Film Review by Roger Echo-Hawk
At the theater in December 2013, I found a kind of subtle enchantment in the lavish gloom of Peter Jackson’s The Desolation of Smaug. Very foreboding scenes drew me swiftly into Mirkwood. His version of that ancient forest looked as if it had always been writhing. Everything felt dense and heavy – the shining grey tones carried a mysterious dreamlike weight. In this dark dream of Middle-earth, frightful fairytales ravage your sleep. And adding to this ominous murk, Jackson remade Tolkien’s Ringwraiths into nightmarish zombie monsters.
Improvising cinematic ingredients for The Hobbit, Peter Jackson and his colleagues invented a new cemetery, the “High Fells of Rhudaur.” First encountering mention of these new tombs in An Unexpected Journey, I decided that Jackson had arbitrarily pasted his own landscape over the world of Middle-earth. The release of The Desolation of Smaug seemed to affirm that Jackson had summoned his High Fells into Middle-earth to accommodate another revision of Tolkien’s legendarium – a fundamental rewriting of the truths of Ringwraiths.
I felt at first that Jackson had divested Tolkien’s ancient Ringwraith lords of their intended moral point: the slow twisting of terrible mortal ambitions into a shadowy future, the frightful lingering of cruelty and pride. Jackson had abandoned this narrative logic, choosing instead to insert his own undead wraiths into Middle-earth from some hipster zombie film. Such fundamental tampering hardly seemed necessary.
But it eventually dawned on me that there is another way to understand Peter Jackson’s recalibration of Tolkien’s undying wraiths into undead zombies. Long ago when I first read The Hobbit, I found there an evil character lurking unseen at the edge of the tale. Tolkien called him “the Necromancer.” I had already read The Lord of the Rings, and I knew Ringwraiths and I knew Sauron. So what did Tolkien intend with this word, Necromancer?
I sat there in the late 1960s and looked up the word in my dictionary. Dark magic pertaining to the dead… So Sauron the Necromancer surely had something to do with the dead. But this seemed a story that Tolkien never actually told: the tale of Sauron’s black magic at Dol Guldur. As Tolkien portrayed the matter in the Council of Elrond, Gandalf said he had visited the fastness, and the White Council had driven out Sauron. The Appendices of The Lord of the Rings added only that Dol Guldur was a place of imprisonment, a favorite keep for Sauron and his servants.
All these years later, Peter Jackson probably knew that when Tolkien invented his Ringwraiths, he toyed for a moment with the idea of making them mounted barrow-wights. Barrow-wights first enter Tolkien’s writings as fairytale monsters with no evident place in his Middle-earth legendarium. But as Christopher Tolkien made clear in The Return of the Shadow (1988), his father decided in 1938 to situate barrow-wights in Middle-earth during the same period that Ringwraiths first materialized. In an early planning note Tolkien wrote, “Barrow-wights related to Black-riders.” And he wondered, “Are Black-riders actually horsed Barrow-wights?”
A connection between barrow-wights and the Necromancer in The Hobbit can be glimpsed in Tolkien’s lecture notes on Beowulf, prepared sometime during the 1930s (JRR Tolkien, Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary, 2014, p. 163-164). Pondering an Old English term, orcnéas, he associated the word with “necromancy” and “that terrible northern imagination to which I have ventured to give the name ‘barrow-wights.’” He went on to further underscore this association, describing barrow-wights as “undead” and as “dreadful creatures that inhabit tombs and mounds” who “are not living: they have left humanity, but they are ‘undead.’”
He then offered an example from Norse tradition: “Glamr in the story of Grettir the Strong is a well-known example.” In the tale told of Grettir the Strong, after Glamr died he was buried under a pile of stones, and he soon reappeared, horribly resuscitated – an undead zombie. Tolkien’s barrow-wights were thus rooted in an undead tradition. It is arguable that they simply “left humanity” and slowly became “undead.” But as “not living” creatures of old tombs, it seems more likely that Tolkien intended them to be humans who had died and had then become enlivened by dark magic. The invention of Tolkien’s Necromancer and his barrow-wights occurred close in time during the early 1930s. These Beowulf notes clarify the connection between them via Norse tradition.
But in 1938 Tolkien ultimately decided against rooting his new Ringwraiths in necromancy. They soon enough left the fold of the undead and became undying living men haunting the gloomy shadows of Middle-earth. He began with the idea of mounting his barrow-wights on horses and calling them “Black-riders” and then “Black riders, a black host of riders…” He next gave them an association with Mordor. But by the time he got his hobbit fellowship to Bree, he had decided to situate his Ringwraiths in a different cultural lineage.
In Tolkien’s original August 1938 draft of the visit of the fellowship of hobbits to Bree, Butterbur reported Nob as having said: “It’s another of they black Men…” A few months later Tolkien made heavy use of “black men” in describing his Black Riders. In the new second edition of my book, Tolkien in Pawneeland, I show how Tolkien drew Nob’s black men from English folklore – they originated as a “nursery terror” derived from Christian tradition and the evolving tenets of racial stereotyping. In other words, Tolkien abandoned Norse barrow-wight imagery and rooted his new monsters in colloquial semi-racial “black men.”
Confronted with an unexplained Necromancer in The Hobbit, Peter Jackson had to make sense of the term – he had to link Sauron the Necromancer to the undead in some logical fashion. He chose to do this through the Ringwraiths. And we can indeed glimpse an abandoned ghostly undead zombie history in Tolkien’s Ringwraiths. Making this decision, Jackson replaced Tolkien’s folkloric semi-racial “black men” with zombies garbed in black.
In his essay “English and Welsh,” Tolkien described the Beowulf poem as “full of dark and twilight, and laden with sorrow and regret[.]” And “the riding to hunt of the Lord of the Underworld” feels “ominous, colourless, with the wind blowing… as the half-seen hounds came baying in the gloom, huge shadows pursuing shadows to the brink of a bottomless pool.” Tolkien excelled at sculpting dark beauty.
When he dabbled with the colorations of race to produce this effect, those moments have not aged well. Tolkien’s Black Riders are certainly frightful enough. But he colorized them as caricatures of race, toning them as “black men.” This creative choice just serves to divest his dark magic of “sorrow and regret” – audiences today mostly don’t shiver in fear at race-based “black men” imagery.
Peter Jackson’s The Desolation of Smaug dispensed with Tolkien’s misguided logic on race and enlivened colorless zombie shadows to evoke a more dreadful sense of “dark and twilight.” For this reason alone, The Desolation of Smaug deserves a place in every dragon’s hoard as a gem that glows with a dark light.