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Fell beasts

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Fell beasts
John Howe - Nazgul 01.jpg
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GalleryImages of Fell beasts

Fell beasts,[1] hell-hawks,[2] and Nazgûl-birds,[3] were names used to describe the flying creatures on which the Nazgûl rode after being unhorsed at the Ford of Bruinen.



The fell beasts were winged creatures with beak and claws, similar to birds but much larger than any other flying beast. The creature possessed a naked body without feathers, a long neck, and a vast hide between its horned fingers. Furthermore, the body of the creature gave off a stench.[1]

[...] 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 [...]
J.R.R. Tolkien[4]

While the exact origin of the beasts is unknown, they were likely bred by Sauron from a creature of the Elder Days, in order to supply the Nazgûl with steeds.[1]

It is never stated that all the Nazgûl rode these flying creatures, but some[who?] infer that they did so.

On the River Anduin near Sarn Gebir, Legolas shot one down in the night as it approached the Fellowship of the Ring.[5]

During the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, the Witch-king of Angmar, the Lord of the Nazgûl, rode his fell beast in battle against King Théoden of Rohan. The Lord of the Nazgûl, riding the evil beast, shot a dart which killed Snowmane, Théoden's horse (which fell on Théoden, crushing him). Dernhelm (who revealed herself as Éowyn) defended the dying Théoden, and challenged and killed the beast.[1]


Asked about the nature of the "steed of the Witch-king", Tolkien replied that the fell beast was not intended to be pterodactylic, but hesitantly acknowledges that it resembles a pterosaur and may have been a survivor of older geological eras.[6]


As in the expression "fell things" occurring earlier in The Lord of the Rings,[7] the word fell in this sense is an archaic English word meaning "dreadful, terrible".[8]

It may also be noted that the expression "fell beasts" is not used solely for the winged steeds of the Nazgûl: it was also used as a descriptor for various evil creatures of Mirkwood.[9]

Portrayal in Adaptations

1978: 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: The Return of the King:

The Nazgûl ride winged horses. In the confrontation of Éowyn and the Witch-king, the latter rode a plump black-grey dragon-like animal.

1982-97: Middle-earth Role Playing:

The Fell Beasts are said to likely be "distant relatives of ancient Cold-drakes", and "grow to lengths of 30 feet (with 30-35-foot wingspans)". In the middle Third Age they live in mountainous areas of Mirkwood, presumably because of the Necromancer's presence at Dol Guldur. They are used as steeds by both the Nazgûl and a few Olog-hai warlords.[10][note 1]

1995-8: Middle-earth Collectible Card Game:

'Fell Beast' increases the number of strikes of one Nazgûl hazard-creature. 'Wild Fell Beast' is a Drake which attacks with three strikes. With the card 'Fell Rider' the Ringwraith may move to a non-Darkhaven site (without allies and followers).

2001: The Lord of the Rings (film series):

The fell beasts are depicted as more Dragon-like and serpentine creatures, i.e. their heads appear more like a snake's and they do not have beaks. This depiction came largely from John Howe's influence.
In the films, the fell beasts are used for attack much more often than in the books, with the Nazgûl usually swooping down and screeching, making the defenders at the gate of Minas Tirith run away, leaving Gandalf alone to face the Witch-king as he enters.
Although on screen the films never make this mistake, sometimes cast or crew members (Lawrence Makoare and Richard Taylor most notably) on the commentary tracks and the documentaries 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.

2001-: The Lord of the Rings Strategy Battle Game:

The Fell Beasts are portrayed without beaks, reminiscent of the depiction in The Lord of the Rings: The Motion Picture Trilogy.[11]

2002-5: The Lord of the Rings Roleplaying Game:

Hell-hawks, employed as mounts by the Ringwraiths and found wild in southern Mirkwood and (after the War of the Ring) in Gondor, resemble a "cross between lizards and featherless birds". They were bred by Sauron in mockery of the Great Eagles.[12]

2011: The Lord of the Rings: War in the North:

Agandaûr has several Fell beasts under his control. At the end of Chapter 1, Agandaûr flees on the back of one of them.[13]

See also


  1. In the supplement, Creatures of Middle-earth, the Fell beasts are said to be "presumably bred from Winged-drakes" and to have a body between 15-25 feet and a wingspan between 30-40 feet.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, The Return of the King, "The Battle of the Pelennor Fields"
  2. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, The Return of the King, "The Siege of Gondor"
  3. J.R.R. Tolkien; Humphrey Carpenter, Christopher Tolkien (eds.), The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter 100, (dated 29 May 1945)
  4. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, The Fellowship of the Ring, "The Great River"
  5. J.R.R. Tolkien; Humphrey Carpenter, Christopher Tolkien (eds.), The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter 211, (dated 14 October 1958)
  6. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, The Fellowship of the Ring, "Three is Company"
  7. Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull (eds), The Lord of the Rings: A Reader's Companion, p. 110
  8. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, The Fellowship of the Ring, "The Breaking of the Fellowship"
  9. John David Ruemmler, Susan Tyler Hitchcock, Peter C. Fenlon (1995), Mirkwood (2nd edition) (#2019)
  10. Winged Nazgûl at (accessed 10 June 2011)
  11. Scott Bennie, Mike Mearls, Steve Miller, Aaron Rosenberg, Chris Seeman, Owen Seyler, and George Strayton (2003), Fell Beasts and Wondrous Magic, pp. 30-31
  12. The Lord of the Rings: War in the North, Chapter 1: Fornost, Citadel Tower