Wights and Wraiths

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Improvising cinematic ingredients for The Hobbit, Peter Jackson and his colleagues invented a new cemetery, the “High Fells of Rhudaur.” First encountering mention of these new tombs in An Unexpected Journey, I decided that Jackson had arbitrarily pasted his own landscape over the world of Middle-earth. The release of The Desolation of Smaug seemed to affirm that Jackson had summoned his High Fells into Middle-earth to accommodate another revision of Tolkien’s legendarium – a fundamental rewriting of the truths of Ringwraiths.

It seemed to me that Jackson had divested Tolkien’s ancient Ringwraith lords of their intended moral point: the slow twisting of terrible mortal ambitions into a shadowy future, the frightful lingering of cruelty and pride. Jackson had abandoned this narrative logic, choosing instead to insert his own undead wraiths into Middle-earth from some hipster zombie film. Such fundamental tampering hardly seemed necessary.

And yet… well, recently it dawned on me that there is another way to understand Peter Jackson’s recalibration of Tolkien’s undying wraiths into undead zombies. Long ago when I first read The Hobbit, one day I found there an evil character lurking unseen at the edge of the tale. Tolkien called him “the Necromancer.” I had already read The Lord of the Rings, and I knew Ringwraiths and I knew Sauron. So what did Tolkien intend with this word, Necromancer?

I looked it up. Dark magic pertaining to the dead… so Sauron the Necromancer surely had something to do with the dead. But this seemed a story that Tolkien never actually told: the tale of Sauron’s black magic at Dol Guldur. As Tolkien portrayed the matter in the Council of Elrond, Gandalf said he had visited the fastness, and the White Council had driven out Sauron. The Appendices of The Lord of the Rings added only that Dol Guldur was a place of imprisonment, a favorite keep for Sauron and his servants.

Peter Jackson probably knew that when Tolkien first invented his Ringwraiths, he toyed with the idea of making them mounted barrow-wights. Barrow-wights first enter Tolkien’s writings as fairytale monsters with no evident place in his Middle-earth legendarium. But as Christopher Tolkien made clear in The Return of the Shadow (1988), his father decided in 1938 to situate barrow-wights in Middle-earth during the same period that Ringwraiths first materialized. In an early planning note Tolkien wrote, “Barrow-wights related to Black-riders.” And he wondered, “Are Black-riders actually horsed Barrow-wights?”

A connection between barrow-wights and the Necromancer in The Hobbit can be glimpsed in Tolkien’s lecture notes on Beowulf, prepared sometime during the 1930s (JRR Tolkien, Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary, 2014, p. 163-164). Pondering an Old English term, orcnéas, he associated the word with “necromancy” and “that terrible northern imagination to which I have ventured to give the name ‘barrow-wights.’” He went on to further underscore this association, describing barrow-wights as “undead” and as “dreadful creatures that inhabit tombs and mounds” who “are not living: they have left humanity, but they are ‘undead.’”

He then offered an example from Norse tradition: “Glamr in the story of Grettir the Strong is a well-known example.” In the tale told of Grettir the Strong, after Glamr died he was buried under a pile of stones, and he soon reappeared, horribly resuscitated – an undead zombie. Tolkien’s barrow-wights were thus rooted in an undead tradition. It is arguable that they simply “left humanity” and slowly became “undead.” But as “not living” creatures of old tombs, it seems more likely that Tolkien intended them to be humans who had died and had then become enlivened by dark magic. GreyHavensMirth3c

The invention of Tolkien’s Necromancer and his barrow-wights occurred close in time during the early 1930s, and these Beowulf notes clarify the connection between them via Norse tradition. But in 1938 Tolkien ultimately decided against bestowing this heritage of tradition upon his new Ringwraiths. They soon enough left the fold of the undead and became undying living men haunting the gloomy shadows of Middle-earth. Still, their invention is indelibly entwined with Tolkien’s original vision, invisibly rooted in necromancy.

Confronted with an unexplained Necromancer in The Hobbit, Peter Jackson had to make sense of the term. It is reasonable for him to make an effort to link Sauron the Necromancer to the undead in some logical fashion. He chose to do so through the Ringwraiths. Some may understandably disagree with Jackson’s choice, his logic. But when I consider how I ought to feel about Peter Jackson’s High Fells of Rhudaur, I can’t help but sense Tolkien’s Middle-earth lingering somewhere inside those tombs, a faded ghostly presence. If we look, we can indeed glimpse a fleeting undead zombie history in Tolkien’s Ringwraiths – a history long-abandoned but not forgotten.

A Tolkien Sighting

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A Tolkien Sighting:
Day of the Dead Exhibition at the Longmont Museum
Essay by Andrea Mathwich of the Grey Havens Group
Photos by Roger Echo-Hawk

The Day of the Dead is a holiday celebrated in Mexico on November 1st and 2nd of every year.  The ancient Aztecs believed that their deceased loved ones lived on after death in another place, but once a year they were released from that otherworld and allowed to return to earth at midnight, October 31.  Families would set up elaborate tables full of the dead’s favorite foods, drinks, books and collections so these wandering souls could easily find them.  For the next two days their spirits joyously reunited with their living relatives. TolkienGHGAltar(02b)

We are a Tolkien reading group in Colorado and have been meeting weekly for years. You could say we are like a family.  We come together because we all share a joyous passion for Tolkien’s works.  So much so that reading about him has inspired us to create and collect.  Some of us have started writing poetry and Tolkien fan fiction.  Others have picked up the paintbrush and created visuals and maps of Tolkien’s world.  Still others have picked up sharper things like knitting needles and have patiently yarned up the Hobbit story in the form of scarves. We have collected Sting, miniatures of Rivendell and Minas Tirith, Strider’s Sword and about every book ever written about him.  A few have learned to write in the beautiful Elvish language and in strange Runes, all for the love of Tolkien. TolkienGHGAltar(88)

It was time for us to gather these collections into one place to celebrate the life and works of Tolkien, and the Day of the Dead Exhibition was just the place to do it.  We carefully placed a good pipe and a strong English beer on the table to entice his hungry spirit to linger. We had a warm fire blazing in hopes he might rest his weary soul before making his return journey to that other land.  We baked up some fresh lembas, a sustaining bread from his stories, to energize him as well. We placed his books on the table so that he might leaf through them, and perhaps weave us a new tale.  We were ready for his visit.  The crowds gathered on the opening night at the Longmont Museum to view all the offrendas of the Day of the Dead.  Tolkien’s table was glowing with candles and twinkling lights. The scent of tobacco floated through the air and melodic music played in the background.  The occasion was happy and festive.  We were excited to be together.  We knew Tolkien’s wondering spirit would not be lost.

The Grey Havens installation crew gathers around Donna Clement’s magic fireplace; Dyhrddrdh Colby, Andrea Mathwich, and Charlie Krinsky begin work, Sunday afternoon, September 21, 2014

The Grey Havens installation crew gathers around Donna Clement’s magic fireplace; Dyhrddrdh Colby, Andrea Mathwich, and Charlie Krinsky begin work, Sunday afternoon, September 21, 2014

Andrea and Charlie agree that this is exactly where Bilbo would hang Dyhrddrdh’s artwork: “The Ring Verse”

Andrea and Charlie agree that this is exactly where Bilbo would hang Dyhrddrdh’s artwork: “The Ring Verse”

The Grey Havens JRR Tolkien Altar, Friday, September 26, 2014

The Grey Havens JRR Tolkien Altar, Friday, September 26, 2014

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Grey Havens gathers at the Opening Fiesta, Friday evening, September 26, 2014

Grey Havens gathers at the Opening Fiesta, Friday evening, September 26, 2014

Luthien and Beren (photo of the Tolkien gravesite by Steve Eggleston)

Luthien and Beren (photo of the Tolkien gravesite by Steve Eggleston)

Next time you visit Middle-earth, be sure to try Andrea’s lembas and Farmer Maggot’s mushrooms.

Next time you visit Middle-earth, be sure to try Andrea’s lembas and Farmer Maggot’s mushrooms.

Down at the Prancing Pony visitors from afar read Father Christmas Letters when they get tired of jumping over the moon

Down at the Prancing Pony visitors from afar read Father Christmas Letters when they get tired of jumping over the moon

Hobgoblin Ale goes well with a little Longbottom Leaf

Hobgoblin Ale goes well with a little Longbottom Leaf

Dan Hollingshead’s epic painting “Sailing to Valinor” hangs over Donna Clement’s fireplace

Dan Hollingshead’s epic painting “Sailing to Valinor” hangs over Donna Clement’s fireplace

Linda Echo-Hawk tells Andrea that she thinks well of Gollum because his eyes glow in the dark just like a cat

Linda Echo-Hawk tells Andrea that she thinks well of Gollum because his eyes glow in the dark just like a cat

Thanks to Andrea Mathwich for developing, organizing, and producing the Grey Havens JRR Tolkien Altar

Thanks to Andrea Mathwich for developing, organizing, and producing the Grey Havens JRR Tolkien Altar

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The Grey Havens Hobbit Hole

Welcome to the Grey Havens Hobbit Hole  courtesy of Barbed Wire Books and artist Donna Clement

Welcome to the Grey Havens Hobbit Hole
courtesy of Barbed Wire Books and artist Donna Clement

The door is real with a painting of Donna propped up in front of it

The door is real
with a painting of Donna propped up in front of it

Kelly pauses in the Shire on her way to Grey Havens

Kelly pauses in the Shire
on her way to Grey Havens

Dyhrddrdh is in a hurry to hang her hood next to Kili’s hood

Dyhrddrdh is in a hurry to hang her hood next to Kili’s hood

Katy, magic weaver of enchanted scarves

Katy, magic weaver of enchanted scarves

 

For the first time ever Erika enters the door with the magical sign

For the first time ever
Erika enters the door with the magical sign

Ivan and Michele know the secrets of both mice and mystics

Ivan and Michele know the secrets of both mice and mystics

Sisters of the Enchanted Drum

Sisters of the Enchanted Drum

Donna and Andrea speak “friend” and enter here

Donna and Andrea speak “friend” and enter here

Kate and Donna visit Bag End to search for tunnels full of jewels and gold

Kate and Donna visit Bag End
to search for tunnels full of jewels and gold

Dan appeared from his mysterious journeys and said, “Well, I’m back.”

Dan appeared from his mysterious journeys
and said, “Well, I’m back.”

Elisha is thinking of forgetmenots and flag-lilies and a silver-green gown

Elisha is thinking of forgetmenots
and flag-lilies and a silver-green gown

 

Beth feels at home when she’s not abroad

Beth feels at home when she’s not abroad

Tonight we will ponder the ruin of Beleriand and Fingolfin’s sword that glittered like ice

Tonight we will ponder the ruin of Beleriand
and Fingolfin’s sword that glittered like ice