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In the book, The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien often talks about the central concept of the Rings of Power, namely that the Great Rings preserve life.

Gollum, for one, is incredibly old, having possessed the Ruling Ring for most of the Third Age. This makes him anything up to about three thousand years old, although we do not of course know a precise date for when he acquired the Ring, only that it was found by him a long time after Isildur was slain and the Ring had been lost in the Great River.

Gollum has not faded, despite possessing it for so long. Bilbo - who also possessed it - talked about feeling thin and stretched, a sign that the Ring was beginning to take control of him; yet he, like Gollum, showed no actual physical signs of the fading which was one effect of repeated use of the Ring's power to render mortals invisible.

The Ringwraiths, however, do show that fading: they cannot be seen by mortals now. When Frodo encounters them at Weathertop, in 'The Fellowship of the Ring', he can only see them when he puts on the Ring. He then stands at the threshold of their world, and the wraiths who inhabit that world are revealed to him. Ordinarily, in our world, the wraiths have to wear cloaks, boots and other clothing in order to give form to their nothingness.

But everything that Gandalf reveals to Frodo - and to the reader - in the chapter 'The Shadow of the Past' - implies that a mortal who possesses one of the Great Rings does not die, although neither does he obtain more life -- he simply continues, until every moment is a weariness. And he may fade, if he repeatedly uses it to become invisible.

But the Ringwraiths seem to be in a peculiarly uncertain state: the very name, wraith, implies that they are dead, in other words that they are spirits of the dead, and thus that the Nine are the spirits of those mortal men to whom Sauron gave the Nine Rings (Nine for mortal men, doomed to die it says in the rhyme), and so he enslaved them.

Yet the idea that they are mere spirits of the dead seems to be in conflict with the concept of the Great Rings conferring long life, and especially with Gandalf's statement that a mortal who possesses one does not die.

If we look further back, to the pages of The Hobbit, we find the earliest conception of Sauron, whose true identity is then still concealed from Gandalf and from the reader: in the earlier book, he is exclusively referred to as the Necromancer.

Although Tolkien nowhere in that tale expands on his use of this term, any good dictionary will tell us that the term necromancy means the use of magic to communicate with the dead. Thus in the earlier tale, Tolkien is implying that Sauron is a magician whose principal business is to commune with the spirits of the dead. This ties in with the later use of the term ringwraith, linking Sauron with those of his servants who are wraiths - and, as defined by the dictionary, this term, too, refers to spirits of the dead, and is entirely consistent with the term necromancer.

Although it is somewhat negative logic, one has to ask: why is Sauron called the Necromancer? He must be in communication with the dead, which is what the term implies; but who, save for the Nine, is he in touch with who are dead? If not them, then who? I cannot recall any other characters with whom he has dealings who might be dead, yet he must - logically - have dealings with some who are, else why does everyone call him by that name?

This thus brings us to the central dilemma: are the Ringwraiths really alive?

For, on the one hand, as mortals who possess one of the Rings of Power, they are said to be alive, just as Gollum is alive, who also long possessed one; but on the other hand, the use of the term wraith implies that they are merely the spirits of the dead, akin to the Men of Erech, something which is reinforced by the use of the term necromancy in relation to Sauron, whose servants they are, and who has used the Nine Rings to enslave them.

Tolkien seems to make no clear distinction between the living and the dead, given that the Nine appear to be treated in some respects as though they are alive, yet in other respects appear to be treated as though they are dead.

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    "To attempt by device or ‘magic’ to recover longevity is thus a supreme folly and wickedness of ‘mortals’. Longevity or counterfeit ‘immortality’ (true immortality is beyond Eä) is the chief bait of Sauron – it leads the small to a Gollum, and the great to a Ringwraith." - Tolkien Letter 212 – Valorum Jun 30 at 0:16
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    See this for the 'why is he called the necromancer' part of the question. Keep in mind the concept of the Rings of Power did not exist yet when the Hobbit was originally written and Bilbo's ring was much more innocent than it would turn out to be. scifi.stackexchange.com/questions/47756/… – suchiuomizu Jun 30 at 0:18
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    What I'm seeing is a lot of talk about necromancy meaning to summon the spirits of the dead, which is quite wrong. The term means only to communicate with the dead, not to summon them. The concept of necromancy in magic is entirely about using magic to communicate with the beyond, in order to obtain information: normally this is described as a power to obtain information about the future, in other words it is generally portrayed as a device for gaining knowledge of future events by supernatural means. Not as a device for raising the dead or leading them into battle. – Ed999 Jun 30 at 0:37
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    Are viruses truly alive? – Invisible Trihedron Jun 30 at 0:51
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    @Daishozen --- In the books, only one ringwraith (the Witch King) is mentioned in the war between Arnor/Arthedain and Angmar. He isn't killed at the end of the war; he runs away. – Ian Thompson Jun 30 at 15:26
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The Nazgûl are quite the enigma in Tolkien's Legendarium. They are spoken about in a multitude of ways and things are kept rather ambiguous. A few things are however clear. The Nazgûl have not died, meaning they hadn't followed the path of Men who die (separation of fëa from hröa and the spirit going to the Halls of Mandos before departing from the circles of the world). The clearest description is that they had faded:

A mortal, Frodo, who keeps one of the Great Rings, does not die, but he does not grow or obtain more life, he merely continues, until at last every minute is a weariness. And if he often uses the Ring to make himself invisible, he fades: he becomes in the end invisible permanently, and walks in the twilight under the eye of the dark power that rules the Rings. Yes, sooner or later - later, if he is strong or well-meaning to begin with, but neither strength nor good purpose will last - sooner or later the dark power will devour him.
The Fellowship of the Ring, Book 1, Chapter 2: The Shadow of the Past

The Nazgûl were no longer fully incarnate. The physical body of the Nazgûl no longer existed in any form that could be perceived by Mortals. Their lives had been stretch so thin - or as Bilbo put it, butter over so much bread - that their presence in the physical world had all but vanished existing only when clothed by their Master. While clothed they have form in the physical sense, which can be perceived but not seen by mortals. They can speak, smell, see, ride, etc. but as soon as they are uncloaked they become invisible to most, bar those who have a presence in the unseen realm, the "other side", such as Galadriel, Gandalf or Frodo while wearing the Ring.

The use of the word wraith seems to have cause confusion, being deemed to mean that they must be dead, however the word wraith can also mean an immaterial or spectral appearance of a living being (OED), or a wisp or faint trace of something. However its use along with other terms such as undead are the cause of significant confusion. The Nazgûl however are not like the dead men of Dunharrow, or the barrow wights, for they have not died and weren't just spirits like the other two, unhoused but unable to leave for the Halls of Mandos. The Nazgûl retained some form of physicality or flesh:

So passed the sword of the Barrow-downs, work of Westernesse. But glad would he have been to know its fate who wrought it slowly long ago in the North-kingdom when the Dúnedain were young, and chief among their foes was the dread realm of Angmar and its sorcerer king. No other blade, not though mightier hands had wielded it, would have dealt that foe a wound so bitter, cleaving the undead flesh, breaking the spell that knit his unseen sinews to his will.
The Return of the King - Book 5 - Chapter 6 - The Battle of Pelennor Fields

The physicality of the Nazgûl seems to be heavily dependent on the spells that kept the hidden fibres of their body attached to their will. This alongside the cloaks Sauron clothed them in seemed to allow them to have a presence and interact with the physical world, without which they would be hidden to all but those on the other side.

Finally we look at a word from Tolkien on the longevity of creatures and the lure of Sauron. Through "counterfeit 'immortality'" Sauron was able to trick Men into become the wraiths that were his chief servants. The description as their lives being long or a feigned immortality suggest again that they hadn't died and had their spirit unhoused, they were still attached to their mortal flesh it had just degraded to an unrecognisable artefact.

Longevity or counterfeit 'immortality' (true immortality is beyond Eä) is the chief bait of Sauron--it leads the small to a Gollum, and the great to a Ringwraith. Letters 286


As for why he's called the Necromancer, that is covered by an excellent answer to this question:
Why is Sauron called "the Necromancer"?

And on Gollum's age, slightly over 550 years had passed after Gollum had killed Déagol and taken the Ring. It is therefore immensely unlikely that he was over 600 years old at the time of his death.

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  • I like this answer, but must point out that I didn't ask "why is Sauron called the necromancer"! I merely pointed out the meaning of that term, and asked who are the dead souls with whom he is reputed to communicate. – Ed999 Jun 30 at 23:03
  • Looking solely at the book, LotR, there seems to be nothing in the text that suggests how long Gollum had possessed the Ring. – Ed999 Jun 30 at 23:04
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    Sure there is. You didn’t consider it might be mentioned in the Tale of Years in the appendix? – suchiuomizu Jun 30 at 23:31
  • @Ed999 that is covered in that answer as well, as the souls he communicates with are what gives him the name The Necromancer – Edlothiad Jul 1 at 6:22

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