Wights and Wraiths and Race

Wights and Wraiths and Race

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.



Kumiko’s Photograph

Kumiko’s Photograph

Poem by Wayne Moore

I found you before the camera.
You may be posing, arranging the flowers
in your kimono for a quiet start,
but I am before you first
in your eyes.

That tree that is not quite between us
is cover I lost in your approaching.
Those stones carry you lightly
as they themselves entered
near dry rice fields.

You are not frightened, but pause
as I move to explain my hiding.
I have no breath
and yet you are still calm
silent on my clumsy intrusion.

The space ends as a dream
I have become. I cannot follow
but you will not turn away
before I have finished, and here
I remain, nearly telling you.

Lilly Moore, "Kumiko's Photograph"
Lilly Moore, “Kumiko’s Photograph”

Kumiko was a young woman I met on my trip to Japan at age 19. She introduced herself to me while I was visiting the Meiji Shrine in Tokyo, walking in the quiet inner garden. She approached and said, “May I speak to you?” I was pretty surprised, and said, “Yes; what can I help you with?” She then looked puzzled, and said, “May I speak English with you?”

We became quick friends, and she became my very special tour-guide of the Tokyo region over the several weeks I was in the city. She brought me to the famous Bar Gakko in Shinjuku (area of Tokyo) owned by arguably the most famous living Japanese poet of the time, Kusano Shimpei (sometimes spelled, “Shinpei”). Though I did not meet Shimpeisan, because he was elderly and not well, years later when I met Gary Snyder at Sidney Goldfarb’s cabin, we bonded over having both met Reiko, Shimpeisan’s well-loved “bar mama” who my teacher at Antioch College, Harold Wright, had encouraged me to meet while I was in Japan.

At the high point of our flirty friendship, Kumiko invited me to accompany her to a village at the base of Mount Fuji, where her sister was a school teacher, for a traditional New Year’s breakfast hosted by the leadership of her sister’s school. We caught the train at 3:00 AM Jan. 1st in Tokyo and were seated at a single table with about 10 people total in a large, dimly lit gymnasium at the school by dawn.

We stayed in touch for a few years after, and Kumiko sent me a photo of her in her coming-of-age (21) kimono, standing in a beautiful natural setting on her homeland island of Kyushu.


Speak Friend and Enter

Speak Friend and Enter

A Traveler’s Tale by Roger Echo-Hawk


Reading JRR Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring, revisiting Middle-earth over many years, I always look forward to entering Lothlórien.  At that point in the quest, the way has been dark and dreadful under cruel Caradhras.  Gollum has appeared in the gloom of Moria; monstrous orcs have been stirred to violence; Gandalf has been taken by a Balrog into a frightful chasm.

But that tale begins with a magic door, opened by the word mellon, “friend.”  And this doorway ultimately takes us to the realm of Lothlórien, the Golden Wood, where hearts expect to be glad, where we have no need for earthly burdens.  Haldir the Elf welcomes Frodo and Legolas kindly.

But the Elves of the Golden Wood feel wary of strangers.  Haldir speaks ominously, “It is not our custom to lead strangers through our land.”  And when he hears of a Dwarf in the company, he declares with alarm, “I cannot allow him to pass.”

The next day, crossing the Silverlode, Haldir makes ready to blindfold Gimli the Dwarf.  Tolkien wants us to feel a little doubtful of the Elves and their chilly suspicion of Gimli – Gimli is not at all pleased with the ancient wisdom of the Elves.

We glimpse a troubled history between Dwarves and Elves.  This half-seen vista helps to make Middle-earth feel complex, real.  We understand Gimli’s resentment at being treated with suspicion, but we also wonder whether the Elves might be wise to be suspicious of Dwarves who stumble hurriedly into their realm.

One day, driving through Kansas in the Seventh Age of the world, I came away with a slightly deeper understanding of Gimli’s displeasure.

Leaving my home under a starless early morning, I saw several trains on mysterious errands.  Beside the dark road a mysterious animal stared at me.  I drove through the dawn of a sunless day.  And after turning right at Salina, after crossing Mulberry Creek, I received a formal greeting from the Sunflower State Highway Patrol.

A chill drizzle fell upon the hurrying patrolman as I opened my window.  He wanted to see my driver’s license.  What was my business in Kansas?  I’m on my way to a funeral, I said.  The funeral of our family leader.  After listening to my story, studying my license, he said I’d gotten too close to a truck, but he would let me off with a verbal warning.  Thanks Officer, I said, I’ll be more careful.

But there was a half-hidden backstory.  He hadn’t pulled me over to share his concerns about my driving skills that day; he had first driven up next to me there on the highway as we sped along under a cloudy cold rain.  I had glanced over to see him leaning toward me in his seat, carefully studying me through his passenger window.  With a shiver, I realized he wanted to know whether I might be a Dwarf!  His suspicions sufficiently aroused by what he saw of me, he dropped back and activated his lightbar.

The patrolman stepped up to my window, “I am not the master of the law, and cannot set it aside.  I have done much in letting you set foot over Celebrant.”  The name on his badge read “Sgt. Haldir.”  So after explaining that I was in mourning just then for the fallen leader of our Fellowship, I planted my feet and said, “I will go forward free, or I will go back to my own land!”  And he muttered, “A plague on Dwarves and their stiff necks!”

But after hearing the accents in my voice, he had to admit that I might not be a Dwarf after all.  He said I was free to go.  I thanked him but I didn’t feel grateful.  I felt a chill.

My look – my hair and my face – had told him that I might be… I might well be a Dwarf smuggling illegal goods from the Blue Mountains to Dale.  He needed to investigate… to listen for the damning accents of a Dwarf; to see whether I might have a name in the secret Dwarvish language.  Having been interrogated by the secret power of that perilous realm, I whispered to myself, “It is said that few come out who once go in; and of that few none have escaped unscathed.”

The next year I happened to have dealings with the Office of the Lord and Lady of that realm.  A Pawnee who served Governor Celeborn contacted me about the content of a special exhibit on the Museum Flet of the University of Kansas.  I had a pleasant exchange with him.  I didn’t say anything about how I had been greeted that previous year by a patrol of the Golden Wood… the chill drizzle, the blindfold.

Dealing with Celeborn’s representative, I tried to be helpful and for my trouble I received a book in the mail as a gift, Enough Good People.  The cover said it was about “inter-cultural collaboration.”  A friendly message.  I’m sure it says somewhere inside: Pedo mellon a minno.

Friendship often means finding new paths, new destinations – various magic doors open before us, and sometimes they close behind us forever.  When you find yourself in perilous lands under sunless skies, you might not escape the darkness unscathed.  But when we cross the Silverlode into the Golden Wood, we must keep wandering anyway.  Along the way, we can hope to speak the secret words that will someday make sense of the mysterious magic of our lives.


Banzai Future

Banzai Future

A Review by Ivan Granger

I recently rewatched Buckaroo Banzai, or, to give the movie its full self-aggrandizing title, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension.  I was a teenager in 1984 when it hit the theaters and I remember being disappointed by the movie.  The trailer promised adventure, science fiction, cool gadgets, extraterrestrials, and villains.  What I saw then was a mess of a movie, a comedy scifi adventure about a surgeon-scientist-rock star and his self-consciously hip team who travel through dimensions, fight an alien threat that isn’t very frightening, and play the occasional rock gig, all while uttering one-liners that aren’t that funny amidst a plot that doesn’t make much sense.

So why did I even rewatch it?  I heard through the Internet rumor mill that Kevin Smith, director of Clerks and Dogma, had just agreed to create a television series based on Buckaroo Bonzai, which has taken on cult movie status in the minds of many.  (There is a delightful video on YouTube of Smith describing his longtime passion for the movie.) That piqued my interest.  I figured I’d give the movie a second chance and I rented it, watching it for the first time in more than thirty years.

You know what?  I kind of liked it.  I can see why Buckaroo Banzai has found life as a cult classic.  It is a mess of a movie, just like I remembered, but there is something undeniably charming and fun about the movie’s wild masala of comedy/scifi involving heroic scientist-rock and rollers, interdimensional travel, Rastafarian aliens who are all named John, and, of course, the 80s synth soundtrack.  How can you not like Peter Weller as the titular Buckaroo Banzai looking like Adam Ant with oiled 80s hair and wearing a zoot suit and tie, Jeff Goldblum in a cowboy hat and fur-lined chaps, and John Lithgow as the interdimensional villain disdainfully calling humans “monkeyboy” in a thick Italian accent?

This is a movie with lines like:

“Where are we going?”


“When are we going?”


Yep, a definite cult classic.  Not a great movie, perhaps, but through sheer weirdness and quotability it has earned its iconic status.

But here is what most grabbed my attention after rewatching Buckaroo Banzai:  It has a flux capacitor.  If you, like most of my generation, have seen Back to the Future half a dozen times or more, you know exactly what I’m referring to.  In fact, Back to the Future seemed to have borrowed several of its most iconic designs and story elements from Buckaroo Banzai, which preceded Back to the Future by a year.  I kept hitting the pause button on Banzai, pointing to the screen and saying, “That’s another thing from Back to the Future!”

Buckaroo Banzai begins with the hero (immediately after performing surgery, naturally) rushing to a test track where he hops into a jet car that has been tricked out with all sorts of gadgetry and flashing lights as part of a scientific experiment.  What first caused my jaw to drop is that the crucial circuit is a three-pronged triangular device called the “oscillation overthruster.”  Not only do the “flux capacitor” from Back to the Future and the “oscillation overthruster” from Banzai look nearly identical, they even sit in exactly the same position: right behind the driver’s shoulder.


Banzai’s scientific super car, when it reaches sufficient speed, travels through another dimension, and then reappears again.  Time travel in a Delorian, dimensional travel in a jet car, both using a certain speed as the catalyst for the “jump.”

And there is the fact that Christopher Lloyd, who plays “Doc” Emmet Brown in Back to the Future, played one of the main aliens in Buckaroo Banzai (a character named John Bigbooté, whose name was gleefully mispronounced as Bigbooty by Lithgow throughout.)

Clearly, all of these parallels were no mere coincidence, and they were too blatant to be cinematic creative theft.

I discovered that several of the key production and design people worked on both movies and that, in fact, Back to the Future had other, less obvious references to Banzai:

  • The 88 MPH threshold used in Back to the Future is a call back to the number 88 used throughout Buckaroo Banzai, which itself was a play on the visual likeness of “88” and Buckaroo Banzai’s initials “BB.”


  • When, in Back to the Future’s 1950s story line, Doc Brown first hears Marty McFly’s story of time travel, he calls him “futureboy.” This was apparently inspired by the way Lithgow’s villainous alien Lord Whorfin derisively called a human “monkeyboy.”
  • Doc Brown’s silver jacket was intentionally similar to the silver jackets worn by the Black Lectroids of the Nova Police who policed the Red Lectroids that had been imprisoned in the 8th dimension. (I know.  We are talking about Buckaroo Banzai, after all.)

It’s fascinating to me that Back to the Future, one of the most iconic movies of the 1980s, one that was hugely successful and with a near-perfect construction of time travel plot, nostalgia, and youthful idealism owes so much of its success to a zany, cranky, hodge-podge of a movie like Buckaroo Banzai.  Clearly, the filmmakers loved it, even if the audiences of the time (myself included) didn’t know what to make of it.

Try it sometime: A nerdy retro double-feature, Back to the Future and The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension, back-to-back.



The Wandering Company is a group of friends who come together to enjoy books, current events, movies, board games, dinners, and the mysterious meanings of our lives.  We met a few years ago in the course of exploring the tales of JRR Tolkien.  Reading is a solitary activity, but when you read a book you spend time with the people in the books, with the authors of those books, with the fans of those books.  The whole world opens before us with the solitary act of reading a book.  Wielding this kind of magic, we have created the Tolkien Reading Circle as a community of wanderers in Middle-earth and the world beyond.