|Dead or Alive||Undead|
|Nationality||Various (most were once men of Numenor)|
The Nazgûl (from Black Speech nazg, "ring", and gûl, "wraith, spirit" (presumably related to gul, "sorcery"); also called Ringwraiths, Ring-wraiths, Black Riders, Dark Riders, the Nine Riders, or simply the Nine are fictional characters in J. R. R. Tolkien's Middle-earth legendarium. They were nine Men who succumbed to Sauron's power and attained near-immortality as wraiths, servants bound to the power of the One Ring. They are first mentioned in The Lord of the Rings, originally published in 1954–1955. The book calls the Nazgûl Sauron's "most terrible servants".
According to Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, the Nazgûl arose as Sauron's most powerful servants in the Second Age of Middle-earth. They were once mortal Men, three being "great lords" of Númenor. Sauron gave each of them one of nine Rings of Power. Sauron also gave seven Rings of Power to the Dwarves. These were in addition to the three Celebrimbor forged, untainted by Sauron's evil, for the Elves. It was Sauron's design to control all these rings and their bearers through the One Ring, forged in secret for this purpose, but only the Nine succumbed completely to its power and its seduction:
- Those who used the Nine Rings became mighty in their day, kings, sorcerers, and warriors of old. They obtained glory and great wealth, yet it turned to their undoing. They had, as it seemed, unending life, yet life became unendurable to them. They could walk, if they would, unseen by all eyes in this world beneath the sun, and they could see things in worlds invisible to mortal men; but too often they beheld only the phantoms and delusions of Sauron. And one by one, sooner or later, according to their native strength and to the good or evil of their wills in the beginning, they fell under the thraldom of the ring that they bore and of the domination of the One which was Sauron's. And they became forever invisible save to him that wore the Ruling Ring, and they entered into the realm of shadows. The Nazgûl were they, the Ringwraiths, the Úlairi, the Enemy's most terrible servants; darkness went with them, and they cried with the voices of death.
— The Silmarillion, "Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age", 346
The corrupting effect of the rings extended the bearers' earthly lives far beyond their normal lifespans. Some passages in the novel suggest that the Nazgûl wore their rings, while others suggest that Sauron actually held them.
When Gandalf first told Frodo Baggins about the Rings of Power in The Fellowship of the Ring, he said, "The Nine he had gathered to himself; the Seven also, or else they are destroyed. The Three are hidden still." Also, Galadriel told Frodo, "You saw the Eye of him that holds the Seven and the Nine." Yet at the Council of Elrond, Gandalf said that "the Nine the nazgûl keep".
In a letter from circa 1963 Tolkien says explicitly that Sauron held the rings:
- They would have obeyed . . . any minor command of his that did not interfere with their errand — laid upon them by Sauron, who still through their nine rings (which he held) had primary control of their wills . . .
— The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter 246
- They were by far the most powerful of his servants, and the most suitable for such a mission, since they were entirely enslaved to their Nine Rings, which he now himself held . . .
— Unfinished Tales, p. 338
Appearance and characteristicsEdit
The Nazgûl wore their rings long enough that their physical forms faded away until they had become entirely invisible to mortal eyes. Their black robes gave them visible form. During the assault on Minas Tirith, the leader of the Nine, the Witch-king of Angmar, cast back his hood to reveal a crown, but the head that wore it was invisible. While wearing the One Ring, Frodo perceived them as pale figures robed in white, with "haggard hands" and wearing crowns.
In The Fellowship of the Ring they were armed with steel swords, while the Witch-king wielded a Morgul blade that could turn its victim into a wraith. During the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, the Witch-king bore a "long pale sword", and later used a mace against Éowyn.
The Witch-king practiced black magic, and used it to break the gates of Minas Tirith. Tolkien said of the Nazgûl ". . . their chief weapon was terror. This was actually greater when they were unclad and invisible; and it was greater also when they were gathered together." They exuded an aura of fear:
- The Nazgûl came again . . . like vultures that expect their fill of doomed men's flesh. Out of sight and shot they flew, and yet were ever present, and their deadly voices rent the air. More unbearable they became, not less, at each new cry. At length even the stout-hearted would fling themselves to the ground as the hidden menace passed over them, or they would stand, letting their weapons fall from nerveless hands while into their minds a blackness came, and they thought no more of war, but only of hiding and of crawling, and of death.
— The Return of the King, p. 97
Close or prolonged encounters with a Nazgûl caused unconsciousness, nightmares, and eventual death: an effect known as "the Black Breath". Aragorn used the herb athelas to treat victims of the Black Breath, including Frodo, Faramir, Éowyn, and Merry.
History within the legendariumEdit
The Appendices of The Return of the King explain that the Nazgûl first appeared around S.A. 2251, some 700 years after the rings were forged, and were soon established as Sauron's principal servants. They were dispersed after the first overthrow of Sauron in 3441 at the hands of the Last Alliance of Elves and Men, but their survival was assured since the One Ring survived.
They re-emerged around T.A. 1300, when the Witch-king led Sauron's forces against the successor kingdoms of Arnor: Rhudaur, Cardolan and Arthedain. He effectively destroyed all the successor kingdoms, but was defeated in 1975 and returned to Mordor. There he gathered the other Nazgûl in preparation for the return of Sauron to that realm.
In 2000, the Nazgûl besieged Minas Ithil and, after two years, captured it and acquired its palantír for Sauron. The city thereafter became Minas Morgul, the stronghold of the Nazgûl. Sauron returned to Mordor in 2942 and declared himself openly in 2951. Khamûl the Easterling, second in command of the Nine and civilization leader of the Easterlings (Men of Rhûn), and one or two other Nazgûl were sent to garrison Dol Guldur, his fortress in southern Mirkwood.
By 3017, near the beginning of the story told in The Lord of the Rings, Sauron had learned from Gollum that Bilbo Baggins of The Shire had the One Ring in his possession. Sauron entrusted its recovery to the Nazgûl. They reappeared "west of the River", riding black horses that were bred or trained in Mordor to endure their terror. They learned that the Ring had passed to Bilbo's heir, Frodo, and followed him and his companions to Bree. Aragorn arrived ahead of them and hid the Hobbits from their pursuers, but eventually five of the Nazgûl cornered Frodo and his company at Weathertop, where the Witch-king stabbed Frodo in the shoulder with the Morgul blade, breaking off a piece of it in the Hobbit's flesh. When all Nine were swept away by the waters of the river Bruinen, their horses were drowned, and the Ringwraiths were forced to return to Mordor to regroup.
In 3018 the nine companions of the Fellowship of the Ring left Rivendell as the "Nine Walkers", in opposition to the Nazgûl, the "Nine Riders". The latter reappeared mounted on hideous flying beasts (reminiscent of — and in part suggested by — pterodactyls). They were then called Winged Nazgûl.
During the Battle of the Pelennor Fields (portrayed in Return of the King), the Witch-king himself was slain by Éowyn and Merry: Merry's surreptitious stroke with an enchanted Barrow-blade drove the Witch-king to his knees, allowing Éowyn, the niece of Théoden, to drive her sword between his crown and mantle. Thus was the Witch-king destroyed by a woman and a Hobbit, fulfilling the prophecy that "not by the hand of man will he fall". Both weapons that pierced him disintegrated, and both assailants were stricken with the Black Breath. As soon as the Witch-King died, Khamûl became the leader of the Nazgûl.
The remaining eight Ringwraiths attacked the Army of the West during the last battle at the Black Gate. When Frodo claimed the Ring for his own near the fires of Mount Doom, Sauron ordered the eight to fly to intercept him. They arrived too late, however: Gollum seized the Ring and fell into the Cracks of Doom, and the Nazgûl perished with its destruction.
The Nazgûl are featured in all adaptations of The Lord of the Rings on radio, film, and stage.
In Ralph Bakshi's 1978 animated film version of The Lord of the Rings, the Nazgûl hack and slash the Hobbits' beds at The Prancing Pony inn themselves. In the book, the assailants are not precisely identified, but Tolkien implies that the attack was carried out by agents of the Nazgûl, possibly including one Bill Ferny, rather than the Nazgûl themselves (though they were present in the town). Another thing to note is that after the beds are destroyed, the Ringwraths remove their hoods, revealing hideous black masks and the armour they wear beneath their cloaks. As such, they are unhooded, but masked, throughout the remainder of the film.
In the Rankin-Bass adaptation of The Return of the King, the Nazgûl are robed skeletons with white hair.
In the 1981 BBC Radio serial of The Lord of the Rings, the Nazgûl can be heard chanting the Ring-inscription.
In the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy (2001–2003) by Peter Jackson, the Nazgûl also attack the inn themselves. Emphasis is given to their loud shrieks, which are made deafening, and their use of the fell beasts in battle is expanded, notably at the siege of Minas Tirith, when they destroy numerous trebuchets and kill many soldiers. The cries of the Nazgûl as interpreted in Peter Jackson's films are mixed from that of his partner and co-screenwriter, Fran Walsh.
In The Hunt for Gollum (2009) Aragorn fights a Ringwraith on the borders of Mirkwood. The music played during this encounter is called "The Nazgul of Dol Guldur", and the Wraith may thus be Khamûl the Easterling. The Hunt for Gollum puts more emphasis on the Nazgûl's physical strength: Aragorn is shown physically struggling as he pushes his sword against that of the Nazgûl.
In The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012) the White Council claims that the Witch-king of Angmar was killed when Angmar was defeated, and that his enemies buried him in a tomb protected by enchantments. It is implied that the Witch-king has been raised from the dead by Sauron, explaining why he is called the Necromancer. This is a major departure from The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion, in which the Witch-King escapes after the destruction of Angmar, and Glorfindel makes a prophecy that he would not meet his death at the hand of man; in both the book and film version of Return of the King, the prophecy is fulfilled when the Witch-King is killed by a woman, Eowyn.