What were the Silent Watchers?

The Silent Watchers

Spirits Only a Gamgee could Master

If you have seen the films, you probably didn’t notice them. But if you’ve read The Lord of the Rings, you most probably remember them clearly. You’ve asked questions, but never got to any revealing answers.

It is ironic how, with all the appendices, letters and thousands of pages on Middle-earth’s history and detail, there are so many mysteries left unraveled by Tolkien.

Case in point are the Silent Watchers guarding the entrance to the tower of Cirith Ungol.

What do we know about them?

Very little, as a matter of fact. Which is precisely the reason why they are so intriguing.

As Sam Gamgee makes his way towards Cirith Ungol on the borders of Mordor, in order to save Frodo, he sees two statue-like figures standing on opposite sides to the Tower’s entrance.

[w]ithin the shadow of the gate he saw the Two Watchers.
They were like great figures seated upon thrones. Each had three joined bodies, and three heads facing outwards, and inward, and across the gateway. The heads had vulture-faces, and on their great knees were laid clawlike hands.
– ‘The Tower of Cirith Ungol’, The Return of the King; Book VI, Chapter 1

What is most intriguing about these apparent statues is that they are not statues at all. They have the ability to block unwanted entry into the Tower, as Sam soon discovers when he is suddenly pushed back as if he had been hit by an invisible force.

Sam enters Cirith Ungol

They knew an enemy. Visible or invisible none could pass unheeded. They would forbid his entry, or his escape.
– ‘The Tower of Cirith Ungol’, The Return of the King; Book VI, Chapter 1

It is only the light emitted by the phial of Galadriel that these unseen forces are pushed back, allowing Sam to pass through unhindered. As he walks through, a Ringwraith-like cry rises up from the statues to signal a warning to the Orcs upstairs.

The Watchers offer more resistance when the two hobbits attempt to escape the Tower.

[…] they felt the malice of the Watchers beating on them, black silent shapes on either side of the gate […]
– ‘The Tower of Cirith Ungol’, The Return of the King; Book VI, Chapter 1

It is only the full power of Galadriel’s phial that finally breaks the spell and destroys the seated figures.

Their Origins

Tolkien provides us with some answers as to where and how the original “watchers” came to be.

In a heated argument overheard by Sam between Shagrat and Snaga, it is revealed that they were built by the Men of Gondor (referred to as a tarks by the Orcs). These statues were presumably built when Gondor constructed the Tower of Cirith Ungol and the other defences to keep watch over Mordor.

Solving the Mystery

The  first reference to the Watchers occurs in The Two Towers.

As the hobbits debate their best course of action into Mordor, Gollum proposes a secret way amid the mountains; his conversation then dwells on the ever-present threat of being seen:

‘Nothing moves on the road that they [Orcs] don’t know about. The things inside know: the Silent Watchers.’
– ‘The Black Gate is Closed’, The Two Towers; Book IV, Chapter 3

For the “things” to “know”, a living and conscious entity must have somehow inhabited the statues in order to be able to comprehend its own and others’ existence. A spirit of sorts, perhaps.

They seemed to be carved out of huge blocks of stone, immovable, and yet they were aware: some dreadful spirit of evil vigilance abode in them. They knew an enemy.
– ‘The Tower of Cirith Ungol’, The Return of the King; Book VI, Chapter 1

This idea of spirits is not as outlandish as it may sound. Ringwraiths robed in black hunt for the One Ring; Barrow-wights haunt the graves of old kings; and other spirit-like creatures populate Middle-earth.

Along similar lines to the Silent Watchers, we know that werewolves in Tolkien’s stories were said to be:

“[…] fell beasts inhabited by dreadful spirits that he [Sauron] had imprisoned in their bodies.”
– ‘Of Beren and Lúthien’, The Silmarillion; Chapter 19

The idea of the evil spirits and the black shapes, keeps referring back to the description of the Ringwraiths: the malice and fear they emit at a distance and the way they blend within the physical and perceivable shadows of the world.

Like the Nazgûl, the spirits within the statues of the Watchers could have been lost souls of corrupt Men that fell under the influence of Sauron, and were thus imprisoned to guard and watch in servitude to their dark lord.

Another Theory

The way Tolkien sometimes constructs sentences can either mean that something is not what as it appears to be or that it isCirith Ungol simply literal in meaning.

When Shagrat and Snaga are talking about the Watchers being built by the tarks, it seems to indicate the possibility that the Men of Gondor built the statues and embodied them with spirits.

Let’s look at the quote again:

There’s a great fighter about, one of those bloody-handed Elves, or one of the filthy tarks. He’s coming here, I tell you. You heard the bell. He’s got past the Watchers, and that’s tark‘s work.
– ‘The Tower of Cirith Ungol’, The Return of the King; Book VI, Chapter 1

There are two possible interpretations to Snaga’s final remark:

  1. Only Men of Gondor (tarks) were believed capable of passing through the Watchers
  2. The Watchers were the work of Gondor

As stated before, the statues – along with the Tower itself- was built by the Men of Gondor and it is therefore highly probably that Snaga was referring to the second possibility.

But does that mean the the spirits that dwelt within were also the work of the tarks?

Did the Men of Gondor have the ability and skill to conjure spiritual guardians, only for these same spirits to succumb to evil once Sauron had retaken Mordor? Or did the Gondorians simply build the statues and later on Sauron embodied them with spirits?

The Silent Watchers


The fact that these spirits have a physical “grasp” onto the physical world – being able to create this force field and prevent intruders from walking in – remains a riddling concept.

Unlike other spirits (be they wights, werewolves or ringwraiths) who use physical bodies to cloak themselves and interact with the physical qualities of the world,Ringwraiths in the mist the Watchers seem to be more than just a haunted set of statues.

They are capable of extending their will beyond their own self, thereby creating a tangible system of defence.

Is this invisible wall an actual physical existing barrier or is it more a psychological affliction laid upon the victim forbidding them from moving forward? In other words, was Sam physically hindered from entering the Tower, or was his mental ability to step in blocked by a possessing force that “controlled” his movement?

This is dwelling on the philosophical now, but may help assist in clarifying some evidence on the true nature of the Watchers.

To me, this is what sets these beings aside from others. They are very reminiscent of the Ringwraiths in their unique ability to deal terror and influence at a distance.

The Ringwraiths’ sheer malevolence spreads fear among individuals for miles around. The concept of the Black Breath – a malady that afflicts anyone in close contact with the Nazgûl – is strikingly similar to the Watchers’ “very malice of which made him [Sam] quail” (The Return of the King; Chapter 1).

Sam and Frodo found themselves in a serious predicament with their inability to escape from the Tower. “To move an inch further was a pain and weariness to will and limb” (The Return of the King; Chapter 1) seems akin to the effects of the Nazgûl’s Black Breath.

What can be suggested is that, like the Ringwraiths, the Watchers are unique entities in Middle-earth and are far more complex in nature than Tolkien appears to hint at.

14 thoughts on “What were the Silent Watchers?

  1. If it’s not evil to say this, I love the Watchers! They were one of my favorite parts in RotK. I’ve often wondered what they were, but never thought about it too much. They are often overlooked, I feel, because when I was watching the movie with my friends and the statues showed up, I exclaimed, “THE WATCHERS! YAY!” but neither of them knew what I meant. I was disappointed that Sam didn’t have to use the light to get past them, but at least they were there! I love the idea that they have a psychological effect on approachers. That is just about the coolest thing I’ve ever heard.

  2. I would suggest that their spirits abide in them in a way similar to how Sauron lives within the ring. They may also have learnt such craft from Sauron, back on Numenor… It seems like his kind of thing.
    I hadn’t realised they were made by the men of Gondor. It seems out of keeping with their usual style. They’re similar to the gargoyles on gothic Cathedrals (which, now I think about it, have a more typical Gondorian style on the inside).
    It’s interesting that it seems the orcs can get past somehow. Perhaps they were made just to keep the watchtower, regardless of who controlled it, and “knew an enemy” of the tower, rather than of Gondor…

  3. I’m still disappointed that they didn’t put the scene where Sam has to get past them in the extended edition. Because according to Peter Jackson, they actually did shoot that scene. But for whatever reason they decided not to include it in either version of the movie.

  4. That’s a really interesting line of thought about the Watchers and it being more of a psychological effect they cause, especially with the comparison to the Nazgûl and the Black Breath idea. In some respects it’s a shame that Tolkien left so many mysteries unsolved but equally it allows freedom of imagination when trying to solve them ourselves and makes for interesting debate. Also Ignatius’ comment “Perhaps they were made just to keep the watchtower, regardless of who controlled it, and “knew an enemy” of the tower, rather than of Gondor.” is a very thought provoking idea and seems to make a lot of sense when it comes to what or who the Watchers are guarding.

  5. Thought-provoking! I sincerely hope Tolkien has some explanation somewhere about the Watchers…

  6. Great question James. I think that the spirits may be a later addition – confining spirits to a statue seems something that the faithful Numenorians (Elendil’s line) and descendants might not do. In terms of what spirits they might be, and this is pure speculation, how about faded elves who have become dangerous spirits? It would be the ultimate testament to Sauron’s twisting control/domination that they have so lost contact with the elven westward calling from the Valar – the Watcher spirits are totally given over to the lies of the enemy and what they have lost that they hate those who walk in freedom. As I said, this is pure speculation and there are of course other possibilities.

    With reference to only a great fighter could get through by Snaga; could this refer to powerful men of Numenorian descent as it is linked also with bloody-handed elves? They would have to be spiritually/mindfully powerful to overcome the power of the Watchers.

  7. In the History of the Lord of the Rings, Volume 3, “The War of the Ring” there is this interesting passage from one of Tolkien’s drafts, which didn’t make it into the final version. In the draft, we see the conversation between Shagrat and Gorbag (Yagool in the draft), “‘I tell you, nearly two days ago the Night Watcher smelt something, but will you believe me it was nearly another day before they started to send a message to Lugburz.’ ‘How do they do that?’ said Shagrat. ‘I’ve often wondered.’ ‘I don’t know and I don’t want to…'”

    It’s possible (likely even, given the text above) that Tolkien himself never bothered to decide how they worked. He left it up to the reader’s imagination, which is probably why the passage is so fascinating to us.

  8. I feel like the statues that the Watchers would one day become were Gondorian built, but not the spirits. Sauron’s title of ‘Necromancer’ has intrigued me for a long time. It’s entirely possibly that the spirits were added later by him.

    I would not go so far as to say the Watchers (the spirits) were definitely not of Gondorian origin, but it just seems to make more sense that someone with a reputation as a necromancer would be more likely to place evil spirits in a pre-existing structure, than someone from a nation following the Valinorean faith (or whatever you may call it).

    1. Fascinating thoughts Joshua. It seems pretty plausible the statues were Gondorian origin. How Sauron came to embody them with spirits is yet another intriguing mystery …

  9. I think it is likely that the statues is not of gondorian origin. The basic buildings of Minad Morghult and Cirith Ungol yes. But a lot of statues and images (the Valar, eldarin heroes, numenorian kings) of a city built by the dunedain would propably be anathema to Sauron. One would expect him to yrar them down and replace them with ideologically correct sauronic, or melkorian images.

  10. “The heads had vulture-faces, and on their great knees were laid clawlike hands.” doesn’t sound much the work of Gondor. I believe them to be more a latter day addition of the forces of dark.

    I prefer the vision of the Dark Lord having them built, and then inhabiting them with dark spirits to watch over an important lone border crossing, along with Shelob.

    The Lords of Gondor building and inhabiting them with spirits to keep watch over the dark forces they imprisoned just doesn’t work, it’s not a Tolkien device.

    Great Blog James, just stumbled across it

    1. I doubt that three-bodied-anthropomorphs with vulture heads were the product of Gondor artisans. Their symbology references instead the power of humans, as I understand it.

      I’m wondering if this vulture sort of symbology is associated with the current embodiment of Sauron elsewhere in Tolkein’s work? My shallow readings of LotRs has Sauron associated instead with motifs/logos and brutalist architecture that rival even Harry Seidler’s proud contributions to the genre of spirit-crushing, authoritarian, totalitarian buildings.

      If animal-headed sculptures are not a known feature of Sauron post-TA 2000 then consider whether The Watchers might be ancient works by Sauron’s predecessor or by an earlier Sauron, works that were moved to Cirith Ungol after Sauron gained control of in TA 2000.

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