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.
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.