A Murder of Crows and that Precocious Shadowy Flying Thing

I don’t often say this, but… let’s talk about birds.

The morning of the sixteenth day out of Rivendell, Sam and Aragorn were on watch and saw a flock of birds. They were “flying at great speed, were wheeling and circling, and traversing all the land as if they were searching for something; and they were steadily drawing nearer.”

Aragorn knew exactly what they were, and had apparently seen them before. They were black crows out of Fangorn and Dunland (maybe) . But he didn’t know why they were flying here, but gave two possibilities. They were either fleeing from something or spying.

“Hollin is no longer wholesome for us: it is being watched.”

Just the day before, Gandalf had said that Hollin was safe from the Enemy because the Elves used to live there. Of course, when the Elves lived there, it wasn’t at all safe from the Enemy, so maybe Gandalf didn’t really know what he was talking about.

Anyway, Fangorn was on the other side of the Misty Mountains, southwest of Lorien. If the birds had come from there, they would had to have crossed the range, perhaps fleeing from whatever was going on east of the Misty Mountains. However, if they were spies, there was no telling where they came from.

Gandalf (in “The Road to Isengard” chapter) mentions the “crows of Saruman,” but if he thought these crows came from him, he didn’t bring it up either here or there. But the whole point was that they were clearly being watched. It wasn’t just the crows, either. Aragorn had seen hawks soaring high above.

Even worse, throughout the day, which was supposed to be a day of resting, “the dark birds passed over now and again.” And at nightfall, with the birds flying south toward the mountain Caradhras, the Fellowship continued on their journey.

This passage was fully written in the first draft of this chapter with one interesting exception. At this point, Aragorn was still known at Trotter (though he was a Man and not a Hobbit as before), and when he told the company about the hawks flying up high, he added “That would account for the silence of all the birds.” Tolkien struck this out in the second draft, but what a fun idea. It’s clear that Aragorn had some connection with animals, but maybe not as direct as this scribbled-out line might imply.

Additionally, there is another flying thing that visits them at night: “Frodo looked up at the sky. Suddenly he saw or felt a shadow pass over the high stars, as if for a moment they faded and then flashed out again. He shivered.”

He asked Gandalf if he saw anything. He didn’t, but almost dismissed it. “It may be nothing, only a wisp of a thin cloud.” But Aragorn saw it and said that it was moving fast “and not with the wind.”

Could this thing be a Nazgul? It is now January 6th, and, according to the timeline, the Nazgul, perhaps already flying in the air on their “fell beasts,” had not yet crossed the Anduin, and wouldn’t until March 6th – nearly two months from this date. According to notes taken by Tolkien for February 22nd: “A Nazgul is summoned [to Sarn Gebir on the river], but Sauron will not yet permit the Nazgul to cross west of Anduin.”

So unless this was some disobedient and wayward Nazgul out for a merry little flight without his Dark Lord’s permission, this shadow passing over the Fellowship was not a Nazgul. So what the hell was it? It’s never explained, though Christopher Tolkien takes a stab at it.

In a later chapter (“The Great River”), they are visited again by such a shadow, “like a cloud and yet not a cloud, for it moved far more swiftly, came out of the blackness in the South, and sped toward the Company, blotting out all light as it approached. Soon it appeared as a great winged creature, blacker than the pits in the night. Fierce voices rose up to greet it from across the water.”

This was most definitely a Nazgul. The night that it was seen was February 23rd, the night after they were summoned to the River Anduin, yet disallowed by Sauron to cross it. Nevertheless, about the first shadowy appearance over Hollin, Christopher Tolkien admits that “the Winged Nazgul had not yet crossed the Anduin. But it seems likely to me that the shadow that passed across the stars near Hollin was in fact the first precocious appearance of a Winged Nazgul.”

Both appearances of this shadow appear in the very first drafts. It’s possible that Tolkien wrote the initial sighting before he came up with the timeline and the idea that Sauron disallowed the Nazgul to cross the Anduin. If so, Tolkien simply neglected to change it, leaving it in for some reason he never revealed. This was actually a pretty common thing for him. It adds to the mystery of the story, but makes trying to nail things like this down fully impossible.

So was it a precocious Nazgul? Maybe. Maybe not. There’s simply no way to know for sure. Thanks, Tollers!

A Few Notes

  • Let me just say for the record how much I love that Sam still calls Aragorn “Strider.” He was always a bit iffy on him, but this is now a term of endearment. He knows who Aragorn actually is and knows the stories about how he got there, yet he still calls him Strider. Sam, you’re fucking awesome.
  • The birds were called crebain, which really just means crow in Sindarin. It’s based on the Old English “crawan,” mean meant “to crow.”
  • The time line to which I referred is actually called “The Time Scheme of the Lord of the Rings.” It would be awesome if it were printed in full, but it only appears in snippets throughout the Reader’s Companion by Hammond & Scull. That said, on page 360 of that book, you get a chunk of it from January 15th to February 25th. As far as I can tell, it’s pretty well canon.
Camera: Imperial Savoy Film: Film: FujiChrome Provia 100F (RDP III) xpro

Camera: Imperial Savoy
Film: Film: FujiChrome Provia 100F (RDP III) xpro

About the Photo
Maybe it was this old airplane thing we saw at Red Oak II, Missouri. Maybe?

  • Day 139
  • Miles today: 5
  • Miles thus far: 686 (232 from Rivendell)
  • 108 miles to the Doors of Moria
  • 235 miles to Lothlórien
  • 1,093 miles to Mt. Doom

Today’s stopping place in the narrative: Book II, Chapter 3. Encamped along the western foothills of the Misty Mountains. 15th night out from Rivendell. January 8, 3019 TA. (map)


5 thoughts on “A Murder of Crows and that Precocious Shadowy Flying Thing

    • Do Nazgul have ears? Hmm.. They must, as they hear each others’ scream-things. I really wish Tolkien would have gone into more depth with these guys. I mean, in his notes, there’s quite a bit, but still not enough to really get into the heart of the matter.

      It must have been a Nazgul, but I think it was also an uncorrected mistake.

      • Well, they’re like, man wraiths. So, since men have ears, it would stand to sense that they have wraith ears. Only you wouldn’t be able to see their ears unless you were a wraith yourself, or an Elf who had been in the Blessed Realm.
        Those happen to the most cautious. Especially in such a long and complex story. (Which are my favorite kinds of story.)

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