- "Wraiths! Wraiths on wings!"
- —Gollum in The Two Towers
The terms fell beast, "Hell-Hawk", and "Nazgûl-birds" refer to the gigantic flying pterosaur- or wyrm-like creatures on which the Witch-King of Angmar and the other Nazgûl rode after being unhorsed at the Ford of Bruinen in Middle-earth. Tolkien did not use fell beast as a proper name, merely describing the animals as "fell." Fell, a Middle English adjective (from the Old French fel "cruel, dreadful") has come to mean, in Modern English, "ferocious, fierce, terrible, cruel, dreadful" and implies an underlying malevolence or hostility that make the noun described all the worse for the ill-will that drives its suddenness and intensity. Given the rarity of fell (which had all but disappeared from Modern English until Tolkien's work revived it), the animals having no other name, Tolkien's fans often, if not quite correctly, have dubbed them "fellbeasts"--although philologists in general, and students of Tolkien's oeuvre in particular, look askance at such usage. (Cf, e.g., "fell light in his eyes" and "fell meats.") 
When the Nine Nazgûl (the Ringwraiths) were thwarted at the Ford of Bruinen near Rivendell, they were riding coal-black horses. Those steeds were destroyed in the flood caused by Elrond's intercession that vanquished the Nazgûl as they pursued Frodo. When next the Nazgûl took form their steeds were these winged creatures, ancient, natural creatures whose origin and appearance were told by Tolkien in the novel The Lord of the Rings, most clearly in his description of the one ridden by the Lord of the Nazgûl (the Witch-King) at the Battle of the Pelennor Fields.
And behold! 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, whose kind, lingering in forgotten mountains cold beneath the Moon, outstayed their day, and in hideous eyrie bred this last untimely brood, apt to evil. And the Dark Lord took it, and nursed it with fell meats, until it grew beyond the measure of all other things that fly; and he gave it to his servant to be his steed.
In the booksEdit
- After The Fellowship of the Ring had left Lothlórien and were camped on the western shore of the River Anduin, they saw "a great winged creature, blacker than the pits in the night." When Legolas raised the great bow of Lórien and shot it with an arrow, it gave "a harsh croaking scream" and vanished into the gloom of the Eastern shore.
- During Frodo and Sam's journey across the Emyn Muil and the Dead Marshes with Gollum, they were stalked by winged Nazgûl flying overhead, but still they went undetected.
- When Merry and Pippin were captives of Uruk-hai, Grishnákh, an Orc of Mordor, said the prisoners should be taken across the Anduin where a "winged Nazgûl" waited. Ugluk taunted 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.
- A winged Nazgûl was seen flying over the camp at Dol Baran after Pippin looks into the Palantír of Orthanc.
- 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.
- When Faramir, captain of Gondor, was fleeing from the besieged city of Osgiliath on his way to Minas Tirith, he was many times beset by winged Nazgûl until Gandalf rode out and drove them away with a shaft of white light from his staff.
- During the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, Théoden, King of Rohan, was attacked and brought down by the Lord of the Nazgûl on his winged steed, which was slain by Éowyn the Shieldmaiden of Rohan by beheading it with her sword (before killing its rider with the help of Meriadoc Brandybuck).
- While the Army of the West headed to the Black Gate, the remaining winged Nazgûl were used to spy on them from the sky, out of sight of anyone except Legolas.
- In Mordor, Frodo and Sam saw a winged Nazgûl flying to Barad-dûr.
- 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's being used by Frodo.
- The remaining winged creatures were destroyed, along with the Nazgûl, when the One Ring was cast into the fires of the Cracks of Doom.
Portrayal in adaptationsEdit
Ralph Bakshi's The Lord of the RingsEdit
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.
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. Gandalf had called it a carrion-fowl.
Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings film trilogyEdit
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.
Although on screen the film characters never make this mistake, sometimes actors on the commentary tracks refer to the winged creature 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 referring to himself when he says Nazgûl, not the Fell-beast.
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, it could easily fly high into the air and drop its hapless victim to his death far below. Fell beasts were feared for their ferocity and speed, and were known as the fastest creatures in Middle-earth.
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 hope to do so.
Behind the ScenesEdit
There is a common misconception that these creatures are called Nazgûl, probably due to the fact that the unit in many video games (combined Fell beast and Ringwraith) was called a Nazgûl. Another possible explanation is the line in Return of the King where the Witch King says "Do not come between the Nazgûl and his prey" referring to himself, but shortly before, his mount had appeared to try to eat Théoden's horse.
- ↑ See wikipedia:Talk:Fell beast (Middle-earth)
- ↑ The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
- ↑ The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, "The Battle of the Pelennor Fields"