- "Wraiths! Wraiths on wings!"
The term Fell beast, Hell-Hawk and Nazgûl-birds was used to describe the gigantic flying pterosaur-like, or Wyrm-like creatures on which the Witch-King of Angmar and the other Nazgûl rode on after being unhorsed at the Ford of Bruinen in Middle-earth.
Description and Appearance
The Fell beasts are ancient creatures and the origin of these creatures is not told in full detail, but a few accounts seem to describe pieces of their history. These Fell Beasts were apparently made by Melkor as an imitation of the Great Eagles, long ago in the time before his chaining, in the Pits of Angband and were possibly hunted by Oromë during his visits to Middle-earth. They were like dragons, these beasts possessed qualities similar to dragons. No account describes them speaking or performing acts of notable intelligence, only serving as new and loyal steeds for the Nazgûl. Indeed, the combination of both mount and rider was certainly a horrific sight to the unfortunate souls who encountered them. The power and strength of the Fell Beasts was indeed very great, as they were able to lift both horse and rider up into the air, and drop them from several hundred feet. In book V, chapter 6 "The Battle of the Pelennor Fields" in The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien describes it thus:
- "[...] it was a winged creature: if bird, then greater than all other birds, and it was naked, and neither quill nor feather did it bear, and its vast pinions were as webs of hide between horned fingers; and it stank. A creature of an older world maybe it was [...]"
When seen again, the Nazgûl were said to be mounted upon great Fell Beasts, similar to dragons in their worm-like appearance, but older. These winged, black reptiles were described as having beak-like mouths and ghastly eyes. They almost appeared as undead.
When the Nine Nazgûl, called the Ring Wraiths or Black Riders, were thwarted at the Ford of Bruinen near Rivendell, they were on horses that had been transformed into evil beings by Sauron. In the aftermath of the interception made by Elrond to drive the Nazgûl away from the Ringbearer, the bodies of the steeds of the Black Riders were found lying in the Ford, but the Riders themselves had escaped.
Later on the third age the Fell beasts were fed on foul meats by Sauron and in The Fellowship of the Ring, at the River Anduin, Legolas shoots one fell beast down with an arrow in the night as it approaches them.
When Merry and Pippin were captured by Uruk-hai, Grishnákh, an Orc of Mordor, said the prisoners should be taken across the Anduin where a Nazgûl on a fell beast waited. Ugluk taunted at Grishnakh about the mount that had been shot out from under the Nazgûl (by Legolas), and Grishnakh said that the winged Nazgûl were not yet ready to show themselves on the west side of the Anduin. They were to be used for the war and other purposes.
During Frodo and Sam's journey across the Emyn Muil and the Dead Marshes with Gollum, they were stalked by fell beasts flying overhead, but still they were undetected. Four of them soar over the Black Gate when they arrive there.
One of them flies over the camp at Dol Baran after Pippin looks into the Palantír of Orthanc. Although the Winged Nazgûl weren't fast enough to respond to Pippin's contact with Sauron, it is speculated that it was flying to Isengard to check on Saruman.
According to the chieftain of Harrowdale, a fell beast flew over Edoras and stooped just over Meduseld. They described it as being a darkness in the shape of a monstrous bird. After this, Gandalf told the Rohirrim to assemble at Dunharrow rather than at the fields to prevent attack.
In fact, as Faramir, captain of Gondor was defending and later fleeing from the besieged city of Osgiliath, he was many times beset by the Nazgûl, mounted on their terrifying Fell Beasts. Tragically, even Theoden, King of Rohan was attacked and brought down by the Nazgûl on their Fell Beasts. He succumbed to his dreadful wounds inflicted by none other than the Fell Beast of the Witch-King, which was also slain, along with its rider, by Eowyn the Shieldmaiden of Rohan and the warrior Meriadoc Brandybuck during the Battle of the Pelennor Fields. The rest of the Fell Beasts were destroyed, along with the Nazgûl, when the One Ring was cast into the Fire of Mount Doom.
The fell beasts are especially prominent during the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, where the Witch-king of Angmar, the Lord of the Nazgûl, rides his in battle against King Théoden of Rohan while the other Nazgûl fly around Minas Tirith, preying upon terrified soldiers.
After Snowmane, Théoden's horse, was killed by a black dart, the Witch-King's fell beast stooped on its carcass, ready to devour Théoden. Dernhelm (who revealed herself as Éowyn) defended the dying Théoden, and challenged and killed the beast.
In Mordor, Frodo and Sam saw a Fell Beast flying to Barad-Dûr. While the Army of the West headed to the Black Gate, the Winged Nazgûl were used to spy on them from the sky, out of sight by anyone except Legolas.
During the Battle of the Morannon, the fell beasts were about to swoop down on the Army of the West when the Eagles attacked them before Sauron called them back to Mount Doom after sensing the One Ring being used by Frodo. They arrived at the exploding volcano too late when the Ring was destroyed, and all the fell beasts perished in the blast. But it is still possible that a few fell beasts survived into the fourth age.
Clearly, (at least in the movies and video games), Fell beasts were powerful creatures and were deadly offensive predators, especially with the Nazgûl on them. They could choose either to bite their prey (less attacking radius but increased damage) or swoop down on them (larger attacking radius), scattering enemies apart or outright crushing them. If a Fell beast snatched a soldier, they could easily fly high into the air and drop their hapless victim to his death far below.
In The Lord of the Rings: The Third Age, the Fell Beasts could also breathe foul air on their opponents, weakening them significantly.
One other major use of the Fell beast was spreading Fear. From the very beginning, Fell Beasts are terrifying creatures; combined with a Nazgûl's screech, very few enemies could hope to even stand up to them. Only heroes could effectively stand up to them.
In Ralph Bakshi's 1978 animated version of The Lord of the Rings, one of the Nazgûl (possibly the Witch-king, for he carries a mace), is shown riding a fell beast. However, Bakshi's film only covers events up to the Battle of the Hornburg, so that is the last we see of the fell beasts and their riders.
1980 TV special
In the Rankin-Bass 1980 animated version of The Return of the King, the Nazgûl ride winged horses. But when Éowyn confronts the Witch-King he is riding a bird-like steed. (See the link: Eowyn confronts the Witch-King)
In Peter Jackson's trilogy of movies based on The Lord of the Rings, the fell beasts are depicted as more Wyverns (dragon-like and serpentine creatures that walk on two legs), i.e. their heads appear more like a snake's and they don't have beaks, leading to the common misconception that they are dragons in the books; Tolkien definitely meant a pterosaur-like creature, as shown in the quote above.
Also, they are much larger than is implied in the books, where they are essentially used as light observation planes. The fell beasts in the film, specifically the width of the wings, were designed with the realistic proportions for such a heavy animal to maintain flight. In the movies, they are used for attack much more often, with the Nazgûl usually swooping down and screeching, causing fear and terror in the defenders of Minas Tirith.
Although on screen the films never make this mistake, sometimes actors on the commentary tracks refer to the fell beast as a Nazgûl; this is incorrect. The fell beast is the creature that the nine Nazgûl ride, and the mistake probably arose because Fell Beasts are always seen with a Nazgûl atop them.
The Witch-King in The Return of the King says specifically: "Do not come between a Nazgûl and his prey." Though he commands the Fell Beast to eat Theoden he is likely referring to himself when he says Nazgûl, not the Fell Beast.
Behind the Scenes
Tolkien actually only used the name "Fell Beast" as a descriptor and not an actual name. ("Fell" in this sense is an archaic English word meaning "cruel", "evil" or "lethal".) However, since this creature lacked any real name, "Fell Beast" is often used to refer to it.