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At the end of Book III, chapter 11: "The Palantír," in The Two Towers, Tolkien narrates the following (bold added):

    [Gandalf speaking:] 'Away now, Shadowfax! Run, greatheart, run as you have never run before! Now we are come to the lands where you were foaled, and every stone you know. Run now! Hope is in speed!'
    Shadowfax tossed his head and cried aloud, as if a trumpet had summoned him to battle. Then he sprang forward. Fire flew from his feet; night rushed over him.
    As he fell slowly into sleep, Pippin had a strange feeling: he and Gandalf were still as stone, seated upon the statue of a running horse, while the world rolled away beneath his feet with a great noise of wind.

Now the speculation about Shadowfax's top speed has been pursued before. It seems to me that such a speed was between 78 to 94 mph.

My question is about the bolded part of the text above. Earlier in the chapter, Gandalf states about Pippin's inquiry of him riding bare-back (more relevant bold added):

    'I do not ride elf-fashion, except on Shadowfax,' said Gandalf. 'But Shadowfax will have no harness. You do not ride Shadowfax: he is willing to carry you—or not. If he is willing, that is enough. It is then his business to see that you remain on his back, unless you jump off into the air.'
    'How fast is he going? asked Pippin. 'Fast by the wind, but very smooth. And how light his footfalls are!'
    'He is running now as fast as the swiftest horse could gallop,' answered Gandalf; 'but that is not fast for him.'

So at a normal horse's gallop speed, the ride was "very smooth" and Shadowfax's footfalls light. When he accelerated at the end of the chapter, "fire flew from his feet" and the ride seems to have smoothed out even more, to the point of feeling like all was still as a statue between the riders and Shadowfax. Almost like the smoothness felt may be an inverse relation to how fast Shadowfax moves.

But that stillness was noticed "as [Pippin] fell slowly into sleep," so my question is was the stillness as a statue a dreamy perception by Pippin or a reality of Shadowfax's magic as part of "his business to see that you remain on his back" when he was moving at even higher speeds than a normal horse?

8

Unclear

I've gone over the relevant parts of The History of Middle-earth, as well as scanned Tolkien's Letters and the texts of The Two Towers and Return of the King, and found no clarification of Tolkien's intentions here. It could go either way.

Personally I'd be inclined to argue that it was probably intended as dreamlike, mainly because it sounds incredibly dreamlike. That's not as solid of an answer as I'd like, but that's about the best I can do; nowhere else is Shadowfax, or Nahar1 for that matter, described as riding that fast.

That being said, galloping can be one of a horse's smoother gaits (from the perspective of a rider, anyway), so it's not totally outside the realm of possibility for a supernatural horse to have a supernaturally smooth gallop. Though the physics of horses being what they are, I still suspect that Pippin is exaggerating somewhat.


1 The horse of the Vala Oromë; it's been speculated that Shadowfax is descended from Nahar, though this is not confirmed in the text

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    Jason, in your research, did you consider the first two opening paragraphs of Book V, Ch. 1, "Minas Tirith"? That is where Pippin/Gandalf/Shadowfax are picked up again in the narrative following my quote in question, and the language there seems to give a little more clarity and add weight to your suspected dreaming view. Though I assume the dream is influenced by the reality of the smooth ride and Shadowfax keeping his riders seated at high speed, I think with some logic incorporated into your answer based on that section of the text, I would accept this answer favoring it as dreamlike. – ScottS Oct 5 '16 at 12:49

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