Gríma Wormtongue – a complicated character
Gríma Wormtongue is one of the most infamous people in the history of Middle-earth, for he is known as the man who almost caused the death of a king and the ruin of a kingdom because of his desire to gain power and rise in the hierarchy. He betrayed his country by spying for Saruman and haunted the steps of the king’s niece whom he — lusted after, was obsessed about, maybe even loved…?
Despised by most because of his treacherous actions and unfortunate personality, he was an outcast: even at the height of his power he never gained the respect he thought he deserved. By others he was ever seen as the corrupted man with poisonous words to use as he pleased: Wormtongue, at ease even when using lies and deceits to gain what he wanted. Of all the many villains throughout Tolkien’s works he appears to be one of the worst; not because he was more evil than Sauron, more destructive than Morgoth or more corrupted than Saruman, but rather because of the methods he used to gain power. As he turned traitor to his country – apparently not wanting any benefits for his ill deeds, except for wealth and a fair lady – he had no real motif for what he did, hence making people conclude that he must have been one of the most wicked men ever.
We know little to nothing about Gríma’s background to explain his moves – whether he was a pauper’s son or born into a noble family and thus destined for great things, one can only guess. Of course, it may seem easier to put him in the former category because this might lessen the difficulty of finding excuses for what he ultimately became. If he was raised in a poor family burdened by many problems, seemingly having no prospect in life, his development may be seen as an act of desperation; apparently the only way for him to ever “make it”. But is it realistic to assume that a man of neither fortune nor heritage nor great renown could become the King’s chief counsellor in such a land as Rohan? Would it have been possible for him to advance so high in the hierarchical society of this country? Not even Saruman could have had the power to give him such an influential position in the Riddermark…
But whatever may have been the case, somehow this sleek guy with a rather unnatural appearance for one of his race (the Rohirrim were known to be blond and vigorous) became close to the King; he was appointed one of Théoden’s counsellors, and slowly he began to manipulate his master’s thoughts for he was, just as Saruman, a great rhetorician, excelling in the power of speech almost as well as the latter. Perhaps, at first, his intentions were good, perhaps, at first, he truly longed for the well-being of his nation, but when he began his dealings with Saruman his well-meaning intentions faded and became less important. For suddenly, there were other things at stake, and at such a time, silly ideas like loyalty to one’s homeland are regarded as irrelevant…
There is a saying that power corrupts, and maybe this was the case, maybe this was the reason why Gríma turned out to be such an evil person. At least, it is very likely that, if he hadn’t been Théoden’s advisor, Saruman would never have had any use for him, thus never putting Gríma’s ideals to a test he was doomed to fail. Of course, Gríma himself was put under Saruman’s spells – the wizard’s honeyed voice tempted him and played the strings in his heart like a lute. Saruman saw his desires and offered him the redemption from all his sufferings and shortcomings, he must have promised this weak man that his desires would be served to him on a silver platter if only he would submit to Saruman.
Who would not be tempted in this situation? Who wouldn’t feel the want to do the wizard’s will? After all, the first thing you’re bid to do is harmless (you say to yourself, while you are already rotting slowly from inside, all too easily corrupted). Not even the stout-hearted can feel completely safe from the weaknesses to which Saruman’s spells appealed. And if there was in Gríma, when tempted for the first time, but a modicum of the Gríma as he is shown when we first meet him (and most likely there was as he is just an average human being, after all), then there’s no question that, if put under pressure, sooner or later, he would give in.
And so he did. In the year TA 3014, unable to fight or simply willing from to listen to Saruman’s convincing suggestions, Gríma, due to either an inherent corruption or outside constraints (his surroundings seemed to leave him with no other possibility for his own advancement), began to mould and manipulate King Théoden’s mind, making his body and spirit, both once so vigorous, age prematurely, invoking in him also the fear of conspiracies among his most trustworthy subjects (e.g. Éomer his nephew) and the thought of a lost and hopeless battle to fight, where only Saruman remained Rohan’s loyal ally. With Gríma dripping his poison in the ears of both Théoden and Éowyn (who was forced to watch her uncle deteriorating and falling from honour, a ridiculous victim of old age and his own feeble fantasies), the effects of Gríma’s secret workings slowly became visible to the rest of the outside world. Friendliness and hospitality changed to mistrust and enmity in the Mark, strangers were no longer welcome, and the defences were not taken care of properly. Those who tried to act were proclaimed traitors, while Saruman could rejoice: he had a spy within the walls of Edoras, who was ever urging the king to ignore all warnings – even those spoken bluntly, face-to-face.
Whether all these terrible things were done only because of Saruman’s machinations or because Gríma really coveted power will remain unknown. Maybe he had also dreams too splendid to talk about outloud, dreams similar to those which other men might have, too. As I have already said, Gríma harboured certain feelings for Éowyn. Morbid or pure – who knows? But he did have feelings after all, ever desiring her, ever wanting her to be his, trying as best as he could to win her heart with lies and mocking, snide comments, but also showing that he understands her true nature in some twisted way. He might have acted wrongly in order to get her, but considering this aspect of his personality, pity could easily mingle the blend of other feelings one has for him. He would not be thoroughly bad, but might rather be considered a desperate human being, who has chosen the wrong path far too many times, making it far too late for him to regret his decisions.
He acts selfishly and doesn’t understand that she doesn’t desire him in return. It embitters him and turns his feelings for her into obsession and lust. He wants her, no matter what – he will always be haunting her steps, breathing into her ears, always watching where she goes in order to be near her. Can a man who has once loved someone be evil? Malicious and nasty, yes; but really, truly evil? It cannot have been merely bodily lust. If it had been the case, he could have tried to take advantage of Éowyn whenever he pleased. So one might come to the conclusion that he was at least partly – or fully? – emotionally involved as well. Gríma the wicked man, the lurking man, the stalker, and Gríma, the victim of unrequited love?
His deeds, though wrong, may be judged less severely if one takes his heart into consideration. But even if he betrayed his country out of love, he is still responsible for his actions. Surely, he had enough time to find out about their consequences – and could have stopped them, if he actually wanted to do any good. Moreover, we do not merely see Gríma selling out his country. He is also a thief who steals precious artefacts from the royal family and the Rohirric treasuries. Would a man completely blinded by love have acted in such a manner as well? Can a man who proves every second to be egotistical and thinking of his own benefits ever be held innocent and be excused for the things he did? He is also a reckless thief desiring all he can get! Sure enough, he’s a human being, but a greedy one – like Ungoliant, he is always in search of treasures, literal and figurative ones. Gríma seems to be a small and cowardly man, who above all seeks some sort of security, hateful, spiteful and scornful, never feeling any pity for his peers. Maybe he even mourns the fact that some of them succeeded in life without selling their soul and giving up their decency. He must still be human enough to feel guilt; guilt which is repressed and most likely never admitted, something he knows about but never deals with. Furthermore, he must have become quite bitter because, despite all his sacrifices, success is not coming his way, and when it is finally within his grasp, some strangers arrive and ruin all his work.
So, Gríma must hate himself, the world, and the people around him, both those who succeed and those who continue living humbly, never compromising their ideals and principles – an eternal reminder of what he did not manage. The heart of this embittered and hateful man turns ever darker. It is said in Unfinished Tales that he encounters the Nazgûl on one of his journeys back from Isengard. They force him to tell all that he knows about Saruman’s activities, and he would even have done the same if fewer threats had been used. In spite of hearing that he serves Saruman, who has betrayed their lord, the wraiths still do not kill him, for they perceive that he is completely rotten and will in time do more damage than good to Saruman: a man with no loyalty, fretful and frightening; seemingly harmless, but with a wicked and twisted soul.
When all he has dreamt of appears to be lost he flees to Isengard; and even though his master has been left powerless, he remains with him and follows him to the Shire. Of course he hates Saruman, but the other option would have been returning to the free peoples of Middle-earth, sure to be punished and made to repent. So, just like Saruman, he scorns pity, mercy, and the possibility of redeeming himself. One can only guess whether he still hasn’t lost his belief that, someday, Saruman will regain power or whether he is now completely evil at heart. Maybe both. He lets Saruman treat him as if he were his dog; although he is clearly sulking, Gríma never leaves his master. He is not Saruman’s slave, he can go as he pleases, but he doesn’t. He sticks to Saruman, nourishing the hate he must be feeling, not envisioning any possibility of breaking free. If evil is evil in his eyes, then good has become twice as evil and false as everything else.
There’s no love lost between the two villains; yet it is not until the very end that Gríma takes his master’s life – the life of the one person he loathes above anything else. Saruman is killed from behind, which shows Gríma’s wretchedness yet again – all his deeds are soiled with trickiness and corruption. Saruman, who once was, though corrupted, the head of a great order, is stabbed in the back by a common thief. Unable to recognize his guilt and his own part in everything that has gone amiss, Gríma blames it on Saruman, thus projecting all his anger and frustration on the nearest person, his master.
Would he have changed if he had had Éowyn? Would anybody have been able to save him from his doom? Like Éowyn, whom he desired more than anything else (and at least he did deem himself to be in love with her…)? Could he have behaved towards her in a manner similar to his betrayal of Saruman? All hope gone, would he then blame the others for his own ruin and curse them all, including Éowyn?
These are interesting thoughts to muse upon. What was the background that has created such a character as Gríma Wormtongue? A tragic figure despite all his evil deeds, tragic because he sunk so deep into corruption that almost lost the features which made him a human being. This is one of the great secrets of Tolkien’s works: how did it all come to this?
Article by Eressëa
-J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings – The Two Towers, The Return of the King
-J.R.R. Tolkien, Unfinished Tales
-CoE threads (both from the Book Forum) – Gríma Wormtongue, Gríma Wormtongue -Victim or Villain
-Biography entry Gríma Wormtongue in The Thain’s Book at www.tuckborough.net