Also, I mention this because this little article is about definitions, and more importantly about taste and opinions, so take it as that, nothing more, nothing less.
Undead in Middle-Earth is the topic of today, Sunday, the day of Solen, a holy day for Christianity, and what better topic than it's complete opposite: The undead - dun-dun-duuuuun! In many games and fantasy worlds the undead can be fought with more or less Christian paraphernilia, such as holy water, crosses, priests and garlic (well).
Copyright can be found if you click the image.
The enemy is often a vampire, the most sentient undead (in some fantasy worlds, the vampire is barely undead) as well as often times the most powerful individual in the story. They have been given more varying properties over the years than even zombies, and that is saying a lot since zombies are like the undead equivalent of Smiths of England, Svenssons of Sweden or Khans of Pakistan or Singhs of India
... or Changs of China.
Without staring us blind on the ever-boring zombie theme that has been rampant these latest 10 or 20 years, I would like to give my view on the three basic types of undead and why they actually often are segregated from each other in a book, assuming that the story had somewhat of a restrained style of writing. I will also try to argue why undead in Middle-Earth is something that should rightly be treated with delicate hands. Why, I hear you ask over the series of tubes... I will try to answer that, but first, we need to define the three types:
1) Walking dead: Moving fleshy dead beasts. These may be constructed by several different parts - Warhammer has a lot of these disgusting ideas - or may very well be a single zombie. Your typical animated, undead monster from modern games such as the Abomination from Warcraft III or any other high fantasy schlok-game such as that. Smelly, disgusting.
2) Skeletons: Boiled clean bone-constructs and "natural" skeletons.
3) Spirits of the dead. I think we can crowbar vampires in here, they typically are not mindless beasts. Whilst ghost may appear mindless in many RPG:s, books and stories, they are generally, culturally accepted as being "spirits". Wraiths of Lord of the Rings are the prime example here.
In Middle-Earth, all the famous undead are, as we say in scientific circuits, number 3 undead, AKA Spirits, and I have yet to read something from Tolkien about walking skeletons or undead constructs. I am sure there are mentions of such things, just like werewolves, ogres and fastitocalons are, but that is just about it when it comes to these two, most disgusting parts of the undead-world we have built up in the Western world* and which was a tradition Tolkien undoubtedly was a part of, or rather partially created!
I think it is in part because Tolkien had style that he steered away from such things (just go with it, there are actually thousands of other reasons, but just go with it). There just is something tasteless with most of these undead ideas, walking, rotting corpses, skeletons and other decaying monsters. Spirits on the other hand might seem more grown up, less silly, not only because they are purer in the most basic sense, but also because they can often be reasoned with or their terrorizing skills are beyond shock and gory violence. Spirits can be perceived as more "noble" than twenty zombies tearing humans apart for our "enjoyment". How well would Twilight work if the protagonists weren't sexy children (mentally) of type 3 undead, and instead were a type 1 undead, a suffering, middle-aged man, slowly rotting away.
All these moving corpses, disrespectful treatment of the dead and all that other degenerate stuff was not something Tolkien ever bothered to delve into, just as he kept the descriptions of the orcish filth, most of their language (and very likely unmannered behaviour in many aspects) mostly out of the books because it was not needed. It was already set that the orcs were bad, not necessarily evil, and we need not have to endure such filth - the books was ultimately not about the orcs but about something wholly different. Just as I do not have to explain further on the properties of the Swedish equivalent of "chavs", the word is there to generally encompass all sorts of nasty behaviour.
Where does this come into play on a blog of War of the Ring then? I have big plans for my Angmar army. I need to be wary of how I implement these fallen, ghouls, plague carts and perhaps a future undead construct. I build a story around the M.E.R.P. character Celgor Darkhand which was an emissary of Sauron, and extrapolate on his mission and agenda, and try to make it believable that he is spreading plague and raising dead. But! I will try to avoid mixing in spirits in this kökkenmödding - and what for? In the Angmar army list there are Ghostly Legions, Spectres and werewolves - it is already a mess, what can be disturbed? Well, the list is fine in itself actually, the creatures are all based on canon, but the problems arrive when a person such as myself starts to add other types of undead. It just becomes generic, boring and foul mainstream undead.
The charm (see picture above for a living embodiment of the word "charm") with Tolkien's world is that it shows a remarkable restraint in such a rich world! To dishonour that legacy with mixing orcs, goblins, wargs, zombies, ghosts and spectres is not something I would like to do. We end up with a generic high-fantasy boy world if we do - the whole shabang goes vulgar.
The current Angmar list of War of the Ring is the closest we come to an undead list - and I am aware that there are/were a unit type in the Hobbit: SBG called undead, but we shall leave that for now - and it is natural to expand on that list if you want to have very "evocative" models in your WotR-army, for example a Warcraft III-abomination.
I would however just want to end with this warning: If doing so, try to at least remove the living models out of it - goblins may be ugly, but fighting alongside dead humans may probably not be their thing. What I am getting at: If you really, really must mix a number 3 undead themed army with number 1 or 2, at least avoid the living. I can imagine a living, sentient creatue being able to work alongside weird, spooky wraiths that hiss orders every now and then. I can also imagine an orc being able to at least endure sharing a fort with a necromancer's shambling corpses, but enduring both of these for most of his career? No, keep within the theme, and separate undead and living. And even better, try not to do what I do and mix the rotting, smelling undead with the cleaner wraiths and spirits!
That was all I had to say on the matter. Happy Sol-dag.
*) Japan, for example, has a very different set of undead, often mixed in with their verson of demons.
**) Whatever encompasses the word "spirit" really means, as it is the ephitomy of our human fantasy and has been for thousands of years: It is such a well-known word or term, that most of the nine billion people on Earth know about but nearly no one have proven to me they are nothing but a walking piece of flesh.