As always, dear readers, welcome.
In a posting from three years ago (“Wormy”, 21 February, 2018), the question was asked: “Do worms have tongues?”
If you do a little hunting on the internet, you soon find out that, no, they don’t—although they have a thing called a “stylet”, which is used to help suck nourishment out of plants.
That posting wasn’t really about worms, however, but about traitors, like Grima (aka “Wormtongue”), who, by the use of their tongues, poison things around them.
What effect this has had on Theoden, King of Rohan, is clear:
“At the far end of the house, beyond the hearth and facing north towards the doors, was a dais with three steps; and in the middle of the dais was a great gilded chair. Upon it sat a man so bent with age that he seemed almost a dwarf…” (The Two Towers, Book Three, Chapter 6)
Grima’s work will be swept away as Gandalf commands him:
“ ‘The wise speak only of what they know, Grima son of Galmod. A witless worm have you become. Therefore be silent, and keep your forked tongue behind your teeth. I have not passed through fire and death to bandy crooked words with a serving-man till the lightning falls!’ “
And, with Grima silenced, there is an immediate change in Theoden:
“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.”
“Keep your forked tongue behind your teeth”, Gandalf has said and here, knowing now that worms have no tongues—and certainly not forked ones, we are reminded of a very early forked tongue liar, one which Tolkien would have known well, first from Bible stories his mother had read or told him:
“Now the serpent was more subtil than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made. And he said unto the woman, Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden?
And the woman said unto the serpent, We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden.
But of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die.
And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die…”
(Genesis, Chapter 3, 1-4, King James edition)
And, being immediately persuaded by the serpent, “the woman”—that is, Eve—not only tries the fruit herself but then shares it with her husband, Adam, and, well, things really go downhill from there.
As “worm”—as in Grima’s nickname—can mean “snake/serpent”, it was also once used for a much bigger reptile: a dragon, a “wyrm”, and perhaps another early influence on JRRT was from a book which he had known from childhood, Andrew Lang’s The Red Fairy Book (1890).
One obvious influence on Smaug, in The Hobbit,
had been the dragon in Beowulf, particularly when Bilbo steals a cup, which then so enrages Smaug that he roars out to destroy the countryside.
Exactly the same thing happens in the Anglo-Saxon poem, when an escaped slave steals a cup from a dragon in a tumulus.
That dragon, however, besides being nameless, is mute. In “The Story of Sigurd”, however, the last tale in The Red Fairy Book, Fafnir, a dragon, who has a vast golden hoard, not only can speak, but can curse, as he does when Sigurd kills him, saying “Whoever thou art who hast slain me this gold shall be thy ruin, and the ruin of all who own it.” (“The Story of Sigurd”, 360—for your own copy of The Red Fairy Book, follow this LINK: https://ia802608.us.archive.org/35/items/redfairybook00langiala/redfairybook00langiala.pdf )
Perhaps Smaug has gained speech in this way? Certainly, that speech has the quality of the serpent in the Garden of Eden, as Bilbo learns when Smaug begins to plant doubt in his mind about his allies:
“ ‘I don’t know if it has occurred to you that, even if you could steal the gold bit by bit—a matter of a hundred years or so—you could not get it very far? Not much use on the mountain-side? Not much use in the forest? Bless me! Had you never thought of the catch? A fourteenth share, I suppose, or something like it, those were the terms, eh? But what about delivery? What about cartage? What about armed guards and tolls?’…
You will hardly believe it, but poor Bilbo was really very taken aback. So far all his thoughts and energies had been concentrated on getting to the Mountain and finding the entrance. He had never bothered to wonder how the treasure was to be removed, certainly never how any part of it that might fall to his share was to be brought back all the way to Bag-End Under-Hill.
Now a nasty suspicion began to grow in his mind—had the dwarves forgotten this important point too, or were they laughing in their sleeves at him all the time? That is the effect that dragon-talk has on the inexperienced. Bilbo of course ought to have been on his guard; but Smaug had rather an overwhelming personality.” (The Hobbit, Chapter 12, “Inside Information”)
But worm tongues are not only in the mouths of serpents or dragons—seductive speech in The Lord of the Rings belongs primarily to a human(-like) villain, who lives in a tower,
but, at the time of this quotation, his plans for extending his power beyond his local environs have gone awry, thanks to Ents and hobbits.
“…Suddenly another voice spoke, low and melodious, its very sound an enchantment. Those who listened unwarily to that voice could seldom report the words that they heard; and if they did, they wondered, for little power remained in them. Mostly they remembered only that it was a delight to hear the voice speaking, all that it said seemed wise and reasonable, and desire awoke in them by swift agreement to seem wise themselves. When others spoke they seemed harsh and uncouth by contrast; and if they gainsaid the voice, anger was kindled in the hearts of those under the spell. For some the spell lasted only while the voice spoke to them, and when it spoke to another they smiled, as men do who see through a juggler’s trick while others gape at it. For many the sound of the voice alone was enough to hold them enthralled; but for those whom it conquered the spell endured when they were far away, and ever they heard that soft voice whispering and urging them. But none were unmoved; none rejected its pleas and commands without an effort of mind and will, so long as its master had control of it.” (The Tower Towers, Book Three, Chapter 10, “The Voice of Saruman”)
Smaug, for all of his cunning, had his weakness: an unprotected spot on his underside. Saruman’s weakness is an emotional one: he is arrogant, and, in his arrogance, he believes that he can rival Sauron. Through the Palantir at Orthanc into which he has looked, however, it’s clear that this belief has been fostered by Sauron,
who, it appears, has ways even more subtle than Saruman’s, seducing him into an overconfidence which brings about his downfall, as Gandalf says:
“Then I gave him a last choice and a fair one: to renounce both Mordor and his private schemes, and make amends by helping us in our need He knows our need, none better. Great service he could have rendered. But he has chosen to withhold it, and keep the power of Orthanc. He will not serve, only command. He lives now in terror of the shadow of Morder, and yet he still dreams of riding the storm. Unhappy fool! He will be devoured, if the power of the East stretches out its arms to Isengard. We cannot destroy Orthanc from without, but Sauron—who knows what he can do?”
Ironically, it is not Sauron who deals with Saruman, but Grima, finally weary of being abused by the master whom he had served by betraying his real master, Theoden:
“Saruman laughed. ‘You do what Sharkey says, always, don’t you, Worm? Well, now he says: follow!’ He kicked Wormtongue in the face as he grovellled, 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”)
Wyrms—dragons—are killed by heroes like Beowulf (with a little help from Wiglaf)
but it seems that a worm-tongue will die when a worm turns—on him.
Thanks, as ever, for reading.
Stay well, avoid crystal balls,
And know that, as always, there’s