Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The jaws of Carcharoth

As we know, Tolkien had carefully devised etymologies in mind for virtually every proper name in his legendarium. Many of these etymologies, alongside various cognates in the Elvish and other languages of Arda, are set out in Tolkien’s writings. What is less often said or seen: we can adduce etymologies for many of these names using primary world languages too, particularly the very early names. This can be a tricky game — it’s difficult to know where to draw the line, and it’s easy to go too far — but I have one I’d like to put forward today, for Carcharoth.

For anyone who needs a refresher:
Then Morgoth […] chose one from among the whelps of the race of Draugluin; and he fed him with his own hand upon living flesh, and put his power upon him. Swiftly the wolf grew, until he could creep into no den, but lay huge and hungry before the feet of Morgoth. There the fire and anguish of hell entered into him, and he became filled with a devouring spirit, tormented, terrible, and strong. Carcharoth, the Red Maw, he is named in the tales of those days, and Anfauglir, the Jaws of Thirst. And Morgoth set him to lie unsleeping before the doors of Angband […] [1]
For the Sindarin name, Carcharoth, the putative etymology of “red maw” serves well enough, though it is problematic at one or two points. The raw material is plain enough. Sindarin car(a)n is “red”, from the Eldarin root √KARÁN; and car(a)ch is “tooth, fang”, from the root √KARAK. The final element, roth, is probably “hollow, cave” (hence, “maw”), from the root √ROD, but this is not certain. Also uncertain is where caran has gone in the final form of the name. If it was ever really there to begin with, then it seems to have left no trace. Perhaps “red” is mere folk etymology. There’s really no sign of it in the word-form itself.

The name is attested in several earlier forms, including Carchaloth, Carchamoth, and the Qenya Karkaras. These forms are given in the very early Gnomish Lexicon, contemporary with Tolkien’s first conception of the great wolf. Also in the Lexicon is an entry carna, meaning “gore, blood, especially fresh blood”, perhaps influenced by connotations of the English carnage (a word from Latin, through French, carrying the sense of the butchery of flesh). [2] For the Qenya name, Karkaras, used in The Book of Lost Tales, we can turn to the Qenya Lexicon, where we find karkaras(s) glossed as a “row of spikes or teeth”. [3]

So much for the fictive etymology — now what about an external one? I am struck by the similarity of Tolkien’s Carcharoth to the Latin carcharus “a kind of dog-fish”, itself from Greek καρχάριας “a shark”, so called because of its sharp, jagged teeth (or κάρχαρος). The scientific name of the dreaded Great White Shark is instructive here as well: Carcharodon carcharias. “Jaws of Thirst”, indeed! Now, why do I have a mental image of Beren Camlost and Matt Hooper comparing scars? :)

These forms are so close, I think we can rule out coincidence; moreover, with Tolkien’s extensive knowledge of Latin and Greek, I cannot imagine it was an accidental borrowing. Can you? In addition, κάρχαρος is thought to show reduplication of an Indo-European root √KAR, meaning “hard”, which sounds right for Tolkien’s Carcharoth. Compare to Gorgoroth, where the reduplicative form is explicitly acknowledged (and note the coincidence of the final element, roth).

Perhaps coincidental, but offering tempting overtones, is the Greek κάρκαρον “prison”. As you may recall, the literal meaning of the Sindarin Angband (where Carcharoth was bred) is “iron prison”. The Greek word, κάρκαρον — whence Latin carcer “prison”, whence Modern English incarcerate — is said to be “of uncertain origin” by Skeat, but might it not be related to the same IE root √KAR? (Other possibilities are advanced in other etymological dictionaries, but the ones I’ve checked so far aren’t any more convincing.)

[1] Tolkien, J.R.R. The Silmarillion. “Of Beren and Lúthien.”

[2] Tolkien, J.R.R. “The Gnomish Lexicon.” Parma Eldalamberon 11 (1997), p. 25. See also Chris Gilson’s discussion of Carcharoth in “Essence of Elvish: The Basic Vocabulary of Quenya.” Tolkien Studies 6 (2009): 213–39, p. 218.

[3] Tolkien, J.R.R. “The Qenya Lexicon.” Parma Eldalamberon 12 (1998), p. 49.


  1. Primitive Quendian is a decidedly Indo-European language, although of no particular branch. I think this is why Tolkien insists that human beings, or at least those residing in "the North-West of the Old World" learned their languages from Elves.

  2. Jaws they may be, but not of Thirst. A white shark is a fish, and therefore

    "Never thirsty, ever drinking."

    A relation between kárkaros/n and kárkharos is suggested by Boisacq, Chantraine and Frisk.

    Hesychius glosses kárkaroi as tracheîs ("the hard ones"? "the jagged ones"?), as well as desmoí ("bonds, chains - imprisonment"). In fact, Hesychius may also have a gloss of kárkara as oûla odónton, that is, "the gums of the teeth" (if one accepts Heinse's conjecture for the corrupted oûla ho diéto). What do teeth have to do with prisons?

    "Guardada en estrecha cárcel
    por soldados de marfil,
    está una roja culebra
    que es la madre del mentir."

    (F. Rodríguez Marín, "Cantos populares españoles" #315)

    Tolkien used the image of teeth guarding a place in the Carach Angren or Isenmouthe in LotR (glossed "Iron Jaws" in the Silm.), "so called because of the great fence of pointed iron posts that closed the gap leading into Udûn, like teeth in jaws" (Nomenclature). Also, the entrance to Cirith Gorgor was guarded by Narchost and Carchost, the Towers of the Teeth.

  3. Great comment, Hlaford. I love the Marín poem; that could almost be another of Bilbo and Gollum’s riddles, eh? And I had thought of mentioning those other occurrences of the car(a)ch etymon, but for brevity decided against it. Thanks for bringing them back into focus.

  4. Well, it's actually a traditional rhyme; I just took it from Marín's collection, where you can see several variations of the same the topic:


  5. I was unfamiliar with this, but I really like it. Thanks for sharing the link.

  6. Jason, I always appreciate your posts, especially when they're on Tolkien and language, and I have a link to your site from my blog (hope that's ok!). Today I wrote up a post analyzing Tolkien's handwriting, and I'd be honored if you read it because I want to know what you think.
    Thank you!

  7. Hi. I find your blog when I was searching articles about Tolkien. Do you have an email for contact? I saw your post about the new issue of Mythlore, and I wanna take some doubts about past issues.
    My email is natallienazareth.ac@bol.com.br. Contact me.
    PS: Sorry about my english, I'm brazilian and I don't finished my english course yet.

  8. @Natallie: I have sent you an email. :)

    @Allie: I read your very interesting post on Tolkien’s handwriting. While I am not qualified to comment on handwriting analysis (an interesting subject that I know almost nothing about!), I do think you’re on the right track here. And Tolkien’s handwriting certainly seems a rich well to draw from.

    I’ll leave you a comment there as well, with one or two more detailed observations.

  9. Thank you so much for reading it! And yeah, not many people have heard of handwriting analysis, but I love it, because it's incredibly accurate and illuminating. Thanks again, Allie

  10. - Ranka - "arm and hand" - is Lithuanian.
    - Alqua has a side form in Sindarin alf which is nearly Icelandic alft.
    - I have heard or read that Mae Govannen also means in older Welsh "he is a blacksmith" (which is well met in the sense that meeting a blacksmithor a chimney sweeper means luck in some folk superstitions)