The Spirit of Mordor

On murderous hate

To celebrate Tolkien reading day, Tom Hillman discusses the Old English word Morþorhete and the Spirit of Mordor

The day after Sam rescues Frodo from the tower of Cirith Ungol, two orcs, an Uruk and a smaller tracker, nearly catch them, but a fight breaks out between them:

The big orc, spear in hand, leapt after him. But the tracker, springing behind a stone, put an arrow in his eye as he ran up, and he fell with a crash. The other ran off across the valley and disappeared.

For a while the hobbits sat in silence. At length Sam stirred. ‘Well I call that neat as neat,’ he said. ‘If this nice friendliness would spread about in Mordor, half our trouble would be over.’

‘Quietly, Sam,’ Frodo whispered. ‘There may be others about. We have evidently had a very narrow escape, and the hunt was hotter on our tracks than we guessed. But that is the spirit of Mordor, Sam; and it has spread to every corner of it. Orcs have always behaved like that, or so all tales say, when they are on their own. But you can’t get much hope out of it. They hate us far more, altogether and all the time. If those two had seen us, they would have dropped all their quarrel until we were dead.’

(Return of the King, ‘The Land of Shadow’)

As is often the case with Tolkien a glance at Beowulf can prove interesting. For in line 1105 we encounter a word that suits the orcs and Frodo’s description of them perfectly. It is morþorhete, a compound of morþor, whose primary meaning is ‘murder’ and from which of course derives ‘Mordor’, and hete, ‘hate.’ Morþorhete, occurring only here in extant Old English, denotes a murderous or deadly hatred. Keep in mind, moreover, that every time we see orcs interacting with each other, whether they are of different kinds, as here, of different loyalties (Two Towers, ‘The Uruk-hai’), or of different commands (Two Towers, ‘The Choices of Master Samwise’; Return of the King, ‘The Tower of Cirith Ungol’), they always come to blows. So the word is generally applicable to orcs.

In Beowulf the word appears in the account of the oath that was meant to restore peace after the attack on Finnsburgh:

Ða hie getruwedon on twa healfa 1095 fæste frioðuwære. Fin Hengeste
elne unflitme aðum benemde þæt he þa wealafe weotena dome arum heolde, þæt ðær ænig mon wordum ne worcum wære ne bræce, 1100 (ne) þurh inwitsearo æfre gemænden, ðeah hie hira beaggyfan banan folgedon, ðeodenlease, þa him swa geþearfod wæs. Gyf þonne Frysna hwylc frecnen spræce ðæs morþorhetes myndgiend wære, 1105 þonne hit sweordes ecg syððan scede.

Then they concluded strong terms Of peace for both sides. Finn declared On oath to Hengest, nobly, with no dispute, That he, by the authority of his council, And with acts of kindness, would rule The sad remnant, that neither by word Nor by deed would any man break the accord, Nor through malice would they ever complain – Though, kingless now, they followed the killer Of their generous lord: it had been Necessary for them. Then if any of the Frisians With reckless speech called to mind Their murderous hate, a sword would settle it.1

The connection here is not to be found in the details of the story of Finn and Hengest, but in the morþorhete that remains alive just below the surface, so ready to break forth that only the threat of violence can suppress it even temporarily. In the end the terms do not prove strong enough, any more for Finn and Hengest than for the orcs Frodo and Sam see in Mordor. A passion so strong can unite or divide.

1 The translation offered above is mine, based on the text and notes in Klaeber’s Beowulf (Toronto, 2014). It may not be elegant, but I believe that it is at least not inaccurate. There are, however, points in the Old English that are not entirely clear, but these do not touch the issue of morþorhete directly.

About Tom Hillman

Born and raised in New York City, Tom for some years had the great pleasure of teaching Latin, Greek, and Ancient History at colleges in the northeastern US. Of late he is parsing his way through Beowulf, and looking forward to Old Norse. He loves baseball, books, and the music of the sea.


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