When Gandalf meets the Witch King of Angmar, he said this,

'Go back to the abyss prepared for you! Go back! Fall into the nothingness that awaits you and your Master. Go!'

Return of the King Book V Chapter 4: "The Siege of Gondor"

In the books, the Witch king did not destroy Gandalf's staff. That was purely an invention of the movies. Afterwards, the Witch king hears the horn of Rohan, he stopped and his dragon flees to attack the Rohirrim army. Basically, my question is Why didn't the Witch King just kill Gandalf instead of fleeing and going to attack the Rohan army?

I haven't read the books. I've watched the movie many times. I would appreciate if you answer for each adaptation separately.

  • 2
    similar: scifi.stackexchange.com/questions/18874/… - possibily an answer dupe
    – NKCampbell
    Aug 16, 2017 at 19:25
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    One does not simply kill a Maia? Aug 16, 2017 at 19:38
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    I'm not sure the New Gandalf™ could be killed. Didn't we have a question about that here, somewhere? Aug 29, 2017 at 18:34
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    Perhaps there would be a long heavy fight because Gandalf was strong enough to fight with a Balrog and not to lose even when he was in a lower rank. It could be affordable to enter into the battle in view of forthcoming victory since Witch-king knew that Gandalf couldn't kill him because of the prophecy. It doesn't mean that the Nazgûl was able to kill Gandalf on the other side. Sep 8, 2017 at 19:32

5 Answers 5


In both cases, Rohan is more of an immediate threat to his goals than Gandalf is. However, the specifics differ slightly between the two versions.

In the book

In the novel, the arrival of Rohan coincides with the breakup of a supernatural darkness, meant to ease the battle for Sauron's sunlight-sensitive soldiers1. The combination of a large number of reinforcements and the diminished effectiveness of his own army means that the Witch-king's attention is urgently needed elsewhere (emphasis mine):

The darkness was breaking too soon, before the date that his Master had set for it: fortune had betrayed him for the moment, and the world had turned against him; victory was slipping from his grasp even as he stretched out his hand to seize it. But his arm was long. He was still in command, wielding great powers. King, Ringwraith, Lord of the Nazgûl, he had many weapons. He left the Gate and vanished.

Return of the King Book V Chapter 6: "The Battle of the Pelennor Fields"

Ultimately, the Witch-king is more concerned with taking the city than with destroying Gandalf specifically.

In the films

As with many things in the films, this isn't given an in-universe explanation. However, bear in mind that:

  • From the Witch-king's perspective, Gandalf is no threat at all. He's just demonstrated that he has no difficulty ruining Gandalf's day, so there's no pressing need to kill the wizard. He can always just come back and do it later.
  • He lacks information. Consider what information the Witch-king has: he knows he has a vulnerable Wizard in front of him, and he knows that somebody hostile has just arrived. It makes the most tactical sense to assess who the new arrivals are, because they're the more immediate threat to his ultimate goal of taking the city; although Gandalf is (as far as he knows) the largest threat to him directly, a single Wizard can't destroy an entire Orcish army.
  • The Rohirrim have a pretty good tactical position. It doesn't matter whether or not the Witch-king knows who just arrived; he knows that there are hostiles to the north, while most of his army is in an enclosed environment, fenced in by Mount Mindolluin to the west, the River Anduin to the south, and retreat (which seems an unlikely tactic) to the east. The orcs are boxed in, and the Witch-king knows it.

All of which is a roundabout way of saying that his particular set of skills is more urgently needed on the field, rather than trading barbs with some has-been wizard.

1 Heh

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    Obviously, out-of-universe it happened in the film because it happened in the book, and it needed to happen for the plot for continue. But that explanation is unspeakably boring to me, and anyone who claims that the films don't have (or don't need to have) their own internal logic flatly misunderstands how fiction works Aug 16, 2017 at 19:48

Speaking only of the book: There is no evidence at all that the Witch-King could defeat Gandalf.

Gandalf describes their first meeting:

'I galloped to Weathertop like a gale, and I reached it before sundown on my second day from Bree-and [the Nazgul] were there before me. They drew away from me, for they felt the coming of my anger and they dared not face it while the Sun was in the sky. But they closed round at night, and I was besieged on the hill-top, in the old ring of Amon Sûl. I was hard put to it indeed: such light and flame cannot have been seen on Weathertop since the war-beacons of old.

Even when Gandalf was just the Grey at Weathertop, he successfully held off all nine Nazgul who dared not face [his anger] while the Sun was in the sky. He withdrew only when night came and their power increased. (Yes, he said he was hard-pressed. But "hard put to it" is not the same as "defeated". He withstood all Nine all night. He's not easy prey.) And note that at the gate of Minas Tirith, it's not night that is coming, but morning and the Sun.

Again, as G the Grey, he had defeated a Balrog, a being of great innate power -- the Nazgul were human sorcerers and even with Sauron lurking menacingly behind them, there's no reason to suppose they were more powerful.

Additionally, at Minas Tirith, he is Gandalf the White and more powerful than he was. There is no reason at all to suppose that the Witch-King could kill him, let alone quickly. Only a few months before he fought Gandalf all night with the other eight Nazgul at his side and failed to even injure him.

(To be sure, there is no reason to think that Gandalf could kill the Witch-King, even without the "No Man" prophecy. This isn't a game where the characters encounter each other, roll the dice, and see who wins.)

The book says:

'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, reckoning nothing of wizardry or war, welcoming only the morning that in the sky far above the shadows of death was coming with the dawn.

Note that the only evidence that the W-K could defeat Gandalf was the W-K's own braggadocio. Did he believe it? Was he hoping to bluff Gandalf? Was he suddenly aware that Gandalf was more than he had expected and trying to buy time? We don't know. But we do know for sure that the Witch-King of Angmar, head of the Nazgul, undead sorcerer, is an untrustworthy source.

Had the Witch-King fought Gandalf, he might perhaps have won. But based on his experience a few months before, he would almost certainly have been engaged in a long and hard fight, which certainly would waste precious time (and as Jason Baker has noted, the W-K was needed elsewhere Right Now), and might well have resulted in his wounding or even anti-un-death (or whatever happens to Nazgul which are killed.) (I'd also note that there's no reason to think that the W-K knows for sure that Gandalf is classed, prophecy-wise, as a Man (and thus unable to kill him) and not as Wizard or Maiar.)

The evidence is clear: If the Witch-King with 8 others beside him could not defeat Gandalf the Grey in a whole night of fighting, there was no chance that by himself he could defeat Gandalf the White quickly -- if at all.

The only rational course of action was for the Witch-King to break off the action and try to rally his troops.


When Gandalf and Gimli are discussing dangers upon their reunion in Fangorn Forest, Gandalf, discussing whether Fangorn is dangerous, gets this reply from Gandalf:

"Dangerous!", cried Gandalf. "And so am I, very dangerous: more dangerous than anything you will ever meet, unless you are brought alive before the seat of the Dark Lord."

(The Two Towers: "The White Rider")

Gandalf was the second most powerful being in Middle-earth at that time. The Witch-king ranked below him.


I would like to suggest something based on speculation rather than evidence in the books.

Gandalf was trying to tempt the Witch-King into battle with him and distract him from other parts of the battlefield where he could have done more damage. Gandalf faked the breaking of his own staff and led the Witch-King to believe that the Witch King had done it. Gandalf also faked looking vulnerable and easy to attack.

In reality, Gandalf probably didn't need his staff and the battle would have been long. The Witch-King could have killed tens of people per minute so would be a danger elsewhere, whereas Gandalf himself was not much of a fighting threat to the enemy.

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    Interesting, but even the most far-fetched and left-field speculations have some sort of indication or evidence to support them. Is there any sign or clue that might support what you're saying?
    – Möoz
    Feb 22, 2018 at 2:40

It's quite simple. Remember The Hobbit: the Battle of Five Armies. Remember Saruman the White: his power was enough to blow back the Nazgul. Well Gandalf the White literally would have killed the Witch-king. Istari light would have destroyed him in one hit, end of. I mean, word of power and the idiot Witch-king blown to smithereens. The movie world loves a hype, but truth is the Witch-king got beaten by normal steel and a woman.

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