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What were the fell beasts the Nazgul flew on called?

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I don't think they were ever given a name. The Tale of Years in Appendix B just refers to "Winged Nazgûl". The only time we see one close up is in Book V, chapter 6: The Battle of the Pelennor Fields:

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. 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.

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    Egads. I was in the process of typing that out. :) Touche good sir. What's the typical SE response to this situation? I admit I am new around here. – Gabe Willard Feb 24 '12 at 5:56
  • @GabeWillard, I bought the e-book. :-) – cjm Feb 24 '12 at 8:02
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A quote from RotK, Chapter The Battle of the Pelennor Fields:

The great shadow descended like a falling cloud. An 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. 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. Down, down it came, and then, folding its fingered webs, it gave a croaking cry, and settled upon the body of Snowmane, Digging in its claws, stooping its long naked neck.

It would appear from the phrase "A creature of an older world maybe it was" would seem to indicate to me that it is either a literal dinosaur, or a beast from the first age, long forgotten. However, if they had been alive even during the First Age, someone would have probably remembered it. Tolkien never really elaborates further.

My conclusion: probably a dinosaur-like creature, preserved in a cavern somewhere, which Sauron found and twisted. We aren't told what it is called exactly, which is where the whole generic "fell beast" came from.

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    Not a dinosaur, but a pterosaur. Pterosaurs and the great sea reptiles were separate groups from the dinosaurs. – S. Albano Jan 17 '14 at 3:29
  • I always thought it might be a pterodactyl. – sueelleker Apr 12 '14 at 6:58
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Tolkien comments on this in a fan letter (Letter 211), collected in "The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien".

Did the Witch-king ride a pterodactyl at the siege of Gondor?

Pterodactyl. Yes and no. I did not intend the steed of the Witch-King to be what is now called a 'pterodactyl', and often is drawn (with rather less shadowy evidence than lies behind many monsters of the new and fascinating semi-scientific mythology of the 'Prehistoric'). But obviously it is pterodactylic and owes much to the new mythology, and its description even provides a sort of way in which it could be a last survivor of older geological eras.

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