26

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.

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    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 Jun 3 at 17:42
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    Hah! It's lampshaded a few pages earlier: "King, Ringwraith, Lord of the Nazgûl, he had many weapons." :) – DavidW Jun 3 at 17:50
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    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 Jun 3 at 19:43
  • @DavidW Why not this? (cue knife-wrench joke for the Scrubs fans) – Federico Poloni Jun 4 at 6:50
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    @DavidW Do you take out your finest, most precious tools for simple, mundane, dirty tasks? – DKNguyen Jun 4 at 18:00
30

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.
ibid.

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.
ibid

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.
ibid.

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  • 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. – M. A. Golding Jun 4 at 15:37
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    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 Jun 4 at 16:09
17

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

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    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 Jun 3 at 18:29
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    You're right, I will be – Edlothiad Jun 3 at 18:29
  • valid answer - even though the question does cite the book as being the impetus for the question – NKCampbell Jun 3 at 18:42
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    I dunno. In the 2003 movie I see the flames run up the blade, not down it. :-P – DavidW Jun 3 at 18:50
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    @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 Jun 3 at 18:55
11

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.

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    dont they use fire to hold the nazgul back? would seem odd if beings terrified of fire were wielding flaming swords. – Nathan Hughes Jun 4 at 12:37
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    @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. – Eiríkr Útlendi Jun 5 at 0:05
1

Yes.

According to Tolkein letter 210 (1958), not only is the Witch King qualitatively more powerful than the other nazgul, he is quoted as having been put in command by Sauron and having power of an almost "demonic force".

Regarding the nazgul:

"...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 Pelennor is demonstrated to be escalated, beyond projecting an overwhelming fear, stated as the essential threat of the nazgul previously. At the Pelennor, 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.

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

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