Archive for June, 2014

Last week the Tolkien group I am in,  the Grey Haven’s group, read the chapter in The Fellowship of the Ring about the Barrow Downs. Shortly before this meeting, Bill, a fellow member had asked what a “Barrow” was, and I told him about all those burial grounds in many countries, including Sweden, where men had raised mounds over their famous dead, sometimes calling them “barrows”. The Old Mounds of Uppsala, is in fact one of my favorite places in the world because of its ancient, rich and multifaceted history around this place of cult, faith, cruelty and hope.


But during that meeting I started thinking about why, in Tolkien’s text, the Witch King of Angmar chose to send evil spirits (called “barrow wights”) to possess the old bones of once good and brave kings and chieftains who had fought against him and his forces in the wars. I realize that part of it was to haunt the area of Cardolan, so it would never be inhabited by men again, but why the bones of these once loved but now dead individuals? Why not just order the evil spirits to settle around all those stone formations in this old province of the former Arnor kingdom?

Devon, another clever member, compared the Barrow wights to the Draugr from old Scandinavian mythology and lately in popular culture used often in the Bethesda game “Skyrim” where they are aptly depicted as revenants, bound or returned to their old bodies in order to guard grave treasure. The comparison absolutely has merit, as the barrow wights in Tolkien’s text seem drawn to buried treasure. And yet still, the draugr were left over shards of souls bound to their own old bodies. Not spirits possessing other people’s earthly leftovers.


I became more and more inclined to interpret the possession of the old bones of once brave and kind humans, by evil spirits as a way for the Witch King of Angmar to not only have practical usage of them, but also to humiliate both the dead Dunedain as well as the Dunedain that were left to wander the old wilderness that once was a great kingdom.

The interesting aspect of this theory is that it would showcase the fundamental lack of understanding on the Witch King’s part for what constitutes “the gift of man” (“man” is here, as well as in Tolkien’s texts a way of phrasing “human” not a gender specific word), which was to grow old and die and have a soul that does not travel to the undying land in the West, where the elves go when they get weary of Middle Earth, but that travels into a great mystery.

The Witch King himself, as a powerful unliving being, mostly understands how to cling on to power, treasure and land – or how to corrupt it so that others are unable to enjoy it. The concept of leaving behind that which is powerful or valuable would be unfathomable to him. The concept of choosing to die – or to die metaphorically – to walk away from something so completely that no attempt to humiliate us by desecrating that which we let remain behind, could ever hurt us, because we have entered something else entirely – is not something that can be done by those that only know how to clutch on.

And most of us do clutch on, even living humans, in real life, as well as in Tolkien’s texts and other literature. That which is known, and perhaps even grants us material or emotional power or comfort, often seems preferable to some great unknown “mystery” or “nothingness”. There are whole segments of religion which teach that we won’t be truly wise until we can let go and not be clinging and expecting. I won’t go into that here…but I have written before (although not in Tolkien related words) about how there is a real and tangible danger of becoming a corrupt wight possessing old used up bones – gradually transforming something in us that once had purpose and goodness into something void and destructive, by just clutching and never letting go.

Unlike in literature or film, corruption is rarely complete, blunt or fast. It is subtle and full of gray shades and sensible explanations. We see the blatant effects of it, around in the world, but what about the self, where do we start to not understand “the gift of man” and just cling and possess instead of letting go?

Ultimately I can only go to myself and all those hard and sometimes surprisingly small situations where I needed to not hover over the bones. I say small matters, and I mean it. That is where it all starts. Did somebody once call you something (whether flattering or unflattering) that you attached yourself to very, very hard? Well that’s where it starts in my mind.

My whole life, I will fight to not be a wight or a Witch King, and it’s never going to be easy. And I do not think it matters if you are an atheist, a theist, a follower of various spiritual or philosophical paths or a chooser of the agnostic shrug, there is always truth in letting go of the old bones and dare to wander into the mystery of the unknown.

I once wrote a poem about the Old Mounds of Uppsala, where great deeds of spiritual goodness as well as great deeds of spiritual cruelty and fear were once performed, I was asked to post it in connection to the barrow discussion, so here it is:

The Old Mounds

These relaxed hills could fool you now
but time was when bearded men hung horses
from the oaks and the vale was brimming
with boats crossing for the barrows
of nobility, the bronze queen’s chest
filled with beaten silver paid for the thin lipped
stone saints who much later looked down
on wanderers from the eastern mound.

There is a birch glade on the lower grounds
where midsummer and midwinter curious
things happen. Once at 4 a.m. this badger
caught me by surprise – a wild animal
suddenly forming a human expression
he turned on me but I bridled him
with his name and saddled him with mine
swinging a thistle whip

we took a ride down the runestone road
where the Walpurgis bonfire is lit.
By the blackwood stave temple
we stopped to look at the church-
verger’s collapsing shack – an abandoned
servant’s solstice offering


[cross posted to The Grey Haven’s Blog]

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