In The Fellowship of the Ring Frodo's first experience with the Nazgûl is described.

When [the Nazgûl] reached the tree and was level with Frodo the horse stopped. The riding figure sat quite still with its head bowed, as if listening. From inside the hood came a noise as of someone sniffing to catch an elusive scent; the head turned from side to side of the road.

The Fellowship of the Ring - chapter 3 - Three Is Company

In the Jackson movies the Nazgûl also try to ferret out the ring by sniffing and smelling for it, first in the scene where Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippen encounter a Nazgûl on the road after they fall down the hill from Farmer Maggot's fields, and then, when Frodo and Sam and Gollum are crossing the Dead Marshes, a Nazgûl flies overhead on a fell beast sniffing for the ring.

So my question is what element of the One Ring could the Nazgûl actually smell? Is it the metal the ring is forged from? Could Sauron's evil and malice and hatred have an actual scent, even if only to the Nazgûl? Why do the Nazgûl sniff and smell for the One Ring? I'd prefer a canon-based answer if possible, especially from any of Tolkien's books including the supplemental volumes.

2 Answers 2


A quote from Aragorn, The Fellowship of the Ring, A Knife in the Dark:

For the black horses can see, and the Riders can use men and other creatures as spies, as we found at Bree. 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.

From The History of Middle Earth, The Return of the Shadow, "Of Gollum and the Ring," describing what happens when one is fully possessed of the Ring:

Yes, if the Ring overcomes you, you yourself become permanently invisible - and it is a horrible cold feeling. Everything becomes very faint like grey ghost pictures against the black background in which you live; but you can smell more clearly than you can hear or see. You have no power however like a Ring of making other things invisible: you are a ringwraith. You can wear clothes. (you are just a ringwraith; and your clothes are visible, unless the Lord lends you a ring) But you are under the command of the Lord of the Rings.

The indication from Tolkien's writing would seem to be that the Ringwraiths simply use their smell like we would use sight and sound. They can smell living things, but there is no indication that they smell the Ring. They can sense its presence, however.

  • Your first quote says And at all times they smell the blood of living things, desiring and hating it. Would you interpret this to mean that the One Ring is somehow alive, or is it just referring to living creatures in general? :) Apr 26, 2012 at 16:03
  • I included that quote to show that the Ringwraith's weren't smelling the Ring, but rather the blood of the hobbits holding the Ring. The Ring differs from a Horcrux, in that a Horcrux hides part of the creator's soul within it. A Horcrux could be almost said to be "alive." The Ring was a container for Sauron's power as a Maiar, sort of a box to store his supernatural power in. Without the Ring, Sauron was still a powerful being, like Gandalf or Saruman. But like the wizards, his power was bound by a physical form. With the Ring, he had access to more of his full power as a Maiar. Apr 26, 2012 at 16:42
  • The Ring does appear to have a seeming consciousness, in that it is able to act to bring itself to its master. However, I don't think it's action is a sign of life. It's more like the two halves of Sauron's being want to be reunited. The power within the Ring can affect the Ring, and those who take it for themselves, but the power doesn't have sentience or thought. Apr 26, 2012 at 16:47
  • Beautiful explanation -- thank you muchly. (So it's not the Ring chooses the Maiar ala the Wand chooses the Wizard? Alas. That would've been awesome!) +1 and accept :) Apr 26, 2012 at 16:49

The Nazgûl awareness of the ring also seemed to sharply increase when the ring was being worn. However I don't remember any indication that they could detect it's location (even when worn) at a long distance (per the broad search), which might indicate the detection was not through some sort of magical ether. Although I think there is some aspect of location (and obviously, control) with the other lesser rings. I guess it wouldn't make sense to forge the One Ring to Rule them All to have a tracking device in it.

  • Do you have any evidence, I.e. quotes, to edit in to back this up?
    – TheLethalCarrot
    Mar 27, 2020 at 22:49
  • I've been finding quotes and posts here that mention that the Nazgûl suddenly 'see' the ringbearer when the ring is worn (described in fair detail somewhere in 'Unfinished Tales'), but nothing that says it explicitly or exclusively. It seems to be a functional part of plot changing events. And the lack of long distance detection also seems implicit in the nature of the search and that Gollum and Bilbo had it for so long. Perhaps the ring did not want to be found, even by Sauron, during the times Gollum and Bilbo were wearing it. Theyre simple points and I dont seem them contradicted. Mar 27, 2020 at 23:08

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