1. Background Information
All quotes from Tolkien, either JRR or Christopher, are in normal type; my comments, or comments quoted from other sources, are italicized.
Scope of Power
Sorcerer King, Lord of the Nazgûl, Chieftain of the Ringwraiths, Black Captain, Lord of Morgul, Captain of Despair, High Nazgûl, Foul Dwimmerlaik, Lord of Carrion.
"...black mantled, huge and threatening. A crown of steel he bore, but between rim and robe naught was there to see, save only a deadly gleam of eyes: the Lord of the Nazgûl." 1
"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." 2
My assumption is that the third, taller figure with the crown, who stabbed Frodo, was the Witch-king.
"But now wheeling swiftly across it, like shadows of untimely night, he saw in the middle airs below him five birdlike forms, horrible as carrion-fowl yet greater than eagles, cruel as death." 3
"The great shadow descended like a falling cloud. And behold! it was a winged creature: if bird, then greater than all other birds, and it was naked, and neither quill nor feather did it bear, and its vast pinions were as webs of hide between horned fingers; and it stank. A creature of an older world maybe it was, whose kind, fingering in forgotten mountains cold beneath the Moon, outstayed their day, and in hideous eyrie bred this last untimely brood, apt to evil. And the Dark Lord took it, and nursed it with fell meats, until it grew beyond the measure of all other things that fly; and he gave it to his servant to be his steed. Down, down it came, and then, folding its fingered webs, it gave a croaking cry, and settled upon the body of Snowmane, digging in its claws, stooping its long naked neck." 4
At Weathertop he carried both sword and knife. On Pelennor Fields "A great black mace he wielded…."
"Men proved easier to ensnare. Those who used the Nine Rings became mighty in their day, kings, sorcerers, and warriors of old. They obtained glory and great wealth, yet it turned to their undoing. They had, as it seemed, unending life, yet life became unendurable to them. They could walk, if they would, unseen by all eyes in this world beneath the sun, and they could see things in worlds invisible to mortal men; but too often they beheld only the phantoms and delusions of Sauron. And one by one, sooner or later, according to their native strength and to the good or evil of their wills in the beginning, they fell under the thraldom of the ring that they bore and under the domination of the One, which was Sauron's. And they became for ever invisible save to him that wore the Ruling Ring, and they entered into the realm of shadows. The Nazgûl were they, the Ringwraiths, the Enemy's most terrible servants; darkness went with them, and they cried with the voices of death." 5
There is little information about the Nine before they took the Rings. Only one is named, Khamûl the Easterling who was second to the Witch-king. In the Akallabêth 6 Tolkien writes: "Yet Sauron was ever guileful, and it is said that among those whom he ensnared with the Nine Rings three were great lords of Númenórean race."
Nowhere is it identified which of the Nazgûl were originally Númenórean, but it is interesting to consider that the Witch-king may have been one of them. This would explain why his power might be greater than the others, as his heritage would give him more power than other men, and thus more when corrupted.
In 'Have Island, Will Rebel,' 7 Michael Martinez writes: "In time there would have been too few lands to bestow through inheritance or gift upon leading men in Numenor, either by the kings or the lords and chieftains. And Tar-Meneldur feared that the Guild of Venturers would encourage men to seek far lands outside of Numenor…. The initial efforts to colonize Middle-earth, therefore, may have resulted from the various noble families sending younger sons over Sea, funding expeditions." One can speculate that the Witch-king would have begun as a young lordling sailing from Númenor, seeking to win a kingdom for himself in Middle-earth."
Scope of Power
The Ringwraiths were considered the most powerful of Sauron's servants, and "…their chief weapon was terror. This was actually greater when they were unclad and invisible; and it was greater also when they were gathered together." 8
"The Nazgul came again, and as their Dark Lord now grew and put forth his strength, so their voices, which uttered only his will and his malice, were filled with evil and horror ... More unbearable they became, not less, at each new cry. At length even the stout- hearted would fling themselves to the ground as the hidden menace passed over them, or they would stand, letting their weapons fall from nerveless hands while into their minds a blackness came, and they thought no more of war, but only of hiding and of crawling, and of death." 9
"… there were many sick of a malady that would not be healed; and they called it the Black Shadow, for it came from the Nazgûl. And those who were stricken with it fell slowly into an ever deeper dream, and then passed to silence and a deadly cold, and so died." 10
Even other creatures of Sauron are afraid of them. Gorbag, an orc commander at Cirith Ungol, says: "Grr! Those Nazgûl give me the creeps. And they skin the body off you as soon as look at you, and leave you all cold in the dark on the other side." 11
That describes the powers of the Nazgûl in general, but "The Witch-king, their leader, is more powerful in all ways than the others…" and "(In RotK), put in command by Sauron, he is given an added demonic force." 12
Some of the ways in which he is more powerful are described:
"The Witch-king was the most able to perceive the presence of the Ring." 13
"All except the Witch-king were apt to stray when alone by daylight; and all, again save the Witch-king, feared water, and were unwilling, except in dire need, to enter it or to cross streams unless dryshod by a bridge."
"At the Ford of Bruinen only the Witch-king and two others, with the lure of the Ring staight before them, had dared enter the river, the others were driven into it by Glorfindel and Aragorn." 14
When it came to the Dúnedain, who held up to such things better than other Men due to their Númenórean blood, "Some still dared to bar the [Sarn] Ford, and held it while day lasted, but at night the Lord of Morgul swept them away, and the Black Riders passed into the Shire; and ere the cocks crowed in the small hours of the twenty-third day of September some were riding North through the land…" 15
We know, therefore, that they were stronger at night, even the Witch-king, and that his powers were clearly superior to the others against the Rangers.
Tolkien is not explicit about all of the Witch-king's abilities, but hints at more then is told:
"But his arm was long. He was still in command, wielding great powers. King, Ringwraith, Lord of the Nazgûl, he had many weapons. He left the Gate and vanished." 16
And though the quote a few paragraphs above shows the Men of Gondor believed that any Nazgûl may kill with the Black Breath, most of the comments about fear seem to refer to the Witch-king alone:
"…but it was not by numbers that we were defeated. A power was there that we have not felt before. Some said that it could be seen, like a great black horseman, a dark shadow under the moon. Wherever he came a madness filled our foes, but fear fell on our boldest, so that horse and man gave way and fled. Only a remnant of our eastern force came back, destroying the last bridge that still stood amid the ruins of Osgiliath." 17
"But it is the Black Captain that defeats us. Few will stand and abide even the rumour of his coming. His own folk quail at him, and they would slay themselves at his bidding…" 18
" 'Yet now under the Lord of Barad-dûr the most fell of all his captains is already master of your outer walls,’ said Gandalf. ‘King of Angmar long ago, Sorcerer, Ringwraith, Lord of the Nazgûl, a spear of terror in the hand of Sauron, shadow of despair.' " 19
His other powers included those used breaking the Gate of Minas Tirith,
"Then the Black Captain rose in his stirrups and cried aloud in a dreadful voice, speaking in some forgotten tongue words of power and terror to rend both heart and stone.
Thrice he cried. Thrice the great ram boomed. And suddenly upon the last stroke the Gate of Gondor broke. As if stricken by some blasting spell it burst asunder: there was a flash of searing lightning, and the doors tumbled in riven fragments to the ground." 20
the destruction of any sword that stabbed him,
"…but all blades perish that pierce that dreadful King." 21
and his control over certain other 'evil spirits.' From the description I would presume these to be other beings that are no longer alive.
"In notes on the movements of the Black Riders at that time it is said that the Black Captain stayed there for some days, and the Barrow-wights were roused, and all things of evil spirit, hostile to Elves and Men, were on the watch with malice in the Old Forest and on the Barrow-downs." 22
There were some limitations on his power. Most obviously, he is completely under Sauron's control, and fears him.
"…the Ringwraiths, who had no will but his own, being utterly subservient to the ring that had enslaved him, which Sauron held." 23
"They were by far the most powerful of his servants, and the most suitable for such a mission, since they were entirely enslaved to their Nine Rings, which he now himself held; they were quite incapable of acting against his will, and if one of them, even the Witch-king their captain, had seized the One Ring, he would have brought it back to his Master." 24
"When they came back back to the wold September had come; and there they met messengers from Barad-dûr conveying threats from their master that filled even the Morgul-lord with dismay." 25
The Witch-king is daunted by Galadriel:
"But the power of the White Ring he would not defy, nor enter yet into Lórien." 26
He is taken in by Saruman:
"The Circle of Isengard was too strong for even the Lord of Morgul and his company to assail without great force of war. …
Such was still the power of the voice of Saruman that even the Lord of the Nazgûl did not question what it said, whether it was false or short of the full truth; but straightway he rode from the Gate and began to hunt for Gandalf in Rohan." 27
But he is able to 'turn' Saruman's spies enroute to the Shire, and to obtain information from Gríma:
"But some fugitives on the road they captured; and to the delight of the Captain two proved to be spies and servants of Saruman. One of them had been used much in the traffic between Isengard and the Shire, and though he had not himself been beyond the Southfarthing he had charts prepared by Saruman which clearly depicted and described the Shire. These the Nazgûl took, and then sent him on to Bree to continue spying; but warned him that he was now in the service of Mordor, and that if ever he tried to return to Isengard they would slay him with torture." 28
"…The Black Riders came upon Gríma Wormtongue as he hastened to bring word to Saruman that Gandalf was come to Edoras, and had warned King Théoden of the treacherous designs of Isengard. In that hour the Wormtongue came near to death by terror; but being inured to treachery he would have told all that he knew under less threat…
The Lord of the Nazgûl spared the life of the Wormtongue, not out of pity, but because he deemed that so great a terror was upon him that he would never dare to speak of their encounter (as proved true), and he saw that the creature was evil and was likely to do great harm yet to Saruman, if he lived." 29
The Witch-king is wary of Boromir I:
"In the last years of Denethor I the race of uruks, black orcs of great strength, first appeared out of Mordor, and in 2475 they swept across Ithilien and took Osgiliath. Boromir son of Denethor (after whom Boromir of the Nine Walkers was later named) defeated them and regained Ithilien; but Osgiliath was finally ruined, and its great stone-bridge was broken. No people dwelt there afterwards. Boromir was a great captain, and even the Witch-king feared him. He was noble and fair of face, a man strong in body and in will, but he received a Morgul-wound in that war which shortened his days, and he became shrunken with pain and died twelve years after his father." 30
From this I infer that the wound was given by a Nazgûl's blade, presumably that of the Witch-king, indicating that despite fearing this Man, he was able to wound him. An interesting discussion, sparked by Thundera Tiger on a HASA forum as I was completing this article, compared Frodo's fate after a stab from a morgul blade to Boromir I's fate. The difference could be well explained by the retained fragment in Frodo's wound, while Boromir I may have either suffered a simple stab wound, or had any fragments removed rapidly.
At least before being given his additional 'demonic force' by Sauron, he is unable to attack large groups directly:
'What will happen?' said Merry. 'Will they attack the inn?'
'No, I think not,' said Strider. 'They are not all here yet. And in any case that is not their way. In dark and loneliness they are strongest; they will not openly attack a house where there are lights and many people -not until they are desperate, not while all the long leagues of Eriador still lie before us. But their power is in terror, and already some in Bree are in their clutch. They will drive these wretches to some evil work: Ferny, and some of the strangers, and, maybe, the gatekeeper too. They had words with Harry at West-gate on Monday. I was watching them. He was white and shaking when they left him.' 31
The vision and senses of the Nazgûl are limited outside their wraith-world:
"For the black horses can see, and the Riders can use men and other creatures as spies, as we found at Bree. They themselves do not see the world of light as we do, but our shapes cast shadows in their minds, which only the noon sun destroys; and in the dark they perceive many signs and forms that are hidden from us: then they are most to be feared. And at all times they smell the blood of living things, desiring and hating it. Senses, too, there are other than sight or smell. We can feel their presence- it troubled our hearts, as soon as we came here, and before we saw them; they feel ours more keenly. Also,' he added, and his voice sank to a whisper, 'the Ring draws them.' " 32
'You were in gravest peril while you wore the Ring, for then you were half in the wraith-world yourself, and they might have seized you. You could see them, and they could see you.' 33
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