Jun 5 2021, 2:53pm
A dangerous past-time, if Tolkien’s words are anything to go by, but fascinating subject matter all the same. The catalysts for this peering are two specific moments of peril for Frodo: firstly, at Weathertop; and secondly, at the Ford of Bruinen. Both provide insights into the author’s construction of the dichotomy of the ‘Seen’ and the ‘Unseen’.
The key passages are in the Gandalf’s telling at Rivendell of these events, focusing on Glorfindel (LotR, ‘Many Meetings’). The relevant passages are as brief as they are intriguing (emphasis is mine):
“I thought that I saw a white figure that shone and did not grow dim like the others. Was that Glorfindel then?” [Frodo to Gandalf]
“Yes, you saw him [Glorfindel] for a moment as he is on the other side: one of the mighty of the Firstborn…” [Gandalf’s reply]
And slightly earlier in the conversation, Gandalf had given a bit of helpful context:
“…for those who have lived in the Blessed Realm live at once in both worlds, and against the Seen and the Unseen they have great power.”
And in the same telling, Gandalf also explains to Frodo the catastrophe he had barely avoided:
“If they [the Ringwraiths] had succeeded [with the Morgul-blade wielded at Weathertop], you would have become a wraith under the dominion of the Dark Lord… You were in gravest peril while you wore the Ring, for then you were half in the wraith-world yourself, and they might have seized you. You could see them, and they could see you.”
“The Riders made straight for you, as soon as you fled. They did not need the guidance of their horses any longer: you had become visible to them, being on the threshold of their world. And also the Ring drew them.”
Although it’s just a few short sentences, there’s a lot going on here. We are introduced to the concept of two worlds; the complex circumstances of visibility, interaction and projection of power between those two worlds; and something of what it meant to be a denizen of the Unseen. There’s precious little in the way of specific mention of the Unseen elsewhere in the legendarium (which is not to say none), and there’s no tidy essay where Tolkien gathered all of his thoughts on the Unseen together. He either chose not to, just didn’t get round to it, or it didn’t even cross his mind as something to resolve – all being regular predicaments for fans of Tolkien’s Middle-earth creation. This short study is therefore not looking to establish a seamless proxy for something Tolkien didn’t write. However, there are several writings that I’m going to put alongside each other for a closer look; I’ll posit a theory or two where possible; and hopefully prompt a bit of discussion along the way.
Before all that, a quick bit of framing. Like many people, I read The Lord of the Rings before encountering The Silmarillion, Unfinished Tales and The History of Middle-earth series. So, in my very first reading of the chapters ‘Flight to the Ford’ and ‘Many Meetings’, I was missing a key bit of lore that I’ll reference throughout this study: the existence of, and difference between, fëa and hröa – the spiritual and physical components respectively of each living person in Arda. With the benefit of this knowledge, post-publication of The Lord of the Rings, what Frodo sees when he puts on the One Ring at Weathertop, or during his wraithlike state at the Bruinen, starts to make more substantial sense for the reader. Frodo, a creature of flesh and blood in the physical world, is looking into the world of spirits, and is being perceived in turn by its inhabitants. So, I’ll take a look at various interactions between the Unseen and the Seen, with the aim of better understanding of the nature of the former.
Ringwraiths, wraiths and the wraith-world
Although it isn’t explicitly stated, Gandalf’s mention of a ‘wraith-world’ and of a second world characterised by ‘the Unseen’ and as being on ‘the other side’, suggests that the terms are interchangeable. Applying Tolkien’s construct of the Children of Eru having a physical and spiritual presence, the descriptors ‘Seen’ can be ascribed to the former and the ‘Unseen’ to the latter. What Frodo sees at the Bruinen is presumably Glorfindel’s fëa, manifest as a ‘shining figure of white light’. What’s not quite clear to me is whether Frodo sees Glorfindel at that moment in the world of the Unseen or whether Glorfindel – as “an Elf-lord revealed in his wrath” – is somehow temporarily manifesting his spiritual presence in the world of the Seen. Frodo is at this time beginning to ‘fade’ from the world of the Seen, due to the effect of the Morgul-blade, and is therefore described as being “on the threshold” of the wraith-world. It’s thus possible that the Unseen element of Glorfindel is only ‘revealed’ to Frodo due to his own ‘fading’ state.
What of Frodo’s own partial transformation then? Gandalf’s grim prognosis of the Morgul-blade wound unchecked is that Frodo would have become a minor wraith, in thrall to Sauron. This suggests that his hröa would have effectively perished, and his fëa would be ensnared in the wraith-world and enslaved by the Dark Lord. This aptly describes too the fate of the human bearers of the Nine Rings of Power, which is set out in all its horror in The Silmarillion (‘Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age’). Emphasis is mine:
“They could walk, if they would, unseen by all eyes in this world beneath the sun, and they could see things in worlds invisible to mortal men; but too often they beheld only the phantoms and delusions of Sauron… And they became ever invisible save to him that wore the Ruling Ring, and they entered into the realm of shadows”
Again, a couple of short sentences but plenty to pour over. We have reference to more than one world; a distinction between that which is seen and unseen in normal (‘mortal’) circumstances; and the shrivelling away of the hröar of these Nine humans, to the point that they only effectively existed as fëar in the wraith-world (the “realm of shadows”), slaves to the will of Sauron. Moreover, their ability to operate in the world of the Seen (“this world beneath the sun”) appears to have been utterly dependent upon Sauron’s willingness to permit them the means to take physical shape. The descriptive pairing of ‘unclad’ and ‘invisible’ (Unfinished Tales, ‘The Hunt for the Ring’) appears to describe what amounts to the Ringwraiths’ ‘natural state’; further reinforced by Gandalf’s explainer for the events on Weathertop (my emphasis): “… the black robes are real robes that they wear to give shape to their nothingness when they have dealings with the living.” The subsequent consequence of the confrontation and their failure at the Ford of Bruinen is that Ringwraiths were “obliged to return as best they could to their Master, empty and shapeless” (LotR, ‘The Ring goes South’).
Returning to Frodo’s terrifying encounter at Weathertop, the unfortunate hobbit had a box seat for viewing the Ringwraiths in the context of both the Seen and Unseen. Before he puts on the Ring, Frodo and his companions can make out “tall black figures… So black were they that they seemed like black holes in the deep shade behind them.” (LotR, ‘A Knife in the Dark’). However, once Frodo puts on the Ring, he is, as Gandalf later fills in, “on the threshold of their [the Ringwraiths’] world”, looking in. The tall black figures suddenly become “terribly clear”:
“In their white faces burned keen and merciless eyes; under their mantles were long grey robes; upon their grey hairs were helms of silver, in their haggard hands were swords of steel.”
At this point, what Frodo is surely beholding is the spiritual remnants or fëar of some of those “kings, sorcerers, and warriors and of old”, who had accepted Sauron’s tainted gifts and paid the price (The Silmarillion, ‘Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age’).
Barrow-wights, the ‘Houseless’ and the ‘Unbodied’
At one point in the early drafting of what became The Fellowship of the Ring, the Black Riders and the Barrow-wights were so closely associated as to be interchangeable (HoMe 6). While the connection between the Witch-king and the Barrow-wights, at least, became part of the published canon, there is, I’d argue, a distinction to be made between a wight and a wraith in the Middle-earth legendarium – even if this wasn’t directly tackled by Tolkien. Furthermore, even though I reckon they’re different kinds of entities, I’d argue as well that both are denizens of the Unseen. But firstly, as it amuses me as much as I find it frustrating, let’s get this gem from ‘The Council of Elrond’ chapter out there: “The Barrow-wights we know by many names…”. And so spoke Elrond. If ever there was a moment for the author to elaborate, this is it. And that’s all we get!
To the similarities then, and what they might mean. Both the Barrow-wight encountered by Frodo and his companions in the Barrow-downs, and the Ringwraiths are associated with instigating a feeling of iciness and a chilling cold amongst those who live in the world of the Seen. Frodo experiences a “thin piercing chill” on Weathertop, and the Barrow-wight’s arrival is presaged by an extreme drop in temperature, and its eyes, voice and grip are all described as cold or icy. The juxtaposition of life-threatening coldness with denizens of the wraith-world, contrasted with the relative warmth of the “world beneath the sun” strongly suggests a shared Unseen trait between wights and wraiths. And in appearance, the description of the Ringwraiths on Weathertop quoted above (“…they seemed like black holes in the deep shade…” etc) compares fittingly with the description of the Barrow-wight (LotR, ‘Fog on the Barrow-downs’): “… a tall dark figure like a shadow against the stars.” Both entities are barely corporeal but still perceptible and dangerous to the Seen.
And as at Weathertop when facing the Ringwraiths, Frodo also felt a compulsion to put on the Ring when imprisoned by the Barrow-wight. Without the Barrow-wight sequence, the compulsion to wear the Ring at Weathertop could be attributed to the Ringwraiths and their specific relationship to the Ruling Ring. However, as the effect is similar enough to the episode in the Great Barrow, notwithstanding the intensity of the connection between the One Ring and the Ringwraiths, perhaps the Ring itself sensed that there was value in Frodo taking a step into the Unseen, and prompted him to put it on. While the Barrow-wight clearly didn’t need Frodo to be on the threshold of the wraith-world to capture him in the first place, it may have made it easier for it to more comprehensively ensnare or incapacitate him if he was. After all, Frodo isn’t completely passive at this point and is still able to fight back, even as he is entombed in the great barrow. Moreover, the Barrow-wight in all likelihood had instructions of a sort, to waylay the likes of Frodo, and it’s not as if the Ring isn’t without a sentience of a kind, maliciously inclined to reveal itself and its Bearer, if such an act would help it to be found and returned to its Master.
Although the final version of the ‘Fog on the Barrow-downs’ chapter does break with the original idea of the Barrow-wights and the Black Riders being the same thing, the probability that they are in league is retained. Appendix A of LotR describes the “…evil spirits out of Angmar and Rhudaur” sent to the Barrow-downs during the Witch-king’s long war against the Arnorian successor kingdoms. This link was later reinforced when Unfinished Tales was published, through which we learn that the Black Captain visited the Barrow-downs prior to Frodo’s journey from the Shire, and that “the Barrow-wights were roused, and all things of evil spirit, hostile to Elves and Men, were on the watch with malice in the Old Forest and on the Barrow-downs.” (‘The Hunt for the Ring’). Our Barrow-wight, as written, may well have attacked any Living being that crossed its path, but its assault on Frodo and his companions does take on a particular resonance, in light of Unfinished Tales.
If Barrow-wights and Ringwraiths are both denizens of the Unseen, in what way are they different, if at all? And if they are different, does this increase our understanding of the Unseen? Tolkien may indirectly address this in writings collected together in HoMe 10, the reliably re-readable Morgoth’s Ring. I refer to two writings from the late 1950s, ie. post-dating the publication of The Lord of the Rings: ‘Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth’ and ‘Laws and Customs among the Eldar’.
In Note 3 of the ‘Athrabeth’, we learn that:
“…houseless fëar [of the Elves] were summoned, not brought, to Mandos. They could refuse the summons, but this would imply that they were in some way tainted, or they would not wish to refuse the authority of Mandos: refusal had grave consequences, inevitably proceeding from the rebellion against authority.”
This concept of Elven spirits loose in the world is further developed in ‘Laws and Customs’, where such spirits are described as ‘Unbodied’ and ‘Houseless’. These are the disembodied fëar of Elves, whose bodies have been slain or are otherwise wasted away, and who have refused the summons of Mandos. Some of the ‘Houseless’ are described in terms of those who have fallen into corruption and may have even succumbed to a ‘counter-summons’ from Morgoth – thus becoming slaves of the primordial evil entity of Arda. Furthermore, of the Houseless we learn that the:
“… wicked among them will take bodies, if they can, unlawfully… For one of the hungry Houseless, if it is admitted to the friendship of one of the Living, may seek to eject the fëa from its body… Or the Houseless may plead for shelter, and if it is admitted, then it will seek to enslave its host and use both his will and body for its own purposes.”
Suffice to say, for the Living to attempt to ‘commune’ with the Houseless was a risky business. And, unsurprisingly, Sauron gets a couple of mentions in these passages: as one who does, in fact, contact and subordinate these wandering spirits; and who passes on his forbidden knowledge of the spirit world to his followers, aptly called ‘necromancers’.
Now, back to the Barrow-wights. Although Tolkien doesn’t come out and say it, in these writings or elsewhere that I can find, these Houseless fëar of Elves could just about fit the bill for Barrow-wights. Compare this from ‘Laws and Customs’…
“Some [of the Houseless] are filled with bitterness, grievance, and envy. Some were enslaved by the Dark Lord [Morgoth] and do his work still, though he himself is gone.”
… with this, from the intro text to the Barrow-wight’s incantation:
“Out of the formless stream of sad but horrible sounds, strings of words would now and again shape themselves: grim, hard, cold words, heartless and miserable. The night was railing against the morning of which it was bereaved, and the cold was cursing the warmth for which it hungered.”
Both passages portray entities that reek of bitterness and hatred for the Living. And while it isn’t explicitly stated in ‘Fog on the Barrow-downs’ that the Barrow-wight is attempting to possess any of the hobbits (murder seems to have been the objective), intriguingly Merry is induced to experience a strange flash-back to a life not his own, a brief possession of sorts by a long-deceased prince of Cardolan. The crawling arm in the Great Barrow that Frodo lops off at the wrist suggests that the Barrow-wight was somewhat more corporeal than the Ringwraiths, at least as the latter appeared at Weathertop, and could hint at some kind of possession or animation of earthly remains. However, like so much about the Barrow-wights, we have little to go on in The Lord of the Rings, beyond the action sequence itself.
Potentially more tangible is the Barrow-wight’s incantation invocation “the dark lord”, and in a context more reminiscent of Morgoth than Sauron, as per the concept of ‘counter-summons’ and enslavement. The invocation bleakly looks forward to something akin to the extinguishment of the world (“… till the Sun fails and the Moon is dead. In the black wind the stars shall die…”), which recalls the nihilism of Morgoth rather Sauron’s ambitions of earthly dominion.
A final bit of speculation on this topic. While the Black Captain is never, to the best of my knowledge, described by Tolkien as a ‘necromancer’, along the lines of the followers of Sauron described in ‘Laws and Customs’, he is certainly the chief servant of the Necromancer. And, in draft, he’s described variously as the Wizard-king, the Sorcerer-king and, finally, the Witch-king, and takes as his seat of power Minas Morgul – the not so subtly named “Tower of Dark Sorcery”. That he had the power to infest Tyrn Gorthad with evil spirits in the first place, and then ‘rouse’ them up again 1,400 years later, should therefore come as no surprise. The Witch-king is, for all intents and purposes, a necromancer in this context, and eminently characterisable as a student of Sauron’s forbidden knowledge, as outlined in ‘Laws and Customs’.
The difficulty with using this fascinating material to draw conclusions about the Unseen is that it post-dates the composition of The Lord of the Rings. Meaning that it is not simply a case of joining the dots and definitively concluding that a Barrow-wight is a Houseless and corrupted Elven spirit, inhabiting the world of the Unseen. The connections are tempting but, despite Tolkien spilling a great deal of ink exploring the concept of what happens to Elves when they ‘die’, including the fate of the Houseless, he doesn’t cross-reference the Barrow-wights. Although Christopher Tolkien makes clear that ‘Laws and Customs’ was a “major independent disquisition” (HoMe 10), given the context of these later writings (the reworking of the 'Quenta Silmarillion'), it may well be that there was never any place for such a cross-reference. Anyway, however conjectural, this is certainly more illuminating than the words of Elrond quoted above!
The Dead Men of Dunharrow, Oathbreakers
Here, there is no doubt about the ‘who’ at least: these beings were once the Men of the Mountains, southern relatives of the Dunlendings and, according to one tradition, the Men of Bree.
Variously described by Tolkien as Shadows, Shadow-men, shades, ghosts and wraiths, the Dead Men also induce dread, terror and fear by their very presence, to friend and foe alike, and are associated with icy coldness. They are dimly and uncomfortably perceptible by the Living but no longer of the Living. The similarities with how Ringwraiths and Barrow-wights are depicted is therefore striking. These are, to use the language of ‘Laws and Customs’, in all likelihood the fëar of humans, trapped in Arda and unable to transpose to Mandos or elsewhere.
The instrument of their purgatory in the wraith-world is a curse uttered by Isildur, at the outset of the War of the Last Alliance, more than 3,000 years before Aragorn summoned the Dead Men to his banner at the Stone of Erech. This introduces yet another ‘type’ of Unseen denizen, bereft, like the others, of their hröa but not through the corrupting effect of a Ring of Power, a Morgul-blade or a rebellion against the summons of Mandos.
Like the other Unseen, these entities could in fact be ‘seen’ by the Living, albeit in a similarly indistinct or limited fashion. Gimli, in describing the rout of the Corsairs of Umbar at Pelargir, remarks that the Dead Men were “hardly to be seen, save for a red gleam in their eyes that caught the glare of the ships that were burning.”. And Legolas, in his account of the Grey Company’s journey on the Paths of the Dead, reports that he saw “… shapes of Men and of horses, and pale banners like shreds of cloud…”. The degree of visibility or corporeality varies throughout their appearance in the story, but there doesn’t seem to be any significant distinction between the perceptiveness of a human, elf or dwarf when it comes to who can see what.
Intriguingly, what isn’t clear is whether these spirits could affect the physical world, beyond inducing flight through terror. Again, in the context of the battle at Pelargir, Gimli remarks: “Pale swords were drawn [by the Dead Men]; but I know not whether their blades would still bite, for the Dead needed no longer any weapon but fear.”. Nowhere can I find reference to the Dead Men actually crossing swords with the Haradrim and Corsairs. Looking outside The Lord of the Rings, there is the fascinating snippet published in Vinyar Tengwar 42 ('The Rivers and Beacon-hills of Gondor') that describes how the Dead Men broke poor Baldor's legs, leaving him to die - I'm going to have to assume that this was the result of physical violence. The Ringwraiths and Barrow-wights, as written in The Lord of the Rings, clearly could and did reach beyond the wraith-world to physically harm the Living – and not only one such as Frodo, when he stood upon the precipice of the world of the Unseen, by wearing the One Ring. For example, the Barrow-wight physically grasped Frodo’s arm, when he wasn’t wearing the Ring; and the Witch-king wielded a mace that smashed Éowyn’s shield.
The above could give the impression that the wraith-world and its Unseen denizens were comprehensively diabolical. There are, however, other entities in the mix, and I’ll cover them briefly. The Ainur, for example, had the ability to ‘walk unclad’, ie. without physical bodies. These beings were spirits and could opt (or not) to take physical form “as we use raiment” (‘Ainulindalë’). And so “the Valar my walk, if they will, unclad, and then even the Eldar cannot clearly perceive them, though they be present.” Indeed, from the ‘Valaquenta’, we learn that Olórin, the future ‘Gandalf’, always chose to walk unseen when it came to his dealings with the Elves in Valinor. This ‘unclad’ / ‘unseen’ formulation was fundamentally different to the fëa / hröa one, in that the Children of Eru were a union of the spirit and body, whereas the Ainur were spirits who had entered Eä and chose to manifest themselves physically.
In addition, a trawl through ‘Laws and Customs’ surfaces the fascinating concept of ‘the Lingerers’ and the fate of those Elves who remain in Middle-earth but have not ‘died’. Unlike the ‘Houseless’, described earlier, the Lingerers have retained their physical form, or at least a faded version of it, thus: “… the Lingerers, whose bodily forms may no longer be seen by us mortals, or seen only dimly and fitfully.” And again, unlike the Houseless, the Lingerers largely keep to themselves when it comes to the division between the Unseen and the Seen, and don’t attempt to wrest control of someone else’s body. What rare interaction between the Lingerers and mortals that does take place is described as benign.
As stated up front, stitching all of this diffuse source material into a neat explainer wasn’t my intention. While there are certainly more contradiction-laden topics (origins of Orcs, anyone?) than this one, nonetheless the relevant material spans several decades, and sets ‘canon’ alongside ‘post-canon’ and the posthumously-published. Complexity is inherent. However, I did set out to draw a few conclusions, where possible.
The Unseen / Seen dichotomy is, in the earliest days of Eä, arguably a hypothetical one only. Until the arrival of the Incarnates, ie. the Children of Eru, the Eä-verse is stewarded by fundamentally spiritual beings that can slip back and forth between ‘clad’ and ‘unclad’. Once the Children of Eru arrive, in their two distinct waves, we get beings that are fundamentally a combination of spirit and physical form. Henceforth, Arda at least, becomes a far more complex place. Choices can be made and, thanks to actions of Melkor, rebellion and (even worse) corruption and enslavement become possible – complicating what should be a straightforward summons of a fëa that has experienced the perishing of its hröa. The world of the Seen therefore begins to exist alongside a world (and possibly more than one) inhabited by the Unseen, some of whom are explicitly servants of evil and some who are otherwise possessed of a malevolent hunger for, and hatred of, the Seen. Not only are the inhabitants of the world under the Sun imperiled by the physical risks posed by Orcs, Trolls or something like the Great Plague. They’re also potentially in danger from an Unseen menace.
These primordial parameters allow us to choose, if we wish, to view Frodo’s confrontations at the Great Barrow, Weathertop and the Bruinen in a more layered way – even if Tolkien himself (or rather, the ‘authors’ of the Red Book of Westmarch) didn’t make these links explicit. Glorfindel, at the Bruinen, is an Elda who understands and has complied with the ‘natural order’ when it comes to the physical and the spiritual, and exercises great power over both the Seen and the Unseen. Frodo, on the other hand, has strayed by accident onto the threshold of a world that he isn’t prepared for and indeed can never really be prepared for. And even worse for him, a cohort of the Unseen almost succeeds in artificially pinning him to the wraith-world through the use of a blade infused with dark sorcery. And it’s through similar artifice, Frodo’s assailants and would-be abductors, the Ringwraiths, continue to exist in the Circles of the World, albeit it as perversions of the aforementioned natural order. And, in some respects, as perversions of the Ainur themselves: the Nine mortal “kings, sorcerers, and warriors of old” take ‘raiment’ in order to physically interact with the world of the Seen but appear to only be able to do so if their master wills it. An Ainu (unless utterly corrupted and spent, and thereby anchored to a specific form, eg. the last incarnation of Morgoth or perhaps the Balrogs) makes their own choice of raiment, as and when they wish.
Regarding the Barrow-wights, I’ve previously acknowledged the speculative nature of the line I’ve drawn between ‘Laws and Customs’ and ‘Fog on the Barrow-downs’. It is possible, however, to infer that these entities are Elves who chose to rebel against authority and who were subsequently corrupted and enslaved by an evil even more ancient than the creator of the Ringwraiths. At the very least, Frodo is confronted by something antique in the Barrow-downs that is not part of, and is only partially visible in, the world of the Seen, is potentially obeisant to a dark lord, and loathes the basic constructs of the Valar such as the Sun, Moon and stars. And again, we see the outlines of something that comes across as hazardously antithetical to the natural order.
So, while peering into the Unseen isn’t quite all bad, the chances are that for mortal folk there’s peril ahead. Wraiths, Oathbreakers, wights, the Houseless: all of these entities indicate a world (or worlds) that is a prison for the damned and is bleakly adverse to the world of the Seen. And exceptionally exposed to the domination of one dark lord or another, either directly or via necromantic proxies. Yes, Unseen was first nature to the Ainur but of the Children of Eru, only Eldar of a certain stature appear to have been able to navigate with confidence its pitfalls. Pitfalls that track all the way back to primordial evil and rebellion.
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