As always, welcome, dear readers.
A few weeks ago, I did a posting on a once-influential poem, G.F. Buerger’s (1747-1794) Lenore,
with a line so famous that Bram Stoker (1847-1912) quotes it in Chapter 1 of Dracula, over a century after its original publication:
“Hurrah! die Todten reiten schnell.”
“Hurrah! the Dead ride swiftly.”
(For his purpose, Stoker changes the line’s beginning to “Denn die Todten reiten schnell”, which he translates as “For the dead travel fast”.)
But, with Stoker’s work in mind, in this posting I want to discuss how the Undead—specifically, the Nazgul—ride and more so what they ride.
We first see one of their number in early pursuit of Frodo:
“Round the corner came a black horse, no hobbit-pony but a full-sized horse; and on it sat a large man, who seemed to crouch in the saddle, wrapped in a great black cloak and hood, so that only his boots in the high stirrups showed below; his face was shadowed and invisible.” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One, Chapter 3, “Three is Company”)
(by John Howe)
And this pursuit is unremitting, following the hobbits to Crickhollow,
(an early illustration by the military artist Angus McBride)
(possibly an Alan Lee?)
and would undoubtedly have continued but that the waters of the Bruinen swept their horses away,
(by Ted Nasmith)
and, as Gandalf says of the now-united Nazgul:
“It is rash to be too sure, yet I think that we may hope now that the Ringwraiths were scattered, and have been obliged to return as best they could to their Master in Mordor, empty and shapeless.” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book Two, Chapter 3, “The Ring Goes South”)
Because, later in the story, we see the chief of the Nazgul leaving Minas Morgul on horseback (The Two Towers, Book Four, Chapter8, “The Stairs of Cirith Ungol”)
(an Alan Lee)
and then see him mounted confronting Gandalf at the fallen gate of Minas Tirith (The Return of the King, Book Five, Chapter 4, “The Siege of Gondor),
(another Angus McBride)
we must assume that, having returned to Mordor, he has obtained a new mount there, as Gandalf tells Frodo earlier about such steeds:
“…these horses are born and bred to the service of the Dark Lord in Mordor.” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book Two, Chapter 1, “Many Meetings”)
The Nazgul chief has another means of transport, however:
“The great shadow descended like a falling cloud. And behold it was a winged creature: if bird, then greater than all other birds, and it was naked, and neither quill nor feather did it bear, and its vast pinions were as webs of hide between horned fingers; and it stank.” (The Return of the King, Book Five, Chapter 6, “The Battle of the Pelennor Fields”)
Needless to say, this has been a very popular subject for illustrators over the years, from the Hildebrandts
to Angus McBride
to Alan Lee
to John Howe
to Ted Nasmith,
as well as many very good artists, but who have not yet attained the prominence of those I’ve just listed, like Matthew Stewart
and Jake Murray. (I very much like both of these and the Murray has the added attraction that it looks like it could have been an illustration from a work by William Morris.)
JRRT hasn’t given artists a lot to go on, however:
2. leathery wings
3. and, shortly, we have a little more as it attempts to attack Eowyn:
“Again it leaped into the air, and then swiftly fell down upon Eowyn, shrieking, striking with beak and claw.”
So far, then, it’s something very large, with a naked body, leathery wings, claws, and a beak.
The various illustrations above all seem to suggest something dragonish to me, although, if we might match them against some of Tolkien’s own illustrations of Smaug,
Tolkien’s dragon seems more like E.H. Shepard’s (1879-1976) illustration of the Reluctant Dragon, from Kenneth Grahame’s (1859-1932) Dream Days (1898) than the destroyer of Dale.
(If you haven’t read “The Reluctant Dragon”, here’s a LINK to the 1902 republication of Dream Days, with illustrations by Maxfield Parrish: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/35187/35187-h/35187-h.htm Shepard illustrated a 1930 reprint. )
That being the case, does JRRT give us anything more?
“A creature of an older world maybe it was, whose kind, lingering in forgotten mountains cold beneath the Moon, outstayed their day, and in hideous eyrie bred this last untimely brood, apt to evil. And the Dark Lord took it, and nursed it with fell meats, until it grew beyond the measure of all other things that fly; and he gave it to his servant to be his steed.”
In 1784, the Italian scientist (although he probably called himself a “natural philosopher”), Cosimo Collini, published the first report on a strange new creature whose skeleton had been discovered in Bavaria, where he was the curator of the natural history collections of the Elector.
There then began intense discussion: what was this? A bird? Mammal? Lizardish thing? (For lots more on this see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pterodactylus )
Eventually, it was decided that it was a flying reptile, to be called Pterodactylus (“wing-fingered”). Other differing flying reptiles began to appear, forming a whole class of pterosaurs (“winged lizards”), many resembling something like this, in which the leathery wings were attached to the claws (hence that “wing-fingered”), this being a Rhamphorynchus (“beak-snout”—for more on them, see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rhamphorhynchus )
If we consider its look and perhaps the look of the class in general—those wings, that beak, and, of course, the great age (from the Jurassic Period, 200,000,000 to 145,000,000 years ago)—might this have been an inspiration for Tolkien’s creation of whatever this thing—we don’t appear to have any name for it except “foul beast”–upon which the chief Nazgul rode?
Then again, perhaps there is another inspiration, one which Tolkien might have carried about quite unconsciously. He had been introduced to the Alice books as a child (see Carpenter’s Tolkien, 24) and, among the original illustrations by Tenniel for the second volume is this—
set it against that very familiar scene on the fields of the Pelennor and, minus a Nazgul, is there very much difference?
(by Arkady Roytman)
Thanks, as ever, for reading.
Avoid Tulgey Woods,
And know that, as always, there’s