“A vampire shape with pinions vast
screeching leaped from the ground, and passed,
its dark blood dripping on the trees”
— The Lay of Leithian
As has been said before, and as I said in a recent Tweetstorm for which I got all the internet fury, the literary vampire is something that is continually open to reinterpretation, but at certain point there’s a line at which, perhaps, we are no longer talking about a vampire but something else.
As a path to waxing philosophical about the undead, let’s approach the seldom-studied vampires of J.R.R. Tolkien.
If, like me, you enjoyed The Hobbit book and the Lord of the Rings films and the Shadow of Mordor game but tend to steer clear of the in-the-weeds writings that really flesh out the world of Middle Earth, it’s easy to miss Tolkien’s nod to the bloodsuckers of the night. But they do get a name-check.
More than that, the Big Bad of all Darkness takes after them, in name at least.
I’ll try to summarize —
The first and only time most readers will notice the V-word is in The Hobbit, during the Battle of Five Armies, when the narrator observes:
“Soon actual darkness was coming into a stormy sky; while still the great bats swirled about the heads and ears of elves and men, or fastened vampire-like on the stricken.”
Tolkien here refers to bats that fight on the side of the goblins and orcs, nothing more. But anachronism is not Tolkien’s jam — what I mean is, Tolkien could surely have observed how a palantir functions like a radio (or, FaceTime for the modern update). But he doesn’t do that because no one in Middle Earth knows what a radio is, or FaceTime for that matter (how refreshingly pleasant!). So we are left to conclude that the narrator of The Hobbit is aware of what vampires are and what they do.
We can’t look at this passage and conclude that vampires exist in Middle Earth. But we can conclude that the CONCEPT of vampires does exist.
We good so far?
Tolkien’s poem “The Lay of Leithian” gives us another taste.
“But what is this that crawls beside,
slinking as if ‘twould neath thee hide?
Though winged creatures to and fro
unnumbered pass here, all I know.
I know not this. Stay, vampire, stay!
I like not thy kin nor thee.
Come, say what sneaking errand thee doth bring,
thou winged vermin, to the king!”
Oh yeah, did I mention the werewolves?
Because that’s who is speaking here: a werewolf named Carcharoth (I’m using the term werewolf as Tolkien does: a fearsome and intelligent wolf, not that of a shape shifter who goes from man to wolf)
Reading the text from Leithian, it sounds like Carcharoth the Canine isn’t comparing someone to a vampire, but saying that there is an actual vampire in the room. So here we have an eyewitness account of vampires in Middle Earth.
So now we can say that vampires inhabit the same world as orcs, elves, dwarves, and dragons. But we don’t yet know much about them. Do they like mirrors? How do they feel about garlic? Tuxedoes: yea or nay?
In the Silmarillion, we find a slightly more descriptive account:
“She was the messenger of Sauron, and was wont to fly in vampire’s form to Angband; and her great fingered wings were barbed at each joint’s end with an iron claw.”
Taking these passages together, a picture starts to emerge of Tolkien’s version of a vampire. It’s not a regal nobleman dressed in finery who seduces his prey, and it’s not a shambling corpse fresh out of the ground searching for blood. For Tolkien, the vampire seems to be a giant, intelligent bat, capable of reason and capable of being a messenger for the likes of Sauron and Sauron’s schoolgirl crush, Morgoth.
But what about Sauron? I promised Sauron.
The vampire seems to be one of several forms Sauron is willing and able to take when it suits him. Mostly it suits him when he’s getting his ass kicked.
Because in a boss fight referred to in the Silmarillion, Sauron takes on Luthian and Huan:
“[Sauron] took it upon himself the form of a werewolf, and made himself mightiest that had yet walked the world; and he came forth to win the passage of the bridge.”
There’s those damn Tolkien werewolves again. Sauron is terrifying to behold in this form, but Huan gets in a good suckerpunch and pins wolf-Sauron by the throat. Sauron shape shifts over and over like Beast Boy putting on a one-man circus, but can’t get free. After agreeing to Huan’s terms:
“… immediately he took the form of a vampire, great as a dark cloud across the moon, and fled dripping blood from his throat upon the trees, and came to Taur-nu-Fuin, and dwelt there, filling it with horror.”
So at least in Tolkien’s world, enter the fight a werewolf, flee it a vampire.
I wonder if there’s an Underworld connection here?
Can we just pause and reflect on how much bloodshed could have been saved and how much less Elijah Wood we’d have to see if Huan had just finished the job instead of releasing Sauron? C’mon, man!
The irony of the Tolkien vampire, to me, is this: Middle Earth is full of revenants — that is, creatures that died and came back to life. You can hardly throw a rock in Moria without hitting a wight or a wraith or an Army of the Dead. But vampires? Not revenants. Not undead.
Bite on that.
To return where we started this — it’s said repeatedly in varying ways by People Who Post Stuff Online that the vampire is fully pliable and each author is free to add their own whatever to it and form a new canon. But I ask them and I ask you — at what point do we draw a line in the native soil and say “that’s no vampire!” At what point has creative license given way to abuse of language?
Does anyone have the nerve to flat-out tell Tolkien that he got it wrong? (Besides Michael Moorcock, I mean?) Or, does anyone have the nerve to do so without dancing around a chatroom with talk of “well you see he assigned a different definition in his world for the word ‘vampire’ than we do, so…”?
What if it wasn’t Tolkien? What if Bill O’Reilly’s next novel, “Killing Vlad”, stated that vampires were frogs without fangs that could only be killed by silver stakes? Is that a version of vampires we have to respect?
All this points to an issue that has haunted me for a while, and that’s coming up with a definition of “vampire” that is remotely useful. Because while it’s not hard to identify a vampire in the same way we can identify an elf, coming up with a common denominator that applies to ALL vampires is as tricky as finding family tree between Legolas, Santa’s Helpers, and the Keebler Elves.
I mean what do they have in common besides that incredible sex appeal?
And that, in fantasy terms, is my own dilemma with vampires. More on that in a later blog, including the best answer I’ve gotten so far to the question “what is a vampire?”
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