There are many creatures in Tolkien’s Legendarium that come across as uncanny and downright scary. The Nazgûl definitely belong to this category. Also known as the Ringwraiths, they send panic and fear before them, and this name — Ringwraiths — has hidden clues to their nature.
Ringwraith is a compound noun, with a very clear first element and a curious second one: wraith is not a common word. Tolkien’s choice of this very notion is not a coincidence, for it carries layers of meanings, all of which describe perfectly well what the Nazgûl are. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a wraith is a ghost or a ghostlike image of someone, especially one seen shortly before or after their death. The word can also be used in a reference to a pale, thin or insubstantial person or thing or, in a literary sense, to a wisp or a faint trace of something.
Two of these meanings can be applied to the Nazgûl. To begin with, Sauron’s most terrible servants can be identified with ghosts. We know that they were formerly great kings and lords of Men, but ensnared by Sauron and the Nine Rings of Power, they fell under the dominion of their own Rings and Sauron’s One Ring. Thus, through using their Nine and becoming thralls to the One, once mighty Men faded into ghostlike figures invisible in the Seen world, but visible in the realm of the Unseen. They were, of course, far from the ghosts of spooky tales that could go through walls or float in the air: despite being invisible for most eyes, the Ringwraiths were solid as their unseen bodies were covered by cloaks “to give shape to their nothingness” and they could ride horses and wield swords. On the other hand, the Nazgûl could not be harmed by common weapons — only by the enchanted blades from the Barrow-wight’s mound — nor could they be hurt physically otherwise. It was at night that the Ringwraiths were especially dangerous and terrible, while during the day they were much weaker and less potent. Their main weapon was fear that went with them, rather than physical strength, that made all the living creatures flee.
The second meaning of wraith, referring to a likeness to a ghost in appearance, can also be applied to the Nazgûl. We have a chance to see them through Frodo’s eyes at Weathertop: as the Hobbit puts the Ring on, he moves into the Unseen realm and we, together with him, can learn what the Ringwraiths look like:
There were five tall figures: two standing on the lip of the dell, three advancing. 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. Their eyes fell on him and pierced him, as they rushed towards him. Desperate, he drew his own sword, and it seemed to him that it flickered red, as if it was a firebrand. Two of the figures halted. The third was taller than the others: his hair was long and gleaming and on his helm was a crown. In one hand he held a long sword, and in the other a knife; both the knife and the hand that held it glowed with a pale light.
(Fellowship of the Ring, p. 258)
Concerning the way the word wraith can be applied to both living and non-living, Tom Shippey observes an interesting analogy. In their state the Ringwraiths are neither alive, nor dead (1). They exist in two worlds at the same time, but their unending life is more like serial longevity, a twisted image of immortality, a mockery of it. It is a pitiful state to be in. During their life they used to be powerful and mighty, but even then the effects of the rings were beginning to show:
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 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.
(Silmarillion, p. 346)
There is even more to be found if we look at the etymology of the word wraith. Though most dictionaries state that its origin is obscure and date it to the XVI century, the year 1513, as it appeared in Gavin Douglas’s translation of Virgil’s Aeneid into Scots, Tom Shippey does offer a connection. He links the word wraith with the Old English verb wríðan — to writhe. This verb also gave rise to its related words, including wroth, wrath and wreath (2). All of the words are united by the concept of twisting, either physical, or emotional. Literal meanings and concepts of twisting co-exist with metaphorical ones in writhe and its related forms. The connection between anger and twisting is metaphorical: we can say that anger is a very strong emotion that twists a person — both on the inside and on the outside: very often the verb to twist is used to describe what happens to one’s facial expression when they are very angry. In the case of the Ringwraiths we can say that they became twisted in their nature: first during their lives — by greed, lust for power, and later — by the effects of their Nine Rings and the One. They became corrupted in their very core never to become untwisted again.
The word wraith and its related forms were also used by Tolkien in many other contexts and in their multitude of meanings, both literal and metaphorical, but it is with the Ringwraiths that the word works especially potently, covering the complex nature of these creatures with just six letters. Even if you know nothing about the Nazgûl, but know everything about the word wraith, it will tell their story readily.
(1) T. A. Shippey – J. R. R. Tolkien: Author of the Century
- J. R. R. Tolkien – The Silmarillion (edited by Christopher Tolkien); HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 1999.
- J. R. R. Tolkien – The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2001.
- T. A. Shippey – J. R. R. Tolkien: Author of the Century; Houghton Mifflin Company; New York; 2000.