“You cannot enter here. . . . Go back to the abyss prepared for you! Go back! Fall into the nothingness that awaits you and your Master. Go!”

Gandalf offers this dramatic challenge to the Lord of the Nazgûl at the close of Book V, Chapter 4. The old wizard confronts the Black Captain alone, recalling Gandalf’s earlier confrontation with the Balrog in The Fellowship of the Ring. Initially, Gandalf’s efforts fail in both instances: earlier, the Balrog pulls the wizard into the chasm of Khazad-dûm; here, the Black Captain sneers, turning away from Minas Tirith only because he hears the Riders’ battle cry to the north. Nonetheless, the image of Gandalf standing firm before the Lord of the Nazgûl, unshaken and alone, lingers powerfully throughout The Return of the King.

While neither of these evil beasts directly cowers before Gandalf’s commands, they both ultimately meet their demises. In this regard, the hand of providence or fate seems to direct events after Gandalf makes a sacrificial gesture. Gandalf scorns the opportunity to fight force with force, and he refrains from using his physical or mystical powers against the Nazgûl. Instead, the wizard uses human speech to invoke the powers of good over the powers of evil. Gandalf speaks with authority, as though performing a priestly duty, intervening with the unseen god or gods of Middle-earth on behalf of Minas Tirith. Interestingly, only Pippin, who observes the standoff, knows of the sins that Denethor, the Steward of Minas Tirith, is preparing to commit in the Citadel as Gandalf attempts to thwart the physical emblem of evil from entering the city.

In instructing the Lord of the Nazgûl to leave, Gandalf presents the Black Captain with a moral choice. The wizard offers brief redemption to the Black Captain, granting the creature the opportunity to make a moral choice in favor of good rather than completing the evil errand he has been sent to perform. However, the likelihood that the violent Ringwraith, given wholly over to evil, might change his mind because of a verbal rebuke is remote at best. Gandalf’s words imply the assumption that the Lord of the Nazgûl has free will when it comes to choosing between good and evil. As servants of Sauron, however, the evil of the armies of Mordor resides in their corruption at the hands of the Dark Lord, their enslavement to his will, and their conviction they do not have such a choice to turn to the side of good.