The Military Structure and Ranking System of Mordor: Part II

Following Part I on The Military Structure and Ranking System of Mordor, here is Part II of the article … 🙂


2.2 The Army: Heraldry and Orc Divisions

As has been said before, Sauron’s main force consisted of orcs, with separate divisions controlled by captains. Nevertheless, it must be noted that there might have been preferences within the army itself – in fact, some hints are given to us throughout The Lord of the Rings.

Mordor Orcs

2.2.1 Orcs of the Red Eye and the Morgul Orcs

It seems quite clear that there is a distinction between Orcs serving under Sauron (the Red Eye) and those in the service of Minas Morgul. Once again, the basis for this argument comes from  The Return of the King, in the chapter ‘The Tower of Cirith Ungol’. After the fighting in the tower, a dialogue ensues between Shagrat and another orc, Snaga –

Shagrat: “You must go … news must get through to Lugbûrz.”

Snaga: “You won’t be captain long when they hear about all these goings-on. I’ve fought for the Tower against those stinking Morgul-rats …”

Apart from the fact that “captain” provides once more a clear indication of Shagrat’s rank, the above quote also indicates a possible outbreak within Mordor itself. Who are “those stinking Morgul-rats”? –  almost definitely, the other order of orcs coming from Minas Morgul.

It comes as no surprise, therefore that these two varying orc divisions fought between each other; but why “fought for the Tower”?


Most probably the “Tower” is Lugbûrz (unless it’s Cirith Ungol), but the way Snaga says such phrase seems to indicate that a feud broke out between the Dark Tower and Minas Morgul. Perhaps, not between Sauron and the Nazgûl, but rather between the orcs themselves.

Whatever the reason, there is little doubt about the Orcs of the Red Eye being preferred than other orcs. Indeed, the embassy that came out of the Black Gate with the Mouth of Sauron, was

“a small company of black-harnessed soldiery and a single banner, black but bearing on it in red the Evil Eye.”

–  The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the KingBook 5, ChapterX

Minas Morgul Orcs

So here we are presented with another point where the banner of the Red Eye is present. As to whether this company was comprised of Men or Orcs (or both), we cannot tell. Though, we can clearly come to the conclusion that since the Lieutenant of Barad-dûr (a high ranking servant of Sauron) comes bearing this banner, clearly indicates that such order was superior than that of Minas Morgul.

After all, the symbol of the Red Eye is a direct reference to the Dark Lord himself.

We know that another order, that of Minas Morgul, actually existed due to the description of the armour the orcs wore when they marched out against Minas Tirith; consisting of a moon disfigured with a ghastly face of death” (The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Book 6, Chapter I).

2.3 Other orders

Till now we have focused on Mordor’s army as divided in 3 orders – Uruks of Mordor, Orcs of the Red Eye and Morgul Orcs. There seems to be nothing concrete written by Tolkien whether other orc divisions existed – but the above three still provide a fairly stable ground to work on.

Of course there were other creatures apart from orcs – wargs, trolls, winged beasts and more. Orcs, however, were the backbone of the army, whilst the other races could have been auxiliary troops.

2.4 Men

Haradrim 2Most of the men at the service of Mordor are known to have been mostly Haradrim, Easterlings, Corsairs of Umbar and Variags of Khand (who were present at the Battle of the Pelennor Fields during the War of the Ring). Though they were part of Mordor’s army, they can be categorised as allies and therefore, do not occupy any specific position with the ranking system.

However, their service would undoubtedly have greatly affected the strength and power of Sauron’s forces and thus, they might have been given a status of some sort (which is the reason why I have included them in the ranking tree – below).

 2.5 Messengers, Trackers and Spies

In a land as big as Mordor, with vast armies and complex military structures, it seems fairly obvious that the Dark Lord would have applied a system of getting messages through his servants and gathering vital information using spies.

2.5.1 Messengers

From what has been discussed in Part I regarding Grishnákh, one can immediately realise that Sauron used messengers on a frequent basis – in this case, he used Grishnákh Orc Captainto gather information on the captured hobbits and the One Ring.

Since we’re also talking about ranks, the Dark Lord would have mainly used different breeds of orcs to carry messages.

Primarily, he employed the use of the snaga (slave) – smaller in stature than the average orc (though Grishnákh clearly wasn’t one of them).

An example of this can be found in The Two Towers, ‘The Choices of Master Samwise’ in the dialogue between Shagrat and Snaga (“Snaga” being not only his name, but also his type of breed – as we are later told that he was a “smaller orc”).

Their conversation has been cited above, Shagrat telling Snaga that he must take the news of the raided tower to Lugbûrz.Orc (snaga)

The snaga would certainly have served Sauron’s purposes of sending and retrieving information quickly and efficiently.

2.5.2 Trackers

There is only one small passage in The Lord of the Rings where we are presented with a new type of task overseen by orcs: tracking.

In the chapter, ‘The Land of Shadow’ in The Return of the King, an orc hunting for Frodo and Sam’s trail, was said to have been “of a small breed, black-skinned … evidently a tracker of some kind”.

Orcs of the Red EyeIn occupying the role of trackers, there may have possibly been other kinds of smaller orcs apart from the snaga, which could be used to quickly dispatch and hunt down any enemy spies within Mordor; “No good wearing my nose out on stones anymore. There’s not a trace left, I say. I’ve lost the scent” (The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Book 6, Chapter II).

So trackers may easily be considered as hunters. Clearly skilled in searching for any signs of enemy interference or infiltration within the land of Mordor.

2.5.3 Spies

Orc TrackerThere is no specific reference to any orcs occupying the role of spies – though, no doubt the Dark Lord would have used them extensively (be they orcs or others) to watch over enemy movements and gather information.

At the same time, this task could easily have been assigned to either the orc trackers or messengers.

2.6 Slaves

There is no question that Sauron used slaves to supply provisions and food for his massive armies.

These wouldn’t have had any rank whatsoever, but were doomed to work hard for their own survival:

“Neither he [Sam] nor Frodo knew anything of the great slave–worked fields away south in this wide realm, … by the dark sad waters of Lake Núrnen;”

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

3. Mordor’s Numbering System

Something curious and quite interesting, is a quote taken once again from the chapter, ‘The Land of Shadow’, between the above-mentioned tracker and an Uruk.Orc Captain 2

 “ ’I’ll give your name and number to the Nazgûl’, said the soldier lowering his voice to a hiss.’ ”

Could it be that Sauron assigned a number to each of his servants for better organisation and more efficient communication between his armies?

It might have been so.

Then again, would orcs (and uruks) have been of sufficient intelligence to know their own or others’ rank numbers? Still, clearly high-ranking captains (such as this Uruk) may have been aware of the different “codes” used by the lower orcs, to carry out these reports.

What is certain is that there is more beneath the surface of the pages of The Lord of the Rings than meets the eye.

4. Conclusion

Hopefully, this article has provided you with some information on how Mordor may have been structured and cunningly organised at the time of the War of the Ring.

Once again, these are my own ideas and interpretations, in trying to understand what Tolkien may have wanted to convey when writing The Lord of the Rings.

Finally, I give here a rough illustration representing Mordor’s military and ranking structure.

(click image to enlarge)

Illustration (Ranking Tree)


So, what are your views on this? Have you ever thought about how Mordor functions as a military organisation within The Lord of the Rings?

Share your opinions with us below! 🙂

25 thoughts on “The Military Structure and Ranking System of Mordor: Part II

  1. Yes part 2. Awesome. Wished we knew a bit more of the slaves that worked near the lake. I would like very much a detailed description of their lifestyle, shelters, foodstuffs, how much they produce given the size of the army, etc

    Great stuff keep it up

  2. Very interesting read. You provide a welcome summary of this complex theme spaning all books, thus making it easily accessible for those less versed in Tolkien’s world. I am very interested in pre-modern military history and reading the Fantasy equivalent is very nice indeed.

  3. It’s always been confusing for me, so this is a great run down! I wonder where the Orc females would fit into this? I seem to recall coming across some text about Orc “wives” being kept hidden away for breeding purposes only. Would have to look it up again but if that’s the case the females wouldn’t even be in the ranks. You have me curious now about Orc breeding! I’m going to go research now…

    1. Having Orc females is an almost definite concept – considering we’ve got the only-ever mentioned case of an orc offspring (Bolg, son of Azog)

      1. Not only that in The Hobbit we have example of an orc child!!! This ,,young squeaker” also called ,,goblin-imp” wandered into Gollum’s lair (orcs often went there to catch fish especially when their chieftain Great Goblin of Goblin-town wished so) and got eaten by our ,,preciouss” sneak (Gollum has certain bad fame as child eater, as Gandalf told of nasty rumours that he wandered into homes of Woodmen of Mirkwood through windows to find cradles). Orcs are not only intelligent enough to be engineers building and mining with great skill, good craftsmen (somehow they must teach the young ones, some sort of master apprentice system maybe?) they also can..write and read (presumably) we are told that runes of Cirth (in simpler form) were adopted by orcs along with other peoples, also Azog wrote his name in dwarf runes on Thrór’s severed head, orcs of Mordor seemed able to write too we are told that there were idle scrawls on statue of king in Ithilien along with ,,foul symbols” used by Mordor folk, also Isildur’s notes in his document about writing in elf letters on the One Ring, that Mordor has no letters for such subtle work indicating that Mordor has some wiritng system but it’s too crude for the Ring gravings, so Sauron used more elegant elf letters (feanorian script). Also orcs seems to know and use currency (the pouch of coins, money of small worth thrown by Azog to the messanger, Nar, his mockingly given ,,beggar’s fee”, generally orcs would like riches, they desire good loot and possibly could engage in commerce either with each other or with other races, or renegades of therof we know that orcs can to extent coexist with other races but it’s rather not very peaceful way, orcs preferred to be bandits waylaying travellers, make raids on the Vales of Anduin or Eriador for spoils and slaves who worked for them in their underground cities, they are not in state of constant war though, and while they enjoy torturing prisoners for fun or even at need eat them, they can also use them and treat their wounds in ,,orc-fashion”, feed them as seen in books if they want them alive). Oh and the example of wound treatment gives us info on medicine, healing arts the orcs posess (along with this, let’s call it ,,magical elixir” that boosts their strength a la miruvor :)). So orcs indeed are more than meets the eye (Tolkien wrote in one letter that there are with certainty orc-women, but that we wouldn’t know much about daily lives of orcs because we see them most as soldiers in service of evil lords, the closest thing we have is visit to Goblin-town where we see orcs in their natural environment :)).

      2. Wow, thanks for this in-depth feedback.

        I forgot about the goblin-imp. It’s interesting that you point it out actually. I never considered he might be one of the younger goblins. I always thought it was Gollum’s description of a normal goblin – but as you rightly state, it could really be evidence of goblin/orc children.

        Indeed, orcs/goblins had a complex family and military structure – which might not be so evident at first glance, when reading Tolkien.

        Fascinating stuff really 🙂

  4. Reblogged this on Sourcerer and commented:
    This is something Tolkien fans don’t want to miss. I’ve never thought about Mordor’s military organization in this kind of detail, but the textual evidence James provides here is impressive, and the whole thing is fascinating. (Not much time for blogging today, but hey, it’s almost Spring Break!)

  5. I always thought of the orc-armies of Mordor as a fairly chaotic mob, driven by the will of Sauron as mediated through just one or two tiers of “authority” (Nazgul and “captains”); however, the “name and number” quote does seem to hint at something more administrative.

  6. Dear James,

    As always, an amazing study. I’m writing some other considerantions on this issue and would love to hear from you what you think. Of course your text is basis to my research (an the books, obviously… (; ).

  7. ‘Most probably the “Tower” is Lugbûrz (unless it’s Cirith Ungol), but the way Snaga says such phrase seems to indicate that a feud broke out between the Dark Tower and Minas Morgul.’

    I’m almost certain i’s Cirith Ungol. You note too that the Orcs are in Cirith Ungol and they’re talking about the Dark Tower between each other; they’re arguing about what to do with the prisoner’s belongings and one says it should go to the Dark Tower. I would (if I had the time and energy and faculties at the time) give more reasons behind my belief but it doesn’t matter much really. Perhaps also I’m misreading your idea but if you’re saying where the Orcs are from (or so) it would be Cirith Ungol and Minas Morgul though I use the word ‘from’ very loosely here.

  8. This was a very interesting read! 🙂

    I have a question, though, if you don’t mind, since you seem to understand this topic far better than I. From what I know, captain is a higher rank than lieutenant, and yet the Mouth of Sauron, whose rank is that of a lieutenant, could possibly be Sauron’s second in command. On the other hand, several captains are mentioned among the orcs. How does that work? Or, to give another example, if you look at the First Age, Sauron is said to be Melkor’s right hand man, above everyone else. Yet he is called the Lieutenant and Gothmog (the Balrog) had the title of the High Captain of Angband. I’m a little confused.

    Hopefully this question is not too dumb. ^^’

    1. Hi Jay, absolutely great question and thanks for asking!

      It’s true that, for example, orcs had captains of their own, but I think part of Mordor’s military structure was also based on the type of creatures or races that assumed that position. That being said, the Witch-King was known as the Black Captain, and it’s safe to assume that he was the highest ranking of Sauron’s officials — but no orc or leader of men with the title of captain would find himself on the same level, or even outranking, the Witch-King.

      There seems to be something deeper and more complex going on in the way Tolkien structures these types of ranking systems. Although assigned military titles are important, it’s also the individual that seems to receive the favour of the Dark Lord. He had his own “trusted servants”.

      As to the Melkor/Sauron/Gothmog issue, that is a very interesting point. Both Sauron and Gothmog are Maia, so in essence they are equal but, based on descriptions and passages in The Silmarillion, Gothmog seems to occupy a more visible position during major conflicts, whilst Sauron is almost relegated to a more strategic capacity, thinking of schemes and deceits, rather than leading armies into battle.

      This got me re-thinking a bit, in that Tolkien’s use of rank titles might not reflect strongly our real-world use of those terms.

      1. Thank you for your reply!

        I thought I may have been the only one who found this unusual, e. g. that you have several captains who actually have a different position in the hierarchy… Do you think it could perhaps be connected to what someone is captain of? Say The Mouth of Sauron is the Lieutenant of Barad Dur, but he probably ranks higher than the orc captains. So perhaps anyone who is connected with Barad Dur would be ranked higher than those who don’t have a reference to Barad Dur in their rank? Kind of like they have several chains of command, as in you have different ranks in e.g. Barad Dur, and then the same ranks would also appear in e.g. the tower of Cirith Ungol, but all be below Barad Dur? Am I making any sense at all?

        As for Sauron and Gothmog … If I’m not wrong, Gothmog was the High Captain of Angband whereas Sauron is described as the Lieutenant of Morgoth (but I did just re-check that on Wikipedia, so I make no promises it’s correct). So in theory, in Sauron’s case, could Morgoth be considered the captain, and then, since Sauron is below him, Sauron would be called lieutenant but still actually above Gothmog in the chain of command? I’ve also considered Gothmog just being a captain of the balrogs as a faction, but then he could hardly be called the Captain of Angband, so that doesn’t seem to fit eitehr.

        Another thing I can think of is that they could have been given those titles at different points in time. Sauron is not mentioned in Silm after his defeat on the Iste of Werewolves, so I suppose it could be that Gothmog became the Captain of Angband after that if Sauron had fallen from grace. Maybe. It wouldn’t explain The Mouth of Sauron and Orcs though. It’s just surprising that Tolkien would be so exact in some matters and then completely butcher military ranks …

      2. It is my belief that Tolkien used “captain” as “commander” and “lieutenant” as “second in command”, which is medieval usage I believe. So Mouth of Sauron, as Lieutenant of Barad-dur, would command hordes of Orc captains, but he himself would be a lieutenant since his authority is delegated from Sauron, and not standing on its own like those of orc captains.

    2. “captain is a higher rank than lieutenant”

      In modern ranks, but these are old terms, and context dependent. More generally, ‘captain’ is the head of something, while ‘lieutenant’ is a second in command of something, n particular taking his superior’s place during absence.

      The Mouth is the Lieutenant of the Barad-Dur. That *at least* means he’s the second-in-command of the Dark Tower itself, the one speaking for Sauron or running the Tower for him. But given that the Dark Tower was the ‘capital’ of the whole enterprise, it could easily mean he’s second in command for the whole empire of Sauron. At any rate, he’s more like a modern lieutenant-general than a modern Army lieutenant.

      Meanwhile, most of the captains are just head of some troop company, not very different from an Army captain.

      The West also had lots of ‘captains’, but Boromir was Captain-General of Gondor; “captain-general” is where the modern rank of general comes from, as a degenerate form.

      As for the First Age, it could easily be that Gothmog was captain of the forces, but Sauron was lieutenant to Morgoth himself, making the two equal, if not Sauron superior to Gothmog.

  9. One thing to consider is the “lieutenant” can also be used to mean “second in command” or “an official empowered t act for a higher official” as well as being a military rank. Likewise “captain” can be both a military rank and a position of command and authority.

    I don’t think that Tolkien was using “lieutenant” and “captain” always as strict military ranks. The orc “captains” were commanders among the orcs. The Mouth of Sauron was the chief Lieutenant of the Tower in the sense that he was empowered to act and speak on behalf of Sauron. It is a mistake to think tat he had the military rank of “lieutenant” and there for ranked below the orc “captains”.

    1. We have a Lieutenant of Minas Morgul (The Witch-king – also known as the Black Captain!), a Lieutenant of the Dark Tower (the Mouth) and a Lieutenant of Dol Guldur (Khamûl). I believe that in all three cases this signifies not a military rank but rather Sauron’s vicegerents commanding his major fortresses.

  10. I think you’re right with the numbering system. Though there are many orc groups hidden in wilderness. I think in those kind of areas, orcs live in groups which hide in lairs and caves. Though every group is asigned under areas and areas communities are asigned under regions like Misty Mountains or Eregion. Those large region armies can be summoned by Sauron to engage in War effort on diffrent fronts like Rohan or Erebor.
    Also every Nazghul or major warchief has a command over some regions and fortress. Like:

    Timeline is about “from battle Azanulbizar to Battle at black gate”
    Minas Morgul – Overseer: Witchking of Angmar, Warchief: Gothmog
    Barad-dur – Overseer: Mouth of Sauron
    Dol Guldur – Overseer: Khamul
    Gundabad – Overseer: Nazghul, Warchief: Bolg
    Misty Mountains – Overseer: Great Goblin
    Moria – Overseer: Durin’s Bane, Warchief: Azog Defiler
    Etenmors – Overseer: Sons of Golfimbul

  11. The Nazgul probably all outranked the mouth of Sauron because they all held rings of power. Sauron was at the top, and the Witch King was second in command. The remaining eight Nazgul may or may not have been ranked in a heirarchy from 2 to 9.

    The Mouth of Sauron is the highest ranking non-Nazgul we know about, so we could assume he was 11th in command, after Sauron and the nine. In an army of untold thousands, that’s still a pretty big deal, but he wouldn’t have outranked any Nazgul who actually held rings of power.
    While he may have been entrusted with a certain level of power and responsibility, it is doubtful that he commanded any orcs personally unless he knew magic. Sauron of course is magic, as is Saruman, and the Nazgul held rings of power which gave them some of Sauron’s magical ability to dominate others but kept them in submission to the dark lord himself. This magic is what enables them to command orcs and trolls. The mouth may or may not have had dark magic himself. For all we know, he wasn’t even the “lieutenant” who was to take over Isengard, it may have been one of the Nazgul.

    Concerning orcs, the orcs of one company don’t seem to answer to the captains of another. Orcs answer to the higher ranking orcs in their own companies up to orc captains, who answer to Nazgul. Nazgul administer rewards and punishments to orcs based on behavior, and their rings of power may also give them some other type of control over orcs based on Sauron’s ability to dominate others.

    While it is not necessary to elaborate on orc punishments, which are undoubtedly quite painful, we can assume that orc rewards involve promotion. The Nazgul promote favored orcs which is how they determine who is captain. Since “might is right” is the law of the land in Mordor, it is likely that higher ranks come with greater privileges, such as perhaps more food and the ability to grow larger. The orcs are motivated by fear of punishment from those above them and by a desire for the privilege to grow larger and rank higher than their orc rivals. A smart orc follows orders well, gets promoted, gets to eat more and grow bigger, and is feared and respected by his peers. A dumb orc stays at the bottom of the heirarchy and lives in submission and the constant fear of being punished by the higher ups.

    Concerning orc breeds, the orcs of one breed do not necessarily outrank the orcs of another any more than the Easterlings outrank the Haradim. Rather, the orcs of a company all belong to the same breed and they answer to their captains as I mentioned earlier. The Uruks may look down on the smaller orcs and the smaller orcs may fear the Uruks, but it is doubtful that they socialize much since they are organized into companies of the same breed as themselves.

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