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It seems to be widely assumed (see, e.g., https://middle-earth.xenite.org/could-earnur-have-slain-the-lord-of-the-nazgul/) that the Witch-king would have been somehow invulnerable to Éowyn's sword had he not been stabbed by Merry's Barrow-blade first; this apparently somehow "eliminated" his "shield", making him vulnerable to normal weapons.

The basis for this is the passage in The Return of the King:

No other blade, not though mightier hands had wielded it, would have dealt that foe a wound so bitter, cleaving the undead flesh, breaking the spell that knit his unseen sinews to his will.”

I'm not convinced by this. No-one ever says the Nazgûl are unkillable, and in fact Aragorn says the Nazgûl have "no power against the fearless", which doesn't fit well with being actually undamageable without some kind of magic sword. They get driven off by Aragorn and Glorfindel wielding torches! I'd interpret the RotK passage as meaning that the Witch-king was only brought to his knees and unable to stop Éowyn's killing blow because he was stabbed by a magic Arnor sword, which was more damaging then expected.

Is there any further evidence that some kind of magic sword (if not one made specifically for the purpose in Arnor) would be essential to killing him?

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    If the evidence of Tolkien explicitly saying something in a work published during his lifetime with his cooperation is not convincing, then what would be?
    – Lesser son
    Commented Nov 1, 2022 at 15:07
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    Without the Barrow-blade specifically? Probably. Without some "magic" means of breaking the hold of his ring over his spirit? Unlikely.
    – chepner
    Commented Nov 1, 2022 at 16:39
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    @AKA -- I used the word "work" in its noun sense of productive output, which includes written materials. In case I still am unclear I'm speaking specifically of Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, published during his lifetime with his cooperation, including reading and marking up galley proofs.
    – Lesser son
    Commented Nov 1, 2022 at 21:56
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    It's not that the Nazgul have no power against the fearless: "They have no great physical power against the fearless; " In other words, if you are totally without fear, you need not be more concerned about one of them killing you than a regular guy with a sword and a few thousand years of practice. It tells us nothing at all about how hard they are themselves to kill.
    – Shamshiel
    Commented Nov 2, 2022 at 10:12
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    @AKA: In this letter, Tolkien is talking about how their main "power" is generating fear: Their peril is almost entirely due to the unreasoning fear which they inspire (like ghosts). They have no great physical power against the fearless; but what they have, and the fear that they inspire, is enormously increased in darkness.
    – Shamshiel
    Commented Nov 2, 2022 at 20:36

2 Answers 2

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As long as the One Ring was intact, the Nazgul were effectively undying. Note that I did not write "immortal" -- they were not immortal any more than Bilbo or Gollum was immortal. Bilbo said it very well:

'I am old, Gandalf. I don't look it, but I am beginning to feel it in my heart of hearts. Well-preserved indeed!' he snorted. 'Why, I feel all thin, sort of stretched, if you know what I mean: like butter that has been scraped over too much bread. That can't be right. I need a change, or something.'

Bilbo did not gain more life by wearing the Ring, though he did gain more duration. Gandalf put it this way:

'A mortal, Frodo, who keeps one of the Great Rings, does not die, but he does not grow or obtain more life, he merely continues, until at last every minute is a weariness. And if he often uses the Ring to make himself invisible, he fades: he becomes in the end invisible permanently, and walks in the twilight under the eye of the dark power that rules the Rings. Yes, sooner or later - later, if he is strong or well-meaning to begin with, but neither strength nor good purpose will last - sooner or later the dark power will devour him.'

The Nine did this to the humans who wore them and they became the Nazgul. (The Three were unsullied by Sauron's touch and in any event never were held by a mortal. The Seven went to the Dwarves but they proved to be resistant to most of their rings' ill effects and, basically, just became greedier.)

Now to the death of the chief of the Nazgul:

But suddenly [the head Nazgul] too stumbled forward with a cry of bitter pain, and his stroke went wide, driving into the ground. Merry's sword had stabbed him from behind, shearing through the black mantle, and passing up beneath the hauberk had pierced the sinew behind his mighty knee.

'Éowyn! Éowyn!' cried Merry. Then tottering, struggling up, with her last strength she drove her sword between crown and mantle, as the great shoulders bowed before her. The sword broke sparkling into many shards. The crown rolled away with a clang. Éowyn fell forward upon her fallen foe. But lo! the mantle and hauberk were empty. Shapeless they lay now on the ground, torn and tumbled; and a cry went up into the shuddering air, and faded to a shrill wailing, passing with the wind, a voice bodiless and thin that died, and was swallowed up, and was never heard again in that age of this world. ... Then [Merry] looked for his sword that he had let fall; for even as he struck his blow his arm was numbed, and now he could only use his left hand. And behold! there lay his weapon, but the blade was smoking like a dry branch that has been thrust in a fire; and as he watched it, it writhed and withered and was consumed.

So passed the sword of the Barrow-downs, work of Westernesse. But glad would he have been to know its fate who wrought it slowly long ago in the North-kingdom when the Dúnedain were young, and chief among their foes was the dread realm of Angmar and its sorcerer king. No other blade, not though mightier hands had wielded it, would have dealt that foe a wound so bitter, cleaving the undead flesh, breaking the spell that knit his unseen sinews to his will.

What exactly happened here is not completely clear. In the one case it appears Merry killed the Witch King: "No other blade, not though mightier hands had wielded it, would have dealt that foe a wound so bitter, cleaving the undead flesh, breaking the spell that knit his unseen sinews to his will." Yet something happened a second later when Eowyn stabbed the W-K in his unseen face: "with her last strength she drove her sword between crown and mantle, as the great shoulders bowed before her. The sword broke sparkling into many shards."

Note that Aragon says of Frodo's sword thrust at the Witch-King on Weathertop:

'The only hurt that it did to [Frodo's] enemy, I fear; for it is unharmed, but all blades perish that pierce that dreadful King.

I lean towards Merry doing the deed and Eowyn's sword breaking being either her stroke breaking on a not-yet-dead W-K or it being an ancillary effect of the W-K's demise. But reasonable people do disagree on this.

Regardless, it is clear that (1) the W-K, like any human wearing a Great Ring endures as long as he posses it, but does not gain more life and turns into "butter scraped over too much toast" "until at last every minute is a weariness".

(2) Merry's barrow-blade was essential: "No other blade, not though mightier hands had wielded it, would have dealt that foe a wound so bitter, cleaving the undead flesh, breaking the spell that knit his unseen sinews to his will."

(This is not to say that Merry's blade was necessarily unique -- other, like, blades may have been made by smiths of Westernesse. But it took a special blade made by a technique lost in M-E.)

(3) We don't actually know anything about how the blade was made, or by what mechanism it operated, or by what mechanism the Nine gave the Nazgul long unlife. We only know how Angmar actually died and that no other Nazgul died until the One was unmade and the Nine failed. Speculation about other ways to end Nazgul is nugatory.

(4) This is not to say that the Nazgul consequently had nothing to fear. There is no reason to believe that they could not be damaged -- short of death -- like anyone else. And not just physically:

More deadly to [the Witch-King] was the name of Elbereth.'

The Rings gave their wearers much, but not invulnerability. And even if they were invulnerable, a Nazgul who failed would have to return to Sauron and confess his failure:

Or he will not slay thee in thy turn. He will bear thee away to the houses of lamentation, beyond all darkness, where thy flesh shall be devoured, and thy shrivelled mind be left naked to the Lidless Eye.'

Being naked to the gaze of the Lidless Eye was the fate of failure for the Nazgul. And that was reason enough to fear a foe who was not afraid, since most of their power came from the miasma of fear that surrounded them. A fearless foe was in their league and in turn to be feared.

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  • So are you saying without a special sword he'd be damaged and driven off, but would technically still exist (like Sauron post-destruction of the ring) and possibly reconstruct himself?
    – AKA
    Commented Nov 1, 2022 at 20:34
  • @AKA What Tolkien says is that only a very special sword could kill the W-K. I think it is likely that he could be harmed (but not thrust out of his undeadness) through other means, but Tolkien is not clear on this. There really isn't enough information to go much further. All we can be sure of is that the Nazgul could be eliminated only by ancient magic (that none of the Wise remembered if they ever knew it) or the destruction of the One Ring.
    – Mark Olson
    Commented Nov 1, 2022 at 21:21
  • Not sure I agree - he says the wound would not have "so bitter"
    – AKA
    Commented Nov 1, 2022 at 22:44
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    The way I read the quote - Merry's sword broke the spell, allowing the WK to be physically harmed. The hamstring cut isn't fatal, but Eowen's subsequent sword through the face certainly is.
    – OrangeDog
    Commented Nov 2, 2022 at 10:52
  • @OrangeDog "a wound so bitter, cleaving the undead flesh, breaking the spell that knit his unseen sinews to his will" sounds like more than a cut hamstring. But reasonable people can disagree.
    – Mark Olson
    Commented Nov 2, 2022 at 11:13
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While they were driven off by Aragorn and Glorfindel, they were not killed. Even the river didn't kill them when they tried to reach Rivendell. They could be scattered or driven away, but they were essentially immortal ghosts. The sword made him mortal again, letting Éowyn's sword kill him. It is less that he had a shield keeping him immune, and more his immortality was taken away.

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    "The sword made him mortal again..." Citation needed! Where is this mentioned in the books?
    – Hans Olo
    Commented Nov 1, 2022 at 16:50
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    @daishozen -- Sauron is not capable of removing the Gift of Men. No Ainu is. Only Eru has the power to affect that aspect of existence. Therefore the Nazgûl are not immortal in the sense that Elves and Ainur are.
    – Lesser son
    Commented Nov 1, 2022 at 17:30
  • @Lesserson And still Tolkien is pretty clear that the Nazguls life force is tied to their rings and to the One ring. They have combat/magic encounters with Aragorn, Glorfindel, Elrond, Gandalf and Legolas but none manages to kill a single one of the Nazgul. So that the Witch-King getting killed before any rings were destroyed is Tolkien contradicting himself. Also what about the Witch-King's ring, did it go up in a puff of smoke when he died? Lore-wise, it doesn't make much sense. Tolkien was clearly just looking for a climatic end to the battle while throwing his own lore out the window.
    – Amarth
    Commented Nov 1, 2022 at 18:39
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    Where does it say that a Nazgûl can't be killed without destroying its ring? There are no fights against the Nazgûl by either Elrond or Legolas in the books. (Aragorn simply them off with fire; I'm not opening the can of worms that is why, exactly, the Nazgûl fear fire. You can probably assume that the level of power Gandalf needed to use to kill a Nazgûl was still forbidden him at that time. It's not clear that Glorfindel did anything except reveal himself, causing the Nazgûl to break off until some other more opportune time.)
    – chepner
    Commented Nov 1, 2022 at 19:29
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    @HansOlo I was interpolating the meaning behind the quote given in the question, that is why I did not give a quote or reference myself.
    – Daishozen
    Commented Nov 1, 2022 at 20:18

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