Etymologiblog: Rise of the Wraith

DISCLAIMER: I AM NOT A LINGUIST. I ONCE WAS A CHILD WHO READ THE DICTIONARY FOR FUN. I GREW UP INTO A WOMAN OBSESSED WITH ASSONANCE AND CONSONANCE*, DENOTATIONS AND CONNOTATIONS. THESE ARE MY SOLE QUALIFICATIONS.

For Christmas I received a Blu Ray boxed set of LotR. The Fellowship of the Ring alone had three bonus discs of material, so, being the nerd that I am, I sat down to watch them all.

MY PRECIOUS

MY PRECIOUS

And it was all great, every minute of it, and something was said regarding the Ringwraiths that really caught my ear. Here’s my transcription:

Tom Shippey: Author “J.R.R. Tolkein: Author of the Century” Well, wraith is related to words we know, it’s related to wroth, which is anger, it’s related to wreath, which is a twisted thing, it’s related to the word writhe, which is to twist and turn, and all these suggest that actually a wraith is something defined by shape, not by substance.

Dr. Patrick Curry Author “Defending Middle —Earth Tolkien: Myth and Modernity” There’s a vacuity, an emptiness at the heart of the ringwraiths, they actually in a sense have no lives of their own, they are totally dependent upon Sauron and the one ring. That’s an interesting aspect of Tolkien’s view of evil: kind of a moral vacuum, a lack of independent life.

SO MUCH TO DIG INTO HERE. Oh man. *rubs hands together*.

concept art (do not know original artist, someone tell me!)

An earlier Old English meaning of the word writhe, “to twist or bend” is “to bind or fetter”. Certainly the wraiths are bound by their own rings to Sauron. Writhe is almost always used when describing sensations of pain or pleasure, or when describing the movement of an animal such as a snake. One writhes in death throes, or in orgasm, (or as the French say, La petit mort, “the little death”) so it all comes back around.

Wreath is Old English for bandage, or perhaps more significantly here, band. It is tied to Old Frisian (wreth, “angry”), and Dutch (wreed, “rough, harsh, cruel”), among many others. Nearly every related variation from Old High German to Old Norse means either “to twist” “to torture” or “angry”. Wreath did not mean “garland of flowers” until the mid 1500s. Before that, it was a word of pain and binding.

Wroth, we still know as angry, but literally is “tormented or twisted” and it also comes from old words that mean “evil” (Old Frisian), and “cruel” (Old High German).

Also, all of these words; wroth, writhe, wreath, have Proto-Germanic roots. Proto-Germanic is basically a hypothetical prehistoric father of English. As Tolkien was trying to create a truly English mythology, his word choice is particularly apt (and as Tolkien was a linguist, this is surprising to exactly no one. But then, that’s what makes this such a great example of the power of the right word).

Now then, let’s zoom out and look at Ring and Wraith themselves.

Ring: Old English, “circular band”, from ProtoGermanic (again!) khrengaz, “something curved” from the root (s)ker— “to turn, bend”.  Hmm. Sensing a theme here.

Now for Wraith. And…here’s where things get weird. According to what I can find, “Wraith” means ghost, and is Scottish, but of uncertain origin. Isn’t that interesting?  “Wraith” itself is a linguistic dead end.  No one is really sure where it came from. Tolkien seemed to think it was part of that writhe/wreath family. Look at all the connotations, the echoes we get in all the words “wraith” sounds like. I think his guess is good as any and better than most, even if it still only qualifies as pseudo-etymology.

So now we have a twisted, angry, thing, a bound thing. A cruel, empty thing. A wraith.

You don’t have to know it to feel it.

no artist credit on this one either! :(

Despite the 800+ word count, this is really just an overview. For a more comprehensive examination of the origins of “ringwraith” please check out Lingwë. He has written no less than one two three posts on the etymology of Ringwraith. The man breaks it down to dust, and it is glorious. I did not discover his work until I was wrapping up the final edits on this post, but I totally have a new hero (he even edited Tolkien and the Study of His Sources: Critical Essays. Amazing).

*FUN FACT! I started scheming on my now-husband’s last name very early on in our relationship, because it sounded so well with my own: Amy McLane oh my goodness all those delicious long A’s and M’s, soft Ls, Ns, Y and E, with that nice hard C to give it a little punch right in the middle. I LOFF IT. So so so much better than Amy Forbes, which just sort of flops out and then people ask you if you are related to Steve Forbes (I am! He’s my dad! He’s just not *THAT* Steve Forbes).

(Dear, if you are actually reading this, I still would have married you if your last name was Doofenshmirtz.)

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