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Lord Of The Rings: Who Are The Barrow-Wights In Rings Of Power Season 2?

Season 2 of "The Lord of the Rings: The Rings Of Power" is set to introduce J.R.R. Tolkien's infamous Barrow-wights. Empire magazine reported that the show's characters would battle these terrifying ghouls in the upcoming season, describing them as "figures drawn from Tolkien's source material that are finally making their way to the screen."

Where in the source material do the Barrow-wights come from and who are they? Why weren't they in Peter Jackson's adaptations more than 20 years ago? The creatures first appear in Tolkien's "The Fellowship of the Ring" during a side adventure with Tom Bombadil (a powerful character who will also debut in Season 2 of "The Rings of Power"). Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin encounter the ghastly creatures in an unexpected and surprisingly horrific confrontation that puts the supernatural beings on par with other Middle-earth wraiths like the Nazgûl and the Army of the Dead.

Yet the Barrow-wights represent their own unique iteration of the supernatural side of Middle-earth. At first glance, they aren't directly serving Sauron (like the Ringwraiths) or redeeming themselves (like the Army of the Dead). The Barrow-wights exist outside of the larger Sauron strategy, and, like the Balrog and Shelob, terrorize others in their own way. Nevertheless, they do ultimately trace their evil ways back to the Dark Lord and his servants. Let's dig a little deeper into who the Barrow-wights are, where they come from, and how they could factor into "The Rings of Power" storyline.

Who are the Barrow-wights?

Frodo's encounter with the Barrow-wights is a creepy, vague, and deeply disturbing chapter of Tolkien's story. The Barrow-wights are called "wights" for short, and Elrond says at his council that they have many names, although Tolkien doesn't tell us what these are. The book, "The Fellowship of the Ring," doesn't give us a clear description of these ghostly apparitions, either. Their true appearance is never specified — an unusual loose end in Tolkien's otherwise detailed world.

We do get enough data to know that they have some degree of physical form. Frodo, for instance, is able to cut one of their hands off, and they speak in audible voices (as well as subconscious ones) to the four Hobbits. The book describes one of their voices as deep and cold, adding that it seems to resonate from the ground. They are tall, shadowy figures, with the author describing their eyes as "very cold though lit with a pale light that seemed to come from some remote distance."

The Barrow-wights are Tolkien's closest thing to traditional horror in Middle-earth. The creatures speak incantations and live in burial mounds, where they wear the accoutrements of the deceased and stir up dead bones. They can cast terrifying visions, trances, and dreams, too. When the Hobbits are captured in a burial mound, under the spells of one of the wights, they have dreams and experiences that clearly come from the past life of the dead king buried there.

Where do the Barrow-wights live and where do they come from?

The origin of the Barrow-wights is fairly straightforward: in the middle of the Third Age (many hundreds of years before "The Lord of the Rings"), the leader of the Nazgûl — the Witch-king of Angmar, who stabs Frodo on Weathertop — fights a knock-down, drag-out war with Gondor, its sister kingdom of Arnor, and their Elvish allies. While the Witch-king does eventually lose that war, he destroys his enemies who live in the area called the Barrow-downs, located between the Shire and Bree. The appendices of "The Return of the King" state that around this time, evil spirits "entered into the deserted mounds and dwelt there."

The book "Unfinished Tales" adds that the Witch-king himself sent the spirits to dwell in and haunt the mounds. It also gives us an unofficial version of how the Barrow-wights come to play a part in the earlier "Lord of the Rings" story. It says that when the Black Riders are hunting for the One Ring, the Witch-king goes to the Barrow-downs and stays there for multiple days, rousing the barrow-wights. 

So the Barrow-wights are malicious spirits stirred up and sent by the Witch-king to live in the Barrow-downs between the Shire and Bree in the middle of the Third Age. They dwell in the mounds, casting spells, terrorizing the locals, and generally turning the area into a haunted and unsettled region of grassy hills, knolls, and burial sites.

What do the Barrow-wights do in The Lord of the Rings?

The Barrow-wights appear for a single chapter in "The Fellowship of the Ring," conveniently called "Fog on the Barrow-Downs." In it, Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin leave Tom Bombadil's house and head across the Barrow-downs toward the main road and the village of Bree. They start in daylight but end up lost in the foggy downs as night falls. Frodo is separated from his companions and then confronted by a terrifying, shadowy figure — a Barrow-wight. He is captured, with the book saying, "The icy touch froze his bones, and he remembered no more."

When he wakes up, Frodo is in the nearby barrow lying alongside his three Hobbit companions — all not moving and in a sleep-like trance. They are dressed in white and covered in cursed treasures. Importantly, one naked sword is lying across their necks.

The nearby wight chants an incantation before its hand emerges, preparing to behead all four Hobbits with a sword. Tolkien describes the chilling scene: "[Frodo] heard behind his head, a creaking and scraping sound ... Round the corner a long arm was groping, walking on its fingers towards Sam, who was lying nearest, and towards the hilt of the sword that lay upon him." Frodo cuts off the hand and then, recognizing that he's outmatched, sings a song that brings merry old Tom Bombadil prancing to the hill.

A Barrow-wight vs. Tom Bombadil

Once Tom Bombadil shows up at the barrow in "The Fellowship of the Ring" book, it's game over for its ghoulish inhabitant. As he arrives, Tom sings in response to Frodo's call for help, finishing with the two lines, "None has ever caught him yet, for Tom, he is the master: His songs are stronger songs, and his feet are faster."

Tom claws his way into the Barrow, letting in daylight, and then engages in one of Tolkien's specialties: an attack in verse. "Get out, you old Wight!" Tom belts, "Vanish in the sunlight! Shrivel like the cold mist, like the winds to wailing." The Barrow-wight is outmatched and we never see it again. Tom helps the Hobbits recover from their trances and capture their ponies before leading them to the road toward Bree.

The entire episode with Tom Bombadil and the Barrow-wight functions as a sort of standalone introduction to the larger story of Tolkien's trilogy. Its self-contained nature makes it easy to cut out (which director Peter Jackson did, as well as director Ralph Bakshi with his animated adaptation in the 1970s). Tolkien himself admitted that Bombadil wasn't even necessary to the larger "Lord of the Rings" narrative. While that's all well and good, it doesn't change the fact that both Bombadil and the Barrow-wights will be in "The Rings of Power" — even though we know virtually nothing about their activities (and in the Barrow-wights' case, their very existence) at that time.

How could the Barrow-wights factor into The Rings of Power?

The truth is, putting Barrow-wights in "The Rings of Power" is an interesting move. Tom Bombadil's backstory doesn't have any information about that time, but we do know that Bombadil is possibly the oldest creature in Middle-earth, which means he's at least around somewhere during Prime Video's show.

The inclusion of the Barrow-wights is less clear cut. They aren't mentioned before the Nazgûls use them to haunt the Barrow-downs, and that happens 1,500 years after the story in "The Rings of Power" ends. We aren't given a Barrow-wight origin, so they could technically exist well before this. In addition, showrunners JD Payne and Patrick McKay have shown that they're willing to change the Tolkien timeline, whether it's shifting the order in which the Rings of Power are forged or moving the emergence of the Balrog up a few thousand years.

Perhaps the duo and their writing team have mapped out a compelling way to integrate the Barrow-wights into the story that lines up with their later role in the source material. Maybe we'll even get a prequel showdown between Tom Bombadil and the Barrow-wights. However it plays out, fans will have to wait until Season 2 premieres on August 29 to judge the adaptation for themselves.