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In Fellowship of the Ring, it is said in several places that Aragorn, Glorfindel, and perhaps even a few other people, were able to fight off Nazgûl; they can't fend off all nine at once, but if they only encounter a few at a time (the maximum number of Nazgûl each character can handle at once is stated, but I can't remember the numbers at the moment), they can hold their own, and even repel them. As if to prove the point, Aragorn forces several Nazgûl to flee Weathertop when he wields nothing more than a pair of torches.

Yet the Nazgûl are more or less immortal, and if you strike one with a sword, the sword is destroyed and the Nazgûl is unscathed (we'll leave special swords like Merry's aside for now).

So how does one fend off an immortal foe whom no normal blade can harm? Is it simply a matter of "all torches, all the time"?


Note: This question addresses issues related to "How powerful were the nine", but does not ask the same question. Rather, I am asking "By what means were Aragorn and Glorfindel able to do battle with the Nazgûl (that is, how do you fight against something you can't hurt)?" In fact, the answers to that question raise the very question I am asking, and do not answer it in any way.


It is worth mentioning that the first few people (including Sam's elderly hobbit father, Farmer Maggot, and either Butterbur or one of his hobbit employees) who encounter an individual Nazgûl in LotR manage to get rid of it by essentially slamming a door in its face and shouting "Beat it, jerk!" Nazgûl are far less impressive in the books than they are in the movies,to say the least. I imagine that if you reacted to a movie-Nazgûl by saying "SCRAM!" and slamming the door, you'd earn yourself a broken door, a number of stab wounds, and a funeral held in your honor.

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    Apparently, having girl parts helps a lot. That or hairy feet. – Omegacron May 18 '15 at 16:38
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    @Omegacron Or both. – Janus Bahs Jacquet May 18 '15 at 23:05
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    Also, people forget that when Glorfindel prophesied the death of the Witch King he said that it won't be a man that kills him, not that he can't be killed by a man! "Do not pursue him! He will not return to these lands. Far off yet is his doom, and not by the hand of man will he fall." The Witch King of Angmar - Wikipedia – Möoz May 18 '15 at 23:05
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    @Mooz, though to someone who might consider fighting one, it sounds pretty much the same. "It's not that you can't get an A; you just won't get an A." Well then... – Paul Draper May 19 '15 at 2:12
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    Should be noted that in the Shire, the Nazgul are on an intelligence-gathering mission. Leaving a trail of bodies in their wake, or still living but terrified out of their minds hobbits, detracts from the success of such a mission. – jamesqf May 19 '15 at 5:25
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Tolkien comments on this briefly in Letter 210. The whole letter is worth a read, since he scathingly (and quite hilariously) rips into a script for a proposed film version, but I'll only quote the relevant section (bold is my emphasis, italic is Tolkien's):

[The Black Riders'] 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. 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. But even in the Battle of the Pelennor, the darkness had only just broken.

The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien 210: To Forrest J. Ackerman (Incomplete). June 1958

Tolkien suggests that martial might is not one of the strengths of the Nazgûl.

Fellowship discusses why Glorfindel isn't concerned about them:

'The Elves may fear the Dark Lord, and they may fly before him, but never again will they listen to him or serve him. And here in Rivendell there live still some of his chief foes: the Elven-wise, lords of the Eldar from beyond the furthest seas. They do not fear the Ringwraiths, for those who have dwelt in the Blessed Realm live at once in both worlds, and against both the Seen and the Unseen they have great power.'

Fellowship of the Ring Book 2 Chapter 1: "Many Meetings"

This "great power" is not elucidated upon, but it suggests that the Nazgûl aren't so much defeated as "convinced that they're going to have to fight it out", and they don't seem to like to fight it out.

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    +1, and yet again, brilliant answer. For what it is worth, I was thinking of the books, not the movies (Glorfindel doesn't appear in the movies, and Aragorn wields one torch and one sword, not two torches; also, the movies never say that blades are useless against Nazgul). Aragorn does say, in the books, that Frodo's sword did the Nazgul no harm, and they were temporarily repelled by his cry of "O Elbereth! Gilthoniel!" But the Nazgul then redouble their attack and are only forced to flee when Aragorn appears bearing the torches. – Wad Cheber May 18 '15 at 1:35
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    I did actually reference the films, but only in my footnote, which was meant mostly to amuse. – Wad Cheber May 18 '15 at 1:37
  • @WadCheber - Blades certainly aren't useless against the Nazgul, since Merry and Eowyn kill the Witch King with blades. But how and why, that is a mystery ;-) Unless that "demonic force" gives him a body that can be killed, which I'm not sure is an upgrade in his case. – Joel May 18 '15 at 2:18
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    @Joel - an answer to another question here reveals that Merry's blade broke the bonds that held the Witch King on earth, paving the way for Eowyn to use her sword to finish him off. Merry made him mortal, Eowyn killed him. – Wad Cheber May 18 '15 at 3:42
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    I think this is a case of the movies making them way more intimidating than they necessarily are in the books. The books absolutely focus on their ability to cause fear. That's hard to really portray in a movie but portraying intimidating invisible men? That's much easier and much more visually exciting. It's hard to read the books without this mental image. – enderland May 19 '15 at 1:41
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We must not forget that the idea of "power" in the Tolkienverse is not generally a physical one. In that, Tokien's beings have "powers" of fear, love, despair, hope and influence.

As such, when comparing the beings' "power" levels, it is incorrect to think of it as fire "hurting" a Nazgul, but rather that fire does away with their advantage of stealth and fear.

Hence, Glorfindel and Aragorn, who are unafraid and unwaivering in their own strength of love, are able to withstand and repel the Nazgul. In these instances, it is not a case of "beating them with a stick sword"; it is a case of overpowering their advantage.

As you mentioned, Frodo crying "O Elbereth! Gilthoniel!" is a mark of both defiance against their "power" of fear, darkness and evil, and Frodo's reliance upon the powers of love, hope and goodness.

This is also why the Army of the Dead were so effective in the battles against the dark armies, as DVK mentions:

As you can see, their weapon[s] we[re] fear and terror, nothing physical.

This is a common theme in Tolkien's writings, a lot of the "magic" and "power" is not really physical in the sense that we might generally think of it and is often "off-screen".

Therefore, how can one man or a bunch of misfit (a man, an Elf, and four Hobbits) withstand these "mighty" beings? Well, simple, don't be affected by their "weapons". This is why the Witch King "resorted" to using the Morgul Blade against Frodo, it was the only weapon that could have done the job (in this instance).

The [funny] case of Butterbur, Sam's elderly father (Gaffer Gamgee) and farmer Maggot are actually really good examples of this non-physical "power" which the Nazgul possess; the three didn't know what they were dealing with, and the Nazgul had their fear aspect "turned off" to be able to stealthily roam the North and ask about "Shire" and "Baggins"... Hence, the three men did not feel any fear and simply "slammed the door" in the Nazguls' faces and told them to "piss off".

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    Very good points. To add some authorial context, in his Letters Tolkien mentions the distinction between magia and goeteia; the use of (magical) power to produce, respectively, tangible results and more subtle effects. The fear power of the Nazgûl may be regarded as a goetic effect – Jason Baker May 18 '15 at 3:42
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    @WadCheber Thanks. Why are people afraid of ghosts IRL? Fear of the unknown is a powerful phenomenon. The point may no be to cause harm per se, at least not physically; but imagine in a war, suddenly a huge ghost figure pops-up and comes at you screeching, this may just be me, but I'd drop my guns and start running for the hills, therefore causing rancour and discord amongst my team mates: Enemies - 1 : 0 - My Team. – Möoz May 18 '15 at 4:10
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    Their chief weapons were surprise. Surprise and fear... Their two weapons... – Mikey Mouse May 18 '15 at 8:07
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    @WadCheber: Have you ever, in your life, been mortally afraid of something? It's downright paralyzing. Which isn't a good thing when the Nazgul is leading an army of orcs, which are using your moment of fear to cut your head off. Fear is a weapon, and a powerful one. – DevSolar May 18 '15 at 11:41
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    Man, you sound like that weirdo Dumbledore with all that "love" mumbo jumbo. Look where that ended him. – DVK-on-Ahch-To May 18 '15 at 15:11
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How about grabbing a pointy object (like a pike, sword, arrow, etc.) and trying to peek the pointy bit into them? Or grabbing a heavy object (like a club, a mace, a battlestar or so) and repeatedly hit the nazgúl with it. AFAIK nazgúl gains their limited immortality - which is not invincibility - from their rings, and the rings have limited power. One only has to cause as much damage to the nazgúl as one can, and hope the power of the ring "dries off", so the nazgúl gets reduced to its semi-dead state.

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    Nope. Frodo swings his sword at one, gets stabbed, and cries "O Elbereth! Gilthoniel!" The wraiths withdraw, approach again, and Aragorn scares them off. He finds a black cloak with a tear near the bottom, and says: "This was the stroke of Frodo's sword. The only hurt that it did to his enemy, I fear, for [the sword] is unharmed, but all blades must perish that pierce that dreadful king. More deadly to him was the name of Elbereth." After the Nazgul are washed away in the flood, Frodo asks if they are dead, and Gandalf says no - "[they] cannot be so easily destroyed". – Wad Cheber May 18 '15 at 17:46
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    Only a handful of magical swords - like the one Merry gets in the barrows and eventually uses on the Witch King - can injure the wraiths. Merry's blow severs the bonds that chain the Witch King to earth, so to speak, making him mortal. Then Eowyn finishes him off. All but a few blades would cease to exist if they touched a wraith. – Wad Cheber May 18 '15 at 17:51
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    @Wad: while it might be true that the wraiths can't be hurt by swords, this quote saying "all blades must perish that pierce that dreadful king" doesn't mean the blade won't hurt the king. Just that even if it does, the blade will be destroyed in doing so. In fact, Aragorn says, "it can't have hurt the king, because if it had then the blade would be destroyed. The name of Elbereth did more damage than that swipe". He didn't say, "it can't have hurt the king because the king cannot be hurt by blades". Compare, a hollow point bullet would be destroyed if it pierced me, but I'd still be hurt! – Steve Jessop May 19 '15 at 1:20
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    @WadCheber Did I say anything about actually killing the wraith? What I said is one (theoretically) can harm it repeatedly and render it incapable of act. Since the wraiths are almost immortal I suspect existing as a shade with no means to interact with the world does not seem to be a pleasant choice, so wraiths flee before the risk increases. Also, I'm aware of blades (and possibly other weapons) break on touching them, but AFAIK Tolkien never says that they do not get harmed/injured in this process, and if they do it is only a matter of patience and replacement swords. – mg30rg May 19 '15 at 8:15
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    @mg30rg +1 for putting into my mind the image of Aragorn tying a wraith to a chair, wheeling in a cart full of old swords, and stabbing them into the wraith's face, one after another. – Wad Cheber May 19 '15 at 17:00
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As I understand it, they can feel some amount of pain hence them running after Aragorn burned them, and it is mentioned that no man can slay a Nazgûl therefore letting Éowyn kill the Witch king of Angmar. I imagine that Sauron would not have thought a mere woman could best the Nazgûl in battle.

This is speculation

  • If I recall correctly, Aragorn doesn't actually burn any Nazgûl in the books. He just scares them off. – Wad Cheber Oct 30 '15 at 16:43
  • Sorry, It's been awhile, but being able to feel pain would still explain their fear. – zekey Oct 30 '15 at 16:49
  • Could be. I certainly don't know. – Wad Cheber Oct 30 '15 at 16:54
  • makes two of us, as I said, this is speculation. – zekey Oct 30 '15 at 16:56

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