There is no doubt that the first promotional image from LOTR on Prime is simply amazing. But what is actually going on here?
Rather than blather on with superlatives, let’s just dive on in, and take a detailed look at what it reveals.
Fair warning, though: there will be spoilers for some key elements of The Silmarillion. So, if you’ve just started reading and you have no idea what happens and avoiding story spoilers is important to you, now is the time to step away!
The Two Trees
The obvious place to begin is the trees since, as Tolkien writes in The Silmarillion, “about their fate all the tales of the Elder Days are woven”. They’re also what firmly locates this panorama in Valinor — all our conclusions derive from their presence.
[Telperion] had leaves of dark green that beneath were as shining silver, and from each of his countless flowers a dew of silver light was ever falling, and the earth beneath was dappled with the shadow of his fluttering leaves.
[Laurelin] bore leaves of a young green like the new-opened beech; their edges were of glittering gold. Flowers swung upon her branches in clusters of yellow flame, formed each to a glowing horn that spilled a golden rain upon the ground; and from the blossom of that tree there came forth warmth and a great light.
Of the Beginning of Days, The Silmarillion.
The trees in the LOTR on Prime panorama cannot be anything else. In the hidden city of Gondolin in Beleriand, Turgon famously created his own reproductions of the Two Trees in silver and gold. However, they emitted no light and were located within the city itself, not out on the plain. No, these are the Two Trees and that means this is Valinor.
You may wonder which tree is which.
My belief is that Laurelin — the tree of gold — is the one nearest the camera. Its shape more closely resembles that of the common beech (Fagus sylvatica). The dark trunk and boughs seem at odds with Telperion’s descritpion and the glow that emanates from it is a warm golden-yellow. And the silvery hue of the tree behind fits Tolkien’s vision of the Telperion much better.
The Two Trees: Alive? Or not?
The next key question is whether the trees are alive in this image. Is this the Years of the Trees? Or is LOTR on Prime using a clever fake-out as Professor Corey Olsen suggested may be the case on TORn Tuesday? Is the scene actually set later — long after Melkor and Ungoliant have paid their fateful visit — during the Years of the Sun, and the sun just happens to be positioned behind Laurelin?
I’ve gone back and forth between the two opinions.
One the one hand, when you adjust the levels in the image and pull the brightness down, the light out of (or through) Laurelin dominates, while the glow emanating from Telperion is muted enough that it could simply be reflected sunlight.
We do know from The Silmarillion that the trees were preserved: “their lifeless stems stand yet in Valinor, a memorial of vanished joy.”
On the other hand, the trees do not appear lifeless stems. They are not “withered” and drained of life as The Silmarillion describes it. In fact, Telperion’s trunk positively gleams.
Nor do they seem brittle. The Silmarillion also states:
Yavanna arose and stood upon Ezellohar, the Green Mound, but it was bare now and black; and she laid her hands upon the Trees, but they were dead and dark, and each branch that she touched broke and fell lifeless at her feet.
Of the Flight of the Noldor, The Silmarillion.
Moreover, something about the way Telperion would be reflecting the sun just doesn’t seem right. The sun should be so far behind the trees that any reflection should be much more muted than shown. I’m no ray-tracing expert, though! (If you are and have a better idea, let us know.)
Nevertheless, I feel the weight of evidence leans to this showing a scene from The Years of the Trees sometime near the end of the Noontide of Valinor. Perhaps even the very end.
The city of white walls and towers
Next, there’s the city on the hill. I feel comfortable in saying that this is Tirion — the city of many white towers that the Noldorin and Vanyarin elves established together after first arriving in Valinor.
Tirion stands upon the hill of Túna at the entrance to the Calacirya (a Quenya word that translates as “The Cleft of Light”). To either side, you have the Pelóri — the immense mountain chain that walls off the interior of Aman from the rest of the world. By the time the Years of the Trees draw to a close, the Calacirya is more or less the only way through from the outside.
Conforming to that description, we see to the left and to the right in the image the slopes of steeply rising mountains. The southern side is most likely the northern shoulder of Taniquetil — the impossibly tall mountain where Manwë and Varda dwell.
However, there are some textual inconsistencies if you want to pick nits (and what are we here for if not to pick nits?).
First, there’s the city’s tall tower.
This tower is the Mindon Eldaliéva. Notably, in The Silmarillion it is reported to feature a silver lamp that was said to “shine far out into the mists of the sea”. Famously, it guides the folk of Finarfin back to the city after they turn their backs on the rebellion of Fëanor. That lamp does not seem to be shining here.
…the highest of the towers of that city was the Tower of Ingwë, Mindon Eldaliéva, whose silver lamp shone far out into the mists of the sea. Few are the ships of mortal Men that have seen its slender beam.
Of Eldamar and the Princes of the Eldalië, The Silmarillion.
Additionally, despite looking closely at the city, I see nothing that could be Tirion’s own White Tree — Galathilion.
Yavanna made for [the Noldor] a tree like to a lesser image of Telperion, save that it did not give light of its own being; Galathilion it was named in the Sindarin tongue. This tree was planted in the courts beneath the Mindon and there flourished.
Of Eldamar and the Princes of the Eldalië, the Silmarillion.
Galathilion would surely have a unique appearance compared to the other flora of the city. And it would probably draw upon similar aesthetic to Peter Jackson’s depiction of the White Tree of Gondor. Admittedly, Gondor’s White Tree is quite dead when we see it in the Return of the King.
The White Tree of Tirion might also not be especially prominent. It could be, compared to the structures about it, quite small. Or its placement might be out of picture, on the far side of the hill so it receives direct light from the Two Trees.
Finally, there’s the shape and position of Túna.
The Silmarillion states that after the Valar created a gap in the Pelóri, in the “deep valley that ran down to the sea the Eldar raised a high green hill: Túna it was called.”
Should Túna be more centrally located, rather than to one side of the Calacirya? Certainly, this is how Karen Wynn Fonstad envisages it — and her sketches in The Atlas of Tolkien’s Middle-earth were made with the backing of Harper Collins and the assistance of resources like the Boedlian Library.
Nevertheless, the location feels more or less correct, and Wynn Fonstad’s cartography is not — as far as I know — explicitly textually supported. So the LOTR on Prime team probably can get away with playing it a little fast and loose even though they are certainly drawing on her maps.
The small river and the swan-prowed boats
Wynn Fonstad also documents one other geographical feature that is not revealed in the text of the Silmarillion — a stream or river that winds its way up the Calacirya toward Tirion. This probably explains the small river we see in the image. The question is whether it reaches all the way into the far distance. It’s hard to tell, but probably.
I feel that is less important than the opportunity to reveal several swan-prowed boats that we see upon the river. The question is whether these boats could be the famous White Ships of the Teleri — or smaller, but similar, pleasure craft.
The Silmarillion speaks of Alqualondë:
…the Haven of the Swans, lit with many lamps. For that was their city, and the haven of their ships; and those were made in the likeness of swans, with beaks of gold and eyes of gold and jet.
Of Eldamar and the Princes of the Eldalië, the Silmarillion.
Fëanor, of course, had those White Ships burnt after taking them by force from the Teleri in order to transport his folk to Beleriand during the Flight of the Noldor. If these are those White Ships, then this is another piece of evidence to place the image firmly within the Years of the Trees, before the destruction of Laurelin and Telperion.
The lone figure in white
Finally, we have the mysterious, lone figure in white in the foreground.
This person is blond (or blonde), has short hair (or long hair in some sort of up-do), and is attired in what is typically regarded as elvish fashion. The pose also strongly suggests that the figure is carrying a sword at the left hip.
The presence of the sword is useful, as that would definitively place the action after the release of Melkor from bondage. As The Silmarillion records, it was Melkor who “spoke to [the Noldor] concerning weapons; and in that time the Noldor began the smithying of swords and axes and spears.”
If we accept there is a sword (likely, I think), and that the Two Trees are still alive (also likely, I think) we can narrow the time period for this image.
Melkor is released from captivity in Year of the Trees (YT) 1400 according to the Annals of Aman. By YT 1450 he’s been in the ear of the Noldor sowing dissension to the point where they start making weapons — swords, axes, and shields featuring personal insignia.
But, none of the Noldor carry their weapons abroad openly for a long time after that. Not until Fëanor recklessly and publicly puts a sword at the chest of his half-brother. That might allow us to place this image to sometime after the exile of Fëanor from Tirion, but before the destruction of the trees in YT 1495.
It’s worth noting here that, according to this same timeline, Galadriel is born in YT 1362. Galadriel would be a full-grown adult. It could be her.
Might Galadriel have carried a sword in her youth? I think she might have. During the rebellion of the Noldor, The Silmarillion records that:
…Galadriel, the only woman of the Noldor to stand that day tall and valiant among the contending princes, was eager to be gone. No oaths she swore, but the words of Fëanor concerning Middle-earth had kindled in her heart, for she yearned to see the wide unguarded lands and to rule there a realm at her own will.
Of the Flight of the Noldor, The Silmarillion.
A late essay of J.R.R. Tolkien’s that Christopher Tolkien recounts in Unfinished Tales reinforces this:
She was proud, strong, and selfwilled, as were all the descendants of Finwë save Finarfin; and like her brother Finrod, of all her kin the nearest to her heart, she had dreams of far lands and dominions that might be her own to order as she would without tutelage.
The History of Galadriel and Celeborn, Unfinished Tales of Middle-earth.
The same essay also underscores Tolkien’s vision of her exceptional physique and athleticism and how she “grew to be … strong of body, mind, and will, a match for both the loremasters and the athletes of the Eldar in the days of their youth.” Plus a letter from 1973 describes the youthful Galadriel in similar fashion (while also, potentially, explaining the seemingly short-cropped hair):
[Galadriel] was [in her youth] of Amazon disposition and bound up her hair as a crown when taking part in athletic feats.
Letter #348, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien.
A Galadriel who in her early years of life is much more oriented to martial activities in not utterly out of Tolkien’s thinking.
Finally, there’s a treatise of Tolkien’s published in Morgoth’s Ring that outlines that while gender traditions — and individual occupational inclinations — exist among elves, these are by no means rigid, or absolute: “there are … no matters which among the Eldar only a [male elf] can think or do, or others with which only a [female elf] is concerned.”
Further, it concludes with the statement that “all … matters of labour and play, or of deeper knowledge concerning being and the life of the World, may at different times be pursued by any among the Noldor.”
If you don’t think this is possible for Galadriel, how else how do you explain Elrond’s trajectory from commander of Gil-galad’s expeditionary force to Eregion in the Second Age (and Herald of Gil-galad during the War of the Last Alliance) to renowned master of healing of the Third Age?
Other options for the figure in white
But, let’s say it’s not Galadriel. Who else might it be?
Hair colour immediately rules out most key Noldor of the time such as Finwë, Fëanor, Finrod, and Fingolfin. They are all dark-haired (as are the vast majority of Noldor). However, Galadriel’s father, Finarfin, or her grandmother, Indis, are options.
She was golden-haired, and tall, and exceedingly swift of foot. She laboured not with her hands, but sang and made music, and there was ever light and mirth about her while the bliss of Aman endured … and she walked often alone in the fields and friths of the Valar, filling them with music.
The Later Quenta Silmarillion II, The History of Middle-earth: Morgoth’s Ring.
Still, I don’t really see Indis as the sword-carrying sort. I might be wrong, but it doesn’t match my perception of her personality and her ambitions. Finarfin would, but some costumers have suggested that the outfit the figure wears is more reminiscent of Galadriel’s attire in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings.
As an aside, I also like the concept of elves with short-cropped hair because it challenges an aesthetic that is ambiguously supported in canon. Would LOTR on Prime be brave enough to do that, though?
After that, we’re down to edge cases.
The radical options: Melkor or Sauron
We know that the Valar had no bodies but could assume shapes more or less at will. Morgoth’s Ring reveals that “after the coming of the Eldar they most often used shapes of ‘human’ form, though taller (not gigantic) and more magnificent”.
We don’t know Melkor’s precise form during those years before the destruction of the Two Trees. One revision (The Later Quenta Silmarillion (II)) probably made during the 1950s describes the countenance he presented to the elves as “most fair of all”. It was only after the trees had been destroyed that Melkor-as-Morgoth became fixed in the classical form we know from the Quenta Silmarillion that Chris Tolkien published in 1977 — the tall and terrifying figure clad in black armour who ever-so-reluctantly comes forth to duel Fingolfin.
However, The Silmarillion records that Melkor carried a black spear to the destruction of the Two Trees. Moreover, without any sign of his spider-shaped partner in crime, Ungoliant, there’s nothing conclusive to suggest this scene is a direct prelude to that event.
A similar shapeshifting argument applies to Sauron, who most famously assumes the fair form “Annatar” in order to win over the elven-smiths of Eregion. Sauron, of course, remained at-large in Middle-earth during the Years of the Trees, presumably busily refortifying the fortress of Angband while awaiting the return of his master.
It’s not out of the question that Sauron might have ducked across the great ocean for a bit of a peek at what was going on in Valinor with his master. Against that, such a journey is never mentioned. Still, keep in mind that Tom Shippey mentioned in an interview that LOTR on Prime has creative wiggle room as long as it doesn’t directly contradict what Tolkien himself wrote.
Why Sauron? Well, Sauron is, ultimately, the chief antagonist of this series. Alongside Galadriel, he is one of the very few consistent presences throughout Middle-earth’s history. An opening (or prologue) that directly involves Sauron may be another way for LOTR on Prime to establish the foundations of a series that is going to span a very long period of time.
The human options: Eärendil or Ar-Pharazôn the Golden
While Eärendil‘s hair colour is up for debate, he is the son of two golden-haired parents. Most art depicts him as a blonde.
But what truly interested me was the circumstances in which Eärendil arrives at Tirion: alone.
And he went up alone into the land, and came into the Calacirya, and it seemed to him empty and silent; for even as Morgoth and Ungoliant came in ages past, so now Eärendil had come at a time of festival, and wellnigh all the Elvenfolk were gone to Valimar, or were gathered in the halls of Manwë upon Taniquetil, and few were left to keep watch upon the walls of Tirion.
Of the Voyage of Eärendil and the War of Wrath, The Silmarillion.
I’ve always liked Ted Nasmith‘s illustration of this scene, and there’s something about the LOTR on Prime panorama that evokes that passage, too. The only thing that’s missing is anything that looks like the glow of a Silmaril for there those were “who saw him from afar, and the great light that he bore”. Like the Phial of Galadriel, the Silmarils emit their own light.
Still, as Eärendil’s arrival in Middle-earth is the beginning of the closing act of the First Age, and leads more-or-less directly to the founding of Númenor, could something like this offer a tighter link to the major story that LOTR on Prime wants to tell?
For Ar-Pharazôn wavered at the end, and almost he turned back. His heart misgave him when he looked upon the soundless shores and saw Taniquetil shining, whiter than snow, colder than death, silent, immutable, terrible as the shadow of the light of Ilúvatar. But pride was now his master, and at last he left his ship and strode upon the shore, claiming the land for his own, if none should do battle for it. And a host of the Númenóreans encamped in might about Túna, whence all the Eldar had fled.
AKALLABÊTH, The Silmarillion.
But. The apparel on our lone figure isn’t really ideal for battle and war. Certainly not in the fashion reminiscent of our closest visual parallel to Númenór — the Arnorian and Gondorian warriors of the War of the Last Alliance. And the figures on river do not appear alarmed in the slightest — which they would if there was a vast, approaching army of Númenóreans behind the camera.
Finally, a curveball idea: what if it actually was Galadriel finally returning home at the very end of the Third Age? To start at the very end of the story, rather than the beginning.
After all that, what can we conclude? We’re looking at Valinor and the Two Trees. Definitively. And, despite a few topological and architectural quirks, we’re looking west from Tirion. I’m very confident of that, too.
But are those trees alive, or dead? I just can’t tell for sure. And it’s impossible to say for certain that the figure in white is Galadriel, even though it feels the most likely option.
But, since we are here to nail our colours to the mast, I will venture the following theory: the trees are alive, the figure is Galadriel, and this is somewhere near the end of the Noontide of Valinor.
Why? Primarily because in addition to the weight of evidence it simply makes the most sense to the story for the lone figure to be Galadriel. And — regardless of which Galadriel origin story you prefer — Galadriel left Valinor before the creation of the sun and the moon. Thus the trees must be alive.
I think. 🙂
Acknowledgements and thanks
This piece is not necessarily representative of the opinion of TORn staff. However, in assembling this, I have drawn on thoughts, theories and evidence that other staffers have been sharing over the last couple weeks. It would not have been nearly as good without their input. So, in no particular order, I’d like to thank JPB and Tookish for the long conversations, Mithril for the excellent find with Letter #343, Elessar, Josh, Kelvarhin, Garfeimao, Greendragon, Earl, and our TORn Tuesday team of Quickbeam and Justin.
Of course, any errors and oversights are my own.
If you have a Tolkien/Middle-earth inspired poem you’d like to share, then send it to firstname.lastname@example.org. One poem per person may be submitted each month. Please make sure to proofread your work before sending it in. TheOneRing.net is not responsible for poems posting with spelling or grammatical errors.
It’s an amazing volume, filled with rich, luminous artwork. It was reviewed in the latest edition of theJournal of Inkling Studies (Volume 10, issue 2); here’s a little of what writer Lance A. Green had to say:
Tolkienography invites a deep immersion in Tolkien’s myth through the artwork of Jay Johnstone, who has been painting Tolkien-themed illustrations for about thirty years. Together with Thomas Honegger’s commentary, Tolkienography offers a novel artistic rendering of Tolkien’s sub-creation, provoking new interpretations of its characters and essential themes. Printed with colourful clarity, the styles and techniques of Johnstone’s pieces are different enough to avoid any redundancy for the viewer. Colours, spacing, and characters are varied with each turn of the page, as are the painting techniques, which range from more contemporary styles to those mirroring medieval forms, including frescos and Byzantine iconography. Johnstone’s oils and charcoal works certainly capture the imagination: the charcoal and chalk of the Council of Elrond (25), the oil on canvas of Isildur’s death in the river Anduin (35, 39), and the binding of Melkor (41) all wonderfully convey character and scene. An immense oil and gold-leaf rendering of Gandalf atop Shadowfax riding into Helm’s Deep (49–50) is one of the most striking paintings in the book, afforded two full pages in order to capture its immensity. Yet the artwork that crowns and guides Tolkienography is the Byzantine-styled iconographic paintings of Tolkien’s characters.
Lance A. Green, Journal of Inkling Studies Vol 10 Issue 2
The Journal is published by Edinburgh University Press; you can find more of the article here. If you’d like your own copy of Johnstone’s beautiful book, don’t delay – it’s a limited print of 500 copies! At only £45 – and signed by the artist! – it really is a steal for such a spectacular book. You can order it – and see more art from Johnstone – at his website, here.
October 1999 had some interesting questions from the Tolkien universe…
Q: Hello. I have one, but I’m sure that you’ll get it easy enough. It has become evident to me that me George Lucas used two names for two of the places in Star Wars movies (the first three released). Also, I have a question that I’m hoping you might be able to answer. I have read The Lord of the Rings (sadly) only once. I am 15 and currently working on The Silmarillion, while my friends read my copies of LOTR. I’m having problems with names and locations in The Silmarillion. Is Beleriand the same as Middle-earth? I know that that is a simple question for you, but I frankly have no clue. Any and all help is greatly appreciated. Thank you in advance,
–Niles “Dargon” Armstrong
A: Yes, Beleriand was originally created as part of Middle-earth. Technically speaking, the lands of the Valar, or Valinor (a.k.a. “The Undying Lands”), are all found across the sea to the west. Any landmasses on the east of Belegaer, The Great Sea, are considered part of Middle-earth.
In the First Age, the earliest settlements of Elves, Dwarves, Ents, and Men were in Beleriand, which stretched from the coast as far east as the Blue Mountains (Ered Luin). If you look at the map in The Silmarillion you’ll see this mountain range on the furthest east. Now look at any edition of The Lord of the Rings and you’ll see the Ered Luin on the far western edge of the land, bordering the coast.
This is due to the events that brought about the end of the First Age and irrevocably changed the face of the land. During the War of Wrath a great host of Valinor approached the stronghold of Morgoth to destroy him in a final confrontation. When the great towers of Thangorodrim were smashed, the entire continent was thrown into a cataclysm. The breaking of Thangorodrim laid bare the pits of Angband, and the Great Sea engulfed everything. Nearly one million square miles of land were submerged. A new coastline appeared at the Blue Mountains, becoming the more familiar area just west of the Shire where the Grey Havens would be founded centuries later.
So there you are. Beleriand was once truly part of Middle-earth, but the epic and certainly tragic events imagined by Tolkien changed all of it. Belegaer would later be called “The Sundering Sea.”
A while back one reader asked about finding a good map of Númenor. We strongly recommend “The Atlas of Middle-Earth” (1991, Houghton Mifflin) by Karen Wynn Fonstad. For those readers trying to wrap their brain around the many places mentioned in The Silmarillion, take heart! Tremendous light is shed on the material recounted there, and many nebulous things are made clear.
As for your query about George Lucas… who’s he? Never heard of him. The only filmmaker I know of is Peter Jackson.
Q: I’m Portuguese, so I’ve read the Portuguese version of O Hobbit (The Hobbit). In my version, in Chapter 3, on the third page, just before the song, it is written:
‘Cheira a Elfos,’ pensou Bilbo. —
‘It’s elf smell,’ thought Bilbo, (or something like that).
If Gandalf, or the Dwarves, never mentioned the elves, and when Gandalf, after the troll event, talked about Rivendell and Elrond never saying that there were elves: how did Bilbo know that there were elves? Could he really smell or detect their presence? It’s just an error?
A: Well, if there’s one thing you really can’t miss a mile off it’s the smell of Elves in the morning. One good whiff will clear up any sinus problem, I guarantee it. But seriously, Ângelo, the translation of your version of The Hobbit is not mistaken. In the original Allen & Unwin edition, the English text says:
‘Hmmm! it smells like elves!’ thought Bilbo, and he looked up at the stars.
And no, there is no earlier mention that Rivendell was a community of elves, or that Bilbo had ever met them. You could easily assume that, like Samwise, our dear Bilbo had never laid eyes on an elf his whole life. But if you look at the next page after the elves complete their song, it says:
He loved elves, though he seldom met them; but he was a little frightened of them too.
Elves know a lot and are wondrous folk for news, and know what is going on among the peoples of the land, as quick as water flows, or quicker.
So he had seen them in the Shire, probably in the vicinity of Bywater, I would guess, especially if the elven-folk were traveling through on their way to the Havens. We can glean from the above that Bilbo must have had an actual conversation with an Elf, at least once, to learn news of other happenings beyond the Shire’s borders:
As to what they actually smell like? Well, I don’t know. But there are several places in Professor Tolkien’s work where elves and all things elvish are strongly connected to flora and fauna. There are passages that lovingly describe the valley of Rivendell, its fragrant woods and “green pleasant places.” And when the Fellowship arrives in Lórien, great attention is paid to the vibrant plant-life and especially the mallorn trees. Remember Cerin Amroth?
‘Here ever bloom the winter flowers in the unfading grass: the yellow elanor, and the pale niphredil.’
With this literary device, the reader makes a connection with elves and the symbolism of green, living, growing things. Maybe it’s not actually the elves that Bilbo smells, but his memory of fragrant valleys and pine trees is recurrently matched with the fair elven race… and our memory is too.
Q: If Sauron can defeat all his enemies if he has the power of the Ring, why on earth did he make such a blatant tactical error and put a lot of that power into something which can be taken from him?
A: The most obvious answer is that without the existence of the Ring, Sauron would not have a reliable method of controlling the other rings (especially the Elven rings) and, through them, their wearers and their actions. Sauron’s power in the Ring is different from what it would be outside the Ring. Outside the Ring (with his full power restored to himself), Sauron is a mighty spirit with far sight and great power, but he still has to defeat his enemies the old-fashioned ways: trickery and war. He tricked the Men of Númenor into listening to him until they were under his sway; then later, he tricked the Elves of Hollin into listening to him until they showed him all they knew about ring-making. You can’t control other people unless you have soldiers with weapons around to kill or make an example of any that don’t obey, so despite the power of a Maiar, Sauron would have had no actual control over others without war. It’s a chain: Sauron controls a few by threats or promises of reward, who then turn around and do Sauron’s dirty work in controlling others for him. Same thing with Saruman: he had the power of a Maiar, but had to have a bunch of other creatures around to do his dirty work. But Sauron coveted not only control over other peoples but over their works and powers and lands, as well. Tolkien never spells out what all the Three Rings were capable of, but he gives the impression that many of the special qualities of Rivendell and Lothlórien were created and maintained by the power of the Elven rings. Sauron never touched those, but he learned all about their forging and actually helped in the forging of the Seven and the Nine, so that he learned all about the power that was imbued in all the rings, giving him the knowledge needed to make a Ring that would control all the others, control their wearers and their creations. However, the power in this Ring, the power to control the others, had to come from somewhere. So Sauron put a great deal of his own will and power into the forging, transforming his power into a specific channel: that of controlling the other Rings. He assumed he could always keep this Ring with him, thereby having access to all of his power AND controlling the other rings. I guess he didn’t reckon on the Last Alliance. =)
Q: What are the Barrow Wights? We are never really given a clear description of them (at least as far as I could figure out). It almost seems like the sort of thing that we should have prior knowledge of, but this is the only place I’ve ever seen them.
This was the major mystery that I was left with after finishing the series.
A: First let us examine the etymology of the actual word, Barrow Wight. My fellow Green Books staffperson Turgon (who is held high among the Wise) shared the following with me:
A barrow is an earthmound marking a grave (from Middle English “berw,” Anglo-Saxon “beorg”). But “wight” is also an archaic word, meaning 1) a human being, or 2) a preternatural or supernatural being. It derives from Middle English “wight” and Anglo-Saxon “wiht,” meaning “creature, animal, person, thing.” So of course the terms have a perfect resonance for Tolkien’s use of them…
Put the two together and you have “supernatural creature of the grave.” This is a shining example of Professor Tolkien’s erudition with these ancient languages.
The Barrow-downs were, as you know, dome-shaped hills crowned with monoliths and ringed with white stones. But we need to look closely at the history of the surrounding lands, as it yields more lucid information about the nefarious Barrow Wights. I will try to keep this “history lesson” as succinct as possible, for there is much to tell. What follows is most germane to your question:
Early in the Third Age, the race of Men (the Dúnedain) held power in two main Kingdoms, Arnor and Gondor. In the north, Arnor was split into three principalities: 1) Arthedain, 2) Rhudaur, and 3) Cardolan. This triad of the Dúnedain had a capital city at Annúminas (and later Fornost). There was constant strife between them and the Witch-King of Angmar, who reigned from his cold seat in Carn Dûm.
The power of the Witch-King was undoubtedly great–he was chief of the Nazgûl, after all. He took into his service Hillmen of the North, and a variety of Orcs and other foul creatures. Not the least of which were the demonic spirits that would eventually become the Barrow Wights, but I’ll get to that in a minute.
Many battles were fought over the centuries between the Dúnedain and the Witch-King, and Elrond himself makes mention of them during the high Council in The Fellowship of the Ring:
“In the North … the Men of Westernesse were diminished, and their city of Annúminas beside Lake Evendim fell into ruin; and the heirs of Valandil removed and dwelt at Fornost on the high North Downs, and that now too is desolate. … For the folk of Arnor dwindled, and their foes devoured them, and their lordship passed, leaving only green mounds in the grassy hills.”
Those ‘green mounds’ he speaks of are the burial mounds the four hobbits passed through only a few chapters earlier. The men of Cardolan used the fields of Tyrn Gorthad (the Barrow-downs) as a refuge and also as a burial field for their fallen kings and warriors. The white monoliths marked the gravesites of many of the fallen.
When the Witch-King was ultimately defeated, he fled into the shadows of dusk and vanished from the north. Many tortured servants and spirits also fled from Angmar after his power was broken, no longer having their lord to rule them (or enslave them, if you prefer).
There were also demons, now disembodied and wandering aimlessly, looking for other bodies in which their evil spirits could dwell. And so that’s how I speculate the Wights came into being, as they traveled southward from Angmar to the Barrow-downs and inhabited the bones and jeweled armour of the ancient dead.
The Wights could crush the will of an unwary traveler. Apparently they wielded spells that hypnotized the victim, rendering him mindless, and luring him into the treasure tombs below ground. As you’ll recall from “Fog on the Barrow-downs,” the Barrow Wight laid the hobbits on a stone altar and bound them with gold chains. He draped them in the pale cloth and precious jewelry of the long-dead kings, then readied to take their lives with a sacrificial sword.
It certainly was a good thing Frodo did not succumb to the spell as readily as Sam, Merry, and Pippin. He found his courage and his bearing, asserting himself without the aid of the Ring.
As Tom Bombadil knew all too well, daylight would be the undoing of the Barrow Wight. Once a stone chamber was broken open, light would pour in and the Wight would fade, perishing before the sun. Gandalf would later say of these events:
“That was touch and go: perhaps the most dangerous moment of all.”
And indeed that much is true. With no Wizard or Ranger to help them, the hobbits were in their greatest peril at the hands of such an ancient evil. In the moment where Merry returns to consciousness, the golden circlet around his head falls over his face, and it somehow brings out the voice of the dead man who was originally buried with it:
“Of course, I remember!” he said. “The Men of Carn Dûm came on us at night, and we were worsted. Ah! the spear in my heart!”
Having a good understanding of Arnor and the history of the Dúnedain makes many of these small details more vibrant as you read. For the best information, you should turn to the Professor himself. Read Appendix A, “Annals of the Kings and Rulers,” especially Section I, “The Númenorean Kings,” Subsection (iii), “Eriador, Arnor, and the Heirs of Isildur.” As you pore over these pages you’ll gain a greater understanding of the scope of Tolkien’s world. I’m also certain that you’ll appreciate Aragorn much more, as his background and lineage is made clear.
Q: Could Gandalf have slain the Witch-king? The reason I ask is because when Gandalf is discussing the Witch-king with Denethor, Denethor asks Gandalf if he met a foe he could not match. To which Gandalf replied, Well if the old prophecy be true then he will not fall by the hand of Man. Now Gandalf was a Maiar and not a man. He may have been in the form of a man but he could use spells and he had a hidden power it says. Or maybe Gandalf just meant male. But if that were the case how did Merry help slay the Witch-king and Merry was a hobbit? I know he didn’t deal the deathblow, but his strike is said to have unknit the Witch-king’s flesh. So was this a blunder? Thanks for your time.
ALSO: related to the above question:
Here’s one that’s bothered me for a while: How is it, if only specially-wrought Elvish and Westernesse blades are any use against the Nazgul, t hat Eowyn was able to kill one (the Witch-King, no less) with her plain old Rohan sword? And with a blow to a “spiritual” area no less, the unseen head. Thanks for your time.
– Todd M. Aglialoro
A: I don’t think there was any blundering involved here. The quotations go like this: “Or can it be that you have withdrawn because you are overmatched?” “It might be,” Gandalf answered softly. “But our trial of strength is not yet come. And if words spoken of old be true, not by the hand of man shall he fall, and hidden from the Wise is the doom that awaits him.” (RotK.) First of all, this means that Gandalf himself did not know whether or not he could have slain the Witch-king in a one-on-one. “Hidden from the Wise” includes “hidden from Gandalf,” and Gandalf did not know. He did not know if he was overmatched, because it was not his time to face the Witch-king. That comes later, in the gate of Minas Tirith, and although they do not fight, Gandalf is able to drive him away because the wraith cannot claim victory yet; Rohan shows up to contest the field. As we see later, of course, “not by the hand of man” simply means “by the hand of woman and hobbit.” For myself, I believe that a one-on-one contest between Gandalf and the Witch-king would have been almost as iffy as the battle between Gandalf and the Balrog. Gandalf and the Balrog are both Maiar, and the Witch-king began as a normal human, but the ring he wore, one of the Nine, gave him power approaching the spiritual realm. So there is really no telling. I believe Gandalf was aware that the fate of the Witch-king did not rest with him, and that’s why he responded to Denethor as he did. But also he didn’t know with whom the fate actually *did* rest. As we see later, the Witch-king was so off his guard that there was no actual fight. He believed he was invincible to anything currently on the field, and probably did not realize there were those on the other side who were not men, but hobbits and women.
“‘Do what you will; but I will hinder it, if I may.’
‘Hinder me? Thou fool. No living man may hinder me!’
Then Merry heard of all sounds in that hour the strangest. It seemed that Dernhelm laughed, and the clear voice was like the ring of steel. ‘But no living man am I! You look upon a woman. Eowyn I am, Eomund’s daughter. You stand between me and my lord and kin. Begone, if you be not deathless! For living or dark undead, I will smite you, if you touch him.’
… but the Ringwraith made no answer, and was silent, as if in sudden doubt.”
We all know what happened next. After Eowyn manages to dispatch the beast, Merry gets in one for the Shire at the wraith’s knee, and the very unexpectedness of the stroke breaks the wraith’s concentration to the point where his will no longer holds as steady, and Eowyn is able to drive her sword into what’s left of his power, shattering it. So, I believe that A) Gandalf did not know at whose door the death of the Witch-king would be laid, and he didn’t know if he would be the winner in a fight with him. B) Eowyn’s sword, so far as we know, was a “plain old Rohan sword,” but don’t forget that Merry’s blade was “forged many long years ago by the Men of Westernesse: they were foes of the Dark Lord” (FotR.) It is clear to me that Merry’s stroke shattered the spells that allowed the Black Rider his cohesiveness of form and his concentration of will, and allowed Eowyn’s sword to demolish the center of his power, the spiritual head.
Q: Exactly who is Morgoth? How did he influence the would-be Dark Lord, Sauron?
A: Morgoth is another name for Melkor, mightiest among the Ainur before his fall. In the creation of the world by Eru, the One, Melkor was chief among his servants, the Ainur, but his mind began to stray out of the will of Iluvatar. He wished to control the free peoples for his own ends, and wanted to create beings who would serve and be controlled by him, and not be free to serve Iluvatar or to pursue their own wills. His lust for domination became so great that eventually his former brothers and sisters, the Valar, Ainur that had taken up residence in the world to look over it, made war upon him, chained him in the Void, and named him Morgoth, so that he would no longer be a danger to the Children of Iluvatar. Sauron was a Maiar and the servant of Melkor. His evil influence contributed to Sauron’s downfall until he was no more than a shadow-copy of Morgoth, seeking to dominate others for his own ends.
Several people have written in to clarify an error on my part, when I stated that the Valar fought and chained Melkor in the Void, naming him Morgoth. I basically lumped all the actions against Melkor together under the banner of the Valar, but in actuality… well, read my astute readers’ comments below!
Hi. Sorry to bother you with such a silly trifle, but I wanted to clear something up for my own edification. You said in your response to “Cold Blue” that:
“the Valar…made war upon him [Melkor], chained him in the Void, and named him Morgoth.”
I thought that after Melkor killed Finwë and made off with the Silmarils, Fëanor in his rage named him Morgoth. I don’t have access to my copy of The Silmarillion as it’s on loan, so I can’t check this out. I just wondered what you thought.
If you’ve been bombarded with messages from snotty know-it-alls, please just consider me another and accept my apologies. I very much appreciate the breadth and depth of knowledge at the Green Books and always find the site enlightening.
Thanks for your efforts,
Sorry to nitpick, but it was Fëanor who named him Morgoth, and not the Valar.
Just an amendment. Melkor was named Morgoth (“Black Enemy of the World”) not by the Valar but by Fëanor after Melkor slew his father Finwë and stole the Silmarils.