There was a prophecy about the Witch-king of Angmar saying that 'No man could kill him'.

The actual quote:

"He will not return to this land. Far off yet is his doom, and not by the hand of a man will he fall." —Glorfindel, The Return of the King, Appendix A (iv)

I always interpreted it as literary speak for no person of the male gender could kill him, which is why Eowyn was able to deal the death blow after Merry broke the spell granting them undying life.

But while answering this question, NominSim pointed out rightly that it is possible to interpret the prophecy as no male human can kill him and since Gandalf was a maiar, he could have definitely defeated the Witch King.

Is there anything in canon to clear this up?

  • I forgot that the actual quote that Gandalf talks about, the "words spoken of old", were in the Appendix. Good find.
    – NominSim
    Commented Jun 21, 2012 at 22:59

6 Answers 6


The quote you are looking for is:

...if words spoken of old be true, not by the hand of man shall he fall, and hidden from the Wise is the doom that awaits him. However that may be, the Captain of Despair does not press forward, yet. He rules rather according to the wisdom that you have just spoken, from the rear, driving his slaves in madness on before.

My Answer:

It seems that Gandalf at least has enough confidence in his abilities to fight the Witch King one on one. The "prophecy" itself is fairly vague, and there are numerous examples of "man" in the book referring both to a "male" and to "someone who is of man kind". It is difficult to say with certainty that the prophecy could or couldn't have been fulfilled by Gandalf, but my inclination is to believe that it could have been.

Edit: Note too that the words are "the hand of man" and not "the hand of a man". Man when used in the first sense usually refers to mankind.

Gandalf is a Maia, so not a "man", and was sent to Middle Earth to fight Sauron. The wizards were prevented from matching their power with Sauron directly, but it is indicated that they could have fought Sauron themselves. Someone who could do that should have the power to destroy the Witch King, Sauron's agent and lesser.

Additionally there are "prophesies" that do not come true in the books as well, so to set much store in them isn't necessarily wise. (For example Theoden says, much like this prophecy; "no living man shall pass" the Paths of the Dead, yet Aragorn disproves that).

Finally, the prophecy states that "not by the hand of man shall he fall", which to me indicates that it is a foregone conclusion how the Witch King shall fall. It seems different from "no man can kill him" in that it doesn't state that it isn't possible, just that that isn't how it will happen. Kind of like saying; "I shall drive my car home now". I could walk, but that isn't going to happen.

Note: Everything below here is simply evidence for my summary above.

Here is a quote indicating Gandalf believes that he can fight the Witch King:

In rode the Lord of the Nazgûl. A great black shape against the fires beyond he loomed up, grown to a vast menace of despair. In rode the Lord of the Nazgûl, under the archway that no enemy ever yet had passed, and all fled before his face. All save one. There waiting, silent and still in the space before the Gate, sat Gandalf upon Shadowfax: Shadowfax who alone among the free horses of the earth endured the terror, unmoving, steadfast as a graven image in Rath Dínen. '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 Rohirrim arrive before any battle can take place however, and the Witch King "...left the Gate and vanished." Gandalf then means to follow/hinder him:

Gandalf looked through the gaping Gate, and already on the fields he heard the gathering sound of battle. He clenched his hand. 'I must go,' he said. 'The Black Rider is abroad, and he will yet bring ruin on us. I have no time.'

but Pippin asks him if he can save Faramir from his father, to which he responds:

'Maybe I can,' said Gandalf, 'but if I do, then others will die, I fear. Well, I must come, since no other help can reach him. But evil and sorrow will come of this. Even in the heart of our stronghold the Enemy has power to strike us: for his will it is that is at work.'

It seems that Gandalf realizes that he is needed on the battlefield, and his fears are realized when Theoden dies. Gandalf certainly felt that he could help, whether it be by killing the Witch King or by driving him off it is uncertain.

Further evidence to Gandalf's apparent ability to match the Witch King in a battle: (emphasis mine)

'Yet now under the Lord of Barad-dur the most fell of all his captains is already master of your outer walls,' said Gandalf. 'King of Angmar long ago, Sorcerer, Ringwraith, Lord of the Nazgûl, a spear of terror in the hand of Sauron, shadow of despair.'

'Then, Mithrandir, you had a foe to match you,' said Denethor. 'For myself, I have long known who is the chief captain of the hosts of the Dark Tower. Is this all that you have returned to say? Or can it be that you have withdrawn because you are overmatched?'

To which Gandalf responds

'It might be so,' Gandalf answered softly. 'But our trial of strength is not yet come...'

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    Very good point about the prophecy being more a foregone conclusion. I wish I could +2 for that :) Commented Jun 21, 2012 at 23:00
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    @derrylwc That's not because he is a weak Maia, but because his Middle-Earthly guise is an intentionally stunted and weakened Maia. As is Saruman, by the way; Gandalf does defeat him in direct battle, though one of words. Also don't forget that Gandalf killed the Balrog, which was a far mightier foe than the Witch King. The literary significance of the Istari is already a bit muddled; I don't think Gandalf killing the Witch King would have made it significantly worse. Commented Feb 15, 2016 at 0:26
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    @derrylwc If you mean in battle, maybe - but he is still Maia, and the Witch King a Man fallen to darkness. Gandalf was considered the wisest of the Maia, so you can see that's where his strength lies. That said, he came to Middle Earth in the form of an Istari - a mortal body, killable, and restricted in his powers for the specific intent so that he cannot go astray and dominate the Free Peoples like Sauron. That last bit suggests his combat prowess is weakened enough to match the most powerful of mortal foes, much less a fell one. Commented Feb 15, 2016 at 18:06
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    A question: In the movies, Gandalf can be seen seemingly stunned or entranced by the terror emitted from the Witch King. Is that in the books? Is it a sign that Gandalf, in his mortal form, is no less susceptible to the Witch King's hold? Commented Feb 15, 2016 at 18:09
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    @thegreatjedi Ask it as a separate question. Commented Jun 20, 2016 at 9:28

The whole notion of the prophecy is Tolkien's attempt to do one better than Shakespeare's Macbeth. Of Macbeth it was said that "no man of woman borne" could kill him. Shakespeare's solution was to consider a Caesarian birth to be distinct from a true birth. "MacDuff was from his mother's womb untimely ripped".

A similar oneupsmanship gave us the Ents from the part about Burnham wood moving which turns out to be men with twigs on their heads.

Macbeth has many good qualities but the prophecies are lame. And Tolkien endeavoured to learn from these mistakes.

  • Now that's a bit of a disillusionment! Commented Jun 24, 2012 at 19:57
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    Merchant of Venice: All that glistens is not gold. Lord of the Rings: All that is gold does not glisten.
    – TRiG
    Commented Nov 24, 2012 at 5:49
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    @leftaroundabout In what way? The fact that Shakespeare made mistakes? He did pretty well for a man who couldn't spell his own name. Commented Mar 20, 2013 at 16:24

The prophecy never said that he couldn't be killed by a man, merely that he wouldn't.

As for the question of whether it excluded Gandalf, the answer is that it probably didn't, because he was a Maia rather than a human.


When Gandalf (as "the White", having been laundered by Eru) appeared to the remainder of the Fellowship (Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli) as they sought to rescue Merry and Pippin from the orcs, at one point he said to Gimli that he himself (Gandalf) was "dangerous", and that Gandalf was "more dangerous" than anyone or anything Gimli might encounter (in Middle Earth) other than Sauron. Given that the Witch-King is NOT Sauron, this makes it fairly clear that Gandalf (as "the White") was more formidable than the Witch-King.

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    Isn't maia laundering a federal crime?! <me, coat, out>
    – Marakai
    Commented Jun 20, 2016 at 5:17

Yes, but no. Gandalf - the Maia - could theoretically have killed the Witch King, but the Witch King's destiny was already writ in stone, and Glorfindel (possibly speaking with the voice of Mandos under Eru Himself) had already intimated his end. Undoubtedly Eowyn had been destined for this purpose from the beginning of time. 'No man' it seems - literally meant 'woman' and the Witch King realised this at the very last moment.


No, because Olorin's job description said he mustn't:

The Valar decided to send the order of the Istari... to Middle-earth, to counsel and assist all those in Middle-earth who opposed the Dark Lord Sauron.

and the Istari

...were forbidden to dominate the free peoples of Middle-earth or to match Sauron's power with power. When Saruman, the greatest of the Wizards, disobeyed this injunction, he was cast from the order and banished from Valinor

(quoting from secondary sources, sorry; I'm not that well-versed...)

Now, you could ask "what about the Balrog?" but remember the Balrog is a Maia, independent of Sauron's control (actually I don't think they were even coordinated). You could also ask about the Orcs/Goblins in the misty mountains, but that's a minor infraction, plus he was doing it as part of a concerted effort of mortals. Ok, he was kind of master-minding that, it's true, but that in itself was part of his work as a Rivendell council member. Still, you get the idea.

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