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In J. R. R. Tolkien's Middle-earth legendarium, the Nazgûl (from Black Speech nazg, "ring", and gûl, "wraith, spirit"; also called Ringwraiths, Ring-wraiths, Black Riders, Dark Riders, the Nine Riders, or simply the Nine) are nine undead human kings who have succumbed through greed to Sauron's power and attained immortality as wraiths bound to the power of the One Ring as servants of The Enemy. They are first mentioned in his book The Lord of the Rings, originally published in 1954–1955. The book refers to the Nazgûl as Sauron's "most terrible servants." As an interesting note, Nazgûl are always known as Nazgûl, regardless of their choice of mounts.
According to Tolkien's legendarium, the nine Nazgûl arose as Sauron's most powerful servants in the Second Age of Middle-earth. They were once powerful mortal Men, three of which being "great lords" of Númenor. Sauron gave each of them one of the nine Rings of Power. Sauron also gave seven Rings of Power to the Dwarves, and Celebrimbor forged three for the Elves, untainted by Sauron's evil. It was Sauron's design to control the Nine, Seven, and Three Rings through the power of his One Ring, forged in secret for this purpose, but it was only the Nine who succumbed completely to its power:
"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 undoing. 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 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 Enemy's most terrible servants; darkness went with them, and they cried with the voices of death" (The Silmarillion: "Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age", 346).
The corrupting effect of the Rings extended their earthly lives far beyond their mortal lifespans, while their bodily forms faded over time until they had become entirely invisible to mortal eyes. They assumed visible form only under their outward black attire. The red reflection in their eyes could be plainly distinguished even in daylight, and in a rage they appeared in a hellish fire. They had many weapons; in The Fellowship of the Ring they were armed with steel swords while their leader, the Witch-king of Angmar, wielded a knife with insidious magical properties. Later, during the Battle of Pelennor Fields, he bore a "long pale sword" that struck fear into the hearts of Minas Tirith's defenders, and after the arrival of the Rohirrim he wielded a mace in a duel against Éowyn.
Their arsenal of deadly armaments was not confined to physical weapons: they were perpetually surrounded by an aura of terror, which affected all but the most powerful living creatures. Their breath (called the Black Breath) was poisonous. The effects of the Black Breath, also known as the Black Shadow, were contracted by exposure to them. Victims could suffer deep despair, unconsciousness, nightmares and even death. However, the herb athelas could be used to counter the effects. The most well-known victims to the Black Breath were Faramir, Éowyn, and Merry, who were healed by Aragorn during the War of the Ring.
In addition, their terrible cries caused terror, loss of bodily control and despair. The Lord of the Nazgûl was notorious for practicing black sorcery. According to Tolkien, though, it was the fear they inspired that was the chief danger:
They have no great physical power against the fearless," he wrote, "but what they have, and the fear that they inspire, is enormously increased in darkness.
The Nazgûl first appeared around S.A. 2251 and were soon established as Sauron's principal servants, less than three centuries after the rings were forged. The Nazgûl were dispersed after the first overthrow of Sauron in 3441 at the hands of the Last Alliance of Elves and Men, but their survival was nonetheless assured since the One Ring survived.
They re-emerged around T.A. 1300, when the Lord of the Nazgûl, also known as the Witch-king of Angmar, the Black Captain and the Morgul-lord, led Sauron's forces against the successor kingdoms of Arnor: Rhudaur, Cardolan and Arthedain. He was eventually defeated in battle in 1975 and returned to Mordor, gathering the other Nazgûl in preparation for the return of Sauron to that realm, having achieved his goal of destroying all of Arnor's successor kingdoms.
In 2000, the Nazgûl besieged Minas Ithil and captured it after two years. The city thereafter became Minas Morgul, the stronghold of the Nazgûl, from where they directed the rebuilding of Sauron's armies, also acquiring a palantír for the Dark Lord. In 2942, Sauron returned to Mordor and declared himself openly in 2951. Two or three of the Nazgûl (the Second of the Nine was put in charge) were sent to his fortress in Mirkwood, named Dol Guldur, to garrison it.
In 3017, near the beginning of the story told in The Lord of the Rings, after hearing news of the One Ring, Sauron commanded the Ringwraiths to recover the One Ring from "Baggins of the Shire". Disguised as riders clad in black, they sought out Bilbo Baggins who, as Gollum had revealed, had the One Ring in his possession. It was around 3018 that the "Nine Walkers" of the Fellowship of the Ring were chosen to mirror the Nazgûl, "Nine Riders".
The Nazgûl rode specially bred black horses that were trained in Mordor to endure the terror. By now, they had learned that the Ring was in the possession of Bilbo's heir, Frodo. They found Frodo and his company at Weathertop, where the Witch-king stabbed Frodo in the arm with a Morgul blade, breaking off a piece of the blade in the hobbit's flesh. When they were swept away by the waters of the river Bruinen, their horses were drowned. The Ringwraiths were forced to return to Mordor to regroup. They reappeared later mounted on fell beasts, at which point they were referred to as Winged Nazgûl.
The Witch-king of Angmar himself was slain by Éowyn and Merry (known as the Magnificent thereafter), during the Battle of the Pelennor Fields: Merry's stab with a powerfully enchanted Barrow-blade drove the Witch-king to his knees, allowing Éowyn, the niece of Théoden, to deliver a strike between his crown and mantle. Which blow actually destroyed him is a matter of debate, since the text specifically mentions that Merry's blade was enchanted and covered with runes meant for the Witch-King, while Éowyn fulfilled a prophecy that he would not be killed by "Man". However, The prophecy is somewhat ambiguous, as Meriadoc was a hobbit, not a member of the race of Man. In both cases, the weapons that struck him were destroyed — a standard fate for weapons that touched his undead flesh. Whether all Nazgûl had this power is unknown.
The remaining eight Ringwraiths attacked the Army of the West on their fell beasts during the last battle at the Black Gate. However, when Frodo put on the Ring in the fires of Mount Doom, Sauron ordered the eight remaining Nazgûl to fly there to intercept him. They arrived too late, with the Ring falling into the fire. At the moment of the One Ring's destruction, the remaining Nazgûl were destroyed.
The Nazgûl are featured in all adaptations of The Lord of the Rings on radio, film, and stage.
In Ralph Bakshi's 1978 animated film version of The Lord of the Rings, the Nazgûl hack and slash the hobbits' beds at The Prancing Pony inn themselves. In the book, the attackers are not precisely identified, but Tolkien implies that the attack was carried out by agents of the Nazgûl, possibly including one Bill Ferny, not the Nazgûl themselves (though they were present in the town).
In the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy (2001–2003) by Peter Jackson, the Nazgûl also attack the inn themselves. Emphasis is given to their loud shrieks, which are made deafening, and their use of the fell beasts in battle is expanded, notably at the siege of Minas Tirith, when they destroy numerous trebuchets and kill many soldiers. The cries of the Nazgûl as interpreted in Peter Jackson's films are mixed from that of his wife and co-screenwriter, Fran Walsh.
 In other media
The Nazgûl are featured in many products based on Tolkien's writings and more recently, the Jackson films.
Some examples include the real-time strategy computer games The Lord of the Rings: War of the Ring, not based on the Jackson films, and The Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle-earth and its sequels,The Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle-earth II and its expansion pack The Rise of the Witch-king, which are based on the films.
In The Lord of the Rings: War of the Ring the Witch-king is a hero for the Evil faction, similar to the movie-based games (whose evil factions are realm-specific). In The Rise of the Witch-king there are three named Ringwraiths: the Witch-king, Khamûl, and "Morgomir", Lieutenant of Carn Dûm. The last Ringwraith's name is invented for the game, developed by Electronic Arts.
In the massive multiplayer online role-playing game The Lord of the Rings Online, the Nazgûl, in particular the Witch-king, play a prominent part in the storyline; the premise of the game at release is to fight the armies of the Witch-king in his realm of Angmar.
In the Middle-earth Collectible Card Game produced by Iron Crown Enterprises, most of the Nazgûl had invented names, shared with Middle-earth Role Playing by the same company. Liz Danforth created the art for each of the Nazgûl in the game.
George R. R. Martin's novel The Armageddon Rag is about a fictional rock band named the Nazgûl. The band's manager and promoter is referred to as Sauron, its lead singer is nicknamed Hobbit, and its logo is an Eye of Mordor. Many of its song and album titles make reference to Tolkien's Middle Earth.
 Names, titles and terms
They are also called the Fell Riders and the Black Wings (when they ride the fell beasts), as well as the Shadows, the Servants of Sauron, and the Nine Servants of the Lord of the Rings. By the Orcs of the Tower of Cirith Ungol they are called the Shriekers.
Only a few of the Nazgûl are named or identified individually in Tolkien's works. Their leader was the Witch-king of Angmar, and his second in command was named Khamûl, the "black Easterling" or the "shadow of the East". Tolkien stated that three of them were great Númenórean lords. Khamûl was a lord of the Easterlings, and is the only Nazgûl whose name is revealed to the reader.
The term "Nazgûl" is frequently mistakenly used to describe the winged steeds the Ringwraiths are given after their horses are drowned in the river Bruinen (even in the commentary tracks for the New Line films on DVD, many cast and crew members make this mistake). Tolkien gives these creatures no real name in the books, though he uses the descriptive term "fell beast" (fell in the archaic sense of "cruel", "evil" or "lethal"). Tolkien himself was known to use the term Nazgûl figuratively. In a 1945 letter to his son (a Royal Air Force pilot), he compared his reaction to the aircraft of World War II to how Frodo might have felt if he had discovered Hobbits "learning to ride Nazgûl-birds."
Some fans also speculate that Herumor and Fuinur, renegade Númenóreans who rose to great power among the Haradrim, became Nazgûl. This is not possible since both Black Númenóreans were born well after the Nine Rings of Power were crafted and the Nazgûl appeared. Since there is no record of any original Nazgûl dying, thus being replaced, Herumor and Fuinur could not have become Nazgûl. This theory has become popular on the Internet, but has been directly contradicted by Tolkien's writings of the foundation of the Nazgûl and the birthdates of Herumor and Fuinur.
The early Middle-earth Role Playing games (and material derived from them) name the eight other than Khamûl; Er-Murazor (the Witch-king, of Númenórean race), Dwar of Waw, Ji Indur Dawndeath, Akhorahil (Númenórean), Hoarmurath of Dir, Adûnaphel the Quiet (female Númenórean), Ren the Unclean and Uva the Horseman, but none of these names or details are considered canonical. In the context of the books, it is unlikely that any of the Nazgûl would have been female, due to repeated references to them as of "kings". Nor is it clear who were of Númenórean descent in the books: only Khamûl's origin is given with certainty, and he was an Easterling. While the Witch-king is often assumed to be a Númenórean lord, this is not directly stated in any of Tolkien's books. However, in his notes for translators Tolkien stated that the Witch-king's name and background were not recorded, but that he was probably of Númenórean descent.
In the Lord of the Rings Trading Card Game, chiefly based on the Jackson films, the Nazgûl are called The Witch King, Úlairë Attëa (The Easterling), Úlairë Nelya, Úlairë Cantëa, Úlairë Lemenya, Úlairë Enquëa, Úlairë Otsëa, Úlairë Toldëa and Úlairë Nertëa. The eight new terms are not new names. In Quenya, Úlairë means Ringwraith, and the second name is merely a numeral from two to nine.
For the expansion to its real-time strategy game The Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle-earth II, The Rise of the Witch-king - chiefly based on the Jackson films and building much upon the original writings - Electronic Arts invented a name for one of the Nazgûl, Morgomir. It is clearly derived from the Sindarin title Morgoth, which meant "Dark Enemy" (mor "dark" + goth "enemy") with the element mir, meaning "jewel", added; however the name has no full meaning in any of Tolkien's Elvish languages.
- ^ Carpenter, Humphrey, ed. (1981), The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, #210, ISBN 0-395-31555-7
- ^ "In dark and loneliness they are strongest; they will not openly attack a house where there are lights and many people — not until they are desperate, not while all the long leagues of Eriador still lie before us. But their power is in terror, and already some in Bree are in their clutch. They will drive these wretches to some evil work: Ferny, and some of the strangers, and, maybe, the gatekeeper too." Tolkien, J. R. R. (1954), The Fellowship of the Ring, The Lord of the Rings, Boston: Houghton Mifflin (published 1987), "Strider", ISBN 0-395-08254-4
- ^ Letters #100
- ^ The Encyclopedia of Arda. "What were the names of the nine Nazgûl?"