Three Rings for the Elven-kings under the sky
Seven for the Dwarf-lords in their halls of stone
Nine for Mortal Men doomed to die1
One for the Dark Lord on his dark throne
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.
JRR Tolkien's first published book, The Hobbit, had many scary creatures, including goblins, wolves, spiders and a dragon. His second book, The Lord of the Rings, brought the scare-factor up another whole level with the introduction of the Black Riders. The information in this entry is mainly gleaned from the text and appendices of The Lord of the Rings, with some additional information from Unfinished Tales of Númenor and Middle-earth, which was published after Tolkien's death.
The Black Riders were hooded figures in black robes who rode on black horses. They spoke in hissing voices, but when talking to each other used piercing, inhuman shrieks. A feeling of fear and panic emanated from them. They appeared in the Shire just as Frodo and his friends were leaving it, and pursued them all the way as far as the Ford of Bruinen near Rivendell, where they tried to cross the river and were washed away by a sudden flood.
The Riders returned later in the book riding on strange leather-winged flying creatures. They patrolled the wild lands near Mordor, and some of them were heavily involved in the war between Mordor and Gondor. Scary as the Riders appeared in the comfortable homeland of the Shire, they were far more frightening when they were closer to Mordor.
The Black Riders were the nine mortal men mentioned in the poem.
Names for the Black Riders
The Black Riders were more properly known as the Nazgûl. This word, which is both singular and plural, is in the Black Speech devised by the Dark Lord Sauron for his servants to use. The word 'Nazg' means 'ring' and 'gûl' means 'sorcery'. This word seems to have been used by all the wise - wizards, Aragorn, and even the Elves - and this is unusual, as normally Elves shunned the Black Speech, considering it painful to listen to. The Elves had their own name for the Riders, Úlairi, but it does not occur in The Lord of the Rings. Nazgûl is normally translated into English as 'Ringwraiths' and they were often known by this name, but also as the Nine Riders or just the Nine. The orcs of Mordor hated the Nazgûl although they were their masters, calling them 'Shriekers'.
The Making of the Rings
In the Second Age, about 5,000 years before the events of The Lord of the Rings, the world was quite a different place. The biggest and most important kingdom of Men was in Númenor, an island in the western sea. The Númenoreans were highly civilised and were mainly decent and fair. Some, however, had broken away and had moved to Middle-earth where they set up tyrannical kingdoms in such places as Umbar (south of where Gondor was later located). These were known as Black Númenoreans, not referring to skin colour but to their evil practices.
There were two great kingdoms of Elves, one in the west in Lindon beside the sea and the other in Eregion just west of the Misty Mountains. The Elves of Eregion were of a race known as Noldor, dark haired and interested in making things from stone. They got on well with the Dwarves of the city of Khazad-dûm (later known as Moria) which was a few miles to the east, under the mountains.
Sauron decided he wanted to rule the world, so he established himself in the Land of Mordor and started to amass armies of orcs and evil creatures. Then he set about a centuries-long project to corrupt or conquer the Elves of Eregion. Being a Maia, he could take on any shape he wanted. He adopted the appearance of a tall, noble-looking man and called himself Annatar, the Lord of Gifts. He worked with the Elves, teaching them and also learning from them. With his knowledge of the way things work and the skill of the Elves, they together created 16 magic rings, each with a gemstone set in it. The greatest of the Elves, Celebrimbor, went on to make three much more powerful rings intended for three kings of the Elves.
Sauron retreated to Mordor and in the forges of Mount Doom, an active volcano, he forged the One Ring, the master ring which had power over all the other rings. He hoped to enslave the wearers of all the other rings and bind them to his will. He put a lot of his own power into the One Ring. Celebrimbor became aware of the plan and he and the other Elves took off their Elven-rings and so were not caught in the trap.
Sauron was furious - he had been working on this plan for centuries. He declared war on Eregion and it was overrun by orcs. Most of the Elves were killed. He managed to seize the sixteen lesser rings2 but he couldn't find the three Elven-rings; they had been hidden from him.
Elrond arrived from Lindon with an army of Elves and was assisted by the Númenoreans. They drove Sauron's forces out, but it was too late - the Kingdom of Eregion was in ruins. Elrond led the survivors north and they set up the hidden refuge of Rivendell.
The Enslavement of the Nazgûl
Sauron gave nine of the rings to important men of Middle-earth. We know that three of them were Black Númenoreans, and another was an Easterling (a man from the east). These men gained great power from their rings, acquiring Sauron's own power to persuade and dominate. They became kings, sorcerers and warriors. They also became immortal, feeding off Sauron's own immortality, but they began to find their extended lives unbearable. Gradually, they became enslaved to Sauron's will, eventually being entirely subject to his wishes. As time progressed, they started to fade from the real world, moving into an alternative 'spirit world'. They became invisible in the real world, but wore black robes with hoods over their heads so that people could see where they were.
We're told that the Nazgûl made their first appearance in 2250 of the Second Age, but the records don't mention them again for the rest of that Age. Sauron was busy bringing about the destruction of N´menor. A few survivors of that cataclysm fled to Middle-earth and set up the kingdoms of Arnor in the north and Gondor in the south.
At some point, Sauron gathered the Nazgûl to him and took their rings from them, keeping them with him3. Gandalf said 'the Nine [rings] the Nazgûl keep' but he appears to have been speaking figuratively. All the indications are that Sauron held on to the rings, giving him control over the men who were slaves of the rings.
The Second Age came to an end in the year 3441 when Isildur defeated Sauron and cut the One Ring from his hand, causing Sauron to abandon his physical body. He appeared to be dead, and his spirit disappeared from Middle-earth for more than a thousand years. The Ringwraiths also disappeared - presumably since their will was bound to that of Sauron, they now had no separate aims and just lay low waiting for further instructions.
The Destruction of Arnor
In about the year 1300 of the Third Age, about 1700 years before the events of The Lord of the Rings, the Nazgûl started to reappear. This was the first sign of Sauron's own reappearance although it was another millennium before it was confirmed that he was back.
By 1300, the kingdom of Arnor in the north had fragmented into three smaller kingdoms. Two of these, Arthedain and Cardolan, were still ruled by descendants of Isildur, the original king of Arnor. In the third, Rhudaur, the line had died out and as a result Rhudaur had the least connection to the noble principles of the men of Númenor.
The most important of the Nazgûl, who now had no name other than the Lord of the Nazgûl, set up an evil kingdom to the northeast of Arnor, just north of Rhudaur. He peopled it with evil creatures such as orcs and trolls. This country was called Angmar and he became known as the Witch-King of Angmar.
He allied himself with Rhudaur in a war against Arthedain and Cardolan. Rhudaur was absorbed into Angmar and became evil itself. Cardolan was the first to fall. The forces of Angmar then attacked Arthedain and they held out for a long time hoping for reinforcements from Gondor, but no help came. Eventually Arthedain fell and the last king, Arvedui, fled northwards. He took a ship hoping to sail to Gondor but the ship sank in a storm and Arvedui was drowned.
The Witch-King moved into the capital of Arthedain, Fornost, making it his own capital. About a year too late, the forces of Gondor arrived by sea, led by Eärnur, son of their king. They fought against Angmar and destroyed it - they were aided in this war by some Elves from Rivendell. The Witch-King's armies were defeated, but the Witch-King himself fled. One elf, Glorfindel, made a prophecy about him, that he would never be killed by any man.
In this destruction of the remnants of Arnor, we can see the will of Sauron who had always hated the Númenoreans and wanted to wipe their descendants off the map. Isildur's line did not come to an end, however. The son of Arvedui survived and became leader of a group, the Dúnedain or Rangers, who continued to fight evil in the former kingdom of Arnor.
Minas Ithil ('Tower of the Moon') was built by Isildur around 3320 of the Second Age to guard the 'side entrance' to Mordor. There was a valley that went deep into the mountains and a pass over the mountains here. In 1636 of the Third Age, a great plague ravaged Gondor and many people died. Both Minas Ithil, the city that guarded the pass into Mordor, and Osgiliath, the capital on the Great River, became deserted. All the population retreated to Minas Anor at the foot of the White Mountains and it became the new capital of Gondor.
In the year 2002, Minas Ithil was captured by the forces of Mordor and became the city of the Nazgûl. It was renamed Minas Morgul (Tower of Black Sorcery). The whole valley became corrupted by evil and became known as Imlad Morgul (the Valley of Black Sorcery). The pass over the mountains to Mordor became known as the Haunted Pass. The Nazgûl lived mainly in Minas Morgul for the rest of the Third Age.
The city of Minas Anor ('Tower of the Sun') in Gondor was renamed Minas Tirith ('Tower of Guard'). From that time onward, war between Gondor and Mordor was dominated by these two towers, Minas Morgul and Minas Tirith. It was probably this that inspired Tolkien to choose the name 'The Two Towers' for the second volume of The Lord of the Rings, but it was pointed out to him that Minas Tirith doesn't actually appear in the volume, so he suggested a few other combinations of towers that could fit the title, eventually setting on the Tower of Orthanc representing Saruman and the Dark Tower representing Sauron.
The End of the Kings of Gondor
Having defeated the northern kingdom of Arnor, the next task for the Lord of the Nazgûl was to defeat the southern kingdom of Gondor.
By 2050, Eärnur was king of Gondor and had been ruling for seven years. He was physically very strong and was proud of his achievements as a warrior. The Lord of the Nazgûl issued him a challenge, to a single combat, which was to take place in front of the gates of Minas Morgul. The King accepted the challenge and rode to Minas Morgul, where he was captured and was never seen again.
Eärnur had no children so Gondor now had no king, but the position of ruler was quickly filled by his own steward, Mardil Varonwë, who ruled as the first of a new hereditary line of Stewards, running the kingdom 'until the King should return'. So the plan to cripple Gondor had failed.
The Reappearance of the Nazgûl
After the disappearance and presumed death of Eärnur, nothing was heard from the Nazgûl for a long time. For more than a thousand years, an evil presence nicknamed the Necromancer had lived in the south of the giant forest called Mirkwood. It was suspected that the Necromancer was a Nazgûl, but in fact it was none other than Sauron himself. This was proved later when Gandalf entered the Necromancer's fortress and barely got out alive.
In about 2463, the One Ring was found in the shallows of Anduin, the Great River, and came into the possession of Gollum, a hobbit-like creature. If it had been found by a King of Men or by an Elf, its presence would have been soon felt as that person would have used it for personal gain and domination. Gollum was an insignificant fisherman, so he did nothing with the ring other than turn himself invisible on occasion. He was reviled and he fled into the mountains where he lived in the caves and tunnels under the mountains for half a millennium, so the Ring effectively disappeared again. Then it was found in 2941 by Bilbo the Hobbit.
Gollum, searching for the Ring, came out from his tunnels and ended up in Mordor. Sauron learned from him that the Ring had indeed been found.
The Nazgûl Search for the Ring
Sauron needed to get his Ring back - without it he was only half as powerful as his normal self, since he had put much of himself into the Ring. The only people he could trust to bring him back the ring were the Nazgûl, who were totally subservient to him.
In June 3018, to avoid arousing suspicions, he made the Nazgûl issue forth from Minas Morgul for the first time in nearly 1,000 years and to attack some of the fortifications of Gondor. The Men of Gondor suffered some losses but succeeded in holding back the enemy. This was in fact a ruse and just a way of getting the Nazgûl to leave Minas Morgul without anybody suspecting they were looking for the Ring. They started their search in completely the wrong place, as Gollum had misled them. They searched in the Vale of Anduin, in the place where Gollum had lived, but eventually realised that the Ring was nowhere to be found.
By September, the Nazgûl realised they were on the wrong side of the Misty Mountains. They went south to Isengard where they hoped the wizard Saruman would help them. Saruman had by this stage formed an alliance with Sauron, although he hoped to find the Ring himself and betray Sauron. The Nazgûl arrived at the gates of Isengard and heard the Voice of Saruman coming from the gate itself. The Voice persuaded them that Saruman knew nothing of the location of the Ring, but that they should try going northwest.
So the Ringwraiths entered Eriador and started on the road toward the Shire at about the same time that Gandalf travelled south and tried to beg a horse from the King of Rohan and that Frodo started making his arrangements to leave the Shire.
The rest of the story of the Nazgûl, their arrival in the Shire and their pursuit of Frodo and his friends, is told in The Lord of the Rings.
The Riders' horses were killed at the end of Book I. The Nazgûl themselves were not so easily killed, but they would have fled back to Mordor. They then don't come into the story for quite some time, but when they do reappear, they are riding on strange flying creatures which appear to be giant bats or flying dinosaurs (pterosaurs). Their species had no name since they had never been encountered by humans before.
The Black Easterling
Only one of the Nazgûl is named by Tolkien, and even then only in unfinished notes, not in The Lord of the Rings. This is Khamûl the Easterling, also known as the Black Easterling or the Shadow of the East.
At the end of The Hobbit, the White Council drove Sauron out of Dol Guldur, but he almost immediately returned to Mordor which he had been preparing for his return. He sent Khamûl and one or two other Nazgûl to look after Dol Guldur. They stayed there until the Nazgûl assembled to look for the Ring.
Tolkien's notes indicate that it was Khamûl who led the Riders into the Shire, and who talked to the Gaffer at Bag End. He was the rider the hobbits hid from on the Stock Road and that they saw crawling along the bank in the fog as they crossed the river on the Bucklebury Ferry. He also led the attack on the hobbits in Bree.
The Lord of the Nazgûl
The most important of the Nazgûl was known by various titles: the Lord of the Nazgûl, the Captain of the Nazgûl, the Lord of Morgul or the Witch-king of Angmar. He was referred to in contemptuous tones by an orc of Mordor as 'Number One'. What his original name had been before he became a wraith nobody knows.
The Lord of the Nazgûl was Sauron's principal servant. It was he who brought about the destruction of Arnor, and who brought the line of the Kings of Gondor to an end.
He directed the attack on the Shire, but from a distance, not entering the country of the hobbits himself. He joined up with the others after Frodo and his friends had left Bree. It was he who led the attack on Frodo in the dell at the base of Weathertop, where he stabbed Frodo with an enchanted knife. Because Frodo put on the Ring, he was able to see the Nazgûl in his true form: a pale king wearing a crown. A few days later, the Lord of the Nazgûl led the Riders into the Bruinen river to take the Ring from Frodo and they were swept away by the flood.
Five months later, Frodo and Sam saw him again on horseback, leading an army out of Minas Morgul. He stopped at the bridge over the poisoned river, and was disturbed because Frodo and Sam were hiding underneath the bridge. He could sense the Ring and was uneasy. But the army was ready and the attack on Gondor was about to happen, so he continued on.
He directed the Siege of Minas Tirith. Supervising the breaking down of the gate of the city, he was confronted by Gandalf. In a scene which was possibly the inspiration for the Star Wars fight to the death between Obi-Wan Kenobi and Darth Vader4, the black-robed Witch-king drew his sword which was covered in flames5. But before the two could fight, the horns of the Riders of Rohan were heard in the distance and the Lord of the Nazgûl turned tail and left to direct the battle against the forces of Rohan.
Now mounted on his winged creature, he saw King Theoden of Rohan lying injured, trapped under his horse, and swooped down to finish him off. Before he could do so, he was himself killed by the Rohan woman Éowyn with a little help from the hobbit Merry - as had been prophesied, he would not be killed by any man. It appears that his spirit survived because a wailing cry was heard leaving the battlefield and flying back towards Mordor. Frodo and Sam heard it going overhead from inside Mordor, moving towards the Dark Tower, so presumably the Nazgûl's spirit was still enslaved to Sauron's will and stayed alive until Sauron himself was destroyed a few weeks later.
The End of the Immortal Nazgûl
The other eight Nazgûl survived until the end. They were there at the last battle at the Gates of Mordor. When Frodo put on the ring at the Cracks of Doom, Sauron suddenly realised what was happening. He withdrew his attention from the battle, leaving the armies confused, and ordered the Nazgûl to fly straight to Mount Doom. When Gollum fell into the fire with the Ring in his hand, the Ring was destroyed, and Sauron with it. Presumably his control over the Nazgûl themselves then disappeared. We're told the winged creatures had reached Mount Doom at this point; they plummeted into the flames of the now-erupting volcano and were burned up. The Nazgûl never troubled the world again.