While arachnophobes might not agree, the Black Riders are one of the scariest things in The Lord of the Rings; particularly as they track Frodo and the Ring through the shire. There are some questions about the Black Riders, otherwise known as the Nazgûl or Ringwraiths. This article will attempt to answer them.
There are 9 Black Riders in Lord of the Rings. They first appear in The Fellowship of the Ring, but lose their steeds while crossing the Bruinen ford outside of Rivendell. After this the 9 riders become the 9 Nazgûl and ride winged beasts instead.
Let’s look at the 9 black riders in some more depth.
What are the other names for the Black Riders?
As with many other people and creatures in Middle Earth, the Black Riders are known by a variety of names. These names come from nicknames and also translations into other languages. The Black Riders are also known as:
Servants of Sauron
The Fallen Kings
Ulairi (in Quenya)
What are the Black Riders?
The Dark Lord Sauron, disguised as Annatar, instructed the Noldor of Eragion on ring making. Celebrimbor forged the 3 rings for the elves, but other Noldor created 9 rings for mortal men. Sauron wove binding magic into them in secret then forged the One Ring to control them.
He later used the rings to corrupt nine mortal men and bend them to his will. In doing so he created the Nazgûl, his 9 black riders though originally they were mere kings.
The 9 were killed during Sauron’s defeat and buried deep so no one could bring them back. Only Sauron was able to do this in the guise of the Necromancer – we learn in the appendices of The Lord of the Rings that this occurred during The Hobbit).
In The Lord of the Rings, Sauron holds the rings and uses them to control the Nazgûl (Tolkien, Letters, No.246). By this time they are resurrected wraiths and their chief weapon is dread; especially when invisible and grouped together. This is probably why Eowyn calls them dwimmerlaik which translates from Old English/Old Norse as “act of illusion” or “state of illusion.”
Essentially the Black Riders were wraiths – twisted spirits bound to Sauron’s will. They wore real clothes to give them form and shape in the real world, though could be seen more fully in the world seen when the One Ring was worn. Their horses were also real.
The wraiths were unable to see in the real world and instead relied upon their mounts. That being said, they had a keen sense for the One Ring – they craved it and were drawn to its power. This is how they were able to zero in on Frodo as he attempted to meet Gandalf in Bree.
Who are the Black Riders?
Only two of the Black Riders are actually named though there is speculation for a third. What we do know is that 3 of them were Numenorean lords though Tolkien speculates that the Witch-king of Angmar was originally one too. The named ones were:
The Witch-king of Angmar: Also known as Lord of the Nazgûl and The Black Captain, the Witch-king may have been of Numenor, but was king of Angmar by the time he was corrupted. He carried a morgul blade which could turn others to wraiths and was eventually killed by Eowyn during the Battle of Pelennor Fields.
Khamul: Known as The Black Easterling or Shadow of the East. Khamul was second-in-command to the Witch-king. Given his nicknames he either hailed from the eastern peoples or they were his remit – probably the former.
Furthermore, it is speculated that Gothmog might have been a Nazgûl as he was a lieutenant of Morgul. This just comes from the fact that Minas Morgul was the home base of the Nazgûl.
Given Gothmog was the ‘leader in the field’ it seems more likely he was the ranking orc – possibly one of the lesser maiar Sauron or Melkor twisted into orc form. This is especially so as Khamul is recognized as the Witch-king’s second in command.
Personally, based on the Appendices of Lord of the Rings, I posit that the majority if not all of the non-Numenorean Ringwraiths were easterners. This is based solely on the fact that they appeared after Sauron began extending his strength eastward following defeat in the west (LoTR, p.1083).
Could there have been more Black Riders?
The dwarven rings were mostly melted by dragon fire and the elven rings persisted with the elves uncorrupted. Perhaps it is only mankind who can be twisted into wraith form by the rings of power including the One Ring.
It is possible to see the wraithing process beginning with Bilbo and Frodo during The Lord of the Rings. It is far more advanced in Smeagol/Gollum. Furthermore, as Shippey (2005, p.156) points out, you can observe the twisting of Boromir toward the end of The Fellowship of the Ring – his craving for power, though of noble origin, corrupts Boromir.
Lastly, the Witch King of Angmar wielded a morgul blade which has the power to turn anyone it stabs or cuts into a wraith. This and the corruption of the One Ring, while potentially wraithing someone, probably would not turn them into a Nazgûl. These are 9 specific wraiths with their rings of power corrupted at a specific time by Sauron.
Works used for research:
Shippey, Tom, 2005, The Road to Middle Earth – Revised Edition, Harper Collins, London
Tolkien, J.R.R., 1955 (2011 edition), The Return of the King, Harper Collins, London
Tolkien, J.R.R., 2006, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Harper Collins, London