|Tolkien's legendarium character|
Úlairi (in Quenya)
|Book(s)||The Fellowship of the Ring (1954),
The Two Towers (1954),
The Return of the King (1955),
The Silmarillion (1977),
Unfinished Tales (1980)
The Nazgûl (from Black Speech nazg, "ring", and gûl, "wraith, spirit", possibly related to gul, "sorcery" or a wordplay on "ghoul" ), 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 and completely under the dominion of Sauron. 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".
In Tolkien's writings
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. Ultimately, however, they were bound to the One Ring and completely enslaved by the will of Sauron.
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.
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
Names, titles and terms
The Nazgûl are called Úlairi (a plural) in Tolkien's invented language of Quenya.
They are also called the Fell Riders and the Black Wings (when they ride the fell beasts), as well as the Shadows, the Servants of Sauron, and the Nine Servants of the Lord of the Rings. The Orcs of the Tower of Cirith Ungol call them Shriekers.
In her duel with the Witch-king, Éowyn calls him a "dwimmerlaik". This is intended to be a word in Rohirric, the speech of Rohan, translated into Anglo-Saxon, that Tolkien glosses in the index as a "work of necromancy", a "spectre". It derives from Anglo-Saxon (ge)dwimor, "phantom, illusion" and -leikr, the Old Norse ending corresponding to Anglo-Saxon -lac, meaning "a state or act".
Only two of the Nazgûl are named or identified individually in Tolkien's works. Their leader was the Witch-king of Angmar; he is the only individual Nazgûl identified in The Lord of the Rings. Writings unpublished in Tolkien's lifetime identify his second-in-command as Khamûl, the "Black Easterling" or the "Shadow of the East". In the text of The Lord of the Rings, after the fall of the Lord of the Nazgûl, command of Mordor's army in the field falls to Gothmog, the "lieutenant of Morgul"; nothing else is said of Gothmog, but since Minas Morgul was closely associated with the Nazgûl, some have speculated that Gothmog was one of their number. (For example, the 1977 wargame War of the Ring depicts Gothmog as a Nazgûl.)
Appearance and characteristics
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. The Witch-king specifically was taller than the others, with "long and gleaming" hair. 
Their senses, especially smell, are enhanced. As the Nazgûl hunt Frodo across The Shire, he can hear what he thinks to be snuffling, and sometimes sees them crawling/crouching on the ground. On Weathertop, Aragorn explains that they smell the blood of living things at all times. They can also keenly feel the presence of others, more-so than mortals. Their sight works differently as well:
They themselves do not see the world of light as we do, but our shapes cast shadows in their minds, which only the noon sun destroys; and in the dark they perceive many signs and forms that are hidden from us: then they are most to be feared. — "A Knife in the Dark", The Fellowship of the Ring, p. 237
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 legendarium
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 S.A. 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. Two or three of the Nazgûl were sent to garrison Dol Guldur, his fortress in 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.
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 Ringwraiths remove their hoods, revealing hideous black masks and the armour they wear beneath their cloaks. They remain unhooded, but masked, throughout the remainder of the film.
In The Lord of the Rings movie trilogy (2001–2003) by Peter Jackson, the Nazgûl are almost always concealed by cloaks; however, they appear as white ghostly corpses to Frodo when he is wearing the Ring. The Nazgûl attack the inn themselves. Their deafeningly loud shrieks and fell beasts are highlighted. During the siege of Minas Tirith, the Witch-king of Angmar wears a distinctive helmet over his hood resembling a mask and a crown, as opposed to the crown worn underneath his hood in the book. Their shrieks are distorted recordings of producer and screenwriter Fran Walsh's scream.
In The Hunt for Gollum (2009) Aragorn fights a Ringwraith on the borders of Mirkwood. 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 movie trilogy (2012–2014) by Peter Jackson, a prequel to the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the men who became the Nazgûl are said to have been buried and sealed within the High Fells of Rhudaur. In the first film, Radagast briefly encounters the Witch-king while investigating Dol Guldur, and gives the Nazgûl's sword to Gandalf to present at the White Council. In the second film, at Galadriel's behest, Gandalf heads to the High Fells and finds that all the Nazgûl have left the tomb. This confirms the Necromancer's identity as Sauron, as the Nazgûl appear alongside their master in the third film in spectral forms wearing Morgul armour and fight Elrond and Saruman before being driven away by Galadriel.
The Nazgûl are featured in Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor and its sequel Middle-earth: Shadow of War. In the latter, Isildur is revealed to be one of the Nazgûl before he was killed by the game's protagonist, Talion. Talion takes Isildur's ring to prolong his life and eventually became Isildur's replacement until the demise of the Nazgûl in the Return of the King.
Names not created by Tolkien
The early Middle-earth Role Playing games (and material derived from them) name the eight other than Khamûl; Er-Murazor (the Witch-king, of Númenórean race), Dwar of Waw, Ji Indûr Dawndeath, Akhôrahil (Númenórean), Hoarmûrath of Dír, Adûnaphel the Quiet (female Númenórean), Ren the Unclean and Ûvatha the Horseman, however, none of these names come from Tolkien's writings.
In the Lord of the Rings Trading Card Game, chiefly based on the Jackson films, the Nazgûl are called The Witch King, Úlairë Attëa (The Easterling), Úlairë Nelya, Úlairë Cantëa, Úlairë Lemenya, Úlairë Enquëa, Úlairë Otsëa, Úlairë Toldëa and Úlairë Nertëa. These are not new names: Úlairë is a reconstructed Quenya singular "Ringwraith" (the singular of Q. pl. Ulairi is not directly attested), and the second word is simply an ordinal number from second to ninth.
For the expansion to its real-time strategy game The Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle-earth II, The Rise of the Witch-king — chiefly based on the Jackson films and building much upon the original writings — Electronic Arts invented the name Morgomir for one of the Nazgûl. This appears to be a pastiche of the Sindarin words Morgoth ("Dark Enemy") and mîr ("jewel"); it is not attested in Tolkien's Elvish languages.
In The Lord of the Rings Strategy Battle Game, the Witch-king and Khamûl the Easterling retain the titles Tolkien gave them. The other seven are given honorific titles emphasising aspects of how they are used in the game: The Dark Marshal, The Shadow Lord, The Undying, The Tainted, The Betrayer, The Knight of Umbar and The Dwimmerlaik.
In The Heart of the Wild and The Darkening of Mirkwood, supplements for the tabletop role-playing game The One Ring, the three Nazgûl sent to Dol Guldur in T.A. 2951 are named in honorific form as "The Lieutenant of Dol Guldur", "The Ghost of the Forest", and "The Messenger of Mordor".
In Middle Earth: Shadow of War Isildur is revealed to be one of the Nine after being dragged from the river and losing the One Ring. Sauron gives Isildur one of the nine rings given to men. The main character from the game (Talion) also ends up with a ring of power. After a few decades Talion finally succumbs to the ring and also becomes a Wraith. Other wraiths that are also named in the game are Helm Hammerhand and Suladan.
After losing their horses at the Ford of Bruinen, the Nazgûl returned to Mordor and reappeared mounted on hideous flying beasts; Beregond called them "Hell Hawks". Tolkien describes them as "fell beasts", though Tolkien applies the adjective fell ("fierce, cruel") to a variety of other creatures throughout The Lord of the Rings — even at one point to Gandalf. In a letter, he calls the winged mounts "Nazgûl-birds". In the absence of a proper name, derivative works sometimes press "fellbeast" or "fell-beast" into service.
The flying steeds figure prominently in the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, where the Witch-king of Angmar, the Lord of the Nazgûl, rides one against King Théoden of Rohan. Tolkien describes the Witch-king's mount thus:
... it was a winged creature: if bird, then greater than all other birds, and it was naked, and neither quill nor feather did it bear, and its vast pinions were as webs of hide between horned fingers; and it stank. A creature of an older world maybe it was ...
A few paragraphs later, it is said to attack with "beak and claw".
Tolkien once wrote that he "did not intend the steed of the Witch-king to be what is now called a 'pterodactyl'", while acknowledging that it was "obviously ... pterodactylic and owes much" to the "new ... mythology of the 'Prehistoric'", and might even be "a last survivor of older geological eras."
In Ralph Bakshi's 1978 animated version of The Lord of the Rings, one of the Nazgûl is shown riding these creatures. In the Rankin-Bass 1980 animated version of The Return of the King, the Nazgûl ride winged horses, although the Witch-king does ride a creature more in line with the book when he confronts Éowyn. In Peter Jackson's film trilogy based on The Lord of the Rings, all nine Nazgûl are shown onscreen riding them. Jackson's creatures explicitly differ from Tolkien's description in that they have teeth instead of beaks. The Nazgûl use them in battle more extensively than in the book. In the film the Witch-king's mount is largely responsible for the death of Théoden and his horse Snowmane, while in the book Snowmane is killed by a "black dart", crushing Théoden as he falls. As confirmed in the films' audio commentary, the design of the creatures was based largely on illustrations by artist John Howe.
- Christopher Tolkien (1990), The History of Middle-Earth, The War of the Ring, p.372; ISBN 0-395-56008-X
- Unfinished Tales, Index, entry for Khamûl, p. 448.
- Tolkien, J. R. R. The Return of the King (mass market paperback ed.). Del Rey. p. 120.
There they had been mustered for the sack of the City and the rape of Gondor, waiting on the call of their Captain. He now was destroyed; but Gothmog the lieutenant of Morgul had flung them into the fray...
- "Yet Sauron was ever guileful, and it is said that among those whom he ensnared with the Nine Rings three were great lords of Númenórean race." The Silmarillion, "The Akallabêth", p. 267.
- Tolkien writes: "the name and origin of the Witch-king is not recorded, but he was probably of Númenórean descent." Wayne G. Hammond & Christina Scull, The Lord of the Rings: A Reader's Companion, p. 20. The relevant passage was later removed by Tolkien from the notes for translators, and does not appear in the version published in Jared Lobdell's A Tolkien Compass.
- Tolkien, J.R.R (2005). "A Knife in the Dark". The Fellowship of the Ring. New York: Houghton Mifflin. p. 244.
- Unfinished Tales, p. 343
- The Return of the King, Chapter 5, Chapter 6, "The Battle of the Pelennor Fields", p. 822.
- Humphrey Carpenter, editor, The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, Letter 211, p. 282.
- The Lord of the Rings, Appendix A, I iv, p. 412.
- "In dark and loneliness they are strongest; they will not openly attack a house where there are lights and many people — not until they are desperate, not while all the long leagues of Eriador still lie before us. But their power is in terror, and already some in Bree are in their clutch. They will drive these wretches to some evil work: Ferny, and some of the strangers, and, maybe, the gatekeeper too." Tolkien, J. R. R. (1954), The Fellowship of the Ring, The Lord of the Rings, Boston: Houghton Mifflin (published 1987), "Strider", ISBN 0-395-08254-4
- "Nazgul.wav" (WAV). October 25, 2009. Retrieved May 16, 2012.
- BROOKS BARNES (November 30, 2012). "Middle-Earth Wizard's Not-So-Silent Partner". New York Times.
- The Encyclopedia of Arda. "What were the names of the nine Nazgûl?" Retrieved May 16, 2012.
- Ryder-Hanrahan, Gareth; Nepitello, Francesco. The Heart of the Wild. Sophisticated Games Ltd and Cubicle 7 Ltd. pp. 87, 103, 106. ISBN 9780857441430.
- Ryder-Hanrahan, Gareth; Nepitello, Francesco. The Darkening of Mirkwood. Sophisticated Games Ltd and Cubicle 7 Ltd. pp. 24, 128–9. ISBN 9780857441348.
- Carpenter, Humphrey, ed. (1981), The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, #100, ISBN 0-395-31555-7
- For example, Turbine, Inc. The Lord of the Rings Online: Shadows of Angmar. Level/area: Barad Guldur.
- Tolkien, J. R. R. (1955), The Return of the King, The Lord of the Rings, Boston: Houghton Mifflin (published 1987), "The Battle of the Pelennor Fields", ISBN 0-395-08256-0
- Carpenter, Humphrey, ed. (1981), The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, #211, ISBN 0-395-31555-7