Friday, August 10, 2007

Enter the dragon – the conclusion of wraith/writhen

In parts one and two of this discussion, I started with the etymology of “wraith” and then traced out a ramifying sequence of speculations on how that word and its cognates (some closely, others more distantly related) help tell the tale of Tolkien’s approach to his fiction. Tom Shippey called this “creation from philology” [1], and it really typifies how Tolkien began with ruminations on a word, or on the relationships between words, out of which ruminations a narrative would begin to suggest itself to him. Fascinating. At least, I hope you find it as interesting as I do.

In this (final, I expect) installment, I wanted to push just a bit further. If you recall from the previous posts, I’d talked about wraith as related to “writhe, writhen”, introduced the idea of the Lost Road and the World Made Round; connected this (if tenuously) to another round thing, the Ring; and then doubled back (like Ouroboros) to return to the Blessed Realm, and in particular, to Varda. What’s left, you might reasonably ask?

The same Indo-European root, wer–, that gives rise to wraith, wroth, and writhe also leads in another direction: to worm, in its original sense of “dragon”. From Primitive Germanic *wurmiz, we find Gothic waúrms, Old English wyrm, Middle English worm, Old Norse ormr “snake, serpent”, Old High German wurm, and Latin vermis (cf. English vermin) [2].

Dragons were rather important to Tolkien, of course. We find them both in his fiction and in his sphere of professional study (as in the Old English Beowulf and the Old Norse Fáfnismál). But what of that more common word, “dragon”? Its ancestors include Latin drăco, Greek δράκων, Old High German traccho, Old English draca, Old Norse dreki, and Middle English dragun (whence also Modern English dragoon). There’s even another Modern English cognate (albeit an archaic one), drake. But where worm comes originally from the sense of “turning, winding”, dragon comes from an Indo-European root, derk–, meaning “to see”. Thus the dragon is “the seeing one” or “the monster with the evil eye” [3].

In his professional study of Beowulf, Tolkien once wrote that “Beowulf’s dragon [...] is not to be blamed for being a dragon, but rather for not being dragon enough, pure plain fairy-story dragon.” Instead, its depiction “approaches draconitas rather than draco” [4]. Tom Shippey then explains how Tolkien’s response to this was to put a real, honest-to-goodness dragon at center stage in his own novel, The Hobbit [5]. Even more interesting is Tolkien’s choice of his name, Smaug — derived, Tolkien tells us in a letter, from *smaug, the past tense of *smugan, Primitive Germanic for “to squeeze through a hole”. And most telling of all, notice that an attested Old English cognate, sméogan, occurs together with a worm in an ancient protective spell: wið sméogan wyrme “against the penetrating worm” [6]. Smaug really is “a worm who squeezed into a small hole”! It’s also amusing to note that sméocan “to smoke, reek” is very close to sméogan (just as “smoke” is phonologically close to Smaug, a fire-breathing dragon). Coincidence? I doubt.

And finally, this naturally leads us to Sméagol, Gollum’s alter ego. Tolkien derived this name from the same root that gave him Smaug, and with the same meaning. You will recall that this is just what Gollum does: he squeezes into small holes under mountains. In fact, this may even be a jesting reference to the fact that Gollum was originally of some sort of Hobbit-kind. What do Hobbits do, after all, but squeeze (since they tend to be “fat in the stomach”) into small holes? :) But coming back to Gollum. As you will remember, he possessed the One Ring for a very, very long time. We read how it unnaturally preserved his small, mean person for years and years beyond the normal lifespan of his kind. He was, in fact, becoming more and more like a wraith. (My friends N.E. Brigand and squire have observed and discussed Gollum’s kinship with the wraiths at somewhat more length in the archives of the Reading Room.)

As a final note, I should mention that the other common English words serpent and snake are not, despite their suggestive consonants, directly related to *smugan. Rather, they come from a pair of Indo-European roots, serp– and sneg– (whence also “snail”), both meaning “to crawl, to creep” [7]. There may be a loose relationship between the three words, but if so, I have not seen it documented. I do wonder whether sneg– > Old English snaca “snake” might have been an unconscious source for Tolkien’s snaga, a Black Speech word, said to mean “slave”, used to refer to weaker, smaller orcs (cf. the goblins of The Hobbit).

And so, we’re back to wraiths once more. From wraiths to bent roads, from rings to dragons (and perhaps orcs and goblins) — we’ve gone there and back again purely by digging into the roots of words. I’m reminded of something Gollum said: “It would be cool and shady under those mountains. The Sun could not watch me there. The roots of those mountains must be roots indeed; there must be great secrets buried there which have not been discovered since the beginning.”

Roots indeed.

[1] See his essay, “Creation from Philology in The Lord of the Rings” in Salu, Mary and Robert T. Farrell, eds. J.R.R. Tolkien, Scholar and Storyteller: Essays in Memoriam. Ithaca (NY): Cornell University Press, 1979: 286-316.

[2] See Watkins, Calvert. The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots. 2nd ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000, p. 99. Also see Skeat, Zoëga, and Grimm for many of the cognates I’ve mentioned throughout this post.

[3] Ibid., p. 16.

[4] Tolkien, J.R.R. “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics” in The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1983, p. 17.

[5] Shippey, Tom. The Road to Middle-earth. 3rd rev. ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2003, p. 90.

[6] Ibid., p. 89.

[7] Watkins, p. 76, 81.


  1. He was, in fact, becoming more and more like a wraith. (My friends N.E. Brigand and squire have observed and discussed Gollum’s kinship with the wraiths at somewhat more length in the archives of the Reading Room.)

    Just a reference note. It can be challenging to navigate the pre-2007 Reading Room (though this guide helps). So let me point more specifically to these two comments on Gollum and wraiths:

    1. Who else screeches like this?

    2. Call me Gollum.

  2. Thanks for those links, Brigand. Very helpful. You’re right about the older Reading Room design; the newer boards are much easier to work with. Of course, this post is more than six months old now, and there have been no other comments on it, so perhaps nobody tried to follow my link anyway. :)