It’s cheerless, but our heroes continue on through a montage of grim landscapes and rough terrain.
Thoughts on the Passage – Book I, Chapter 12 (p199, 50th Anniv. Ed.)
As our hobbits and Strider make their way east, I can’t help but wonder about Aragorn’s history with the Nazgul. What did he know? When did he learn it? And most importantly, prior to Weathertop, had he ever encountered them?
By the time our hobbits were on Weathertop, it must have been clear to them that Strider knew more about the so-called Black Riders, the Nazgul, than he was letting on. From their first mention in Bree, he tells them “They will return. And more are coming. There are others. I know their number. I know these Riders.”
But how much did Aragorn actually know? Little by little, it’s revealed to us that Strider knows they work for the Enemy, and they have something called “the Black Breath.” More is learned on Weathertop when the Riders gather below. While the Nazgul cannot see in the traditional sense, Strider explains that their horses can.
“‘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, he added, and his voice sank to a whisper,’the Rings draws them.'”
This last bit indicates that Aragorn had either intimate encounters with them or learned a great deal. Either way, it would be safe to say that whatever Gandalf and Elrond know about the Nazgul has been shared with Aragorn.
The same year he met Gandalf, in 2956, Aragorn took off on journeys into the East and South, “exploring the purposes of Sauron and all his movements.” Though Elrond had explained his ancestry to him three years before, he fought as an unknown warrior for Gondor and Rohan.
By this time, Sauron had re-established himself in Mordor, which had been prepared for him by the Nazgul. In an entry for the year 2980, when Aragorn returned to Rivendell to once again meet Arwen (still forty years before our story begins – though also forty years after the events in The Hobbit), Tolkien states, almost in passing, that he was returning “from perils on the borders of Mordor.”
When Bilbo vanished from The Shire in 3001, Gandalf began to suspect that his magic ring was maybe something a bit more weighty. While he researched its nature, he dispatched Aragorn to search for Gollum, which began in earnest in 3009. The entry in a late draft of the Tale of Years, submitted for publication, states: “Aragorn goes to the confines of Mordor.”
This is a far different thing from “the borders of Mordor,” which he had visited thirty years prior. This seems to have been dropped from the published version, which was heavily edited for space. Incidentally, the published version states that Gollum was captured by Sauron somewhere from 3009 to 3017.
In Unfinished Tales, Tolkien wrote that Gollum was captured in 3017, a year before our story takes place. This is a later writing (penned after Lord of the Rings, so it’s fairly plausible that Tolkien had decided upon this).
Sauron could get little from Gollum, but didn’t kill him because he suspected that he would track down this “Shire” and “Baggins” thing. Gollum headed immediately into the Dead Marshes, and Sauron’s minions refused to follow. Unable to find out any information about Gollum’s location, he finally decided to dispatch the Ringwraiths.
Sauron kept the Nazgul close to him, not wishing to use them at all “until he knew precisely where the Ring was.” Tolkien explains in Unfinished Tales that he was hesitant to use them until he was fully ready for open war (which he was not). “For such reasons Sauron long hesitates, since he did not desire that his chief enemies should become aware of his servants’ errand.”
So Sauron’s quest went from finding Gollum to finding the Ring. He figured that Gollum and “Baggins” were the only two individuals who knew about the Ring. But while Sauron and the Nazgul focused upon the ring, Aragon was capturing Gollum near the Dead Marshes (February 1, 3017).
“He will never love me, I fear; for he bit me, and I was not gentle.”
Aragorn brought Gollum to Mirkwood and handed him over the Thrandril. There, Gandalf questioned him and learned for near certain that this was indeed the One Ring. Also, he learned that Sauron knew about “Baggins” and the “Shire.”
But it was also in Mirkwood that the Enemy learned what had happened to Gollum. The Witch-king was headquartered in Dol Guldur, in the southern parts of Mirkwood, and news that Aragorn had entered it reached him, though this took some time. Tolkien writes in Unfinished Tales that Sauron didn’t learn of this until April. A month later, he learned that Gandalf was involved.
Here, the story is a little muddled. Sauron, it appears, did not set loose the Nazgul until this time – early summer of 3017, after learning about Gandalf and Gollum. In the middle of June, the Nazgul attacked Thranduil (and Gondor) with the intent of recapturing or killing Gollum. But Gollum escaped. In the autumn of that same year, rumor had it that Gollum was in Moria, but that was the last anyone heard about him. By August of 3018 “All track of Gollum is lost.”
It must also be remembered (according to “The Council of Elrond” chapter) that while Aragorn is on Weathertop – and until he comes to Rivendell – he believes Gollum to still be in the keeping of the Elves.
This must mean that Aragorn had left Mirkwood before June of 3017 – before the Nazgul attacked. His whereabouts from spring of 3017 until summer of 3018 are incredibly vague. From all I can tell, he doesn’t turn up again until late September in Bree.
In that month, he was with the Rangers, watching the roads into the Shire, and it can probably be assumed that’s what he was doing the whole time. When the Nazgul crossed Sarn Ford in the southern end of the Shire, the Rangers ultimately lost the engagement, but some fled north (toward Bree) to tell Aragorn the news.
This brings us nearly to the present day without Aragorn ever fighting the Nazgul himself. This would mean that on Weathertop, when Frodo caught “a glimpse of Strider leaping out of the darkness with a flaming brand of wood in either hand,” it was the first time Aragorn had ever been face to face with the Ringwraiths.
A Few Notes:
- Is this right? Had Aragorn really never encountered the Nazgul before?
- Was his jump at the Witch-king a suicidal attempt to save Frodo?
- I know I’m missing some information on the whereabouts of Aragorn, especially through 3017-3018. If anyone has any other info, toss it my way.
- Tomorrow, I’m going to try to do something less heady. We’ll see.
- Mostly, I used Unfinished Tales and The Peoples of Middle-Earth. Also, LotR, of course.
About the Photo
I had compared Trotter, the wooden-shoed hobbit, to a cowboy, but with Aragorn’s backstory, I think he should hold that title.
- Day 58
- Miles today: 5
- Miles thus far: 281
- 179 miles to Rivendell
- 1,498 miles to Mt. Doom
Today’s stopping place: Still south of the East Road, southeast of Weathertop (map)