Adolf Hitler, Bilbo, Dragon, Fifth Column, Gandalf, Germany, Grima, Madrid, Middle-earth, Nazis, Norway, Norwegian facist party, Republican government, Rohan, Saruman, Second World War, Smaug, Spanish Civil War, The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, The Scouring of the Shire, Theoden, Tolkien, traitor, Vidkun Quisling, William Blake, worm, Wormtongue
Welcome, as always, dear readers.
In 1936, the Nationalist forces were marching to attack the Republican government in Madrid, during the Spanish Civil War.
When interviewed, a Nationalist general is reported to have said that, as four military columns were about to assault the city,
a fifth column of loyalists would join the attack from inside.
This phrase “fifth column”, then, was picked up and began to be used world-wide to mean “traitors/betrayers from within” and was popular during the Second World War era.
When the Nazis attacked Norway in 1940,
and the Allies failed to defend their positions there successfully and were forced to surrender or flee
a member of the small Norwegian fascist party, Vidkun Quisling,
declared himself ruler as the Germans marched in.
In time, the Nazis recognized him as the head of Norway and he even had an audience with Hitler.
This time, a specific “fifth columnist” had not only betrayed his country, but also profited greatly from it and, when we looked at the dates—1936 and 1940—we wondered, as we so often do, if the current events of our world may have colored JRRT’s relation of the events in Middle-earth—even as we hasten to say, as we always do, that this is just a suggestion.
In his first meeting with Aragorn, Eomer is troubled and his veiled comments suggest just the same sort of fifth-columnist action:
“But at this time our chief concern is with Saruman. He has claimed lordship over all this land, and there has been war between us for many months…”
His concern, however, as we see, is for more than border security, as he says of Saruman:
“His spies slip through every net, and his birds of ill omen are abroad in the sky. I do not know how it will all end, and my heart misgives me; for it seems to me that his friends do not all dwell in Isengard. But if you come to the king’s house, you shall see for yourself.” (The Two Towers, Book Three, Chapter 2, “The Riders of Rohan”)
So, all is not well, not only in Rohan, but in Meduseld itself. When Gandalf and the other survivors of the Fellowship arrive at the gates of Edoras, they are stopped by guards and by a command from Theoden, king of Rohan—or is it? A guard says:
“It is but two nights ago that Wormtongue came to us and said that by the will of Theoden no stranger should pass these gates.” (The Two Towers, Book Three, Chapter 6, “The King of the Golden Hall”)
“Wormtongue” seems a very odd name—do worms actually have tongues?
But this isn’t a worm, it’s a “worm”—an old term for “dragon”.
And, if Smaug’s speech and its effect upon Bilbo is anything to go by:
“Bilbo was now beginning to feel really uncomfortable. Whenever Smaug’s roving eye, seeking for him in the shadows, flashed across him, he trembled, and an unaccountable desire seized hold of him to rush out and reveal himself and tell all the truth to Smaug. In fact he was in grievous danger of coming under the dragon-spell.” (The Hobbit, Chapter 12, “Inside Information”)
then a person having a dragon tongue might be a real threat, as Wormtongue, seated at Theoden’s feet,
inserts himself between Gandalf and Theoden:
“Why indeed should we welcome you, Master Stormcrow? Lathspell I name you, Ill-news; and ill news is an ill guest they say.”
Gandalf immediately resists this and, in a burst of power, breaks the real “spell”—the dragon’s words which Grima Wormtongue has been pouring into Theoden’s ears, as Theoden says to him of Gandalf’s efforts: “If this is witchcraft…it seems to me more wholesome than your whisperings. Your leechcraft [that is, “medical skill”—obviously ironic here] ere long would have had me walking on all fours like a beast.”
[A footnote here—is JRRT making a quiet reference to the fate of Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, mentioned in the book of Daniel in the Old Testament? In Chapter 4, the king is driven mad and spends seven years as a grazing animal to prove the power of the Hebrew divinity. Here is William Blake’s (1757-1827) striking depiction of the mad king.]
Certainly something Grima has been doing has affected Theoden, as he is initially described as “a man so bent with age that he seemed almost a dwarf…” and this shrinking is suddenly reversed when Gandalf strikes Grima down:
“From the king’s hand the black staff fell clattering on the stones. He drew himself up, slowly, as a man that is stiff from long bending over some dull toil. Now tall and straight he stood, and his eyes were blue as he looked into the opening sky.”
For all that Grima has been blocked and Theoden restored, the fifth columnist tries once more. When he is told that he must ride with the king and his warriors to battle, he makes a countersuggestion:
“One who knows your mind and honours your commands should be left in Edoras. Appoint a faithful steward. Let your counsellor Grima keep all things till your return…”
But he gives himself away by finishing that sentence with “and I pray that we may see it, though no wise man will deem it hopeful.”
And Gandalf sees all too clearly what is behind Grima’s proposal—and who is behind it:
“Down, snake!…Down on your belly! How long is it since Saruman bought you? What was the promised price?…”
Although it is said that Grima deserves death for his treachery, he is allowed to flee, and, when we next see him, he is with his true master, acting as his “footman” as Gandalf calls him (The Two Towers, Book Three, Chapter 10, “The Voice of Saruman). And here, as Bilbo’s pity has preserved Gollum for an unseen but vital part in the later story of the Ring, so Gandalf’s mercy to Grima preserves him for two final acts: first, his mistaken use of a palantir as a missile, which puts it into Gandalf’s hands and, ultimately into Aragorn’s, who shakes Sauron’s nerve with it; second, Saruman’s ultimate end:
“[Saruman] kicked Wormtongue in the face as he groveled, and turned and made off. But at that something snapped: suddenly Wormtongue rose up, drawing a hidden knife, and then with a snarl like a dog he sprang on Saruman’s back, jerked his head back, cut his throat, and with a yell ran off down the lane.” (The Return of the King, Book Six, Chapter 8, “The Scouring of the Shire”)
Grima doesn’t survive this attack, however: “Before Frodo could recover or speak a word, three hobbit-bows twanged and Wormtongue fell dead.”
Merry calls these final acts of violence “the very last end of the War”, but we would suggest a parallel with a specific event in our world: the end of Vidkun Quisling–executed by firing squad in October, 1945, for treason. Could we say that Grima’s death—deserved earlier, but deferred—was also a kind of execution for treason, against Rohan, finally carried out?
And a final thought: after World War 2, Quisling’s name became, for a time, an easy synonym for “fifth columnist/traitor”—could we imagine that, in the Common Speech of Middle-earth after the War of the Ring, the same might have happened to “Grima Wormtongue”?
Thanks, as ever, for reading.