General Writing

Stylistic Notes on Gandalf’s Meeting with the Nazgûl

J. R. R. Tolkien is rarely discussed as a stylist. Sometimes, he is dismissed outright. And it is fair to say that his writing’s quality varies wildly. Yet at his best, Tolkien shows a control that is so unassuming that it can be easy to miss. One of his most outstanding passages comes at the end of the siege of Minas Tirith, when the gate is breached and Gandalf comes face to face with the Nazgûl King:

In rode the Lord of the Nazgûl. A great black shape against the fires beyond he loomed up, grown to a vast menace of despair. In rode the Lord of the Nazgûl, under the archway that no enemy ever yet had passed, and all fled before his face.

All save one. There waiting, silent and still in the space before the Gate, sat Gandalf upon Shadowfax: Shadowfax who alone among the free horses of the earth endured the terror, unmoving, steadfast as a graven image in Rath Dínen.

“You cannot enter here,” said Gandalf, and the huge shadow halted. “Go back to the abyss prepared for you! Go back! Fall into the nothingness that awaits you and your Master. Go!”

The Black Rider flung back his hood, and behold! he had a kingly crown; and yet upon no head visible was it set. The red fires shone between it and the mantled shoulders vast and dark. From a mouth unseen there came a deadly laughter.

“Old fool!” he said. “Old fool! This is my hour. Do you not know Death when you see it? Die now and curse in vain!” And with that he lifted high his sword and flames ran down the blade.

And in that very moment, away behind in some courtyard of the city, a cock crowed. Shrill and clear he crowed, recking nothing of war nor of wizardry, welcoming only the morning that in the sky far above the shadows of death was coming with the dawn.

And as if in answer there came from far away another note. Horns, horns, horns, in dark Mindolluin’s sides they dimly echoed. Great horns of the north wildly blowing.

Rohan had come at last.

– J. R. R. Tolkien

Tolkien’s manipulation of language in this passage is masterful. A few points worthy of mention:

  • The use of inversion in sentences about the Nazgul, like “never yet had passed” and “yet upon no head visible was it set,” adds to the sense of the uncanny In contrast, Gandalf and Shadowfax are described in simple yet effective words — mostly, words straight out of Old English. So is the crowing of the cock. The atmospheric contrast is reinforced by the stylistic one.
  • The onomatopoeia of the cock crowing (“shrill and clear he crowed”), and the compound sentence that suggests the echoing of his crows. Even greater onomatopoeia is achieved with the simple repetition of “horns, horns, horns,” followed by the careful alternating of vowels in “in dark Mindolluin’s sides they dimly echoed” — read it aloud, and the phrase sounds like an echo.
  • The alliteration of phrases like “silent and still in the space before the Gate” or “recking nothing of war nor of wizardry, welcoming only the morning.” As a modern writer of thousands of lines of modern alliterative verse based on Old English and Norse models, probably Tolkien fell naturally into alliteration.
  • The use of compound sentences with three phrases throughout gives an almost poetic rhythm. They are accompanied by simpler sentences grouped with others of a similar size, especially in the dialog.
  • The control of the tension in the scene by alternating between long and short sentences, ending with the simply, “Rohan had come at last,” which breaks the mood of despair that has grown throughout the chapter. I don’t know of any other five words in literature that achieve such an overwhelming effect.
  • The illustration of how to use sentence fragments successfully in,”Horns, horns, horns, in dark Mindolluin’s sides they dimly echoed. Great horns of the north wildly blowing.” The fragments almost reduce the meaning of the sentences into pure sound — and completely appropriately.

In this passage, Tolkien is very nearly using poetic techniques, rather than prosaic ones. I have no idea how conscious a writer Tolkien was, or how many drafts he needed for this passage to satisfy him, yet his success is undeniable, especially if you read it aloud. It is one of the greatest passages in 20th Century English, and I would not hesitate to compare it with any other passage from its era, whether mainstream or fantasy.