Fell beasts

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This article describes a concept which is mentioned in J.R.R. Tolkien's works, but was never given a definite name.
Fell beasts
"Nazgul" by John Howe
General Information
Other namesHell-hawks, Nazgûl-birds
Physical Description
Skin colorPlain, webbed
WeaponryBeak, horned fingers and claws
GalleryImages of Fell beasts

The Fell beasts,[1] also called hell-hawks [2] and Nazgûl-birds,[3] were 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 [...][1]

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

On the River Anduin near Sarn Gebir, Legolas shot one down in the night as it approached the Fellowship of the Ring.[4]

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, challenging and decapitating 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 acknowledged that it resembles a pterosaur and may have been a survivor of older geological eras.[5]


As in the expression "fell things" occurring earlier in The Lord of the Rings,[6] the word fell in this sense is an archaic English word meaning "dreadful, terrible".[7]

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,[8] and is also said that Oromë is a hunter of "monsters and fell beasts".[9]

Portrayal in adaptations

Fell beasts in adaptations
The Return of the King (1980)
"Fell beast" in Middle-earth Role Playing
"Fell beast" in Middle-earth Role Playing  
"Wild Fell Beast" in Middle-earth Collectible Card Game
"Wild Fell Beast" in Middle-earth Collectible Card Game  
Fell beast descending in The Lord of the Rings (film series)
Fell beast descending in The Lord of the Rings (film series)  
The Lord of the Rings Strategy Battle Game
"Hell-hawk" in The Lord of the Rings Roleplaying Game
"Fell beast" in The Lord of the Rings: War in the North

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 this is the last seen 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).

2001-3: The Lord of the Rings (film series):

The fell beasts are depicted as more Dragon-like and serpentine, 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 beasts as Nazgûl; this is incorrect. The fell beasts are 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: The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (video game):

A Nazgûl mounted on a fell beast (depicted as a dragon-like creature) appears in the Amon Hen stage of the PC and console versions of the game, where it serves as the final boss. In the first phase of the battle, the beast crawls on the ground and fights Aragorn (armed with his sword). During the second and final phase, it flies into the sky and shoots green fireballs from its mouth down at Aragorn (who shoots back at it with his bow), until it is weakened and finally shot down by Legolas in the game's ending cutscene.

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]


  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.