Exploring the People of Middle-earth: The Witch-King of Angmar, Lord of the Nazgûl

In this biweekly series, we’re exploring the evolution of both major and minor figures in Tolkien’s legendarium, tracing the transformations of these characters through drafts and early manuscripts through to the finished work. This week’s installment looks at the Witch-king of Angmar, Sauron’s secret weapon and the captain of the armies of Mordor.

The Witch-king of Angmar plays a fascinating role in the textual history of The Lord of the Rings, not least because his history develops in his wake. Unlike many of the figures from earlier ages who haunt the tale, the Witch-king arrives on the scene with nothing to his name: no past, no realm, no form, and only a vague purpose. In other words, where characters like Glorfindel, for example, are dropped in wholesale from older stories, the Witch-king develops alongside of—and in some cases after—the main narrative.

In the earliest drafts, he is referred to almost entirely with the appellation “the Wizard King” (for example, The Treason of Isengard, hereafter TI, 116), or, in a very few places, as “the Sorcerer King.” Wizardry is central to the character at this early stage. Indeed, Tolkien notes at one point that “Gandalf has insufficient magic to cope with Black Riders unaided,” specifically because their “king is a wizard” (9).

Later, in a draft of “The Council of Elrond,” Gandalf elaborates on his encounter with the Nine at Weathertop, saying, “Then my heart failed for a moment; for the Chief of the Nine was of old the greatest of all the wizards of Men, and I have no power to withstand the Nine Riders when he leads them” (132). Gandalf’s reluctance to face the Black Riders, even his blatant admission that their Chief is greater than he, is a key feature of Tolkien’s conception of the Witch-king thus far. He wields a terrifying and dark power that has only burgeoned since his seduction by Sauron; “the greatest of all the wizards of Men,” Tolkien reasons, stands a proper chance as Sauron’s choice weapon and captain. While this aspect of the character is strong, and is compared quite frequently with Gandalf (perhaps inadvertently diminishing our impression of the latter!), the second half of his character is a blank. Somewhat uncharacteristically, Tolkien remains silent on exactly what the “king” of “Wizard King” refers to. It is simply a hint towards something more that has yet to unfold in the author’s imagination.

It’s not until the fifth version of “The Council of Elrond” that Tolkien takes steps to rectify his neglect of the issue. There, Gandalf describes the Wizard King as the “fell captain of the Nine” and “a great king of old” (149). The term “fell” carries with it ideas of ravenous cruelty, cunning villainy, and ruthless, destructive savagery. We can perhaps see these attributes most clearly when we consider the single-minded intensity with which the Witch-king of the published The Lord of the Rings pursues the goals and desires of his master. He stops at nothing, fears no opposition; his character reeks of death. Consider his dialogue with Éowyn as she stands between the Nazgûl and the body of her uncle, Théoden:

“Come not between the Nazgûl and his prey! 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.” (841)

The cruelty is evident here. The threat is harsh and the words are harsh-sounding: Tolkien ends the passage in a rush of hard consonants and a sentence that falls over its own commas and plunges headlong to its conclusion in the Lidless Eye.

Gandalf’s description in that fifth draft of “The Council of Elrond” also introduces the idea of the Wizard King’s ancient origin point. He’s no longer simply “the greatest of all the wizards of Men,” but rather a “great king of old.” We’re still lacking any specific indications of location or even time (even by the fourth re-writing of The Lord of the Rings the idea of Angmar was notably absent [TI 59]), but we are prompted by this phrase to consider the Wizard King’s potential relation to those “kings of old” with whom Aragorn claims kinship.

And indeed, this is precisely where Tolkien takes us next. At one point in his drafting of “The Siege of Gondor,” he pauses to sketch the landscape that lay before him:

Denethor and Faramir marvel at Gandalf’s power over Nazgûl. Gandalf says things are still not so bad—because the W[izard] King has not yet appeared. He reveals that he is a renegade of his own order … [?from] Númenor. ‘So far I have saved myself from him only by flight—for many an age he has lain in hiding or sleep while his master’s power waned. But now he is grown more fell than ever. Yet it was foretold that he should be overthrown, in the end, by one young and gallant. But maybe that lies far in the future.’ (The War of the Ring, hereafter WR, 326; square brackets are Christopher Tolkien’s)

This is a fascinating conception of the Wizard King. Not only does Gandalf explain that Sauron’s captain had himself come from Númenor—he also describes him as “a renegade of his own order.” This means that at this stage, the Wizard King is potentially both one of the istari and a Maia. It also means that he is no longer a Man or even a wizard in the strictest sense (it’s been argued that the istari were called wizards because their power resembled that of human sorcerers, and no one knew exactly what they were). He is something decidedly other, and Gandalf’s earlier inability to match him in combat suddenly becomes clear.

But even as it reaches this crescendo, the power of the Wizard King begins itself to wane. In Gondor, Gandalf tells Pippin,

In him I am not overmatched, and yet still I am matched, for he was a member of our order before evil took him. […] But the Wizard King has not shown himself. He wields far behind a great fear that will drive his soldiers wither he will, even to cast themselves into the River so that others [?can] walk on their bodies. But he will come forth yet… (WR 331).

Here the powers of the two “wizards” are equally matched and Gandalf is no longer instantly overwhelmed by the prospect of their encounter. Rather, he points out that the Wizard King’s greatest strength is the fear he can inspire even from afar—in some ways, like Sauron his master, he’s even more powerful when physically absent. Regardless, given the indication that he and Gandalf are more equally matched than originally supposed, it seems significant that in the published The Lord of the Rings, the only time the Witch-king turns tail and flees is when he is in the presence of Glorfindel “revealed in his wrath” (LotR 224).

It’s not until the third draft of “The Siege of Gondor” that the Wizard King is called “King of Angmar long ago” (WR 334). The phrase also registers the first time that the name Angmar appears in Tolkien’s writing. But even then, its history remains a blank; there’s no clear backstory and it’s only somewhat clear how and why said King of Angmar is still alive—or, at least, undead.

Tolkien doesn’t fully develop that backstory until The Lord of the Rings is all but finished. Then, he starts working on the Appendices and on other (wildly optimistic) supporting documents. Sometime along the way (it isn’t clear precisely when), he exchanges “wizard” for “witch,” a choice that probably speaks to an effort to distinguish between Gandalf, Saruman, and the others, and this duped human king who, “put in command by Sauron, […] is given an added demonic force” (Letter 210).

In The Peoples of Middle-earth (PM), we find that sometime between 1133 and 1349 (Third Age), the Ringwraiths begin to stir (193). At this point—in 1350—the Witch-king rises to power and takes up the throne of Angmar. His purpose, Tolkien writes, “is to destroy Arnor, for there is more hope of success in the North (where the realm is disunited) than in the South while Gondor remains strong” (193-4). The Witch-king is thus being used as a tool, a captain to be physically present in Middle-earth while the master lurks in the spirit-shadows, regaining strength and form.

And he does his duty well. Between 1350 and 1409, the Witch-king capitalizes on the internal strife among the Dunédain to sack and destroy the outposts of Cardolan, Rhudaur, and Amon Sûl (PM 194). In the last gasp, the palantir of Amon Sûl is taken to Fornost for safe keeping. For a long while after this, the forces of darkness are resisted with varying degrees of success, and the western world, with Gondor and Arnor at its heart, limps on (sounds familiar, doesn’t it?), though it’s said they have some help in the form of bowman sent by the Hobbits (PM 9).

Then, in 1974, “the Witch-king destroyed Fornost, laid Arthedain waste, and scattered the remnants of the Dunédain.” This time, however, he’s not left unchecked, and we find that in the next year, 1975,

Elrond and Cirdan, with some belated help from Gondor, sent by sea, defeated the forces of Angmar. The Witch-king was overthrown by Elrond, and his realm brought to an end. The northern lands though desolate were now made somewhat more wholesome again. But it was found later that the Witch-king had fled away secretly southwards, and had entered Minas Ithil (now called Minas Morgul) and become Lord of the Ringwraiths. (PM 195)

Unfortunately, he doesn’t just lie in wait for the day of Sauron to come. In 2043, the Witch-king sends word to Eärnur, whose father has just died, challenging him to single combat for the throne of Gondor and Arnor. Persuaded by the wise counsel of Mardil the Steward, the young king refuses. The Witch-king withdraws, apparently subdued, but he’s actually just biding his time.

The challenge was repeated with taunts in 2050, seven years later, and against the counsel of Mardil Eärnur accepted. He rode with a small escort of knights to Minas Morgul, but neither he nor his company were ever heard of again. It was thought that the faithless enemy had merely decoyed him to the gates and then trapped him and either slain him or kept him in torment as a prisoner. (PM 201-2)

Since Eärnur dies childless, he is the last king of the West until Aragorn’s return, and faithful Mardil reluctantly takes leadership of the kingdom, becoming the first in a long line of Stewards of Gondor.

Little to nothing is heard from the Witch-king until 3018, when he “appears again in person as the Black Captain of the hosts of Mordor” (PM 241). Thus, working backwards, Tolkien comes to the conception of the Witch-king that comes to our minds today. He still retains much of his power, but instead of a wizard, or one of the Istari, or a Maia, he’s a human king whose lust for power got the better of his good judgment. It’s a theme that comes up a lot in Middle-earth. Possessiveness, greed, lust, and a desire for dominance are always marked as explicitly evil in Tolkien’s work, and the Witch-king apparently has these qualities to excess.

It’s a pity we aren’t told what he was like before Sauron put a ring on it. I imagine he was calculating and cruel because it’s easy to do so, but apart from hints that the Nine were simply too desperate for power to notice Sauron’s deception, we aren’t given any evidence to base such an opinion on. It’s just as likely he was similar to a long list of other Tolkienian characters who didn’t begin life being evil (as Elrond says, nothing does), but rather fell into it because they just couldn’t bear to sacrifice control. It’s a slippery slope and a dangerous game—something I suspect the Witch-king might have considered as he stared down the blade of a frightened, wounded, ridiculously courageous woman on a certain battlefield in March of 3019. As it turns out, the prophecy that predicts your far-off doom might just contain a twist you didn’t expect.

“Witch-king of Angmar” by kimberly80

Megan N. Fontenot is a dedicated Tolkien scholar and fan who loves, almost more than anything else, digging into the many drafts and outlines of Tolkien’s legendarium. Catch her on Twitter @MeganNFontenot1 and feel free to request a favorite character in the comments!

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