|Were-worm by Angus McBride|
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."
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 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.
|An interpretation of the Mongolian death worm by Belgian|
painter Pieter Dirkx
|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.