Very few readers are left unimpressed when they, together with Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin, lose their way in the fog on the Barrow-downs and become trapped in the mound by the Barrow-wights. These creatures are horrible and horrifying, and appear even more so as we do not fully understand what they are exactly. So, what are these wights and where do they come from?
A look in the Oxford English Dictionary at the entry wight will provide us with two definitions. On the one hand, this word, with its usage being archaic or dialectal, can refer to “a person of a specified kind”. In this meaning it was extensively used by Chaucer in his Canterbury Tales. Another meaning of wight is less everyday and more spooky: it refers to “a spirit, ghost, or other supernatural being”. This is suitable for Tolkien’s mound-dwellers: even from those glimpses that we get of them it is crystal clear that they are not from our world.
The word wight is of Germanic origin. It comes from the Old English wiht — “living being, creature, person, something, anything”. The Proto-Germanic form of this word is *wihti-. Numerous cognates in many languages can be traced, originating from the same source:
Old Saxon: wiht — thing, demon
Old Norse: véttr/vættr — thing, creature
Old High German: wiht — thing, creature, demon
Gothic: waihts — something
Dutch: wicht — a little child
German: Wicht — creature, little child
Swedish: vätte — spirit of the earth, gnome
Norwegian: vette — spirit
Danish: vætte — spirit
There is even a related form in Slavic languages: veštî — thing, matter, subject.
It is especially interesting to see that in Old Norse mythology the word véttr/vættr was used to denote any supernatural being which was not human. Thus, even the likes of Odin or Thor belonged to this category. This, however, is too vast a term for our Barrow-wights. To narrow down the list of supernatural creatures to understand the inspiration for them we should first turn to Tolkien’s own notes. In his commentaries to Beowulf, talking about the word orcneas in particular and evil creatures in general, he mentions “terrible northern imagination” to which he has “ventured to give the name ‘barrow-wights’. The ‘undead’. Those dreadful creatures that inhabit tombs and mounds. They are not living: they have left humanity, but they are ‘undead’. With superhuman strength and malice they can strangle men and rend them. Glámr in the story of Grettir the Strong is a well-known example” (Beowulf, pp. 163-164).
This saga of Grettir the strong was well-known to Tolkien. It was translated into English by William Morris and Eiríkr Magnússon in 1869. The creatures they called barrow-wights (on one occasion) or simply wights represent a particular belief in Old Norse tradition. It is that of draugar (singular: draugr). Also known as aptrganga or aptrgangr, which means “again-walker”, draugar were undead creatures — the walking corpses which inhabited burial mounds and haunted the places where humans dwelt presenting a serious threat to their lives.
In the saga Grettir encounters several wights of this kind. One of such encounters gives readers a chance to look inside a mound where a wight dwells. It is very dark and smelly there. The place is full of horse bones, accounting for insatiable hunger draugar were believed to have. The wight is sitting in a high chair surrounded by treasures, guarding them, so when Grettir tries to take the treasure, the wight attacks him. In his fight with the mound-dweller Grettir has a chance to feel the supernatural strength draugar were notorious for. They were believed to be exceedingly strong and among various magical powers of theirs was the ability to swell in size and simply crush their opponents to death, especially weaker ones. Heroes were tougher nuts to crack, so they could equal those wights in strength. After a long and exhausting fight Grettir prevails over the barrow-dweller and kills it in accordance with the custom: he decapitates the creature and lays its head near its thigh.
The character of Glámr is much more developed and dimensional. It was during his life when he began showing the signs of loathing the living that draugar usually display. Grettir’s fight with Glámr proved a very difficult one, and even more so because there was “more fiendish craft in Glam* than in most other ghosts” (The Story of Grettir the Strong). Draugar’s magical powers included shape-shifting, ability to go through earth and to control weather. For his victory Grettir wins great renown, for, very much like Grendel of Beowulf, Glámr tormented the living with his hauntings and gruesome deeds, but also a curse from the wight that haunts Grettir for the rest of his life.
Tolkien’s Barrow-wights, though sharing some characteristics with the Norse draugar, were very different creatures. They were evil spirits of uncertain origin sent to dwell in the mounds of the Barrow-downs by the Witch-king of Angmar. These spirits entered the mounds and haunted the remains of the buried there. Later, during the War of the Ring, the Witch-king went to rouse the wights anew to keep watch on travellers. The tales of the Barrow-wights were well-known in the Shire, so the hobbits were aware of the danger coming from those creatures. Lovers of treasure and wearing clinking rings and chains, they were the horror of the region they haunted and far beyond.
When the hobbits wake from their unwanted sleep in the Barrow-downs, they are confused by the fog — thick, chilly, white, with the air being heavy and very still. Soon the change in the weather comes, and it is not a pleasant one:
He [Frodo] was suddenly aware that it was getting very cold, and that up here a wind was beginning to blow, an icy wind. A change was coming in the weather. The mist was flowing past him now in shreds and tatters. His breath was smoking, and the darkness was less near and thick.
(Fellowship of the Ring, p. 184)
It is clearly indicating that something is amiss — the evil magic of the Barrow-wights is clearly at work. Other hobbits are nowhere to be seen: Frodo is alone and something terrible is happening. Moments later he is to encounter a horrific barrow-dweller face-to-face:
Trembling he looked up, in time to see a tall dark figure like a shadow against the stars. It leaned over him. He thought there were two eyes, very cold though lit with a pale light that seemed to come from some remote distance. Then a grip stronger and colder than iron seized him. The icy touch froze his bones, and he remembered no more.
(Fellowship of the Ring, p. 184)
The voice, cold and dreary, comes from underground and then the Barrow-wight is suddenly in front of him. The next moment Frodo opens his eyes, he is inside the barrow lying on a cold stone. Many details of this horrible creature and its dwelling echo those of draugar’s — the sense of dread infecting the living in the wights’ presence, their hate to the living and desire to kill them, Frodo’s using a sword from the mound against the moving arm, which was the way to defeat a barrow-dweller in Old Norse mythology, the wights’ love of treasure. However, Tolkien never simply took notions from other mythologies without filtering them through his own vision and adapting them to his Legendarium.
Tolkien’s Barrow-wights appear more sinister than the gruesome corpses of Norse tales. Killing for them is not a mere crushing of opponents with physical force, but a ritual, which they perform with all the pomposity: special clothes, hoards of jewellery, an evil incantation which sounds like a burial song, weapons placed on the victims’ bodies, evil greenish light gradually filling the mound. The Barrow-wights are physically strong and use evil magic on the hobbits: they are unconscious and when they come round Merry first thinks that he is not himself, but some warrior of old. Tolkien’s Barrow-wights act in a more evil, perverted way. The whole thing is a ritual for them rather than a mere act of killing for the sake of it.
In the world of Arda the Barrow-wights belong to the category of more mysterious and less explained creatures. This, however, is a good case of less being more: our brief encounter with them adds a certain veil of horror to these creatures haunting the Barrow-downs.
*Glam is a variant spelling of the name Glámr.
- J. R. R. Tolkien – The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2001.
- W. Morris, E. Magnússon – The Story of Grettir the Strong.
- Online Etymology Dictionary
Featured image: Carl Gustav Carus: Stone Age Stronghold at Nobbin, Rugen Island