No other event or character is noticeably absent from The Fellowship of the Ring film than the Barrow Wight and Old Man Willow, with the obvious exception of Tom Bombadil. Why were they left out? Or, more importantly, why are they in Middle Earth to begin with?
To start, why were they dropped? Recall, Tom Bombadil, Old Man Willow and the wight are all transplanted into Middle Earth from a poem Tolkein wrote years before LotR. In many ways this insertion is glaringly evident. The entire scenario slows down the plot. It’s absurd and out of place. So why did Tolkien include it?
The inclusion of these scenes demonstrates Tolkien’s genius. Yes, they are odd. Yes, they don’t quite fit. But I believe they are intentionally so. Their seeming awkwardness makes them stand out. It gets the reader’s attention; makes him or her want to puzzle out their existence.
So, what is their reason for being?
It’s quite simple if we return to Tolkien’s arguments about Tom Bombadil:
“‘The power of the Ring over all concerned, even the Wizards or Emissaries, is not delusion-but it is not the whole picture, even of the then state and content of the Universe.’” (Tolkien, Letter 153, p 192)
It is with Tom, Old Man Willow and the Barrow Wight that Tolkien attempts to show us the whole picture. All evil is not invested in the Ring. It is not even beholden to Sauron. Evil exists. Certainly Sauron is the greatest evil of the time, but he is not the only evil. Just because he is the “supreme” evil of the time does not infer that all evil is connected back to him.
There is more to the picture.
Recall Tolkien’s attempts to write the sequel “The New Shadow.” Here we see again the whole picture. The destruction of the Ring may destroy Sauron, may kill a branch of evil, but not the tree. The tree, to use Tolkien’s metaphor, never dies.
The Old Forest, and the Barrow Downs require the reader to really explore the nature of evil and goodness. It is not cut and dry. It has no easy answer. And so, “‘Not even at the Feast of Felling should the axe be hung up on the wall!’” (Peoples of Middle Earth, Tolkien 411)