J.R.R. Tolkien gave the world of literature many things that were new, but also some things that were perfections of what already existed. There has always existed the idea of ghosts or wraiths or spirits; things moving unseen in our world that kill with terror and turn the heart to stone with fear at their mention. Tolkien took this concept and improved upon it, creating the most fell enemies in his universe: they walk unseen, they are drawn to our main character throughout the story, they are robed all in black upon black mounts. They cry with piercing voices in the night, and they ruthlessly serve the source of evil in their time. They are the Nazgûl.
It’s impossible to describe the story of The Lord of the Rings without giving due respect to the Nazgûl, or Ring-wraiths (“nazg-” meaning “ring” in the Black Speech, and “gûl-” meaning spirit or wraith). Their presence throughout the story is ominous and disconcerting, driving the characters along and adding a sense of urgency to the journey. In the later events, the Nazgûl also prove to be powerful foes in combat as well as leaders on the battlefield, inspiring or frightening the Dark Lord’s forces to press on to victory. Their role in both the books and movies are about the same and Peter Jackson seems to nail the idea of them pretty accurately. However, despite the proper portrayal in the films, there are many interesting and scary qualities that are perhaps described more clearly in the novel.
Foremost, as mentioned in the films, the Ring-wraiths were once great leaders of Men. They were seduced and tricked by Sauron and given nine Rings of Power. These Rings brought to them great wealth and power and longevity of life but ultimately proved to be their destruction. They could enter the wraith world and be unseen by all others, but while they wore the Rings Sauron fed them illusions and was able to control them more and more the longer they wore them. Eventually, they slipped away totally from material reality and were trapped in the realm of shadows, completely under the dominance of the Dark Lord. In The Return of the King novel, when the Witch-king, leader of the Nazgûl, enters the gates of Minas Tirith he lowers his hood, revealing a crown upon an unseen head.
What follows from this is a point that is not so stressed in the movies: The Ring-wraiths were actually invisible. They had no visible form any longer as they were forever held in the wraith world, bound to their Rings. Their black cloaks gave them the menacing shape they desired others to see them as. They also could not “see” as one does with their eyes. The realm of shadow they live in does not allow physical forms to be easily seen. Aragorn describes this better, perhaps, while he and the hobbits are at Weathertop and they ask him about the Nazgûl being able to see:
“For the black horses can see, and the Riders can use men and other creatures as spies… They themselves do not see the world of light as we do, but our shapes cast shadows in their minds, which only the noon sun destroys; and in the dark they perceive many signs and forms that are hidden from us: then they are most to be feared. And at all times they smell the blood of living things, desiring and hating it. Senses, too, there are other than sight or smell. We can feel their presence – it troubled our hearts as soon as we came here, and before we saw them; they feel ours more keenly. Also…the Ring draws them.”
One other important element to the Nazgûl that may be unknown to those that have only seen the movies is the Black Breath. Not mentioned at all in the films, this deadly weapon the Ringwraiths wield is very peculiar. In the book, while the hobbits are at Bree, Merry ventures outside and encounters two Ringwraiths and is found later lying in the road unconscious and sickly. In the battle of Pelennor Fields, both Merry and Éowyn are stricken by the Black Breath from their encounter with the Witch-king. It is not really described further than the victims fall into a deep sleep which can be fatal if not properly treated.
Ghastly, black-robed, extra-sensory abilities, command over other living things, a breath that kills, tireless, ruthless; it’s difficult to imagine a more frightening adversary.