December 30, 2014

What Are "Were-worms" In The Hobbit?

Were-worm by Angus McBride
"The Battle of the Five Armies" spoiler warning!

The biggest shock for me in this last Hobbit film was undoubtedly the use of were-worms at the beginning of the Battle of Five Armies.  Out of all the things I thought Peter Jackson would expound upon nowhere in my wildest imagination did were-worms come up.  But did you know they actually appear in Tolkien's works?  Well, sort of...

     When PJ & Co. usually add, modify, or change something in their Tolkien adaptations it often really starts from something barely hinted at in the text and the same is true here.  Were-worms are actually mentioned in The Hobbit itself.  The sole-reference to the mysterious beasts appears in chapter I, "An Unexpected Party," when Bilbo eventually makes up his mind to join the dwarves on their quest and exclaims,
"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."

That's it.  Nowhere else in all his Middle-earth mythology does Tolkien elaborate on these worms.  What were they exactly (no pun intended)?  What did they look like?  With a little thinking I think we can figure out 3 possible explanations.

     First, Were-worms could be fictitious within the secondary-world.  Perhaps they are simply an invention of Hobbits that appear in some of their folk-tales.  This is an entirely safe explanation, but remember that oliphaunts were just a legend to the Little Folk too.  What if they really did exist in Middle-earth?  Or, at least, how did the Hobbits imagine them?

     A second, perfectly reasonable conclusion is that they are a special breed or kind of dragon.
Tolkien's dragons are distinctly European, but perhaps
these Were-worms were more like Eastern dragons.
 The word "worm" descends from the Old English word "wyrm" and the Old High German word "wurm."  Both mean the same thing, snake, serpent, or dragon.  Tolkien uses both "worm" and "dragon" to refer to the same creatures in his stories (although usually the title "worm" is most often ascribed to wingless dragons).  Furthermore, the term "were" traditionally refers to creatures that can change between human and animal form.  So, could these Were-worm creatures be humans that have the ability to change into dragons (or vice versa)?  Possibly, but I doubt it.  The only creatures known to possess that power in Middle-earth were the Skin-changers (i.e. Beorn) and the Maiar (who were able to assume a variety of shapes).  "Were" in Tolkien's works is used to describe stronger and more intelligent kinds of creatures corrupted and twisted by Sauron or Morgoth (i.e. werewolves in The Silmarillion).  Thus, Were-worms could be some special kind of wingless dragon.  I doubt they could be more crafty or intelligent as Glaurung, but perhaps they had some other kind of unique physical power.

     The third and final explanation requires a bit more digging and requires us to go back to Tolkien's original manuscript of The Hobbit (which you can find in John D. Rateliff's, The History of The Hobbit).  Originally, Bilbo's line from Chapter I quoted above read,
"Tell me what you wish me to do and I will try it - if I have to walk from here to the Great Desert of Gobi and fight the Wild Wire worms of the Chinese."
The next version of the passage was slightly modified.
"Tell me what you want me to do, and I will try it, if I have to walk from here to the last desert in the East and fight the the Wild Wireworms of the Chinese."
     These drafts date back to the time when The Hobbit and the Silmarillion stories were much more closely tied to the real world.  As the stories developed Tolkien dissolved the strong geographical connections between his secondary world and the real one (hence the removal of any reference to the Chinese).  But, if we know that these Wireworms or Were-worms were originally intended to have lived in or around the Gobi desert then we can discover some fascinating clues about how Tolkien may have imagined their physical appearance.

Two different species of click beetles in their adult
and larval stages.
     First, the original name of these creatures in question, wireworm, may provide a lead.  Wireworms actually do exist.  They are the larvae of Click beetles.  Wireworms, according to Wikipedia, are usually saprophagous (meaning they live on dead organisms), "but some species are agricultural pests, and others are active predators of other insect larvae." They live underground and are excellent at burrowing through the soil (which may have provided inspiration for the depiction of Were-worms in the movie).  However, they don't seem to fit the type of creature Bilbo mentions.  Despite being a pest for farmers, they don't seem like the type of thing that a hero would travel thousands of miles to fight.

An interpretation of the Mongolian death worm by Belgian
painter Pieter Dirkx
     While wireworms are interesting, there is only one creature that truly fits with the clues Tolkien has given us.  To this day, Mongolian locals maintain the belief that a creature called the olgoi-khorkhoi lives in and near the Gobi desert.  The true existence of this Mongolian death worm has been disputed for years, but local accounts of the creature have been detailed and consistent.  Supposedly, it is a bright red worm with a thick body the width of a man's arm and a length between 2 and 5 feet (06. to 1.5 meters).  It hibernates underground most of the year and only comes out in June and July when the ground is wet after a rain.  The creature can reportedly kill at a distance via electric shock or by the ability to spew forth an acid strong enough to kill a human on contact.  Knowledge of the beast was first brought to the attention of the Western world when an American explorer by the name of Roy Chapman Andrews (the inspiration for Indiana Jones) published a book in 1926 titled, On the Trail of Ancient Man.  His same account of the legend was published again in his 1932 book, The New Conquest of Central Asia.  While I can find no record that Tolkien actually read Andrews' works he was interested in new scientific and archeological discoveries and considering how famous Andrews' stories were it is entirely plausible that Tolkien caught wind of the Mongolian death-worm just before or as he began The Hobbit in the early 1930s.  Over and over again throughout his works Tolkien takes these "footnotes" from history, accounts of people or things that are partially lost, and gives them a place in his own Middle-earth mythology, often expounding upon them along the way (e.g. the Old English Earendel became Eärendil in the Silmarillion).  Therefore, I propose that these Were-worms Bilbo mentions in Bag End are derived from the Mongolian death worm.  They fit everything we know about them from the published Hobbit and its earlier drafts.  They live far in the east in Mongolian and Chinese deserts and are quite wild and dangerous.

A were-worm as seen in The Battle of the Five Armies

To conclude, we've discovered three primary candidates to fill the role of Tolkien's Were-worms.

  • They are a fictitious, mythological creature found in Hobbit folk-lore.
  • They are a special breed or kind of dragon.
  • Or, they are based on the legendary Mongolian death worm.      

   The first two can be deduced from and within Tolkien's texts alone, but the similarities between the Mongolian death worm and the Were-worms are striking.  Another alternative could be synthesizing either the second or third explanations with the first one.  As tales of the dragons or worms were picked up by Hobbits after spreading west it is entirely probable that the stories were exaggerated and the beasts passed into legend.  In the end I suppose we'll never really know what Tolkien intended them to look like, but in some ways that's part of what makes Tolkien's work so alluring.  Just like olgoi-khorkhoi are mysterious in the real world so are Tolkien's Were-worms.


  1. That's quite interesting because I don't remember Tolkein writing about them. It's weird that they didn't make them attack the allies. It was unfortunate that they didn't show the inside the tunnels. Great post.

    1. Thanks Nathan! Yeah, I've been studying The Hobbit a fair amount this autumn/winter (highly recommend Rateliff's "History of The Hobbit"), but otherwise I don't think I would have remembered that line at all! For it to play such a tiny role in the book and yet play such a large part in the movie was really strange. I was so shocked in the theater I didn't even think about getting upset about it like some of the other changes!

  2. There's confirmation that they're based on Mongolian Death Worms in the Wikipedia article on MDW, which cites manuscript versions of the Hobbit.

    1. No, the Wikipedia article is a little misleading. It says:

      "J. R. R. Tolkien's book The Hobbit (1937) provides an earlier but fleeting reference, namely the perilous "wild Were-worms in the Last Desert." In the early drafts of the book (1930-1932), Tolkien had specifically associated these Were-worms with "the Great Desert of Gobi", as noted by John D. Rateliff in The History of The Hobbit."

      The Wikipedia quote only draws the same connections I did. It does not confirm that MDW and Were-worms are/were the same. Furthermore, the source for this entry (Rateliff's, "The History of the Hobbit") does not include any material or some note by Tolkien indicating that the Were-worms and the Mongolian Death Worms were connected. The only connections are outlined in my post above (physical description and geographical location). Rateliff does however mention Tolkien's reference to the Gobi Desert and the other real geographical locations when discussing the original world in which The Hobbit was set.

    2. That's an interesting theory of origin, and not altogether unlikely. Did Tolkien not also once make mention of the Mongoloian people, though in one of his more politically problematic, but still "tolerant" and slightly self-aware passages? It seems at least to suggest that he was more widely interested in the world's cultures than just his most defining ones.

    3. Thanks for the comment! As far as I know, the only other reference he made to Mongolia was in Letter No. 210 in his reply to Akerman about Zimmerman's film script (which never developed into something further - primarily because of Tolkien's lengthy criticisms). There he says orcs "are (or were) squat, broad, flat-nosed, sallow-skinned, with wide mouths and slant eyes: in fact degraded and repulsive versions of the (to Europeans) least lovely Mongol-types."

      As to liking non-European cultures, he did have a more casual interest some, but his main interest professionally and personally were those of northern Europe. The main non-European culture I can think of that he had an interest in was Japanese, Japanese artwork to be more accurate. Japanese-styled artwork was quite popular at the time and I believe he bought several small pieces in his younger years at Oxford. Many of his own illustrations and paintings reflects that style.

      I'm not sure what you mean by "politically problematic, but still "tolerant" and slightly self aware." There is nothing in Tolkien's writings or personal accounts of him that suggest he was racist or anything like that. Many of the "problem passages" that I think you are alluding to are not truly like that way when put into context. Even this quote here from letter No. 210 is describing orcs as how Europeans view or viewed some native Mongolians. These modern-day claims that Tolkien was this and that and horrible like so are just ridiculous. He's become another victim of secular political correctness.

    4. "Many of the "problem passages" that I think you are alluding to are not truly like that way when put into context. Even this quote here from letter No. 210 is describing orcs as how Europeans view or viewed some native Mongolians. "

      Quite, that's why I called it self-aware, and you don't need to worry that I disregard the context, but nonetheless this would nowadays be regarded as politically problematic, and it is simply a fact that this passage (among others) gave cause to discussion. Maybe I could have described it otherwise, but I don't necessarily see a reason, or problem in being so open, and addressing it in the process. (Or even an obvious way around it.)

    5. Oh, OK. Apologies for misinterpreting your comment. Yes, it's great and important to discuss, but it's a little frustrating to me when other Tolkien fans throughout the years have placed so much emphasis on a passage for purely political reasons to promote a certain agenda instead of critically analyzing the text and looking at it in context of the story and Tolkien's works/life/beliefs in general. There's a difference between learning and applying value and virtue from his stories today and taking an idea, character, statement, or theme out of context to argue a particular political agenda.

      Anyhow, now I've gotten a little too far off the path. If we were to discuss this "issue" of racism all I would say to discuss is this: I don't see why other Tolkien fans (or non-fans) try to make such a big clamour out of it. There is racism in Tolkien works, quite a lot of it in fact. However, just including it in his stories does not make him racist or "intolerant." Divisions between peoples and races are seen throughout the history of Middle-earth. But, just as in the real world, these petty feuds often hindered the Free People's resistance to the Dark Lord(s) and when people were able to overcome their physical differences with one another and work together for good (as in the friendship between Legolas and Gimli) it is celebrated. If anything, parts of The Lord of the Rings (and his other stories) could be held up as a positive example of how to deal with racism. Furthermore, Gondor's feud with men from the East and South did not stem from a difference in skin colour or simply because the people were of a different race, but because men from the East and South at that time were competitors with Gondor economically and militarily and they were led by cruel people who attacked Gondor without cause, If people want to find example of authors arguing in favor of racism look somewhere else.

      Again, I'm not against discussing issues like this, I just find the emphasis placed on certain passages in the wake of a hot political debate a little tiresome and misplaced.

      Thanks for the comments and discussion!

  3. Were-worms can simply translate as man-dragons from Old English and may not necessarily mean they change from human to dragon shape and vice versa. Maybe they are creatures that look like dragons, which men can tame and fly on. Perhaps they are the fell-beasts that the Nazgul fly on in The Lord of the Rings.

    1. Thanks for the comment! Yes, one of my conclusions stated that they could simply be another type of dragon. Though, Tolkien *usually* used "worm" to refer to longer, wingless dragons (Glaurung, Scatha, long-worms, etc.). So, it is debatable as to whether or not were-worms could fly, but it's an interesting idea!

  4. Ruth Noel in The Mythology of MIddle-earth refers to Fafnir the Dragon, who Sigurd slays in The Saga of the Volsungs, as a were-worm because he was originally a man. Hence were-worms translates as 'man-who-turned-into-a-dragon'.

    1. Thanks for the comment! That's the most common idea of "were" (e.g. were-wolves) in pop culture and mythologies (man changing into beast). However, creatures in Tolkien's mythology that share those characteristics are called "shape-shifters" (e.g. Beorn). Tolkien uses the term "were" to describe larger, more powerful creatures (e.g. his werewolves).

      Originally, these "were" creatures may have started out as Maia or honorable creatures, but through the dark power of Morgoth they could have been twisted and deformed, much like trolls and orcs. This transformation was irreversible and there's no indication that "were" creatures like Carcharoth had the ability to change form once they assumed their darkened state.

      Thus, it seems a little far-fetched to imagine that Tolkien would abruptly break away from his developed ideas about "were" creatures when writing this part of The Hobbit. Were-worms were probably only a stronger, larger, or unique type of dragon or worm.

    2. Yet according to Christopher Tolkien The Hobbit can be dated at least as early as 1929, when his father first told the story to him and his brothers, which is only 15 years after Tolkien began his mythology in 1914. This is with the poem about Earendil the Mariner, which was inspired by the Old English lines: 'Eala Earendel engla beorhtast/ Ofer middangeard monnum sended' (Hail Earendel brightest of angels/ Above Middle-earth sent unto men). This means that Tolkien's ideas about 'were' creatures were not developed at the time, and despite some things coming into The Hobbit from the mythology he was developing, he had not yet concieved that The Hobbit would have The Lord of the Rings as its sequel and that in turn would link up with his mythology that became The Silmarillion, which he never completed in his life time leaving his son Christopher to do it. And perhaps this is why he never went on to develop what were-worms were beyond their fleeting mention in The Hobbit.

    3. Actually, most of what we know of as The Silmarillion was completed during the 1920s. During that time Tolkien extensively developed many of the Silmarillion legends including the Tale of Tinuviel and the Lay of Leithian (two tellings of the Beren in Luthien story in prose and poetic form, respectively) which feature Karkaras, a character nearly identical to that of Characaroth in later versions, a great werewolf. While "were" creatures were never an integral part to his mythology, Tolkien did write about them before beginning the Hobbit and they were never depicted as men that had the ability to turn into huge ferocious beasts at whim. Back in earlier times Morgoth had corrupted wolf-like creatures into werewolves similar to how he "created" orcs and trolls. Once the wolves had been transformed they and their descendents were doomed to that vile form. This is actually very similar to Fafnir who, once corrupted, remained in the form of the dragon and was, presumably, stuck that way.

      The notion that werewolves change from man to beast and back again in a quick amount of time under specific circumstances (e.g. when the moon is full, someone casts a spell on them) is a relatively newer idea and only appears in Middle-earth stories through skin-changers (e.g. Beorn) and angelic beings such as Maiar that can assume a variety of forms.

  5. I am presuming that if the were-worms were men-that-had-changed-into-dragons they were stuck that way after their transformation like Fafnir and Tolkien had that in mind when telling The Hobbit to his children. And perhaps were-worms could have existed in Tolkien's mythology as originally Men that had been corrupted by Morgoth like the Elves were corrupted into Orc shape.

    Also, 'were' can translate as 'warrior' and hence were-worms could just mean 'warrior-dragons' though I am not so sure if Tolkien would have meant that because in Old English texts the Vikings who were the enemies of the Anglo-Saxons were never referred to as warriors and I am not sure if Tolkien would refer to such creatures as warriors.

    And perhaps if Tolkien was of Numenorean descent like Aragorn and hence had thrice the life-span of ordinary mortals and could choose when he could pass away perhaps he would still be working on his mythology today. Christopher Tolkien after all said in an interview in a French magazine a few years ago that he remorsefully had The Silmarillion published and in his introduction to The Children of Hurin he said that his father had in mind to do similar length stories with the tale of Beren and Luthien and the tale of the fall of Gondolin. .

  6. In Tolkien's world of Arda certainly there were many in-universe mysteries, including mysterious unnamed creatures (one does not need to look far), the Nameless Things that gnaw the world below Moria or the Watcher in the Water before it's doors, "monsters of diverse kinds" bred by Morgoth in Utumno and Angband, but never elaborated upon (it is said that Orome the Hunter and his followers like legendary 'Wild Hunt' crossed the world hunting creatures of Morgoth).

    Certainly there were more things besides the known ones: Orcs, Trolls, Wargs, Werewolves, Men, Hobbits, Elves, Dwarves, Ents, Great Eagles that were there on the edges of known world, who knows there might have been a whole kind of bat-like vampires (if Sauron could take form of one, and the Thuringwethil case as well as the vampiric bats that feasted on blood during Battle of Five Armies in book, I'm actually surprised that PJ with his love of horror did not put that), the Stone Giants mentioned in hobbit book (though probably not as humongous as in movie hehe), of course we know for sure of the giant spiders sentient, demonic creatures capable of speech, brood of Shelob, but there were also enigmas like Tom Bombadil and Goldberry River-woman's daughter, the curious case of 'talking animals' (who know maybe there were more of them like those ravens of Erebor that could speak the westron, or intelligent, 'magical' breed of thrushes :), Huan the hound of Valinor was a special kind of creature as well, even though some believe he might have been Maiar (I think it highly doubtful), there is talk in Silm about "spirits sent among kelvar and olvar" which might refer to Ents and Eagles but maybe also indicates that there could be more such 'guardians' of nature or even whole kind of lesser spirits like some sort of fairies :).

    I also always liked to think that each legend has a grain of truth so maybe the creatures from hobbit's folklore might have been inspired by something. In the depths of time race of hobbits must have migrated from the far East like most of the sentient races (Elves and Men in their origin are from the far Rhun) so they might have brought some scraps of memory of those times into their folklore. And so the Mewlips and other creatures from hobbit poems may have a source in their 'reality'.

    1. Yes, Tolkien always hints that there was more. In fact, he probably "discovered" a lot more that he didn't write down!

      I think your last paragraph is spot on. If I may expound upon it, I think (and Tolkien thought) that the same is true in the real world. In On-Faery Stories Tolkien famously wrote about how all myths reflect, albeit in a fragmentary manner, the light of the "true myth" found in God's Word and the person of Jesus Christ. Every story and mythology contains some bit of truth, some more, some less. Rarely are they made up out of thin air. Knowing that it seems completely natural to see similar patterns in his own invented mythology. There are obvious thematic similarities that tie into his own Christian/Catholic worldview and internal myths and legends in Middle-earth seem to have been based on "true" events from that world's history.

      I don't know if you are the same "Anonymous," but if part of this pertains to the "were" discussion above then all I have left to say is that it's totally possible that there were were-type creatures in Arda that could switch back and forth from man to beast. In fact, there are! The skin-changers. I think the debate/discussion is this case is really over terminology. Tolkien ascribes the term "were" not to beings that can repeatedly switch between two forms (man and beast), but larger, more powerful twisted versions of creatures (Carcharoth, a giant wolf, is a werewolf). (Furthermore, when Sauron "took upon himself the form of a werewolf" in chapter 19 of The Silmarillion it's implied later on that he appeared as a giant wolf, not a man (or a creature that could change between the two).) Both kinds of creatures exist in Middle-earth, but Tolkien uses the terms in ways slightly unfamiliar to us.

    2. I only made the first anonymous reply and I suggested that the were-worms were not skin-changers that repeatedly switched between two forms but rather were men that were transformed into dragons and stayed in that form like Fafnir in The Saga of Volsungs. I made that comment after reading Ruth Noel's book, which was only about a week ago and had me rethink what I said in my posting back on June 24th.

      The other 'Anonymous' makes an interesting point about the hobbits carrying scraps of memories from former times. This actually was the case with their name. As Merry and Pippin discover from Theoden it came from the Eotheod referring to their ancestors when they lived in the Vales of Anduin as the Holbytla, which is Old English for hole-dweller. I think Tolkien through the change is suggesting that the Shire society is a Middle-English society where Old English words either became latinised or became replaced by French words after the Norman invasion. Possibly in Middle English times ideas about were-wolves transforming with the full-moon might have developed too, which perhaps you (Andrew B) could confirm and maybe Hobbits developed ideas like that in stories like the ones that Fatty Bolger's nurse used to tell him about wolves and goblins in the Old Forest, which Merry didn't believe. Perhaps also the Hobbits developed ideas in their stories about were-worms constantly changing their shape, which perhaps Bilbo discovered not to be the case from travelling with the Dwarves as well as other things like how Golfimbul's name and beheading by the Bullroarer in the Battle of Greenfields had nothing to do with the invention of golf.

      Going off the subject somewhat I think that the purpose behind Tolkien latinising holbytla was to suggest that the English languge could have continued in a latinised form without replacing English words with French words. And hence we could have done things like refer to streets in our towns with no exits as bag ends rather than cul-de-sacs.