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When the Hobbits are take by the Barrow-wights, they are all held in a barrow and are unconscious for a time and both they and the Ring are at the mercy of the Barrow-wights. This event is clearly considered a very dangerous event by Gandalf, as in Rivendell he says to Frodo (In the chapter "Many Meetings"):

But you have some strength in you my dear hobbit! As you showed in the Barrow. That was touch and go: perhaps the most dangerous moment of all. I wish you could have held out at Weathertop

I find this confusing - surely if the Barrow-wights had claimed the Ring it could not have been worse than the Nazgûl claiming it and returning it to Sauron? Furthermore, if the Barrow-wights are as powerful as Gandalf implies, why could they not sense the presence of the Ring and why did they not claim it for themselves?

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  • 15
    "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 be gold here let them lie till the Dark Lord lifts his hand over dead sea and withered land." - Just had to put that in coz it's so awesome.
    – WOPR
    Commented Feb 23, 2013 at 23:31
  • 3
    Weren't the Wights creations of the Witch-King and thus liable to return the Ring to him? Commented Feb 23, 2013 at 23:53

9 Answers 9

30

I think this is just a misunderstanding. Gandalf wasn't saying the Barrow-wights were worse than the Nazgûl, he was saying Frodo's situation was worse. On Weathertop, Frodo had Strider, Merry, Pippin and Sam with him, they were all awake and on their feet fighting; in the barrow, he was completely on his own - his friends had already been bespelled and the wights were just about to kill them all. He only had a few moments to clear his head and try to remember the only thing he had - Bombadil's song, which he'd only heard that day and which he had no idea would even do anything.

13

I think you have this backwards. The question is not if the wights had claimed the ring, but what if the ring had claimed the wights?

Every bit of the story seems to indicate the one ring had an ability to influence the free will of others. Only in a desperate moment of passion did Gollum manage to reclaim it from Frodo, and thereby accidentally lead to its destruction. Presumably the ring itself is sentient.

If the ring had claimed the wights, it would have sat there for a good long time, just as it had with Gollum, waiting for the next host to move along where it wanted to go.

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    I see your point, but if that is the case, why would Gandalf deem it more dangerous for the ring to have lain there hidden in the Barrow more dangerous than the encounter on Weathertop with the Witch King himself?
    – bazz
    Commented Feb 24, 2013 at 14:15
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    As readers, we may surmise the ring itself is sentient. As a potentially corruptible character, who, while wise is clearly not omniscient, Gandalf may not know or believe this. As such his views on the relative dangers of the barrow-wights in the barrows as opposed to the Nazgul far from Mordor may weigh into this statement.
    – Lighthart
    Commented Feb 24, 2013 at 18:01
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    "...because the ring of power has a will on its own...[snip]...and what it wants is to reunite with its master...". Having a will "on its own" does it make it sentient? We should not forget that Sauron put a great deal of himself in that ring. I would not call it "Sentient" but more like "programmed"...
    – ThunderGr
    Commented Feb 15, 2014 at 11:27
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    I think it's an open question as to whether barrow-wights had any will of their own.
    – chepner
    Commented Apr 24, 2022 at 15:45
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My interpretation is that the Barrow-wights, while not necessarily aligned with Sauron, are dangerous spirits from the First Age. They are wicked enough to resist a restful death and powerful enough to be successful at it. If the reference that they are evil spirits sent by the Witch-king to inhabit the bones of fallen Dúnedain or Edain is accurate, then they could still be brought into service of the Nazgûl and by proxy Sauron, but that begs the question of why didn't Sauron make use of them in the making of his new army.

I prefer to think that they are unaligned spirits that have broken from Sauron's service and are motivated by a traditional undead hatred of all things living. By this measure I would interpret Gandalf's fear of one of the Barrow-wights seizing the ring to be a similar terror that Galadriel had of her taking the Ring for herself and becoming a version of the Dark Lord with her own power corrupted to darkness but unbowed to Sauron. This same event taking place in the hands of a Wight would be orders of magnitude worse; First Age power amplified by the Ring and motivated by a spirit that not only wishes to dominate the free folk but destroy them completely. Enslaving the world is still less horrifying than consuming it completely.

Even if a Ring-wielding Wight was not the match of a Ring-less Sauron, the devastation that it would be able to bring about would very rapidly draw Sauron's attention, and "whispers of the Ring" would rapidly turn to "Oh, its right there" and the tearing asunder of Minas Tirith would immediately move to #2 on Sauron's to-do list.

I think no matter what, Gandalf is right; that would have been a Very Bad Day(tm).

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  • Unfinished Tales and the appendices to LotR say that the barrow wights were put there by the Witch King of Angmar, presumably at Sauron's behest.
    – Wad Cheber
    Commented Jul 22, 2015 at 7:44
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It could be that the danger Gandalf was referring to was, if Frodo had put the ring on while at the mercy and captive of the Barrow-wights, the Witch-king of Angmar would be led right to him while he was a helpless captive and thereby returning it to Sauron. Luckily Tom Bombadil got involved and had taught them a rhyme to summon him if they should fall into danger again within his borders.

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  • Well, this bring up another what if question. What if the Witch King of Angmar (the head Nazgul) had wandered into Tom Bombidil's territory? Do you think Tom would be able to defeat him?
    – John S.
    Commented Dec 30, 2013 at 20:45
  • @JohnS. - no. See Fog on the Barrow-downs: "Tom is not master of Riders from the Black Land far beyond his country".
    – user8719
    Commented Jan 15, 2014 at 22:15
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I think you are looking beyond the simple concern of Gandalf for the lives of the Hobbits! The Barrow-wights are spirits from the First Age and transcend the events of Middle-earth. The ring means nothing to them because the intrigue of the rings is of a totally different era. Had they acquired the ring, it would not have affected them or influenced their secret combinations. In fact, if the ring were in the hands of the Barrow-wights the ring would become completely inoperative until it could find its way out of the situation.

The ring knew what a bad position it was in and had to give Frodo the strength to withstand the powers of the Barrow-wights long enough to allow him to find a way out of the Barrows, i.e. call upon Tom Bombadil. Had the ring not strengthened Frodo, there would have been no way for Frodo to withstand the power of the Barrow-wights by himself. So, strange as it may seem, the ring needed Frodo to get out of this situation as much as Frodo (and the Hobbits) needed the ring.

Gandalf's concern for Frodo was simply that the Barrow-wights are extremely dangerous and they could have/should have killed the Hobbits. But, to the surprise of Gandalf and to the confusion of the Barrow-wights, the Hobbits survived their confrontation with the Barrow-wights and they never fully understood the danger they were in.

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I believe Gandalf's words have another meaning. He didn't mean that losing the Ring to the Barrow-wights would have been worse than giving it away to the Nazgûl. The true danger Gandalf was speaking of, the one Frodo narrowly avoided at the Barrow but still fell victim to at Weathertop, was putting on the Ring.

First of all, it probably wouldn't have helped: instead of hiding Frodo, the Ring could reveal him to the Wights. But success would have been even worse: it would mean that Frodo knowingly abandoned his friends to save himself.

Then a wild thought of escape came to him. He wondered if he put on the Ring, whether the Barrow-wight would miss him, and he might find some way out. He thought of himself running free over the grass, grieving for Merry, and Sam, and Pippin, but free and alive himself. Gandalf would admit that there had been nothing else he could do.

This betrayal would have corrupted Frodo as a Ring-bearer and eventually ruined all chances of the Ring's destruction.

At Weathertop Frodo did succumb to temptation of hiding himself from the Nazgûl, but he didn't leave his friends helpless: they were awake and had Aragorn to protect them. Apparently, Frodo wasn't even thinking of hiding: it must have been the Ring urging him to put it on, but this time Frodo wouldn't need to abandon his friends so he didn't resist.

Frodo was hardly less terrified than his companions; he was quaking as if he was bitter cold, but his terror was swallowed up in a sudden temptation to put on the Ring. The desire to do this laid hold of him, and he could think of nothing else. He did not forget the Barrow, nor the message of Gandalf; but something seemed to be compelling him to disregard all warnings, and he longed to yield. Not with the hope of escape, or of doing anything, either good or bad: he simply felt that he must take the Ring and put it on his finger.

So, while Frodo did put on the Ring at Weathertop, his intentions weren't selfish, and though he did get stabbed, the damage was only to his body, not to his character.

0

Why didn't the Barrow-wights take the ring?

Unfortunately, we don't know. The Barrow-wights were infamous for carrying rattling gold-rings on their bony fingers so they might well have shown an interest in Frodo's ring, even if they did not know of its origins.

The Barrow-wights were in league with the Witch-king of Angmar and may have received direct instructions about the ring, or at least about Frodo. If so, then they would know that to take the ring from Frodo could be interpreted as an act of rebellion against Sauron - a dangerous act indeed.

What would happen if a Barrow-wight had taken the One Ring?

We can only conjecture. A Barrow-wight who took the ring would become the focus of Sauron's search and would quickly have to decide whether to return the ring or not. If not, then a contest would ensue, which takes us into the realms of the discussions here:

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I think if the Barrow-wights took the ring from Frodo the Witch-king of Angmar who made them would immediately contact Sauron. Sauron would then bend his forces towards the Barrow-downs and would have got the One Ring from Frodo and then night would descend on the Middle-earth. After that Sauron would include those wights in his army and would terrorise and enslave the world.

-4

Something tells me that Gandalf knew in his heart that Sauron-if not destroyed-would eventually lead his forces to victory, and that the only way to defeat Sauron was somehow connected to the ring. Gandalf may have then been glad that the barrow wights had not taken the ring because he doubted his ability to retrieve it from them, or maybe that it would have added too much time to his obtaining the ring.

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  • Welcome to the site. We really look for answers that are backed up with references to relevant material. As it stands, this one appears to be a subjective opinion. Can you provide specific material references that support your statements ?
    – Stan
    Commented Feb 15, 2014 at 3:09

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