It is explained numerous times how powerful and deadly the Nazgûl are — however, on multiple occasions, they failed their master badly. Some examples:

  • Frodo and the Hobbits escaped both during the chase in the Shire as well as in Bree. 5 (?) of the Nine were not able to get the ring, although it was nearby.
  • On Weathertop, Aragorn alone is able to fight 5 of them off. Sure, Aragorn is a great warrior, but if he alone can fight off 5 of them, they are probably not that powerful after all.
  • Glorfindel outpaces them
  • Gandalf is able to block the entry of the Witch-king into Minas Tirith
  • ...

So how powerful are the Nine really, if the Hobbits, Gandalf, Glorfindel and Aragorn defeated/tricked them on numerous occasions? Is their only real power the fear they bring to normal people and their leadership "skills"?

Edit: I really got the feeling that the Nine are described as totally horrifying that often simply because it makes the heroes look good when defeating them.

  • 20
    Worf Effect Commented Jun 21, 2012 at 22:21
  • 2
    Poor Faramir, never getting the credit he deserves for the difficulty of his tasks. Also, don't forget that Aragorn had several advantages on Weathertop (fire, surprise, not being the target) and the Nazgul figured they had already won.
    – Rex Kerr
    Commented Jun 22, 2012 at 10:19
  • @Rex Kerr: What exactly do you mean by "Poor Faramir"? It's too long ago that I read the book...
    – mort
    Commented Jun 23, 2012 at 6:07
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    @mort - Faramir was a non-trivial casualty of the Nazgul when he tried to lead his men back to Minas Tirith from Osgiliath.
    – Rex Kerr
    Commented Jun 25, 2012 at 14:11
  • Well, I remember that of course! He came under the shadow, so at some point he was probably fighting against a Nazgul...but I can't remember any details of that.
    – mort
    Commented Jun 25, 2012 at 15:37

5 Answers 5


Glorfindel was able to outpace them because of his mount being better than theirs. Their speed was limited by the fact that they were using real horses. Later when they get the dragon-like mounts, they are much faster.

Gandalf is an extremely powerful Maia, so I don't think this is a fair comparison (he did defeat the Balrog after all).

They don't have 'eyes' so they can't see the real world, and that's one reason why Frodo and the hobbits were able to hide from them. They can sense the one ring though.

Their power lies a lot in the fear they induce. (Fear does cut deeper than a sword after all, a quote from GRRM.) They cause despair wherever they go, in the hearts of men and other creatures.

The Nazgûl came again... like vultures that expect their fill of doomed men's flesh. Out of sight and shot they flew, and yet were ever present, and their deadly voices rent the air. More unbearable they became, not less, at each new cry. At length even the stout-hearted would fling themselves to the ground as the hidden menace passed over them, or they would stand, letting their weapons fall from nerveless hands while into their minds a blackness came, and they thought no more of war, but only of hiding and of crawling, and of death.

The Return of the King, p. 97

But the Nazgûl are also undying. There was a prophecy that 'No man could kill him' about the Witch-king. He could only be killed after Merry's blade broke the powerful spell granting them undying lives. A stab with their blade can also cause someone to turn into a wraith.

Wikipedia (note: link to old version) also says:

Close or prolonged encounters with a Nazgûl caused unconsciousness, nightmares, and eventual death: an effect known as "the Black Breath". Aragorn used the herb athelas to treat victims of the Black Breath, including Frodo, Faramir, Éowyn, and Merry.

Also, they are near invisible to mortals unless they wear cloaks/armor etc.

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    Just to nitpick, the books don't say that Gandalf can't kill the Witch King. The wizards were sent to Middle Earth to fight Sauron but were not allowed to match their power with his, merely inspire the races of men, dwarves, and elves to fight him.
    – NominSim
    Commented Jun 21, 2012 at 21:09
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    Yes, that's true. But if anybody with decent fighting skills and a torch can beat five of them, they don't seem too dreadful and deadly. If Aragorn hat to fight five Uruk-hai like Lurtz, he probably wouldn't have won...
    – mort
    Commented Jun 21, 2012 at 21:17
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    I don't know that Gandalf would be considered a "man" since he is a Maia. If Eowyn can be of "mankind" but not a "man", certainly a "male" of Maia wouldn't count as "man". Also during the Battle of Minis Tirith, when the Witch King entered the city Gandalf was prepared to fight him, but the Witch King got drawn away by the Rohirrim. Then Merry asks Gandalf to help save Faramir from his father, and Gandalf strongly implies that he is needed elsewhere to prevent more deaths, namely Theoden. I don't think it is stated clearly, but it is implied that if he went to help, Theoden would've lived.
    – NominSim
    Commented Jun 21, 2012 at 21:47
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    @mort Aragorn isn't a mere man who happens to be a skilled fighter, though. He is the rightful king of Gondor, and has some blood of Elves in his veins. In Tolkien's world, this equates to "very, very powerful". He is able to withstand the psychological horror the Nazgul project because he is made of better stock than other men.
    – Andres F.
    Commented Jun 21, 2012 at 22:00
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    the "prophecy" was barely a prophesy and it never said "can't be killed by a man". It said "won't be." ( "Far off yet is his doom, and not by the hand of man shall he fall." )
    – horatio
    Commented Mar 13, 2013 at 15:00

The Nine have greater power the closer to Mordor they are, also they get stronger as the more Sauron grows in power. (Sauron can even enhance them with some additional power like he did during battle of Pelennor Fields.) Gandalf in book says:

The Ringwraiths are deadly enemies, but they are only shadows yet of the power and terror they would possess if the Ruling Ring was on their master's hand again."

Far off in the North they used stealth and evading tactic on purpose, rarely they engaged in combat to not attract attention of their enemies, specifically White Council members and powerful elf lords.

From their origin we know they were warriors and sorcerers even before turning to wraiths (thanks to the Nine Rings of Power). Incapacitating fear aura and venomous Black Breath affecting all living beings in their presence are indeed stated to be their greatest weapon but they are also agile and fast without horses (of course without them they would be crippled and their ability to travel would be limited), also they can't be destroyed by normal means and every weapon that touches one would wither:

[...] they rushed towards him. Desperate, he drew his own sword, and it seemed to him that it flickered red, as if it was a firebrand. Two of the figures halted. The third was taller than the others: his hair was long and gleaming and on his helm was a crown. In one hand he held a long sword, and in the other a knife; both the knife and the hand that held it glowed with a pale light. He sprang forward and bore down on Frodo."

"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. More deadly to him was the name of Elbereth."

In the same time they were slightly intimidated by the presence of blade from Barrow Downs "with spells for the bane of Mordor" which were specifically designed to harm wraiths. But Witch-king who is "in many ways more powerful than others" was able to fulfill his goal. (Meaning stab ringbearer with Morgul-knife which would turn the hobbit into an obedient wraith under their command, and thus would bring them the Ring on his own.)

Also Aragorn did not defeat them in a normal sense, the Nazgûl retreated themselves and the fire used by Aragorn and hobbits affected only their ability to perceive the world bringing light to disperse shadows. (That's why they fear those who wield fire cause it places them at disadvantage):

A shrill cry rang out in the night; and [Frodo] felt a pain like a dart of poisoned ice pierce his left shoulder. Even as he swooned he caught, as through a swirling mist, a glimpse of Strider leaping out of the darkness with a flaming brand of wood in either hand. With a last effort Frodo, dropping his sword, slipped the Ring from his finger and closed his right hand tight upon it.

This next passage explains some of their later actions before Rivendell, they didn't also expected this particular "magic resistance" hobbits have. (The wound from the knife would subdue even powerful human warrior very quickly as the power of rings too would):

"I think I understand things better now," [Strider] said in a low voice. "There seem only to have been five of the enemy. Why they were not all here, I don't know; but I don't think they expected to be resisted. They have drawn off for the time being. But not far, I fear. They will come again another night, if we cannot escape. They are only waiting, because they think that their purpose is almost accomplished, and that the Ring cannot fly much further. I fear, Sam, that they believe your master has a deadly wound that will subdue him to their will."

The Fellowship of the Ring, Book 1, Ch 12, "Flight to the Ford"

Gandalf was able to hold his position against them at Weathertop using his power and still it was hard for him he said he was "hard put to it indeed: such light and flame cannot have been seen on Weathertop since the war-beacons of old.

"At sunrise I escaped and fled towards the north."

The actual abilities they possess:

"I was too careless on the hill-top," answered Strider. "I was very anxious to find some sign of Gandalf; but it was a mistake for three of us to go up and stand there for so long. For the black horses can see, and the Riders can use men and other creatures as spies, as we found at Bree. They themselves do not see the world of light as we do, but our shapes cast shadows in their minds, which only the noon sun destroys; and in the dark they perceive many signs and forms that are hidden from us: then they are most to be feared. And at all times they smell the blood of living things, desiring and hating it. Senses, too, there are other then sight or smell. We can feel their presence – it troubled our hearts, as soon as we came here, and before we saw them; they feel ours more keenly. Also," he added, and his voice sank to a whisper, "the Ring draws them."

Some sorcery also is their weapon:

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.

With single gesture Frodo is disabled as if with some paralyzing spell and his sword is shattered at distance.

They definitely too have necromantic powers:

In notes on the movements of the Black Riders at that time it is said that the Black Captain stayed [in the Barrow-downs] for some days, and the Barrow-wights were roused, and all things of evil spirit, hostile to Elves and Men, were on the watch with malice in the Old Forest and on the Barrow-downs.

Unfinished Tales, "The Hunt for the Ring"

It was at this time that an end came of the Dúnedain of Cardolan, and evil spirits out of Angmar and Rhudaur entered into the deserted mounds and dwelt there.

The Witch-king as a powerful sorcerer shows the ability to cast a "blasting spell":

Over the hills of slain a hideous shape appeared: a horseman, tall, hooded, cloaked in black. Slowly, trampling the fallen, he rode forth, heeding no longer any dart. he halted and held up a long pale sword. And as he did so a great fear fell upon all, defender and foe alike; and the hands of men dropped to their sides, and no bows sang. For a moment all was still.

The drums rolled and rattled. With a vast rush Grond was hurled forward by huge hands. It reached the Gate. It swung. A deep boom rumbled through the City like thunder running in the clouds. But the doors of iron and posts of steel withstood the stroke.

Then the Black Captain rose in his stirrups and cried aloud in a dreadful voice, speaking in some forgotten tongue words of power and terror to rend both heart and stone.

Thrice he cried. Thrice the ram boomed. And suddenly upon the last stroke the Gate of Gondor broke. As if stricken by some blasting spell it burst asunder: there was a flash of lightning and the doors tumbled in riven fragments to the ground.

Also his ability to use a flaming sword:

The Black Rider flung back his hood and behold! he had a kingly crown. The red fires shown between it and the mantled shoulders vast and dark. From a mouth unseen 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.

It is also in their power to "inspire" their servants to fight better, mentally influencing them as well as inducing fear in enemies:

"Some said that it could be seen, like a great black horseman, a dark shadow under the moon. Wherever he came a madness filled our foes, but fear fell on our boldest, so that horse and man gave way and fled. Only a remnant of our eastern force came back, destroying the last bridge that still stood amid the ruins of Osgiliath."


"They have paid dear for the crossing, but less dearly then we hoped. [...] They swarmed across like beetles. But it is the Black Captain that defeats us. Few will stand and abide even the rumor of his coming. His own folk quail at him, and they would slay themselves at his bidding."

Standard equipment seems to be swords, glowing enchanted Morgul-knives and some darts with potent poison.

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    I have turned this wall of text into a readable, appropriately-quoted answer.
    – Voronwé
    Commented Jul 7, 2017 at 7:26

The one point that's missed about the Weathertop scene is: by the time they fled, the Witch-king had already wounded Frodo. They could afford to flee, as there was an element of "mission accomplished" about that; everything from then on was really little more than a waiting game for them, so why bother getting into a fight? Just go away, wait it out, and soon enough Frodo's going to slip into the wraith world and they'll have him.

This is supported by Aragorn's words in the following chapter, "Flight to the Ford":

They are only waiting, because they think that their purpose is almost accomplished, and that the Ring cannot fly much further. I fear, Sam, that they believe your master has a deadly wound that will subdue him to their will.

Of course they underestimated the resilience of Hobbits (but then again, so did everyone else) and the meeting with Glorfindel was something they wouldn't have anticipated.

  • Hmm, I disagree. I don't think the Nazgul would have given up so easily; I don't have source material to offer, but I feel pretty strongly that their mission from Sauron was to capture the ring. The Witch King stabbed Frodo, sure, but he didn't stab him and then walk away. He first reached for the ring and then stabbed him when Frodo resisted. One more stab in the other shoulder (a moment's work) and Frodo wouldn't have put up a fight at all. The movie clearly shows the Witch King interrupted and run off by Aragorn. It seems to clearly give Aragorn credit for preventing the ring's capture.
    – TylerH
    Commented Jan 20, 2015 at 19:47
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    @TylerH - (1) they didn't give up, see Aragorn's words in Flight to the Ford: "They are only waiting, because they think that their purpose is almost accomplished, and that the Ring cannot fly much further"; (2) the Witch-king didn't first reach for the Ring in the books, that's a movie invention.
    – user8719
    Commented Jan 20, 2015 at 20:10

The Nine were very powerful. In almost any direct one-on-one confrontation, they could be expected to win by causing the opponent to panic and do something stupid, e.g. Frodo putting on the Ring at Weathertop. They were skilled enough with weapons, as we see their use on Weathertop as well as in front of Minas Tirith. In the scope of The Lord of the Rings however, they had the misfortune to come up against some of the best of their age (Gandalf, Glorfindel, Aragorn, Elrond).

Their physical presence aside, this is the same group of beings that took and held Minas Ithil, reclaimed and rebuilt Dol Guldur in Mirkwood and, in the Witch-king's case, was Sauron's lieutenant of choice for destroying the Northern kingdoms of Arnor, a task he was supremely successful at. As tacticians and strategists they seem to have lead all Sauron's major attacks, with success after success.

  • Thanks for your answer. However, I guess you meant that they took and held Minas Ithil, later known as Minas Morgul.
    – mort
    Commented Jun 23, 2012 at 9:08
  • That I did, thanks!
    – dlanod
    Commented Jun 23, 2012 at 9:21

Powerful enough to be called Sauron's deadliest servants.

You must remember that the Nazgûl were once Men that are now enslaved by Sauron into invisible, twisted wraiths. They don't have the powers of the Ainur or the Istari or the Elves, but they still are fearful. Unfortunately, we only know the former backgrounds of 2 Nazgûl - the Witch-king, a Numenorean; and Khamûl, an Easterling.

What powers do they have?

First off, I will start of by describing the Witch-king's strengths. Arguably, he's the strongest of the Nine- he isn't called the 'Black Captain' without reason!

Witch-king of Angmar

  • He was the least likely, of the Nine, to stray in daylight

    All except the Witch-king were apt to stray when alone in daylight;

  • He was not afraid of water

    and all, again save the Witch-king, feared water,

  • He could perceive best, among the Nine, the presence of the One Ring

    Of Khamûl it is said here that he was the most ready of all the Nazgûl, after the Black Captain himself, to perceive the presence of the Ring,

    At the Ford of Bruinen only the Witch-king and two others, with the lure of the Ring straight before them, had dared to enter the river;

  • He could break weapons

    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 Nine Nazgûl

  • Capable of inducing the Shadow of Fear

    He put therefore the Shadow of Fear on the Dunlending, and sent him on to Bree as an agent.

  • Pure terror

    But it is the Black Captain that defeats us. Few will stand and abide even the rumor of his coming. His own folk quail at him, and they would slay themselves at his bidding.

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