. Alas, not me: Barrow-wights, Ringwraiths, and William Morris (FR 2.ii.248)

26 April 2017

Barrow-wights, Ringwraiths, and William Morris (FR 2.ii.248)

"Under the Spell of the Barrow-wight" © Ted Nasmith

"Strider" I am to one fat man who lives within a day's march of foes that would freeze his heart or lay his little town in ruin, if he were not guarded ceaselessly. 
(FR 2.ii.248)

While the identity of these foes has never been clear, that was hardly the point. Strider was speaking about the effect such foes would have on the North were it not for the Dúnedain, whose unknown efforts get repaid with scorn. Still I have from time to time wondered who or what he's talking about. If an author creates the illusion of depth, that very act invites us to embrace the perspective and inquire.  Of course that doesn't mean we'll find an answer, or even that there is one. Tolkien himself, for example, could only speculate about what happened to the Entwives (Letters, nos. 144 and 338), a question which far more people would like answered.

But a clue nearby in the text and a passage in the first draft are suggestive about who were the 'foes that would freeze [Butterbur's] heart.'  Just a moment earlier Strider had said: 'when dark things come from the houseless hills, or creep from sunless woods, they fly from us.' The use of the definite article before 'houseless hills' and its absence before 'sunless woods' suggests he has specific 'houseless hills' in mind. The phrase is in itself evocative, both raising and rejecting the idea that the hills are inhabited.  It also rather nicely suits the Barrow-downs, which are inhabited and not by creatures that are alive and not, and which are easily within a day's journey of Bree. This immediately invites us to ask whether barrow-wights can leave their barrows.

The answer to this, in Tolkien's thought if not in his published text, would seem to be that they can. For in his first attempt at 'the New Hobbit', as he originally called The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien portrayed barrow-wights as pursuing Tom Bombadil and the hobbits after he has rescued them (Shadow 112, 118-120).  Years before that in the poem, The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, Tom comes home to find one lying in wait for him (stanzas 17-19). Tolkien, moreover, had also spoken of barrow-wights in his commentary on the word 'orcneas' in Beowulf (112):
The O.E. word occurs only here, orc is found glossing Latin Orcus [Hell, Death]. neas seems certainly to be né-as, plural of the old (poetic) word  'dead body'.... 
'Necromancy' will suggest something of the horrible association of this word. I think that what is here meant is that terrible northern imagination to which I have 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 163-64)
Tolkien's phrasing at the end is intriguing since he does not call the tale 'Grettis saga' or even 'the saga of Grettir the Strong', but 'the story of of Grettir the Strong', which is precisely what William Morris and Eiríkir Magnússon entitled their translation of it.  Tolkien owned this translation as well as many other works by Morris, which he admitted were an influence on him and which he sometimes read to his children (Hammond and Scull [2006] 2.599-601). More than that he also at times dealt with them on a professional level (Hammond and Scull [2006] 2.603-04).  Morris, moreover, uses the very odd and unusual word 'wraithlings' to describe a creature such as Glámr has become (chapter 33). This word, which translates ON smávofur, literally 'little ghost' -- in the saga it is used contemptuously by a character who presently learns the error of false pride -- is unknown to the first edition of the OED and Google Ngram finds no trace of it between 1500 and 2000.  Since it is so very rare, possibly even hapax legomenon, we may well wonder if it is the source from which Tolkien derived the notion he briefly entertained that the Ringwraiths were barrow-wights on horseback (Shadow 75, 118-120).

However much it may look like Tolkien still had the barrow-wights in mind when he wrote the words with which we began this inquiry, it remains difficult to say if this is so. We must be cautious in the way we treat details that come from texts written before or after the published text. Tolkien was always rethinking what he wrote, and that should give us pause. This is especially the case with things written later, like the shifting conceptions of Galadriel, who did not exist before the tale reached Lothlórien, but whose history emerged and evolved in the two decades The Lord of the Rings's appearance and Tolkien's death. Yet we should not be too quick to dismiss what he had written, especially in a draft, and regard possible links to it as something that Tolkien forgot to delete. Surely some of what appears in the drafts, but was not included in the final text, may help to create the illusion of depth for which Tolkien is so justly famous.



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