On the origin and nature of Ringwraiths

— Ruth Lacon

7 July 2021 | Beyond Bree, July 2021, 1

As so often with J.R.R. Tolkien’s writing, the seemingly simple question of What are the Ringwraiths?” has no simple answer. The nature of The Black Rider(s)” changed over the course of writing of The Lord of the Rings. Aspects of those changes are still visible in the book as we have it today, despite all the revision work that J.R.R. Tolkien did both before and after publication. Even if we look only at the final construct, the Ringwraiths,” what they are (or might be) is shaped by Tolkien’s intellectual world. The pace of scientific discovery from 1870 to 1940 meant that people of Tolkien’s generation were more open to the idea of weird phenomena as yet-to-be-discovered science” than we tend to be. For example, wireless telegraphy” had gone from being something as fantastic as telepathy to the everyday reality of the radio in the corner of the living-room, the tie that bound people and nations together as well as a vital tool of modern warfare. If that could happen — what else was possible? Tolkien’s social circles included people at the cutting edge of both contemporary science — such as his former student and later friend Albert Hugh Smith and the understanding of “‘pyschic phenomena’ — such as HH Price of New College Oxford. We may think of The Lord of the Rings as”‘a classic fantasy book,” but it does incorporate enough contemporary science, pyschology and ideas about the paranormal to merit Naomi Mitchison’s description of it as super science fiction.” The Ringwraiths are a case in point, and exploring how they came to be what they are takes us to some interesting places.

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date recorded 📅2021-08-20
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