Monday, October 15, 2012


Wights is an old English word (not Old English, or Anglo-Saxon--although it is descended from an Old English word, wiht) for a being.  It is a cognate with other Germanic words, such as Dutch wicht, German Wicht, Old Norse vættir, Swedish vätte, and Danish vætte.  Today, the word is a bit confused, depending on which language you want to look at.  In Low German, it reportedly means "girl" (not being a speaker of Low German myself, I can't attest to the accuracy of that report.)  In many of the other languages, it refers to various spirits, often mischievous or unfriendly--occasionally translated into English as imp, but bearing most resemblance to various little fairyfolk of English folklore; the elves of the shoemaker's fame being among the most famous (and pleasant.)  The Old Norse word, vættr, in fact seems to refer to any humanoid spirit, and is an inclusive word that has under it's big tent not only the elves and dwarves, but the jotunns or giants, and the two families of gods, the Vanir and the Æsir.  So to the vikings, not only would little nature spirits and dwarves be wights, but so would Odin and Thor.

Of course, in modern times, this usage has fallen out of favor and is only remembered by either historical or comparative linguists, for the most part.  Rather, the word has taken on a new lease on life in the works of fantasy fiction, thanks to John Ronald Reuel himself, who of course, brought the word back into usage when he described the Barrow-wights—some kind of animated corpse.  Curiously, Tolkien did not call them Barrow-draugs or Barrow-dréags (ideally, I would translate the Old English word from standard Old English to the Mercian dialect, which didn't really use the [éa] diphthong much--but I'm not linguist enough to know how to do that properly.  Tolkien himself did for most of the Old English words he used.) I suppose it was because he was borrowing the usage of earlier proto-fantasty author William Morris who, although not responsible for bringing the word barrow-wight into the popular conscious, actually seems to have coined the term as a translation for draugr in the Grettis Saga, which he translated into English along with Eirikr Magnusson.) The concept behind the Barrow-wights clearly seems to be the Old English word dréag, better known to us through its Old Norse cognate draugr, or land-draugr, and the traits and abilities that the Barrow-wights display seem to follow the Norse concept of the land-draugr almost to the letter.  (There were also sea-draugr, but other than their manner of death and place of burial, they seem to have been viewed as very similar.)

To be perfectly honest, I doubt many of my readers really care overly much about the linguistics involved.  Why did Tolkien call his draugr Barrow-wights, thus ensuring that wights in games like D&D and Warhammer are forever considered undead creatures?  And why did Tolkien also so casually give us the word dwimmerlaik (based on a Middle English attested word, dweomerlak) which has had no traction, even though it also means something animated by necromancy or magic?  Well, who cares?  The concepts are more important than the names, aren't they?

Probably so.

So, in that spirit, what do I want to talk about in relationship to the DARK•HERITAGE setting today?  While I've often interpreted the setting as quite supernatural poor in relationship to much of fantasy, it's rather that the supernatural is more discrete and stealthy.  Rather than there being extremely rare supernatural, a la Dracula, think of much more careful supernatural, a la The Dresden Files.  There's not just one or two vampires, but you may be certainly forgiven for not really believing in literal vampires anyway in DARK•HERITAGE.  Many people don't, Tarush Noptii notwithstanding.  Dresden's stories are chock full of the supernatural, and yet they take place in the real world, where belief in the supernatural consists of dubious ghost and angel stories, and of course, religion and the occasional disputed Bigfoot sighting.  There's precious little in the way of direct evidence of the supernatural, and even those who believe in it are more often than not sceptical about any specific claims of having witnessed it.  In that sense, there are a great many wights, as defined by the Old Norse and Old English forms of the word, see above, that one may come across in DARK•HERITAGE.  Many of them will not be native to the world, coming from one of the various places described in the cosmology, but many of them are simply discrete nature spirits, or Chthonic beings who dwell just out of sight.  You may not see or hear of them much, but some of the old stories and ghost tales are quite true.

And I like incorporating some elements of classic mythology and folklore to the setting.  It's always been one of the great attractions of fantasy, and I love the notion of the "dark fairytale" lurking just behind the Disneyfication.  This doesn't represent a change in direction to the tone of DARK•HERITAGE at all, but I do want to spend some time going over what kinds of "wights" one could expect to possibly come across  in the setting.  I've created a new heading, and in honor of my linguistic nerdery, I've given it the tag of wights--but this isn't Warhammer wights, or D&D wights, or barrow-haunting wights--this is an exploration of some of the non-human, supernatural creatures that hide in the quiet or dark places of the world.  Although to be fair... some of them could be draugr-like creatures as well, in which case, yeah, they would be wights after all.

Heh.  Linguistics.  Anyway, here's a picture of a Barrow-wight molesting a hobbit.  Just because after all that, you deserve it.

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