71

In Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, Aragorn, as Strider, tells the four Hobbits about the Nazgûl, and describes them as "neither living nor dead." Gollum later tells Sam and Frodo while they're trekking through the Dead Marshes that the Nazgûl cannot be killed. Yet, during the battle at Minas Tirith, Éowyn simply stabs the Witch King of Angmar in the face with her sword and he ceases to be.

How could Éowyn have slain the Witch King of Angmar if he wasn't alive to begin with, and was supposedly unable to be killed, as he was caught between life and death in some kind of Nazgûl-ish limbo? How did she destroy him?

  • 32
    She stabbed him with the Elder Wand! >.< – Xantec Feb 15 '12 at 19:01
  • 22
    @Xantec - is Éowyn a Timelord? :) – DVK-on-Ahch-To Feb 15 '12 at 19:13
  • 18
    I hate you both!!!! ;) – Slytherincess Feb 15 '12 at 20:04
  • 18
    "How do you kill that which has no life?" - Blizzard Exec #4 from South Park's Make Love Not Warcraft. – spong Feb 15 '12 at 23:26
  • 10
    @sunpech -- That was the funniest SP ep ever. LOL! :) – Slytherincess Feb 15 '12 at 23:39
90

This was much better explained in the books. Merry had picked up his sword (actually a dagger, but he's a Hobbit so it was size-appropriate) in the Barrow-downs near the Shire. (The entire Barrow-downs part of Fellowship was removed for the film -- it took place between the Hobbits' first encounter with the Nazgûl on horseback and their arrival in Bree.) The dagger had originally been forged in Westernesse, for the specific purpose of fighting the forces of evil:

"Doubtless the Orcs despoiled them, but feared to keep the knives, knowing them for what they are: work of Westernesse, wound about with spells for the bane of Mordor." - Aragorn

Additionally, this FAQ entry quotes Gandalf in an early draft of LotR describing them as "the one kind of sword the Riders fear." And this one contains some discussion about who actually killed the Witch King -- Merry or Éowyn?

  • 5
    The LotR wiki article says Merry's sword was actually made in Westernesse (Númenor) before its downfall. – Kevin Feb 15 '12 at 19:13
  • 1
    Ah yes, you're right. I've fixed that and added a couple of quotes. – Plutor Feb 15 '12 at 19:52
  • 4
    Nice answer! Thanks for not just quoting the Wiki at me -- I appreciate the extra effort. +1 – Slytherincess Feb 15 '12 at 20:03
  • 1
    I don't think "work of Westernesse" means "forged in Numenor", but rather "forged by the craft of the descendants of Numenor". I posted a comment with a quote on SolidStateMind's answer. – xdhmoore Dec 13 '15 at 12:04
78

The LotR wiki sheds some light on this:

As he towered over her, preparing to deliver the final blow, Merry snuck up behind him and plunged his sword into the back of Witch-king's knee. The sword, made in Westernesse centuries ago, broke the magic of Sauron that kept the Witch-king anchored to this world. While the Witch-King was distracted, Éowyn drove her sword where the head of the wraith would have been, slaying him.

Merry's sword was magic enough to break the curse, so when Éowyn stabbed him, he was no longer invincible, that power had gone with the curse when Merry stabbed him.

  • 19
    +1 for pointing out Merry's role in killing him. I hate this scene in the films. "I am no Man!" kinda ruins the movie. Um, yes Eowyn... you are of the race of Men, and there's no need for that level of cheese. RotK could have done without that line. – Anthony Feb 15 '12 at 23:19
  • 8
    @anthony-arnold - It was more surprising when Tolkien wrote it, and there was a prophecy that no man could slay the Witch-King. If Eowyn had been male as well as of the race of men, that prophecy would not have come true (Merry's critical role notwithstanding). – Rex Kerr Feb 15 '12 at 23:52
  • 41
    @anthony-arnold It may be cheesy, but it is somewhat what Tolkien intended in the book (what Eowyn shouts in the book is "But no living man am I! You look upon a woman"). This is similar to the Macbeth prophecy that he won't be killed by "no man of woman born". – Andres F. Feb 16 '12 at 0:28
  • 17
    @AndresF. Yeah, but I see Tolkien's delivery of it to be more "see what I did there?", than the cringe-worthy "hear me roar" of Miranda Otto. I think Jackson missed the mark. – Anthony Feb 16 '12 at 1:43
  • 4
    @anthony-arnold Agreed. Similar to the equally cringe-worthy "If you want him, come and get him". – Andres F. Feb 16 '12 at 12:25
25

Another detail to note: Sauron sent the Lord of the Nazgûl, to fight the Northern Dúnedain, located in Arnor (to the North of Middle Earth). He founded the kingdom of Angmar and named himself 'The Witch-King of Angmar'. He gathered men and orcs to him and attacked the Northern Dúnedain, who got the Elves to help them.

The warriors who fell in that conflict were buried in the barrows, which were not evil places until the Witch-King sent evil spirits to occupy them. The long and the short of it is that the weapons that were buried with them were specifically forged (and enchanted, or at least it was intimated) to battle the forces of Angmar and even the Witch-King himself. That is why that blade in particular is anathema to the Witch-King.

I've seen debates where people argue for that reason that Merry's blow was what actually killed the Witch-King, and Éowyn merely gave the coup-de-grace. (After all, isn't a Hobbit not a man, either?) Regardless, it's a nice example of the level of intricacy Tolkien regularly employed.

You want to lose yourself in a very well organized and comprehensive Tolkien-Lore repository, google 'Encyclopedia of Arda'.

  • 1
    Thank you for such an excellent answer -- I'm going to go Google 'Encyclopedia of Arda' right now. :) PS -- and welcome to SFF.SE! – Slytherincess Feb 15 '12 at 23:37
  • 3
    A couple pages after his slaying: "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 Dunedain were young, and chief among their foes was the dread realm of Angmar and its sorcerer king." – xdhmoore Dec 13 '15 at 12:03
11

If I may add something, all you wrote here is correct (meaning Merry the Hobbit, woman, enchanted dagger, combination of these elements is what fulfills the prophecy :). But in fact Witch-king is not "killed" in the sense of his soul going to underworld/afterlife. The Witch-king is reduced to impotence. Frodo and Sam saw, or rather experience, the presence of his spirit, going back, wailing to his master Sauron in Mordor:

As Frodo and Sam stood and gazed, the rim of light spread all along the line of the Ephel Dúath, and then... a shape, moving at a great speed out of the West,... passed high above them. As it went it sent out a long shrill cry, the voice of a Nazgûl; but... it was a cry of woe..., ill tidings for the Dark Tower....

'What did I tell you? Something's happening!' cried Sam. 'The war's going well, said Shagrat; but Gorbag he wasn't so sure. And he was right there too. Things are looking up, Mr. Frodo. Haven't you got some hope now?'" The Return of the King, LoTR Book 6, Ch 2, The Land of Shadow

10

In addition to the answers already given, there's another key line later on in the same chapter:

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.

This is in relation to the wound Merry gave him, and makes it obvious that Kevin's answer is the correct one - Merry's blow broke the spell and made him vulnerable, Eowyn's blow was what finished him off.


Despite this there is a core misunderstanding in the question: the Nazgul are alive (of sorts), and it's actually more correct to say that they are not dead.

Witness Gandalf's words in Shadow of the Past:

A mortal, Frodo, who keeps one of the Great Rings, does not die, but he does not grow or obtain more life, he merely continues, until at last every minute is a weariness.

  • 3
    I think your first quote is the most telling of all and this is one of the greatest triumphs in the book. Unfortunately, nearly every adaptation omits Tom Bombadil & the Barrow Downs so it's difficult to explain the provenance of the knife. – Alchymist Nov 4 '15 at 15:21
4

While not mentioned in the movie - it was specifically told in the book:

"Do not pursue him! He will not return to these lands. Far off yet is his doom, and not by the hand of man will he fall." The Return of the King, Appendix A (I, iv).

Which means exactly that. No 'man' can kill him. However Éowyn is a woman - and Merry with a Dúnedain dagger (enchanted with magic deadly to the witch king) who also is not a 'man' but rather a male hobbit - the combined effort of the two finally and completely destroyed the witch king.

  • 2
    It's not actually clear he was completely destroyed. The quote is "But lo! 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." – WOPR Jan 3 '13 at 1:18
  • 2
    Technically, since the fourth age starts just a short while after his defeat, his voice could be heard again before the end of the year. – user1197928 May 13 '13 at 17:15
  • 4
    @user1197928 - Thus JRRT cleverly sets up his LOTR 2 - The Witch King Strikes Back trilogy.... – Oldcat Dec 15 '14 at 22:59
2

The line is that the "witchking can be killed by no man." Eowyn was not a man, so she could kill him. It really is that simple!

  • 4
    This is wrong, unfortunately. The lines are, in the movie, "No man may kill me!" and "I am no man." The line in the movie is not from the book; it's not canonically accurate. Legion600 wrote: "The Witch King saying "No living man may hinder me!" which is in response to Éowyn. And as she stood over Theoden, she says, "Do what you will; but I will hinder it, if I may." But the question goes back to Gollum, who says the Nazgûl cannot be killed. "Man" is a race, not a gender, in this context. That's why Merry was essential to the Witch King's death. – Slytherincess May 26 '12 at 6:39
  • 1
    Prophecies are notorious for being nit-pickery in language and jerks in general. Hence the famous "A Great Army will Fall" prophecy from Delphi...which meant his own army when he got whupped. – Oldcat Dec 15 '14 at 23:02
2

The Nazgul are bound to Middle-Earth through enchanted weaponry specifically made for them. When Arwen brought about the flooding river in the movie, most of the Nazgul's spirits went back to the dark tower, and they had to have their "attachment" to the real world remade. When Merry stabs the Witch King the Westernese enchantments break the spell that not only makes the Witch King invincible to all except things that could potentially destroy what bind him to Middle Earth but made his body tangible to Eowyn's final strike. Yes technically a man could have killed Eowyn, but Tolkien decided to give that role to her and the hobbit Merry. It had to be both of them, because without Merry's distraction with the intense pain dealt to the witch king, Eowyn would have obviously been slaughtered. Who wouldn't? Her role was important though, and it cost her like a year to recover from merely stabbing the Witch King. Remember when Aragorn lit the Nazgul on fire, they had to retreat or be delayed from the time it would take to be sent back to the dark tower and everything.

-2

There is no indication that he was destroyed finally by Eowyn.

The Nazgul were "killed" in the river crossing but were able to regain form fairly quickly presumably by the power of the one ring.

The idea that they could not be slain comes from the foresight of Glorfindel, but their fear of water (the power of Ulmo) and their ability to be fended off vis a vis fire, the Witch King's flight from the fall of Angmar, etc are all indicators of vulnerability.

The destruction of the one ring is presumably the cause of all the Nazguls' final demise, and seeing as that was accomplished by Gollum and Frodo, then even the prophesy still holds.

  • 1
    I avoid eating snails, but I wouldn't be killed if I did, so the "indicators of vulnerability" suggestion is poor. Also, there is plenty of indication that he was destroyed finally in the flavor text surrounding the deed. – Rex Kerr Feb 15 '12 at 23:55
  • 2
    No research and a lot of speculation in your answer that is refuted by the books and movies. – Legion600 Feb 16 '12 at 4:05
  • @RexKerr: there are poisonous snails which will in fact kill you. The only real certainty in the book is that his current form was destroyed. It is clear in the scene that his spirit fled but, though being a man, his spirit was tied to the ring and Sauron's power. – horatio Feb 16 '12 at 15:50
  • 1
    @legion600: the movies are often in direct contradiction to the books. In this particular case, the movie says "no man may kill me" whereas the book says "no man may hinder me." Clearly this is a lie, as men hinder directly the Nazgul several times. And the prophesy of Glorfindel is "Far off yet is his doom, and not by the hand of man will he fall." Tolkein was careful to say "fall" "doom" and "downfall." It is easy to see how people presume that he cannot be killed, but those words are not spoken by "the wise" in his books (those with actual foresight and knowledge of the music of the ainur) – horatio Feb 16 '12 at 15:52
  • 1
    Also, after she stabbed him, his mantle and hauberk lay on the ground and a cry went up from the Witch King "...a voice bodiless and thin that died, and was swallowed up, and was never heard again in that age of the world." As noted here tolkiengateway.net/wiki/Nazgul#Powers_and_Abilities the Nazgul clothing was all that allowed them to interact with the world. Sauron would have simply redressed the Witch king if only his clothing were destroyed. He was not only merely dead, but truly and sincerely dead. – Legion600 Feb 16 '12 at 23:45

protected by Community Jan 30 '14 at 14:59

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality or spam answers that had to be removed, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site (the association bonus does not count).

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.