“Tell me what you want done, and I will try it, if I have to walk from here to the East of East and fight the wild Were-worms in the Last Desert.”
— Bilbo, “An Unexpected Party”, The Hobbit
Somewhere far to the East of the Shire, according to Hobbit folklore, lay the Last Desert, an ominous and deadly waste. Its fabled inhabitants were the Were-worms, creatures so fearsome that Bilbo invoked them to show Thorin & Co. that he was willing to go to any lengths to succeed as the company’s burglar on the Quest of Erebor. Just what were the wild Were-worms? What manner of beast did Bilbo envision as he spoke their name?
The name “Were-worm” is mysterious and like so many other seemingly throw-away references in Tolkien, it conjures up any number of strange images. Indeed, we only have our own conjured images to turn to, because Tolkien never elaborated on the nature of the Were-worms. A number of theories about them have been advanced, however. On one hand, there may have been no “real” Were-worms; they may have been just figures of Hobbit folklore. On the other hand, another supposedly mythical figure of Hobbit folklore was proven to be a real beast during the events of the War of the Ring: the mighty Oliphaunts of Harad. Whether Were-worms are meant to be understood as real or mythical within the Secondary World of Middle-earth, how did the Hobbits imagine them? If they were real within the Secondary World, how did the reality of the Were-worms compare the imagination of the Hobbits? And most importantly, what did Tolkien imagine when he wrote “the wild Were-worms”?
One theory is that the name itself, Were-worm, suggests that Tolkien had in mind a kind of skin-changer: a creature that could change from man-shape to worm- or dragon-shape, just as Beorn changes from man to bear. But I think this is unlikely to be true since this isn’t really how Tolkien uses the word were. Were is derived from Old English wer, “man”, but as discussed previously, Tolkien doesn’t use it to refer to shape-changing creatures. Instead, he uses it to describe particularly large, evil, and intelligent breeds, such as when he refers to the Werewolves, or Wargs, in the service of Sauron. So perhaps the were-worms are meant to be large and evil worms, or wingless dragons, and naturally this is another theory that has been advanced — a very plausible theory, and one that I would imagine is most readily accepted by Tolkien scholars.
Another theory imagines the Were-worms as being less dragon-like and more grub-like or invertebrate-like, and there is some evidence to back this up. In John D. Rateliff’s The History of the Hobbit, it is shown that in the earliest draft of The Hobbit, Bilbo’s line, quoted above, was different and didn’t include the word were at all: he offered to walk to “the Great Desert of Gobi and fight the Wild Wire worms of the Chinese”. At this point, Tolkien was working with the idea that the Primary World and Secondary World of the story would be more closely correlated than they turned out to be in the published book, and this gives us a sense of just how far east the Hobbits imagined the worms to be. In subsequent drafts, the reference to the Chinese was eliminated and the Gobi was renamed the Last Desert, but presumably it was still imagined to be similarly distant and perilous. Also interesting is that in the first draft, Bilbo offers to fight not Were-worms but wire worms. A wireworm is the larva of a Primary World insect called the click beetle. In the larval stage, a wireworm has a long, segmented body, and there is even a species called the sand wireworm. Further, Mongolian folklore names a giant worm-like creature said to live in the most remote wastes of the Gobi, spitting acid and discharging electricity from its body. In Mongolian, it is called olgoi-khorkhoi, “the large intestine worm”, but this is often translated as “Mongolian death-worm“. The death-worm was brought to the attention of the English-speaking world in the book On the Trail of Ancient Man by American explorer Roy Chapman Andrews who had traveled throughout Mongolia searching for the birthplace of modern humans. Andrews’s book was published in 1926, and Tolkien began writing The Hobbit in the early 1930s, but unfortunately I know of no evidence that Tolkien read Andrews’s book. But if Tolkien did become familiar with the idea of the Mongolian death-worm prior to starting work on The Hobbit, perhaps he imagined his “wild wire worms” to be similar. However, the published text of The Hobbit, as we know, doesn’t refer to wire worms but to were-worms. Certainly Tolkien’s usual use of the prefix were- could indicate a large, evil, and intelligent worm- or dragon-like creature, like the death-worm, but perhaps there is more.
Perhaps, as was often the case, Tolkien was being deliberately ambiguous in naming the Were-worms. They might be large, evil, intelligent worms, just as Sauron’s Werewolves were large, evil, intelligent wolves. Or perhaps they were “man-worms” in the same sense that outlaws were “man-wolves”. If so, he might have had in mind the Sauromatians, an Iranian people living in western to central Asia (from modern-day Ukraine to the edges of the Gobi Desert) during late antiquity. They are usually classified archaeologically as being the first phase of the Sarmatian culture, and the two terms can be considered synonymous as ethnonyms. At one time historians felt that the Greek name Sauromatai included the elements sauro “lizard, reptile, serpent” + mátai “folk, people, men” (possibly via Akkadian Madai “the Medes”), thus meaning “the Serpent-men”. The Greeks, they felt, must have given this name to the Sauromatians for their use of reptile-like scale armour and dragon imagery on their battle standards. Historians and archaeologists now agree that this etymology is unfounded (because the initial element, sar-/sauro-, is more likely cognate with Avestan zar “old”), but Tolkien may have been aware of the earlier proposed etymology. Whether he agreed with it or not, I think he would have liked it! It has been demonstrated that Tolkien’s descriptions of Easterlings were influenced by the Greek accounts of western and central Asian peoples (see “‘Byzantium, New Rome!’ Goths, Langobards and Byzantium in The Lord of the Rings” by Miryam Librán Moreno). I wonder if, even before deciding that The Hobbit took place within the larger world of his older legendarium and before the writing of The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien had this Primary World culture with a linguistically interesting name in mind, giving the term Were-worm a double meaning similar to the double meaning of Werewolf, a trick which he had already employed in the story Túrin?
Far, far to the East, indeed to the East of East, in a waste of sand and stone, lives a tribe of Easterlings who venerate the image of the dragon. Terrible worms bred for war in ages past by Morgoth, few of these beasts remain in the world today, but this eastern tribe remembers their might and terror in tales handed down through the ages of the world. Seen here, a warrior of the waste wears elaborately-made armour and a helm decorated with brass-bound horns fashioned to recall the spiky crown of a great worm. The sight of these horned helms, the scale-like armour of his kinsmen, and the tall dragon-standards they bear to war, is remembered by all who do battle with them, and they are known to other tribes of Easterlings as man-dragons and dragon-men. Fearful tales of their exploits have passed into legend and lore and have been carried across the wide world, even to lands as distant as the Shire of the Halflings, who sit by the fire and tell tales of all manner of strange and fabulous creatures: Mewlips and Oliphaunts and island-sized Turtle-fish — and yes, the wild Were-worms of the Last Desert.
I’m being a bit experimental with today’s post and definitely breaking the usual format of the blog! Also, there’s a lot of etymology today. I apologise for that, but it seemed like the deviation from the usual was necessary to present my (wild) speculation on the nature of the wild Were-worms. So thanks for indulging my wordiness today, everyone — and please, if anyone can correct my probably shaky etymology, jump right in! Of course I have to point out that what I’m suggesting, that the Sauromatians might have been a source of inspiration for some Tolkienian word-play on the term “Were-worms”, is purely speculative and I’ve never seen this connection made anywhere else, so it’s more than likely that there’s nothing there — and of course I haven’t researched my theory with anything close to the rigour that would be expected of real academic source criticism. Still, I thought it might be an interesting idea for anyone else who’s ever wondered at the identity of the wild Were-worms, and I hope you’ve enjoyed it. Meanwhile, I have a feeling that today’s outfit is going to be one of those that people either love or hate — there’s a lot going on there and I’m trying to balance a bunch of different colours: the bluish-greys, metallic bits, golds, browns, dark crimson, even the weird pinkish colour on the cloak trim and the tiny leather straps on the shoulder piece. I tried to use spiny, spiky pieces that would be reminiscent of a dragon’s spines and horns, and also tried to refer to the East by incorporating the chestpiece emblazoned with a rising sun. I wanted to make something really elaborate and exotic-looking, worthy of a folk living “East of East”, and I hope I’ve succeeded on that front at least!
- Head: Helmet of the Indomitable Protector (bartered — Galtrev adventurer’s quartermaster/Guardian), crimson
- Shoulders: Battle-leader’s Shoulders (bartered — skirmish camp classic quartermaster/Barad Guldur – level 65 heavy), umber
- Back: Dunlending Cloak (crafted — tailor T7/Men of Dunland reputation), burgundy
- Chest: Breastplate of Command (bartered — Glân Vraig Captain trader/armour sets), white
- Hands: Damasked Golden Gauntlets (purchased — Lalia’s Market), burgundy
- Legs: Shield-master’s Leggings (bartered — skirmish camp classic quartermaster/Barad Guldur – level 65 heavy), orange
- Feet: Boots of the Indomitable Protector (bartered — Galtrev adventurer’s quartermaster/Guardian), red
Tips: The two Guardian class pieces used in this outfit share their appearance with the Captain and Champion Draigoch sets, and at the time of this writing both are available for purchase at Lalia’s Market for mithril coins if you don’t want to spend medallions on them in Galtrev. The gauntlets used in this outfit are, to my knowledge, unique to Lalia’s Market, and are available there at the time of this writing. For a really nice alternative to the helm used in this outfit, you might consider the Ceremonial Helm of the Whirlwind (bartered — skirmish camps cosmetics quartermaster/Moria cosmetic clothing – heavy) available from the Cosmetics vendors at skirmish camps.
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