Monday, June 11, 2007

“All roads are now bent.”

Read part one of this post.

So where were we in our discussion of wraith? Close examination of the Indo-European root *wreit “to turn, wind” — together with some help from Mssrs. Skeat, Brockett, and Shippey — has given us the fairly defensible idea that a proper etymology of wraith ought to include the sense of a being twisted, contorted, and turned toward evil from good. The idea of a thing that turns or twists, furthermore, calls to mind the idea of the Ring, for which we also found some etymological evidence.

So, what’s the next terminus on this train of thought?

Let’s begin by recalling Skeat’s suggested etymology of wraith. He proposed, as you’ll recall, the Icelandic (from Old Norse) vörðr “ward(en), guardian”. In the genitive case, the word is varðar, showing a vowel shift, and with the meaning, “of the guardian”. Now this struck me as resembling, more than casually, Varda — the Vala whom the Elves revere above all others, invoking her by the name Elbereth. Tellingly, it is to Varda that the Elves (as well as Frodo and Samwise) call for protection, in one of the few explicit references to the Valar we find in The Lord of the Rings. The possibility of an etymological connection to Old Norse vörðr is certainly appealing, then, isn’t it? And even more so when we consider that Old Norse vörð is a poetic word for “woman” [1].

This may be mere coincidence; after all, Tolkien didn’t seem to be convinced that Skeat’s etymology was the correct one. Still, he would have been aware of it, and the resemblance between vörð(r) and Varda is tantalizing. And the more so when we remember the bent road leading back to her from Middle-earth.

In The Lost Road, we find a very curious passage in Old English (Shippey reminds us of it in The Road to Middle-earth [2]): “Westra lage wegas rehtas, nu isti sa wraithas.” This phrase, in a kind of reconstructed Primitive Germanic, means “a straight road lay westward, now it is bent” [3]. The reference is to the same Straight Road across the great western sea from Middle-earth to the Blessed Realm. How telling that Tolkien would use wraithas to describe how the Straight Road had become bent after the Fall of Númenor. As Tolkien wrote in the Akallabêth:

[T]he loremasters of Men said that a Straight Road must still be, for those that were permitted to find it. And they taught that, while the new world fell away, the old road and the path of the memory of the West still went on, as it were a mighty bridge invisible that passed through the air of breath and of flight (which were bent now as the world was bent), and traversed Ilmen which flesh unaided cannot endure, until it came to Tol Eressëa, the Lonely Isle, and maybe even beyond, to Valinor, where the Valar still dwell and watch the unfolding of the story of the world.
The idea seems clear: to be bent, twisted, turned, generally from good toward evil or, if not toward evil, then bent or turned because of evil, was to be writhen, wraithas (“bent”), or to become a wraith. Even the English word wrong derives from the same cluster of Indo-European roots. And here's another salient point regarding writhen: in his 1922 Middle English Vocabulary, Tolkien defines wryþe(n) as, first, “to twist, bind” — something the One Ring does, no? — but second, “[to] turn aside (from the just course)” [4].

The Ringwraiths, then, as well as the Ring itself, right and wrong, and the lost Straight Road that leads to Aman (and to Varda) — all come together in a handful of Germanic roots. Remarkable!

And I’m still not finished. I’ll be writing one more installment on this subject, in which I plan to bring Gollum (Sméagol) and Smaug into the mix.

[1] Zoëga, Geir T. A Concise Dictionary of Old Icelandic. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1910, p. 503.

[2] Shippey, Tom. The Road to Middle-earth: How J.R.R. Tolkien Created a New Mythology. Rev. and expanded ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2003, pp. 148-50.

[3] Tolkien, J.R.R. The Lost Road and Other Writings. Ed. Christopher Tolkien. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987, p. 43.

[4] Sisam, Kenneth. Fourteenth Century Verse and Prose (with Glossary). Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1921. Reprinted with corrections, 1964, [no pagination].


  1. Oh! It's old...but it's good.

  2. And it really deserved at least one comment, so:

    I think you're right!

    That's why I named my blog: "The Lost Straight Road."

  3. Thanks, Alex. Nice to see that people occasionally go back to the old posts. And you’re right: it did deserve at least one comment! I put a lot of work into it! :P

  4. Hey! I just discovered this entry (which is now *really* old!) by googling for this exact topic. It's really something that resurfaces over and over - Tolkien's opinion that all "evil" in the world is not inherent to it, but twisted by something. Is the paper you mentioned in the first entry available online by any chance?

    (And to be a smart-ass, sorry - the 'westra lage...' bit is not Old English, which should be something like "West læg riht weg, nu is se gewriðen" if I'm not mistaken. "The Lost Road" rightly calls it "a very old form of Germanic". Just in case someone else googles this and is wondering.)