The Nazgûl firmly belong to the category of the most terrifying characters in J. R. R. Tolkien’s Legendarium. Many a reader have undoubtedly had their dreams haunted by Sauron’s evil servants: their appearance is enough to chill one’s blood. The Lord of the Nine is especially powerful and horrifying. Fear goes before him and, when gathered together under their leader, the Nine are a true terror. As it was often the case with Tolkien, the Professor used several names in reference to the Lord of the Nazgûl, all of which reveal various traits of his personality. Today we are going to look at the title of the Witch-king of Angmar and what it can tell us about its bearer.
A careful look at the name Witch-king will uncover a lot of interesting details. I will start with the element ‘witch’. These days this word is traditionally used about women, and those men that are associated with witchcraft go under other names, like a sorcerer, a wizard or a warlock. The Oxford English Dictionary defines a witch as “a woman thought to have magic powers, especially evil ones, popularly depicted as wearing a black cloak and pointed hat and flying on a broomstick”. Apart from evil powers and black clothing giving shape to his nothingness, our Witch-King does not share any other traits with the popular stereotype of modern witches. He is definitely not female and his transport of choice seems far more comfortable than a broomstick. Besides, being the chief, he opts for a crown rather than a pointed hat. To understand the meaning behind the part ‘witch’ in this title we need to go back in history and speculate a bit.
In Old English there were two words for those dealing with black arts: wicce was the word for a female practitioner and wicca was used for a male one. Both nouns are believed to have been derived from the verb wiccian — ‘to practise witchcraft’. Judging by the presence of both words in the language we can conclude that practising witchcraft was common among men and women alike. Various kinds of practitioners of evil magic were mentioned in the Laws of Alfred and the homilies of Ælfric, and both sources were very specific about witchcraft: those who practised it were outlawed and were not to be approached or consulted by people.
In Middle Ages things changed and there appeared one word instead of two. It was wicche applied to both men and women. During the course of time two things happened: wicche had changed its spelling to become witch by XVI century and began to be applied more to women than to men, who were increasingly referred to as warlocks, sorcerers or wizards. The application of witch to men survived only in some regional dialects or such combinations as he-witch or men-witches . Nowadays witches are predominantly female.
Let us now see how all that applies to the Witch-king of Angmar. In the world of Arda Tolkien did not have many magical terms or titles, but the ones he did have were usually very carefully chosen and applied. The term wizard became reserved for the Istari, and thus had a positive connotation to show their great knowledge as opposed to magical skills. So, by building the title of the Witch-king with the word witch, Tolkien supplied it with a negative connotation and showed that the character in question was evil, with dark magical powers which he did not shun using in his service to Sauron.
The chief Ringwraith became known as the Witch-king when he founded the realm of Angmar with the sole purpose of destroying the remaining Dúnedain, “and there were gathered many evil men, and Orcs, and other fell creatures” (Return of the King, p. 389). This association with fell and evil creatures might be the source of the witch-element in the title. Moreover, at first it was not known who exactly the lord of that realm was, and only later was it discovered that he was none other than the leader of the Nine Ringwraiths. It was also during his Angmar time that the Witch-king sent evil wights to haunt the region of the Barrow-downs. Thus the former settlement of the Dúnedain became the place of dread and horror. Later, when the hunt for the Ring commenced, the Black Captain returned to that region, spent some time there and it roused the evil wights again to be on the lookout for the Ringbearer.
Although the title of the Witch-king was gained by the chief Ringwraith on founding Angmar, he went on justifying it further into the Third Age: during the War of the Ring the Black Captain continued to show his evil magic powers. He instilled fear in those mortals meeting him and even some Orcs admitted to being scared of the Nazgûl and their malicious leader. Apart from fear, the Witch-king’s weapon of choice was a Morgul blade filled with dark spells and enchantments to give grave wounds to those pierced with it. He was also versed in spells, which was seen during the siege of Gondor:
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.
(Return of the King, p. 112-113)
Something very similar was performed by the Lord of the Nine when the Ringwraiths were pursuing Frodo mounted on Asfaloth. From the other side of the ford the Witch-king’s rising in the stirrups and raising a hand had a very evil influence on Frodo and broke the Hobbit’s sword into pieces. His ability to meddle with wills and minds also firmly belongs to the category of the misuse of magic.
The king-element in this compound noun is also no coincidence. Having been named the Witch-king on founding Angmar, the main Ringwraith became its lord and ruler, which explains the royal title. He was also the most powerful and fearsome of the Nazgûl and later, when the War of the Ring was in progress, he showed his leader qualities just like he had done before. To reinforce his high position the Lord of the Nine was wearing a crown:
The Black Rider flung back his hood, and behold! he had a kingly crown; and yet upon no head visible was it set. The red fires shone between it and the mantled shoulders vast and dark. From a mouth unseen there came a deadly laughter.
(Return of the King, p. 113)
Thus the title of the Witch-king reveals to readers that its bearer is an evil supernatural captain skilful in black magic, having immense power and able to rule and subdue. That is what we can gather on coming across this word: as it was his wont, Tolkien put quite a lot of information into names and titles and they could reveal quite a lot of facts about characters.
Stylistically, I see some very interesting decisions in the compound Witch-king. Tolkien’s usage of ‘witch’ seems to be gender-neutral neutral here, just as it used to be in the past. It stresses the fact that the Lord of the Nazgûl often applied evil magic, and this word choice is intended to set him apart from the Istari otherwise called Wizards ― the term with a positive and non-magical connotation in the world of Arda. His usage of black magic is also the reason why the Witch-king is sometimes called the sorcerer ― the term often applied to those with the knowledge of evil magic in the world of Tolkien. The king-element points to the high status of this character: not only did it survive from the times of his founding the realm of Angmar, but it also highlighted him as the most powerful of the nine Ringwraiths. Besides, what I see the king-element also does in this title is that it gives gender to the otherwise gender-neutral word. Witch became associated with women through usage, but it was born out of the word used for males and females alike, and it does not have any grammatical indications of gender in the same way as, for example, the suffix -ess in sorceress does. Thus combining witch with the distinctively male word king results in clearly specifying from the very start that the character in question is male.
- J. R. R. Tolkien – The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2001.
- J. R. R. Tolkien – The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2001.
- The Oxford English Dictionary