In The Lord of the Rings, Appendix A (I, iii. "The North-kingdom, and the Dúnedain") Tolkien writes:
|"It was at this time [during the Great Plague that reached Gondor in 1636] 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."|
|LotR App. A|
The origin of the Barrow-wights can be studied from two perspectives. Firstly, we can consider Tolkien's own encounter with them and his continual development of them from the initial seed. Secondly, we must consider their origin from within the confines of Middle-earth and how they fit in this tale.
Tolkien maybe first made acquaintance with Barrows in his teens, when he read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a medieval english poem. This would certainly have aroused Tolkien's curiosity, and the Berkshire Downs with their Stone Age mounds (with the Nine Barrows Down) were not far from Tolkien's study in the 1930s. Tolkien again "flirted" with these strange mounds and their possible origin and purpose while developing Tom Bombadil as a character, prior to the publication of The Lord of the Rings. In 1934, "The Adventures of Tom Bombadil" were printed in The Oxford Magazine. He describes in this poem Tom, Goldberry, Old Man Willow and a Barrow-wight. Interestingly, this was published three years prior to the first chapter of The Fellowship of the Ring.
|Out fled Barrow-wight through the window leaping,|
through the yard, over wall like a shadow sweeping,
up hill wailing went back to leaning stone-rings,
back under lonely mound, rattling his bone-rings.
|The Adventures of Tom Bombadil|
Even as he developed the Barrow-wights in his early writings of The Fellowship of the Ring, they were more akin to 'horsed Nazgûl' than the final version we commonly accept.
What must be also considered, is, that a Wight is not a Tolkien creation as such; A Wight is a creature, or a shadowy figure in Middle English. The term itself has been probably derived from the Old English term Wiht, related to the the German Wicht(which in some forms still exists in the german language: e.g. Bösewicht, Wichtelmännchen). The common origin of these words is the Gothic vaíhts, meaning a ghost or a ghostly creature. Certainly not beyond the realm of a Philologist to adapt and elaborate upon the term!
Historically folklore has told tales of Barrow-wights in many forms, even locally to Tolkien himself in the Berkshire Downs, where the idea could easily have sprung. Although the term 'Wight' is described as a 'anarchic person' in The Oxford English Dictionary, it seems acceptable enough for our purposes to understand Tolkiens use of the term as a 'ghostlike' entity, based on less commonly used 'Middle English' meanings of the term. However, Tolkien himself had recorded his own explanation in notes designed for translators of 'The Lord of the Rings' into other languages:
|'Barrow-wights. Creatures dwelling in a 'barrow' (grave-mound); see Barrow under Place-names. It is an invented name: an equivalent should be invented. The Dutch translation has grafgeest 'grave-ghost'; the Swedish has Kummelgast 'gravemound-ghost'.'|
He did refer to Barrow-wights in another work, aside from The Fellowship of the Ring and "The Adventures of Tom Bombadil". In "The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth, Beorhthelm's Son" (Tolkien's epic 'sequel' to the Anglo-saxon poem "The Battle of Maldon"), which was possibly written around the early 1940's, but not published until 1953, we find:
And your eyes fancied barrow-wights and bogies.
It's a black darkness since the moon foundered; but mark my words: not far from here we'll find the master by all accounts.
Tídwald lets out a faint beam from a dark-lantern. An owl hoots. A dark shape flits through the beam of light. Torhthelm starts back and overturns the lantern, which Tída had set on the ground.
What ails you now?
|The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm's Son|
It is worth pointing out the resemblance of the line from this quote from the poem, to that of a line quoted from "The Adventures of Tom Bombadil'
|We don't let Forest-folk nor bogies from the Barrows...|
|The Adventures of Tom Bombadil|
Although both poems have no thematic link, the descriptions used help us to understand Tolkien's imagery of Barrow-wights as an unearthly, supernatural entity. This leads us then to look at their origins within Middle-earth.
There are a great many avenues open to exploration surrounding the Barrow-wights. Why they were sent? From where did they originate? What was their purpose? Who are they?
It is apparent from Appendix A: The Return of the King, that we can first understand the initial origin of the spirits that filled the Barrows,
|In the days of Argeleb II the plague came into Eriador from the South-east, 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.|
|LotR App. A|
In addition, we know also that these spirits had been sent from Angmar by the Witch-king himself;
|The Witch-king had now a clearer understanding of the matter. He had known something of the country long ago, in his wars with the Dúnedain, and especially of the Tyrn Gothad of Cardolan, now the Barrow-downs, whose evil wights had been sent there by himself.|
|Unfinished Tales; The Hunt for the Ring|
Further in the same passage, The Witch-king is said to visit the Barrow-downs while sending the other Nazgûl to search the Shire for the Ring. However, although it is clear that the spirits originate from Angmar, one aspect of their origin seems puzzling!
Merry states during his revival outside the Barrow, following the intervention of Tom Bombadil;
|'The Men of Carn Dûm came on us at night, and we were worsted. Ah! the spear in my heart!' He clutched at his breast. No! No! he said, opening his eyes. What am I saying, I have been dreaming.|
|LotR; Fog on the Barrow-Downs|
This adds a new dimention to the discussion of the spirits actual origin, though my own theory is mere speculation. I believe this quote in itself signifies the origin of these spirits as Men, captured, tortured and corrupted by Melkor / Sauron who died in captivity, became spirits subject to Sauron (master of phantoms) and ironically were sent to inhabit the barrows of their own kind. A mockery in itself that they re-animated the bones of the Kings of old, haunting the places that were esteemed by the Númenoreans, whom the Witch-king was charged with destroying.
Yet, consideration must be given to the fact that The Men of CarnDûm were already in the service of Sauron the Sorceror prior to their demise. We know this at least from the words of Tom Bombadil when he gave them swords from the Barrows.
|Then he told them that these blades were forged many long years ago by Men of Westernesse: they were foes of the Dark Lord, but they were overcome by the evil king of Carn Dûm in the Land of Angmar.|
|LotR; Fog on the Barrow-Downs|
CarnDûm was the chief fortress of Angmar, meaning the King would refer to the Witch-king of Angmar. However, it is not so clear who these Men were originally. Most likely it would seem they were BlackNúmenóreans, loyal to Sauron but had departed from Númenór prior to its dowfall and destruction. This then would contend with my own theory were it true, for this would make these spirits willing subjects and not captured, tortured souls!