a difference between the Uruk-Hai and the Orcs. The Uruks are stronger, stouter and immune to sunlight, as opposed to the orcs. Thus it seems that whilst reading The Lord of the Rings, the Uruks are a far stronger breed and therefore occupy higher positions and preferences than the orcs.

UrukThey seem to fill-out the majority of roles and oversee important tasks. As Gorbag puts it:

“Always the poor Uruks to put slips right, and small thanks.”

–  The Lord of the Rings: The Two TowersBook 4, Chapter X

Once again, we find another quote in the book that shows such idea: 

“They [orcs] were a gang of the smaller breeds being driven unwillingly to their Dark Lord’s wars; … Beside them running up and down the line, went two of the large fierce uruks, cracking lashes and shouting.”

–  The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the KingBook 6, Chapter II

This quote gives quite strong evidence of the power that the uruks exerted on the lesser breed of orcs and we can clearly establish that Uruks were higher ranking than the other orc breed.

2.1.2 The Grishnákh Case

Grishnákh is an orc, appearing briefly in the opening chapters of The Two Towers, forming part of the captors taking Pippin and Merry to Saruman.


He is the main conspirator (and leader) of the Mordor Orcs, against Uglúk (leader of the Uruks of Isengard). It is curious to notice Grishnákh’s behaviour in the last pages of Chapter III.

At this point in the story, the Orcs and the Uruk-Hai are surrounded by the Rohirrim and Grishnákh is alone with the two hobbits.

Since this dialogue is long, I have shortened it considerably and have written down only the essential fragments:

“The thought came suddenly into Pippin’s mind, as if caught direct from the urgent thought of his enemy: ‘Grishnákh knows about the Ring! He’s looking for it, while Uglúk is busy: he probably wants it for himself.’”

Merry: ‘Do you want it, or not? And what would you give for it?’

“Do I want it? Do I want it?’ said Grishnákh, as if puzzled; but his arms were trembling. ‘What would I give for it? What do you mean?’”

Merry: ‘Saruman will take all that he can find. If you want anything for yourself, now’s the time to do a deal.’

“Grishnákh began to lose his temper … ‘Have you got it – either of you?’ he snarled.”

 So Grishnákh knew about the ring. How? How could a messenger of this sort know of such a powerful object?

“They [those at Lugbúrz] might agree with me; with Grishnakh their trusted messenger.”

–  The Lord of the Rings: The Two TowersBook 3, Chapter III

Grishnakh 2Even if he was a high-ranking orc, Sauron would certainly not have allowed any knowledge of his Ring. Maybe Grishnákh was a spy of sorts and somehow managed to get information which could have slipped down from higher ranks.

Whatever the reason, mistakes or not, information was not so easily disclosed and such an important passage can only demonstrate that Grishnákh might have held quite a high rank among the military structure of Mordor.

(End of Part I)


Part II of the article will delve deeper into the categories that made up the armies of Mordor: the different kinds of orcs, men’s rankings and the final speculative diagram of the overall tree-structure, illustrating Mordor’s possible ranking system.

Update to come in the next few days 🙂

And don’t forget to post your comments below if you agree, disagree, or simply would like to say hello 🙂

Share and Like, as always!

32 thoughts on “The Military Structure and Ranking System of Mordor: Part I

  1. Great and well done!

    I had always assumed the Mouth of Sauron was an aide de camp, being a junior officer, but having no real military responsibility and rarely ever any hope for promotion. Such an aide would deliver (and traditionally write out) orders dictated by the commander. In the end, however, he was just a high-placed officer who did a lot of the paperwork for a commander who was busy doing commander stuff.

    1. Hey Eric, even I at first considered the Mouth of Sauron to be nothing more than a simply high-ranking servant – however, I’m beginning to change my mind quite a bit … 😉

      1. I don’t know to be honest … I think it’s Tolkien’s magic at work here.

        We (the readers) are presented with a mysterious character that has very little background information on his origins – and yet, he’s quite a memorable character at that point, in The Lord of the Rings.

        I’m pretty sure that it’s all got to do with the power of the unknown … the less we know about something, the more curious it is 🙂

      2. Probably true. It’s also what we bring to the table. I’ve been reading several memoirs written by aides. They’re always ridiculously fascinating because they usually are true believers.

        It would be really interesting to come across more about this Mouth of Sauron fellow.

      3. I became sort of interested in this again, so I picked up the Reader’s Companion to see what Hammond and Scull had to say. Not much, really, but they quoted from Kocher’s Master of Middle-earth. He doesn’t shed much “new” light on it, but there’s a bit of insight.

        He focuses on the idea that the Mouth of Sauron didn’t have a name and that this was incredibly important. “Such namelessness is he acme of total surrender.” This makes a lot of sense, since he had actually forgotten his name.

        They also go on to give some of the ideas Tolkien had for the Mouth’s origins. These are interesting, but they were ultimately (apparently) rejected. First he was just a Man, captured in youth and bend to Sauron’s will. Then he was a noble man of Gondor who was enamored by evil, and due to his cruelty was favored by Sauron.

        Like I said, these were abandoned, which doesn’t even mean that they’re not true.

  2. Enjoyed this post! It is very interesting your literal take on the word “servant” referring to the Nazgul. They are completely enslaved to Saurons will as I understand it. That would mean no free will whereas the mouth of Sauron would be able to exercise choice. That definitely reframed the pecking order for me. Thanks!

    1. Hey Brent, you’re absolutely right about free-will. As I commented below, I’m having some wild theories about the Mouth of Sauron now, which might transpire into several posts … 🙂

    1. Hey Matthew, many thanks for your reply. Depending on whether Gothmog was in fact a man or an orc, he would be ranked among the chieftains and captains – since he was under the command of the Witch-king. Thanks for mentioning him 🙂

  3. Gothmog was Lieutenant of Minas Morgul so whether he was orc or man he had quite important position (and he took command of Sauron’s forces in battle after Witch-king was incapacitated at Pelennor, as Tolkien said in one letter Nazgul leader was just rendered impotent not permanently killed).

    1. You’re right about Gothmog. It would really be helpful if we ever found out whether he was a Man or an Orc (or something else), as that would shift around a couple of ideas in this article 🙂

  4. Don`t forget that Sauron is the servant of Morgoth / Melkor, although Melkor is a Ainur, Sauron still obeys him. Great article btw and I really enjoyed reading it !

  5. Interesting. My comments:

    ‘This leads us to discuss the title in question: if the “Top Ones” and orders from “Higher Up” are referring to the Nazgûl, then under which tower was their authority present?’

    Well they were always under the dominion of Sauron; they were under no delusion or even thought that their Lord was anyone but Sauron. But Minas Morgul. That was their tower. To think that they had the authority of Barad-dûr is fallacious because even if they were supposedly at authority they were still under the rule of Sauron so they could not be the top – as in absolute rule. That was Sauron and nobody else.

    As for the Mouth of Sauron: definitely not. And Sauron certainly wouldn’t have sent him to fetch the Ring as they did the Nazgûl. But either way this is all we have about the Mouth of Sauron (from The War of the Ring):

    ‘No more is said in the draft of the history of the Lieutenant of Barraddur [so
    spelt] [1], the nameless Mouth of Sauron, than that ‘It is told that he was a
    living man, who being captured as a youth became a servant of the Dark Tower,
    and because of his cunning grew high in the Lord’s favour …’ In the fair copy
    this was repeated, but was subsequently changed to: ‘But it is said that he was
    a renegade, son of a house of wise and noble men in Gondor, who becoming
    enamoured of evil knowledge entered the service of the Dark Tower, and because
    of his cunning [and the fertile cruelty in his mind] [and servility] he grew
    ever higher in the Lord’s favour …’ (these phrases being thus bracketed in
    the original). In RK the Mouth of Sauron ‘came of the race of those that are
    named the Black Númenóreans.[2]

    [1] First written ‘the Lieutenant of Morgul’, but this may very probably have
    been no more than a slip.

    [2] […] and in Gandalf’s concluding words to the Mouth of Sauron he retains
    the words he used in the original outline: ‘Begone! But let fear eat your hear:
    for if you so much set a thorn in the flesh of your prisoner you shall rue it
    through all the ages.’

    Powerful yes. But he certainly wasn’t the favourite at all. I believe in your follow up article here you suggest that at some point the Nazgûl weren’t His favourites but that’s not true either. I’ll check that article out and if so comment there. Either way the Mouth of Sauron has little history and he was not nearly as powerful as the Nazgûl. He wasn’t someone who could fight and you note that he was afraid and felt threatened (saying that they couldn’t touch him due to his status). As for Uruks (or any Orcs) knowing about the Ring: who’s to say that they can’t know of something important – vital even – without knowing what it is? They definitely knew about Gollum; there are many reasons they would know about him. But Sauron wouldn’t have told them exactly what it was. I don’t see that ever being the case. It’s not like they could be wholly trusted.

  6. Right. I had read the articles a while back – the talk about the favourites and Nazgûl is here. So here’s what you have to understand: Sauron did not send them out until things became desperate – especially whilst he did not have as much power as he did later on (but we see that it was a mistake too – the fact the palantír was used was I’m sure part of it). This is simple to understand: secrecy. They were his most powerful servants and just being in their presence could overwhelm those who aren’t fearless (as they are powerless over those who are fearless; Tolkien wrote about this in one of his Letters on the outrageous American Zimmerman script). And in UT it’s noted that not until there was desperation would he let them out so soon (something to that effect). So his favourites were always the Nazgûl it’s just that he had to be careful when to allow them to show themselves. You can’t really expect Orcs to be told everything either can you? Some of them were also terrified of them. Call them his secret weapon or something like that if it helps?

    Anyway interesting article and website! I have far too much going on and I don’t know if I’ll get back to it if you reply but it’s nice to see a Tolkienist out there who likes to write essays etc. (I do but not like these and I have far fewer).


    1. Hey Cody just read through all your comments. Very interesting ideas, especially on some articles I’ve written quite a while back! Some thoughts I had on the subject have definitely changed from what I wrote — but it’s great to get other people’s feedback too 🙂

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