On Were-worms

Were-worm

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:

Arda Map 3 (Tolkien)

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.

Erebor Map (Worm)

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.

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11 thoughts on “On Were-worms

  1. I was trying to compare these “Were-Worms” with the “Great Worms” (in the map) and “Serpents of the North” (mention in ‘Desolation of Smaug’ by Thranduil).

  2. Ok, I had written a long comment about the sources in The History of the Hobbit (p. 9 and 40). In it the early writings on the Hobbit Tolkien wrote about “the wild wire worms of the chinease” living in the east, Great Desert of Gobi. Later changed to the Last Desert.

    I also wrote about how the early stages of the stories related more to our world, therefore the mention of Chinese and actual places. Like in The Book of Lost Tales where we learn that Tol Eressea is England.

    If nothing else, these early writings can tell give some indication on how far east they live. I’m sure I’ve read something more on wereworms somewhere… but I couldn’t find it.

  3. Love this post and the speculations and findings that occur! In fact, I discovered your blog the other day and have grown to love it more and more. Thank you for your posts!! They’re fantastic!

    Here’s my two-pence worth (and sorry for, potentially, coming over as ‘devil’s advocate’ or what have you): my main thought is that J.R.R Tolkien grew to dislike The Hobbit in his later days as it didn’t fit into his great work ‘The Silmarillion’ as well as his other narratives did. He re-edited The Hobbit a couple of times but not to an extent he was particularly happy with.

    (On a side note: He disliked Narnia partly because of the mismatch of fantastical, mythological and folk-tale figures…I wonder whether he grew to dislike ‘The Hobbit’ because of the patchwork of adventures the dwarves went on didn’t have the same level of world-building as ‘The Lord of the Rings’. Anyway, I waffle…)

    So, maybe the were-worms were just something he added in without much thought to Middle-Earth: bearing in mind he didn’t think The Hobbit ‘worked’ to the same extent The Lord of the Rings, The Children of Hurin, Unfinished Tales and so forth did in his greater plans. (After all, he wrote The Hobbit because he wanted to explore fairy-tales and he held the belief that it was far better to write a fairy-tale than to write an essay on one. Funnily enough, after ‘The Hobbit’ but before ‘The Lord of the Rings’ he wrote his essay ‘On Fairy-Stories’ that helped establish his ideas regarding fairy-tales even more.)

    If we reach the conclusion that, despite still being a good work, ‘The Hobbit’ just doesn’t particularly fit ‘in the wider scheme of things’, the were-worms become the play things of our own imaginations. Whatever speculation, hypothesis, decision we come to is correct as Tolkien didn’t write down the precise details regarding these fascinating creatures. After all, the were-worms were just a throw away comment…potentially… If this is the case, I’m very much in favor of them being shape-shifting creatures. I love that as there’s a lot to play with such an idea.

    Just a couple of thoughts.

    Looking forward to reading more posts and, once again, thank you for writing such a wonderful blog! It’s fantastic!

    • Hey Green Waffle! Thanks so much for your comments 🙂

      I do agree with you that Tolkien found it hard to integrate his original Hobbit with his later works.

      I believe Tom Shippey was quoted as saying that Tolkien tried to re-write The Hobbit to be as close to The Lord of the Rings as possible, but some things were too tangled in the plot to remove, without altering the entire story. And, as you say, the were-worms may well have been a later addition. Still, I think The Hobbit fits very well within the Middle-earth tales, considering how it came about 🙂

      • Hey James, Thank you for your response 🙂

        Yes, I think The Hobbit fits as well as Tolkien could make it fit. Which, sadly, isn’t as snug as he Lord of the Rings or other works. Still, there are links with the wider world of Middle-Earth and he established a strong link with his introduction to The Fellowship of the Rings where he re-introduces Hobbits to old and new readers.

        During research into The Hobbit I loved how The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings formed. (This is a kind of relates to your above post but, yeah, I guess I’m just starting to geek-out slightly and ‘ramble on’. Feel free to ignore 🙂 )

        The Hobbit was a tale that came from a single line written on a script he was marking. To think that a solitary line gave birth to Middle Earth is, I find, a fun thought. When he was writing The Hobbit, Tolkien wrote in a voice that ‘talked down’ to his readers (as he put in one of his letters; a device he later came to dislike.) Maybe the ‘were-worms’ were simply part of this narrative approach: bringing in hyperbolic creatures akin to the mythical sea creatures that once lurked just off world’s edge. The narrator introducing fantastical, mythological creatures that were part of the mythology of Middle Earth and nothing more.

        With regards to this voice, this heavily altered when Tolkien wrote the sequel to The Hobbit (at a request from his publishers). During the early stages of the sequel, Tolkien introduced the ring-wraiths. As soon as he had done so, he realised the tale he was telling was no-longer going to be a children’s story. Middle-Earth was now a myth and fairy-tale for the older readers (which ties in with the alteration of his narrative voice and his established position that fairy-tales were for adults not children – a stance put forth in ‘On Fairy-Stories’ and further developed within his letters).

        To try and tie that last paragraph back to the discussion: Tolkien’s approach to the narrator’s voice altered and, potentially, removed any room for hyperbolic creatures such as were-worms. (Just a hypothesis: it’s give me some thoughts with regards to my writing…A mythology within a mythology…A fantastical, medievalesque inception, so to speak)

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