A Wolfe by Any Other Name Might Be a Warg

I returned to reading The Annotated Hobbit after a two week hiatus, said hiatus caused by notes and illustration captions found in the Introduction and annotations in the first five chapters. As I noted last week in a Tolkien memorial post, I’ve since started reading and completed several nonfiction titles, some of which actually grew out of The Annotated Hobbit annotations.

The first footnote of Chapter 6 delved into a connection between Tolkien’s us of “Misty Mountains” to a poem from the Old Norse Elder Edda. A few pages later, in the seventh footnote, I learned the chapter name, “Out of the frying-pan into the fire,” is a traditional proverb which The Oxford Dictionary of English Proverbs has examples of going back to the sixteenth century. But turning to the next page, I discovered the best, and ninth, footnote of the chapter, containing a reference to correspondence, in 1966, between Gene Wolfe and Tolkien on the use of the word warg.

Tolkien described his use of warg in a letter to Gene Wolfe of November 7, 1966: “It is an old word for wolf, which also had the sense of an outlaw or hunted criminal. This is the usual sense in surviving texts. I adopted the word, which had a good sound for the meaning, as a name for this particular brand of demonic wolf in the story.” Tolkien derived the word from Old English wearg-, Old High German warg-, Old Norse varg-r (also = “wolf,” especially of a legendary kind).

Footnote 9, Chapter 6 Out of the Frying-pan Into the Fire, The Annotated Hobbit

The footnote also referenced two essays on Tolkien’s work, both of which I found available for perusal. The older one entitled “The Tolkien Toll-Free Fifties Freeway to Mordor and Points Beyond Hurray!” published in Venture (Spring 1974 no. 67/68) is a scanned copy of the original typewritten issue and is a bit difficult to decipher in places. The second one, published more recently via Interzone (December 2001), was more readily found in electronic format and was called “The Best Introduction to the Mountains.”

Sadly, Gene Wolfe passed away in April 2019 and I still have not read his most famous series, The Book of the New Sun, of which I own the omnibus ebook edition Shadow & Claw, with cover art by Don Maitz (one of my favorite artists). This series, and Gene Wolfe in particular, has been recommended to me multiple times by many friends and authors. I must move this book up in my reading queue.

I agreed with the note provided by the author (John C. Wright) hosting the essay stated it is “the best title for an essay . . . for this is the last night of the short story ‘Leaf by Niggle,’ where the unfinished artwork of Niggle is used by heaven as an introduction to the deeper and higher joys beyond art to which art (when done correctly) points and Prof. Tolkien’s art more than most.”

Turning the page, and again I find the tenth footnote introducing me to Samuel Rutherford Crockett and a specific chapter (Chapter 49 “The Battle of the Were-Wolves”) from The Black Douglas that Tolkien admitted to his son Michael may have influenced the warg episode. S.R. Crockett (1859-1914) was an extremely prolific writer so I of course immediately jumped to Project Gutenberg to see which of his titles were available as ebook downloads.

The next few pages portrayed the increasing tension of treed dwarves, hobbit and wizard surrounded by wargs and approaching goblins. And for the first time the point of view of a non-bipedal character in the narration from on high of the Lord of the Eagles. The final footnote referenced an unfinished Chaucer poem called “The House of Fame” provided in first in Middle English (which I only skimmed through) followed by a prose translation which shared “a dream in which an eagle has seized him up into the sky to the House of Fame.” The prose was shorter but no less impactful in conveying the astonishment and terror of dangling from the talons of an eagle many thousands of feet above a “world seemed no more than a point to mine eyes.”


I’m making slow progress through The Annotated Hobbit because I do love falling down annotation rabbit holes. Thankfully, there are only nineteen chapters total so I hope to finish before our next book discussion on Friday, September 24th.

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