Some of the most memorable and arresting moments from all of Peter Jackson’s Lord Of The Rings trilogy center around the Nazgûl, the nine Ringwraiths who endlessly pursue our heroes on behalf of their master Sauron. That’s especially impressive considering the Nazgûl are really only the primary antagonists for the first half of the first film. In a new video essay, YouTuber Ryan Hollinger discusses what makes the appearance of the Nazgûl so haunting despite the fact that they ultimately don’t materialize into a formidable threat.
“The hunt for the ring serves as what development executive and writer Christopher Vogler describes as the ‘Hero’s Threshold,’” says Hollinger. “Where our heroes leave the safety of the Shire and begin their trials and tribulations as they journey towards Mount Doom.” This tonal transition from the comfort of home to the wild and dangerous world beyond is ushered in by the appearance of the Nazgûl. These hulking, shadowy riders in black who seem to be everywhere and nowhere represent the first of many dangers Frodo and his companions will encounter on their journey. The threat of the Nazgûl is more visceral than that of the Uruk-hai or cave trolls that appear later in the film because we’re experiencing them solely from the perspective of Frodo and other hobbits. They didn’t know things like this existed in the world, and it’s scaring the hell out of them.
Hollinger goes on to note that, despite how intimidating they are when they’re introduced, the Ringwraiths are later dispatched without much trouble. Aragorn scares off five at a time with a little fire and sword and Arwen flushes them down a river with some—admittedly, very cool—elf magic. Suddenly, what seemed like the biggest thing standing in our heroes way is gone for the remainder of the film.
But, surprisingly, this depiction of the Nazgûl is more in line with Tolkien’s original vision. “[The Nazgûl] have no great physical power against the fearless; but what they have, and the fear that they inspire, is enormously increased in darkness,” Tolkien wrote in a letter that criticized the film treatment written for the series in 1958. So, by showing Aragorn and Arwen’s fearlessness in the face of the Nine, the film provides a template for our hobbit heroes going forward: Be brave in the face of unimaginable terror and you will prevail.
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