Causality & The Lord of the Rings

Who killed the Witch-King of Angmar?

I couldn't stand the first movie, so I never saw the others. Jackson's infatuation with the modern is a wedge between him and Tolkien. I am therefore not surprised to see his error in this clip, which misstates entirely the events at the death of the Witch-King.

Éowyn is here represented as killing the Witch-King, with the hobbit as a kind of supporting actor -- distracting him with a little back-stab. You get the effect with the strange 'pulse' that flies from the Nazgûl when he is struck by Éowyn. Just the opposite is what Tolkien intended.

"[Meriadoc the hobbit] brushed away the tears, and stooped to pick up the green shield that Éowyn had given him, and he slung it at his back. Then he looked for his sword that he had let fall; for even as he struck his blow his arm was numbed, and now he could only use his left hand. And behold! there lay his weapon, but the blade was smoking like a dry branch that has been thrust in a fire; and as he watched it, it writhed and withered and was consumed.

"So passed the sword of the Barrow-downs, work of Westernesse. But glad would he have been to know its fate who wrought it slowly long ago in the North-kingdom when the Dúnedain were young, and chief among their foes was the dread realm of Angmar and its sorcerer king. No other blade, not though mightier hands had wielded it, would have dealt that foe a wound so bitter, cleaving the undead flesh, breaking the spell that knit his unseen sinews to his will."

So the blow that should have sent the 'pulse,' if pulse there should have been, was Meriadoc's. It was the hobbit, the small man who bore the sword he was never expected to bear, who struck the fatal and unexpected blow. He cut the web of spells, fashioned long before him by mighty ones who did not bother to take his kind into their reckoning.

Here as elsewhere, this is a theme of Tolkien's. The Hobbits are small people, unexpected, whom the great and the powerful fail to take into their accounts. Yet again and again, they are the tools of a greater artisan.


james said...

I read the text differently--that Merry was able to cripple him, and Eowyn killed the weakened ghost. Both events would have merited some special effect.
I'm not trying to argue that Jackson was especially faithful to the letter or the spirit--especially not the spirit--of the text. (though he did a very good job with Gollum)

Assistant Village Idiot said...

A) Yes, regardless of the text, perhaps Jackson is modern enough to have put the woman in the place as a better "small oppressed person" than even a hobbit. We can't know, really, but it is almost impossible that a late 20th C filmmaker could do otherwise. However...

B) In this case, I think Jackson is correct anyway, and James's reading of the text is more accurate. A quick reading might suggest that Eowyn strikes the head and helm of a Nazgul already destroyed, as it is describes as empty just after her blow. Yet I think there are good reasons to think that it was Eowyn's blow that was final. First, there is the prophecy, rather like that in Macbeth and man-of-woman-born/ untimely-ripped and so forth. There were many races in Middle-Earth that a Nazgul might fear: elves, dwarves, ents, orcs, wizards. A prophecy that "okay, it's not a man would not have caused your average witch-king to think he was safe. Admittedly, holbytla were likely not in the picture. But is the woman-ness that causes the surprise and fear. Tolkien would not abandon a longstanding prophecy to a technicality at the last minute. The prophecy says Eowyn is the slayer. Second, Eowyn is badly affected, nearly killed, by the contact of her assault on her enemy. If he were already destroyed by Merry, that effect would be at least dissipated and more likely no longer present. She is if anything, more affected than the hobbit (though they are very tough in the fibre, I admit). Therefore, The Nazgul was still a being at the time she struck. Whether he would have been destroyed if she had waited a moment is unknown, though I think it unlikely.

Linguistic note: -ul is the suffix for the definite article in Romanian, borrowed from the Slavic languages. In the other Romance languages, the definite article comes first: El gatto, il sole. In Slavic languages, it is a suffix. It is important if one looks at the map of Middle Earth and calculates that if the Shire is essentially in NW Europe (before the lands were bent), Mordor is in Transylvania.

Merry saying "king's man" was very much in my mind at my moment of conversion to Christianity in 1975. It was the bit that pushed me over the top. The destruction around me and all the questions did not matter. Making a final stand on the side of right and goodness was everything.

mtwzzyzx said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
douglas said...

Hm, if Mordor was roughly in Transylvania, they they likely should have been given names reminiscent of Hungarian. That would have been difficult, though certainly alien sounding enough!

Cass said...

Since I'm in my home office this morning, I have the book to hand. It was Eowyn who slew the witch king. First, she cut off the head of the beast he rode, then he smote Eowyn with his mace and broke her shield and her arm. Merry stabbed the Witch King in the knee (saving Eowyn), then Eowyn rose up and cut off the Nazgul's head (not stabbing him in the face as in the movie). Here's Merry, saving Eowyn's life:

"But suddenly he too stumbled forward with a cry of bitter pain and his stroke went wide, driving into the ground. Merry's sword had stabbed him from behind...the hauberk had pierced the sinew behind his mighty knee."

Hardly a minor deed, especially as everyone else cowers before the Nazgul.

"...Then, tottering, struggling up, with her last strength she drover her sword between crown and mantle, as the great shoulders bowed before her.... Eowyn fell forward upon her fallen foe. But lo! the mantle and hauberk were empty...a cry went up into the shuddering air...a voice bodiless and thin that died, and ...was never heard again in that age of the world."

So there's the "pulse" leaving his body after she 'drove her sword between crown and mantle'. I don't think a stab to the knee would be fatal, but it did wound him so badly that he bowed before her and she was able to get in the final blow.

I never took any of this as disparaging Merry - clearly had he not been brave enough to stab the Nazgul in the knee, Eowyn would have been toast. It was teamwork, and as Tolkein so often wrote, even the smallest had a part to play.

Grim said...


I read the scene as a foreshadowing of the battle before the Morannon. Does the Army of the West destroy Sauron? No; in a sense, their work was unnecessary, since what destroyed Sauron was a little hobbit who was unwatched because Sauron's eye was turned toward a more apparent threat (but one that couldn't actually harm him: the Army of the West was too small). Sauron is looking for a danger he expects to see, and can't see the hobbit that is the real danger.

Likewise, Eowyn's weapon is harmless against the Nazgul. One thing Tolkien tells several times is that ordinary swords can't hurt them. But the sword of the Barrow Downs can unknit the spells that keep his body together.


You're judging the quality of the wound as if it was a human body that was to be killed. The body of the Witch-King is sorcerous, though: it's not held to his will by organs of flesh, but by a spell that is cut by the Barrow-blade.

As I was telling AVI, above, I read the scene as a mirror of the scenes of Frodo and the battle at the Morannon. The real danger is not the one the Witch-King is looking at: like Gandalf and the army with Sauron, Eowyn couldn't actually hurt the Witch-King at all. She doesn't have a weapon that can harm him (as Tolkien repeatedly says about ordinary swords and the Nine).

But because he is focused on her, seeing the prophecy he expects to see, he misses the real threat -- a hobbit bearing an ancient power, which he makes the mistake of not noticing.

Cass said...

Actually, I was more noting that in the text, the "pulse" clearly doesn't come out until after Eowyn drives her sword between his crown and mantle. I don't see the movie as being unfaithful to the book here, because the book clearly follows the same sequence.

Grim said...

I don't recall the book describing a pulse at all, though I am willing to leave that as the least of problems. I do remember that her sword is supposed to have burst into shards at the touch of the dying Witch-King, and she is supposed to have collapsed onto his empty mantle.

That stroke was nearly deadly to her, because it exposed her to the Black Breath. But you know the story as well as I do, I'm sure. :)

raven said...

Read somewhere an account extolling the virtues of Japanese swords, written by a Chinese author circa
1000 AD or so, apparently the weapons were a highly prized trade item. The best part, and the only part I can remember verbatim, is the conclusion-
"with such swords, one can slay the barbarians".
So far, I have been unsuccessful locating a barrow-wights hoard...

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Grim - no it won't do, as Lewis might have said.

Caveat: The mechanics of magic was something Tolkien was not much interested in. If the text is not definitive, that might not have bothered him much. We are not told how Gandalf's spells and the Balrog's counterspells work. They are simply brought forward from the (later) medieval beliefs of northern Europe without much added comment. They are spells. They are magic. The reader is rather assumed to just accept them.

Nonetheless, let us assume that Tolkien did have a clear idea of how these things were supposed to operate, and that he made some effort to describe his meaning exactly. In that instance, what we have at most is the blade of Meriadoc sundering the magic from the body of the Witch-King. In the same way that Sauron becomes disembodied at the destruction of the One Ring, it may be that Merry renders the Nazgul killable, though it is not his blow which kills. As I noted above, we do not know what might have happened if Eowyn had run around in circles for a minute or so. Perhaps the severing of the long-past human from the magic which kept him "alive" would have been enough, and her blow unnecessary. But it certainly seems darn necessary at the time that it happens. Tolkien does not say that she struck only air or some other such clue. Eowyn's blow clearly counts for something.

And there is still the prophecy, the sort of thing Tolkien did care deeply about. Reading as "a foreshadowing" doesn't get around that. Tolkien cared more about the former than the latter. The dialogue between them could not be more clear that she could be the fulfillment of the prophecy that he thought protected him, and he thinks so too.

It is possible that Tolkien intended this to be a further "aha! It's not a man, it's a halfling!" from the playing out of events - and was simply careless that such a fulfillment might include other non-human races which were more likely combatantnts. Yet I doubt it. The entire plot builds to that moment when Eowyn says that "it is not a man who stands before you."

Grim said...

Tolkien did care about prophecy, so it's worth looking at what the prophecy specifically said. The prophecy isn't in the section we've been quoting, but it is mentioned in Appendix A, where Tolkien says this:

"...and thus the words of Glorfindel long before to King Earnur were fulfilled, that the Witch-king would not fall by the hand of Man.... he also was not a Man but a Halfling out of a far country... [he] was none other than Meriadoc the Magnificent."

It's interesting that the prophecy doesn't say that he will be destroyed or killed, but that he will fall by the hand of one who is not a man. And of course, it certainly is Merry's blow that makes him fall.

Grim said...

That doesn't mean that Eowyn wasn't important. It just means that her heroism was futile in itself -- but without her futile courage, the greater effect could not have worked.

Tolkien makes a lot out of acts of heroism that are futile in themselves, but which are brought to success beyond hope by a hidden providence. Gandalf speaks of it when he talks about the Ring coming to Bilbo Baggins: a plan at work, and a planner. Men and women (and especially hobbits) are weak and often face foes far more terrible than themselves; but if they do their part, though they do it in fear and without hope, great things unlooked-for come in their proper hour.

Cass said...

Wasn't that sort of the point, though? I've already pointed out that without Merry, Eowyn would have been toast (as, according to your argument, would anyone who didn't have the weapon Merry had).

But then Merry wouldn't have been able to stab the Witch King from behind, had he not already been focused on Eowyn, who was the only one to stand between him and Theoden.

Teamwork. I really thought the movie was pretty clear about that, and can't see it as being inaccurate. As for the "pulse", I merely used the word you used:

You get the effect with the strange 'pulse' that flies from the Nazgûl when he is struck by Éowyn. Just the opposite is what Tolkien intended.

And yet Tolkien describes that "pulse" as happening, not when Merry strikes from behind, but after Eowyn strikes the final blow.

Grim said...

Here we may simply be on a question of interpretation, the sort of thing about which people of good faith can disagree. However, I don't get the sense that Tolkien intended to convey the artistic theme of "Teamwork!"

I think he meant, here as elsewhere, to say something about doing your duty beyond hope; and to offer a demonstration of how sometimes help comes unlooked-for, because of powers greater than the ones we know how to measure and calculate.

Teamwork is a worthy theme, but the unlooked-for eucastrophe (a term Tolkien appears to have coined) is the theme that seems right to me. The beauty of Eowyn's courage is greater because it was hopeless, a virtue exercised because it was right and not because it might gain any advantage.

In any event, it's a lovely scene in the book -- one of several that come so closely in that part of the book that the are almost impossible to fully savor.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I went and read the full footnote, as I thought on quick reading your reference to the text was going to prove you definitively correct. I'm glad I looked it up, as I am more convinced than ever of my original interpreation. You quote "...he also was not a Man...(emphasis mine). That makes it about certain that 1) Eowyn is included in the category of non-Man-ness that brings him down, or the word "also" would be inaccurate, and 2) Merry is more likely secondary. Relying on "fall" is to assume that the smaller meaning of "cease being erect" is more important than the larger meaning of "fall" as "to be destroyed." It would surely be unimportant if some other hobbit or dwarf had tipped the Witch-king of Angmar over accidentally a few centuries before. Not that Tolkien wouldn't have approved of such an additional joke, but it isn't the main point.

It is still possible that Tolkien meant to refer to both equally as not-men, and the "also" is meant as a sort of conjunction, giving precedence to neither. But under no reading can Eowyn be secondary in that particular quote. Perhaps there is some other text that identifies Merry as the primary slayer, but it isn't here.

I will allow that in that particular section, it is the House of Eorl that is being discussed, and so the doings of Eowyn would be the focus, with the doing of even wizards and stewards being seen as secondary. That Eowyn is primary in that telling is not standalone proof that she would be regarded as primary were the matter being discussed from the POV of Gondor or Bree. Yet the minimum possible status for Eowyn's act remains: it is not secondary. It might be coequal, but it is not secondary.

This is loads of fun, BTW. Thanks.

Grim said...

You're welcome. You'll like the new post, too, most likely.

When you talk about co-equal versus secondary, it occurs to me that there are at least two ways to think about that. If Merry's stroke was merely a necessary condition for Eowyn being able to harm the WK at all, then his stroke has priority (i.e., hers is posterior not just in time, but it is made possible only by his and therefore depends upon his). In that sense, she could be described as "co-equal" if we mean that both strokes were necessary to kill the WK, but she is clearly secondary because his stroke has priority. So you would have to say that her stroke was at best co-equal, but only in a single sense; and clearly Merry has priority in the other senses (temporal and metaphysically, i.e., in terms of creating the possibility at all).

But I am not convinced that her stroke was necessary or even efficacious (except against her, by exposing her to the Black Breath). I've explained my reasons for that, and of course you're free to prefer your own. However, I agree with your addendum that the footnote is appended to a section on the House of Eorl, which largely treats Merry as a nearly legendary figure who might have been present.