Hello and welcome to July 1, 3018 of the Third Age. Today we’re going to take a bit of a look at the Nazgûls as they set off looking for the Ring. We’ll also speculate as to why it took them so long.
Who Did What Now?
If you’re only reading Lord of the Rings you’ll find that you don’t really have a good feel for when the Ringwraiths started doing their thing.
We first learn about them from Gandalf and then only in relation to the Ring. “It is many a year since the Nine walked abroad. Yet who knows? As the Shadow grows once more, they too may walk again,” says the old wizard.
And until we actually meet one on the road with Frodo there’s only a rumor or two from the Gaffer. And even then, we don’t really know what they are. They were “big people” and looking for Frodo for some reason or another. They were “strange customers” and “black riders.”
Even when they meet Gildor on September 24th, he refuses to say more – “is it not enough to know that they are servants of the Enemy?”
Tom Bombadil, who they meet two days later seemingly can’t tell them much more. “Tom is not master of Riders from the Black Land far beyond his country.”
We learn more of their powers from Strider on October 5th just before Frodo slips on the Ring at Weathertop.
In fact, it’s not until Frodo awakens in Rivendell on October 21st that Gandalf fully connects the dots for us.
The Morgul-lord and his Black Riders have come forth. War is preparing!’
‘Then you knew of the Riders already – before I met them?’
‘Yes, I knew of them. Indeed I spoke of them once to you; for the Black Riders are the Ringwraiths, the Nine Servants of the Lord of the Rings. But I did not know that they had arisen again or I should have fled with you at once. I heard news of them only after I left you in June; but that story must wait.
The full story is explained the next day at the Council.
But it is today – July 1st – that the Nazgûl begin their search for “Shire” and “Baggins.” A full three months will pass before Frodo knows of this.
But Doesn’t Gandalf Already Know?
Yeah, he sort of did, didn’t he. Of course, he knew who the Nazgûl were long before our story began. And he was told by Radagast on Midyear’s Day (two days ago) that they were on the move again.
But, you might ask, if they Nazgûl were unleashed just today, how did Radagast tell Gandalf about them two days before? And how long did Radagast know? A couple of weeks? At least!
So what gives? This is certainly a schedule problem that Tolkien tried to deal with, and he never really dealt with it well.
In Unfinished Tales we’re given a few different manuscripts and at least two attempts to figure this all out. Basically, we’re supposed to understand that the Witch-king lead the attack on Osgiliath on June 20th. Sometime shortly after that Radagast went to see Saruman at Isengard. Then, Saruman sent Radagast to find Gandalf, which he did twelve days after the fall of Osgiliath, but two days before the Nazgûl began their search.
Was there time for all of this? No and yes. There really doesn’t seem to have been enough time for Radagast to travel from his home in northern Mirkwood, down to Isengard, and then to Bree in less than two weeks.
It’s 600 miles from northern Mirkwood to Isengard, and another 400 or so from Isengard to Bree. There’s no way he could make 1,000 miles in twelves days (less, actually). That’s over 100 miles a day. And he didn’t go straight from Isengard to Bree, but wandered around a bit looking for Gandalf. So no, that makes no sense.
But in another way, yes, there was enough time. More than enough. And this brings up a strange and unexplained point that Tolkien ever discussed. If the Witch-king crossed the Anduin on June 20th, why did the Nazgûl wait fourteen days before moving out?
Tolkien never explains this. Michael W. Perry, author of Untangling Tolkien, suggests that “perhaps Tolkien has the Nazgûl wait for dark nights and a reduction in the number of Gondor troops before beginning their search for the Ring.”
But that’s not convincing since Unfinished Tales reveals that the Nazgûl were “unclad and unmounted, and invisible to eyes, and yet a terror to all living things that they passed near.”
The Unpublished Manuscript Again?
I hate to keep going back to this Unpublished Manuscript appearing in Hammond & Scull’s Reader’s Companion, but the more I think about it, the more it seems to fill in these gaps.
As I’ve written before, Tolkien “remodelled” the story appearing in Unfinished Tales so that the Nazgûl were actually out searching for the Ring before the battle of Osgiliath. In fact, they were sent out “sometime early in April.”
They investigate Anduin’s Vale first then split up to check out Rohan. Radagast spots them and heads straight for Saruman at Isengard. Sauron was at this time communicating with Saruman via the Palantír and sends the Nazgûl to question him in early June. Radagast shows up at Isengard a few days later and leaves on June 15th.
After their visit to Isengard, the Witch-king returned to lead the battle of Osgiliath. A few others remained in Anduin’s Vale, while Khamûl and his messenger Nazgûl remained in Dol Guldur to oversee the attack on Thranduil which freed Gollum.
All of this basically works without messing up the main plot too much. Tolkien wondered “What happens between June 20 and escape of Gandalf which cannot be earlier than night of Sept. 16/17? Some 86 days!”
He apparently never figured that out, but then, that’s not yet relevant to this blog.
This possibly means that the Nazgûl visited Saruman twice – once as above, and then once again on the last day of Gandalf’s imprisonment. But again, we’re not there yet.
We’ll check back in on July 4th to see what that Boromir fellow is up to.