Q: What Happened to the Nazgul after Sauron Died?
ANSWER: J.R.R. Tolkien does not specifically state that the Nazgûl died after Sauron was defeated through the destruction of the One Ring. Readers sometimes ask if the Ringwraiths could not return in time, or if they finally “died”.
The Ringwraiths were no longer living men. They had all but died and could never again exist as physically incarnated biological beings without the intervention of at least the Valar and perhaps only Ilúvatar. But they were not exactly what we come to think of as ghosts, either. They had faded, meaning their physical bodies no longer existed. And yet Sauron was able to give them shape and the ability to interact with the physical, living world through the dark clothing they wore. Tolkien never tells us whether some sort of enchantment was necessary for the Nazgûl’s clothing to contain them.
In The Lord of the Rings the entry for Second Age year 3441 reads: “Sauron overthrown by Elendil and Gil-galad, who perish. Isildur takes the One Ring. Sauron passes away and the Ringwraiths go into the shadows. The Second Age ends.” The entry for Sauron’s final defeat at the end of the Third Age makes no mention of the Ringwraiths.
What we know for certain is that it’s not easy to kill Ringwraiths. Gandalf explained that to Frodo and the Hobbits in Rivendell:
`I thought they were all destroyed in the flood,’ said Merry.
‘You cannot destroy Ringwraiths like that,’ said Gandalf. `The power of their master is in them, and they stand or fall by him. We hope that they were all unhorsed and unmasked, and so made for a while less dangerous; but we must find out for certain….’
Well, the key to understanding their ultimate fate may lie in this passage. The Ringwraiths were once men who accepted Rings of Power from Sauron. They became enslaved by their Rings, which in turn were mastered by Sauron through the One Ring. But Sauron had also helped make the Nine Rings and so his power was already in them.
When the One Ring was destroyed all the other Rings of Power failed (lost their power). That means the Nine also lost their power, and so whatever enchantment they extended over the Nazgûl must have ended. That enchantment may only have been to delay their spiritual journey to Aman (and thence on to whatever fate awaited them beyond the Halls of Mandos). When Éowyn struck down the Lord of the Nazgûl his spirit fled east toward the Barad-dûr (Frodo and Sam heard it pass overhead). We don’t know what became of it but my guess is that it remained trapped in Sauron’s control but was too weak to serve him any more.
Hence, their spirits (or souls) were indestructible, as we would expect of all the souls of Men and Maiar, but in “death” or defeat they remained subservient to and bound to Sauron. Unlike Sauron the Lord of the Nazgûl may never have had any hope of recovering his strength and troubling the world again, unless Sauron could have strengthened him over time. But with the destruction of the One Ring Sauron himself became so weakened by the loss of his power that he himself was rendered a weak and impotent spirit.
Therefore I think the Nazgûl were finally freed from Sauron’s control and their spirits probably would have followed the course set down for the spirits of all Men. Since Tolkien doesn’t even hint at some sort of exception to this process for the unbound Nazgûl it is logical to assume that the disruption in their transition to their ultimate fate ended with Sauron’s defeat.
The only explicit statement I can find was published in The Peoples of Middle-earth, where an entry for Aragorn (Elessar) which was much revised in the published Lord of the Rings, was originally written thus:
After a lapse of 969 years Aragorn, son of Arathorn, 16th chieftain of the Dunedain of the North, and 41st heir of Elendil in the direct line through Isildur, being also in the direct line a descend ant of Firiel daughter of Ondohir [> Ondonir] of Gondor, claimed the crown of Gondor and of Arnor, after the defeat of Sauron, the destruction of Mordor, and the dissolution of the Ringwraiths. He was crowned in the name of Elessar at Minas Tirith in 3019. A new era and calendar was then begun, beginning with 25 March (old reckoning) as the first day. He restored Gondor and repeopled it, but retained Minas Tirith as the chief city. He wedded Arwen Undomiel, daughter of Elrond, brother of Elros first King of Numenor, and so restored the majesty and high lineage of the royal house, but their life-span was not restored and continued to wane until it became as that of other men.
Emphasis is mine.
It seems plain here that Tolkien originally thought of their existence as “Ringwraiths” ending (the word does not mean “ceased to exist” in this context). In other words, as a body of special servants enslaved to Sauron’s will they were dissolved upon Sauron’s death, like a defeated army is dissolved.
In either case, any physicality remaining to the Nazgûl had to have ended the day Sauron’s Ring was destroyed. Therefore they had become no more than “houseless spirits”, disembodied forever, and for all intents and purposes mere ghosts. As such they would have been summoned by Namo to the Halls of Mandos and, upon their release from there, sent on to wherever the spirits of Men were destined to go. I just don’t see any way that one of the Nazgûl could have resisted that summons. The Dead Men of Dunharrow, who had been cursed by Isildur, could only have remained in Middle-earth by the will of Ilúvatar. As a King of Gondor Isildur was simply acting in his capacity as Ilúvatar’s representative among men (as Tolkien put it, a “priest-king”) and not exercising any special power of his own. So we cannot use the Dead Men of Dunharrow as an example of how the spirits of men might disobey the final summons; they could only remain in Middle-earth through the intervention of a higher power, either Sauron as in the case of the Nazgûl or the Valar (or Ilúvatar) as in the case of the Dead Men of Dunharrow.