Tolkien’s Terrible Pterosaurs

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Reusing this pic of beefy boi hatzies, because why not?  Image Source

If you read one of my earlier blog posts, hopefully you got down to the part where I shared a little passage of the text from Augusta depicting some giant azhdarchid pterosaurs swooping down on the puny humans.  If you haven’t read that entry already, I recommend you check out the attached link and scroll down to that excerpt.  (Hint: it’s way down at the bottom of the page.)

It might come as a surprise to you (or maybe it won’t, I can’t read your mind) that this scene, even with its giant pterosaurs and all, was actually inspired by a scene from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Return of the King.  For those who haven’t read the books, you might recognize it as this scene in Peter Jackson’s cinematic adaptation.

I’m not going to spend much time talking about my book itself.  I’m more curious about the winged steeds used by the Ringwraiths in this scene- and in others as well.  Specifically, I’m interested in how Tolkien described these creatures as opposed to the serpentine dragons of PJ’s adaptation.  No, this is not going to be a rant on how books are better than films or how films screw everything up.  Directors can have different interpretations of a story; that’s fine.  That’s not what I care about.  What I am going to demonstrate, however, is that Tolkien’s creatures are much more like pterosaurs than how they are usually portrayed.

What a minute…. extinct animals in The Lord of the Rings?

Perhaps.

When describing these winged ‘fell beasts’ Tolkien likes to be deliberately vague concerning their full morphology.  However, his most complete description of the so-called ‘hell-hawks’ comes from that iconic moment when Éowyn confronts and slays the Witch-King of Angmar at the Battle of the Pelennor Fields.

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, fingering 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.

There are a couple things to note about this description.  First, Tolkien implies that the creature seems more avian than typically reptilian dragons.  At the time he wrote The Lord of the Rings, pterosaurs were thought to be bare skinned, though more recent discoveries show they were covered in fuzzy pycnofibres.  The membranous wings of the creature seem reminiscent of bats and of older pterosaurian depictions, and many species possessed keratinous beaks.   Also, he explicitly states that this creature is a species that has outlived its days, implying that most of its kind must have gone extinct at some undefined point in the past.

It is interesting to note that pterosaurs have also previously been depicted as rather smelly creatures.  Check out this excerpt from The Place of the Lion by Charles Williams (1933), which we do know Tolkien read.

As she gazed she heard another sound above, and looked up to see the earlier horror flying round in circles high over her. There she stood on the edge of a swampy pool, with the pterodactyl wheeling round in the sky, and one remote companion. … Her voice failed; she heard herself making grotesque noises in her throat, and suddenly over him there fell the ominous shadow of the pterodactyl.
(…)
It was five minutes to eight. She thought abruptly, as she very often
did, “O I must get it.” Doctor of Philosophy–how hard she had worked
for it! The…O the smell!

So did Tolkien intend for the winged steeds of the Ringwraiths to be extinct pterosaurs?  I don’t think so, and the man himself was a bit hesitant to explicitly make the connection.  However, he did address the matter in Letter 211.

Yes and no. I did not intend the steed of the Witch-King to be what is now called a ‘pterodactyl’, and often is drawn (with rather less shadowy evidence than lies behind many monsters of the new and fascinating semi-scientific mythology of the ‘Prehistoric’). But obviously it is pterodactylic and owes much to the new mythology, and its description even provides a sort of way in which it could be a last survivor of older geological eras.

I won’t press the idea that Tolkien intended for the Nazgûl-birds to be pterosaurs, since I’m perfectly comfortable with taking him at his word.  But even he couldn’t deny the apparent similarity between the Fell Beasts and contemporary depictions of pterodactyloid pterosaurs, and so conceded that there may indeed be some sort of connection.

As such, when I wrote my previously-mentioned scene of Flavius Aetius riding out from Aquileia against the Huns just to have his sortie plucked and skewered to death by giant azhdarchid pterosaurs… Let’s just say it was definitely intended as a drawback to these infamous beasts of Tolkien’s legendarium.

And let’s be honest.  Seeing the Witch-King riding a giant Hatzegopteryx-like pterosaur would be super dope.  Just sayin’.

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