Who Are These Wights on the Barrow-downs (Day 25)

As Frodo and company continue on their way through the Barrow-downs, they believe they see the East Road not too far off. After stopping to rest by a standing stone, they fall asleep. When they awaken, the fog has rolled in and soon they become separated. All have been captured by the Barrow-wights!

Camera: Mamiya C3 Film: Kodak Ektachrome 64 (EPR) (expired 1989 - xpro as C-41)

Camera: Mamiya C3
Film: Kodak Ektachrome 64 (EPR) (expired 1989 – xpro as C-41)

Thoughts on the Passage – Book I, Chapter 9 (p137-142, 50th Anniv. Ed.)
No matter how strange Tom Bombadil is, I think the Barrow-wights outclass him. But they don’t come upon our hobbits without warning. Before leaving Bombadil’s house, they are cautioned by Tom that when crossing the Barrow-downs, not to stop.

Just to make sure we’re all on the same page here, “barrows” means gravesites, specifically, burial mounds, and “wights” simply means people. It was probably because of Tolkien that “wight” came to be widely known as someone who is undead. But Tolkien was not the first person to use “Barrow-wight” to mean grave-dweller. That honor goes to Andrew Lang in 1891, who described “Barrowwights” as “ghosts that were sentinels over the gold.”

Rather than wildly speculating over their nature, let’s hit the books. The Barrow-wights are first mentioned in the poem “Adventures of Tom Bombadil,” complete with the hill and ring of stone. They threaten Tom, entering his house: “He’s got loose to-night: under the earth he’ll take you/Poor Tom Bombadil, pale and cold he’ll make you!” Tom, of course, casts off the wights with his song.

When Tom warns our hobbits of the wights, he begins by telling them a bit about the green mounds and standing stones. These are fairly common burial ground, really. At least upon first glance. For a further description, there’s Appendix A. Evil spirits from Angmar and Rhudaur entered the deserted mounds, claiming them as their own. If “Angmar” rings a bell, it might be because that’s the residing place of the Witch-king of Angmar, the head Nazgul. Rhudaur was an adjacent kingdom that fell to the Witch-king.

So the people buried in the tombs originally, were not the Barrow-wights. According to the “Tale of Years” (Appendix B), he evil spirits came into them around 1636 of the Third Age (it’s now 3018 of the Third Age), during the Great Plague. The tombs themselves date to much earlier, being built in the First Age “by the forefathers of the Edain (ancestors of the Numanorians / Dunedain), before they crossed the Blue Mountains into Beleriand.” The treasures found within the tombs probably belonged to these kings and queens.

How these evil spirits came to inhabit the burial mounds is another story, recounted in “The Hunt for the Ring” in Unfinished Tales. According to one of the versions, the Witch-king had sent the evil spirits there himself.

In another version, things get more complicated (but that’s why we read Tolkien, no?). The current day in the story is September 28. Six days earlier, the Rangers (sans Stryder) were guarding Sarn Ford. They’re driven away by the Black Riders. They pursue the Rangers, killing some and then making camp near the Barrow-downs. This party included the Witch-king, who visited the Barrow-downs, staying there until late on the 27th (when Frodo and company were with Tom Bombadil).

“This proves a main error,” writes Tolkien in a manuscript, “though in fact it was nearly successful, since the Barrowwights are roused, and all things of evil spirit hostile to Elves and Men are on the watch with malice in the Old Forest and on the Barrowdowns.” That would explain why the Barrow-wight who captured Frodo said, “I am waiting for you.”

This also explains why the Old Forest was even creepier than it had been – the Witch-king was around and stirring up everything that could keep watch for anything not evil. This was fairly clever, as it linked not just the Barrow-wights to Sauron, but the Old Forest as well.

What Tolkien never seems to lay down is the origin of these evil spirits. Any ideas?

About the Photo
The way the standing stones are described, they sound like obelisks. I’ve got quite a few photos of those. This one in particular is in Montana and marks the nearby campground of Lewis & Clark, called Camp Disappointment.

Thoughts on the Exercising
I really pushed it today. I was watching a Kevin Smith show, and that always motivates you to exercise. Anyway, another five miles and I’m thrilled and feel great. Sweaty though. I guess I worked off the Regular Saturday Morning Mighty-Os (Seattle’s own vegan doughnuts!).

  • Miles today: 5
  • Miles thus far: 115
    • 20 miles to Bree
    • 99 miles to Weathertop
    • 345 miles to Rivendell
    • 1,664 miles to Mt. Doom

Today’s stopping place: Inside the tomb of the Barrow-wight! (map)