Originally posted on JRR Tolkien Examiner on 9/29/09.
Tolkien 101 is a series of short articles designed to introduce new Tolkien fans to important characters, concepts, and vocabulary from the published works of JRR Tolkien. If you were introduced to Tolkien’s works through Peter Jackson’s film trilogy, or if you are just curious about the background of Tolkien’s invented world (his “Legendarium”), then these articles are meant for you.
Nine for Mortal Men doomed to die…
Forty-five centuries before the War of the Ring, a stranger appeared in Eriador. He called himself Annatar, Lord of Gifts, and told the remaining Elves of Middle-earth that he could teach them much of lore and craft.
Gil-Galad, the High King of the Noldor, did not trust this newcomer; nor did Elrond Half-elven nor Galadriel. But the great smith Celebrimbor of Eregion, grandson of Fëanor who made the Silmarils, was eager for knowledge, and he welcomed Annatar.
Together, Annatar and the smiths of Eregion forged 16 magic rings. Celebrimbor by himself made another three. But soon the Elves learned they had been betrayed, for Annatar was Sauron in disguise. The Dark Lord forged the One Ring in the fires of Mount Doom, to exert control over all the other rings, even the three, and thereby gain mastery over the Elven race.
Fortunately, Sauron’s plan had a single, glaringly obvious flaw. The Elves just took the rings off.
Infuriated, Sauron invaded Eregion and slaughtered the Elves there. He recovered the 16 rings, but never found the three Elven rings made by Celebrimbor alone.
Sauron then distributed the 16 magic rings, seven to the Dwarves and nine to Men. Dwarves are impossible to control, although the rings brought evil to that race nonetheless.
But Men were the perfect victims for the rings. Nine heroes, sorcerers and kings of Men accepted the rings, gaining seeming power and unnaturally long life. But after a few centuries, it became clear the rings were a curse rather than a gift. The nine Men were enslaved by the rings, and by the Dark Lord wearing the One Ring. Their bodies faded away, until the Men were nothing but invisible, undead shades enslaved by Sauron. They became the Nazgûl or “Ringwraiths,” the greatest of Sauron’s servants.
The Ringwraiths fought for Sauron against the Last Alliance of Elves and Men, but when the spirit of Sauron fled after the loss of the One Ring, the Nazgûl fled as well.
About one thousand years into the Third Age, about the time the Wizards appeared from over the sea, Sauron began to reconstitute himself, taking up residence in Mirkwood. This is when the Lord of the Nazgûl, the strongest of the Nine, appeared in the north of Eriador, and founded the evil nation of Angmar. From there, as the Witch-king of Angmar, he waged war against the Dúnedain, the ancestors of Aragorn, for centuries.
The Northern Kingdoms were destroyed, but eventually the men of Gondor arrived and, with an army of Elves led by Elrond and Glorfindel, overthrew Angmar. The Witch-king fled to Mordor, and began summoning together the other Ringwraiths.
But it is because of the Lord of the Nazgûl that by the time of The Hobbit, there was no king in the north.
In the time between the fall of Angmar and the events of The Hobbit, the Witch-king captured the Gondorian city of Minas Ithil, which had been built to keep the forces of Mordor locked within their own land. The Witch-king perverted this purpose, renaming the citadel Minas Morgul and using it as a base to drive the Gondorians west out of their own land.
When Sauron captured Gollum, and learned the names “Shire” and “Baggins,” he sent the nine Nazgûl to seek the Halfling who bore the One Ring. The Nazgûl were still relatively weak, taking visible shape by wearing black cowls, and riding west on what must have been the world’s unhappiest horses. Sauron did not want the Nazgûl riding openly – it would be as good as announcing the Dark Lord’s intention to attack the world of Men.
The nine arrived in or near The Shire in the form of Black Riders. Slaughtering a number of Rangers who attempted to defend The Shire, the Nazgûl took to slinking about in the shadows trying to literally sniff out the Ring. They could feel the presence of the Master Ring that kept them enslaved, although they could apparently come within three feet of it without knowing it.
Finally catching Frodo’s trail, some of the Ringwraiths headed for Weathertop, attacking Gandalf there. Three days later Frodo showed up, and the Witch-king gravely wounded the Hobbit with a poisoned blade – a wound from which Frodo would never fully recover. On Weathertop, Frodo could actually see the Ringwraiths, because he wore the One Ring. They appeared to Frodo as pale crowned figures.
Frodo was eventually rescued by Glorfindel (Arwen in the films), who carried the injured Halfling across the Ford of Bruinen to Rivendell. The magic of Elrond flooded the Ford as the Ringwraiths were crossing – their horses, which were quite mortal, were drowned, and the Nazgûl themselves were swept away by the water.
The Nazgûl returned to Mordor, having failed to secure the One Ring. That conversation with Sauron cannot have gone well. But the Nazgûl were upgraded to flying mounts, and continued their search for Frodo.
The Witch-king and an unspecified number of other Ringwraiths led the charge in the Battle of the Pelennor Fields. But the Lord of the Nazgûl/Witch-king of Angmar was slain by the woman Éowyn Dernhelm and the Hobbit Meriadoc Brandybuck (fulfilling a prophecy that the Witch-king would not die “by the hand of man.”)
The remaining eight Winged Nazgûl attacked the Army of the West at the Morannon; but the One Ring was destroyed just in time. Sauron was reduced permanently to, as Gandalf says, a “mere spirit of malice that gnaws itself in the shadows.” The Ringwraiths were utterly destroyed.
The main powers of the Nazgûl seem to be:
- Effective immortality
- Morgul blades, which poison the victim and reduce them to a wraith
- Flying mounts
- The ability to create a palpable miasma of fear
At least one Ringwraith possessed additional powers. The Witch-king used the power of his sorcery to break the gates of Minas Tirith, with the aid of the battering ram Grond.
There is some very interesting but non-canonical information about the Ringwraiths on the Internet. There are only two Nazgûl singled out for individuation by Tolkien – the Witch-king, whose true name is never revealed, and his chief lieutenant, Khamûl the Black Easterling. (Tolkien did specify that three of the Ringwraiths were Black Númenóreans, evil Sea-Kings who turned against the Valar (gods). It’s pretty likely that the Witch-king was one of these.)
The excellent role-playing rules series Middle Earth Role-Playing, published by Iron Crown Enterprises between 1984 and 1999, provided names and backgrounds for each of the Ringwraiths (identifying one as a female). These names are non-canonical, but show up often in online resources. The MERP background material often seems so authentic that fans mistake it for Tolkien’s work.Annatar, Black Númenóreans, Celebrimbor, Elven Rings, Éowyn, Ereinion Gil-galad, Glorfindel, Iron Crown Enterprises, magic rings, Meriadoc Brandybuck, Middle Earth Role-Playing, Nazgûl, Ringwraiths, Sauron, The One Ring, Tolkien 101, Witch King of Angmar