• Nazgûl themselves are invisible as human flesh, due to their 9 rings transposing them into the realm of shadows:

    And they became forever invisible save to him that wore the Ruling Ring, and they entered into the realm of shadows - The Silmarillion.

  • However, Nazgûl, when clothed, were visible to all (e.g. they communicated to the villagers when searching in the Shire, their King could be seen by Merry and Gandalf and Theoden and Éowyn. So, their rings didn't affect their clothes.

  • Yet, when Frodo (and, earlier, Bilbo) put on The One Ring, it not merely shifted his body into the realm of shadows, making him invisible in the body - but ALSO made him fully invisible, including clothes!

Was this a difference that was somehow explained by Tolkien?

  • NOTE: As per this answer, Nazgûl wore their 9 Rings, so "The cloths weren't affected because the rings weren't worn" doesn't work as an answer. Commented Dec 3, 2012 at 23:23
  • That answer only says that the Nazgul keep the ring, not wear. Commented Dec 4, 2012 at 0:16
  • 7
    The Nazgul do not wear their rings. Sauron has them.
    – WOPR
    Commented Apr 13, 2013 at 1:15
  • 1
    I suppose it's a kind of scale of invisibility: the One Ring makes it all invisible, bearer and clothes and weapons and all; the Nine Rings make only the bearer invisible, not the clothes or weapons; and the Three Rings don't make anything invisible. I would theorise that the Seven Rings made the clothes invisible, but kept the bearer visible—perhaps thus a Dwarvish version of The Emperor’s New Clothes was born! Commented Jul 20, 2015 at 22:02
  • The answer seems to be given here: Why does the One Ring make the wearer's clothes invisible?, assuming that the Nazgûl did not wear their rings.
    – wyvern
    Commented Oct 15, 2015 at 19:23

4 Answers 4


No. Tolkien does not explain the difference but likely the difference in power between the One Ring and the Nine Rings as well as their original purpose defined this difference in ability.

The Nine Rings of Men did exactly what they promised, they gave power to their bearers. Power they were eager to accept in order to feel equal to the might of the Elves. Since we are given very little information about the Nazgûl and their time as living men, we are forced to make assumptions about the rings and their abilities.

  • The Men who gained these rings were likely powerful, ambitious, arrogant and incautious. The Men of Númenor certainly were.

  • We only know the men were both kings and sorcerers, which implied they had some mastery of magical ability. Given Tolkien's world, what that looks like might vary, but we can assume the nature of the Rings increased those leadership and magical abilities (as humble as they might be). But knowing how difficult magic appeared in general, ANY magic might be enough to turn the outcome of any single battle.

Later in the Second Age, Sauron gave the Nine to powerful men, kings and sorcerers, including three from Númenor, all of whom fell swiftly under the rings' domination. They became the Nazgûl or Ringwraiths: spirits of terror whom Sauron could command even without the One. Their lives were extended indefinitely by the rings, and they became Sauron's chief servants, especially during the first part of the Third Age when he was too weak to act on his own behalf.

Any of these Rings of Power seemed to render a man who wore it invisible. The Nazgûl could not be seen directly by mortal eyes, but wore dark cloaks to give themselves form. Frodo saw their true form when he put on the One Ring.

  • So the rings were given as gifts to men. It is safe to assume they did not give men invisibility all the time, lest they would never wear them except under duress. For Sauron's trap to work, they had to be wearing them.

  • Likely all of the Men who were given the Nine fell to their power at the same time, because their transformation might have given rise to one of their number escaping the trap. As an alternative if they died in battle or intrigue, their spirits could have been trapped and reborn as Nazgûl increasing the terror their legend might cause.

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 undoing. 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", 346

  • I suspect the Nazgûl after wearing their rings for a while became permanently invisible, moving into the realm of shadow a bit at a time. They probably transitioned after they exceeded their normal lifespan becoming shadows of themselves, i.e. 'spirits of terror' previously described.

  • So their voluminous cloaks may not have been anything other than a place holder for the living to be able to hold a conversation with this otherwise disembodied spirit whose power now was the ability to affect the world of the living with either their limited magic, fear-causing ability or their seeming invulnerability to mortal weapons.

  • If a Nazgûl wanted to be invisible to mortal eyes, all he had to do was to drop his cloak. Only the sensitive ears of an elf, or the bearer of the One Ring would have any chance of detecting them since they no longer truly existed fully in the world of the living. This state probably wouldn't need the actual ring once they died, since their spirits would be bound by having worn the ring and were now tied to Sauron anyway. This is why the waterfall was merely an inconvenience during the Rivendell incident.

  • "Only the sensitive ears of an elf, or the bearer of the One Ring would have any chance of detecting them since they no longer truly existed fully in the world of the living." Some elves could actually see them, though the this was limited to the Exiles and were rather few in number by the War of the Ring. Commented Jun 6, 2020 at 15:12

Permanent invisibility is an effect of continual use.

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.

We can assume that the Nazgûl used their rings far too often. Either once they fell under the dominion of the One, or just from lust for power. It's also possible that hobbits are less susceptible to the fading then men — after all, Gollum didn't become permanently invisible, and he used the ring a lot. It's also possible the the goal matters, and those who use their rings for dominion over others fade faster. Bilbo, Frodo, and Gollum rarely used the ring for dominion, and so faded less.


Tolkien indicated that Sauron held the nine rings.

They would have obeyed... any minor command of his that did not interfere with their errand — laid upon them by Sauron, who still through their nine rings (which he held) had primary control of their wills...

The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter 246

They were by far the most powerful of his servants, and the most suitable for such a mission, since they were entirely enslaved to their Nine Rings, which he now himself held...

Unfinished Tales, p. 338

So even if the nine rings rendered one invisible while worn, during LotR the ring wraiths didn't actually wear them. Of course they wore the rings long enough to suffer the loss of their physical selves.

Thomas Aquinas would say that existence is good, so evil is the lack of existence. Tolkien as both a medieval scholar and a catholic would know Aquinas and what better way to show the evil of the wraiths then by their lack of physical existence?

  • I know that this is an old question but I found the question compelling and wanted to supply an answer. Commented Dec 18, 2016 at 3:47

The Nazgûl were wraiths and already could not be seen. The use of the nine rings and the dominion of the One Ring is what caused the Nazgûl to become invisible. The rings themselves did not make them invisible.

The three Elvish rings didn't make their bearers invisible. This is evidenced by Galadriel in Lothlórien when Frodo saw her. They were more powerful than the nine rings, so this shows that the One Ring was the most powerful of them all. This is why the One Ring made Frodo and other bearers invisible when worn.

  • 1
    The Rings didn’t make Elves (and Gandalf) invisible because they were already immortal.
    – Po-ta-toe
    Commented Apr 14, 2022 at 19:16

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