by Varda-(Valar)
December 22, 2001
Updated Oct. 3, 2010

Tolkien Site > Maiar > Barrow-wights   

      A barrow is, in this context, a mound of rock or earth marking a grave, especially an ancient one. The word comes from Middle English berw, from Anglo-Saxon beorg "grove". Groves have a great deal of mystical/religious/mythical significance.
      A wight is, in this ancient use, a preternatural, supernatural, or unearthly being. The word is from Middle English wist , wight, from Anglo-Saxon wight "creature, animal, person, thing". A different version of wight comes from Middle English wihte; Old Norse vigr, neut. vigt, "warlike, fit for war".

     The information on the Barrow-wights is scattered about as Tolkien reveals it slowly to the hobbits. This article attempts to bring it together.

     The hobbits of the Shire knew the rumor of the Barrow-wights of the Barrow-downs east of the Old Forest, a tale no hobbit liked to hear. Whispered tales told of the dreadful spells of the Barrow-wights.

     Tom Bombadil lived at the edge of the Barrow-downs and advised Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin concerning the Barrow-wights whom they were about to pass through and how to avoid them.
     He said the grassy, hilly country of the Barrow-downs had once been home to sheep and tiny kingdoms with fortresses on the hills. The kingdoms fought among themselves, the towers fell, the fortresses were and broken leaving only rings of stone on the hills, the royalty were buried with their treasures under barrows, and the people were gone. The stone doors were shut and grass grew over all. The sheep stayed a time for the grass, then they too disappeared.

     Then, as Bombadil said:

"A shadow came out of dark places far away, and the bones were stirred in the mounds. Barrow-wights walked in the hollow places with a clink of rings on cold fingers, and cold chains in the wind."
    More is told of Bombadil's reference in Appendix A of the The Return of the King. During the time of King Argeleb II, plague came into Eriador from the South-east killing many of the people of Cardolan and causing great suffering among the Hobbits and other peoples. The plague lessened as it passed northwards and little affected northern Arthedain. But this was the time of the end for the Dunedain of Cardolan. Mounds were built for the dead of Cardolan and these were called the Tyrn Gorthad, later the Barrow-downs. They were built by the forefathers of the Edain before crossing the Blue Mountains into Beleriand of which, by the time of the War of the Ring, only Lindon remained. Therefore these hills were revered by the Dunedain on their return; many of their lords and kings were buried there. It appears that the mound in which Frodo was imprisoned was the grave of the last prince of Cardolan, who fell in the war of 1409. Unfortunately while the graves were deserted after their building, evil spirits came out of Angmar and Rhudaur and moved into the deserted mounds for their dwelling places.

     To be safe from Barrow-wights, Tom told the Hobbits to avoid the Barrows and keep to the green grass. If they strayed too near a Barrow, they should pass it on the west side. This is the side towards the Lords of the West, the Valar, while the East is of the Dark Lord. If they still managed to have trouble, they should call him with a song he taught them, for he had greater power than the Barrow-wights. Interestingly, just yelling, "Tom! Help! Barrow-wights!" was not suggested and may not have worked. In Tolkien's stories, songs hold power.
      The hobbits should have been able to pass the Downs before sunset, but they came to a hill with a valley at the top with a single standing stone at its center. They took a meal beneath the stone and fell into a sleep, although they had been lively earlier. The sleep stopped suddenly for all of them at sunset. They saw a fog had rolled in around them; then, as they watched, thick mist came above them like a roof with the stone standing as a pillar.
      Remembering where the road should be, the hobbits with Merry's ponies headed immediately out into the fog which became colder and damper as they went downhill. They thought they were heading for the north-gate of the Barrow-downs, but instead came between two huge standing stones. The stones were not straight, but leaned a bit towards each other "like the pillars of a headless door". As soon as they went between the stones, darkness fell.
     When the blackness hit, the ponies bucked off their riders and ran back towards a safer place behind them. But the hobbits called to each other and tried to go towards the calls (which weren't necessarily their own calls), which were muffled and seemed far although they had been next to each other.
      Frodo was the last caught. At the top of the hill where he had heard cries come, then cut off as wails, the east wind "thrust aside" the fog and stars lit the top. He saw a Barrow-wight. It had a voice, deep and cold that seemed to come from underground, saying it had been waiting for him. It was a "tall dark figure like a shadow against the stars." "He (Frodo) thought there were two eyes, very cold, though lit with a pale light that seemed to come from some remote distance. Then a grip stronger and colder than iron seized him. The icy touch froze his bones and he remembered no more."
      He woke up flat on his back laid out on stone, his hands folded over his breast. This is a burial position. Sam, Pippin, and Merry were laid out beside him similarly, unconscious, cold-skinned, and pale of face. They wore white clothing and their own was never seen again. On their heads were circlets, around their waists were gold chains, and on their fingers were many rings. By their sides lay swords, and at their feet were shields. "But across their three necks lay one long naked sword."
      Frodo gathered himself mentally, and noticed a pale greenish light around him, seeming to come out of himself and the floor, not yet reaching walls nor roof. He was able to turn and see his friends.
      Then he heard the song of the Barrow-wight, cold, rising and falling, seeming to be far away high in the air or under the ground, railing against the mornings and warmth it could not have but for which it hungered. Then he realized the song changed into an incantation, telling what it was doing to the hobbits and one in which the wight's belief about the Dark Lord was revealed:
"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 on gold here let them lie,
till the Dark Lord lifts his hand
over dead sea and withered land."
      This shows an expectation that the Dark Lord would one day win out over the other Ainur. The Sun and Moon are Maiar who would fail and die. The rest is about the highest Valar. The wind of Manwe, King of the Valar, would become black. The stars of Varda Elbereth would die. The sea of Ulmo would die. The land of Aule and Yavanna would wither. This Dark Lord could be Sauron, acting as Melkor's agent on Arda as he was doing at the time of the story, or mean that Melkor himself would return from his exile in the Void, already prophesied for the Last Battle. Both Sauron and Melkor are called the Dark Lord, but during the time of the War of the Ring, the title usually meant Sauron.
      Then the Barrow-wight became physically active, giving Frodo something to counter beyond coming conscious and able to move, which the others could not. A long arm creaked and scraped around the corner into the room walking on its fingers. It headed towards the nearest hobbit, Sam, and the sword hilt there. Frodo had to fight off the urge to use the Ring in his pocket, then grabbed the short sword beside him, kneeled low over his friends, and chopped off the monster's hand at the wrist. The sword splintered up to the hilt. He heard a shriek, the light vanished, and something snarled. Frodo fell off balance, but remembered the song Bombadil had told them to use to summon him if they were in trouble, and sang it so that the "chamber echoed as if to drum and trumpet".
      This song mentioned places where Bombadil was found and may be acknowledging power from water (of the Vala Ulmo and of the River-daughter Goldberry who might be a Maia of Ulmo, or the daughter of such a Maia), wood (of Yavanna who handled the plants and animals of which Bombadil was so fond, including the wood, reed and willow mentioned here; maybe also Orome the huntsman who frequented the wood), fire (perhaps from the forges of Aule who was Vala of the earth and its hills where Frodo and his friends were trapped), Sun, and Moon. Tom was himself a being of great power, possibly a Maia of Yavanna or Aule. Whatever else this song is, it is certainly a summoning.
"Ho! Tom Bombadil! Tom Bombadillo!
By water, wood, and hill, by the reed and willow,
By fire, sun, and moon, harken now and hear us!
Come Tom Bombadil, for our need is near us!"
      A sudden silence fell. No more snarling. Then the summoned Bombadil began his own songs of power, fighting the Barrow-wight. Simply to identify himself was enough to give warning to the creature, and reminded it that Tom's songs were stronger. His cheer was the opposite pole to the wight's gloom, and the despair the Dark Lord desired all to feel so that they could not have the strength of will to oppose him. Bombadil's bright colors warred with the glooms and blacknesses of the evil ones, all of which he reminded the Wight. His mention of being old was a reminder that he was the Eldest, an authority, and he reminded it that he was master of that region.  My thought is that the frequently mentioned color blue is the preferred color of Manwe, Elder King, and may be a way of showing where Tom's loyalty lay.
"Old Tom Bombadil is a merry fellow,
Bright blue his jacket is, and his boots are yellow.
None has ever caught him yet, for Tom he is the master:
His songs are stronger songs, and his feet are faster."
      Immediately after this song, rocks fell and daylight streamed into the chamber. Tom entered. The hobbits' faces lost the sickly hue and they appeared only deeply asleep. At the sight of the unconscious hobbits, Bombadil unleashed another song of power directly against the wight, assigning him a terrible fate, as it cannot be killed, of exile. His use of the word "old" was in an unflattering phrase, not the way he used it for himself. The exclamation marks allowed no argument, with short definite commands. The song showed an opposition to the belief of the Wight that the Dark Lord would take over, saying instead that the world would be mended.
"Get out you old Wight! Vanish in the sunlight!
Shrivel like the cold mist, like the winds go wailing,
Out into the barren lands far beyond the mountains!
Come never here again! Leave your barrow empty!
Lost and forgotten be, darker than the darkness,
Where gates stand for ever shut, till the world is mended."
      Tom's power was immediately felt by the wight. It cried out, part of the inner chamber crashed down, a long shriek trailed into the distance. Then silence.
      This ended the continuing threat, but the spell on the hobbits remained to be broken. Frodo and Tom carried them to lie on clean grass outside the hole, on the west side of the mound. Tom stomped the still wriggling hand, presumably until it stopped moving. Then Tom bore the treasure out of the mound, laying it in the sunshine on top of the grassy mound. Sunlight? A night must have passed.
      Then he stood over the three unconscious hobbits, hat in hand, raised his right hand, and sang clear and commanding words over them. He ordered them to awake and claimed them as his. He healed them from their cold immobility. Stone, which the wights seem to use for power as in the standing stones, may also have had power inside the mounds where they lived, as its breaking is specifically mentioned as important.
"Wake now my merry lads! Wake and hear me calling!
Warm now be heart and limb! The cold stone is fallen;
Dark door is standing wide; dead hand is broken.
Night under Night is flown, and the Gate is open."
      The hobbits didn't just slowly come out of it, but sprang up. Merry referred to a memory he couldn't have, one that he must have picked up from the dead people of the mound. He remembered a night attack by the men of Carn Dum and a spear in his heart. But Merry quickly dismissed it as a bad dream.
      Tom's cheery singing and bouncing made the horror fade from their hearts, so that they could be strong and continue with the mission which must be done. Tom again used power songs to bring back Merry's scattered ponies, along with his own. His song names stuck to the ponies so that they answered to those from then on. New clothes were taken from the packs, replacing the Barrow clothing. True to their nature, the hobbits, ate from the provisions Tom brought (for he knew hobbits). Beings of another race might have thought only of leaving the place where they had been nearly killed. While they ate, Tom finished breaking the power of the wights there. He made a pile of the treasure, bidding that it be free to all finders, birds, beasts, Elves, Men, and all kindly creatures, to scatter it "for so the spell of the mound should be broken and scattered and no Wight ever come back to it".
      He started the process himself by taking a brooch for Goldberry, in remembrance of the fair lady who had once worn it. He gave each of the hobbits a fabulous dagger, large enough to use as swords for hobbits, for future defense. With the blades, he told more of the origin of the mounds and the men of Carn Dum whom Merry had mentioned.
      The blades were made long ago by the men of Westernesse, foes of the Dark Lord. They were overcome by the evil men of Carn Dum of the land of Angmar. He alludes to the kingly line of Aragorn without using the name, and of their guardianship "over folk who are heedless", partly referring to all Hobbits. A vision (from Bombadil or from the Vala, Irmo?) came over the hobbits and they saw those ancestors and one with a star on his brow.
      The Dark Lord here referred to was Sauron. The head Nazgul was the Witch-king of Angmar. Their purpose had been to destroy the North Kingdom, which they accomplished. Then they moved on to the old site of Angband, Melkor's fortress run by Sauron, on which they built Mordor, the very place to which Frodo and Sam were headed although they did not yet know it.
      Tom rode through the Barrow-downs as escort to the hobbits to the edge of his lands, understandably not trusting them to stay out of trouble with more Wights. He warned the hobbits that out east his knowledge failed, and that he was no master of the Black Riders from outside his country, and that he would not pass his borders. 

Webster's New Twentieth Century Dictionary , Unabridged 2nd edition, 1983.
The Fellowship of the Ring: "In the House of Tom Bombadil", "Fog on the Barrow-Downs":