During the siege of Minas Tirith, when the gate was broken down by Grond, Gandalf waited there and the Witch-King rode up to enter.

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.

Did the Witch-King's sword actually emit flames, or was "and flames ran down the blade" a poetic metaphor for its mirror like surface reflecting the fires inside and outside Minas Tirith?

I believe that the Balrog's sword in Moria actually did emit flames, unless that was another poetic metaphor, but a Balrog was an Ainur, a spirit with great control over matter, and not a mortal sorceror.

  • 11
    What I want to know is why it brandished a sword against Gandalf, but then smote Éowyn with a mace. It carries multiple weapons? What's wrong with the sword?
    – DavidW
    Commented Jun 3, 2020 at 17:42
  • 17
    Hah! It's lampshaded a few pages earlier: "King, Ringwraith, Lord of the Nazgûl, he had many weapons." :)
    – DavidW
    Commented Jun 3, 2020 at 17:50
  • 7
    Witch King just looted a cool new flying mount, and a nice cosmetic effect for his sword. Of course he wanted to show all that off.
    – void_ptr
    Commented Jun 3, 2020 at 19:43
  • It could also be that there were images of flames etched into the blade
    – Kevin
    Commented Jun 4, 2020 at 13:09
  • 2
    @DavidW Do you take out your finest, most precious tools for simple, mundane, dirty tasks?
    – DKNguyen
    Commented Jun 4, 2020 at 18:00

5 Answers 5


The answer is unclear and seems largely up to interpretation

In an older version of this part of the chapter, the imagery of the flames between the crown and the shoulders of the Witch King and those of his sword are omitted:

“The Black Rider [?lay for laid] back his hood and ..... crown that sat upon no visible head save only for the light of his pale eyes.(19) A deadly laughter [?rang] out.

'Old fool,' he said. 'Old fool. Do you not know death when you see it? Die now and curse in vain. This is my hour of victory.' And with that he lifted his great sword. [Added: And then suddenly his hand wavered and fell and it seemed that he shrank.]
The History of Middle-earth, Volume VII: The War of the Ring, Part Three: Minas Tirith, VI The Siege of Gondor

While this passage seems to be reasonably different to that in the Lord of the Rings (LR), it was the most recent form the passage took before the version seen in LR.

From short passages of further drafting, either separate or pencilled on the fair copy manuscript itself and then overwritten, the final form of the story was largely reached, and there is nothing to notice in this development. But as the fair copy was left to stand there remained a differences from RK.

The only note on the topic is note 19, which seems to discuss only points from before the mention of the flames.

The handwriting here is such that many words could not be interpreted at all in isolation, without context or other clues, but 'save only for the light of his pale eyes' seems tolerably clear. Cf. p. 365.

It seems to be up to the interpretation of the reader. The many examples of LR depicted in visual media seemed to have adapted the "flaming sword" stance however it is entirely plausible that this is purely down to reflections of the fire. There is however in the final version and the earlier version specific mention made to the bursting of the gate asunder, and the fires through which the "Black Horseman" came. As such it seems increasingly likely that it is merely reflections and not a literal flaming sword.

There Gandalf stood. And then over the hill in the flare of the fire a great Black Horseman came. [...] Thrice the rams boomed. Thrice he cried, and then suddenly the gate as if stricken by some blast burst [?asunder], and a great flash as of lightning, burst and fell, and in rode the Lord of the Nazgul.

  • I don't think that there were any flames on the shoulders of the Witch-King. " The red fires shone between it and the mantled shoulders vast and dark." probably refers to the fires in the pits outside the city, seen through his invisible head. Commented Jun 4, 2020 at 15:37
  • 1
    Behind the Witch King, but the fires shining through the gap of the crown and the shoulders provide the imagery of flames on the shoulders.
    – Edlothiad
    Commented Jun 4, 2020 at 16:09

Since you've not specifically stated that you're only looking for book answers, I shall take this opportunity to point out that it most certainly did emit flames in the (2003) Return of the King (extended cut version).

GIF of of the Witch-King drawing a sword and holding it up, with flames then running from the hilt to the tip of the blade

And in the frankly superior (1980) Return of the King: A Story of the Hobbits.

GIF of the (animated) Witch-King drawing a sword, with the sword then bursting into pale flames from the tip towards the hilt

  • 6
    Clearly both sets of directors took the events at face value. I felt that was worthy of mention. I'm assuming the book purists will be along shortly to bury this
    – Valorum
    Commented Jun 3, 2020 at 18:29
  • 8
    You're right, I will be
    – Edlothiad
    Commented Jun 3, 2020 at 18:29
  • 14
    I dunno. In the 2003 movie I see the flames run up the blade, not down it. :-P
    – DavidW
    Commented Jun 3, 2020 at 18:50
  • 6
    @DavidW - Which way is a sword "down"? Is it from the handle to the point if pointed groundwards or, if held aloft, from the point to the handle?
    – Valorum
    Commented Jun 3, 2020 at 18:55
  • 1
    Clearly we need questions on scifi.se about the meanings of "running up the blade", "blade", "sword" and "up". We cannot stop until every possible word, either written by Tolkien or in a comment here, is squeezed out of every possible meaning. Please include this comment itself in the corpus as well.
    – Andres F.
    Commented May 23 at 15:29

Answering from the books, it appears that was likely just the reflection of "the red fires."

Leaving aside the fact that the Witch-King is immediately afterwards depicted as wielding a mace against Éowyn, the only other time he is noted to wield a sword is in the confrontation on Weathertop.

There were five tall figures: two standing on the lip of the dell, three advancing. In their white faces burned keen and merciless eyes; under their mantles were long grey robes; upon their grey hairs were helms of silver; in their haggard hands were swords of steel. Their eyes fell on him and pierced him, as 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.

Since the passage notes that Frodo's blade flickers like a flame, and the Witch-King's knife glows with a pale light, it seems extremely unlikely that the Witch-King's sword flamed and that wasn't noted.

  • 5
    dont they use fire to hold the nazgul back? would seem odd if beings terrified of fire were wielding flaming swords. Commented Jun 4, 2020 at 12:37
  • 4
    @NathanHughes, I too would be afraid of someone waiving a burning torch at me, but I would not be afraid of wielding a burning torch myself. That's how I always interpreted that scene -- not that the Nazgûl themselves were somehow afraid of fire on any special intrinsic level, but simply wary of someone else using it as a weapon against them. Commented Jun 5, 2020 at 0:05

A definitive answer is impossible, since all we have is what JRRT wrote and it's always possible to deny supernatural/magical effects as illusions or imaginative language -- as, indeed, in some cases they probably are. But throughout LotR (and the Silmarillion, but I will not go there for now) light/shining/fire/glowy effects are a common part of the manifestation of magic/supernatural. For example:

When the Ring came out of the fire at Bag End there were

lines of fire that seemed to form the letters of a flowing script. They shone piercingly bright,

The elves crossing the Shire

bore no lights, yet as they walked a shimmer, like the light of the moon above the rim of the hills before it rises, seemed to fall about their feet.

In the barrow, Frodo

thought there were two eyes, very cold though lit with a pale light that seemed to come from some remote distance.


for the light seemed to be coming out of himself, and from the floor beside him, and had not yet reached the roof or wall. He turned, and there in the cold glow he saw lying beside him Sam, Pippin, and Merry.

At the Ford of Bruinen

there came a plumed cavalry of waves. White flames seemed to Frodo to flicker on their crest

At the doors to Kazadh-dum

Then slowly on the surface, where the wizard's hands had passed, faint lines appeared, like slender veins of silver running in the stone. At first they were no more than pale gossamer-threads, so fine that they only twinkled fitfully where the Moon caught them, but steadily they grew broader and clearer,

and later, still in Kazadh-dum

In his left hand he held up his glimmering staff, the light of which just showed the ground before his feet;

Crossing the Dead Marshes

other [lights] appeared soon after: some like dimly shining smoke, some like misty flames flickering slowly above unseen candles

In Fangorn forest, Fangorn

held his hands over them, and immediately they began to glow, one with a golden and the other with a rich green light; and the blending of the two lights lit the bay; as if the sun of summer was shining through a roof of young leaves. Looking back, the hobbits saw that the trees in the court had also begun to glow, faintly at first, but steadily quickening, until every leaf was edged with light: some green, some gold, some red as copper; while the tree-trunks looked like pillars moulded out of luminous stone.

When Aragorn, et all, met Gandalf the White at the edge of Fangorn

The sword of Aragorn, stiff in his motionless hand, blazed with a sudden fire.

The Palantir fell at Orthanc and

the ball was unharmed: it rolled on down the steps, a globe of crystal, dark, but glowing with a heart of fire.

and a bit later

At first the globe was dark, black as jet, with the moonlight gleaming on its surface. Then there came a faint glow and stir in the heart of it

In Morgul Vale

Down in its depths glimmered like a glow-worm thread the wraith-road from the dead city to the Nameless Pass. He turned hastily away.

When Denethor unveiled the Palantir

as he held it up, it seemed to those that looked on that the globe began to glow with an inner flame,

At Battle of the Pelinor Fields, Merry

drew his sword and looked at it, and the intertwining shapes of red and gold; and the flowing characters of Númenor glinted like fire upon the blade.

In front of the Black Gate, Gandalf

cast aside his cloak and a white light shone forth like a sword in that black place.

Then, there was Gollum whose

two pale lamplike eyes shone coldly as they peered inside,

(They did this a lot. Must have made hunting harder.)

(And I won't even try to list all the examples of Phial of Galadriel shining or swords which shone blue near orcs.)

The point of this long (but incomplete) list is that, while some of these examples can be discounted as literary, many cannot as they explicitly speak of the conjured lights as illuminating their environment.

This establishes beyond doubt that (a) magic/the supernatural is associated with uncanny light effects and (b) the effects are many and varied and in-the-story-real.

The fire on the Head Nazgul's sword can't be proven to be in-the-story-real, but, equally, can't be proven not to be. (FWIW, my own bet is that it was "real".)

  • Hmm. Quite a few of your quotes seem to point us towards the flames being real. For the most part, when Tolkien uses flowery language, he prefaces it with "seems" or "like"
    – Valorum
    Commented May 23 at 20:46
  • @Valorum Good point! I hadn't noticed that.
    – Mark Olson
    Commented May 23 at 20:57
  • You almost have a sufficient corpus of material to give us a statistical analysis of whether it is likely to be the case :-)
    – Valorum
    Commented May 23 at 21:06
  • @Valorum Or train an AI to recognize in-the-story-real phenomena.
    – Mark Olson
    Commented May 23 at 21:41
  • It's the "did Balrogs have wings?" argument of old all over again :) Still unsettled, because many a fan will fiercely argue either side, and will use compelling arguments to do so; and a pointless argument too, since it matters not for the enjoyment of the novel.
    – Andres F.
    Commented May 24 at 15:05


According to letter 210 (1958) of the Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, not only is the Witch-king qualitatively more powerful than the other Nazgûl, he is quoted as having been put in command by Sauron and having power of an almost "demonic force".

Regarding the Nazgûl:

"...They have no great physical power against the fearless; but what they have, and the fear that they inspire, is enormously increased in darkness. The Witch-king, their leader, is more powerful in all ways than the others; but he must not yet be raised to the stature of Vol. III. There, put in command by Sauron, he is given an added demonic force. "

The Witch-king's power at the Pelennor Fields is demonstrated to be escalated, beyond projecting an overwhelming fear, stated as the essential threat of the Nazgûl previously. At the Pelennor Fields, the Witch-king, in addition to instilling terror, is a physical threat with enhanced power as bestowed by Sauron, as his master, and ostensibly through his power over the rings.

Elevated to this state, it is arguable that he presents a threat to Gandalf himself, even as "the White". If Gandalf's flashes of lighting and fire are to be taken literally as manifestations of his power, then so too should this display by the Witch-king at the pinnacle of his.

  • 3
    Interesting detail, but does not really settle the flames question.
    – PJTraill
    Commented Jun 9, 2020 at 12:52
  • None of this answers the question.
    – OrangeDog
    Commented Jun 15, 2020 at 11:58

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

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