In the works of J. R. R. Tolkien readers meet various kinds of ghostly characters. While they are all different, have various origins, backgrounds and specific traits, one aspect unites them: these wights instil great fear and are downright spooky. It is hard not to have one’s blood chilled by the Ringwraiths, not to be scared by the Barrow-wights or haunted by the Dead Men of Dunharrow.

The Dead Men of Dunharrow (also known as the Shadow Host, the Oathbreakers or simply the Dead, to name but a few of their titles) belong to those spooky characters that appear briefly, but play a big role in the course of the War of the Ring and leave a long-lasting impression on readers. What makes them even more interesting is that as opposed to the clearly evil Barrow-wights and the Ringwraiths operating on the dark side, the Shadow Host fought against Sauron, not for him. As the Dead of Dunharrow follow Aragorn’s summons, the Dark Lord’s former worshippers turn against him and become instrumental in his eventual defeat.

The Shadow Host used to be mortal Men of the White Mountains. When Isildur and his men came to Middle-earth following the ruin of Númenor, the King of the Mountains swore allegiance to him. However, as Sauron grew in strength again, Isildur summoned the Men of the Mountains to fight against the Dark Lord’s growing power. But, having previously worshipped Sauron, the Men refused the summons. That was the beginning of their undoing:

‘Then Isildur said to their king: ‘‘Thou shalt be the last king. And if the West prove mightier than thy Black Master, this curse I lay upon thee and thy folk: to rest never until your oath is fulfilled. For this war will last through years uncounted, and you shall be summoned once again ere the end.’’

(Return of the King, p. 52)

And nor did the Men rest for a long while. Following this curse, they hid in the mountains, supporting neither the bad side, nor the good, and eventually turned into the Shadow Host — the ghosts of the formerly mortal Men. And that is a very interesting point.

Let us first consider the nature of oaths. In the times when there was no formal judicial system, everything relied upon one’s word. Oaths were the way to seal agreements between people, and if an oath was broken, a severe punishment could follow. The Oxford English Dictionary defines an oath as “a solemn promise, often invoking a divine witness, regarding one’s future action or behaviour”.

Supposedly, when the King of the Mountains swore his allegiance to Isildur, in their oath they did name Eru or the Valar as a divine witness to it. Thus, when the Men of the Mountains refused Isildur’s summons and received his curse, they broke their promise not only to Isildur, but to a divine authority, which is a grievous thing to do and could not be left unpunished. In case of the Men of the Mountains the punishment was their lingering in Middle-earth as the Shadow Host.

Legolas described the Shadow Host as mere “shapes of Men and of horses, and pale banners like shreds of cloud, and spears like winter-thickets on a misty night” (Return of the King, p. 60). They grew stronger and more terriblein the gloom issued from Mordor and there was a gleam in their eyes. They must have been really spooky to look upon. Grey, shadowy and pale, the Men of the Mountains paid a dear price for breaking their oath, for it was not for any mortal Men to remain in Middle-earth longer than it was their due.

We know from Tolkien’s writings that the ultimate fate of Men was to die and leave the Circles of the World. Men were even called “guests” in the conversation between Finrod and Andreth, for Men, unlike Elves, were in no way bound to Arda. Following the time for their deaths, these Men of Dunharrow did not die properly or leave the Circles of the World, but remained in Middle-earth as spirits, not really living, mostly haunting the area in and around the White Mountains and instilling fear in people.

With these dead men Tolkien showed what might have happened to mortals if they lingered in Middle-earth beyond their designated earthly time. In his writings the Professor made it clear that the consequences were dire:

The view is taken (as clearly reappears later in the case of the Hobbits that have the Ring for a while) that each ‘Kind’ has a natural span, integral to its biological and spiritual nature. This cannot really be increased qualitatively or quantitatively; so that prolongation in time is like stretching a wire out ever tauter, or ‘spreading butter ever thinner’ – it becomes an intolerable torment.

(Letters, № 131)

The Men of the Mountains did not die but turned into ghosts trapped between the world of living and the freedom of their spirits. Their unfulfilled oath forced them into serial longevity, more reminiscent of a torture to themselves and to the world of living. Another example to be drawn here is clearly the Nazgûl bound to the world by their own Rings of Power, the One Ring and Sauron’s will. From the formerly mighty Men, they turned into wraiths, mere shadows, neither alive, nor dead. Being ghostly and shadowy, the Dead Men of Dunharrow shared the weapon with the Nazgûl, and that was fear.

Deadly fear was what accompanied the Shadow Host and the places they haunted. Local people did not go near Dwimorberg or the Hill of Erech, and they shut their windows and doors when the Dead ventured into the world of living oozing fear as they went.

The passage through the Paths of the Dead became a test for Aragorn and those following him, too. While the Dead kept this passage through Dwimorberg and let no living people go through it, Aragorn and his company did go in: the time was ripe for the heir of Isildur to venture on this dark road as there were no living to help him in that war. The place was filled with fear and even the stoutest hearts faltered. The constant unseen presence of the Shadow Host, their whispers, sounds of their ghostly movements — all of those chilled their blood, but what kept the travellers on track was the strength of Aragorn’s will, his royal lineage giving him legal right to take this road and, last but not least, the company’s love for him. These become stronger than the fear of the dead.

Sauron’s allies at Pelargir had no such luck. As the Shadow Host fell upon them, fear served as their main weapon, so no swords were needed to gain the victory and conquer the fleet of Umbar:

And suddenly the Shadow Host that had hung back at the last came up like a grey tide, sweeping all away before it. Faint cries I heard, and dim horns blowing, and a murmur as of countless far voices: it was like the echo of some forgotten battle in the Dark Years long ago. Pale swords were drawn; but I know not whether their blades would still bite, for the Dead needed no longer any weapon but fear. None would withstand them.

(Return of the King, p. 174)

By fulfilling their oath many years after it was given and broken, the Dead Men of Dunharrow finally made amends, helped the heir of Isildur in the fight against Sauron and earned their long-deserved release from the Circles of the World.

I would like to express my sincerest gratitude to my long-time reader Jeff Bryant, who suggested writing about the Oathbreakers. Thank you, Jeff, for the inspiration and for following Middle-earth Reflections for what seems like forever!

Further reading

Forever young I want to be.

Who wants to live forever?

When the Nine are abroad.

Trapped by the Barrow-wights.

Wicked witch.

Works consulted:

1. J. R. R. Tolkien – The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2001.

2. H. Carpenter – The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien; with the assistance of Christopher Tolkien; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2012 (Kindle edition).

Featured image: pixabay.com

3 thoughts on “Shadowy people.

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