Wednesday 27 November 2013

Tolkien's stinking Nazgul-pterodactyl in Lord of the Rings (probably) came from Charles Williams' Place of the Lion


I was always puzzled why the pterodactyl-bred, fell, winged beast upon which the King of the Nazgul rode should smell foul - since I would not expect a reptile to smell overpoweringly bad.

But I suspect that the idea of a reeking pterodactyl came from Charles Williams novel - The Place of the Lion - which Tolkien read in 1936

In the following excerpt it can be seen that the Nazgul's steed is indeed implied to be a pterodactyl (or some kind of dinosaur bird) and also that it stinks.

From The Battle of Pelennor Fields - The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien - 1955.

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. 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... Suddenly the great beast beat its hideous wings, and the wind of them was foul. Again it leaped into the air, and then swiftly fell down upon Éowyn, shrieking, striking with beak and claw.


And in the following excerpt can be seen the stinking pterodactyl making its earlier appearance:

From The Place of the Lion by Charles Williams - 1933.

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!

In full strength it took her, so violently that she stepped backward and
made an involuntary gesture outward. The horror of it nearly made her
faint. It must, she thought, be something to do with these new houses;
some corrupt material had been used. The smell was corruption. Something
would have to be done; the Council Surveyor must be called in. Perhaps
it wouldn't be so bad downstairs. Her window faced the fallen houses;
the dining-room looked the other way. She would go down and see.

As she moved the sunlight that was over her papers, except for the light
shadow that she herself cast, was totally obscured. A heavy blackness
obliterated it in an instant; the papers, the table, all that part of
the room lay in gloom. The change was so immediate that even Damaris's
attention was caught, and, still wrinkling her nose at the appalling
smell, she glanced half round to see what dark cloud had suddenly filled
the sky. And then she did come much nearer to fainting than ever before
in her life.

Outside the window something was...was. That was the only certainty her
startled senses conveyed. There was a terrific beak protruding through
the open window into the room, there was the most appalling body she had
ever conceived possible; there were two huge flapping wings; there were
two horrible red eyes. And there was the smell. Damaris stood stock
still, gasping at it, thinking desperately, "I'm dreaming." The beastly
apparition remained. It seemed to be perched there, on the window-sill
or the pear-tree or something. Its eyes held her; its wings moved, as
if uncertainly opening; its whole repulsive body shook and stirred; its
beak--not three yards distant--jerked at her, as if the thing were
stabbing; then it opened. She had a vision of great teeth; incapable of
thought, she stumbled backward against the table, and remained fixed.



Samson J. said...

I bought that Charles Williams omnibus that I was asking about a while ago. Too bad, because I find his style terribly boring, nigh unreadable. I couldn't even finish Place of a Lion, though I tried.

I love that the Fell Beast stinks; it's a great touch.

No Longer Reading said...

There's an earlier reference to pterodactyls and stinking. Here is something from "The Lost World":

"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."

Though in this case it is the swamp they live in rather than the animals themselves that stinks.

Did the idea come from this book or was there a speculation that pterodactyls stank in the early 20th century?

Incidentally, when the adventurers are on the prehistoric plateau, the narrator climbs a tall tree to look around. Similar to Bilbo doing the same in Mirkwood.

Bruce Charlton said...

@NLR "Did the idea come from this book or was there a speculation that pterodactyls stank in the early 20th century?"

Maybe that was it?