The very first time I attempted to read through The Lord of the Rings, I was really too young to understand most of it. However, I very vividly remember the scene where the Hobbits are hiding under the roots of a tree while the Ringwraith is trying to smell them out. That bit made my hair stand on end! I was reading way later than I should have been awake, and I did not sleep well that night.
Nine he gave to Mortal Men, proud and great, and so ensnared them. Long ago they fell under the dominion of the One, and they became Ringwraiths, shadows under his great Shadow, his most terrible servants.
JRR Tolkien: Gandalf, in The Fellowship of the Ring
Truly, the Nazgûl are some of the most iconic and evocative servants of Sauron. It’s a shame that Peter Jackson’s movies can make them look like such inept bumblers, especially for those who are used to the movie formula that power translates directly to strength in battle.
Perhaps due to this portrayal, or perhaps because they’re so mysterious and exciting, I hear a lot of questions about the Nazgûl. Hopefully I can clear up some of them up here.
How powerful are they?
Their peril is almost entirely due to the unreasoning fear which they inspire (like ghosts). They have no great physical power against the fearless; but what they have, and the fear that they inspire, is enormously increased in darkness. The Witch-king, their leader, is more powerful in all ways than the others; but he must not yet be raised to the stature of Vol. III. There, put in command by Sauron, he is given an added demonic force. But even in the Battle of the Pelennor, the darkness had only just broken.
JRR Tolkien, The Letters of JRR Tolkien, “Letter 210”
Glorfindel states that “there are few even in Rivendell that can ride openly against the Nine.” When you think about the Ringwraiths in the movies, this seems like a bit of an odd statement considering that they’re consistently foiled by the goofy Hobbits and in open battle are defeated by an outnumbered and outarmed foe. But even Gandalf says, “On foot even Glorfindel and Aragorn together could not withstand all the Nine at once.” I found this statement surprising considering the fact that Glorfindel is one of the most powerful Elf-lords in Middle-earth and Aragorn one of the most powerful Men. This statement seems to contradict Tolkien’s words quoted above, but I believe that in context Gandalf is not saying that Glorfindel and Aragorn would necessarily be defeated; merely that they could not prevent the Nine from breaking free and catching up with Frodo.
However, it’s worth noting that most weapons can’t permanently damage the Nazgûl. They control fear itself; it takes a strong warrior to even face them without breaking – and doing so can cause permanent psychological damage. Only a handful of beings in Middle Earth at the time could hope to square up against one of the Nazgûl and come out alive and sane on the other side. That two of these beings happened to be with Frodo in his time of need is testament to how important his mission was. But were Glorfindel and Aragorn to stand against them might against might and survive, the Nine would simply return again, and again, until even the two of them were eventually destroyed.
Tolkien’s greatest villians were not great because of physical or magical might, and his greatest heroes became great through feats of character as much as power. The powers of Good are the powers to protect, and inspire, and heal, and win the hearts and loyalty of others. The powers of Evil are the powers to dominate, corrupt, twist, and enfeeble. Glorfindel is strong enough to protect Rivendell, but not strong enough to kick the Black Gate down and punch Sauron’s teeth down his throat, and if he were able to do so he would become the new dark lord.
In summary, the Nazgûl are rightly called the most terrible of Sauron’s servants. They are nigh-unkillable specters wearing fear as armor and wielding death as a blade.
How did the Nazgûl come to be?
Through their Rings of Power.
In the Second Age, Sauron acted like he had turned over a new leaf and assumed the guise of Annatar, Lord of Gifts. He taught the Elves how to make powerful rings, filled with magic. Many lesser rings were created, but there were nineteen Rings of Power. Sauron and the Elven smiths created sixteen of them, and Celebrimbor himself, without Sauron’s influence, created the greatest three. Annatar gave them all to the Elves as mighty gifts to be worn by their strongest and greatest. However, Sauron himself in secret forged the One Ring, the Ruling Ring.
Although the Rings of Power were originally intended to enslave the Elves, that plan failed. Enraged, Sauron turned his attention to the other races of Middle-earth, and found the race of Men to be a very suitable target. He managed to corrupt nine men in all: three Numenoreans, one Easterling, and some others we know even less about.
The Rings granted the Men what they desired: long life. However, they also allowed Sauron to dominate their wills and eventually control their very beings. These beings became the Ringwraiths, or Nazgûl.
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 downfall. 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 thralldom 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.
JRR Tolkien, The Silmarillion, “Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age”
(I note that the quote above states they became kings, sorcerers, and warriors. It’s not necessarily the case that they were so beforehand. It’s popularly stated that Sauron gave the rings to kings and warriors, but I don’t believe that’s ever written by Tolkien.)
For a longer and more detailed discussion of the Rings of Power, please see my essay on the subject!
Do the Nazgûl still hold the Nine Rings?
This is definitively stated by Tolkien himself:
Sauron, who still through their nine rings (which he held) had primary control of their wills…
JRR Tolkien, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, “Letter 246”
They bonded with their Rings such that they draw sustenance from them even when apart, and they grew mentally dependent on Sauron even as they grew physically dependent on their Rings. At this point, they are mere extensions of his will, and their bodies are sustained by their Rings even when not wearing them.
So why didn’t Sauron use the Nine to make more Nazgûl?
It’s not entirely clear whether one Ring of Power could control two subjects at once. If we look at the One Ring, we can see it affecting Bilbo, Gollum, and Frodo simultaneously. Whether one of the Nine could do so is not, to my knowledge, addressed.
However, the point is moot as Sauron no longer has the One Ring. Sauron giving one of the Nine to anyone without the Ruling Ring on his finger would be foolishness.
If someone else wore the One Ring, could he control the Nazgûl?
No. As stated above, the Nazgûl are not currently wearing their rings. If they were, and if someone else were to claim the One Ring, destroy Sauron, and then try to turn the Nazgûl to his own will, he might be able to do so, if they weren’t completely shattered by Sauron’s destruction (more on this below).
However, Tolkien does think that Frodo claiming the Ring would have some effect on the Nazgûl. Let me expand on the quote from above:
I do not think they could have attacked him with violence, nor laid hold upon him or taken him captive; they would have obeyed or feigned to obey any minor commands 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. That errand was to remove Frodo from the Crack. Once he lost the power or opportunity to destroy the Ring, the end could not be in doubt - saving help from outside, which was hardly even remotely possible.
JRR Tolkien, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, “Letter 246”
In other words, while he could not directly control them, they would show a certain amount of token fear / respect to the wielder of the Ring…right up until they betrayed him to his doom.
What is required to fully destroy one of the Nazgûl?
“I thought they were all destroyed in the flood,” said Merry.
“You cannot destroy Ringwraiths like that,” said Gandalf. “The power of their master is in them, and they stand or fall by him. We hope that they were all unhorsed and unmasked, and so made for a while less dangerous; but we must find out for certain.”
JRR Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring, “The Ring Goes South”
“The Winged Messenger!” cried Legolas. “I shot at him with the bow of Galadriel above Sarn Gebir, and I felled him from the sky. He filled us all with fear. What new terror is this?”
“One that you cannot slay with arrows,” said Gandalf. “You only slew his steed. It was a good deed; but the Rider was soon horsed again. For he was a Nazgûl, one of the Nine, who ride now upon winged steeds.”
JRR Tolkien, The Return of the King, “The White Rider”
The question of how invulnerable the Ringwraiths are is a little murky. Gandalf says that Legolas couldn’t slay one with arrows and that they can’t be destroyed even by sweeping them away with water. Aragorn states after Weathertop that “all blades perish that pierce that dreadful King,” though of course that doesn’t necessarily mean that said dreadful king does not also perish.
So passed the sword of the Barrow-downs, work of Westernesse. But glad would he have been to know its fate who wrought it slowly long ago in the North-kingdom when the Dúnedain were young, and chief among their foes was the dread realm of Angmar and its sorcerer king. No other blade, not though mightier hands had wielded it, would have dealt that foe a wound so bitter, cleaving the undead flesh, breaking the spell that knit his unseen sinews to his will.
JRR Tolkien, The Return of the King, “The Battle of the Pelennor Fields”
There’s two schools of thought here:
- Eowyn was only able to slay the Witch-king because Merry first stabbed him with the blade of Westernesse, which overcame his defenses against attacks.
- The Witch-king would have died after being stabbed by Eowyn no matter what. Merry’s attack is only significant because it distracted him enough to be stabbed. The blade of Westernesse is only relevant because if it had been a normal dagger it might not have done enough damage to distract the Nazgûl.
As far as I know, the Legendarium offers us no definitive answer. However, Tolkien states a number of times very clearly that it’s Eowyn who killed the Witch-king. Merry’s stab alone would not have done the job.
As for the others, looking back at Gandalf’s quote above, he says: “The power of their master is in them, and they stand or fall by him”. Tolkien doesn’t explicitly state what happened to the other Nazgûl, but they no longer exist in Middle-earth. I had to dig deep, into volume 12 of The History of Middle-earth to find this passage:
Aragorn, son of Arathorn…claimed the crown of Gondor and of Arnor, after the defeat of Sauron, the destruction of Mordor, and the dissolution of the Ringwraiths.
Christopher Tolkien, HoME 12, The Peoples of Middle-earth, “The Heirs of Elendil”
Whether they were atomized by the eruption of Mount Doom or undone by the fall of Sauron or turned to dust when their Rings were destroyed, we know one thing: after that day, they were no more.
If a Nazgûl captured the One Ring, could he claim it for himself?
Remember what happened when Frodo claimed the Ring at the Cracks of Doom? Sauron knew immediately and sent the remaining Nazgûl to go take it from him. This tells us two things: first, that Sauron would know if someone tried to claim the Ring. And second, that he still has options.
And, of course, Sauron still holds the Nine. Through those Rings, he could control even a One-Ring-wielding Nazgûl. Perhaps given sufficient time to wrest control of the One from Sauron and master its uses, a Nazgûl could free himself. But defeating Sauron is a prerequisite to this happening. And note the line from Gandalf that the wraiths are tied to Sauron. Defeating Sauron is defeating them. It’s a cycle of defeat that is inescapable for the Nine.
Should he put the Ring on and try to claim it, Sauron would know and would bend every ounce of his will and power toward forcing the wearer to bring it back. Given that Sauron holds the Nine, it would be no contest. It’s difficult to escape the fact that Sauron controls the wills of the Nine. They’re his most trusted servants because they cannot betray him. Whether voluntarily or under duress, even the Witch-king would return to Barad-dur and lay the One down at the feet of Sauron.
If a Nazgûl captured the One Ring and his own Ring, what would happen?
Now we’re entering the realm of fan-fiction. Does he regain control of his own will? Does he gain superpowers? Does he become a Real Boy? We may never know.