Dwarves, Spiders, and Murky Woods: J.R.R. Tolkien's Wonderful Web of Words

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I can't think where you get all your amazing words from. I think we are both afraid lest you should be carried away by them.

--Christopher Wiseman to J.R.R. Tolkien, 1915 (Scull and Hammond 2.1106)

ALL STORIES BEGIN WITH WORDS. ON THE SURFACE, this may seem so obvious as to be hardly worth saying, but in the case of the stories--and the words--of J.R.R. Tolkien, this simple claim means much more. Tolkien was an extraordinarily careful and methodical writer, in whose voluminous writings "[h]ardly a word [...] has been unconsidered" (Tolkien, Letters 160). (1) George Steiner, the influential literary critic, wrote that "[w]hen using a word we wake into resonance, as it were, its entire previous history" (After Babel 24)--and there is perhaps no writer more attuned to this statement than Tolkien. He relished "wring[ing] the juice out of a single sentence, or explor[ing] the implications of one word" ("Valedictory Address" 224), and for each word he chose, often after protracted deliberation, Tolkien had a whole nimbus of ramifying connotations and implications in mind. Tolkien often tilled the same soil for his fiction as had already yielded such a rich harvest in his academic career; it is quite common to find evidence of the one in the other.

Tolkien's linguistic borrowings were diverse and layered. He liked to imbue words with multiple shades of meaning, even outright double-meanings, within and across languages. He was aware of the etymology of every word he used; even the words he invented had fully realized, albeit fictive, etymologies. A classic example is the Middle-earth toponym, Mordor. In Tolkien's invented Elvish language, Sindarin, the word signifies the "black land, dark country" but in Old English mordor was equally dark, meaning "murder." Another is Orthanc: in Sindarin, "Mount Fang," but in Old English orpanc is the "cunning mind." In the pages to follow, I would like to explore a particular cluster of Tolkien's carefully-chosen words, all of which come together in a single episode in his first published novel, The Hobbit.

Having thus set the table, let me serve you up a dish of spiders--specifically, the great poisonous Spiders of Mirkwood. For those who need a quick refresher, the quest to win back the hoard of the dragon Smaug had taken Bilbo and the Dwarves into the dark forest of Mirkwood. In spite of repeated warnings not to leave the forest path, hunger and despair eventually overcame their better judgment, and the company does just that: they leave the path, become hopelessly lost, and fall prey to giant poisonous Spiders. Not one of their better decisions! But Bilbo, with his magic ring, is not captured; instead, he masters his fear and sets about drawing the Spiders away from the captured and helpless Dwarves, singing a song to infuriate them:

   Old fat spider spinning in a tree!
   Old fat spider can't see me!
   Attercop! Attercop!
   Won't you stop,
   Stop your spinning and look for me!

   Old Tomnoddy, all big body,
   Old Tomnoddy can't spy me!
   Attercop! Attercop!
   Down you drop!
   You'll never catch me up your tree!
     (Tolkien, Annotated Hobbit 8.211)

What are we to make of Bilbo's taunt of "Attercop! Attercop!"? Casual readers often assume Tolkien invented the word, but in fact he did not. Like "Middle-earth," "mathom," "orc," and so many others, this is one of those archaic words Tolkien rescued from obscurity, thereby awakening its entire previous history. It really means nothing more than "poisonous spider." (2) The Anglo-Saxon compound ator-coppe goes back more than a thousand years to some of the earliest Germanic literature. I do not know of any occurrence of this compound form in Old Norse (one does find kongur-vafa, in which the second element, rather chillingly, means "ghost"), but it would have been *eitr-koppr. The Old English compound did make its way into Medieval Welsh as adargop, eventually shortened to Modern Welsh adrop. …