When I think back to the first time that I read The Lord of the Rings, one of the things that stands out most to me is just how disturbed I was by the hobbits’ encounters with the Ringwraiths, both within the bounds of the Shire and outside of it. Though the effect has been mitigated a bit as I’ve grown older, I still feel a little chill race down my spine every time I read those passages in the books where these terrible servants of Sauron appear to afflict the heroes.
Consider, for example, the first time that we get a glimpse of one of them. We as readers don’t know that the horseman pursuing the hobbits is one of the most evil beings in Middle-earth, but the way that Tolkien describes it makes it abundantly clear. Matters escalate when the frantic hobbits turn to a shortcut After they spot the nameless creature kneeling beside its horse on the rise behind them, they hear a long-drawn wail that freezes both their blood and our own. This, to me, is one of the most haunting moments in the entire first part of the book. Simply seeing that horse and rider at the top of the embankment is enough to fill our hearts with dread and apprehension about what is going to come next. And the sound that follows is yet another marker of just how strange the world has become.
To me, even as an adult, this entire sequence is disturbing, verging on terrifying. Though we don’t know what these creatures are, their utter lack of humanity instills in us an instinctive fear of the unknown. More than that, though, their appearance within the supposedly safe boundaries of the Shire renders that space uncanny, the familiar now made unutterably strange. A great deal of this scene’s power also comes from Tolkien’s unmatched powers of description and his ability to convey a scene with such detail that you can almost see it in your mind’s eye.
To my mind, however, one of the most terrifying incidents occurs when Frodo and Sam are crossing the Dead Marshes in the company of Gollum, who has agreed to take them to the Black Gate. As they stumble across this blasted landscape, they are once again subjected to the sound of that wail, while a terrible winged shape wheels above them before darting off on another errand. Again, there’s nothing overtly horrifying about this particular appearance, but to me there’s something haunting about the image of a great winged beast silhouetted against the moon, a sort of nameless horror that, perhaps, calls to some primordial fear of giant beasts in the sky.
In terms of the films, I have to say that the Bakshi version does best at capturing the sheer inhumanity of these creatures. Though the film doesn’t age terribly well, each time I watch it I’m impressed anew at the way in which Bakshi manages to capture the strange and unsettling otherness of the Ringwraiths. They don’t have nearly as much personality as the they do in Jackson’s version, and they are given an extra layer of uncanniness by the fact that they’re brought to the screen via rotoscope (in which live action figures are filmed and then animated cells are laid over top of them). I remember being profoundly chilled by their appearance, and even now I find them very disturbing.
Jackson’s version of these characters isn’t quite as haunting, in part because they are more straightforwardly depicted and because Jackson isn’t always the most subtle of filmmakers. However, there are a few moments that capture some of the strangeness of the novels, particularly when the hobbits first encounter their enemies.
Without doubt, the Ringwraiths are some of the most frightening of Tolkien’s creations, and they are testament to his ability to move seamlessly between so many different registers. They are at once the evil with which the heroes must contend as they embark on their quest, yet they are also embodiments of our deepest fears, conveyed in sparse prose that nevertheless evokes the horror of the unknown. As always, Tolkien knows just how to most compellingly explore the most vexing of human questions, both the good and the evil.