A Shortcut to Mushrooms #8: Notes from “The Hunt for the Ring” 


“There are those that say he acts like he’s got something to hide, they say,” came a strange voice from the corner shadows. The voice belonged to a man, a stranger to the boggies of the Bag Eye, a stranger they had understandably overlooked because of his rather ordinary black cape, black chain mail, black mace, black dirk, and perfectly normal red glowing fires where his eyes should have been.  

squire: One of the biggest criticisms of this part of Lord of the Rings is the undefined status of the Nazgul, or “Black Riders”. Just how powerful were they, and why were they so incompetent to find and retrieve the Ring for Sauron? Put another way, how many hairsbreadth escapes can Tolkien plausibly cram into four or five chapters before the reader asks, “Who are these guys? And why didn’t Sauron send the A team?”

Owlyross: The quest began sooner than Sauron expected? It seems that the Ringwraiths were sent as spies, as they're ideally suited to this task, but Sauron underestimated the fact that the quest would get on its way so soon. Also, he doesn't know what plans are in store for the Ring, all he knows is that it's in the hands of a small creature called Baggins. He's expecting a quick in and out campaign maybe, for the Nazgul to sneak in, take the ring without resistance and get it back to him. I believe he didn't reckon on the involvement of the Istari and Isildur's Heir.

Once they've been outfoxed, the riders are without leadership and have lost track of the ring, so I guess it takes a long time for them to get a sniff of the trail again.

dernwyn: OutFOXed? That critter is definitely critical to the story!

Owlyross: Nice! Well, living in Leicester, in the midlands of England, where the landscape of the story is based on, and the local soccer and cricket teams are called the Foxes...

I like the idea that the fox has something more to do... Maybe he's a spy for Gollum, and actually follows the Fellowship down the Anduin, only for Gollum to pick up the trail at the Emyn Muil...

Ok, stretching credibility now!

squire: Tolkien himself struggled with this question, both during the writing and after publication. After all, the Black Riders originated as a suitably mysterious device of pursuit of Frodo in the Shire, long before the idea of Nine Rings for Mortal Men had been thought of. In characteristic fashion, he enlarged upon his existing writing rather than starting over, and many of the “creepy” appearances of the Black Riders predate the rather specific powers, or lack thereof, that were later bestowed upon them. 



squire: After The Fellowship of the Ring was published in 1954, but before The Return of the King with its timeline in the Appendices went to print, Tolkien sketched out his notes on the movements of the Black Riders in the summer and fall of 3018. This material is printed in Unfinished Tales, edited by Christopher Tolkien in 1980, under the title “The Hunt for the Ring.”

In these rough accounts, we learn that Tolkien intended things thuswise:

·        Sauron sent the Nazgul to search for the Ring, once he learned its location and owner from Gollum, because his other spies were being waylaid or foiled by the Dunedain, or by Saruman. None could withstand or foil the Nazgul; and they were utterly reliable for returning the Ring to Mordor, having no will of their own in the matter. However, their weakness was the terror they inspired in all they met, ensuring that rumor of their mission would accompany or precede them.

dernwyn: I've a question, also: "Shire" and "Baggins"? The Ringwraths are supposed to have extracted these two crucial pieces of information from Gollum. 

This has bothered me ever since reading the Annotated Hobbit (which is a fantastic way to make you stop and look at all the crevices and cubbyholes in that book).  Take a look through "Riddles in the Dark": nowhere does Bilbo say anything about the "Shire"!  The place he is from is never told to Gollum.  How, then,does Gollum come up with "Shire"?  Is this a piece of information he comes across, during his search after he leaves the Mountains?

drogo_drogo: The "Shire" didn't exist at that time but we just have to assume that it was called by that name and that Gollum overheard it when he was searching for Bilbo and had made his way to Esgaroth.  Gandalf said in "Shadow of the Past": "We had made no secret of our return journey to his home in the West. Gollum's sharp ears would soon learn what he wanted."  The "West" is all that the Shire was called back in The Hobbit.  Not until Tolkien started the sequel did he give a name to the land, and developed the maps, etc.

Like much in the transition from The Hobbit to FOTR, it's a bit of Tolkien's revisionist history we have to take on faith.

·        The Black Riders had maps of the Shire, and lists of names and addresses, including the address of Baggins in Hobbiton, that they acquired from one of Saruman’s spies. [How they read the material if they “do not see the world of light as we do”, as Strider puts it, is not clear!]

dna: Presumably they would have the various spies & servants they came across translate them?

·        Although the Riders had killed numerous Stoors at Gollum’s old homelands earlier in the summer, and had killed the Rangers who opposed their entry into the Shire, the Captain decided that the Shire was “too large for a violent onslaught… he must use as much stealth and as little terror as he could” and at the same time “must guard the eastern borders.” (UT, p. 348) [Guard from whom? Perhaps such Elvish or Ranger reinforcements as Aragorn might summon? What exactly are Riders afraid of?]

dna: Besides water, fire, & daylight?  I'd agree, Elves & Rangers in large numbers.  The Witch-king obviously has an affinity for this area.  How much of it is tactically sound, or just soak up some nostalgia, who knows?  But he sets up camp here, and "stayed there for some days" rousing the Barrow-wights and "all things of evil spirit, hostile to Elves and Men."

Oloin: Might the Black Riders have been sent not to guard the East against attack, but to prevent the ringbearer from escaping?  The Nazgul did not know exactly where the ring was at this point, but it makes sense to 'clear' one area at a time, so, they pick the area where they think the ring is most likely to be, set a watch around it as best they can with part of their force, and search within with the rest of the force.

·        Therefore only “some” of the Riders were sent into the Shire, with orders to travel separately. The rest were set as a guard on the eastern borders.

·        Khaműl of Dol Guldur was assigned the Hobbiton search, where the Riders knew that Baggins lived. He then followed the Hobbits along the road to Stock, and narrowly missed them at the Bucklebury Ferry.



·        Khaműl was most apt to perceive the Ring (after the Morgul lord himself), but was also most confused and diminished in daylight.

·        The Rider who accompanied Khaműl, whom he summoned by cries on the ridge above Woodhall, and with whom he visited Farmer Maggot, was the other Nazgul who resided at Dol Guldur. [This is not clear. Only one rider visited Maggot.]

dna: Could he have simply been watching the road?


squire: So Tolkien builds an elaborate scenario demonstrating how the Captain of the Nazgul divided his forces to the point where only one Rider had all the work to do; where the Riders, having issued in secret from Mordor, have to use half their force to guard against retaliation because of the incredible violence and terror of their methods; and where they were nevertheless under orders to, as Curious says, “do their best to be, er, friendly”. I won’t even mention the water thing.

However, it does seem from these notes that, after losing the hobbits down the steep bank, the two Riders crossed the fields somehow, visited Maggot first (“’I come from yonder’, pointing back west over my fields”) and then systematically swept the road from Rushey to Stock, visiting every farm along the causeway that must intercept the hobbits’ cross-country path toward the Ferry. Since we never hear that Maggot escaped being murdered a second time while returning south along the causeway, I suppose that Khaműl at least had moved further north, toward Stock, during the hobbits’ supper at Maggot’s, and then returned to the Ferry, catching up just behind Merry, since he reaches the landing only a minute or two after they do. And as N.E.Brigand notes, why Khaműl did not detail one rider to guard the Ferry…

dna: Lack of organization; hesitation to stand alone in broad daylight; fear of water; effective blindness - all of the above?

Grammboodawg: This is fantastic! Thank you! What a wonderful post, squire!  WOW!

I've always felt that the Black Riders' strength in situations like hunting hobbits in the Shire was hindered by the hidden strength within the hobbits themselves.  Frodo's ability to resist them (and the evil in general) was not wholly exclusive to him.  I think the terror that drove or petrified others wasn't as complete in its affect on hobbits.  And Maggot (specifically) is known by Bombadil, which shows there's more to THIS hobbit than meets the eye.

I also believe there is grace, or the "will of good" at play here... a force that p'raps clouds the Riders' ability to keep a lock on the hobbits/Ring's movement.  Gandalf (I'm sure) had a hand in that!

FarFromHome: Your summary certainly makes it clear the the Nazgul were able to use weapons other than fear in the drafts, but I can't think of an example of them doing so in the LOTR itself (other than Frodo's stabbing of course, but he was in the wraith-world at the time). They ride down the gate, but that only requires horses. The attempted murder of the hobbits in their beds at Bree was done by men in their employ. They are afraid of fire and are hampered by daylight. Where and what exactly is their power? IIRC, Strider tells Frodo that "they are terrible", and to Frodo they certainly are. But how? They still come across as ghosts to me, and their power as essentially the effect they have on the minds of their victims. This puts Frodo, as the Ring-bearer, uniquely at risk, since the Ring also works on the mind. And once he puts it on, his vulnerability is total.

In terms of narrative technique, they make an unforgettable first impression on the reader as the first tangible intrusion of the darker outside world into the mundane life of the Shire. But as your analysis shows, on a logical level they aren't the most believable of creatures for the job they had to do. The only way to answer your questions about their movements, it seems to me, is to say that they are mysterious apparitions whose movements cannot be predicted or explained logically. Rather like ghosts in fact.

It's clear from the drafts that you cite that Tolkien went to a lot of trouble to try to work out exactly what was happening behind the scenes, but in the end he only allows us to see glimpses of it. Personally I don't have any trouble with not knowing exactly how the Riders work - it just adds to the impression of nameless, shapeless fear that they inspire.

dernwyn: The unknown is far more scarier than the known.  That's a good point - not knowing "how" the Black Riders work adds to their terror.  The unlogical causes apprehension among the logical.

drogo_drogo: It would have been better not to make the Riders the Nazgul Excellent summary of the many problems with this early portion of the journey, and the way the Nazgul are used.  I wonder if Tolkien should have gone back to revise the text so that they would be more in line with the fierce creatures they become later on, but their mysterious inability or unwillingnes to raise a ruckus in the Shire makes them fit into the Hobbit with which we are still familiar.

In hindsight, it might have been better to send another villain looking for the Ring, such as the mysterious Southerner in Bree, from the point of view of consistency in the representation of villains. (It would even be better for Saruman, who has had agents in the Shire  for a long time, to have sent agents looking for the Ring before the Nazgul, but that's just how I would rearrange the sequence of events, and it would require lots of monkeying around with the timeline in FOTR and the UF account.)  Yes, the Black Riders are the most iconic depicitions of evil in LOTR, but they are out of place in the Shire and might have been better saved for later in the book when they can appear in a much more dramatic fashion.

Anchises: I don't know . . . . . . I think their earlier presence adds a lot to their later, more overt danger; they become characters in themselves, despite their facelessness, to the extent that the Witch-King can be a figure of great evil and menace in the ROTK even though he barely gets a line.  If Tolkien had just thrown them in at the siege they'd have seemed quite contrived, like Lurtz or Gothmog the orc in the movie; just bad guys created so that the good guys have something to kill.

I think what Tolkien needed to do was create a more convincing way to explain the growth of the Nazgul and the introduction of the Fell beasts.  So perhaps their power and physicality can be very clearly 'supercharged' when Mount Doom erupts (as somebody like Gandalf could explain), while the Fell beasts could be, say, an overt attempt by Sauron to match the great eagles (perhaps Saruman might mention this during the 'Voice of Saruman' scene, or hint at their coming before they actually arrive).  Not great solutions, I grant you, but the point is that there's nothing wrong with the Nazgul developing over the course of the story.    Indeed, IMO it's desirable.  But there need to be *reasons* for their increased power, preferably reasons that tie into the rest of the story in some way.  I think that's Tolkien's failure here: he doesn't set rules of power for the Nazgul that we can follow.

Beren IV: Growth in power? Thanks for the analysis - yes, it has always bothered me exactly how powerful the Nazgűl are and what they are and are not capable of. I had always felt that in the Shire, in September of 3018, they are simply not as powerful as they will be later on in the War of the Ring, but these note seem to imply otherwise, or, at least, that they were quite capable of killing even then.

For this reason, I suppose that I would favor Grammaboodawg's suggestion that the Dúnedain and the Elves were on the Riders' heels the whole time, and that the Riders were not able to keep a consistant watch on the Hobbits because they were busy dodging pursuit themselves. Nonetheless, there does appear to be something of an inconsistancy here. These are becoming disquietingly common in Tolkien.

Elostirion74: An attempt at some answers I'll try to answer most of the points made here. I have no problem with the Nazgűl developing gradually, that's only an ordinary and efficient storytelling device. I agree to the fact that there are some inconsistencies concerning the Riders, even after Tolkien tried to provide a more thorough background for their doings and whereabouts. Probably Tolkien wasn't able to reconcile the different concepts he worked with.

But I won't consider the Riders as incompetent as some people try to make them and find quite a few of their doings very logical. Certainly, their choice to use stealth in the Shire is not very difficult to explain, but they could have been more efficient when using this tactic and in co-ordinating their efforts.

It's logical that the Riders are guarding the eastern borders of the Shire, since they do not know at first where the hobbits are at all - they could be anywhere in the Shire.

The Riders also do not want any Rangers or other watchful forces of the good to come into the Shire or disturb their hunt. I'm not so concerned with the Elves, but Gandalf's words to Frodo in many meetings certainly suggest that powerful Elves (like Glorfindel) are a match and a threat to the Riders.

I cannot see how the Riders used maps of the Shire, but I'm sure they could get enough general information from Saruman's spy to know which part of the Shire to head for to find the home of the Bagginses and that's enough.

Later they rely on using men as spies, searching for the Ring themselves and inquiring for information. 

My biggest problem (except for some mentioned in the questions later) is why the Nazgűl didn't guard the ferry at Bucklebury or didn't press their attack home at Weathertop - then they were many and led by their captain, and had only  small resistance.

My answer to the other questions below:


squire: These questions remain in my mind. Can anyone help with them?

dna: blind-man's bluff I think most of these questions can be more easily handled if its kept in mind that this wasn't exactly a well-oiled machine at work here.  From re-reading UT, I get a general sense that events of the summer of 3018 were not among Sauron's shining moments.  His "most important mistake," as noted, was focusing on the Anduin Vales for too long.  "But for it, the Black Riders would have reached the Shire weeks sooner."  So he was already scrambling to play catch-up, not only with Gandalf, but with Saruman as well.  Imagine Sauron's pride - doing his best to avoid a 3rd place finish! 

Saruman became more of an obstacle to Sauron than anything, suppressing knowledge & supplying misinformation.  There are actually indications where Sauron was panicking like some newspaper boss getting outwitted on leads to a story.  The Nazgul even feel "dismay" from Sauron's threats, as well as distress when finally the long distance to the Shire (over many rivers) was revealed, which didn't occur until they came to Isengard.  This shows that the Nazgul were not indefatigably mindless, even though they were slaves to the Ring.  With information still hard to come by, and encumbered by their physical limitations, the Nazgul seem to scramble along a lot more than they strategize.  As is said, they "had two main pieces of information only to go on: Shire and Baggins."  And their chain-of-command may become a lot more tenuous the further they're away from Mordor.  When exactly does Khamul call the shots, or the Witch-king for that matter?


squire: 1. The Riders did not have only fear as a weapon. They had been slaying people left and right all summer. Why did they not kill Maggot when he opposed them? As Curious notes, they were only seeking information; but I feel they would not take well to spirited opposition.



dna: It says the "Nazgul were commanded to act as secretly as they could."  I go with Curious' assessment here.  Also, they did not have the strength in numbers, and "all except for the Witch-king were apt to stray when alone by daylight."

Elostirion74: At this point they're trying to find the Ring as quickly as possible and they know the Ringbearer is somewhere nearby. Maggot is no threat to them, and he won't or cannot give them any information, so why kill him? The Dunedain are totally different, they are strong and unlike hobbits in general they are on the watch for coming evil, and could possibly intercept in the Black Rider's hunt and hinder or delay them or give other and more powerful people information about the Riders.  

squire: 2. How exactly did the Riders function without sight? Horses can only do so much. The Riders seem to get a lot done in their workday for seeing-impaired wraiths.

dna: I don't think they functioned well at all, but we know from Aragorn's words near Weathertop that "our shapes cast shadows in their minds, which only the noon sun destroys... And at all times they smell the blood of living things... Senses, too, there are other than sight and smell."

Grammboodawg: I really like what Peter did with the Wraith world and how it looks to Frodo to be there.  I believe the Wraiths' vision is much like what Frodo witnesses... so they have a degree of perceiving shapes and movement, but no detail.  I've never thought they were completely sightless.

Elostirion74: The Riders can sense the world of daylight as vague, misty or dim shapes, cf. how Frodo perceives the world when he's gradually becoming overborne by the wound. And they can smell and sense that living people are nearby, but I would reckon this is more like sensing the direction than knowing accurately where this living person is.

Btw you should not underestimate the help of the horses, their hearing is very sharp and their sidevision quite extraordinary if I'm not mistaken.  

squire: 3. Where had Khaműl been during Frodo’s night with Gildor, and how did he get back to the ridge above the steep bank just in time to miss the hobbits, when the Elves had been gone for hours and the hobbits had been lingering over breakfast for almost as long?

dna: My guess is the Elves were still keeping watch.

Elostirion74: Tolkien doesn't say, but perhaps Khamul was searching the road towards Stock or meeting the other Rider to exchange information. He wouldn't probably know where exactly the Elves went either, and that's a vital point as he's not liable to lie in hiding just waiting to show himself and catch the hobbits as soon as the Elves have left. After all the Elves and the hobbits actually did walk for some time from the spot where the Rider stopped, so the Rider didn't have to be nearby all the time, in fact his presence would probably disturb and arouse the vigilance of the Elves, which is definitely not what the Riders would want. It's much better if they keep at a distance and try to find the hobbits later, when the hobbits are left to fend for themselves.

It's more difficult to understand why one of the Riders did not guard the Ferry.  

squire: 4. Where were the other two (probably) Riders who also invaded the Shire? Who were they visiting off the address list? Once Khaműl ascertained from the Gaffer that Baggins had left to go to Buckland, why did he not summon them to the real chase?

dna: Maybe he wanted all the glory?  I can see it.

Grammboodawg: I think leaving Riders in the Shire is a result of sensing the Ring wasn't far away.  The hobbits were still closeby... so it wasn't a bad call on the Rider's part.

Elostirion74: Difficult question. Maybe these two are searching the areas close to the East Road and later drawing off to guard the areas close to the north-eastern borders? That seems most likely to me. 

squire: 5. Why did it take so long for the Riders to get to Bucklebury? Fatty is not besieged at Crickhollow until four days after Frodo leaves for the Old Forest, yet the Rider knows the hobbits crossed the Ferry to Buckland, and the ride to Bucklebury is only 40 miles to the bridge and down the east bank?

dna: see all earlier answers - and acquiring willing translators of their charts & maps was probably the main reason for such a calamity of errors within the Shire.

Elostirion74: I agree this is a long time and is difficult to explain. But I'm certain the Riders needed to search some parts of central Buckland and Bucklebury and do a good deal of inquiries first to find the house, as they didn't know exactly where Frodo lived and the house at Crickhollow was very isolated, a mile or so away from the next house.

I should say a little less than two days would have been more convincing. 


squire: I can’t resist posting this great shot of the Stonebows Bridge over the Brandywine! (It’s actually in Nene in the UK.)



Grammboodawg: This has been a fantastic week, squire... thank you :)  And thanks to Altaira for leading the way!

Wonderful study guys :)

erather: Sorry, I just can't resist. I've been away all week, and just spent a pleasant afternoon catching up with the outstanding job you've all done with this chapter!  At this late stage, all I can do is congratulate you all, especially squire, and offer the link below, which is entirely relevant to this thread.

(I know some of you have seen this before, but some may not have...)

Ringwraith file