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Fell beasts

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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, and it had a long neck, and a vast hide between its horned fingers. The body of the creature gave furthermore off a stench.[1]

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.

At the River Anduin, Legolas shot one down in the night as it approached the Fellowship of the Ring.[source?]

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 evil beast attacked and eventually 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 may have been a survivor of older geological eras.[4]


Tolkien actually only used the name "fell beast" as a descriptor and not an actual name. ("Fell" in this sense is an archaic English word meaning "cruel", "evil" or "lethal".) However, since this creature lacked any real name, "fell beast" is often used to refer to it.

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 red dragon-like animal.

2001: The Lord of the Rings: The Motion Picture Trilogy:

The fell beasts are depicted as more Dragon-like and serpentine creatures, 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. This depiction came largely from John Howe's influence.
Also, they are much larger than is implied in the books, where they are essentially used as light observation planes. In the movies, they are used for attack much more often, 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.


  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; Humphrey Carpenter, Christopher Tolkien (eds.), The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter 211, (dated 14 October 1958)