There have been many theories and speculations on the possibilities of who and where Sauron’s greatest servants came from.
To better understand their origins, we must carefully analyse a specific period in time, and cross-reference it with different sources – trying to build a framework of all the events that occurred at that point in time.
That is the purpose of this essay. To shed light on the information that is available to us and construct a theory on several possibilities through calculated conclusions.
Needless to say, though everything presented her comes from Tolkien’s own sources, the end result is entirely based on speculation from the texts and my own interpretations; and are not intended to be perceived as fact.
What we know
It is a known fact among Tolkien readers that the only indications we have to any of the Nazgûl’s past histories, concern mainly three things:
1) Three of the Ringwraiths were originally men of Númenor
2) The leader of the Nine was known as the Witch-King
3) The second in command was Khamûl, an Easterling
The rest of our knowledge on Ringwraiths is based on their characteristics and behaviours channeled through their actions in The Lord of the Rings and a couple of descriptions in The Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales.
Thus, from here onward we must speculate and reason out what is made available to us – hoping to shed some light on the matter.
In order to begin our quest in exploring deeper the history of the Ringwraiths, we must first go through the different sources we have at our disposal – mainly, timelines and specific quotes that point towards the unknown aspects of these beings.
Handing out the Nine Rings of Power, was not merely a case of distributing them freely and at will, but rather a specific, political and strategic move in order for Sauron to assure himself of future victories and control over Middle-earth.
Establishing a timeline
The first thing we need to consider are two important dates: the creation of the One Ring and the first appearance of the Nazgûl. In The Lord of the Rings (‘The Tale of Years’) we are informed that Sauron forged the Ring in the Second Age, c.1600.
Taking a few dates from the Appendix, we find the following dates:
The date around 1800 is important because it indicates an approximate time when Sauron may have begun to give the Rings of Power to Men. In The Silmarillion we are given a clear-cut description of how the Ringwraiths came to be:
“Those who use the Nine Rings became mighty in their day, kings, sorcerers, and warriors of old. They obtained glory and great wealth […] They had, as it seemed, unending life …”
– ‘Of the Rings of Power’
In order for Men to be perceived as having a longer lifespan than usual, several hundred years would need to have passed since receiving such rings, in order to justify this unnatural occurrence.
Thus, with the Nazgúl emerging in the year 2251, would indicate that the Nine received their respective Rings sometime between 1600 (the creation of the One Ring) and 1800 – allowing over 500 years for them to acquire extraordinary power and slowly turn into wraiths.
The Darkening of Númenor and the Conquering of Eriador
Having established a fairly accurate timeline to explore the beginnings of the Ringwraiths, we must look to events which occurred both in Middle-earth and in Númenor.
We have already read how, after the creation of the One Ring, Sauron invades Eriador and destroys Eregion (1695-1697). It would take three more years until 1700, when Tar-Minastir (the current King of Númenor) sends an army and defeats Sauron.
Before that event, the Dark Lord would have had precious little time (maximum five years) to subdue some of the Men by gifting them with several rings. Unfortunately, we have no evidence of any “kings” that surfaced from that area, but it is a definite possibility that one or two “sorcerers, and warriors” remained hidden in the shadows within the confines of Eriador; until they became completely enslaved by Sauron (see more in ‘The Remaining Two Ringwraiths’ below).
During these events, we also have the slow uprising in Númenor against the Ban of the Valar and the Valar themselves. What is so significant about this period in Arda’s history is the sudden migration towards the western shores of Middle-earth by many Númenóreans, intent on subduing the lesser Men living in and around the coastal regions.
“The King’s Men sailed far way to the South, and the lordships and strongholds that they made have left many rumours in the legends of Men.”
The Silmarillion, ‘The Akallabêth’
Thus, they came to Middle-earth “as lords and masters and gatherers of tribute”. It is almost a certainty that several of the Nazgûl came from this period, as we are further told by Tolkien: “… it is said that among those whom he [Sauron] enslaved with the Nine Rings three were great lords of Númenórean race.”
The Witch-king, leader of the Nine, would most probably have been one of these Black Númenóreans, who came to conquer and settle on Middle-earth’s shores.
It’s fascinating to consider this small point in relation to three of the Ringwraiths being Númenóreans. In Unfinished Tales, Christopher Tolkien writes: “At the Ford of Bruinen only the Witch-King and two others, with the lure of the Ring straight before them, had dared the river” (‘The Hunt for the Ring’, Note 3).
Could this be precisely due to the fact that these same three servants had been “men of the sea” once?
A definitely possibility.
Rhûn and Khand
In order to continue analysing the remaining Ringwraiths, it would be wise to tackle the only other Nazgûl whose name has been given to us: Khamûl.
“Second to the Chief, dwelt in Dol Guldur after its reoccupation in the Third Age. Called the Shadow of the East, the Black Easterling.”
– Unfinished Tales, ‘Index’
At first glance, it would be tempting to state that Khamûl might have originated from Khand, due to the similar initial lettering of “kha”. However, the above quote states he was a “Black Easterling”, a race of people which came out of the lands of Rhûn.
It would be safe, therefore, to assume that this particular Ringwraith was originally a man of Rhûn and just like the Black Nûmenóreans, became influenced by the Dark Lord and acquired one of the Rings of Power.
Having disregarded Khand as a possible candidate for Khamul’s origins, we still cannot overlook its relevance. Residing close to the land of Mordor, and having been its ally through the Ages, it is highly plausible a Ringwraith could have come from that land just south-east of Sauron’s realm.
That brings the count to a total of five. Three Ringwraiths from Númenor, establishing themselves on the West coasts and two more from the East.
Strategic motives behind Sauron’s choice
If we were to take the above speculations into account, it is interesting to see how Sauron employed a strategic tactic in order to ensure total dominion over Middle-earth.
By the year SA 2251, with the aid of his Ringwraiths, Sauron would have had complete control over the Eastern lands of Middle-earth through Rhûn and Khand (and Mordor itself), whilst three others of his servants, could have been dwelling along the south western coasts.
Sauron would have needed, not only the Ringwraiths themselves, but also entire groups of people strongly under his dominion. Thus, between the years 1600 and 2251, those Men who had in possession the Nine Rings, would have established kingdoms of their own and controlled a large following.
This can be confirmed over a thousand years later, prior to the War of the Last Alliance when “Sauron gathered to him great strength of his servants out of the east and south […] and among them were not a few of the high race of Númenor.”
–The Silmarillion, ‘Of the Rings of Power’
The Matter of Herumor and Fuinur
During the later part of the Second Age, we discover the existence of two individuals from the race of Men, “Herumor and Fuinur, who rose to power among the Haradrim” (The Silmarillion, ‘The Akallabêth’).
Both of them came from Númenor and fell under the power of Sauron when he was captured by Ar-Pharazôn. They later sailed East and established lordships in Harad and many readers believe that these eventually became two of the Ringwraiths.
However fascinating this idea is, it must be emphasized that both of these Men became Black Númenóreans well after the emergence of the Ringwraiths and therefore, could not have been these same servants themselves.
However, it is interesting to consider why they chose the land of Harad. One can justly speculate that two Men (who would later on become Nazgûl) came from this region, over 1,700 years before and established a following of sorts – to which both Herumor and Fuinur would have settled in and continued the cult in favour of Sauron.
“The King’s Folk establish lordships in Umbar and Harad and in many other places on the coasts of the Great Lands.” (The People’s of Middle-earth, ‘The Tale of Years of the Second Age’, Section T4).
The following event takes place between 2000-3000 of the Second Age (according to Tolkien’s drafts), a time when the Black Númenóreans began to rise against the people of Middle-earth.
The word “lordships” seems a strong indicator as to the origin of one or two Ringwraiths.
This would provide a very strong reason for the Haradrim (or part of them) to have become allies with Sauron during the War of the Ring.
The Remaining Two Ringwraiths
The final two sources from which the Nazgûl could have originated, are the regions of Eriador and the White Mountains. Both the original Easterlings (from the First Age who dwelt west of Middle-earth and came over into Beleriand) and the Men of the Mountains, seem to be eligible candidates.
” Of the people of Bór, it is said, came the most ancient of the Men that dwelt in the north of Eriador afterwards in the Second Age.”
– Morgoth’s Ring, ‘The Grey Annals’, Note 466).
Knowing already that Eriador is soon to be conquered by Sauron, it would not be a far-fetched thought to ponder on the possibility that one of these “ancient Men” fell under the power of the Dark Lord and acquired one of the rings.
Originally, they dwelt in Minhiriath (south of Eriador), but after the Númenórean incursions during the Second Age, they scattered – some making their way towards Dunland to the east and the White Mountains further South.
“The native people were fairly numerous and warlike […] scattered communities without central leadership” but as the felling of trees by Aldarion (sixth king of Númenor) increased, “they attacked and ambushed the Númenóreans when they could […] and the native folk that survived fled from Minhiriath […] From Enedwaith they took refuge in the eastern mountains where afterwards was Dunland” (Unfinished Tales, ‘The History of Galadriel and Celeborn’).
The most intriguing part of this text however, comes in the following lines: “The denuding of the lands was increased during the war in Eriador; for the exiled natives welcomed Sauron and hoped for his victory over the Men of the Sea.”
Thus, even before being conquered by Sauron, many of the men living in those surrounding lands, had begun to fall under his influence – strongly linking the emergence of the Ringwraiths with the above speculations on Eriador.
As to the matter of the Dead Men in the White Mountains, could it be that later on in the Second Age, they intentionally refused Isildur’s call to fight during the War of the Last Alliance? Is it possible that they had been lured by the power of a Ringwraith that rose among them when they had first settled there?
Keeping in mind the above speculations, three established Ringwraiths from the West, four from the East and two more from the Eriador and Enedwaith regions, would have provided the perfect opportunity to attack the Free People’s from all directions.
This is not to say that what happened in later years (in favour of the Dark Lord), was done in hindsight; but rather, what he did during the early part of the Second Age, indirectly affected the progress of the war against the races of Middle-earth.
Ultimately, even though I have tried to establish a concrete origins history for the Nazgûl, their power and allure lies in their mysterious being.
Exploring these unknown creatures in The Lord of the Rings, is what provides for a powerful reading experience that seems to strongly withstand the test of time.
All copyright to the illustrations shown here belong to John Howe