What Happened to the Ringwraiths Once the Ruling Ring Was Destroyed in the Lord of the Rings books?

The Ring.

Film still via New Line Cinema

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Answer by Thomas Snerdley:

Believe it or not, this question reminds me of the hip-hop crime drama movie New Jack City. The main villain, Nino Brown, is a drug kingpin who has terrorized the city, robbing, raping, and murdering with impunity. When finally brought to trial, he walks off with a slap on the wrist. But as Nino is swaggering out of the courtroom, a frail old man in the crowd looks him straight in the eye and says, “Your soul is required in hell,” and shoots him dead.

That’s pretty much what happened to the Ringwraiths who still served Sauron at the moment the Ruling Ring was destroyed. They were famed as “mortal Men doomed to die,” yet for uncounted generations of Men they hadn’t died.

Sauron’s necromantic sorcery, contained in the Nine Rings of Power, held them in an unspeakably evil existence long after their shriveled bodies should have crumbled into dust. As The Silmarillion records: “They had, as it seemed, unending life, yet life became unendurable to them. … They entered into the realm of shadows. The Nazgul were they, the Ringwraiths, the Enemy’s most terrible servants. Darkness went with them, and they cried with the voices of death.”

Yet within Arda it is the inevitable and immutable* fate of Men that when the body dies, the spirit goes to the Halls of Mandos and then departs the circles of the world. There was one thing, and one thing only, standing between the Nazgul and the True Death: Sauron.

In Gandalf the Grey’s words to Meriadoc Brandybuck at Rivendell: “The power of their master is in them, and they stand or fall by him.” By the time of the War of the Ring in the year 3019 of the Third Age of Middle-earth, that “fall” had been postponed for more than 4,200 years.

The first Ringwraith to die was the most powerful, the Witch-king of Angmar, who met his end at the Battle of the Pelennor Fields beneath the blades of Meriadoc Brandybuck and Éowyn: “A cry went up in to the shuddering air, and faded to a shrill wailing, passing with the wind, a voice bodiless and thin that died, and was swallowed up, and was never heard again in that age of this world.”

The other eight Nazgul, mounted on their fell beast aerial steeds, would soon follow the same path into the Void. When Sméagol/Gollum plunged from the Sammath Naur with the Ruling Ring into the fires of Orodruin: “ … into the heart of the storm, with a cry that pierced all other sounds, tearing the clouds asunder, the Nazgûl came, shooting like flaming bolts, as caught in the fiery ruin of hill and sky they crackled, withered, and went out.”

After four millennium spent cheating death, the Ringwraiths’ souls were required in hell—or wherever the spirits of Men go when they depart the world of Arda.

*As with almost everything else in Tolkien’s cosmology, there were a few exceptions. 

  1. Beren Erchamion was reincarnated by Eru Ilúvatar for a brief second life with Lúthien Tinúviel before dying finally and permanently.
  2. Tuor was born a Man but lived out the end of his (possibly infinite) days amongst elves in the Blessed Realm.

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