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Welcome, dear readers, as always.

In P. Jackson’s The Desolation of Smaug, there is a scene at the opening, cut from whole cloth as so much of the later Hobbit movies, in which Gandalf meets Thorin in The Prancing Pony in Bree.


There Gandalf shows Thorin a “message”.

“Gandalf: It is Black Speech.

[Thorin looks at Gandalf with unease]

Gandalf: A promise of payment.

Thorin: For what?

Gandalf: Your head. Someone wants you dead.”

One can laugh at that last—is there the possibility that someone who promised payment for a head would not want the owner dead? (Here we thought, for a moment, of the Princess Langwidere in L. Frank Baum’s Ozma of Oz, who has a collection of 30 exchangeable heads which she keeps locked in a cabinet.)


After laughing, however, we began to wonder just who that message was supposed to be for.

Tolkien says of the Black Speech:

“It is said that the Black Speech was devised by Sauron in the Dark Years, and that he had desired to make it the language of all those that served him, but he failed in that purpose.”

We are never told why he failed: was it too complicated? Too impractical? Too limited? (In modern terms, we can imagine Sauron sending out memos, saying things like: “To All Departments: it has come to Our attention that there are those who are not using the Black Speech in all official documents. Please conform to standards as laid out in Mordor Bulletin #512. Immediate.”) If what Isildur has to say about the inscription inside the ring is true,


Sauron doesn’t appear to have devised a script in which to write it:

“Already the writing upon it, which at first was as clear as red flame, fadeth and is now only barely to be read. It is fashioned in an elven-script of Eregion, for they have no letters in Mordor for such subtle work…” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book 2, Chapter 2, “The Council of Elrond”)

Tolkien continues:

From the Black Speech, however, were derived many of the words that were in the Third Age wide- spread among the Orcs, such as ghash ‘fire’, but after the first overthrow of Sauron this language in its ancient form was forgotten by all but the Nazgul. When Sauron arose again, it became once more the language of Barad-dur and of the captains of Mordor.”

Could the “promise of payment” be meant for the Nazgul, then? That hardly seems likely—after all, they are the main servants of Sauron, bound to him by the rings they wear, Nazgul, after all, meaning “ring wraith”. Sauron’s success is their success—just as his failure seems to mean their end.

Because this scene exists only in the minds of the scriptwriters, we could have just shrugged it off right there as being a piece with the resurrected Azog and that ridiculous arm which he seems to have borrowed from a macho Frosty the Snowman, “Tauriel” and the embarrassing romance with a Dwarf, etc, etc, etc. Instead, we decided to play with the idea.

Using Tolkien’s actual texts as the basis of our thinking, we wondered: if the message wasn’t for the Nazgul and the Black Speech is specifically linked to Mordor, who else might be the recipient? Well, there are always the Orcs—but could they read it?

We know—sort of—what they are. Fangorn tells Merry and Pippin that they were made by Sauron as mockery of Elves. Tolkien himself seemed initially a bit puzzled about Orcish origins, calling them, in a letter to Milton Waldman (Letters no.131, 151, “probably in late 1951”) “…the Orcs (goblins) and other monsters bred by the First Enemy”. The same is said in Appendix F of The Lord of the Rings: “The Orcs were first bred by the Dark Power of the North in the Elder Days.” Then, in a letter to Naomi Mitchison (Letters, no.144, 177-8, 25 April, 1954), however, he writes: “Orcs…are nowhere clearly stated to be of any particular origin. But since they are servants of the Dark Power, and later of Sauron, neither of whom could, or would, produce living things, they must be ‘corruptions.’” And, again, in the draft of a letter to Peter Hastings, from later in the same year, he explains, quoting Frodo, speaking to Sam: “ ‘The Shadow that bred them can only mock, it cannot make real new things of its own. I don’t think it gave life to the Orcs, it only ruined them and twisted them.’” to which he adds, “In the legends of the Elder Days it is suggested that the Diabolus subjugated and corrupted some of the earliest Elves…” (Letters, no.153, 191). (This is continued later in the same letter, 195.)

Of their speech, JRRT wrote:

“It is said that they had no language of their own, but took what they could of other tongues and perverted it to their own liking; yet they made only brutal jargons, scarcely sufficient for their own needs, unless it were for curses and abuse. So it was in the Third Age Orcs used for communication between breed and breed the Westron tongue…” (The Lord of the Rings, Appendix F)

(Linguistically, we wonder if it would be possible for a people—especially a people who appear, in the later Third Age, to be extensive in number—could actually have had no language—or languages–of their own, particularly if they were a people who had existed before being corrupted by Morgoth. In The Lord of the Rings, for example, although they speak the Common Speech, they clearly have names out of some other language—what might that have been?)

Taking the next step, in a previous posting, we had begun to probe the question of literacy versus orality in Middle Earth and here we might ask the question: were Orcs literate at all? The only possible clue we’d found is in Appendix E of The Lord of the Rings, where it is said of the form of writing called “Cirth”:


“The Cirth in their older and simpler form spread eastward in the Second Age, and became known to many peoples, to Men and Dwarves, and even to Orcs…”

This would suggest that they were.

When we actually see the Orcs, however, do we find any evidence of the use of that writing?

There are only a couple of extended passages when we hear the Orcs as well as see them. The first is in the chapter entitled “The Uruk-hai”. In this chapter, the Orcs who have Merry and Pippin argue over their captives and we hear several talk about “orders” and “my orders”, but no documents appear or are mentioned: are these only oral orders? The second time we hear the Orcs is in “The Choices of Master Samwise.” Here, Sam overhears two Orc officers, Gorbag and Shagrat, talking. “The messages go through quicker than anything could fly, as a rule. But I don’t inquire how it’s done. Safest not to.” says Gorbag. And, a little later, Shagrat says, “A message came: Nazgul uneasy. Spies feared on Stairs. Double vigilance. Patrol to head of Stairs.” Unfortunately, there’s no further information here– although that second message almost sounds like it’s one step from being a tweet! (Or, in JRRT’s time, a Western Union telegram.) But then Shagrat says, “ I have my orders…Any trespasser found by the guard is to be held at the tower. Prisoner to be stripped. Full description of every article, garment, weapon, letter, ring, or trinket to be sent to Lugburz at once, and to Lugburz only…” Does such detail require writing? It does say “full description…to be sent”, which certainly suggests it.

We have a final glimpse and earful of the Orcs from “The Tower of Cirith Ungol” and into “The Land of Shadow”, but there are no more discussions of orders or messages or descriptions, just more of the brutality and treachery which seems the norm for such creatures.

So, we have two statements, in total, which are more suggestive than actual proof: Cirth was known to Orcs and the order for a “full description” to be sent to Barad-dur. Does that mean that, should Shagrat or Gorbag have written, he would have done so in Cirth? If so, this proves only literacy in that form and, when we look back to the one sample we have of any length (all of two lines) of the actual Black Speech, it is in Tengwar as we know, from Isildur, that Sauron—at least at the time of the making of the ring—had no Black Speech writing system to employ.

Conclusions? Although it was fun to do the research, at base, this was a fool’s errand—the whole thing, after all, was a creation of the same people who brought you Thranduil on an Irish elk (for more on that, google the extremely useful—and entertaining!– www.tolkien-treasures and see the entry on Thranduil and his mount).


If we play along, as we have, there’s only a process of elimination. The only people who had anything to do with the (revived) Black Speech were in Mordor. If it wasn’t the Nazgul and it wasn’t the Orcs, who’s left? Only one possibility seems to remain: Sauron wrote it as a memo to himself, a kind of Barad-dur post-it, (“To Me: Thorin. Head. Reward? Do soonest.”), but, being very busy in contract negotiations with Benedict Cumberbatch’s agent on voice-overs, he absentmindedly sent it.

What do you think, dear readers?

As always, thanks for reading!