The Nazgûl (which in the Black Speech means Ringwraith) are fictional characters created by J.R.R. Tolkien which appear in The Lord of the Rings series of novels. The Nazgûl were once mortal kings who were given (and corrupted by) the nine rings of power. The rings held the promise of near unlimited power and life but instead, over time, caused their mortal forms to fade until they had became wraithlike and completely under Sauron's command.

Interestingly, the Nazgûl have no physical forms and wear cloaks only to give themselves shape when dealing with the physical world, they themselves existing primarily in a ghostlike plane of reality slightly removed from our own.

Their sense of sight is severely diminished and they instead rely on their keen sense of smell and hearing. It was noted in the books that they may have some limited form of sight through the eyes of their mounts but this may be conjecture on the characters part. Those who wore the One Ring (an item the Nazgûl were tasked by Sauron with capturing at any cost) became plainly visible to the Nazgûl as the wearer shifted into their plane (and became invisible to others in the more physical plane just as the Nazgûl would be without their cloaks).

They rode coal-black horses until the incident near Rivendell when Elrond and Gandalf turned the river the pursuing Nazgûl rode into into a flood whose foam had the aspects of white horses and riders and washed them away. When the Nazgûl later reappeared riding huge winged mounts (provided by their lord and master Sauron) they were known as the Winged Nazgûl.

Also known as the Black Riders, The Nine, Nine Riders, Nine Servants, Winged Shadows, and Úlairi.

Information obtained from:

The Nazgûl1, terrible servants of Sauron in J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, are known by many names: the Nine, the Úlairi, (Black) Riders, Ringwraiths.

Sauron, for a time, in the guise of Annatar, the Lord of Gifts, dwelt among the men and elves of Middle-earth and guided the forging of the Rings of Power. Nine of these rings were given to mortal men. As stated in Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age in The Silmarillion:

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 then. 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 under the domination of the One, which was Sauron's. And they became for ever invisible save to him that wore the Ruling Ring, and they entered into the realm of shadows. The Nazgûl were they, the Ringwraiths, the Enemy's most terrible servants; darkness went with them, and they cried with the voices of death.

Frodo, wearing the Ring, beheld the Nazgûl at the end of Chapter 11, The Fellowship of the Ring (FoR):

In their white faces burned keen and merciless eyes; under their mantles were long grey robes; upon their grey hairs were helms of silver; in their haggard hands were swords of steel.
And again at the end of Chapter 12, FoR:
They appeared to have cast aside their hoods and black cloaks, and they were robed in white and grey. Swords were naked in their pale hands; helms were on their heads. Their cold eyes glittered....

Strider (Aragorn) discusses their nature in Chapter 11, FoR:

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. And at all times they smell the blood of living things, desiring and hating it. Senses, too, there are other than sight or smell. We can feel their presence - it troubled our hearts, as soon as we came here, and before we saw them; they feel ours more keenly. Also...the Ring draws them.

Additionally, the Nazgûl possess the ability to darken, cloud, and overcome the mind of weaker opponents utilizing what Strider (the end of Chapter 10, FoR) refers to as the Black Breath.


During the reign of Malvegil (sixteenth in the line from Elendil), circa 1200 (the Third Age), the lord of the Nazgûl, the Witch-king, established a kingdom in Angmar in the far northern regions of Middle-earth. In 1975, he suffered defeat at the hands of Elrond, and fled far southward to Minas Morgul (The Tower of Sorcery).

In 2951, Sauron sent Khamûl2 and a second3 Nazgûl messenger to Dol Guldur (Hill of Sorcery) in Mirkwood. The Witch-king and the remaining five dwelt at Minas Morgul, until 3018, when their hunt for the Ring forced them - invisible, unclad, and unmounted - out into the open. As stated in The Hunt for the Ring in Unfinished Tales:

They reached the west-shores of Anduin a little north of Sarn Gebir, as they had trysted; and there received horses and raiment that were secretly ferried over the River. That was (it is thought) about the seventeenth of July. Then they passed northward seeking for the Shire, the land of the Halflings.

About the twenty-second of July they met their companions, the Nazgûl of Dol Guldur, in the Field of Celebrant.

Night was waning on the twenty-second day of September when drawing together again they came to Sarn Ford and the southernmost borders of the Shire. They found them guarded, for the Rangers barred their way. But this was a task beyond the power of the Dúnedain.... Some still dared to bar the ford, and held it while day lasted, but at night the Lord of Morgul swept them away, and the Black Riders passed into the Shire.

From this point on, the story is familiar to most readers of The Lord of the Rings.

A Black Rider4 questions Gaffer Gamgee, then follows the hobbits on their path through the countryside. On the first night of their journey, the Black Rider is scared off by a roving band of elves led by Gildor Inglorion. The next day, the Ring-wraith is joined by another, one of whom questions Farmer Maggot of the Marish.

Frodo and his companions manage to elude the Black Riders for a time and safely cross the Brandywine River into Buckland. From there, they continue on through the Old Forest and on to Bree.

In Bree, Merry falls victim to the Nazgûl Black Breath:

I went out for a stroll. I had come back again and was standing just ouside the light of the lamp looking at the stars. Suddenly I shivered and felt that something horrible was creeping near: there was a sort of deeper shade among the shadows across the road, just beyond the edge of the lamplight. It slid away at once into the dark without a sound.

I seemed to be drawn somehow. Anyway, I went, and suddenly I heard voices by the hedge. I did not creep any closer, because I began to tremble all over. Then I felt terrified, and I turned back, and was just going to bolt home, when something came behind me and I...I fell over. I had an ugly dream, which I can't remember. I went to pieces.

In Crickhollow, three Ringwraiths enter the Baggins' home, and Fatty Bolger sounds the Horn-call of Buckland. The Black Riders, empty-handed, ride swiftly to the east.

Gandalf, in his search for Frodo, heads to Weathertop and there encounters the nine Nazgûl. After a bitter fight, he retreats to Rivendell, leaving four Riders at the ford of the River Hoarwell and five in the vicinity of Weathertop.

Three days later, Strider, Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin arrive at Weathertop and encounter the remaining Nazgûl. Frodo is terribly wounded with an enchanted Morgul-knife, but the band of five manage to continue their journey eastward.

At the Ford of Rivendell, the band encounters the Nine in full force. Frodo crosses the river on Glorfindel's steed, and swears, "By Elbereth and Luthien the Fair, you shall have neither the Ring nor me!".

Then the leader, who was now half across the Ford, stood up menacing in his stirrups, and raised up his hand. Frodo was stricken dumb. He felt his tongue cleave to his mouth, and his heart labouring. His sword broke and fell out of his shaking hand.

At that moment there came a roaring and a rushing: a noise of loud waters rolling many stones. The three Riders that were still in the midst of the Ford were overwhelmed: they disappeared, buried suddenly under angry foam. Those that were behind drew back in dismay.

Later, Gandalf remembers the encounter at the Ford:

Caught between fire and water, and seeing an Elf-lord [Glorfindel] revealed in his wrath, they were dismayed, and their horses were stricken with madness. Three were carried away by the first assault of the flood; the others were now hurled into the water by their horses and overwhelmed.

He continues:

Their horses must have perished, and without them they are crippled. But the Ringwraiths themselves cannot be so easily destroyed.

In The Two Towers, Frodo and Sam watch in horror as the lord of the Nazgûl exits Minas Morgul:

The earth groaned; and out of the city there came a cry...a rending screech, shivering, rising swiftly to a piercing pitch beyond the range of hearing. As the terrible cry ended, falling back through a long sickening wail to army came.... At their head was one greater than all the rest: a Rider, all black, save that on his hooded head he had a helm like a crown that flickered with a perilous light.

This very same lord of the Nazgûl, once King of Angmar, leads his forces to Gondor and makes his final appearance in The Return of the King at the Battle of the Pelennor Fields:

Suddenly in the midst of the glory of the king (Théoden)...the new morning was blotted from the sky. Dark fell about him. The great shadow descended like a falling cloud. And behold! it was a winged creature.... Down, down it came...upon it sat a shape, black-mantled, huge and threatening. A crown of steel he bore, but between rim and robe naught was there to see, save only a deadly gleam of eyes.... He was come again, bringing ruin, turning hope to despair, and victory to death. A great black mace he wielded.
Dernhelm cries out:
'Begone, foul dwimmerlaik, lord of carrion! Leave the dead in peace!'

A cold voice answered: 'Come not between the Nazgûl and his prey! Or he will not slay thee in thy turn. He will bear thee away to the houses of lamentation, beyond all darkness, where thy flesh shall be devoured, and thy shrivelled mind be left naked to the Lidless Eye....'

'Do what you will; but I will hinder it, if I may.'

'Hinder me? Thou fool. No living man may hinder me!'
At this point, Dernhelm reveals herself to be Éowyn, Lady of Rohan:
'But no living man am I! You look upon a woman.... Begone, if you be not deathless!'

The winged creature screamed at her, but the Ringwraith made no answer, and was silent, as if in sudden doubt.... Suddenly the great beast beat its hideous wings and...leaped into the air, and then swiftly fell down upon Éowyn.... A swift stroke she dealt, skilled and deadly. The outstretched neck she clove asunder....

Out of the wreck rose the Black Rider, tall and threatening, towering above her. With a cry of hatred that stung the very ears like venom he let fall his mace. Her shield was shivered in many pieces, and her arm was broken; she stumbled to her knees. He bent over her like a cloud, and his eyes glittered; he raised his mace to kill.

But suddenly he too stumbled forward with a cry of bitter pain, and his stroke went wide, driving into the ground. Merry's sword had stabbed him from behind, shearing through the black mantle, and passing up beneath the hauberk had pierced the sinew behind his mighty knee.

'Éowyn! Éowyn!' cried Merry. Then tottering, struggling up, with her last strength she drove her sword between crown and mantle, as the great shoulders bowed before her. The sword broke sparkling into many shards. The crown rolled away with a clang. Éowyn fell forward upon her fallen foe. But lo! the mantle and hauberk were empty. Shapeless they lay now on the ground, torn and tumbled; and a cry went up into the shuddering air, and faded to a shrill wailing, passing with the wind, a voice bodiless and thin that died, and was swallowed up, and was never heard again in that age of this world.

1 Nazgûl (literally 'Ring-wraith') is derived from nazg, the word for 'ring' in the Black Speech of Mordor.
2 Khamûl, the Shadow of the East, second in command of the Nazgûl.
3 A third Nazgûl was present for a time.
4 Said to be Khamûl, in Unfinished Tales

The Nazgul:Part One of Two

As I was making my way down the road one evening, through what may have been the worst storm of my life, I came upon a small cabin by the side of the road. An old man dressed in rags regarding me as I approached.

Come in with me and sit by the fire; I'll tell you a tale of things past. A tale of this Middle-earth, and of things that have roamed upon it.

What could I say? I was tired and it was beginning to get cold. I knew that the old man was probably a lunatic but in the same moment decided it was all right. After all, what could an old man do to someone like me? I'd seen dangers aplenty and I would be more than happy to listen to an old man's chattering as I ate his food and warmed myself by his fire, so I followed.

We sat without words and he poked at the fire for a time. He looked me in the eyes for a moment, sizing me up. Then he spoke.

You've seen many troubles these days, haven't you? definitely seen a hard day's hike at the least. You have the look of a man that has spent many a day doing such, as though you have seen much of this world. But when I was young...

Spendid! I thought. He continued on, ignoring my obvious discontent.

...there were few travelers if any. It was a different world altogether at that time. It was in the end of the Third Age of the Sun, and the Ring War was at hand; there were strange folk about and battles with the Orcs of the Suaron raged all about this border.

The old man had taken a break, breathing in deeply and fussing over the fire again. I took it as an opportunity to take off my cloak and hang it on a rack next to the mantle. I took special care to let him see my sword before removing it and then sat back down next to the fire.

Think you'll need that bit of shine for me? Ehh, it is the way of you young men I suppose, weapons and such. Good idea to get comfortable though; I've much to say and with this storm you'll likely be staying the night. He looked up from the coals. So what would a young man like yourself be interested in talking about?He asked. He looked at me with more than a question in his voice as he reached over to his shabby little table and carefully lifted a bowl and began to spoon out some of the stew hanging over the fire.You should eat this, he started, extending the bowl.I made it for you anyway. He finished, waiting for me to take it.

So a young man like yourself is sure to want a tale of much action and fury and perhaps even battle,he suggested, looking into the fire,and to your fortune I know much about such things.The old man sighed and looked up at me from the fire.So, what's it to be young man? Shall I tell you of the darkness or the light?, he asked with surprising volume, the flames shining brightly in his stark blue eyes.

Of the darkness old man, for no light shall we see this night, not through this storm, I said, now taking my turn to look into the flames.

You think so boy? he said looking at me as though I were no more than a child.Fair enough then, I'd hate to disappoint one with such an understanding of things; I'll tell you a story of the darkness and then prove to you that the light will penetrate even the deepest black, he said with a finality that made me feel the fool.

You know of the ring lord Sauron I'm sure, he began,as the story has been spread as pollen is in the wind. He looked through the fire, as if he was going somewhere in his mind, somewhere far away. Naturally therefore you know about the rings of power and about how they were used to ensnare nine of the greatest of the race of men, and turn these men into horribly powerful abominations that served only the dark lord? he asked me, still staring into the flames.

I knew of the dark lord but of no other ring than his own, I managed, looking only at this now slightly-amazing old man before me.

Well then I shall tell you all I have heard of them, and of those that wore them through the second and third ages of this world, he said as he looked me in the eyes. For that moment time froze as he drew on his pipe, the orange glow hitting his eyes, mixing with the brown already contained therein to make them look as if they were smoldering coals themselves. It seemed for just that moment that the whole of the world was encased in those eyes; I felt as though they could hold me for the rest of my life, but then he blinked and the spell was broken.

What are you old man? I asked, feeling that I could contain the question no longer. Understand that I am not paranoid by nature but that this man was very strange indeed and I could no longer believe that he was some simple old fellow in front of the fire puffing on his pipe.

That is not for tonight, he said simply, leaving not even the slightest room for comment or reprieve. Though you shall not leave here empty-handed young man, you certainly shan't dictate what I shall tell, at least not this night. He held my gaze, giving not even a moment. Finally, I broke gaze with the man, looking into the fire.

What, I asked, shall we talk about then?I finished, then just as soon began again, Shall we talk about these nine then? These great men who all had rings? I asked eagerly.

Yes, I shall tell you of the Nine, the Nazgul as I knew them. He looked into the fire with me before he continued.The Nazgul were once of the race of men on this middle earth. They were the darkest and most powerful creations of the dark lord Sauron.As he finished I drew my breath in fear of the name itself, as it was considered unwise to say it since the ring war.Fear that name not, young man. I promise you that the dark lord is no more; I know this on reliable authority as I am almost to return home, and such a thing wouldn't be possible were it otherwise.

You are a strange old man, I said, looking away from those eyes. Were I your age, I would hope to already be at home.The man looked around his little cottage, and then back at me. Well I suppose this is home, after a fashion. It has served me for a long time, longer than you would dream possible. I should perhaps say that I need to return to where I came from, but again, that is not for tonight. Tonight is for the nine. Now where was I?

You had said that they were men, and that they were of Sauron, the Deceiver.As I said the title Deceiver, his eyes shot up to meet mine.

Where did you learn that name boy? he asked, excitedly, without the slightest trace of anger in his voice. Don't worry, boy, I'm not going to kill you for it; I just wanted to congratulate you on knowing your history, its not many that know that name, only the wise. I said nothing, and he looked back at the fire in his disappointment, giving it a prod with the fire poker and watching as the logs broke to embers and as the sparks jumped to the chimney. So yes, they were the servants of the Deceiver, and they were fierce indeed.

The man knocked out his pipe into the fire then snatched up a second pipe off the mantle place, filled it with pipe-weed, and lit it, puffing thick smoke out into the air between us. They were the most powerful of the Deceiver's aides. He gave them the powers to call fire and to beckon with their voice, boy. He also gave them many normal weapons with which to kill; he gave them swords and maces and poisoned daggers that would forever change a person into a wraith, like them. Another puff of smoke crossed over those eyes and filled the space between us once more. I would have sworn that for just a moment those eyes glowed with a bluish, otherworldly light. I must be going crazy I thought.

Their very breath would freeze any man in his tracks and make him give in to despair, and if you could manage to strike them you'd best hope you're lucky in your friends and that your blade was blessed by Elves, for if it wasn't it would rust right there in your hands. He dumped the ashes out of his pipe and put it back up on the mantle, I sat there a little dumbfounded as I tried to take in all that he had told me. Some I had known, some I had not, and only one thing was I certain of. I needed to know more.

What more can you tell me of these wraiths, old man?

Although it is has not been brought up much, if at all, in studies of Tolkien, the Nazgûl are one the major examples of an internal inconsistency in Tolkien's works. While part of the attraction of Tolkien's work is the fact that there are many aspects of it that aren't neccesarily part of his main narrative arc, there are still some ground rules, mostly of a theological nature, that Tolkien seemed to hold fast to.

Stated explicitly in The Silmarillion is that Humans have the Gift of Erú, meaning that they die. Although it is something that humans fear, it is something that is actually for their benefit. This is a divine right, and no power on Earth, even Manwë himself, has a right to revoke it.

However, Sauron is able to devise a device, the Nine Rings (as well as, for that matter, the One Ring), that gives people seeming immortality. In other words, Sauron, a corrupted Maia, has managed to defy the Will of God. From a theological point, this would seem to be unacceptable to Tolkien.

Of course, the rings don't actually give more life, they merely stretch it out. However, even though they don't give life, they do manage to take away death. I can only think of two ways that this would be permissible in Tolkien's worldview. First, it could be possible that the rings don't grant immortality, but merely stretch a person's lifespan by a hundred fold, but that even the Ringwraiths will one day die. Another possibility is that the wraiths contain the intellects, wills and memories of the men who once wore the rings, but that their souls have already fled to the Halls of Mandos. A story external explanation is that Tolkien just did not think this aspect through clearly.

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