Wraiths and Wights

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Laielinwen 29/Sep/2006 at 10:50 AM
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Today in a discussion with some fellow teachers about Tolkien’s works, characters, etc. One asked about the difference in Wraiths and Wights. Wraiths are associated of course with the Ring Wraiths and Wights with the Barrow-Wights from the Barrow Downs.

It was said that both seemed to serve Sauron even if indirectly. I thought that interesting because I’d always thought of the Wights as having their own agenda and yet if we look at what they were saying as the Hobbits lay there it does seem to hail the rise of Sauron.

I’d like your thoughts on Wraiths and Wights...

Jinniver Thynne 29/Sep/2006 at 11:12 AM
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Well linguistically, both words can mean the same things, but in the text it does seem that there is a difference, Wraiths being linked with Sauron. If someone knows of another instance of Tolkien using the word Wraith outside of referring to the Nazgul, please post it!

At the moment, I’m thinking of Wraiths as specifically those Men who had been corrupted to Sauron’s will by possession of the Rings, i.e. the Nazgul. Wights I think are other kinds of spirits. These could be Men, but as we know Men leave Middle-earth after death, that would mean Sauron or somebody else had been pursuing other ways of making Men unnatural and immortal in some way. They could indeed be Dead Men. like those of Dunharrow, which would leave us with some fascinating avenues to explore in Middle-earth. Or, these Wights could in be other types of creature.

Are they Elves? Well, In HoME X there are a few very interesting things about the nature of fea and hroa in Elves. A few quotes for yez:

About Elves being ’bound’ to the land and what’s expected when they get to the Halls of Mandos:

The others remained, by desire or command, fear unbodied, and they could only observe the unfolding of the Tale of Arda from afar, having no effect therein. For it was a doom of Mandos that only those who took up life again might operate in Arda...

About refusal to be reborn:

...it was held that the refusal to return to life, after repose in Mandos, was a fault, showing a weakness or lack of couarge in the fea.

And of most relevance here, about those Elves who refuse the call to Mandos, which seem to have been mostly comprised of those who stayed in Middle-earth and had not been to Valinor, they obviously have noweher to go once without a Hroa/body and are not always benevolent. They:

...wander houseless in the world, unwilling to leave it and unable to inhabit it, haunting trees or springs or hidden places that they once knew. Not all of these are kindly or untainted by the Shadow.

Anyway, not making any assumptions or guesses here, just chucking some ideas into the mix and then I’m going to see what everyone else says as I’m ready to be convinced on this one, not having thought about the difference before.

 

 

Phil_d_one 29/Sep/2006 at 12:35 PM
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It might be worth noting that in the earliest conception of the events in TFotR, the Ringwraiths were actually just horsed Wights. Your colleague isn’t the only one who considered a connection between the two, apparantly

As for the allegiance of both to Sauron, while it is undeniable that the Wraiths were utterly subservient to Sauron, it is far from such a clear cut issue with the Wights. We know that the Lord of the Nazgul, as the Witch-King of Angmar, sent them out of Carn Dum to inhabit the Barrow-downs, which many take to indicate that he had control over them. And if he had control over them, then one could argue that Sauron did (albeit indirectly), because they were subservient to someone who was himself utterly subservient to Sauron. I myself am less convinced, and once argued (more as devil’s advocate than anything else) that the Wights could in fact have had no allegiance to Sauron or the Lord of the Nazgul whatsoever, a case which I presented in this thread here: Frodo in the Barrow downs. Considering the evidence that arose in that thread, what is my final opinion? I’m undecided, though I think that at most the Lord of the Nazgul would have had a minimal level of control over the Wights, and at least no control whatsoever.

As for the nature of the Wights, I’ve always assumed that they were spirits in the same way that the Ents were spirits inhabiting trees, and the Werewolves were spirits in wolf-form i.e. that they weren’t directly related to any of the Incarnate races. But I suppose that, when it comes down to it, the only evidence I have for such a claim is the quote that states them to be
’evil spirits’ and the logical exclusion of Men and Elves -- Men for the reasons mentioned by Jinniver Thyme above, that it would certainly be beyond the power of Sauron or the Lord of the Nazgul to change the fate of the spirits of Men; Elves because the clearly evil nature of the Wights seems in violation of what we know of the nature of Elves.

Not much, but all I can think of at the moment

Alcarináro 29/Sep/2006 at 03:46 PM
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Apart from Tolkien’s early brief-held thought that wraiths might have been horsed wights, and that both words start with the same letter, there is very little that is similar between the two.

Wights are spirits that have no bodies unless they inhabit corpses. Wraiths, on the other hand, are Men who have become invisible permanently.
Wraiths are subservient to Sauron, tools of his will. Wights, though sent out by the Lord of the Nazgul originally, seem to have far more interest in Melkor (see the incantation; the ’dark lord’ mentioned there must be Melkor, as who else could it be when ’the Sun fails and the Moon is dead’?).
They cannot share a similar origin, and they do not display characteristics that link them to each other. Their differences are vast.
Rochir Mumakdacil 29/Sep/2006 at 04:23 PM
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We are told somewhat of the provenance of the Barrow-wights in LotR:

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 gold chains in the wind. FotR In the House of Tom Bombadil

In the days of Argeleb II the plague came into Eriador from the Southeast, and most of the people of Cardolan perished, especially in Minhiriath. The Hobbits and all other peoples suffered greatly, but the plague lessened as it passed northwards, and the northern parts of Arthedain were little affected. It was at this time that an end came of the Dúnedain of Cardolan, and evil spirits out of Angmar and Rhudaur entered into the deserted mounds and dwelt there.  RotK Appendix A  Eriador, Arnor and the Heirs of Isildur

 

So, they were ’evil spirits’, with no direct connection to the individuals who were buried in the mounds. I incline to Phil’s view that they are not related to any of the incarnate races.

 

As an aside, the word ’wight’ does not intrinsically imply an evil being, though clearly that is the case for Tolkien’s Barrow-wights. ’Wight’ is synonymous with ’being’ or ’person’, and can be good or evil, nice or nasty. For example, in the Song of the Western Men (which I remember learning at school) about a Cornish rebellion after the imprisonment of bishop Trelawny by the government of King James: Out spake our captain brave and bold, a merry wight was he, if London tower were Michael’s hold, we’ll set Trelawny free.

frostie 29/Sep/2006 at 07:53 PM
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the way I always figured it was that wights are the spirits of the dead people whos spirits have not moved on , and wriaths (Nazgul) were what was left of men who never actually died, they had just lived for so long that their bodies no longer exsisted and all that remained was the corrupt spirit of the man. So infact pretty much the same thing. correct me if I am wrong, thank you
Laielinwen 30/Sep/2006 at 01:04 AM
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Thanks y’all! I know I’ve been looking through the Letters to see if I can find anything that might shed further light on the subject and I am coming up empty with that resource. Does anyone know of anything in the Letters that is mentioned by Tolkien that can be added to this?

I’m on my way to Amazon to buy the HoME index. (yeah...shopping opportunity) Wantssss it precioussssss....

Jinniver Thynne 30/Sep/2006 at 03:58 AM
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Rochir - good point about wight often simply meaning person. I know there are a few old English folksongs that use the word ’wights’ for people. And I remember Thomas Hardy used the word a few times too - can’t find a reference now (Thomas Hardy’s works are copious!) but I seem to remember it in Return of the Native and in some of his poetry.
Rochir Mumakdacil 30/Sep/2006 at 09:41 AM
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Thomas Hardy Jinniver? Amazing what you can find with Google . Here we have ’a maid and her wight’ - not an evil spirit but just some chap or other: 

In Time of ’The Breaking of Nations’

Only a man harrowing clods
In a slow, silent walk
With an old horse that stumbles and nods
Half-asleep as they stalk.

Only thin smoke without flame
From the heaps of couch-grass;
Yet this will go onward the same
Though Dynasties die.

Yonder a maid and her wight
Come whispering by;
War’s annals will fade into night
Ere their story die.

Thomas Hardy

Jinniver Thynne 30/Sep/2006 at 04:30 PM
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D’oh! That is one my absolute favourites too! I feel ashamed now.  Still, I’m very happy you’ve found that as it’s been running through my mind where he used the word!
Laielinwen 08/Oct/2006 at 05:30 AM
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Rochir thanks for sharing that. I didn’t remember the term used that way... Interesting... Though the language in the phrase: come whispering by
still gives me a visual impression of the ghostly wights as that would be a good way to describe their passing by.  (not that I’m implying this particular phrase intends that)
geordie 08/Oct/2006 at 07:08 AM
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Laie - I don’t know about the Letters, but the book ’The Ring of Words: Tolkien and the Oxford English Dictionary has a few pages devoted to these words, and Tolkien’s use of them. And much more besides. I recommend it.
Laielinwen 08/Oct/2006 at 07:39 AM
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Thanks geordie... between you and halfir I may have to get a night job to pay for the things on my shopping list!  I’ve been blaming him for years now I can add one of my newest friends to the list. haha I got an Amazon gift certificate from a student last year and will apply it here!

Any enlightment you can share with me here?

geordie 09/Oct/2006 at 04:31 AM
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Any enlightment you can share with me here?

I’ll try [turns to bookshelves, rolls up sleeves]

But first: let’s bear in mind that Tolkien was a remarkable bloke; a philologist with the heart of a story-teller. ’I always start with a name’ he said in a radio interview. ’Give me a name, and the story follows’. Here he was talking about the name ’hobbit’. ’I thought I’d better find out what hobbits are like’ he continued.

So - a man of enormous erudition; trained in an exacting field - philology; which he regarded as a science, and himself as a scientist - [in a letter for sale at the moment on abe.books, he describes himself as a scientist and a poet] - What stories would he make from the words ’wight’ and ’wraith’?

As you don’t have The Ring of Words, the best place to start [for barrow-wight anyway] would be Hammond and Scull’s LotR: A Reader’s Companion, esp. page 137. ’In Nomenclature Tolkien writes that barrow-wights are ’creatures dwelling in a barrow [grave-mound] ... it is an invented name...’ But the OED attributes the first use of this word to combination to Andrew Lang in _Essays in Little_ [1891] ’In the graves where treasures were hoarded the Barrowwights dwelt, ghosts that were sentinels over hoarded gold’. Wight is said in the OED to be ’originally and chiefly with a [good or bad] epithet, applied to supernatural, preturnatural, or unearthly beings.
Obsolete or rare archaic’


And we all know how Tolkien loves words which are now obsolete or rare archaic!

A digression - speaking of ’ghosts that were sentinels over hoarded gold’. - as we all know, Tolkien published in _The Adventures of Tom Bombadil_ [1962] a poem called The Hoard. Everone knows that. And some may also know that Tolkien re-jigged many of his old, previously published poems to go into this book. The Hoard was published in The Oxford Magazine, the March 4th 1937 issue to be exact. Only its title was not ’The Hoard’ then, but Iumonna Gold Galdre Bewunden, which Shippey in his book _The Road to Middle earth_ translates as ’the gold of ancient men, wound round with magic’. This poem is almost exactly the same as the 1937 version, except the last part of the last verse - ’While gods wait and the elves sleep / its old secret shall the earth keep’ [1937] becomes, ’The old hoard the Night shall keep, / while earth waits and the Elves sleep’. [1962]

A question - did Tolkien change those last two lines to remove refs. to gods from a volume of verse written and/or compiled by hobbits? [The 1937 poem had no connection with Middle-earth; at least none I know of]. Or to bring it into line with the concept of a poem recorded by hobbits - and bring the idea that Night keeps the gold; not the earth? There are echoes of Night in the dirge of the Barrow - wight which captures Frodo and the others. Just wondering.

To continue my digression - the poem in The Oxford Magazine is a re-write of one published while Tolkien was teaching at Leeds University some fourteen years before that. Iuomonna Gold Galdre Bewunden by JRR Tolkien, in the university’s magazine _The Gryphon_ [New Series 4; No.4 January 1923, p.130]. This poem differs significantly from its successors - not least in individual words; here Tolkien uses ’elfin’ and Elfinesse’ but 15 years later he uses ’elven’ and ’Elvenesse’. Or maybe it was an early example of editors overriding Tolkien’s spelling? What convention did Tolkien use in the 1920s? Oh by the way - ref. another thread - he uses the spelling ’thanes’ not ’thains’, too, in the 1937 and 1962 versions; but ’warriors’ in the original 1923 version. [hope I’m not sending anyone to sleep here. I have a lot of shelfspace dedicated to matters Tolkienian; this is but a fraction; and I’m not nearly finished yet.]

As for the 1925 last part of the last verse - no direct mention of the earth keeping it; but that is implied - Night does’nt get a look in.

’The mound unheeded that the grass grows on;
The sheep crop it and the larks rise
From its green mantle, and no man’s eyes
Shall find its secret, till those return
Who wrought the treasure, till again burn
The lights of Faery; and the woods shake.
And songs long silent once more wake’.


Hmm. I wonder what Tolkien’s students - those ’dull stodges’ of whom he spoke approvingly [see Carpenter] - would have made of that? Years before Middle-earth burst onto the scene? Fairies indeed! Anyway, this ’dull stodge’ from the North finds it fascinating - esp. the concept that, after the glory and ruin of kingdoms come the sheep; cropping the grass as they have ever done, while Men forget the old lives of men who passed away before them, and forget the treasure under mounds. Just like one of ny favourite passages in FR; ’In the House of Tom Bombadil’ where Tom talks of just this very thing.

Anyway - wake up at the back there! - I’ve finished me digression; back to ’wight’.

And the combination ’barrow-wight’. This combo can’t be ancient, for as Tolkien mentions somewhere, [nomenclature?] the word ’barrow’ in this meaning is relatively recent; coined by archaeologists to mean a tumulus or burial mound, from an old word ’berrow’.

As for wight -in the past, it could mean a man, or any living creature, as the author of Ring of Words point out. And Tolkien does not use it exclusively of Men - as Aragorn leads his company from Dunharrow into the Paths of the Dead, some of the Rohirrim say ’they are Elvish Wights ... let them go where they belong, _into the dark places_, and never return. The times are evil enough’. Here we have echoes of some RL beliefs - [some] Elves are evil; [some] wights are evil; both dwell in the dark places; say, under the ground.

Wight is an old word, and to look at it in an old way, we need to go beyond the Oxford English Dictionary. [takes down Sisam’s Fourteenth Century Verse and Prose [the revised edition. Ooh - 1937. What are the odds?]

As we all know, although Tolkien worked on words beginning with ’W’ during his two-year stint at the Dictionary, he did not work on either Wight nor Wraith. But. He did provide definitions of the Middle English, and Old English [that is, Anglo-Saxon] words, in the glossary printed at the back of some eds. of Sisam’s book. [the glossary was also published separately, as A Middle English Vocabulary].

This is what he writes for Wight:

’Wight; Wyht, Wicht adj; valiant [see Wede] adj quickly, straightway’.

Not that def; then. On the other hand, while perusing my shelf of text books, I found in my copy of The Years Work in English Studies 1933 a report in the chapter ’Middle English’ by Dorothy Everett [ a friend and colleague of Tolkien’s] on a paper published in the journal Medium Aevum by another colleague [but no friend!] of Tolkien’s: Eugene Vinaver [’The Legend of Wade in the ’Morte d’Arthur’ Medium Aevum, June 1933]which, says Everett, throws light on a phrase: ’Wert thou as wyzte as ever was Wade’, a close parallel to that in the alliteraive Morte Arthure [a differnt text apparently] ’ware thou wyghttere than Wade’.   But as I say, that’s not what Tolkien meant here. *hmm? ’Do I have a copy of that issue of _Medium Aevum_?’ Of course.. what did you think?*

The other definition is:

Wight, Wyght, n, creature, person, Wytes, Old English wiht’.

Seems that’s our chap.

Now - wraith. The authors of Ring of Words tell us the word is linked etymologically speaking to ’Writhe’ and we have words taken from that; wrothe, writhen; as the word ’ride’ has ’rode’, ’ridden’. The word ’raid’ comes from a Scottish variant of ’rode’, or ’riding’. [It would! I’m told my family were border reivers in the old days; those on the other side - Scots reivers - were a bugger!] Ahem. Back to Tolkien. He uses the word ’writhen’ to describe some hills - the Emyn Muil. Remember how Galdor says it’s said that Sauron can torture the very hills? Echoes again.

In his Glossary, Tolkien gives no definition for ’wraith, but for ’writhe’ he gives:

[writhe] Wrype; v, to twist; bind; turn aside [from the just course] [OE wripan]’

So - ’to turn aside [from the just course]’. Ties in with what Shippey says, does’nt it; [on the movies dvd appendices as well as in his bookJRR Tolkien: Author of the Century] - that men- modern as well as ancient - can be subject to what he calls ’the wraithing process’ - that we all have the potential to become wraiths as it were; when we forget what it is to be human; when say the job becomes more important than the people, and when the people doing the job - in fiction or in real life, as in the 1930s - ’turn from the just course’.

As a scientist - a philologist - Tolkien knew an awful lot about words and their meanings, throughout history - and as a storyteller he knew how to weave strands; threads of story; from paragraphs [like my favourite Bombadil para.] down to the level of an individual word, and how to use words to create something new; yet old [in its own way]. This produces ’echoes’ and not just to those of us who are native English speakers. A remarkable fellow.
Jinniver Thynne 09/Oct/2006 at 05:16 AM
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Excellent stuff!

I’ve got something to add on Barrow. Barrow as in burial mound comes from Old English  - beorg, meaning mound or hill. It is a word used now only to refer to burial mounds (was a word ’recovered’ by archaeologists) and in place names (and surnames!). The other meaning of barrow - a receptacle for carrying loads, comes from Old English bearwe. I’ve not seen Tolkien’s thoughts on the origins of the word before, and I can only assume that berrow also stems from beorg?

 

geordie 09/Oct/2006 at 05:19 AM
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Thanks Jinniver.

The other meaning of barrow - a receptacle for carrying loads, comes from Old English bearwe. I’ve not seen Tolkien’s thoughts on the origins of the word before, and I can only assume that berrow also stems from beorg?

Yup. See LotR: A Reader’s Companion p.766.


Oh - nearly forgot. TS Eliot is mentioned in Ring of words, too.
halfir 09/Oct/2006 at 06:59 AM
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This thread has provided a positive cornucopia of information, and of points on which to comment, so I would like to star with Elenhir’s post, and deal with other topics that have been raised in subsequent posts.

In his post Elenhir observed :

Wights, though sent out by the Lord of the Nazgul originally, seem to have far more interest in Melkor (see the incantation; the ’dark lord’ mentioned there must be Melkor, as who else could it be when ’the Sun fails and the Moon is dead’?).

I commend his observation, for it appears quite clear that in terms of what they repesent and to whom they owe obeisance- Melkor is  by far more suited than Sauron, albeit that the actual wights in question in the Bombadil chapters are- according to the appendices - sent out by the Witch-king.

There are two lengthy posts in my thread

Tom Bombadil: Peeling the Onion

 

http://www.lotrplaza.com/forum/display_topic_threads.asp?ForumID=46&TopicID=193589&PagePosition=0&PagePostPosition=6

 

which throw further light on this, and I excerpt them below:

 

Excerpt

 

Monday, June 19, 2006 at 21:35

 

Kirinki 54: My apologies for a late response to your post, but they are always a joy to read- stimulating the thought processes- and difficult to respond to- containing- as they always do- such a fund of relevant observations.

 

You make a number of points which I would like to comment on:

 

The Barrow-wight represents death without rebirth, something clearly evil, and a linear alternative to the natural cyclicity of Tom. No cycles, no life… Here sleep means extinction, not a promise of new beginnings.

 

 Beautifully put! One is reminded of the UT comment in The Istari regarding the difference between Gandalf and Sauron’s use of fire (and of course the Barrow-wight is effectively the Sauronian input in the Bombadil sequence):

 

‘opposing the fire that devours and wastes with the fire that kindles, and succours in wanhope and distress’

 

 

Tom doesn’t use fire- he uses song!

 

But it can be noted that, while Tom does seem to break the spell of the Wight, he does not eradicate him: the Wight is instead permanently evicted and rendered impotent

 

The Barrow-wight has subverted the natural cycle – he is a wight- not a product of the natural order but a perversion of it, and Tom’s song of power over him contains not only banishment of the evil he represents but also a note of hope for the future:

 

Where gates stand for ever shut, till the world is mended.

 

Admittedly Tom doesn’t say the world will be mended, but, like all else about him, he is a harbinger of hope, of renewal - till the world is mended.

 

One also notes that Tom did not ‘punish’ OMW – he simply returned him to the ‘natural cycle’ – and it is interesting to note Tolkien’s observation on Tom’s treatment of OMW:

 

He {Tom}  hardly ever judges, and as far as can be seen makes no effort to reform or remove the Willow. {Letter # 153}

 

Tom can empathize with OMW – miscreant though he be, in a way that he cannot with the Barrow-wight who represents a far deeper perversion – the extinction of life itself as you have already observed. One can see why death caused by OMW would be different to that caused by the Barrow-wight – the difference being in the fact that one would permit renewal- the other not.

 

Life will prevail, and evil will be made naught by its own inventions

 

An underlying theme in Tolkien- perhaps to counter Galadriel’s ’ long-defeat’, and one re-iterated by Theoden and Eomer:

 

‘But it has long been said: oft evil will shall evil mar’ {TT-The Palantir}

 

‘Our Enemy’s devices oft serve us in his despite’ {ROTK-The Ride of the Rohirrim}

 

 

Great post!

 

Tuesday, June 20, 2006 at 19:26

 

Addendum to Tom and the Cycle of Nature

 

One point I omittted to mention with regard to Tom’s dealing with the Barrow-Wight is a comment made by Hammond &Scull in the LOTR Companion- with regard to the Barrow-wight’s chant :

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.

  

They comment (Companion p. 143 entry 141 (1:152))

 

Quote

’The wight’s incantation , looking to the triumph of the ’dark lord’ recalls the oath of the Orcs of Morgoth in The Lay of Leithian  (written in the mid -1920’ to 1931 published in The Lays of Beleriand p.230)

Death to light, to love!
Cursed be moon and stars above!
May darkness everlasting old
that waits outside in surges cold
drown Manwe, Varda, and the sun!
May all in hatred be begun,
and all in evil ended be,
in the moaning of the endless Sea!

End Quote

Color Code:

Blue Barrow-wight
Black -Orcs

In both verses the opening lines deal with death:

Cold be hand and heart and bone,
Death to light, to love!

 

In both the Sun, Moon, and Stars – Valarian creations are cursed and made to fail

 

 

never, till the Sun fails and the Moon is dead.

In the black wind the stars shall die,

Cursed be moon and stars above!.........

drown Manwe, Varda, and the sun!


and in both the Dark lord  - at the end -  rules over  an abomination of desolation, in which the sea – Ulmo’s  kingdom - is also made sterile:

till the dark lord lifts his hand

over dead sea and withered land.

and all in evil ended be,
in the moaning of the endless Sea!

It is also interesting to compare the Wight’s desolate incantation and final lines:

 

till the dark lord lifts his hand
over dead sea and withered land.

with Tom’s

till the world is mended.

a perfect statement of opposites, as indeed is the very way in which Tom sings his song -almost as ’nonsensical as his ’Hey dol! Merry dol!’:

 

Get out, you old Wight! Vanish in the sunlight!

 

and the Wight wails its incantation, demonstrating the life-force of the former and the death-wish of the latter.

 

In Tom Bombadil and the Medieval Hierarchy –The Great Chain of Being -2

Thursday April 13 2006 at 20:40, posted earlier in this thread, I quoted

 

Now let the song begin! Let us sing together
Of sun, stars, moon and mist, rain and cloudy weather,
Light on the budding leaf, dew on the feather,
Wind on the open hill, bells on the heather,
Reeds by the shady pool, lilies on the water:
Old Tom Bombadil and the River-daughter!

 

 

 

from FOTR-The Old Forest and –heavily borrowing from my good friend Osse said:

 

This builds a chain of natural things with Tom and Goldberry at the base, supporting. Indeed taking Tolkien’s mythos into account, the list here starts with that which is most manufactured even though seeming natural (the sun, the moon, and stars, which were created by the Valar as told at the start of The Silmarillion) and progresses through those elements that are less directly created by the Valar, thus implying that Tom and Goldberry are the ‘least’ created elements – therefore the most natural, the most wholly Middle Earth related.”

 

And I went on to say:

 

“And the concepts of ‘degree’ ,‘harmony’, ‘order’ , ‘balance’ are all here, creating what Jane Chance so aptly calls ‘the Middle-earth equivalent of the medieval Chain of Being’.”

 

Now look again at the Barrow-wights incantation, and interlace it with Tom’s paen to the natural order , the Great Chain of Being – and the concepts of degree’ ,‘harmony’, ‘order’ , ‘balance’ and the celebration of life. See how everything that Tom sees as part of life the Barrow-wight’s incantation seeks to extinguish, upsetting degree’ ,‘harmony’, ‘order’ , ‘balance’ and replacing it with dead sea and withered land  replacing it, as it were, with a ’Chain of Unbeing’.

 

Color Code

 

Blue –Tom Bombadil
Black – Barrow-wight

 

Now let the song begin! Let us sing together
Of sun, stars, moon and mist, rain and cloudy weather,

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.

Light on the budding leaf, dew on the feather,
Wind on the open hill, bells on the heather,

In the black wind the stars shall die,
and still on gold here let them lie

Reeds by the shady pool, lilies on the water:
Old Tom Bombadil and the River-daughter!

till the dark lord lifts his hand
over dead sea and withered land.

 

The juxtaposition only re-emphasizes the paen to life of Tom and the incantation to death and the grave of the Barrow –wight- of the Great Chain of Being and of the dead sea and withered land of extinction – the ’Chain of Unbeing’- the complete inversion of the natural order."

 

 End Excerpt

 

It seems to me that these posts very much validate Elenhir’s proposition regarding Melkor rather than Sauron, as the ’abomination of desolation’ is much more akin to Morgoth’s nihilism than it is to Sauron’s obsessive control.

 

That of course raises other questions given the provenance of the Barrow-wights as explained in the appendices, but that  is another argument for another thread and another day.

 

I will comment in my next post on geordie’s amazing Labor of Hercules!


 

Laielinwen 10/Oct/2006 at 03:42 PM
New Soul Points: 31115 Posts: 27324 Joined: 16/Mar/2002
Hugs to y’all... busy busy day at school! I’m the Webmaster for our school and between updating/creating and teaching it has been a very busy day. I’ve read a tad and will have a chance to read more thoroughly tomorrow and hopefully share my thoughts. In the meantime a huge thank you for your efforts on this and your taking the time to respond in such length! It is going on 1 a.m. now so I’m off to sleepytown! Y’all are the best!
geordie 11/Oct/2006 at 01:12 PM
Hugo Bracegirdle Points: 20570 Posts: 14087 Joined: 06/Mar/2005
Laie - let me say sorry for the length of the post, and the way it’s written - all over the place, and too many refs. to my bookshelves. Please take as long as you like and see what you make of it. [as a teacher]. [you too halfir]

There are severl interesting bits in it; nowt to do with me; just the material. eg. I like Tolkien’s definition for ’writhe’ in the glossary to Sisam’s book - writhe] Wrype; v, to twist; bind; turn aside [from the just course] [OE wripan]’

I don’t think I’ve seen anyone [Shippey, Flieger] comment on that before.
halfir 12/Oct/2006 at 07:17 AM
Emeritus Points: 46547 Posts: 43664 Joined: 10/Mar/2002

geordie: You must be psychic! I was first going to deal with your excellent point about writhe in your earlier post. You listed the definitions which Tolkien gives in the ME Reader and Vocabulary (I have the recently issued composite version 2005 and a wonderful boon it is too) and rightly zeroed in on:

’to turn aside [from the just course]’.

But,also review the other defintions you listed:

[writhe] Wrype; v, to twist; bind; turn aside [from the just course] [OE wripan]’

bind

One Ring to rule them all,One Ring to find them
One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them

So the wraiths, under the power of their Rings, are turned aside [from the just course]’, they are bound by their own rings and the One, to the Dark Lord, they are bound again through their own rings and the One to the path of moral darkness, and they are ultimately bound to the Darkness they serve.

twist

Would you commit your promise to that , Smeagol? It will hold you. But it is more treacherous than you are. It may twist your words. Beware! [TT-The Taming of Smeagol - my emphasis}

One word, many meanings, all pertinent, and Tolkien knew them all.

 

Ankala Teaweed 13/Oct/2006 at 04:21 PM
March Warden of the Shire Points: 6116 Posts: 4487 Joined: 15/Apr/2002
Quote: Originally posted by geordie on Wednesday, October 11, 2006
eg. I like Tolkien’s definition for ’writhe’ in the glossary to Sisam’s book - writhe] Wrype; v, to twist; bind; turn aside [from the just course] [OE wripan]’

geordie, halfir? I see you both have used a "p" here in "Wrype" and in "wripan" but are you intending to represent a "thorn" character here?

[capital THORN, Þ; small thorn, þ]
halfir 13/Oct/2006 at 05:53 PM
Emeritus Points: 46547 Posts: 43664 Joined: 10/Mar/2002

AK: are you intending to represent a "thorn" character here?

Yes indeed, small thorn. I intended to note that in my post but then forgot! I’m so computer illiterate I’ve no idea how to create it!X(

N.B. For those unfamilar with the term thorn it refers to the name of a rune in OE and O.Norse alphabets and was ultimately replaced in ME with ’th’.{cf. entry under thorn  in OED and Webster’s}

In Tolkien’s Glossary that accompanies Sisam’s ME Reader the thorn entry Þ has a separate alphabetical place following the letter T; variation between þ and th is disregarded, and the intial Th is entered under Þ {cf. Note to Glossary in ME Reader.}

Ankala Teaweed 13/Oct/2006 at 05:59 PM
March Warden of the Shire Points: 6116 Posts: 4487 Joined: 15/Apr/2002
halfir  That’s what I thought.
I pasted the above thorn characters from an online html list referencing the Icelandic thorn characters. So it seems that it is still in use in Icelandic?
Laielinwen 15/Oct/2006 at 02:05 AM
New Soul Points: 31115 Posts: 27324 Joined: 16/Mar/2002

I have so many thoughts on what has been said and so many notes and quite a few rabbit trails that I’m pondering the need for a few specific threads to more fully explore! The thing for me with all this information is that it is so exciting and causes new questions to arise and it prompts memories of things I’ve read and then I run off with my books trying to find these things! Since I have been away from these discusssions and my books for a period of time the locations are not at my fingertips, but I feel excited at the idea of chasing them down! Also, because of some unfortunate things I had for the first time since a teenager felt it too painful to think of things Tolkien and that pierced me to my soul. In returning it has been slow and y’all have helped relight the fire that had burned so brightly and hot for nearly 30 years before. (I’m feeling sentimental I guess) Thanks for y’all’s efforts in these questions and for the rabbit trails geordie!

Now... two things you said geordie:
But first: let’s bear in mind that Tolkien was a remarkable bloke; a philologist with the heart of a story-teller. ’I always start with a name’ he said in a radio interview. ’Give me a name, and the story follows’. Here he was talking about the name ’hobbit’. ’I thought I’d better find out what hobbits are like’ he continued.

So - a man of enormous erudition; trained in an exacting field - philology; which he regarded as a science, and himself as a scientist - [in a letter for sale at the moment on abe.books, he describes himself as a scientist and a poet] -
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Tolkien wrote in Letter 165:

 

If I might elucidate what H. Breit has made of my letter: the remark about ’philology’ was intended to allude to what is I think a primary ’fact’ about my work [The Lord of the Rings], that it is all of a piece, and fundamentally linguistic in inspiration. The authorities of the university might well consider it an aberration of an elderly professor of philology to write and publish fairy stories and romances, and call it a ’hobby’, pardonable because it has been (suprisingly to me as much as to anyone) successful. But it is not a ’hobby’, in the sense of something quite different from one’s work, taken up as a relief-outlet. The invention of languages is the foundation. The ’stories’ were made rather to provide a world for the language than the reverse. To me a name comes first and the story follows. (my bold)

 

For Tolkien it was all about the language. So to create a word and then create a story for the word is fascinating and amazing to me AND very science-like! The idea of creating and then finding uses for the creation... WOW!  To look at Tolkien’s work ... the Whole body of it... from that perspective is like a light bulb being turned on! For me anyway! Wow again and forgive me if it seems simplistic and I’m making a big deal about it. It just adds a layer to the assimilation for me.

 

geordie your next question is formed correctly based on this... Yay You! (sorry I’m excited still)
What stories would he make from the words ’wight’ and ’wraith’?

 

NOW your digression… haha
Shippey  gives a possible glimpse into Tolkien’s frame of mind… his possible ponderings when he says:

Ancient texts would provide him with any number of examples of how what is now considered People’s behaviour all too evidently changes. But isn’t there something underneath the nets of custom that remains the same? Something that would link modern Englishmen with their Anglo-Saxon ancestors just as philology sees, beneath a thousand years of change, essential continuity between the language of Beowulf and that of today?

Tolkien must have been brooding on this question for many years.

 

With all the previous thoughts in mind…

 

You said:
A question - did Tolkien change those last two lines to remove refs. to gods from a volume of verse written and/or compiled by hobbits? [The 1937 poem had no connection with Middle-earth; at least none I know of]. Or to bring it into line with the concept of a poem recorded by hobbits - and bring the idea that Night keeps the gold; not the earth? There are echoes of Night in the dirge of the Barrow - wight which captures Frodo and the others. Just wondering.

Tolkien being the perfectionist that he was would definitely have wanted to make the poem appropriate for the one he was having write it. So it seems correct to assume he removed the gods part because it was being compiled by hobbits. YET what is to say he is limited in his motivation to just that one necessity? Tolkien was such a thinker! He was such a master of weaving bits of this and that into what may on the surface appear to be just a simple poem or verse. I’d suspect you have hit the nail on the head twice! I think it totally possible and probable that he had the idea of the Night/gold in mind as well. Well thought! If he didn’t he would love that you did! haha

 

to be continued...

Captain Bingo 15/Oct/2006 at 10:10 AM
Messenger of Minas Tirith Points: 1573 Posts: 957 Joined: 31/Jan/2006
Couple of uses of ’writhe’ in LotR which don’t seem to have been mentioned - unless I’ve missed them, in which case please ignore me....

They were just in time. Sam and Frodo were only a few steps up, and Gandalf had just begun to climb, when the groping tentacles writhed across the narrow shore and fingered the cliff-wall and the doors. One came wriggling over the threshold, glistening in the starlight.

&

He heard himself crying out: Never, never! Or was it: Verily I come, I come to you? He could not tell. Then as a flash from some other point of power there came to his mind another thought: Take it off! Take it off! Fool, take it off! Take off the Ring! The two powers strove in him. For a moment, perfectly balanced between their piercing points, he writhed, tormented. Suddenly he was aware of himself again.

Laielinwen 15/Oct/2006 at 10:36 AM
New Soul Points: 31115 Posts: 27324 Joined: 16/Mar/2002

geordie: *hmm? ’Do I have a copy of that issue of _Medium Aevum_?’ Of course.. what did you think?*

The other definition is:

Wight, Wyght, n, creature, person, Wytes, Old English wiht’.

This definition is pretty broad! That could be Michael Jackson before or after all the surgeries. If it is used for a person since it CAN be used for a creature is it insulting to do so? Does it imply a certain sort of person? A person that was a person and became a creature of sorts? Smeagol was one kind of ’person’ that was changed into another... though not a ghostly vision as we imagine with wights.

[writhe] Wrype; v, to twist; bind; turn aside [from the just course] [OE wripan]

this with the Shippey comments of seem to continue my questions from above...

When I think of writhe... I think of a person writhing in pain or a snake writhing.

(forgive me for thinking these things out in parts)

Bearamir 16/Oct/2006 at 12:36 PM
Emeritus Points: 16276 Posts: 16742 Joined: 21/Sep/2008
Ladies & Gentlemen:  This thread has been nominated for transfer to Ad Lore.  From my perusal of the discussion here, I think the nomination is more than warranted.  So, without further ado:  Prepare for move to Ad Lore.
Kirinki54 16/Oct/2006 at 01:57 PM
Librarian of Imladris Points: 2897 Posts: 1354 Joined: 17/Nov/2005

Lovely!

 

Tom Shippey has an interesting discussion in “The Road to Middle-earth” on ‘wraiths’. He starts by demonstrating how Tolkien managed to reconcile the two meanings of ‘wraith’ in OED. They are apparently not possible to combine, because 1a/ ‘an apparition or spectre of a dead person: a phantom or ghost’ conflicts with 1b/ ‘an immaterial or spectral appearance of a living being’. The integration of these two senses produces the ‘undead’, or the Ringwraiths.

 

But Shippey (and likely Tolkien) went on to analyze the origin deeper that OED did. ’Wraith’ is derived from ‘wriðan’, ‘to writhe’. But from that word can also be derived ‘wreath’ (a twisted thing, material or immaterial), or something that is ‘bent’. Shippey points out that Christopher Tolkien wrote (in Lost Road) about a discussion J.R.R. Tolkien had with C.S. Lewis about ‘wraithas’. That is a reconstructed (or asterisk) form of Proto-Germanic, meaning ‘bent’. And Shippey continues:

 

To return to the Ringwraiths, they are in origin ’bent’ people, and people who have been bent, perhaps, into a perfect self-regarding ’wreath’, ’wraith’ or Ring.

 

A most interesting conclusion! I do not find the ring reference too far-fetched at all. And this description of the philological roots of ‘wraiths’ also give a clear specification that enables us to distinguish between them and the ‘wights’ as occurring in LotR.

geordie 17/Oct/2006 at 02:47 PM
Hugo Bracegirdle Points: 20570 Posts: 14087 Joined: 06/Mar/2005
Kirinki   -

And I like Shippey’s observation about Legolas’ comment in FR - ’She’ [the sun] ’is walking in the fields of the south, and a wreath of snow on this hillock worries her not at all’.
Here, an example of ’wreath’ as something insubstantial.

Back to an earlier post of mine: I’ve been pondering the word wight - that is the first of Tolkien’s definitions.

’Wight; Wyht, Wicht adj; valiant [see Wede] adj quickly, straightway’.

- and the section of my earlier post dealing with this def. -

while perusing my shelf of text books, I found in my copy of The Years Work in English Studies 1933 a report in the chapter ’Middle English’ by Dorothy Everett [ a friend and colleague of Tolkien’s] on a paper published in the journal Medium Aevum by another colleague [but no friend!] of Tolkien’s: Eugene Vinaver [’The Legend of Wade in the ’Morte d’Arthur’ Medium Aevum, June 1933]which, says Everett, throws light on a phrase: ’Wert thou as wyzte as ever was Wade’, a close parallel to that in the alliteraive Morte Arthure [a differnt text apparently] ’ware thou wyghttere than Wade’.   But as I say, that’s not what Tolkien meant here. *hmm? ’Do I have a copy of that issue of _Medium Aevum_?’ Of course.. what did you think?*

Now, looking further, I see that Tolkien has a section on this def. of _wight_ as it appears in Chaucer’s _The Reeve’s Tale_ in his paper Chaucer as a Philologist: The Reeve’s Tale published in Transactions of the Philolological Society 1934 but actually read by him to the Society at a meeting of Saturday 16th May, 1931!

[It seems typical that Tolkien should be tardy in the publication; he apolgises, and offers the excuse that he’d wanted to read further before publishing; but as time had not allowed this, he merely presented the paper as read, with the addition of ’a critical text; and accompanying textual notes, various footnotes, appendices, and comments naturally omitted in reading’.

He concludes his apology: ’It may at least indicate that this tale has a special interest for Chaucerian criticism, even if it shows also that it requires more expert handling’.

Tolkien was a member of the Council of The Philological Society at the time; this was the body who had just recently at the time of publication completed [so they thought] after more than 75 years the production of the New English Dictionary - later to become known as the Oxford English Dictionary. Perhaps there were some august figures there who might have thought Tolkien’s modesty entirely appropiate!

[Shippey says of this paper ’[it] is fascinating in its detail and still completely convincing in its demonstration that Chaucer was trying to make a joke by close, careful imitation of the dialect of Durham: but it’s a joke about language, and that now has no market].
[T.A. Shippey:    Tolkien’s Academic Reputation Now in Amon Hen 100 reprinted _The Best of Amon Hen pt.2 [Tolkien Society 2002]

Tolkien’s is an important paper; as Shippey remarks, it’s a great shame that it is almost entirely overlooked in academic circles.

The bit which caught my eye is this: the word wight as used by Chaucer in line 166 of The Reeves Tale

wight - active. ’This word is probably of Scandanavian origin. It is at any rate, common in Middle English in the North and throughout the areas of direct Scandanavian influence, and wherever alliterative verse or the vocabulary related to it is to be found’.

So- Tolkien equates this use of the word wight with alliterative poetry - a subject dear to his heart; and also to areas [the North; and also to the West Midlands] which were also his special area of study. In this article, we see what amounts to a certain displeasure on Tolkien’s part at Chaucer’s treatment of these issues - eg his ridiculing the old poems in his work, Sir Topas [Sir Topaz].

Tolkien says of Wight in this context ’It was clearly in its proper area... not solely a literary and poetic word, though it is chiefly so in our records. It must be counted among the words widely familiar... that tended to spread as a literary word, favoured in such formulae as   wight as Wade, which was last used by Morris in The Defence of Guinevere.

Chaucer, says Tolkien, took the word from literature rather than dialect; he used the word once elsewhere, in The Monk’s Tale, ’wrastlen with any yong man, be he never so wight’.

Tolkien then goes on to recount the formula in which the word is used by Chaucer, noting that it is the same as that used in the tale of Sir Eglamour; a Northern romance of the kind ridiculed by Chaucer in Sir Topas. At this point, in a footnote, Tolkien disagrees with a young chap called Allen MacIntyre Trounce - ’In spite of Mr Trounce’s essay in Medium Aevum i, 2, pp. 86ff, I remain of opinion that Chaucer was precisely ’misusing the gifts of genius to make a cheap caricature of the ’heroic’ effects of the old poem’. Sir Topas is clever, but in some ways regrettable; but precisely the result to be expected from the contact of a man of Chaucer’s temperament with the conventions of the tail-rhyme poems.’

but precisely the result to be expected from the contact of a man of Chaucer’s temperament with the conventions of the tail-rhyme poems.’

Harsh words. ’A man of Chaucer’s temperament’. What temperament might that be? I looked up Trounce’s paper [It’s in several parts, over several years of the periodical! I have ’em all, natch!]

The article in question [The English Tail-Rhyme Romances by A. McI. Trounce] is to be found, as T. says, in Vol.I, no.2 of Medium Aevum - the journal of The Society for the Study of Mediaeval Languages and Literature, which had been founded only two years before Tolkien’s Chaucer paper was published, but _After_ it had been read to the Society in 1931! Tolkien was a founder member of the Society [still going today] and was also on the Society’s Executive Board at this time.

In his article, Trounce refers to Chaucer as being ’of the London [that is, the French] school’. Well, that’s it then!

Tolkien said in a radio interview that language to him was a matter of taste; a new language was to him ’like a new wine, or a new sweetmeat or something’. He also once said he ’dested’ French cooking. To carry the analogy further - using his image of The Cauldron of Story - I’d say he did’nt much like French soup; nor its proponents, such as Mr Chaucer. Esp. when they were playing at being philologists.


Finally - back to Tolkien, wight; ’wert thou wyghtter than Wade. Wyghhter than Wade; an epithet for a great warrior; someone ’forward in battle’ or ’quick in onset’. I thought Tolkien could have used this meaning for Boromir, or Theoden perhaps; if he wern’t so set against French soup! Who’s Wade, I asked myself? Looked in the HoMe index; lo and behold; there’s quite a bit about Wade - a legendary figure of might. Christopher Tolkien is puzzled by the fact that at one time Tolkien connected Wade with Tuor. [HoMe III pp143 ff]

Blimey.

There’ more: Wade’s boat in Tolkien’s mythology was to have been called ’Guingelot’. But Wade was sent back into the mists of obscurity; his part was taken by Tuor [have I got that right?] and the name of his boat - now Vingelot - to another legendary figure; Earendil, who can be said to have started this Middle-earth lark after all.

Strange isn’t it; the way one word can lead to a stroll through the bookshelves of an [average] Tolkien library; and the many paths it can lead one down?

halfir 17/Oct/2006 at 05:40 PM
Emeritus Points: 46547 Posts: 43664 Joined: 10/Mar/2002

geordie: That is downright impressive sir.X( Tolkien redivivus! It really does demosntrate the amazing ’luggage’ that words carry, which we , tragically, today, are rapidly becoming totally ingnorant of (yourself and a few others notably excepted). While that does not impair our reading of Tolkien’s ficition qua quality story, it does, in my view, not allow us to go the whole nine yards.

And with regard to your comments on Chaucer and Tolkien, as he did with  ’Old Bill’ Tolkien looked at the creator of the Canterbury Tales with a somewhat jaundiced eye, as he did indeed the French (remember the comment about the War and the French which turned out to be a reference to the Battle of Hastings not WW1!)

In his letter to John Masefield Letter # 32 Tolkien acidly comments on Chaucer:

’I do not personally conect the North with either night or darkness, especially  not in England, in whose long 1200 years  of literary tradition Chaucer stands rather  in the middle than the beginning. I also do not feel him springlike but autumnal (even if of the early autumn) and not king-like but middle-class."

And in the foreword to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (his translation, not the earlier edition with Gordon) he observes, in explaining why Chaucer has remained fresh in our memories and the Gawain poet and the Alliterative Revival has been all but forgotten:

’The tides of time, of taste, of language, not to mention political power, trade and wealth were against it.’

And in his comment one feels his hostility to the supremacy of the one over the other, for Chaucer represented the populous south east of England and the ’Frenchified court’ whereas the Gawain poet was of the West Midlands and represented the ’true ’ England:

’courtly, wise, and well-bred - educated, indeed learned’ not, one suspects he would have added, like Chaucer ’ a dedicated follower of fashion’X(

And Tolkien’s hositility to the ’Frenchfying’ of the ’true’ English tongue is well captured by Carpenter in his bioraphy when he describes Tolkien, then a schoolboy ,railing against Shakespeare for polluting the purity of the English language with the  monstrous polysyllabic barbarities of the French (Norman) tongue! He would have made Joe Wright proud!

As to Wade of the Helsings {Home 3-The Lays of Beleriand} you are indeed correct in seeing him as a precursor of Tuor, and in commenting that CT cannot give an explanation for what his father meant.

In The Road to ME (revised edition) Shippey (Chptr. The Course of Actual Composition) comments on Wade that :

’Yet it is clear enough what he was looking for, or groping for: a mighty patron for his ciuntry, a foundation-myth more far reaching than Hengest and Horsa, one on to which he could graft his own stories’.

And when he moved from the myth for England to ME something of that earlier searching remained, albeit that names and situations changed.

An excellent post sir.X(

 

 

geordie 17/Oct/2006 at 11:07 PM
Hugo Bracegirdle Points: 20570 Posts: 14087 Joined: 06/Mar/2005
halfir - -but then, I’d not made the connections which you have brought to the table. Many thanks.
Laielinwen 18/Oct/2006 at 08:50 AM
New Soul Points: 31115 Posts: 27324 Joined: 16/Mar/2002

 Wow y’all...

I’ll echo halfir...  geordie: That is downright impressive sir.X( Tolkien redivivus! It really does demosntrate the amazing ’luggage’ that words carry, which we , tragically, today, are rapidly becoming totally ingnorant of (yourself and a few others notably excepted). While that does not impair our reading of Tolkien’s ficition qua quality story, it does, in my view, not allow us to go the whole nine yards.

and add ...that there are so many layers to what Tolkien does and I am amazed again and again ( even when I know it to be true) when such extensive information comes to light! How one man in his day and time without the aid of technology (maybe because of the lack of distraction of it!) could find so much information and integrate it so  cleverly and seamlessly into his work leaves me breathless. I swear there must have been more than 24 hours in Tolkien’s day and the man must have needed little sleep!

We have come a long way from what I originally thought were two simple nouns: wight and wraith!