Thursday, May 26, 2011

The ends of worms — and their beginnings

I’m just wrapping up my most recent reading of The Lord of the Rings, and various new things have attracted my attention this time around. (The sign of a truly great book: that after perhaps thirty readings, I am still noticing new things, or noticing old things anew.) I wrote about one of these small observations recently, but here is another, and a somewhat more ambitious one.

First, a reminder of the opening to The Hobbit — “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.” Many of you can probably rattle this off from memory, as I can.

I have pointed out before — in a paper delivered at Mythcon a few years ago, and which has been accepted for publication (details to come later) — that “in the opening passage of The Hobbit, the narrator explicitly tells us that ‘the ends of worms’ are not to be found in Bilbo’s comfortable hobbit hole. But metaphorically, the end of a Worm is, in fact, in this particular hobbit hole, the end of the worm, Smaug.” Before you congratulate me on my cleverness, let me hasten to add that I am not the first person to observe this clever wordplay. My friend N.E. Brigand noted this independently, but Richard Matthews beat us both by thirty years! He wrote, “Tolkien tells us in the first paragraph that this is ‘not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms.’ If we pause to consider what he writes, we may conclude that the alpha and omega of Bag End is not limited in its significance to the fact that Bilbo will make an end of that ‘giant worm,’ the dragon” [1].

Returning to The Return of the King, something struck my eye this time — and once again, I may not be the first person to have said it, but I don’t recall having read this anywhere. Perhaps N.E. Brigand, or another friend, will remember if he has seen this before and let us know. It turns out that The Lord of the Rings, like The Hobbit, concludes with the end of another Worm, and on second glance, The Fellowship of the Ring, again like The Hobbit, begins with one, more or less. First, the end; then, I’ll go back to the beginning.

In “The Scouring of the Shire”, the final episode in the hobbits’ adventures unfolds with a confrontation between Frodo and Saruman. As we all know, Frodo prevails and dismisses Saruman. “Worm! Worm!” calls Saruman, and Gríma Wormtongue slinks out to follow his master, reluctantly. First, he was called Gríma — Old English for “mask, helmet”, and a foil for Éowyn’s alter ego, Dernhelm (which means “helm of secrecy”). Then Wormtongue, as his poisoned words undermined the health and authority of King Théoden. Fleeing Rohan after Gandalf sets Théoden’s mind free again, Gríma returns to his true master, Saruman, who insults him still further, shortening Wormtongue to Worm. Not that this is undeserved. [2]

But coming back to Bag End, Frodo offers Gríma the chance to leave Saruman (just as Gandalf did some weeks before, encountering the pair travelling away from Isengard). Long story short (or is it too late for that already? :), Saruman kicks Gríma in the face as he grovels, and Gríma evidently reaches his breaking point at last. Having finally taken enough abuse, “suddenly Wormtongue rose up, drawing a hidden knife, and then with a snarl like a dog he sprang on Saruman’s back, jerked his head back, cut his throat, and with a yell ran off down the lane. Before Frodo could recover or speak a word, three hobbit-bows twanged and Wormtongue fell dead.”

“And that’s the end of that,” Sam observes wryly. “A nasty end, and I wish I needn’t have seen it; but it’s a good riddance.” Notice that? The “nasty end” of Worm(tongue): “nasty”, “ends of worms” — these are the same words in the opening paragraph of The Hobbit. And as “a purely Bywater joke”, the New Row just below Bag End (replacing the old Bagshot Row, which Saruman ordered wantonly dug up) was called “Sharkey’s End”, in reference to the murder of Saruman. This is the second-to-last chapter in the novel, nearly the end of the book (excepting the appendices).

And now back to the beginning, to the second-from-first chapter in The Fellowship of the Ring. “The Shadow of the Past” is a largely expository and mood-setting chapter, in which Gandalf tells Frodo all about the Ring. Part of that story occurs involves Gollum (then still known as Sméagol), who had murdered his friend Déagol, stolen the Ring, then used the invisibility it conferred for finding out secrets, stealing anything he coveted, and killing small unwary creatures. His relatives shunned him, and his grandmother finally expelled him. On his own, he wandered and explored.

Then, notice the telling phrase in this passage (Gandalf speaking): “So he journeyed by night up into the highlands, and he found a little cave out of which the dark stream ran; and he wormed his way like a maggot into the heart of the hills, and vanished out of all knowledge. The Ring went into the shadows with him, and even the maker, when his power had begun to grow again, could learn nothing of it.”

Here at the beginning of The Lord of the Rings is another Worm, one whose name, Sméagol, is derived from the same root as that of the greater worm, Smaug (meaning “one who squeezes into a small hole”), and one who, again, will meet his own end toward the end of the War of the Ring. And another nasty end it is too — and occurring in a hole too, as he falls into the Crack of Doom! This same word, “nasty”, is (unsurprisingly) applied to Gollum on several occasions, the first a mere seven or eight paragraphs after he is likened to a worm.

Coincidence? It seems very unlikely to me. It could have been a fortunate accident of Tolkien’s unconscious, but I don’t think it’s coincidence, and it may have been deliberate. There are other uses of the worm metaphor in The Lord of the Rings that might be worth closer attention too. As I recall, Frodo, Sam, and Gollum are all compared to worms cowering in the mud when the Nazgûl fly over them on the approach to Mordor. Merry too is compared to “a worm in the mud”, crawling on the ground behind the Lord of the Nazgûl on the Pelennor Fields at Minas Tirith. But for now, I find it quite satisfying to see the “ends of worms” at the beginning and end of both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

[1] Mathews, Richard. Lightning from a Clear Sky: Tolkien, the Trilogy, and the Silmarillion. San Bernardino: Borgo Press, 1978, p. 8.

[2] It’s actually Gandalf who first calls Gríma a worm (at least, it’s the first time we hear it): “'The wise speak only of what they know, Gríma son of Gálmód. A witless worm have you become. Therefore be silent, and keep your forked tongue behind your teeth. I have not passed through fire and death to bandy crooked words with a serving-man till the lightning falls.” Later, Treebeard too calls Gríma “that worm-creature of [Saruman’s]”. By the way, recall how Gríma desires Éowyn as the reward for his treason? It would appear he inherited his unseemly lustful nature from his father, as Gálmód is Old English for “lustful-minded, licentious”.


  1. "'Coincidence' is the term we apply to a piece of design for which we have no use." My memory attributes this to Northrop Frye, but I can't find it anywhere, and my printed Fryes are many miles away, alas.

  2. As long as we're collecting worms from the beginnings and ends, don't forget the setting of the first set-piece scene of chapter 2. "There's only one Dragon in Bywater, and that's Green," says Ted Sandyman.

  3. A quick search finds no comment on the "wormed" from "A Shadow in the Past" in any of the five discussions of The Lord of the Rings at's Reading Room (not even in Curious's 28-installment survey of that chapter in 2002; though it looks as if Curious may have beat Tom Shippey to another point); nor in's "Annotated LotR" project; nor in the chapter discussions at The Hall of Fire; nor in threads at The Lord of the Rings Fanatics Plaza forums (which I have only briefly searched); nor, finally, in Rómenna's discussion of that chapter in 1984. I haven't checked any scholarly literature, but even so will risk saying: well noticed! But as John Cowan asks, what does it mean? I have seen numerous comparisons of Sméagol-Gollum to Smaug and to Gríma Wormtongue before (for example, Janet Croft notes the latter relationship in her article on Wormtongue in the J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia) -- do your observations on the ubiquity of "worm" words merely strengthen those connections? I have suggested previously (and before that with a different emphasis here) that Tolkien deliberately echoes the climactic events at Mount Doom with his description of Saruman and Wormtongue's last minutes at Bag End, though I missed the use of "nasty" that you mention. That word is most often used by Gollum (eight times) and Sam (ten times, six of them in reference to Gollum) -- including Sam threatening Gollum with "nasty cruel steel" on the slopes of Mount Doom. Gandalf also uses the word in reference to Gollum. (But it is additionally used by Frodo and the Gaffer of Lobelia, by Shagrat about Shelob, and by Grishnákh describing the spears of Rohan to Merry and Pippin -- curiously, Tolkien uses some similar phrases for Gollum and Grishnákh.)

  4. Minor addendum: I was wrong in my guess about Shippey. I thought he had not introduced the idea of Gollum as a philologist figure until his 2004/2006 essay, "History in Words: Tolkien's Ruling Passion" from the Blackwelder conference, but in fact it appears as far back as 1982 in the "On the Cold Hill's Side" chapter in his The Road to Middle-earth.

  5. I share your pleasure at the way one always finds something new at every reading. Can I just mention the dragon at the long-expected party - the smaller Smaug made of fireworks that passed like an express train, turned a somersault, and burst over Bywater with a deafening explosion. Did it burst above the Green Dragon? [This is Saranna - I'm still coming in Anonymous!]


    This is the link to a thread developing the ideas in this topic, started by Dorwiniondil this morning on the fanatics Plaza. It may be of interest?

  7. Wonderful post! I hadn't noticed this connection before. Good work, Jase!

  8. Good comments, all. A couple of quick replies.

    To David and Saranna: Yes indeed. I have always liked those references to dragons in the opening chapter of The Lord of the Rings. Also, Saranna, thanks for the link to the discussion that is developing over at the Plaza.

    To N.E. Brigand: Astonishingly thorough, as usual. You never fail to impress me! As for your question — “what does it mean?” — well, that bears further rumination, doesn’t it? And do you have a first edition of The Road to Middle-earth? How different is it from the revised edition? I’ve wondered whether I ought to look for a first edition for my library.

  9. Very interesting article!

    I found one other (possible example) related to Gollum; it occurs in the Prologue.

    "He [Gollum] possessed a secret treasure that had come to him long ages ago, when he still lived in the light: a ring of gold that made its wearer invisible. It was the one thing he loved, his 'precious', and he talked to it, even when it was not with him. For he kept it hidden safe in a hole on his island, except when he was hunting or spying on the orcs of the mines."

    Although the word "worm" is not mentioned here, the fact that Gollum "possessed a secret treasure" and kept it in a hole are particularly worm-like--especially given the fact that this passage is intended as a summary of part of The Hobbit--where we find Smaug who also possessed a treasure.

  10. David Doughan5/31/2011 6:01 AM

    Last week I happened to be in the area where Essex, Cambridgeshire and Hertfordshire meet, and which is rich in Shire-ish place-names, like Helions Bumpstead, Six Mile Bottom and Ugley. It also has a good variety of Ends (Duddenhoe End, Sewards End, Smith's End etc.) and there is even a hamlet called Nasty (æt þǽm éastan hæge). I'm not sure how familiar Tolkien would have been with the region, but I suspect he knew some of the names!

  11. Josh, that’s a good observation as well. And David, I have heard of some of these too. I think Tom Shippey wrote something about Ugley recently, but I can’t quite recall where I saw it. I may make a search a little later to see whether I can’t track it down.

  12. David Doughan5/31/2011 3:30 PM

    Ugley is, of course, a distinctly pretty village ....
    Anyway, Jason, many thanks for this post, which is even more thought-provoking than usual. Among much else, I had never before thought of Eowyn in the Tarnhelm! :-)