- "Cold be hand and heart and bone
and cold be sleep under stone
never more to wake on stony bed
never, till the Sun fails and the Moon is dead
In the black wind the stars shall die
and still be gold here let them lie
till the Dark Lord lifts his hand
over dead sea and withered land."
- —The dismal, tortured chant of a Barrow-wight.
The Barrow-Wights were beings of darkness that could enter the eye, heart and mind and crush the will. They were sent by the Witch King of Angmar to haunt the Barrow Downs after the fall of Cardolan, and are encountered only in the first volume of the Lord of the Rings.
The wights that attacked the four Hobbits in The Fellowship of the Ring were reanimations of the corpses of the Kings of the Barrows. Most often the Barrow-wight came on the unwary traveller in the guise of a dark phantom whose eyes were luminous and cold. The voice of the figure was at once horrible and hypnotic; its skeletal hand had a touch like ice and a grip like the iron jaws of a trap.
Once under the spell of the creature, the victim had no will of his own. In this way the Barrow-wights drew the living into the treasure tombs of the downs. A dismal choir of tortured souls could be heard inside the Barrow as, in the green half-light, the Barrow-wight laid his victim on a stone altar and bound him in chains of gold. He draped him in pale cloth and precious jewellery of the ancient dead, and with a sacrificial sword, ended them.
East of the Brandywine River beyond the Old Forest were the Barrow-downs, the most ancient burial ground of men in Middle-earth. There were neither trees nor water there, but only grass and turf covering dome-shaped hills that were crowned with monoliths and great rings of bone-white stone. These hills were the burial mounds that were made in the First Age of the Sun for the Kings of Men. For many ages the Barrow-downs were sacred and revered, until out of the Witch-Kingdom of Angmar many terrible and tortured spirits fled across Middle-earth, desperately searching to hide from the ravening light of the Sun. Demons whose bodies had been destroyed looked for other bodies in which their evil spirits could dwell. And so it was that the Barrow-downs became a haunted and terrible place. The demons became Barrow-wights, the Undead who animated the bones and jeweled armor of the ancient Kings of Men who had lived in the First Age of the Sun.
In the darkness they were powerful spirits and they could be held at bay only with the spell of strong incantations. Tom Bombadil could perform the following with a song. However, normally they could be destroyed only by exposure to light, and it was light they hated and feared the most. The Barrow-wights were lost and tortured spirits and their last chance to remain on Earth depended on the dark security of their burial vaults. Once the stone chamber was broken open, light would pour in on the Barrow-wights and they would fade like mist before the sun and be gone forever.
The Barrow-wights began appearing in the Barrow-downs after the Dúnedain of Cardolan succumbed to the ravages of the Great Plague. They were put there by sorcerers of Angmar who corrupted the souls of the inhabitants of the Barrow-downs. The sorcerers were sent by the Witch-king of Angmar, who wished to keep the Dúnedain away from the downs.
On September 28, 3018 Frodo Baggins and his companions; Sam Gamgee, Merry Brandybuck, and Pippin Took while passing through the Barrow-downs were captured one by one by the Barrow-wights and trapped in what was believed to be the cairn of the last prince of Cardolan.
There they were almost slain by a wight; three of the Hobbits had been lain in a barrow filled with a strange green light and were dressed in white robes and wore jewels and gold and had a sword across their necks. The wight had finished an incantation, and was preparing to finish them off when Frodo summoned up the courage to slice off its hand; he then called upon Tom Bombadil when the wight extinguished the dim light in the cavern.
Bombadil performed some kind of exorcism on the barrow, which caused the wight to flee with a shriek; he then gave the hobbits swords and then spread out the gold and treasures from the barrow on the grass so that the barrow's spell was broken and no Wight would return to it.
Behind the Scenes Edit
They were probably corrupted spirits of the Dúnedain who the graves belonged to. It is possible that the tombs were inhabited by oathbreakers as well; things that betrayed Earnur in the battle of Fornost.
Other versions of the legendarium Edit
Due to his inspiration from Hrómundar saga Gripssonar, during the writing of The Lord of the Rings Tolkien at first foresaw a link between the Wights and the Ringwraiths, initially describing the Black Riders as horsed Wights, but the suggestion that they were the same kind of creatures was dropped in the published work. In the final work there remained a link between them: the wights were now spirits sent by the Witch-king.
The concept of a burial mound housing evil spirits was not a new one created by Tolkien. The Barrow-wights themselves are based on a similar creature in Germanic Mythology known in Norse as Draugar (the singular being Draugr).
They were said to be evil spirits residing in the bodies of dead heroes and kings and usually (but not universally) unharmed by conventional weapons. The defeat of a Draugr was not always permanent; they could return to plague the living if certain actions were not performed after the Draugr was vanquished. The usual means of destroying a Draugr was to cut off its head and to burn the body, for only then would the evil spirit be prevented from returning to the body.
Another, probably related, creature from Germanic and Slavic folklore was the Mahr (also called an Alp), a vampire-like creature that was said to rise from its barrow after dark to plague the sleeping and drink their blood. The primary way to vanquish them was to open their Barrow to the rays of the Sun, much like the Barrow-wight from Tolkien's mythology.
A very similar creature in Japanese mythology is the onryo, as they are undead spirits which dwell in darkness and are seemingly affected by the Sun. The onryo of Japan are deceased women, and have returned to Earth in a desire for vengeance. These spirits can also possess the living, the dead, and the undead.
The name Barrow-wights was based on the Old Norse Draugr. Barrow refers to the burial mounds they inhabited and wight is the modern derivation of wiht, an Old English word for "living being" or "creature" (it does not mean "spirit" or "ghost"; it is cognate to modern German "Wicht", meaning "unpleasant person"). Tolkien borrowed this concept from Norse mythology, see e.g. Waking of Angantyr and Hrómundar saga Gripssonar.
- The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring Video Game
- The Lord of the Rings: War of the Ring
- The Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle-earth II
- The Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle-earth II, Rise of the Witch-King
- The Lord of the Rings Online
- The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
- Lord of the Rings: War in the North