Hunting the elusive creature
You pick up a copy of The Hobbit and start reading the first chapter.
Halfway through you encounter the following statement made by Bilbo Baggins:
“Tell me what you want done, and I will try it, if I have to walk from here to the East of East and fight the wild Were-worms in the Last Desert.”
Lowering the book, you do a quick mental search for “Were-worms” and the results turn up empty. Intrigued, you put the book aside and pick-up J. E. A. Tyler’s The Complete Tolkien Companion. Under ‘W’ you look for the keyword without success.
Undaunted, you next grab a copy of Robert Foster’s The Complete Guide to Middle-Earth and attempt to seek out information on the elusive “Were-worm” creature. Sifting through the pages, you come across the word only to find the following text:
“Probably mythical monsters of the Far East of Middle-Earth.”
Okay, so we have found a tiny fragment of information which we could have come to by reasoning out the original passage.
Still, that is not the end of our quest. Bilbo mentions the Last Desert as the location for these creatures. So let’s head back to the library and pick out any reference books that might help us. Tyler’s Companion yields no results. Perhaps Foster’s Guide might illuminate us a bit. Under the “L” category we find what we seek:
“A probably imaginary place mentioned by Bilbo. According to him, it was very far in the east and contained wild Were-worms.”
What can we find in the far east of Tolkien’s fantasy world? The maps at our disposal do not stretch so far.
Beyond the presumably vast sand dune plains of Rhûn, lies an unknown land that can only be gleaned from a single map drawn by the author. We need to reference the fourth volume in The History of Middle-Earth series, The Shaping of Middle-earth, to look at something like this:
Yet, this is merely a representation of Arda before and during the First age, with the inland sea of Helcar in the middle.
In order for Rhûn to be a good contender for the “Last Desert”, and having exhausted all possible references from The Lord of the Rings, we need to look at what The Silmarillion has to offer us in terms of a tangible geographical description:
And on a time it chanced that Oromë rode eastward in his hunting, and he turned north by the shores of Helcar and passed under the shadows of the Orocarni, the Mountains of the East. – Chapter 3, Of the Coming of the Elves and the Captivity of Melkor
So it would seem that the Orocarni range forms a natural boundary to the East of Middle-earth. The land in between seems to comprise entirely of Rhûn, with the remnants of the sea of Helcar most likely being the seas of Rhûn and Nurnen. The concept of a last desert far to the east seems almost certainly tied with Rhûn, the Sindarin word for east.
Let’s look back now at the structure of the term “were-worm” and analyse the two words separately.
Were is the Old English variant of man, whilst the Anglo-Saxon form of worm is wyrm, which could also refer to a serpent. Anyone with a knowledge of Tolkien’s legendarium will realise that both “worm” and “serpent” have been used interchangeably to refer to dragons: both winged and flightless.
The inclusion of the term were would suggest a shape-shifting creature from man to dragon. Shape-shifters are not uncommon in Middle-earth: Beorn and Draugluin, the first of the werewolves, are clear examples.
The main question remains as to whether Bilbo’s reference was one based on evidence of their true existence or a mythical creature invented by the Hobbits as part of their folktale tradition. The lack of evidence would seem to point to the latter, but one must not forget Gandalf’s remark in The Fellowship of the Ring that:
“There are older and fouler things than orcs in the deep places of the world.”
What creatures fled to the east following the tumultuous events at the end of the First Age is not certain, but the possibility that among them were the elusive were-worms is plausible.
Alternatively, you can always watch Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, and marvel at the way in which the director has used Tolkien’s simple sentence and interpreted it into something that might not be so far from the truth.