Downfall of the Witch-King

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Downfall of the Witch-King

Sun Oct 13, 2013 9:55 pm

Okay, forgive me if my perception of the Nazgul is wrong but as I see it they are wraiths bound to the will of Sauron through the One Ring? So they are corrupted spirits trapped within the world against their will and whilst the One Ring survives they cannot be 'killed' as mortal men. I think an example of this is at the Fords of Bruinen when their bodies are destroyed and their spirits flee back to Mordor. So how is it that the Witch King is 'killed' by the combined efforts of Merry and Eowyn? If my own beliefs of the nature of the Nazgul is right then this would be impossible (or improbable).
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Re: Downfall of the Witch-King

Sun Oct 13, 2013 10:28 pm

Wasn't merrys blade designed to kill the witch king?Maybe It cut Mr angmars connection to the one ring?
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Re: Downfall of the Witch-King

Sun Oct 13, 2013 10:35 pm

Maybe through fate or prophecy it was but I don't think its creator made it with the sole purpose of slaying Mr. angmar haha. That being said it was enchanted with spells against servants of Mordor. Although I doubt all it takes is a simple enchantment of the Dunedain to slay a Nazgul..
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Re: Downfall of the Witch-King

Mon Oct 14, 2013 11:40 am

Merry's sword was a blade of the old days. Perhaps Elrond's magic is not as powerful as that of his forebears (he was a herald at the Last Alliance, after all, not a weaver of spells). Gandalf is not allowed to directly interfere with Middle Earth, only advise the people's of Good (hence the white horses in the river rather than the flood itself).

What would have happened if the Witch King had gone through the gate of MInas Tirith is a fascinating 'what-if?'.

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Re: Downfall of the Witch-King

Mon Oct 14, 2013 12:03 pm

It's a tricky business for sure, and I'm not entirely up-to-date with the technicalities of spirits in Middle-earth.

However, I don't think Merry really killed the Witch-king, if anybody did (in as far as anybody could) it was Éowyn. Instead, he seems to have broken the spell that allowed the spirit to bind to a physical form, after which Éowyn killed that embodyment - or something along those lines.
That the peoples of Arnor would have had blades capable of fighting spirits in such a way (without physical form, they do not seem to be dangerous - in a similar way, Saruman, Sauron and the Barrow-wight all are reduced to some spirit-form, and dispersed on the winds) seems rather practical given their long wars against Angmar. The Barrow-wight also wasn't dead when Frodo chopped its hand off, the spirit fled and the physical hand was quite literally stamped in the mud by Tom Bombadil.

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Re: Downfall of the Witch-King

Mon Oct 14, 2013 6:27 pm

Wasn't Merry's sword given to him by Tom Bombadil? Since Tom Bombadil works outside the physics of Middle Earth (he is unaffected by the ring's enchantment) maybe the swords do as well and so don't apply to the Nazgul's original rule.

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Re: Downfall of the Witch-King

Mon Oct 14, 2013 7:19 pm

Given by Tom Bombadil, yes, but from the hoard of the barrow - forged by the men of Númenor.

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Re: Downfall of the Witch-King

Mon Oct 14, 2013 11:24 pm

Very interesting question!

Let us first consider the actual quotes:
J.R.R. Tolkien - The Return of the King - The Battle of the Pelennor Fields wrote:Out of the wreck rose the Black Rider, tall and threatening, towering above her. With a cry of hatred that stung the very ears like venom he let fall his mace. Her shield was shivered in many pieces, and her arm was broken; she stumbled to her knees. He bent over her like a cloud, and his eyes glittered; he raised his mace to kill.
But suddenly he too stumbled forward with a cry of bitter pain, and his stroke went wide, driving into the ground. Merry's sword had stabbed him from behind, shearing through the black mantle, and passing up beneath the hauberk had pierced the sinew behind his mighty knee.
'Éowyn! Éowyn!' cried Merry. Then tottering, struggling up, with her last strength she drove her sword between crown and mantle, as the great shoulders bowed before her. The sword broke sparkling into many shards. The crown rolled away with a clang. Éowyn fell forward upon her fallen foe. But look! the mantle and hauberk were empty. Shapeless they lay now on the ground, torn and tumbled; and a cry went up into the shuddering air, and faded to a shrill wailing, passing with the wind, a voice bodiless and thin that died, and was swallowed up, and was never heard again in that age of this world.


So, what can we make of this? Merry stabs the Witch-King from behind, passing beneath the hauberk (so yes, he must have worn a long chain mail hauberk!), and hit his sinew behind his knee. This was apparently very 'painful' to the Witch-King.
I had to look it up, but 'sinew' seems to have two meanings: the rubbery bands that connect muscle to bone (tendons), and the nerves. In my Dutch translation, they used nerves, but from the English version, I have no reason to believe this. Neither really makes sense to me. Usually, the spirits that were incarnate (as in, truly possessed a physical shape), were Maiar or Valar. He was clearly not, he was just a Man who whose spirit could not leave Middle-earth because he was bound to it by the Ring. Could he still have some flesh left, some nerves, or anything of his former human body? Then why could they not be killed by the water of the Bruinen, and why could that walk 'Unclad'? Perhaps, then, sinew must be tendon, but now between his physical shell (~bone) and his spirit (~muscle)? Or, maybe it was a nerve, but flowing with his spirit, something along those lines? This is all speculation though, and it's not really helping.
Sinew, however, can also be used in a different way, sinew as in a source of strength, power or vigour. This is starting to make more sense. If we interpret it like this, Merry took away his source of power, and this caused him the pain and caused him to start falling over.
And this is were Eowyn comes in, she finishes the job by stabbing her sword between mantle and crown (you know, where a normal person's head is).
Note, though, that her sword breaks. Now, we see this more often in the books: swords break if you stick them into wraiths. So, I think we cannot say that Merry solely killed the Witch-King and that the crown and mantle were just falling while Eowyn stuck her sword between them: if that were so, than her sword shouldn't have broken!

Now, let us also consider Glorfindel's prophecy:
J.R.R. Tolkien - The Appendices IV - Gondor and the Heirs of Anárion wrote:'Eärnur now rode back, but Glorfindel, looking into the gathering dark, said: "Do not pursue him! He will not return to this land. Far off yet is his doom, and not by the hand of man will he fall." These words many remembered; but Eärnur was angry, desiring only to be avenged for his disgrace.

So what does Glorfindel say here? He says that the Witch-King will not die by the hand of 'man', but he doesn't say he's un-killable to men (the race of Men?), he just says it won't happen and that it is no use for Earnur to pursue him.
Also note the choice of word: should this be "a man", Man, or is this purposely ambiguous? 'Man' is not really helping much here. I suppose we can trust the brilliant linguist to choose his words well, so we must do with it.
Now, I have seen people use 'man' here to argue that Merry or Eowyn killed him, and neither seems convincing to me. The use of 'man' here is so ambiguous, I think, that we cannot conclude if he means man as in male, or man as in of the race of Man. So yeah, man is really not helping us much. By the way, it is worth noting that Tolkien thought of Hobbits to be also part of the race of Men (that is, they were not Dwarves, nor Elves). Does this help us? Well, not really, I think. But, we also now that in the mythology, 'man' is not used to refer to (normal) Humans and Hobbits together...

But, there is more! Consider now this:
J.R.R. Tolkien - The Return of the King - The Battle of the Pelennor Fields wrote:'But no living man am I! You look upon a woman. Éowyn I am, Éomund's daughter. You stand between me and my lord and kin. Begone, if you be not deathless! For living or dark undead, I will smite you, if you touch him.'
The winged creature screamed at her, but the Ringwraith made no answer, and was silent, as if in sudden doubt.


The Witch-King thus halts, "as if in sudden doubt". What does this tell us? Did the Witch-King doubt because she was a woman? It probably wasn't because she looked to be a great fighter, because before she said that she was a woman, the Witch-King was not in doubt. So, if we assume this was indeed why the Witch-King doubted, then why would he? Did he know about Glorfindel's prophecy? How could he? He was bolting away on his horse when Glorfindel said it. Could it be that he was indeed un-killable to men? But we just argued that this is not what Glorfindel's prophecy said? And, if so, why would he be unbeatable by men? This raises too many questions! It sounds more logical to me, though, if he had actually, in whatever way, heard about the prophecy perhaps later. After all, "these words many remembered", and with all his spies he might in the hundreds of years following the event have heard about it.

But, there is one last thing that I think seals the deal:

J.R.R. Tolkien - The Return of the King - The Battle of the Pelennor Fields wrote:And still Meriadoc the hobbit stood there blinking through his tears and no one spoke to him, indeed none seemed to heed him. He brushed away the tears, and stooped to pick up the green shield that Éowyn had
given him; and he slung it at his back. Then he looked for his sword that he had let fall; for even as he struck
his blow his arm was numbed, and now he could only use his left hand. And behold! there lay his weapon,
but the blade was smoking like a dry branch that has been thrust in a fire; and as he watched it, it writhed and
withered and was consumed.
So passed the sword of the Barrow-downs, work of Westernesse. But glad would he have been to know its
fate who wrought it slowly long ago in the North-kingdom when the Dúnedain were young, and chief among
their foes was the dread realm of Angmar and its sorcerer king. No other blade, not though mightier hands
had wielded it, would have dealt that foe a wound so bitter, cleaving the undead flesh, breaking the spell that
knit his unseen sinews to his will.

There we go! This answer a lot of the questions I asked earlier. Apparently, he did have some undead flesh left (this contradicts to the Ringwraith being invisible, unless the undead flesh is also invisible, but well..), and the sinews kept together this undead flesh with the Witch-King's will, his spirit. So, we must see them as tendons, but not between muscle and bone, but between undead flesh and spirit. Sounds interesting! :)
Now, apparently, the blade was really special and was the cause of the Witch-King being killed.
A funny thing to note: whereas Eowyn's sword is shattered immediately, Merry's sword only writhed slowly (conveniently slow actually, long enough for Imrahil to hop by etc).

I think, in conclusion, we can safely assume that Merry did most of the work, with his sword of the Dunedain, and Eowyn just finished the job.

Sorry by the way, it's become a huge wall of text. Congrats to those who have read it everything and could follow my ramblings.. :)
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Re: Downfall of the Witch-King

Tue Oct 15, 2013 12:54 am

My god Feanor but you are a fountain of knowledge of all things Tolkien!

Really clarified a lot, cheers man! But I have to say your thesis has now left me with a hundred more questions that need answering haha, I plan on doing a re-read of all the books (starting with silmarillion) when There and Back Again nears completion and then a movie marathon of An Unexpected Journey to RotK, so until then my info of story related details will be patchy to say the least.

Regarding the prophecy of Glorfindel, I do not believe the prophecy rendered the WK physically 'un-killable" to men, as in the very fibre of him has changed (or was like that from the beginning) , but that no matter what, fate would not allow him to die by the hands of a man. My point being that just say Earnur had caught up with the WK, its not that his blows would just bounce off him or not deal him any damage, I believe that it would never be able to come to that. Fate would have it that a random orc archer skwered him with an arrow before he got close to the WK, or while in single combat with the WK he would trip over an unfortunately placed stone etc etc

The WK having undead flesh is very interesting indeed and even to this day I have never noticed that detail in the book. I always had PJs image of invisible spectres in my mind (which I'm ashamed to admit as a tolkienist, appeals to me more, but it is what it is).

Coen that is very true, so we now know that Merrys blade had potent magical properties that were effective against undead/evil spirits. And just to clarify I was not implying that Merry killed the WK I understand that it was Eowyn that dealt the killing blow.

And that last section of information really sums it up for me, thank you Feanor. As I see it Merry's blow with the enchanted blade destroyed the WKs physical being (much like what happened to the Nazgul at the Fords of Bruinen) and he was reduced to his vulnerable spirit form. But before his spirit could flee (perhaps transfixed in his state of excrutiating pain/panic) Eowyn dealt the killing blow, which slayed him entirely.

One last point. I think my first thoughts of the Nazgul were indeed wrong and that they were not entirely bound to the fate of the One Ring, that while it lives so must they. At the end of RotK when the Ring is destroyed the Nazgul dont simply fade from the world and move on like the Army of the Dead did when their oath was fulfilled, they survive its destruction but then are physically killed in the fires of Orodruin. So I now believe that the Nazgul's being was not tied to the world through the One Ring, but that while their being was within the world their will was subject to the One.

So finally this theory means that the Nazgul were indeed 'killable', just extremely hard to!
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Re: Downfall of the Witch-King

Tue Oct 15, 2013 9:08 am

I'd say this 'undead flesh' of the Witch-king would have been invisible - why otherwise was no head visible between his shoulders and the crown?

The following passage..
No other blade, not though mightier hands had wielded it, would have dealt that foe a wound so bitter, cleaving the undead flesh, breaking the spell that knit his unseen sinews to his will.
..I would interpret slightly differently: it is not the sinews that bound, the sinews were being bound by 'the spell' to his will. Sinews, here, I would see as part of the physical form - they were 'unseen' because the entirety of his physical form was unseen, i.e. invisible.

Invisibility is in agreement with passages from the Fellowship (Many Meetings):
`I know,' said Frodo. `They were terrible to behold! But why could we all see their horses?'
`Because they are real horses; just as the black robes are real robes that they wear to give shape to their
nothingness when they have dealings with the living.'

A bit later, it is even mentioned how Frodo himself had, to Gandalf's eye, become slightly transparent.

I think the point whether a non-man (hobbit: Meriadoc) or non-male (female: Éowyn) killed the Witch-king has been debated ever since the books were published, so won't bother to much with that. It is clear the wraith wasn't finished off by just Merry, but at the same time he was essential in the process. About the prophecy in general, I agree: it is not so much that he couldn't be killed by a man in theory, but in practice, he simply wouldn't be. Knowing that does of course mean he would have (rightly) perceived himself to be invulnerable, as he knew that, whatever came to pass, he would not die by the hand of man. Darn these Middle-earth feminists, and the social mobility of Hobbits!

Finally, it is interesting that the Witch-king would have worn a hauberk, as it goes to show to show his physical form was indeed vulnerable, though his entire being couldn't normally be killed. What I also find to be quite intriguing is how the Witch-king could apparantly be in doubt - suddenly making him a bit more human!

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