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The Witch-king was originally a human king. In the Second Age, he was given one of nine Rings of Power to help rule over his realm. He and eight others were already in the service of Sauron, the Dark Lord of Mordor. The Rings gave them incredible power, which they used to further their own ambitions, but eventually the Rings completely corrupted them and turned them into the ghostly, undead Nazgûl.
The Second and Third Ages
The first sighting of the Nazgûl in Middle-earth was reported in 2251 of the Second Age. For the next 1200 years, the Lord of the Nazgûl would serve Sauron as his second in command. He fought in the war against the Last Alliance of Elves and Men between 3434 and 3441 of the Second Age. It was in 3441 that Sauron was defeated by Isildur and the nine Nazgûl disappeared from Middle-Earth.
One thousand years into the Third Age, Sauron took a new form as the Necromancer, and founded the fortress of Dol Guldur in southern Mirkwood in 1050 of the Third Age. This signaled the return of the Nine Nazgûl to Middle-earth.
The Lord of the Nazgûl reappeared in 1300 of the Third Age in the north near the lost realm of Arnor. There he founded the kingdom of Angmar. It is after the formation of Angmar and several conflicts with the Dúnedain of the North that the Lord of the Nazgul received the title of Witch-king, Lord of Angmar.
He then began his open war campaign with the three divided kingdoms of Arnor (Arthedain, Rhudaur , and Cardolan). In 1409 of the Third Age, the Witch-king invaded the kingdom of Rhudaur and Cardolan and eventually destroyed both kingdoms. Soon, the only resistance against the Witch-king's forces was the western kingdom of Arthedain. The Witch-king continued his war for hundreds of years. In 1636, the Witch-king sent wights to the Barrow-downs in Cardolan in order to prevent the rebirth of the kingdom. The Witch-king claimed ultimate victory in the north in 1974 of the Third Age, when his forces captured Fornost Erain, the capital of Arthedain. With its capture, the final kingdom collapsed, and with it, the last remnants of the lost realm of Arnor were destroyed.
The Witch-king gladly took his seat of power in the newly captured Fornost. But his glory did not last long, for in 1975, general Eärnur of Gondor landed at the harbors of Mithlond, leading an army of Gondorians. His army was joined by the Elves of Lindon and the remnant of the northern Dúnedain and marched on the Witch-king.
They did not meet the Witch-king at Fornost, but on the plains east of it toward Lake Evendim, home of the ancient kings of Arnor, Annúminas. The battle would forever be known as the Battle of Fornost. Earnur's army was later joined in the mists of battle by Glorfindel and his Elven army from Rivendell. The combined forces of Elves and Men brought utter defeat to the Witch-king and his forces. After the battle, the Witch-king fled south to Mordor and his kingdom of Angmar without an able leader, was destroyed. It was when the Witch-king fled and Earnur attempted to follow that Glorfindel stopped him and made his famous prophecy,
- "Do not pursue him! He will not return to these lands. Far off yet is his doom, and not by the hand of Man shall he fall."
The Witch-king finally returned to Mordor in the year 1980 of the Third Age.
When the Witch-king returned, his wrath of defeat still burned within. In 2000, the Witch-king lead the Nazgûl on a siege of Minas Ithil. They finally captured it in 2002, in the name of Sauron and renamed it Minas Morgul, the Tower of Black Sorcery. It was at Minas Morgul that the Witch-king made his stronghold, giving him the title of Lord of Morgul.
No more than twelve years after the siege of Minas Ithil, Osgiliath was next in the Witch-king's line of sight. He led hordes of Orcs and Haradrim against the city. The city had already been devastated centuries before by a plague, and the Witch-king's forces ruined what remained of the city and destroyed the great bridge linking the east and west banks of the Anduin river. This was a devastating blow to the morale of Gondor.
In 2043, King Eärnil II of Gondor passed away and his son, the Witch-king's old enemy, Eärnur inherited the throne. Upon his coronation, the Witch-king challenged him to combat, but Eärnur refused. However, seven years later in 2050, the Witch-king again challenged him, this time he accepted. Eärnur rode out of Minas Tirith to meet the Witch-king in Minas Morgul. He entered the city's gates and was never seen again, thus ending the reign of the Gondorian Kings and causing the beginning of the ruling Stewards of Gondor.
In 2941, the Necromancer was finally expelled from Dol Guldur when Gandalf confirmed that he truly was Sauron in disguise. Sauron returned to Mordor. He began the reconstruction of his dark tower, Barad-dûr, in 2951 and sent three Ringwraiths to re-capture Dol Guldur. And in 3018, with the capture of Gollum, Sauron learned the location of the Ring from Gollum. Sauron sent forth the Witch-king and the other Nazgul disguised as Black Riders to fetch his Ring.
The War of the Ring had begun.
The War of the Ring and Downfall
The Witch-king and the other eight Nazgûl rode swiftly from Mordor to the lands of the Shire. They continued to search for "Baggins" until they tracked him to Buckland. The Nine Riders raided Buckland but could not find the Ring.
The Witch-king led four other Nazgûl to Weathertop where they discovered Frodo, Strider, and the other hobbits. The Ringwraiths attacked the party and the Witch-king wounded Frodo with a Morgul blade. Though successfully driven off by Strider, Frodo's wound threatened to turn him into a wraith like the Nazgûl. Elrond of Rivendell sent Glorfindel (Arwen in the film) to guide Frodo to Rivendell where Elrond could heal his wound. Glorfindel's race to Rivendell lured the Ringwraiths into the Bruinen. Here, Elrond and Gandalf the Grey released a great flood in the form of horses made out of water. This flood killed the horses of the Ringwraiths and sent them back to their master in Mordor, buying the Fellowship time to plan an attack.
With their return to Mordor, Sauron bestowed the Nazgûl with Fell beasts, great winged beasts as their new mounts. Sauron used the lesser eight Nazgûl for reconnaissance work and the occasional shock troop. The Witch-king, however, returned to Minas Morgul and reassumed the role of commander of Sauron's forces. He then began battles to capture Osgiliath.
The final battle for Osgiliath was fought on March 13, 3019 of the Third Age against Faramir's rangers. Faramir's forces could not hold the Orc hordes under the control of Gothmog. Faramir pulled his forces back to Minas Tirith assailed by flying Nazgûl, losing nearly all of his forces in the retreat. Faramir was returned to Minas Tirith gravely wounded. With Gondor's defeat at Osgiliath, nothing stood in the way of Sauron's ambitions of destroying Minas Tirith and the Free People's hopes.
On March 14, Orcs, Haradrim, and Easterling forces numbering over 200,000 marched on the gates of Minas Tirith. Sauron had bestowed the Witch-king with newfound strength, making his might the greatest it ever had been. Equipped with new armor, he rode in, leading the army to the gates. Before dawn on the 15th, the great battering-ram Grond was used to break the city's main gate, and the Witch-king rode into the city unchallenged, save by Gandalf. Before Gandalf's strength was put to the test, however, the cock crowed and the horns of Rohan were heard as around 6,000 of their riders joined the battle. This forced the Witch-king to ride out to face this new threat.
The Witch-king mounted his fell beast and began slaughtering the Rohirrim. Théoden attempted to rally his troops to form a resistance against him. The Witch-king responded by personally intervening in the fray involving the Rohirric King. Flying on the back of his fell beast, he drove upon Théoden. The advancing Rohirrim's horses panicked as his beast attacked. Théoden's horse, Snowmane, became frightened and was struck by an arrow and fell upon its master.Éowyn and the hobbit Merry stood in his way. Éowyn challenged the Witch-king with the words:
- "Begone, foul dwimmerlaik, lord of carrion! Leave the dead in peace!"
- "Come not between the Nazgul 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."
- "Do what you will, but I will hinder it, if I may."
- "Hinder me? Thou fool. No living man may hinder me!"
- "But no living man am I! You look upon a woman. Éowyn I am, Eomund's daughter. You stand between me and my lord and kin. Begone, if you be not deathless! For living or dark undead, I will smite you, if you touch him."
Éowyn slew his fell beast in a single strike. The Witch-king arose filled with malice and attacked. Though a powerful warrior, Éowyn was no match for the Witch-king's might. With a single strike of his mace, he shattered her shield and broke her left arm.
As he towered over her, preparing to deliver the final blow, Merry rushed behind him and plunged his enchanted dagger into the back of Witch-king's knee. Éowyn took the opportunity to strike. As he fell to his knees, Éowyn rose. She then thrust her sword into the face of the Witch-king, causing him to wither and pass away from this world.
The prophecy of Glorfindel so many centuries before had finally come to pass. For not by the hands of a "man" had he fallen, but by those of a woman and a hobbit. With his death, the turn of the battle had changed and ultimately the outcome. No more than ten days later, Sauron himself was finally destroyed when the One Ring was finally cast back into the fires of Mount Doom.
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, particularly those who are more fans of the book because of its action and characters than its depth, 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 those who are less fan and more Tolkienist say that though this is possibly so the more probable solution is that Merry's stroke destroyed the Witch-king's invulnerability. Also, because of the perishing of the One Ring, the nine other rings which kept the Nazgûl would probably have lost their power.
Roots in Norse mythology
An undead witch-king named Þráinn appears in Hrómundar saga Gripssonar. It is probable that this was Tolkien's source of inspiration.
In Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings, the Lord of the Nazgûl is only named the Witch-King of Angmar in the third installment, 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 the book version, 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.