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In the movie, the Witch King breaks Gandalf's staff. How did this happen and why (since it's not in the book)?

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Just standard Jacksonian blustery injury to the tale. It never happened. Maketh no sense. – tchrist Feb 23 '12 at 5:17
@tchrist - 1. Welcome to SFF! 2. I would like to see Jackson's version of YOUR books :) – DVK-in-exile Feb 23 '12 at 10:46
@Eelvex - frankly, I like Gabe's answer more than my own. I would suggest you change your accepted answer to his. – DVK-in-exile Aug 22 '12 at 13:56
@DVK, well, OK. – Eelvex Aug 22 '12 at 20:54
up vote 22 down vote accepted

While Gandalf faces the Witch King in Minas Tirith, there is no record of Gandalf's staff being broken. The flaming sword is seen in the scene in the book, from Return of the King, The Seige of Gondor:

'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. Gandalf did not move. And in that very moment, away behind in some courtyard of the City, a cock crowed. Shrill and clear he crowed, recking nothing of wizardry or war, welcoming only the morning that in the sky far above the shadows of death was coming with the dawn.

After that scene, Rohan arrives, and the Witch King flies off to handle them.

The Witch King's ability to destroy other's weapons is found in the books, however. From The Fellowship of the Ring, Flight to the Ford:

Then the leader, who was now half across the Ford, stood up menacing in his stirrups, and raised up his hand. Frodo was stricken dumb. He felt his tongue cleave to his mouth, and his heart labouring. His sword broke and fell out of his shaking hand. The elf-horse reared and snorted. The foremost of the black horses had almost set foot upon the shore.

From the same chapter, after the wraiths are driven off, Aragorn is examining the cloak left by the Witch King:

Look!" he cried; and stooping he lifted from the ground a black cloak that had lain there hidden by the darkness. A foot above the lower hem there was a slash. "This was the stroke of Frodo's sword," he said. "The only hurt that it did to his enemy, I fear; for it is unharmed, but all blades perish that pierce that dreadful King.

It's likely that Jackson interpreted Gandalf's raised staff as a "blade to pierce" the Witch King. It doesn't say in the books whether the WK could destroy an Istari's staff, but I think that scene is Jackson's interpretation of these scenes in the book.

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+1. I really like the nugget about "power stare" shattering weapons being canon in the books even if not in the same scene. I think it's the most reasonable explanation. Frankly I'd change the accepted answer to this from mine if I was the OP – DVK-in-exile Aug 22 '12 at 13:54

AFAIK, there was no Jackson commentary on that specific scene, so one can only speculate.

As for "Why", the most cogent speculation I have seen on the forums is that the scene served to:

  • Highlight Witch-King's power

  • Therefore make Merry's and Eowyn's takedown of him all the more heroic.

A second theory was that this was to highlight the power and contribution of the World of Men - Gandalf is almost beaten and can be killed by such a powerful adversary, yet saved by the fact that WK needs to go away and deal with Rohirrim - which, if you know the backstory of Istari, actually jibes with Tolkien's overall vision of the order of things (Olorin's mission is to inspire Middle Earthers to fight Sauron, not to fight him himself with his Mayar powers).

This has further symbolic significance in that this mirrors Gandalf the White's breaking of Saruman's staff.

As for "How", there just isn't any info. WK holds a flaming sword, stares at Gandalf, and the staff explodes.

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Very interesting. Any ideas on how did he do it? – Eelvex Feb 23 '12 at 0:37
@Eelvex - The Force. That's my story and I'm sticking to it. Seriously, there's zero info from Jackson and co, and the image in the movie is basically WK staring at Gandalf till the staff explodes. – DVK-in-exile Feb 23 '12 at 2:47
the same way that gandalf shattered saruman's staff? – SteveED Feb 23 '12 at 3:34
Gandalf was a Maiar. The Witch-King was a shade of a Man. Very different levels of power, so I don't think there's a internally consistent way of how the Witch-King shattered Gandalf's staff unless you ignore the books completely and treat the movies as a separate world. In which case, the Force, a Care Bear Stare or the power of Heart all work. ;) – dlanod Feb 23 '12 at 4:58
Disagree - if that were so, Gandalf would have just used Maiar powers to wipe out the army around Minas Tirith, and all the need to bring Rohan or Aragorn to help were just wastes of time. It is a good way to show that the WK and his army were supreme in that moment, until the forces Gandalf had set into motion arrived and changed things. – Oldcat Nov 1 '13 at 23:23

The short answer is, Peter Jackson thought it would be cool.

Gandalf is far more powerful than the Witch king for a number of reasons.

  • Gandalf was created at the literal beginning of time, while the Witch king has been around for about an age.
  • Gandalf is a Maiar who has been sent to Middle Earth, with reduced powers, the Witch king is a human wraith with some of Sauron's power.
  • Gandalf bears Narya, the elvish ring of fire, the witch king used to carry one of the nine human rings (Sauron took them back)
  • Gandalf fought an unknown number of Nazgul at weathertop back when he was Gandalf the grey (it is entirely possible that he fought all nine) and has only become more powerful.
  • He defeated a Balrog (another Maiar) and then became even more powerful.

As cool as the scene may look, it has no basis in the world of the books. If the Witch King was able to overpower Gandalf as easily as he did, there is literally no way that Eowyn and Merry would be able to touch him, let alone kill him.

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It is worth noting that in reference to the Witch King Gandalf notes that he is vested with Sauron's power in that hour, and that Gandalf has not been tested against WK. It's likely he is assuming he could prevail against the WK alone, but as an Istari he's not technically allowed to display his full power. But he may be thinking of the prophecy, and wondering if it technically applies to him. Besides, in Tolkien's magic, as in psychedelics, a lot depends on the setting and frame of mind in which you attempt to do things. That was WK's power hour. – Ber May 23 at 8:58

I think it is important to keep in mind that Gandalf the Grey did not operate in a mode of "If it kills me, I will come back." His sacrifice at Khazad-Dum was absolutely done at risk and his arrival in Fangorn was very much a shock to everyone, himself included. You see in his manner of speech, not "I came back, I can do that you know." but "I have been sent back" and "I am Saruman as he was meant to be." It clearly came across to me that he was baffled by the turn of events but pleased with the second chance.

I don't have a reference handy but I was told by a Scholar of Arda much greater than me that once the Nine had been fully subsumed by the power of Sauron that he took their rings back. This is why when he falls they dont have a ring of power in the pile of Nazgul detritus.

Back to the original topic, there is no literary reason in the narrative for the Witch-King to shatter Gandalf's staff. It is in the movie for two intertwined reasons:

1 Dramatic Effect

2 Peter Jackson likes to repeat himself (the Breaking of Saruman is cool, lets use that again. see also Hobbit2-Kili-Tauriel-OrcPoison vs. Fellowship-Arwen*notGlorfindel*-Frodo-MorgulBlade)

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In response to the 9 Feb at 0:45 answer.

It's stated in the book that Gandalf is a Maiar (Olórin), therefore he cannot be fully destroyed, only his physical form, just like Sauron's was. So, even though the Witch King had more power at that specific scene, he could not vanquish Gandalf, who would come back once more, and maybe even more powerful, as he did before.

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Responses should be restricted to comments, not answers. – Valorum May 10 '14 at 10:17

I think the reason the staff breaks is because,

A. Sauron has infused a good amount of his power into the ring that the witch king bears, and since Sauron is much much much more powerful than Gandalf, he could have given the Witch King enough power to be more powerful than a normal Miar.

B. Staff is only a part of Gandalf's power, and Gandalf is not allowed to use his full power while on Middle Earth, only a small fraction of it. If he could use his full power, he could have destroyed Smaug, instead of getting a bunch of Dwarves to do it. The Balrog that Gandalf killed was probably much weaker than a Sauron aided/power-induced Witch King.

Therefore, for these reasons, mainly because the Witch King was heavily power fuelled by Sauron, it is very likely that the Witch King can hurt Gandalf. But who becomes the victor in a one-on-one battle remainsto be seen.

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Welcome to SF&F:SE. These are pretty sweeping statements so you might want to back them up with a quote or two (to prove your points). – Valorum Feb 9 '14 at 1:03

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