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Which creatures did Tolkien invent and which were already in real-world legends?
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Eruvandi
Tol Eressea


Jan 9 2014, 4:46pm

Post #1 of 33 (1452 views)
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Which creatures did Tolkien invent and which were already in real-world legends? Can't Post

My mom and I were talking Tolkien last night and she said she thought she had heard of hobbits being in real legends and I said I thought they were something Tolkien invented all on his own. This got me to wondering, which creatures/types of people in ME did Tolkien invent and which ones were already in real-world legends?

I know there are real-world legends about elves, dwarves, dragons, goblins, skin-changers, and trolls. As I recall he also mentioned things like werewolves and vampires too. Was I right about Tolkien inventing hobbits? What about orcs, barrow-wights, wraiths a.k.a. Nazgul, and fell beasts? Did he invent those too? Are there any other creatures Tolkien invented that I'm missing? Can you think of any other real-world legendary creatures that he had in his books that I failed to list?

While we're on the topic, as far as the real-world legendary creatures go, did Tolkien adhere very closely to the way they (elves, dwarves, goblins, etc) are described in legends or did he sort of re-invent them to be the way he wanted them? For example: I'm pretty sure elves in most real-world legends are generally described as being small, whimsical, almost fairy-like creatures, not these statuesque, graceful, beings Tolkien made them into.

So, let's get a discussion going!Smile


simplyaven
Grey Havens


Jan 9 2014, 5:04pm

Post #2 of 33 (1130 views)
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In my lands [In reply to] Can't Post

where I come from and the lands whose mythology I've studied (as well as Tolkien did because I'm also a phylologist and European phylology education hasn't changed much over the years), hobbits do not exist as such in legends thus he invented them. Now, we do have, and other nations have them too, legends about little people living in holes, we also have places where we think they live but they are not called "hobbits" and overall, their existence is not what Tolkien made of his hobbits. To me he used some basic traits of what Europe already had in legends and built on it. The final result is purely Tolkien.

Tolkien turned fairy creatures into races. His Elves are far more developed than any elves we have in our legends. Same about the rest. Possibly an exclusion would be the orcs which are just orcs. But the rest Tolkien took to a completely new level.

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Otaku-sempai
Immortal


Jan 9 2014, 9:30pm

Post #3 of 33 (1096 views)
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Well, Tolkien did not invent the word 'hobbit' [In reply to] Can't Post

But the Hobbits of Middle-earth are his own, original invention. He can probably also be credited with the flying fell beasts of the Nazgul--although those owe something to legends of dragons, wyverns and other such legendary creatures. The Balrogs, too, can probably be called his.

Tolkien's take on goblins/Orcs, Elves, Dwarves, Trolls, etc. is at least his own, developing actual, individual cultures and histories for most of those groups, and sometimes more than one. The Ringwraiths are also uniquely his, tying their existence to the Nine Rings of Power created by Sauron. Similarly, Tolkien has his own versions of Vampires and Werewolves that are unique to Middle-earth.

'There are older and fouler things than Orcs in the deep places of the world.' - Gandalf the Grey, The Fellowship of the Ring


IdrilofGondolin
Rohan

Jan 9 2014, 11:31pm

Post #4 of 33 (1027 views)
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Ents [In reply to] Can't Post

are his as well.


Fredeghar Wayfarer
Lorien


Jan 10 2014, 1:32am

Post #5 of 33 (1033 views)
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He took inspiration [In reply to] Can't Post

Most of the creatures that Tolkien created for his stories were inspired by existing Norse or Anglo-Saxon legends, though sometimes the source was pretty vague or little more than a word.

Hobbits were Tolkien's invention. However, the word "hobbit" existed in a work from the 1800s called the Denham Tracts which listed various mythical creatures. No one has been able to find a source for what those original hobbits were or if Denham just made the word up. Presumably, they would have been similar to hobgoblins and other creatures with "hob" in the name.

Orcs were inspired by the word "orcneas" found in Beowulf. It seems to describe a demonic or undead creature in the poem but scholars disagree on the exact meaning and it's the only known usage of the word in literature. Tolkien took the word and imagined what the creature would be like.

Same goes for Ents and Wargs. "Ent" was an Old English word that meant "giant" and "warg" was Old English for "wolf" or "outlaw." Tolkien didn't invent the names but he created the specifics of the creatures.

Wraiths are actual mythical creatures. It's another word for ghost. Tolkien created the idea of them having dark cloaks and being enslaved by magic rings.

Barrow-wights are based on a Norse mythical creature called Draugar. They were undead bodies animated by dark spirits. I don't know if they're ever called barrow-wights in the old legends. I think I saw a site that claimed the term was used somewhere before Tolkien but I don't know that for sure. Regardless, the idea of undead "barrow-men" definitely existed.

Fell beasts might be the only creatures Tolkien invented wholesale without an earlier source or inspiration.

As for how close Tolkien's versions of his creatures are to mythology, they are pretty close. Elves, for example, were tall and noble and godlike in Norse mythology (as were faeries in Celtic mythology originally). The creatures became smaller and more mischievous in later folklore when Europe was more Christianized and the old myths and legends were marginalized or rewritten. Elves and faeries go from being a branch of the old gods to a demi-godlike race (Alfar in Norse, Daoine Sidhe in Celtic) to finally the tiny, mischievous, delicate creatures of Victorian fairy tales and art.

Tolkien's Dwarves are pretty similar to Norse Dwarves as well, as they were crafters and miners know for making great weapons and beautiful jewels. Some scholars believe that the Dwarves started out as Dark Elves (Svartalfar or Dokkalfar) in Norse myth and were simply the Elves that preferred to live underground. But again, the legend changed and evolved over time.


Meneldor
Valinor


Jan 10 2014, 4:48am

Post #6 of 33 (997 views)
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Orcs [In reply to] Can't Post


In Reply To

Orcs were inspired by the word "orcneas" found in Beowulf. It seems to describe a demonic or undead creature in the poem but scholars disagree on the exact meaning and it's the only known usage of the word in literature. Tolkien took the word and imagined what the creature would be like.





The word orc shows up in the epic poem Orlando Furioso, but it is used as a name for a kind of sea monster. Definitely not one of Tolkien's goblinoids, though.


They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters; These see the works of the Lord, and His wonders in the deep.


Bellerock
Rivendell

Jan 10 2014, 6:38am

Post #7 of 33 (1018 views)
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Forgive my ingnorance . . . [In reply to] Can't Post

But if Tolkien didn't invent the word hobbit, where did it come from? I've never heard the term anywhere else.


Fredeghar Wayfarer
Lorien


Jan 10 2014, 7:26am

Post #8 of 33 (1013 views)
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See my post above [In reply to] Can't Post

The word "hobbit" is mentioned in the Denham Tracts, a series of works about folklore. But no one knows what it refers to, other than a supernatural creature of some sort. It's not known if Tolkien had seen the term there or came up with it independently.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Denham_Tracts


squire
Half-elven


Jan 10 2014, 7:27am

Post #9 of 33 (995 views)
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It probably was only a spoken usage from a rural district before Tolkien reinvented it [In reply to] Can't Post

As has already been noted, scholars recently found a book of folklore compilation from 1800s England, that cites 'hobbit' as one of many words used by country folk of that district to describe the legendary 'little people'. But it was one word among many similar ones incorporating the root 'hob' - and it's not surprising that the word didn't exactly take off on its own so that you've never seen it used in any context outside Tolkien's. It may have been spoken before, in the farmlands of northern England, but it's doubtful it had ever been written down before Denham wrote it in his field notebook. Tolkien essentially reinvented the word when he wrote his book, and gave it general currency.

It's just possible that Tolkien had read the 'Denham Tracts' book mentioned above, since it was in his field of interest - but it's just as likely that he came up with it on his own using just the well-known root of 'hob'. In any case, the Oxford English Dictionary, which is the authority in this kind of thing, gives Tolkien credit for inventing the word as it is now generally used.



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Elizabeth
Half-elven


Jan 10 2014, 7:38am

Post #10 of 33 (1001 views)
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"Fell beasts" [In reply to] Can't Post

That's not a particular kind of creature. It's a generic category.

Ok, you know what a "beast" is, right? "Fell" simply means "likely to cause or capable of causing death," "baleful, deathly, fatal, fell, killer, lethal, mortal, murderous, pestilent, terminal, vital." In other words, BAD.

In FotR, the Ring Wraiths rode horses. In later books, they rode beasts that could fly and were really, really BAD. That is the sum total of what we know about "Fell beasts."

So, Tolkien didn't invent them, any more than he invented "really dangerous critters." For the term in modern (21st C) parlance, we have Jackson to thank: we all now know what a "fell beast" looks like.








(This post was edited by Elizabeth on Jan 10 2014, 7:39am)


squire
Half-elven


Jan 10 2014, 1:02pm

Post #11 of 33 (988 views)
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A thoroughly modern monster [In reply to] Can't Post

"really, really BAD" they were, but that is not the sum total we know about them. Tolkien actually shows his creature-creating hand more with these animals than with almost any other monster in the story:
The great shadow descended like a falling cloud. And behold! 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, whose kind, lingering in forgotten mountains cold beneath the Moon, outstayed their day, and in hideous eyrie bred this last untimely brood, apt to evil. And the Dark Lord took it, and nursed it with fell meats, until it grew beyond the measure of all other things that fly; and he gave it to his servant to be his steed. Down, down it came, and then, folding its fingered webs, it gave a croaking cry, and settled upon the body of Snowmane, digging in its claws, stooping its long naked neck. (LotR V.6)

To me this has always been a very interesting insertion of anachronistic real-world paleontology, coming from the tradition of Conan Doyle's Lost World (1912) in Tolkien's youth and of course continued more recently in Jurassic Park. In other words, these are thoroughly modern monsters in their origins, impossible to connect to medieval traditions except in the way they've been dressed up for presentation.



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Bellerock
Rivendell

Jan 10 2014, 2:06pm

Post #12 of 33 (966 views)
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A pterosaur [In reply to] Can't Post

"A creature of an older world maybe it was . . ."

Yes! I always pictured the Fell Beasts as some kind of flying dinosaur. Not mythological at all, but certainly not encountered often in early twentieth century England.


Bellerock
Rivendell

Jan 10 2014, 2:12pm

Post #13 of 33 (974 views)
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Thank you for the information. [In reply to] Can't Post

Very Interesting. I wonder of Tolkien had read the Denham Tracts. But I suppose, unless someone finds a copy in his personal papers, we'll never know.


Magpie
Immortal


Jan 10 2014, 3:16pm

Post #14 of 33 (965 views)
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to expand slightly on 'fell' [In reply to] Can't Post

(not that you didn't cover it sufficiently)...

it's used by Legolas in the FOTR movies (can't remember if it's in the book) when he says, "There is a fell voice on the air!" which taps into the definition of the word that means: Dire; sinister

(and then we could go into the meaning of 'sinister' ... if we were all word nerds. which I think many of us are!)


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(This post was edited by Magpie on Jan 10 2014, 3:17pm)


Meneldor
Valinor


Jan 10 2014, 6:08pm

Post #15 of 33 (957 views)
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Hideous eyrie [In reply to] Can't Post


In Reply To
A creature of an older world maybe it was, whose kind, lingering in forgotten mountains cold beneath the Moon, outstayed their day, and in hideous eyrie bred this last untimely brood, apt to evil.

in a cold forgotten mountain in the High Fells, obviously. Why else would they be called Fell beasts? Angelic


They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters; These see the works of the Lord, and His wonders in the deep.


Eruvandi
Tol Eressea


Jan 10 2014, 6:23pm

Post #16 of 33 (975 views)
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Fascinating! [In reply to] Can't Post


In Reply To
where I come from and the lands whose mythology I've studied (as well as Tolkien did because I'm also a phylologist and European phylology education hasn't changed much over the years), hobbits do not exist as such in legends thus he invented them. Now, we do have, and other nations have them too, legends about little people living in holes, we also have places where we think they live but they are not called "hobbits" and overall, their existence is not what Tolkien made of his hobbits. To me he used some basic traits of what Europe already had in legends and built on it. The final result is purely Tolkien.

Tolkien turned fairy creatures into races. His Elves are far more developed than any elves we have in our legends. Same about the rest. Possibly an exclusion would be the orcs which are just orcs. But the rest Tolkien took to a completely new level.

I didn't know there were any legends about little people living in holes. Thanks for sharing!Smile


Eruvandi
Tol Eressea


Jan 10 2014, 6:33pm

Post #17 of 33 (973 views)
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I still love how he... [In reply to] Can't Post

...based Treebeard on C.S. Lewis because he thought Lewis was "much too hasty". Lol!

It's also interesting that both Tolkien and Lewis seemed to be interested in the concept of sentient trees (or tree-like creatures) that are able to move and communicate.


Eruvandi
Tol Eressea


Jan 10 2014, 6:40pm

Post #18 of 33 (943 views)
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One nerd...*bows low*...at your service! [In reply to] Can't Post


In Reply To
(not that you didn't cover it sufficiently)...

it's used by Legolas in the FOTR movies (can't remember if it's in the book) when he says, "There is a fell voice on the air!" which taps into the definition of the word that means: Dire; sinister

(and then we could go into the meaning of 'sinister' ... if we were all word nerds. which I think many of us are!)



Sinister: adjective:
1. threatening or portending evil, harm, or trouble; ominous: a sinister remark.
2. bad, evil, base, or wicked; fell: his sinister purposes. 3. unfortunate; disastrous; unfavorable: a sinister accident. 4. of or on the left side; left. (I always thought this one and #5 were odd definitions) 5. Heraldry. noting the side of an escutcheon or achievement of arms that is to the left of the bearer (opposed to dexter ).


Eruvandi
Tol Eressea


Jan 10 2014, 7:04pm

Post #19 of 33 (931 views)
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You really know a lot about this topic :) [In reply to] Can't Post

I feel super educated now and it was very interesting. Thank you for taking the time to explain all of that!Cool


Eruvandi
Tol Eressea


Jan 10 2014, 7:07pm

Post #20 of 33 (944 views)
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It's interesting that... [In reply to] Can't Post


In Reply To

In Reply To

Orcs were inspired by the word "orcneas" found in Beowulf. It seems to describe a demonic or undead creature in the poem but scholars disagree on the exact meaning and it's the only known usage of the word in literature. Tolkien took the word and imagined what the creature would be like.

The word orc shows up in the epic poem Orlando Furioso, but it is used as a name for a kind of sea monster. Definitely not one of Tolkien's goblinoids, though.

...the word orc or orcneas only shows up a couple of times in other literature, is described so differently each time, and yet Tolkien was able to do so much with it. He was very creative!


Elizabeth
Half-elven


Jan 10 2014, 7:30pm

Post #21 of 33 (931 views)
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That superb description... [In reply to] Can't Post

...applies to these particular fell beasts (and I love that Jackson followed it well), but doesn't define a species in the sense that "warg" or "Hobbit" does.








(This post was edited by Elizabeth on Jan 10 2014, 7:36pm)


Elizabeth
Half-elven


Jan 10 2014, 7:35pm

Post #22 of 33 (955 views)
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I had difficulty with "orcs" when I first read the books. [In reply to] Can't Post

"Orcs" were never described, and I had no mental image of them at all. It wasn't even clear to me that they were humanoid. "Goblins" I could sort of picture, but not "orcs". I guess I was in my late teens at the time.








squire
Half-elven


Jan 10 2014, 7:39pm

Post #23 of 33 (958 views)
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Hideous eyrie, you say? Doyle called it a hideous rookery. [In reply to] Can't Post

This conversation aroused my curiosity, and I looked up 'The Lost World' to see if it rang any Tolkienian bells, source-wise. Here's one passage I found that I think evokes quite a lot of Tolkien's passage about the fell beast, quoted previously, not to mention a few other scary moments in LotR:
Creeping to his side, we looked over the rocks. The place into which we gazed was a pit, and may, in the early days, have been one of the smaller volcanic blow-holes of the plateau. It was bowl-shaped and at the bottom, some hundreds of yards from where we lay, were pools of green-scummed, stagnant water, fringed with bullrushes. It was a weird place in itself, but its occupants made it seem like a scene from the Seven Circles of Dante. The place was a rookery of pterodactyls. There were hundreds of them congregated within view. All the bottom area round the water-edge was alive with their young ones, and with hideous mothers brooding upon their leathery, yellowish eggs. From this crawling flapping mass of obscene reptilian life came the shocking clamor which filled the air and the mephitic, horrible, musty odor which turned us sick. But above, perched each upon its own stone, tall, gray, and withered, more like dead and dried specimens than actual living creatures, sat the horrible males, absolutely motionless save for the rolling of their red eyes or an occasional snap of their rat-trap beaks as a dragon-fly went past them. Their huge, membranous wings were closed by folding their fore-arms, so that they sat like gigantic old women, wrapped in hideous web-colored shawls, and with their ferocious heads protruding above them. Large and small, not less than a thousand of these filthy creatures lay in the hollow before us.

Our professors would gladly have stayed there all day, so entranced were they by this opportunity of studying the life of a prehistoric age. ...

Finally, however, Challenger, bent upon proving some point which Summerlee had contested, thrust his head over the rock and nearly brought destruction upon us all. In an instant the nearest male gave a shrill, whistling cry, and flapped its twenty-foot span of leathery wings as it soared up into the air. The females and young ones huddled together beside the water, while the whole circle of sentinels rose one after the other and sailed off into the sky. It was a wonderful sight to see at least a hundred creatures of such enormous size and hideous appearance all swooping like swallows with swift, shearing wing-strokes above us; but soon we realized that it was not one on which we could afford to linger. At first the great brutes flew round in a huge ring, as if to make sure what the exact extent of the danger might be. Then, the flight grew lower and the circle narrower, until they were whizzing round and round us, the dry, rustling flap of their huge slate-colored wings filling the air with a volume of sound that made me think of Hendon aerodrome upon a race day.

"Make for the wood and keep together," cried Lord John, clubbing his rifle. "The brutes mean mischief."

The moment we attempted to retreat the circle closed in upon us, until the tips of the wings of those nearest to us nearly touched our faces. We beat at them with the stocks of our guns, but there was nothing solid or vulnerable to strike. Then suddenly out of the whizzing, slate-colored circle a long neck shot out, and a fierce beak made a thrust at us. Another and another followed. Summerlee gave a cry and put his hand to his face, from which the blood was streaming. I felt a prod at the back of my neck, and turned dizzy with the shock. Challenger fell, and as I stooped to pick him up I was again struck from behind and dropped on the top of him. At the same instant I heard the crash of Lord John's elephant-gun, and, looking up, saw one of the creatures with a broken wing struggling upon the ground, spitting and gurgling at us with a wide-opened beak and blood-shot, goggled eyes, like some devil in a medieval picture. Its comrades had flown higher at the sudden sound, and were circling above our heads.

"Now," cried Lord John, "now for our lives!"

We staggered through the brushwood, and even as we reached the trees the harpies were on us again. Summerlee was knocked down, but we tore him up and rushed among the trunks. Once there we were safe, for those huge wings had no space for their sweep beneath the branches. As we limped homewards, sadly mauled and discomfited, we saw them for a long time flying at a great height against the deep blue sky above our heads, soaring round and round, no bigger than wood-pigeons, with their eyes no doubt still following our progress. At last, however, as we reached the thicker woods they gave up the chase, and we saw them no more.

"A most interesting and convincing experience," said Challenger, as we halted beside the brook and he bathed a swollen knee. "We are exceptionally well informed, Summerlee, as to the habits of the enraged pterodactyl."

Summerlee was wiping the blood from a cut in his forehead, while I was tying up a nasty stab in the muscle of the neck. Lord John had the shoulder of his coat torn away, but the creature's teeth had only grazed the flesh.

"It is worth noting," Challenger continued, "that our young friend has received an undoubted stab, while Lord John's coat could only have been torn by a bite. In my own case, I was beaten about the head by their wings, so we have had a remarkable exhibition of their various methods of offence."

"It has been touch and go for our lives," said Lord John, gravely, "and I could not think of a more rotten sort of death than to be outed by such filthy vermin. I was sorry to fire my rifle, but, by Jove! there was no great choice."

"We should not be here if you hadn't," said I, with conviction.

"It may do no harm," said he. "Among these woods there must be many loud cracks from splitting or falling trees which would be just like the sound of a gun. But now, if you are of my opinion, we have had thrills enough for one day, and had best get back to the surgical box at the camp for some carbolic. Who knows what venom these beasts may have in their hideous jaws?"
-- Doyle, A. C. (1912) The Lost World, copied from Project Gutenberg html text; bolds by squire.

This rich and ripe language is fairly characteristic of Edwardian adventure fiction and horror, in my experience. Although there's no way to say whether Tolkien actually read this book, this passage seems to me to echo a lot of his descriptive writing about Mordor and its environs and creatures. It helps remind us that The Lord of the Rings draws its style not only from heroic romances of the medieval type, but also from what we somewhat mockingly now refer to as 'ripping yarns' by early 20th century authors like Doyle, Burroughs and Haggard.



squire online:
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Footeramas: The 3rd (and NOW the 4th too!) TORn Reading Room LotR Discussion; and "Tolkien would have LOVED it!"
squiretalk introduces the J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia: A Reader's Diary


= Forum has no new posts. Forum needs no new posts.


Fredeghar Wayfarer
Lorien


Jan 10 2014, 8:16pm

Post #24 of 33 (913 views)
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Thanks! [In reply to] Can't Post

I love mythology and have researched a lot of mythical creatures for my own writing (or just for fun) so I had looked into some of Tolkien's sources.


Fredeghar Wayfarer
Lorien


Jan 10 2014, 8:24pm

Post #25 of 33 (915 views)
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Fell beasts [In reply to] Can't Post

Elizabeth -- I know that "fell beasts" is not the official name of the species. As you said, fell is simply a description. I was merely pointing out that the winged monsters ridden by the Nazgul are one of the few creatures that Tolkien created without a forerunner in mythology or literature, other than maybe pterosaurs in paleontology.

The term can be used as a generic category (I have a vague memory of it being used in another context by Tolkien, aside from the flying creatures). But since we lack a name for the Nazgul's flying steeds, many fans use "fell beasts" to refer to them and that was what I was doing.

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