The first time I came across the word wraith was when I was reading Tim Bowler’s first but powerful novel Midget. Old Joseph, Midget’s mentor, uses the word figuratively and so does his psychiatrist. When Midget asks the latter what a wraith is, he answers that he only knows that it is “some sort of ghost” and that he has to look the word up. Eventually he produces the following definition: “Wraith: a ghost or apparition, in particular the apparition of a person living or thought to be alive, supposed to appear around the time of his death.”
As I will explain in this article, understanding what a wraith is, is key to understanding the novel. It is typical of a beginning author to want to be fully understood, so to be very explicit. It was thanks to this authorial eagerness that I got familiar with the concept of the wraith and that I was able to recognize it in Bowler’s later work.
When I happened to meet Anthony Horowitz two weeks later, I mentioned the word to him and he was astonished that I had never heard of the phenomenon and that it was not part of Flemish folklore, when it was part of so many West European cultures.
So when I went looking for some background information about wraiths I did not anticipate any problems.
The Wikipedia spends about 30 lines on the description of the wraith. Apparently it is a kind of ghost that you would not want to be haunted by: “The wraith is a being of power, controlled by a greater spirit to do the creature’s will. These creatures are shadows, floating amongst our realm with no purpose but that of their masters. They feed on humans, their emotions and their own strength, without these they would cease to exist.”1 ‘The free encyclopedia’ also mentions that, “The classic depiction of a wraith is identical to the image of a tall, humanoid figure shrouded in a black cloak, under which no face can be seen, though a hand protrudes.”
It was immediately clear that this image was decisively influenced by J.R.R. Tolkien’s Ringwraiths.
Following a few links mentioned in Wikipedia I even found out where Tolkien got his ideas about his most frightening creation. In her review of Professor Shippey’s study J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century, Liz Milner writes: “The Ringwraiths sprang out of a disagreement Tolkien had with his employers at the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). OED claimed that the origins of the rare Scottish word "wraith" were undiscoverable. Tolkien held that "wraith" was derived from an Old English word meaning "to writhe," which is closely associated with wreath (in the sense of something twisted), and wroth (angry). It also connotes something like mist or smoke that is caught in a state between the material and the immaterial world. There is a further connection with the Old English word for "ride." Thus, the very word "wraith" conjures up a tangled web of associations, most of them unpleasant and all of them defining the characteristics Tolkien gave to his Black Riders.”2
At the end of the 30-line survey of the possible kinds of wraiths in the Wikipedia, we finally found the sentence that we were looking for: “A wraith is also described as an image seen just before one dies, like a premonition.” This was the kind of undramatic, folkloristic wraith that we were interested in. But when we studied the definition more attentively, we soon found its flaws: who is supposed to see the wraith? What is ‘an image’ exactly? Strictly speaking the definition suggests that a wraith is a mental image one gets before one dies.
Because this still clashed with the definition in Tim Bowler’s work, we were compelled to look further. The Wiktionary – related to the Wikipedia – provided us with a much better definition: “A ghost or specter, especially seen just after a person's death.” Here it is obvious that it is not the dying person himself who sees a wraith, and that the ‘image’ is in fact a ghost or specter. But the sting is in the tail: according to this definition, a wraith appears after a person’s death.
The other most common definition on the Internet is taken from The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language3 and runs as follows: “an apparition of a living person that appears as a portent just before that person's death” (my italics). Apparently the ghost or specter is a copy of the person who is to die (or has died, according to the first dictionary definition), that appears just before (or after) this person’s death.
In fact both definitions are probably based on the 1913 version of Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary, which has now become public domain, so that its definitions can be used without infringing on any copyright. The Webster definition goes as follows: “an apparition of a person in his exact likeness, seen before death, or a little after” (my italics).
In the contemporary Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary the “little after” was dropped too: “the exact likeness of a living person seen usu. just before death as an apparition”.
Finally we had arrived at the definition we were looking for. It confirmed the definition given by the psychiatrist in Midget, although our quest had also made clear that the concept of a wraith was less common than Anthony Horowitz had led us to believe and that we would have to delve into books about folklore to find more background information.
The phenomenon of the wraith is certainly not restricted to England. The Encyclopedia Britannica describes the figure of the Doppelgänger in German folklore. The text makes clear that this is more or less the German equivalent of the English wraith: “(German: “double goer”), in German folklore, a wraith or apparition of a living person, as distinguished from a ghost. The concept of the existence of a spirit double, an exact but usually invisible replica of every man, bird, or beast, is an ancient and widespread belief. To meet one's double is a sign that one's death is imminent.” (my italics)
In his excellent A Book of Folk-Lore, also published in 1913 and freely available on the Net4, Sabine Baring-Gould devotes his seventh chapter to Fetches. “Throughout the Aryan stock we find a belief in fetches, wraiths, or doubles, i.e. of man being attended by his duplicate, often considered as a guardian spirit; in a good many places we find also a belief in an evil-minded, mischievous genius as well. These are none other than a survival of old conceptions relative to the reflection and the shadow.”
Let me quote two interesting stories from this chapter. The Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould (1834-1924), who collected a wealth of folksongs and folklore from South West England, quotes an unspecified Mrs Crowe, who in turn quotes a Mr Macnish: “Mr H. was one day walking along the street, apparently in good health, when he saw, or supposed he saw, his acquaintance, Mr C., walking before him. He called to him aloud, but he did not seem to hear him, and continued walking on. Mr H. then quickened his pace for the purpose of overtaking him, but the other increased his also, as if to keep ahead of his pursuer, and proceeded at such a rate that Mr H. found it impossible to make up to him. This continued for some time, till, on Mr C. reaching a gate, he opened it and passed in, slamming it violently in Mr H.'s face. Confounded at such treatment from a friend, the latter instantly opened the gate and looked down the long lane into which it led, where, to his astonishment, no one was to be seen. Determined to unravel the mystery, he then went to Mr C.'s house, and his surprise was great to hear that he was confined to his bed, and had been so for several days. A week or two afterwards these gentlemen met at the house of a mutual friend, when Mr H. related the circumstances, jocularly telling Mr C. that, as he had seen his wraith, he of course could not live long. The person addressed laughed heartily, as did the rest of the party; but in a few days Mr C. was attacked with putrid sore throat, and died; and within a short period of his death, Mr H. was also in his grave.”
English folkore suggests that seeing someone’s wraith prefigures his early death. Seeing one’s own wraith is not much different, as the following story illustrates.
If you are interested in which of your fellow-parishioners will die within the year you should check the entrance to your parish church from 11 pm till 1 am. for three years on St Mark’s Eve. The third year you will be able to see the wraiths of those who are to die enter the church. “At Monkokehampton, in North Devon, when a stalwart young carpenter resolved on keeping watch, he saw two pass him, and then his own wraith, that looked hard at him. He fled and took to his bed. The rector visited him and did all in his power to convince the man that he had been victim to hallucination or a dream. The doctor visited him and could find nothing really the matter with him. Nevertheless he died within a fortnight.”
The Merriam-Webster definition of motif – to be found in their Collegiate Dictionary as well as in their Encyclopedia of Literature – is: “a usually recurring salient thematic element, especially a dominant idea or central theme.”
The following definition from the Columbia Encyclopedia5 makes clear that the term refers in the first place to recurring elements in folklore and literature; “motif, in literature, term that denotes the recurrent presence of certain character types, objects, settings, or situations in diverse genres and periods of folklore and literature. Examples of motifs include swords, money, food, jewels, forests, oceans, castles, dungeons, tests of skill or wisdom, journeys, separations and reunions, chaos brought to order. (my italics)
We are looking for a narrower definition, that restricts the recurrence to a limited number of stories. This time the Wikipedia does provide us with the fitting definition. “In a narrative, such as a novel or a film, a motif is a recurring element that has symbolic significance in the story. Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes. The motif can be an idea, an object, a place, or a statement. The flute in Arthur Miller’s The Death Of A Salesman is a recurrent motif that conveys rural and idyllic notions. The green light in The Great Gatsby and the repeated statement, "My father said that the reason for living is getting ready to stay dead," in William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying are examples of motifs. A motif can be anything that recurs to develop the theme in a novel. (my correction in italics)
As has been mentioned, Tim Bowler introduces the wraith in Midget, his piercing first novel for teenagers, published in 1994.
Now you also know that the word is first used casually by two people in the story, more or less as a synonym for ghost. Old Joseph, the Midget’s mentor, uses it when he talks about making ideas become reality. When you concentrate well enough, you can also make something bad happen, he tells Midget, but in that case “Evil comes with it.” “An’ evil comes before death. Like a wraith.” (my italics).
When the psychiatrist who is examining Midget uses the word, however, the latter wants to know what a wraith really is: “You should be full of optimism at the progress you’re making, instead of sitting there all slumped up, looking like some kind of wraith.”
That is when the psychiatrist decides to look the word up and comes up with the definition we discussed earlier. Subsequently he apologizes to Midget for having used the word. “It was unquestionably the wrong word to use to describe the way you looked,” but it is clear that this is a deliberate prefiguration of the ending of the novel.
The definition makes Midget realize that the fact that he keeps seeing a copy of his brother Seb is the sign of Seb’s imminent death. It actually tells him that he is going to kill his brother.
When Seb tries to kill his brother, the image in Midget’s mind becomes even stronger. “Seb would soon be dead.” “The picture was the most powerful he had ever known.”
Still Midget manages to prevent himself from killing his brother, in the only possible way. “Then he realized the figure had changed. It was no longer Seb’s face that he saw. It was his own.”
In River Boy, Bowler’s third novel for teenagers (1997), Jess is a 15-year-old swimming enthusiast, “…she was always swimming. She needed to swim.“ Jess’s grandfather is ill but he insists that they go on holiday with him to the place of his boyhood days.
There they rent a cottage on the banks of a river. When she swim in it and walks along it to its source, Jess feels that someone is near, watching her. “Then she saw him. Standing at the top of the fall, framed against the sky, was the figure of a boy.”
It takes some time before she can speak to this River Boy, who apparently is an excellent swimmer. “He seemed at one with the water, a creature spawned by the river itself.”
In the meantime Jess’ grandfather’s health is getting worse. It is clear that he is dying. He is desperately trying to finish a painting, the only one he has ever given a name, River Boy. When Jess and her parents look at it they see a river scene, so they cannot understand why granddad has given it that name. It takes an old friend of grandpa’s to show that there is another way of looking at it: from a different angle the painting is a self-portrait.
Now Jess understands its name, River Boy. And the attentive reader should realize that the other River Boy – the boy in the river – is the wraith of Jess’s dying grandfather who had been in love with the river when he was young.
Also in his fifth novel, Storm Catchers, published in 2001, Tim Bowler makes use of the motif of the wraith. When Ella is snatched away from her home, it becomes clear that her younger brother, Sam, may play a decisive role in finding her. Sam is a strange boy who has an imaginary friend. Sometimes he secretly leaves the house to go and play with her. Together they try to ‘catch the storm’ on the coastal path close to the cliff edge.
Gradually Fin, the elder brother, is able to understand what is happening: his father had made one of his shop assistants, Lindy Prescott, pregnant. The child was a girl, the age of his daughter Ella. He had met her on the coastal path when she was about three, but – when he had reached out to touch her – he had scared her and in this way caused her to fall off the cliff.
Sam’s imaginary friend is an image of this little girl, Imogen Prescott. Apparently she wants to kill her half brother by tempting him to jump up in the storm, and off the cliff. In this way she wants to take revenge for her death and for the fact that her father had deserted her and her mother.
The girl is only visible to Sam. In a sense she is Imogen’s wraith, appearing more than ten years after her death. But at the same time she is part of Sam. “She only screamed again deep within him, a scream of a kind he had never heard before and never wanted to hear again. It was as though he were screaming himself, and suddenly he was screaming with her as though her voice were his voice. Then he saw her, just a few feet from him.” (my italics)
The wraith is still there, but it has become much more subtle and complex than when it originally appeared in Bowler’s work.
There are also wraith-like figures in Tim Bowler’s later work. In Apocalypse (2004) the inhabitants of an island
appear to be the wraiths of people who had lived there four hundred years before.
Also the mysterious boy in Frozen Fire (2006) can be construed – at least partly – as a wraith. The fact that he has much in common with the protagonist’s missing brother Josh is obvious. The similarity in appearance between the boys is striking, which explains why ‘the (spectral) boy’ is accused of Josh’s crimes. When Josh says his last goodbye to his sister, he says he is sorry. Then he commits suicide. Remarkably, before ‘the boy’ decides to disappear from the public eye he tells Dusty, the protagonist, that he “must find another way to put things right.” (my italics). Could ‘the boy’ be Josh’s wraith who has come back after his death to try and “put things right?"
Tim Bowler – who had discovered the concept of the wraith in English folklore – used it as an interesting motif in his first work of teenage fiction. At that moment – as a beginning writer – he had deemed it necessary to explain clearly what a wraith was, even if that involved formulating a dictionary definition.
In his later work the wraith came back regularly, thus constituting a real motif, but Bowler turned it into a personal tool. He made the concept more subtle and used it more subtly to add mystery and magic to his work. In that sense the wraith explains part of Tim Bowler’s appeal, his huge success with young readers… and more than a few older ones.
lecturer in English literature
1 Evidently also J.K. Rowling’s dementors were inspired by this image.
3 The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition copyright ©2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Updated in 2003. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.