Witch-king of Angmar

From Tolkien Gateway

Witch-king of Angmar
Biographical Information
Other names Black Captain, Lord of the Nazgûl, Chief of the Nine, Lord of Minas Morgul
Created/born S.A. 1800-2200, probably Númenor
Years influential S.A. 2251-T.A. 3019
Destroyed T.A. 3019, Battle of the Pelennor Fields
Age 4200+
Realm Angmar, Minas Morgul
Physical Description
Race Men/Nazgûl
Gender Male
Appearance (Later) Cruel, pale king with gleaming hair and a crown, invisible to most eyes
Accomplishments Fall of Arnor, fall of Minas Ithil and Osgiliath, deaths of Eärnur and Théoden

The Witch-king of Angmar was the chief of the Nazgûl, King of Angmar, and Sauron’s great captain in his wars. A wraith, the Witch-king of Angmar was nearly indestructible, a terrible warrior, and a cunning strategist.


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[edit] History

Some time after Sauron seized the Nine Rings in the Fall of Eregion, S.A. 1697 he gave them to mortal kings, sorcerers, and other warriors.1 With these rings the Nine achieved glory and grew wealthy, with the ability to turn invisible at will, not aging, but hating life as they were slowly drawn under Sauron’s dominion.1 Eventually all became Ringwraiths, the dreaded Nazgûl.

The one later known as the Witch-king was one of these, likely one of the unnamed three lords of Númenor to take the rings.2 3 He first appeared in the histories as a Ringwraith in S.A. 2251. Being the most powerful of the Nazgûl, he became their chief, the most dreaded servant of his master Sauron.

When Mordor fell in S.A. 3441, the Nazgûl vanished into the shadows, and were not heard of again for a long time.4

[edit] Early Power in Angmar

More than a thousand years later, in c. T.A. 1050 of the Third Age, Sauron began to rebuild his power in Dol Guldur. In c. T.A. 1300 his Nazgûl also reappeared, and the Witch-king established his realm, Angmar, in the north.4 His capital was Carn Dum, on the northernmost peak of the Misty Mountains. He summoned men, orcs, and other creatures of evil inclination to his banner. No one knew that he was actually a servant of the long-dormant Sauron, and few that he was a wraith.5

The Witch-king in The Lord of the Rings Online.
The Witch-king in The Lord of the Rings Online.
In the north, disunity plagued the Dúnedain of Arnor. They had divided into three kingdoms, Cardolan, Rhudaur, and Arthedain, and were constantly at war with one another.5 The Witch-king saw the North-kingdom of Arnor as more vulnerable than the South-kingdom of Gondor.6 He played upon their opposition, sending in infiltrators and taking over the hearts of the men of that land. By T.A. 1349 the government of Rhudaur was controlled by men secretly in his service,6 and he secretly aided them in their wars against the other kingdoms.7 He then struck at a time of great hostility among the three, in T.A. 1409. Rhudaur in the east fell first, and most of the Dúnedain there were hunted down and slaughtered by sorcerers.8 Cardolan was ravaged, and the Tower of Amon Sûl, held by the men of Arthedain, was placed under siege. King Arveleg I was slain, and the tower was destroyed, but the coveted palantír escaped in the hands of the surviving men of Arthedain and was brought to Fornost.9

The Witch-king continued to press the men of Arthedain, laying siege to Fornost, and he might have taken over all of Arnor in that one offensive. But Araphor, the 18-year-old son of Arveleg, came to leadership and, with the help of the ancient elf Círdan of Lindon, repelled the Witch-king’s forces at Fornost and the North Downs.10 Elrond brought an army of Elves from Rivendell and Lothlórien, and the Witch-king was pushed back and subdued.

[edit] Twilight of Angmar

The Witch-king sat silent in Carn Dum, rebuilding his armies and preparing for a final assault on Arthedain, last of the Arnorian kingdoms. The Dark Plague came and went in Third Age 1636, taking with it the last of the Dúnedain of Cardolan. The Witch-king sent barrow-wights to inhabit the barrows in Tyrn Gorthad.10 In 1974, he felt that his power was sufficiently restored to begin the advance.

His attack was sudden, but not unexpected. King Arvedui sent a message to King Eärnil of Gondor the year before, but help did not arrive in time. Fornost fell, and the Witch-king took up residence there in the palace.11 Arvedui held out as best as he might on the North Downs, but at last fled north with the treasured palantíri of Amon Sûl and Annúminas. He would not return, for he perished in a shipwreck in 1975. With him the palantíri were lost forever in the icy seas of Forod. The already-diminished North-kingdom ended, and Arnor fell.10

Meanwhile, a coalition in the south had formed. Eärnil sent his son, Eärnur, north with a great fleet, all that Gondor could spare. They arrived at Lindon, and joined with the folk of Círdan. Círdan summoned all that would come: surviving Dúnedain of Arnor and elves of Lindon.11 Even a company of hobbit archers went to their aide.10 The Witch-king had grown overconfident, and instead of staying behind his fortifications initiated the attack. The Battle of Fornost was fought on the plain between Nenuial and the North Downs. The Witch-king may not have anticipated the strength brought against him, but for whatever reason the alliance gained the upper hand. His army began to fall back toward Fornost, but Eärnur’s magnificent horsemen struck from the north, and the Witch-king was routed.11

He decided to flee to Angmar and the safety of Carn Dum, but the cavalry, with Eärnur himself in the lead, overtook him. Moreover, the ranks of the allies swelled, as an army of elves from Rivendell came led by the mighty hero of old, Glorfindel. Angmar was purged of men and orcs, and all seemed lost for the Witch-king in the face of such numbers. But the Witch-king himself came at the last, robed and masked in black and riding a black horse, and attempted to kill Eärnur with his own hands. But Eärnur’s horse shied away and fled, and the Witch-king laughed. But Glorfindel came on his white horse, and faced with such power the Witch-king fled. He vanished into the shadows, and no-one marked where he had gone.11

Eärnur wanted to pursue, but Glorfindel held him back, and made his famous prophecy.

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

[edit] Lord of Minas Morgul

The Witch-king escaped to Mordor, and gathered the other Ringwraiths about him in 1980.4 Angmar and Carn Dum were lost, and so in 2000 the Witch-king began a two-year siege of Minas Ithil, eventually capturing the place and turning it into his residence. It was renamed Minas Morgul, and the palantír was sent to Sauron. The Witch-king sent an aura of fear in Gondor, and much of Ithilien was deserted.11

Eärnur succeeded his father as King of Gondor, and still held the Witch-king in especial hostility due to his humiliation at the Battle of Fornost. The year of his coronation the Witch-king sent him a taunting challenge, but Mardil the steward restrained Eärnur from rash action. Seven years later the challenge was repeated, and Eärnur rode with a small escort to Minas Morgul. None that rode thither ever returned, and there was no longer a King in Gondor.11

After this the Witch-king bided his time. He and the Nazgûl built up their armies, including the terrible new orc-race of uruks. In 2475 he sent them out to capture Osgiliath, which they did successfully. They were driven out by Boromir I, but Osgiliath now lay completely in ruins. Boromir went on to retake Ithilien, so that even the Witch-king feared him. But he was killed by a Morgul-wound, and so his rule was but twelve years.12

[edit] Hunt for the Ring

Sauron declared himself openly in 2951, and sent three of his Ringwraiths to Dol Guldur (though the Witch-king was left in Minas Morgul). Then, by lucky chance, the creature Gollum was captured and interrogated. Under torture, the wretched creature revealed the tale of the One Ring and how it came to be in his possession. But he had the daring to trick Sauron into thinking that the land of the hobbits who stole the Ring was on the banks of the Gladden River.13 Under the leadership of the Witch-king, Sauron sent the Nine unclothed and invisible to search for the Ring after the assault of Osgiliath.

Nazgûl by Marc Holmes.
Nazgûl by Marc Holmes.
Khamûl, the Witch-king’s lieutenant, reported that he was unable to find the “Shire” in the vales of Anduin. The Witch-king was determined to search north and west until Gollum was found, or the Shire. But plans were halted when Sauron received word of the prophecy in Gondor and the doings of the turncoat Saruman, and concluded that the Wise did not yet have possession of the Ring. He sent the Ringwraiths to Isengard in the form of Black Riders, too late to prevent the escape of the captured wizard Gandalf, but had words with Saruman. Saruman, already a traitor to both sides due to his transparent lust for the Ring, fortified himself in Isengard. The Witch-king did not have enough power with him to assault Saruman in his great fortress, but had words with him. Saruman convinced the Witch-king that Gandalf alone knew where the Shire and the Ring was, and so the Nine passed into Rohan in search of him.13

They came upon the traitor called Wormtongue and questioned him. The terrified man told them everything he knew; that Gandalf had passed through Rohan, where the Shire was, and even that Saruman had lied to them. The Witch-king spared Wormtongue’s life, foreseeing that Wormtongue would bring ruin to Saruman. He divided his wraiths into four pairs, and went with the swiftest to Minhiriath. Along the way they captured several spies of Saruman, and found to their delight charts and maps of the Shire. They sent along the spy to Bree, warning them that they now belonged to Mordor, not Saruman.13

They came to Sarn Ford, but the Dúnedain Rangers prevented them from crossing. They sent for their great captain, the chieftain Aragorn II, who alone could well resist the wraiths, but he was away, and the Ringwraiths captured the ford and killed many of the Rangers.13 The Witch-king sent three Ringwraiths under Khamûl into the Shire while he went east with the others.4 But they had come too late: the Ring had moved on in the hands of a hobbit, Frodo Baggins.

[edit] Pursuit of the Ring

Fire on Weathertop by Ted Nasmith.
Fire on Weathertop by Ted Nasmith.
Khamûl was unsuccessful, but brought word from the spy they had spared in Bree. The man had witnessed a vanishing act on Frodo's part, and had organized an attack on the inn. The Witch-king guessed that Frodo would head east, and sent four wraiths to Weathertop, the ruins of the tower he had destroyed long ago. He went south along the Greenway and discovered nothing. Gandalf followed them, but the Witch-king let him slip ahead, and attacked him on Weathertop. Gandalf escaped at dawn, and again the Witch-king divided his force and sent four after the wizard. The Ring walked almost right into his hands. The captain of the Dúnedain, Aragorn II, had become the guide of the hobbits, and led them to Weathertop, where they were spotted and attacked. The Witch-king advanced on Frodo, and the terrified hobbit put on the Ring, seeing them as they truly were. The Witch-king stabbed Frodo in the shoulder when he resisted and invoked the name of Elbereth. The tip of his blade broke off and sent poison through the hobbit’s veins. Then Aragorn counterattacked with flaming brands. The Witch-king fled at his mighty presence, confident that the poison of the blade would do its work and bend Frodo's will to his purpose. But he was shaken by the encounter; Gandalf and Aragorn were people of immense power, and even the Ring-bearer, who was not an especially strong person, had dared to resist him. He feared that Frodo might have some elvish power. Moreover, he knew that Frodo’s weapon, a blade of Westernesse, was wrought for his undoing and if it had struck him would have done him damage. He was thus distressed, and Aragorn, Frodo, and their little company eluded him.
Attack of the Wraiths by Ted Nasmith.
Attack of the Wraiths by Ted Nasmith.

He resumed the pursuit quickly, though, and found the Khamûl had been driven from the Last Bridge by his old enemy Glorfindel. The Witch-king, who only had one companion with him, was likewise unable to confront him openly. They regrouped and went south, rejoining with the other four. They managed to pick up the trail of the company of the Ring, and despite hindrance from Glorfindel and Aragorn managed to pursue Frodo alone on Asfaloth. The pursuit came to the Ford of Bruinen, and there Frodo compelled the horse to stop. The Witch-king saw his defiance and laughed, breaking his sword with a movement of his hand. But the waters of the Bruinen rose at Elrond's command, sweeping the Nine downstream.14

[edit] War of the Ring

The Witch-king took the only surviving horse back to Mordor, arriving there in December. He then sent aid to the other eight Nazgûl, and they returned in secret. In Minas Morgul they prepared for a grand invasion of Gondor at the order of their master. The Witch-king was given by Sauron added "demonic" force.15 On March 10, 3019, the signal was given and Minas Morgul was emptied. The Witch-king rode at the head of the army in black, upon a black horse, as he had in the time of the wars of Angmar. As the Witch-king passed out of the gates of the dead city, he sensed the presence of Frodo. He was disturbed, but continued on through Ithilien.

With the Witch-king in command, Osgiliath soon fell.16 The defeat was attributed to his superior numbers, and his terrible presence which made all hearts to quail. The Rammas Echor was breached, and the Pelennor Fields were overrun. Other wraiths he sent out mounted on Fell Beasts. Faramir, Steward Denethor II's son, was wounded by a dart and the black breath, but his company was saved by a sortie. Then the Witch-king laid siege to Minas Tirith itself, sending fire and the heads of the dead Gondorians into the city via catapults. Then he launched the assault.

Gandalf facing the Witch-king by Angus McBride.
Gandalf facing the Witch-king by Angus McBride.
He sent Grond out first, accompanying it in person so as to be the first to enter the city. Three times Grond struck the gate, empowered by the sorcery of the Witch-king. The third time the Gate shattered in a flash of fire. The Witch-king passed into Minas Tirith, but was confronted by Gandalf on Shadowfax. Gandalf forbade him entry, but the Witch-king laughed and put on a show of power.
"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 cam 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.
The Return of the King, The Siege of Gondor
But as Gandalf stood resolute, the Rohirrim came. The Witch-king departed, mounting a fell beast and descending upon King Théoden who led the attack. Snowmane, the King's horse, collapsed with a dart in the side, and Théoden was crushed beneath him. But the rider Dernhelm defied the Witch-king. The Witch-king threatened Dernhelm with a terrible death, but the rider revealed that she was a woman, Éowyn, and the Witch-king remembered the words of Glorfindel. The Witch-king hesitated, but then moved forward. Éowyn decapitated the fell beast, but the Witch-king rose and struck her down with his mace, breaking her shield-arm. Then the hobbit Meriadoc Brandybuck stabbed him in the sinew of his leg with the blade of Westernesse, as he drew back to kill the woman. Then Éowyn rose and drove her sword through where his invisible head was, and the sword broke as his crown toppled. The Witch-king gave a great and horrible wail, and perished at last.17
Éowyn and the Witch-king by Michael Kaluta.
Éowyn and the Witch-king by Michael Kaluta.

So the prophecy of Glorfindel was fulfilled, for the Witch-king did not fall at the hands of a man, but at the hands of a woman and a hobbit. With his death, and the coming of Aragorn II in the black ships, the Battle of the Pelennor Fields was lost.

[edit] Early Life

The Witch-king's true name is never given, and therefore among Tolkien fans, the Witch-king is often simply called Angmar, after the name of the realm he founded and led. Many fans also identify him as one of the three Black Númenóreans Tolkien stated had become Nazgûl, or possibly Isilmo, a Númenórean prince and father of Tar-Minastir. In the now defunct Middle-earth Role Playing game, he was named Er-Murazor, a Númenórean prince, though this is strictly non-canonical and does not appear outside of the role playing material. It is also a popular belief among some fans, that the Witch-king was not dead as Éowyn had not an enchanted sword, and cite the passage that says that his wail was not heard again In this age of the earth. But other Tolkien scholars say that although the Witch-king's return at an unspecified time in the future is possible, another possible solution is that Merry's stroke destroyed the Witch-king's invulnerability allowing Éowyn's non-magic blade to end his existence forever. Also, because of the perishing of the One Ring, the nine other rings which kept the Nazgûl would probably have lost their power.

[edit] Names

[edit] Inspirations

An undead witch-king named Þráinn appears in Hrómundar saga Gripssonar. It is possible that this was Tolkien's source of inspiration.

The prophecy that the Witch-king would fall "not by the hand of man" and the fulfillment of the prophecy occurring as a technicality (being slain by a woman) bears a striking resemblance to the prophecy regarding the title character's death in Shakespeare's Macbeth, where it was foretold that Macbeth will be slain "not by man born of woman" and is then killed by Mcduff, born by caesarian section. Tolkien it seems was familiar with the play having reputedly taken inspiration for the Last March of the Ents from the same source (See article Ents for details).

[edit] Portrayal in Adaptations

The Witch-king in Peter Jackson's The Return of the King
The Witch-king in Peter Jackson's The Return of the King

1978: Ralph Bakshi's The Lord of the Rings:

The Witch-king is shown with no distinction from the other Ringwraiths; all are robed in brown and black, and none seem to be able to talk clearly.

1980: Rankin/Bass' The Return of the King:

The Witch-king is portrayed as a humanoid figure with no head. Red eyes glare under a golden crown. His dialogue is more or less as in the books, albeit in a strange and somewhat unfitting electronic voice. After a stab from behind by Merry, Éowyn beheads him. It is worthy of note that the Witch-king is seen with the Red Eye of Barad-dûr as his emblem and faction, rather than the grim moon of Minas Morgul.

1981: BBC Radio's The Lord of the Rings:

The role of the Witch-king is expanded with material from The Hunt for the Ring. He is the second speaking character in the series: he is the one who captures Gollum, though he is not identified as such until the credits. Philip Voss provided the voice for the Witch-king.

2001: Vivendi's The Fellowship of the Ring:

The Witch-king is shown without distinction of the other Nazgûl.

2001-3: Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings:

The Lord of the Nazgûl is only named the "Witch-king of Angmar" in The Return of the King. In that film, there is no mention of Glorfindel's prophecy; there is only a claim among the enemy that "no man can kill" the Witch-king. Like the other Nazgûl, he is depicted as a humanoid figure shrouded in a hooded black robe; his only distinguishing feature is a mask-like spiked helmet with a huge mouth. His first mention is when Gandalf tells Pippin while in Minas Tirith that the Dark Lord has not yet revealed his greatest servant: the Witch-king, the one that "stabbed Frodo on Weathertop". This is a curious statement, as Weathertop was not named in the first movie, and confusion would probably have resulted had there not been a flashback.
During the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, the Witch-king's army uses the ram Grond to break through the city gates early in the battle (after the failure of a lesser ram), and the Witch-king is not present to confront Gandalf as he is in the book. The confrontation takes place later, as Pippin and Gandalf race to the tombs to save Faramir, and the Witch-king intercepts them. Unlike in the book, this meeting decisively favors the Witch-king, who breaks Gandalf's staff and throws the wizard to the ground before leaving to deal with the arrival of the Rohirrim. Gandalf's face shows obvious fear in this scene, in comparison to the resolution (for "victory or death") in the books.
The Witch-king's destruction on the battlefield occurs with less dialogue than in the book, and the weapons used to destroy him are both mundane: Merry's sword is not a dagger from the Barrow-downs, but rather the Rohirric sword that Théoden had as a child.
Seven actors are known to have played some part of the Witch-king.
  1. An unidentified extra portrayed the "King of Men" in the prologue. He was chosen to be the Witch-king simply because he was the smallest of the nine.
  2. Shane Rangi did the horse chase.
  3. Fran Walsh provided the "Ringwraith scream".
  4. Effects technician Ben Price played the Witch-king in "many scenes"[1]
  5. Brent McIntyre is officially credited as the Witch-king in The Fellowship of the Ring. He stabbed Frodo.
  6. Lawrence Makoare filled the robe of the Witch-king in The Return of the King.
  7. Andy Serkis provided the voice of the Witch-king. It was layered thrice to give it a ghastly effect.
In EA's The Return of the King, with different helmet.
In EA's The Return of the King, with different helmet.

2003: EA's The Return of the King:

The Witch-king's role and voice are similar to that of the film, but his appearance is different. An early helmet design, that had been removed from the film because it resembled Sauron's helm too much, was used here, presumably because there was no time to make a new character model.