I’ve wanted to post some thoughts on Khamûl for some time now. I think I’ve got a few original ideas on this obscure character, one of the Nine Nazgûl, and the only one with an actual name. And after assembling them recently, it turns out that this post will form yet another another coda to the wraith / writhen discussion – read parts 1, 2, 3.
First, to refresh our memories, what do we know about him? Not a lot, actually. He only emerges as a distinct character from some of Tolkien’s background writing for The Lord of the Rings, in a collection of narratives labeled “The Hunt for the Ring.” Christopher Tolkien published the bulk of this writing in Unfinished Tales, but several additional passages, including some that relate to Khamûl, have been published more recently in Hammond and Scull’s The Lord of the Rings: A Reader’s Companion. Khamûl has also been called the Shadow of the East and the Black Easterling. The Easterlings, of course, are those hostile Men, the Variags of Khand or a related people, who allied themselves with Sauron.
What else can we say about him? Very little. His name, movements, and individual character traits are only discussed in that one piece of writing. And nowhere, to my knowledge (and that of others I’ve consulted, such as Carl Hostetter), does Tolkien discuss any possible etymology of his name. He seems to be a case of spontaneous invention on Tolkien’s part. That being said, we do know that Khamûl was second only to the Witch-king of Angmar in the pecking order of the Ringwraiths. He dwelt for a while at Dol Guldur as Sauron’s lieutenant after he, Sauron, had returned to Mordor. It was also Khamûl who spoke so menacingly to the Gaffer on the night the Hobbits finally left Hobbiton. And perhaps most interesting: “Of Khamûl it is said [...] that he was the most ready of all the Nazgûl after the Black Captain himself, to perceive the presence of the Ring, but also the one whose power was most confused and diminished by daylight.” Interesting stuff, but small beer on which to base any theories.
But nevertheless, I’ve been making an effort to assemble some cogent thoughts and theories on the etymology of the name, because — well, I can’t just let such things lie. :) So, read along if the subject interests you and feel free to let me know what you think. I’ve broken my thoughts down into three areas: philological, historical, and geographical — with a final appendix in which I suggest a few “wilder” ideas. And nearly everything here favors “eastward explanations”, as Khamûl was, after all, the Shadow of the East. Also, because of the length of the post, I’ve omitted sources and citations; if you’re interested, just ask. I may try to formalize this into a conference paper. Would anyone be interested? :)
1) Philological Evidence
Here’s where I bring things back to wraith / writhen. There may be a defensible etymology for Khamûl as “the bent, crooked one”, richly echoing the etymology of wraith (as elaborated in the previous posts). It turns out there’s another Indo-European root of interest; two roots, actually: kemb–, kamp– “to bend”. These have made their way even into Modern English, e.g., akimbo. The root is attested in Latin camur, cămŭrus “crooked, crumpled”, from a past participial form of Greek κάμπτω “I bend”. Looking over Latin’s shoulder, there’s an even earlier Sansrkit cognate: kubja “crooked”, which has left its mark among the other Indo-Aryan languages, e.g., Panjabi kham “crooked”.
But even more than these, the root has left a considerable number of Goidelic cognates. These include such “bent and crooked” words as: Welsh cam “crooked, wrong, injury”; camu “to bend”; Scottish Gaelic cam “crooked”, also cam-bheul “wry mouth” (which sounds very close to Khamûl); Manx cam “bent, deformed, deceitful, crooked”; Old Irish camm “crooked”; Cornish cam “crooked”; and from the coast of Brittany, we have Breton kam “crooked” and Armoric kamm “crooked”.
I mention these in spite of Tolkien’s professed dislikes — “I have no liking at all for Gaelic from Old Irish downwards, as a language, but it is of course of great historical and philological interest, and I have at various times studied it.” It is perhaps very telling that the example he was discussing was nazg, with its Gaelic meaning of “ring”, cognate to his own Black Speech of Mordor. Furthermore, Tolkien proved himself well aware of the Celtic cam under his entry for cammede in his 1922 Middle English Vocabulary.
At points of “Goidelic contact”, obviously primarily in the west, the word also made its way into English dialectal usage, as in Lowland Scotch camsteerie “crooked, confused, unmanageable”. And in Lancashire, we have cam as a noun, “contradiction, crooked argument”; as an adverb, “awry”; and as a verb, “to cross or contradict; to oppose vexatiously; to quarrel” – all from the Welsh camu. We also get Southern Lancashire cammed and Northern and Eastern Lancashire caimt “crooked, bad-tempered, ill-natured” from the same source. I especially like this find, despite Tolkien’s normal preferences for the West Midland dialects, because it resonates with the fact that Tolkien served in the Lancashire Fusiliers during World War I, and was stationed in Yorkshire after his return from France. Which provides a nice segue to the historical discussion.
2) Historical Evidence
First, I have to say that there’s probably nothing to this, but I couldn’t help myself. Could Khamûl be an echo of Kamel, as in Mustafa Kamel Atatürk*, the famous Ottoman general who fought in World War I? Tolkien, of course, fought in the northwest of the European theatre and not in Anatolia, but the rumor of Kemal could hardly have gone unnoticed. Later, Kemal would found the nation of Turkey and become its first president. He was also a noted language reformer, responsible for — among other things — moving Turkish from the Arabic to the Latin alphabet. This had a very beneficial effect on literacy, but Tolkien might have sighed over the loss of linguistic heritage in the name of “progress”.
This is naturally only the most distant possibility, of course, but it’s a tempting idea. Could the name of a larger-than-life war general from the east have stuck in Tolkien’s mind for all those years, then popped out unexpectedly and without explanation? On the other hand, is the stigma of being labeled “the inspiration for Khamûl” really something I can pin on Kamel? Probably not! ;)
3) Geographical Evidence
Could Khamûl refer to a place somewhere in the east? There is a well known candidate in the Chinese city of Kumul (also recorded as Camul as far back as 1615). This is an ancient city in the midst of the larger expanse of the Gobi desert, part of an oasis — the “fertile and agreeable province of Khamil” that Marco Polo visited on his journeys to the vast eastern lands of the Mongols in the 13th century. On that eastern expedition he met the Khans (and here, we find a tantalizing echo of Khand — see below for more on that). The city has also be spelled Khamul, among other variants. Again, it’s tempting.
And now, to Khand, Khamûl’s apparent homeland. Tolkien called “Khand”, like mûmak, an example “[o]f the speech of Men of the East and allies of Sauron.” Such words and names were seldom explained by Tolkien. But considering its geographical location in Middle-earth, it is probably more than mere coincidence that in a number of southwestern Asian languages the word khand, or a form similar to it, refers to a country, a region of the world, etc. Here are a few examples: Panjabi khand “side, quarter, region, one of the nine sections of the world (as reckoned by the Hindus)”; Hindustani khand “region, part (of the world), partition, division (of a country)”; Tamil kantam “piece, part, fragment, portion”. There is also the similar word with Persian, Turkic, and other western Asian cognates, as exemplified by Hindustani khan “lord, prince, ruler, etc.”, which developed metonymically from the meaning “a division of a house, etc.” These words all derive from Sanskrit khanda “to break (as into parts)”, as in breaking up the world into regions or a house into rooms. This original sense of “broken” nicely resonates, once again, with the related “bend, bent” connotation of wraith.
But is there any evidence Tolkien knew more than a tithe about the Indo-Aryan languages? Not much, and certainly less than his awareness of the Celtic cam, though he does mention Sanskrit once or twice. A Sanskrit word such as khanda, however, with its metaphorical, almost mythopoeic, suggestiveness, might have caught his eye. Ditto for the Indo-European roots kemb–, kamp–. There is always a danger in speculating on what Tolkien did or did not know, but where it comes to languages and Indo-European roots, I am certainly inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt.
4) A few additional philological “temptations”
Now for a few wilder — and possibly more “fun” — ideas! Hey, as long as I’m going out on a limb about which words or languages Tolkien might have drawn on subconsciously, why not? :)
Something that caught my eye and might reinforce the Mustafa Kamel theory is Turkish kem “evil” + kemal “perfection” = “perfection of evil”! And since we’re talking about Kamel, how about camel? These animals are from the East, aren’t they? Perhaps Khamûl originally came riding west on a sun-dappled dromedary. Spelled chamayle by Chaucer, the word comes to us from Old French chamel, camel - Latin camelus - Greek κάμηλος - Hebrew גמל [gamal] - Arabic جَمَل [jamal]. Just in case you wanted to know!
Here’s another fun one from Hindustani (that is, Hindi / Urdu): kāmnī “fairy” — probably pure coincidence, but it’s certainly tempting to imagine that the fear of the Black Easterling entered the collective mythology of the East in such a way. :)
* Atatürk, of course, means “Father of the Turks” — but I keep thinking it’s got to be the Turkish translation of the English interjection, “Attaboy!” No disrespect intended, hahae. And just because I can’t keep myself from it, I’ll point out that the Turkish ata “father, old man” is mighty close to Tolkien’s Adûnaic attû, attô “father”, from Quenya atar.
Well, I’ve really said a mouthful! This might be my longest post yet. Any thoughts?