Is Tolkien terror even a thing? After all, it is well known that JRR Tolkienis the top fantasy author of all time. Some don’t like this ‘fantasy’ classification because it seems too weak to describe the prose, tone, or content of Tolkien’s adult stories, especially those sagas connected with The Silmarillion. Some prefer to label Tolkien’s works as ‘high fantacy’ or outright mythology. Others, who think that’s an overstatement, prefer chivalric romances.
But I often wonder if what Tolkien wrote was a form of horror fiction that we simply don’t have a name for yet. That’s why I’ve called it ‘Tolkien terror’. The sheer frequency, variety, and centrality of horror elements to Tolkien’s stories is undeniable. Without them, there would be no stories at all. But is this Tolkien terror such that the very nature of what he wrote could be classified as horror stories? You decide.
Dacula isn’t the only vampire. Many fans of Tolkien’s films don’t know that his books contain vampires. We don’t know how far they conform to the traditional vampiric model. We do know that they were supernatural bat-like creatures that dripped with blood. Sauron had a female vampire messenger called Thuringwethil, while he shape-shifted into vampire form at least once. Bats are portrayed as evil in Middle-earth and took the side of orcs in the Battle of the Five Armies.
Tolkien’s wolves are always allies of evil, used as attack creatures or sometimes as steeds for orcs and evil men, known then as wolf-riders. A particularly evil race of wolves were wargs or wild wolves. These may have been evil spirits in wolf form, since they can speak. Werewolves are described as wolves possessed by evil spirits, possibly imprisoned in these bodies. Since Sauron could take the shape of a huge wolf, maybe werewolves were skin changers that he corrupted. Sauron’s fortress of Tol-in-Gaurhoth means ‘Isle of Werewolves’.
Morgoth isn’t just a devil; he’s the Devil in Tolkien’s tales. Just as Lucifer was the greatest angel before he fell and became Satan, so Melkor was the greatest of the Ainur before he fell and became Morgoth. And just as Satan will be released from prison before the final battle of Armageddon (Revelation 20), so Morgoth will return in wrath for the last battle, the Dagor Dagorath. Mogoth’s Balrogs are explicitly described as demons of fire and shadow. Their name means ‘demon of might’.
It always interested me that the Lord of the Nazgûl is known as the Witch-king of Angmar even though he’s male. There is another less-known character in Tolkien who seems more obviously witch-like, in the manner of the Witch of Endor. Her name is Berúthiel, a queen of Gondor, although she was a Black Númenórean (as were three of the Ringwraiths and the Mouth of Sauron). She enslaved cats and trained them to spy on or terrify her enemies. And she used magic to communicate with them and read their minds to find out every dark secret in Gondor, before her exile.
Okay, so technically a gargoyle is a waterspout. A carved gothic figure is more accurately called a grotesque. Maybe they’re just sinister statues. Whatever their proper name, Tolkien has at least two types of them. There are the Two Watchers that guarded the gate to the Tower of Cirith Ungol in Mordor. Each had three joined bodies, and three heads facing outward, and inward, and across the gateway. They had vulture-faces, and claw-like hands. There were Silent Watchers that acted as sentinels of Minas Morgul.
Mummies, vampires, and zombies are all examples of the undead – beings that are dead but have a prolonged existence as ‘living ghosts‘. The Lord of the Rings is full of them. The Barrow-wights, the Oathbreakers, and the Ringwraiths are all undead men. Many experienced Tolkien terror for the first time when they saw the Nazgûl on the big screen disguised as Black Riders! The Dead Faces – called by Gollum the Candles of Corpses – were spectral appearances of men, elves and orc warriors captured forever in the Dead Marches.
There’s a little bit of H P Lovecraft in Tolkien if you know where to look. Most obvious is the many-tentacled Watcher in the Water attacked the Fellowship just as they opened the Doors of Durin to enter Moria. When describing his fight with the Balrog, Gandalf claimed there were Nameless Things there under the earth that gnawed at the world and were older that Sauron.
Scary trees and plantlife aren’t only featured in Day of the Triffids, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and The Happening. In the Old Forest, Old Man Willow casts a sleeping spell on Merry and Pippin, before trapping them and trying to crush them to death. Only the intervention of Tom Bombadil saved them. Fangorn Forest had the Huorns – wild, dangerous Ent-like creatures who can wrap themselves in shadow and move with great speed. But when directed by Ents, they are useful for massacring orcs.
Jekyll and Hyde
There are many ways to interpret Gollum. He’s like Cain who killed his companion and was cursed to roam the earth, friendless and marked. He’s like an addict whose cravings destroys him, even though the source of his dependence is most precious to him. But he’s also a sort of split personality. He’s both Sméagol and Gollum, or as Sam calls them, Slinker and Stinker. One is his natural, hobbit-like persona. The other is his dark side that takes over. This inner conflict explains the arguments Gollum had with himself.
Frankenstein was the archetypal mad scientist who took bits and pieces from different bodies and joined them together, making a monster in the process. At least Frankenstein did it accidently. Morgoth made orcs by torturing and corrupting elves, or by breeding different races together. Saruman did the same to create his fighting Uruk-hai – larger orcs who would withstand sunlight. Tolkien also talks of hybrid creatures – half-orcs and goblin-men – made by the interbreeding of both races.
The Evil Eye
The evil eye is an ancient concept that exists in many places all over the world. It refers to a belief in some sort of supernatural curse caused by a malevolent gaze. The phrase is even mentioned in the Bible at least twice (Matthew 20:15; Mark 7:22). In Tolkien, the Eye of Sauron is a symbol of his dark power and malicious glare. It is also called the Eye of Barad-dûr, the Eye of Mordor, the Great Eye, the Lidless Eye, and the Red Eye. There was also an ill wind from Angband, bringing pestilence and sickness, called the Evil Breath.
It’s not always clear in Tolkien whether birds are good or evil. A thrush tells Bard the Bowman how to kill Smaug the dragon, and a raven named Roäc told Throin’s company that Smaug was dead. On the other side, Saruman used crows called the Crebain to spy on the Fellowship, which Éomer said were birds of ill omen abroad in the sky. However, the fell beats upon which the Nazgûl flew – also referred to as hell-hawks and Nazgûl-birds – were most certainly evil. And the winged dragons were made by Morgoth in mockery of the great Eagles.
Spiderman may be a movie hero, but Tolkien agrees more with films like Arachnophobia, Arachnid, Webs, Itsy Bitsy, and Eight Legged Freaks. All the spiders in Tolkien are villains. Ungoliant, called the Gloomweaver, was a primeval spirit in spider form who aided Morgoth in his attack on the Two Tree of Valinr, and who was almost strong enough to defeat Morgoth himself after he double-crossed her. Shelob was the last child of Ungoliant alive in the Third Age, where she lived in the pass of Cirith Ungol. Some of own offspring lived in Mirkwood, along with bats and orcs.
Orcs ate the meat of other sentient creatures. This included the flesh of Men. There are strong hints that it also included eating their own kind. In The Two Towers, Grishnákh, an Orc from Mordor, claims that the Isengard Orcs eat orc-flesh. When captured by orcs, one of them gives Peregrin Took stale bread and a “strip of raw dried flesh…the flesh of he dared not guess what creature”. In early draft of his works, Tolkien used the phrase ‘cannibal-ogres’ to talk about trolls. Remember that in The Hobbit, Gandalf had to save the company from being eaten by trolls.
Tolkien’s world doesn’t just house evil beings and races but evil places too. Mordor is the most obvious example of the blasted heath concept. Tolkien’s descriptions of it are possibly based on trenches of the Western Front in World War One, the industrialised Black Country of the English midlands, and the volcanic Mount Stromboli off the north coast of Sicily. Mordor is a dying landscape, where the climate is harsh, the air is mirky and full of fumes, and the vegetation is withered or twisted. The Dead Marches and the Withered Heath are other examples of dark environments in Tolkien.
If it’s the case that we can classify Tolkien as a writer of horror fiction, then we need a new name to describe this Tolkien terror. We may also have to rethink some of our basic instincts about horror. Is it possible to have horror stores in which real heroes prevail over real evil, even at great loss? And what are the criteria for what counts as a horror story anyway?
Maybe the only question that matter is this: When you read The Lord of the Rings or watched the movies, did you feel fear? Was the Tolkien terror a reality in your experience too?