Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Devilry in the Lord of the Rings


Etymologically speaking, the word devilry is a mixed word.  

devil is ‘Anglo-Saxon’, in the sense that it exists in Old English (déofol) (though that comes via Latin from Greek).

-ry is an Old French suffix, a variant of -ery, ultimately itself a compound of Latin suffixes -ariu- and -ia.

-ry in Tolkien

Although it was not originally a native suffix, Tolkien seems to have quite liked -ry. Here are some examples of it:

hobbitry (Merry now had enough sturdy hobbitry to deal with the ruffians, LR vi. viii)
errantry (But her brothers, Elladan and Elrohir, were out upon errantry, LR ii. i; also the famous poem Errantry, LR ii. i; used in the first Earendel poem)
wizardry (six occurrences: e.g. You are mighty in wizardry, Gandalf the White! LR iii. viii)

And notably:

ancientry (‘I would have her loved for her memory, her ancientry, her beauty, and her present wisdom’ LR iv. v, Faramir to Frodo; ‘This is a thing of worth beyond your reckoning. For its ancientry alone. It has no power, save the esteem in which those hold it who love my house. It will not help you, but if ever you are in need, my kin will ransom it...’ App. A. I. (iii), Arvedui to the Lossoth.)

ancientry (OED sense 1) is ‘The quality or estate of being ancient or very old; ancientness, antiquity...’

The frequency of devilry

Ngrams data:
Its highest frequency, in 1898: 0.000024%
after which it has declined; in 1941, when Tolkien was writing LR to: 0.000010%
and in 2000 to: 0.000004%

LR is around half a million words long and devilry occurs 12 times: 0.0024%.

The main meanings of devilry in OED2:

†1. A demon; a demoniacal possession. (Cf. French diablerie.) Obs. c1380 WYCLIF 
2. Magical operation performed by the supposed help of Satan; dealing with the Devil; diabolical art. c1425 
3. Works or operation of the devil. 1533 
4.  a. Devilish action or conduct; extreme wickedness, cruelty, or perversity; wicked mischief. 1637

devilry in LR

There are four instances where we need only assume OED’s sense 4a ‘extreme wickedness’, ‘wicked mischief’:

II. vii. (The Mirror of Galadriel) ‘There’s some devilry at work in the Shire.’
III. xi. (The Palantír) The devilry! What mischief has he done?
V. vi. (The Battle of the Pelennor Fields) What madness or devilry is this?
VI. i. (The Tower of Cirith Ungol) There was plainly some devilry going on.

However, I would argue that even here Tolkien intends a tinge of sense 2, ‘magical operation’, as in the remaining instances.

The other instances refer to phenomena regarded as magical in operation and malicious in motivation. 

Four are associated with Saruman specifically:

III. vii. (Helm’s Deep) Devilry of Saruman! … They have lit the fire of Orthanc. [Aragorn]
III. vii. (Helm’s Deep) But the Orcs have brought a devilry from Orthanc. They have a blasting fire. [Aragorn]
III. viii. (The Road to Isengard)  Saruman is brewing some devilry to greet us. [Éomer]
III. ix. (Flotsam and Jetsam)  We feared that Saruman was brewing some new devilry for us. [Aragorn]

The other four are linked with Sauron (assuming, in the first example of all, that he ultimately controls the orcs of Moria):

II. v. (The Bridge of Khazad-dûm)  ‘There is some new devilry here,’ he [Gandalf] said, ‘devised for our welcome, no doubt. But I know now where we are…’
IV. ii. (The Passage of the Marshes)  Is it some devilry hatched in the Dark Land? [Sam, in regard to the dead in the marches]
V. iv. (The Siege of Gondor) How it [fire] was kindled or fed, by art or devilry, none could see.
VI. i. (The Tower of Cirith Ungol) It’s the gate. There’s some devilry there. [Sam, in regard to the Watchers]

As already indicated, the nearest sense is:

2. Magical operation performed by the supposed help of Satan; dealing with the Devil; diabolical art.

But Middle-earth is pre-Christian. There is no ‘devil’. However, there are instances of devil in LR:

V. v. (The Ride of the Rohirrim) ‘Anything that can keep so in this devil’s mirk,’ answered Elfhelm.
V. viii. (The Houses of Healing) ‘All I hope is that those murdering devils do not come to this House and trouble the sick.’ [Ioreth]

These are ‘casual’ uses by ‘untutored’ folk; but they surely cannot be OED’s devil n. sense 4a ‘a human being of diabolical character’; they have to be closer to sense 3 ‘a malignant being of angelic or superhuman nature and powers’.

The following words, not surprisingly, are not used in LR: diabolical, demonic, demon.

The distribution and effect of devilry

The word is most frequent in one book, Book III. It is generally weighted towards the end of the story, Books III, IV, V, and VI. It is clustered so that there are no completely isolated cases.

Its effect seems to be to introduce some of the power of the concept of devil into the representation of the antagonists despite the theological mismatch. The traditional attributes of the devil are malice towards all creatures, dishonesty and lying, mockery, malign powers, and temptation to do evil. All these, except the last, are evidently qualities that are attributed to the Enemy and his allies in LR.

This posting is a taster for my presentation at Liverpool Hope University’s Tolkien Symposium on Friday 11 November, entitled ‘Diction and Narrative in the Lord of the Rings’.


  1. "Middle-earth is pre-Christian. There is no ‘devil’," — I'm not sure what you mean by this. The concept of both devils and The Devil long predate Christianity, in both Judaism and other religions. And certainly Satan and other fallen angels (demons) have an analog (I would say, identity) in Melkor and the evils Maiar.

  2. Thanks! I thought someone would point this out. I was putting it the way the new reader (or a hobbit) would see things. "Devilry" stands out as one of the few Judaeo-Christian concepts in LR - or even the only one. I suppose Gandalf must know about Morgoth/Melkor but the text doesn't suggest that any of the human characters who use the word "devilry" do. I don't think readers could have been meant to import knowledge of the Silmarillion or Legendarium into their reading of LR as it wasn't available when LR was written - literary theory would suggest that a book be read as it was presented.

  3. I think that it is quite clear how here the characters speaking, with the possible exception of Gandalf, are using some word in their language that has been translated in English as 'the Devil' or 'devilry'. How comes there are such words in their languages? Simple, because those languages carry the memory of a supernatural being of malignant powers, who could be Morgoth, yes, but also Sauron (and then becomes suitable with Saruman and the Orcs). The idea that such a being must have rebelled against God or any other specific religious association we today connect with the word must not be assumed to be present to those characters, but the fundamental ideas implied in the usage of the word (deceit, mischief, malignant powers) are instead there.

    1. When I wrote 'with the possible exception of Gandalf' I was simply thinking that he knows about Morgoth, not that he does not use a word in a language of Middle-earth.

    2. Thanks, I guess something like that must be the underlying situation.

    3. Thanks, I guess something like that must be the underlying situation.