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“Nine for Mortal Men, Doomed to Die:” The Tragedy of the Nazgûl

At first glance, it might seem counterintuitive to argue that the Ringwraiths of The Lord of the Rings are anything other than evil. They are the ones who lead the attack on the good guys, and they are terrifying as they hunt the hobbits in the first half of The Fellowship of the Ring. They are Sauron’s most powerful servants, the only beings with Rings of Power that have given into the Dark Lord’s seductive songs.

And yet, as I was reading LotR for the umpteenth time,  something jumped out at me about the rhyme that tells why the Rings were given to certain races. When I read that nine rings were given to mortal men “doomed to die,” I thought…what a striking description. After all, the Elven kings are described as being under the sky (drawing attention to their closeness to the earth), while the Dwarves are discussed in terms of their halls of stone (signifying their allegiance to mining and to craftsmanship). These descriptions suggest that the Rings speak to some essential quality in those who bear them, and so it stands to reason that what sets Men apart, and what draws them to the Rings (and what the Rings draw out of them) is there awareness of the inevitability of their deaths.

We don’t get a lot of detail about the Ringwraiths or their origins. We know a bit about the Witch-king of Angmar, though even his origins are shrouded in gloom. But embedded in that little stanza, I think, tells us a great deal. They were clearly great men, sorcerers and kings, who were tormented by the idea that all of their accomplishments would be for naught when it came time for them to die. Faced with the reality, can we not understand (at least a little) why they might be seduced by the possibility that such a fate might be avoided?

Tolkien was fascinated (rather gloomily, in some ways) with the fact that humans, unlike Elves, have been blessed (or cursed) with the gift of mortality. While Elves must face all the Ages of the world unfold before and around them, Men–even the long-lived Númenoreans) get to shuffle off this mortal coil. But of course this is the one thing that humanity cannot quite accept, despite the fact that the Elves, and Ilúvatar, understand this mortality to be a gift. Humans can escape from the prison of the corporeal world; the Elves usually cannot. Though humanity yearns for immortality, it does so with a severely flawed understanding of what that infinite life would actually entail as far as lived reality.

It is revealing, therefore, that in the rhyme Tolkien uses the word “doom.” I’m of the mind that almost everything in Tolkien’s work is deliberate. The man loved words, and he loved their histories, and he surely knew that “doom” originally meant “judgment,” so that death is in a way a judgment. Yet beyond that, doom also has something about the pre-ordained about it. While Tolkien’s body of work suggests that death is a gift that should be embraced (even if it isn’t), one can’t escape the negative connotations that this particular word has accrued.

In that sense, we can perhaps gain a more nuanced understanding of why it might be that these men would give themselves up to temptation. It seems that the desire to push against boundaries–whether that is mortality or some other moral injunction–is hard-wired into the human brain, leading us into some of our greatest bursts of creativity and also our greatest follies. Unable to see what is right in front of our eyes, we often engage in precisely the sort of destructive behavior that is our undoing. This, it seems, is exactly what happened to the Nazgûl in their attempt to thwart the inevitability of their own deaths.

As always, beneath the seeming moral clarity offered by The Lord of the Rings, there is a vast system of moral philosophy that is as contradictory as any in the world outside the text. The tragedy of the Nazgûl, and men like them, was that they could not (or would not) recognize the gift that they were given in the form of death was, in fact, a gift. Instead, they sought to avoid it. In doing so, however, they brought about a fate far worse than the death that they shunned. At the time of the novel, they live a sort of half-life, slaves in mind and body to a will greater than their own, unable to die yet, paradoxically, unable to truly live either.

Perhaps, when Mount Doom explodes in fiery ruin and destroys the Ringwraiths, it is a release for them. With the destruction of the One Ring, perhaps they can at last find peace.

But perhaps that’s a fool’s hope.