Gandalf V Witch King + WK Upgrade question


New Member
Why does Gandalf seemed concerned about fighting the WK?
What reason does he have to believe that the WK is a challenge?

I always interpreted Gandalf as having fought 4 nazgul on weathertop rather than the nine, partly because I don't like rendering the bad guys as too impotent, and partly because it renders his line of, having yet to come against the WK, a rather confusing one. As in, "I am yet to be measured up against the WK, although I DID fight him off a few days ago, plus another 8 of him all at once already." And if he could fight all 9 off then it raises questions of, how come he didn't just stay at weathertop and wait for Aragorn to come to him and then continue to Rivendel if he can just continue to maintain some sort of anti Nazgul barrier. I know it would probably be a lot more complicated but I don't like rendering the Nazgul, the deadliest of Sauron's servants, as being TOO powerless to do anything.

Why does he think the WK is a challenge? First off, why does he think the WK is any more a challenge than a normal Nazgul? Yes he is the leader of the nazgul, but normally leaders in warfare aren't the leaders because they are stronger than their soldiers but because they are better commanders. And Gandalf is clearly referring to measuring his power against the WK's power, and not saying, "I am yet to match Wits against the WK". Has the WK performed any feats of magic before FOTR that would cause Gandalf to be concerned? Has Glorfindel told Gandalf, "Hey bud, I'd rate the nazgul as level 3, but the WK as level 6. I dunno where I'd rate you at, maybe 5 or 7?"

It is always possible that Gandalf has witnessed the WK's strength in person, during a conflict at Dol Goldur driving the Necromancer away for example in which the white council as a whole repelled the WK or during another of his adventures that we are never told about. The WK confronting Radagast the brown and beating him back would probably be an example of the WK accomplishing a feat of magic that makes Gandalf unsure.

This question also raises the nature of the WK's later upgrade. Has the WK always been the way he is now, and then after the Shire incident he gets upgraded for the first time. Or does the WK occasionally get upgraded and then downgraded like the low or high tide on a beach, depending on Sauron's objectives?
I had always assumed the latter, but then when I reflected upon looking at the appendixes I realised that the WK could quite easily have accomplished all his prior missions with his downgraded power. We never actually have him physically take anyone on in a fight instead he flees when he is challenged, and all his victories are accomplished through the strength of his armies and his own cunning. It can be quite plausible that Sauron investing power into the WK isn't something he can do off and on when he feels like, and that it might be a similar process to investing himself into the Ring. That would explain why, after all these thousands of years, he is only now upgrading the WK. And why he didn't upgrade the WK before he sent him off to the Shire. I mean, for all he knew the Shire was full of Elvish warriors, and why not upgrade the WK just in case he did come across something unexpected. But I will also say that I don't think anything is contradicted either if Sauron can turn the WK's upgrade on and off either, and he sent the Nazgul in their depowered state just because he needed that extra power himself for whatever reason to do whatever he was doing in Mordor that was more important than FINDING THE ONE RING AFTER THREE THOUSAND YEARS.

This is all semi important, because when Gandalf is saying he is yet to be measured against the WK is he comparing himself to the depowered Witch King or is he comparing himself to the Upgraded Witch king? If the latter that would technically allow him to have fought off 9 nazgul but still not consider it a measurement against the WK if he knows the WK can become more powerful.

The nature of the WK's power is also relevant. I always believed he has his own store of power from when he was a mortal sorcerer king which makes him a bit similar to Dracula. He then gets additional weaknesses plus powers from being a wraith plus whatever power the ring granted him.
Now when Gandalf is referring to be measured against the WK is he referring to being measured against THIS, or is he saying "I can go up against the Wk, but if Sauron pours all of his own power into the WK then I might get overpowered because I would be fighting an evil magician plus a Maia at the same time. How do I know if Sauron can do this I hear you ask Frodo? Ho hum I will explain later"

Ardent Crayon

New Member
Regarding the Weathertop battle, my take is that Gandalf had just enough power to hold off the Nazgul for one night. Daybreak significantly weakened their powers, giving Gandalf the opportunity to escape. Had he stayed for another night he might have been exhausted and overwhelmed.


New Member
What do you think the nazgul did when he held them off?
As in, did they stay there continuing to push their oppressive will at him but because it was day time he was able to break free, or did they see day come and walk away. We know that they arent averse to being in daylight, they just arent as powerful. So their only reason to walk away would be to recharge themselves and have a group huddle.

But the point still stands that Gandalf was capable of fighting back 4 or more nazgul. And he did it so at night, alone, while worrying about frodo being elsewhere in the wilderness. In the worse conditions. So I would think that if he and the fellowship were travelling and the WK challenged him, from his past experience he shouldnt have any problem, with the entire fellowship being behind him to support him.

I just want to point out he expresses his concern about the WK specifically, and he isnt saying, "I am yet to be challenged by ALL nine at once, in a dark alley!" So he isnt speaking about being concerned about the fight taking place in bad circumstances. Just one on one with no additional considerations.


New Member
I think it's reasonable to assume that Gandalf has a very good ear for hearing The Music, as it were, and is in some sense anticipating his confrontation against an upgraded Witch King. So, how the fight would go when he utters that phrase is perhaps less relevant than how the confrontation does go when we do see it. He thinks the Witch King will be a challenge because he will be a challenge. A tautology, maybe, but not less true because of that.

I should also point out that some interpret "Against some I have not yet been tested" as referring to the Balrog or perhaps even Sauron himself. It could also just be that Gandalf is speaking generally, and carefully.

We also have to note, from a Doylist perspective, that the line adds tension for new readers, and that Tolkien himself may not have known what it meant when he wrote it. (Has that been covered in one of the Mythgard classes?)

Jim Deutch

Active Member
some interpret "Against some I have not yet been tested" as referring to the Balrog or perhaps even Sauron himself.
Gandalf does not specify who it is against whom he has not yet been tested: I never thought he was referring to the Witch King specifically. There are PLENTY of candidates: Sauron, Balrogs, the Watcher in the water, the other Wizards (Saruman, though he doesn't yet know this test is coming). And indeed, he does not pass the test against the Balrog of Moria (though he doesn't exactly fail, either).

The interesting question, as I see it, is whether or not Gandalf considers that he has now been tested against the WK or not. I would guess "not". Yes, he held off the Nine at Weathertop, but he has not confronted the WK head-to-head. The battle on Weathertop was a skirmish, an incidental encounter, not a situation where either Gandalf or the WK was willing to go all-out and risk death for a chance of victory. That opportunity finally occurs at Minas Tirith, but the confrontation is interrupted by the advent of the Rohirrim.


Well-Known Member
The proper and complete "test" comparing Gandalf and Sauron (the more we talk and the more I consider it, the more I think Sauron us the ultimate candidate for the some against whom he has not yet been tested) is not a one on one battle to the death. It would include their entire and full power - ie. including followers.
  • The battle for the morale of the defenders of Minas Tirith is part of the test. (Denethor was a minor victory for Sauron, but the ultimate victory goes to Gandalf.)
  • The fight between Eowyn and WK is part of the test.
  • Frodo and Gollum fighting for the Ring over the fire is another part (with Gollum fighting on Gandalf's behalf and Frodo fighting on Sauron's behalf, if you think about it, going back to the "pity of Bilbo" lecture from Gandalf to Frodo).
I think it really shows Gandalf as chessmaster, as he needs to get all of his pieces into exactly the right positions at exactly the right time, by exerting the lightest of influences.


New Member
First of all, Tolkien himself admitted that there were many difficulties in the plot of the Flight to the Ford. And with the Nazgul in general. If they have so much trouble crossing rivers without aid, how did they reach The Shire? They would have had to cross several major rivers in Eriador to get there unless they went far north and came across the Misties. (And even then they would face crossing Anduin somehow or other.) And of course, if they are so dangerous, then how does the hero escape? The answer, of course, is Plot Armor. :) The story has to work, so the author makes it work. The level of skill of the author in doing this determines how believable, and entertaining, the final work will be.

But the most important point in regard to the power of the Witch-King specifically is that the ability to gain from Rings of Power depends on the original stature of the wearer. This is clearly stated by Gandalf in The Shadow of the Past, and then by Elrond at the Council of Elrond. Therefore, the greatest of the Nazgul would have been the greatest of the original Men given those Rings. There are some pretty good guesses to be made about who would have been the greatest:

"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." The Silmarillion, "The Akallabêth", p. 267.

So the Witch-King was very likely one of those Númenóreans. It has been further speculated, but there is no supporting evidence in Tolkien's writings, that the Witch-King specifically was a descendant of the line of Elros, a "royal" Númenórean. In which case, he would have traces of not only Elven nature but Maiar because Elrond and Elros were of course descended from Melian through Luthien.

Does it seem likely that someone of "divine" lineage would be able to wield a Ring of Power more effectively than other mere mortals? I think so. They were originally crafted to be used by Elves, not Men. That would easily explain the Witch-King being far more powerful than the other Nazgul. It might also be partly down to the particular Ring he was given. No doubt there were differences among them. (Vilya is clearly stated to be the mightiest of the Three, for example.) But surely the crafty Sauron would take care to give the most powerful of these Rings to the candidates who would be most able to use that power -- Númenóreans, and especially any member of the royal line.

Finally, of course, when it comes down to the confrontation between Gandalf and WK in Gondor, this is a very different situation from the battle on Weathertop. The WK is much closer to his "home" and source of power, which is ultimately Sauron himself, and he has been prepared to fight, not sneak around and find a missing critical item in a distant wilderness. Surely there was a degree of toning down to make the Nazgul able to wander among mortals and seek the One Ring. But that would no longer be necessary in open war.


New Member
I was tempted to bring up the scene from the hobbit where Gandalf is willing to sacrifice himself to fight the band of orcs and wargs. We don't know how many there are, whatever a raiding party amounts to. But it seemed to equal or be more than equal Gandalfs worth, from his POV.

I dont know if that helps factor Gandalfs rankings in any way. I know one on one fights are very different to one vs many. The WK for instance would like flee in FOTR from more than one fighter in a direct confrontation although fleeing from a foe is different from considering a foe worth your sacrificing yourself.

Gandalf the Grey is not a one man army. The Balrog one imagines would have been more than capable of disposing of the orcs and wargs from the Hobbit, but Gandalf still slew him - although it did cost him his life.

It is rather difficult.
I want to raise that my memory was off and that Gandalf does mention the WK along with the riders, for some reason I thought he mentioned only the WK so it is indeed possible he meant all 9 rather than just one.

Jim Deutch

Active Member
If they have so much trouble crossing rivers without aid, how did they reach The Shire? They would have had to cross several major rivers in Eriador to get there unless they went far north and came across the Misties. (And even then they would face crossing Anduin somehow or other.)
The idea that the Nazgul have trouble crossing water is not explicit in tLotR. Merry is at least somewhat skeptical about horses swimming the Brandywine anyway, and the only other water crossing we see them attempt is the ford of Bruinen; they don't seem especially daunted by that, at least until the flood takes them.
Surely there was a degree of toning down to make the Nazgul able to wander among mortals and seek the One Ring.
Interesting take: I'd only considered that they got an upgrade later. But this seems plausible.