Schrödinger’s Wraith: The Status of the Witch-King of Angmar, 15th-25th March, T.A. 3019.
My recent re-read of The Lord of the Rings reminded me of one of the vaguer head-scratchers in Tolkien. The status of the Witch-King of Angmar between his death at the Battle of Pelennor Fields and the Destruction of the One Ring ten days later… was he, in the immortal phrase of The Princess Bride, All Dead or Only Mostly Dead? It’s one of those questions I haven’t settled in my own mind, so today I figured I would share my indecisive musings with the world. As one does.
Recall the basics: on 15th March, T.A. 3019, the Lord of the Ringwraiths meets his doom at the hands of Éowyn and Merry Brandybuck. Merry stabs him behind the knee with the barrow-blade, whereupon Éowyn gets him in his invisible face.
“A cry went up in to 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.”
Ten days later, the One Ring’s destruction ends the power of the Nine Rings, thereby destroying the Ringwraiths altogether.
There are two possibilities for that ensuing ten day period. Either the Witch-King – a mortal Man, whose time on Earth had been unnaturally stretched unto four millennia – immediately receives the Gift of Men, and leaves for what lies beyond the Circles of the World. Or enough of his soul is still bound up with his own Ring, that he is still stuck on Earth as an impotent spirit. His final release only comes ten days later, along with his wraith colleagues.
There are arguments for both positions, so I thought I would sketch them here.
(i) All Dead
Recall that the Witch-King is not immortal in the sense that Sauron is. He’s an incarnate Man, with fëa and hröa, which means he has to play by Aristotlean-style rules rather than the more Platonist rules of the Ainur. Separation of spirit and body is Death, and, as a Man, Death means he must journey to Mandos, and thence Beyond the World for a final reckoning with Eru.
Sauron cannot interfere with this Gift of Men, while the effect of the Rings of Power slows the exterior passage of time. What one sees with the Ringwraiths is that their lifespans have been stretched beyond breaking point – they are not undead in the classic sense, nor true ghosts. Their hröar are still very real – and vulnerable – even if they have now faded into the Unseen Realm. Which in turn arguably means that the Witch-King was All Dead after Pelennor Fields.
This view is further supported by Tolkien’s essay, The Hunt for the Ring (the full Reader’s Companion version), where Tolkien notes the Witch-King’s surprising fear of Frodo Baggins:
[the Witch-king], the great captain, was actually dismayed. He had been shaken by the fire of Gandalf, and began to perceive that the mission on which Sauron had sent him was one of great peril to himself both by the way, and on his return to his Master (if unsuccessful); and he had been doing ill, so far achieving nothing save rousing the power of the Wise and directing them to the Ring. But above all the timid and terrified Bearer had resisted him, had dared to strike at him with an enchanted sword made by his own enemies long ago for his destruction. Narrowly it had missed him…
Escaping a wound that would have been as deadly to him as the Mordor-knife to Frodo (as was proved at the end), he withdrew and hid for a while, out of doubt and fear both of Aragorn and especially of Frodo. But fear of Sauron, and the forces of Sauron’s will was the stronger.
There is an existential fear here, rather than annoyance at the mere inconvenience of losing his body. The Witch-King really does anticipate his own destruction… he might be mighty in spells and dark magic, the sorcerous paraphernalia of his limited serial immortality, but the enchantment of the barrow-blade can break through all of that. It also really does say something that, even for the Lord of the Ringwraiths, Sauron can still inflict the terror of something worse than Death.
(Further in support of this position: there is zero consideration, either from the West or from Mordor, that the Witch-King might ever return, notwithstanding Sauron’s infamous necromantic abilities. This might be a function of limited time-frame, however).
(ii) Only Mostly Dead
The closest Tolkien ever comes to addressing this question directly is in a footnote to Letter 246:
The situation as between Frodo with the Ring and the Eight* might be compared to that of a small brave man armed with a devastating weapon, faced by eight savage warriors of great strength and agility armed with poisoned blades. *The Witch-king had been reduced to impotence. (September 1963).
The Witch-King is not a Sauron or Saruman, of course. His (unseen) body is an integral part of him in a way it is not for them. And yet, rather than taking the Witch-King out of Arda altogether, Tolkien opts for a turn of phrase that evokes Sauron’s post-Ring fate… impotence. The word implies helplessness, of course. But also arguably continued – albeit futile – existence within the Circles of the World.
How could this be explained in the context of the Gift of Men? Well, for a start, there is already the famous exception of the Dead Men of Dunharrow – entrapped by their Oath for over three millennia. So far as the Ringwraiths are directly concerned, we have Gandalf’s comment:
“The power of their master is in them, and they stand or fall by him.”
Gandalf is clarifying that the flood at the Ford of Bruinen was insufficient to kill the Nine. If the Ringwraiths were merely invisible Men with unnaturally extended life, one could imagine (as Merry actually does) that they are vulnerable to conventional death by drowning. But they are not – these are creatures bound by the power and will of Sauron, as operating through the Nine Rings.
So while the enchantment on the barrow-blade indeed helps kill the Witch-King at Pelennor Fields, there might well have been ten days where the Gift of Men was delayed – that is, the Witch-King’s disembodied spirit was stuck within the Circles of the World, still enslaved by the power of the Ring. Which in turn raises the question of whether he could have eventually been brought back to a more meaningful existence, had the One Ring not been destroyed at Orodruin. The attitude presented in the narrative is that Pelennor Fields was truly the End for the Witch-King, but as noted above, that might have been affected by perceived time constraints.
Let us say, for the sake of argument, that the One Ring finds its way back to its old master, and the Dark Lord has all the time he needs to engage with such a question. The key is that any return of the Witch-King would not have been after the manner of Sauron’s own various re-embodiments. A dead Man cannot rebuild his own body. No, Sauron would have had to wheel out his fabled necromantic techniques (alluded to in Morgoth’s Ring), perhaps finding another body for his old chief servant.
(Unless, of course, the Dark Lord were feeling sufficiently contemptuous of the Witch-King’s failure to let him stew in impotent undeath. Sauron is notoriously petty, and as noted above, even the Lord of the Ringwraiths was in terror of him. If so, the Witch-King’s fear of destruction might not actually be an allusion to fear of True Death, but rather fear of permanent torment at the hands of his master. It’s enough to make you feel sorry for the guy).
Such are my thoughts on this vaguely ambiguous question. My own leaning (and overall preference) is for the second position. I truly love the idea of the Witch-King’s spirit eventually slinking back to the Dark Tower, and having to endure Sauron’s mockery for the rest of time. On the other hand, I can appreciate the idea that Éowyn and Merry do indeed send him to his fate beyond the Circles of the World, out of reach of even the Necromancer himself. It’s these sort of ambiguities – the less-famous ones – that make re-reading Tolkien such a pleasure.