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I knew before that the Black Riders and Ringwraiths and Nazguls are one and the same. But even before that, when I was little and saw the movies when they first came out, I thought the Nazgul referred to the fell beast or flying steed of the wraiths. But recently, I'm reading the books and it just messed up my nomenclatures.

From Chapter 1 of book five:

...and the Black Riders even in the lanes of the Shire –
and of the winged terror, the Nazgûl...

This line makes me think that Nazgul does in fact mean the winged beast, and the Black Riders are different. But the above extract is from the thoughts of Pippin, and lord knows he doesn't know much about Middle-earth, so maybe he is as ignorant as I am of the nomenclature.

Can anyone clear things up for me?

  • FWIW, Pippin just means that he knew them as Black Riders in the Shire, and by now, has learnt their true name, the Nazgul. – Shamshiel Jun 18 at 9:45
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    Note :There is a common misconception that these creatures are called Nazgûl, probably due to the fact that the unit in many video games (combined Fellbeast and Ringwraith) was called a Nazgûl. Another possible explanation is the line in Return of the King where the Witch King says "Do not come between the Nazgûl and his prey" referring to himself, but shortly before, his mount had appeared to try to eat Théoden's horse. lotr.fandom.com/wiki/Fellbeast – nicolallias Jun 18 at 14:42
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    @nicolallias Indeed, I was under that misconception due to the line from the movie until finding this question. The use of the third person and the word "prey" really makes it seem like he's referring to his mount rather than himself. – Nuclear Wang Jun 18 at 20:16
  • Pedantic: There is no 'plural' s. It's simply Nazgûl (note the circumflex too): for single and plural. And as for the films hardly surprising you're confused. They're absolutely terrible. I can no longer watch them they disgust me so much. The prologue alone has at least 20 errors and contradictions included. I tried extremely hard to like them but I could not in the end. There are however a number of other ways it's explained that maybe you didn't pick up on on the first read. But yes if you're not familiar with his writing it's very easy to misinterpret or confuse things. – Pryftan Jun 19 at 22:19
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Nazgûl is Black Speech and is translated as Ringwraiths or sometimes Ring-wraiths. Nazg means ring and gûl means wraith/spirit in the broadest of terms.

gûl is a loan from the "Black Speech" and refers to evil and necromantic arts. Cf. Nazgûl (nazg-gûl).

Parma Eldalamberon XVII, "Words, Phrases and Passages in Various Tongues in The Lord of the Rings", pp 31

nazgûl. cf. nazg = ring. gûl, (phantom, shadow of dark magic, necromancer), slace, servant? nazggûl.

[...]

Ringwraiths is a translation of Nazg-(g)ûl < nazg, Ring in the Black Speech, and gûl, an [evil] spirit under the control of Sauron.

Parma Eldalamberon XVII, "Words, Phrases and Passages in Various Tongues in The Lord of the Rings", pp 79

(Gûl in Black speech for a 'wraith' is probably derived from the Sindarin: as nag-gûl, nazgûl, Ringwraith.)

Parma Eldalamberon XVII, "Words, Phrases and Passages in Various Tongues in The Lord of the Rings", pp 125

If that wasn’t convincing enough this quote also explicitly confirms that both are the same.

Those who used the Nine Rings became mighty in their day, kings, sorcerers, and warriors of old. They obtained glory and great wealth, yet it turned to their downfall. They had, as it seemed, unending life, yet life became unendurable to them. They could walk, if they would, unseen by all eyes in this world beneath the sun, and they could see things in worlds invisible to mortal men; but too often they beheld only the phantoms and delusions of Sauron. And one by one, sooner or later, according to their native strength and to the good or evil of their wills in the beginning, they fell under the thraldom of the ring that they bore and of the domination of the One which was Sauron's. And they became forever invisible save to him that wore the Ruling Ring, and they entered into the realm of shadows. The Nazgûl were they, the Ringwraiths, the Úlairi, the Enemy's most terrible servants; darkness went with them, and they cried with the voices of death.

The Silmarillion, "Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age"

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    More love for The Silmarillion. What an awesome book! – the0ther Jun 18 at 18:09
  • Doesn't 'gûl' also mean magic in a broad(er) sense? – Joachim Jun 18 at 21:22
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    @Joachim In Sindarin(?), yes. Cf. Dol Guldur. However, it's possible that the similarity between BS gûl and the S. form in Guldur is a coincidence rather than a due to a borrowing from S. – chepner Jun 18 at 21:26
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    @chepner There's probably some relationship, as that's translated at least one place as the Tower of the Necromancer. – Joe McMahon Jun 19 at 2:18
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    @Joachim But that's without the circumflex unless I’m really forgetting something. I’m unable to check my copy of the Etymologies at this time so I could be wrong but don't think so. – Pryftan Jun 19 at 22:20
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To add on to TheLethalCarrot's answer, it's interesting to note that in the earlier versions of the story the term Nazgûl seemed to be (inconsistently) used to specifically refer to them when in winged form:

But Wizard King takes to air and becomes Nazgûl[1], rallies host of Morghul, and assails king.

[...]

At same time [Sauron] sends Wizard King as Nazgûl[13] to the Mountain

Histories of Middle Earth 9: The War of the Ring, chapter VIII

Christopher's note [1] at the end of the chapter adds some details to this:

1 These words can only mean that Nazgûl refers specifically to the Ring-wraiths as borne upon 'winged steeds'. But my father cannot have intended this. I presume since in this part of The Lord of the Rings the Ringwraiths were 'winged' and their power and significance for the story lies in their being 'winged', he had nonetheless made this equation, and so slipped into saying that when the Black Captain (Lord of the Nazgûl) himself mounted on one of the monstrous birds, he 'became a Nazgûl'. This occurs again at the end of the outline.

[...] 13 On the implications of he sends the Wizard King as Nazgûl - that Nazgûl means specifically the winger Wraiths - see note one. On the other hand, *All the Nine Nazgûl remounted (note 12) carries the opposite implication.

Histories of Middle Earth 9: The War of the Ring, chapter VIII

  • There's also something about this in HoMe VII. Only in that case it was the suggestion of demonic vultures. Then they would get those for a steed. But I don't think it's inconsistent so much as an outline. And on the note of their mounts there's an interesting thing in Letter #211 (next comment). – Pryftan Jun 19 at 22:28
  • 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 that 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 mythology, and its description even provides a sort of way in which it could be a last survivor of older geological eras. – Pryftan Jun 19 at 22:28

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