‘…even now we learn from Gondor that the Dark Lord is stirring in the East. Such is the hour in which this wanderer chooses to return. Why indeed should we welcome you, Master Stormcrow? Lathspell I name you, Ill-news; and ill news is an ill guest they say.’ He laughed grimly, as he lifted his heavy lids for a moment and gazed on the strangers with dark eyes.
Gríma, son of Gálmód, called the Wormtongue. Who is more odious, slimy, clever, and handier with a knife than he? I wanted to use my first ‘Hasty Stroke’ article to talk about a character I’ve long been fascinated by and, in a more topical sense, one who’s just been added to our favorite card game. Join me as we take a quick look at master Gríma, where he comes from, and just how he got to be so sad.
‘Poor old Gríma! Poor old Gríma! Always beaten and cursed. How I hate him! I wish I could leave him!’
‘Then leave him!’ said Gandalf.
But Wormtongue only shot a glance of his bleared eyes full of terror at Gandalf, and then shuffled quickly past behind Saruman.
Welcome to my first Hasty Stroke! I think Gríma will be a perfect target for this one, as there is a good deal of information on him, but nothing encyclopedic (like, say, Aragorn). My initial draw to him came from The Lord of the Rings Online game, in which he is presented in a flashback scene of the meeting between Gandalf and Saruman just before the former’s capture. It got me thinking on something that hadn’t really dawned on me before: there were, for many years, Men in the service of Isengard before Saruman turned traitor. Gríma had to have been such a man, along with other servants and guards, in the employ of the White Wizard. No doubt it was a prestigious job: Isengard had been a holdfast of Gondor until its occupants fell into evil, then again when Saruman offered to take up residence there. The steward Beren, in 2759 of the Third Age, handed over the Keys of Orthanc and since that time Saruman was counted a great ally of both Gondor and neighboring Rohan.
From the quote below, we learn that few Men of both Rohan and, presumably, Gondor served Isengard. We know also of the ‘squint-eyed Southerner’, who was one type of half-orc who brokered dealings between Isengard and the Shire, to say nothing of Saruman’s various spies (many spies have many eyes!). But the looming question is who and how many remained when Saruman’s treachery became more apparent and when half-orcs had to be seen on the grounds. It can’t be many as the few who served at Isengard were understandably tight-lipped:
This was the stronghold of Saruman, as fame reported it; for within living memory the men of Rohan had not passed its gates, save perhaps a few, such as Wormtongue, who came in secret and told no man what they saw.
In any case, the Gríma we first meet in the text is wholly corrupted. Once a man of Rohan, he is now completely committed to poisoning Théoden, in both mind and body, in the name of the White Hand. He manipulates the power of the King to ensure a weakened position for Rohan to be invaded. From there, the rest of the story is well-known: his deception is uncovered by Gandalf who tells him to keep his forked tongue behind his teeth. Théoden King offers him a chance at redemption, to ride into battle against Saruman. Instead, Gríma rides back to Isengard only to find it flooded and under the not-so-hasty management of Treebeard.
He remains with his master, Saruman, who abuses him, and they take to the road afterwards to stir up mischief in the Shire. In the end, even a poor, corrupted Man like Gríma can only take so much. Frodo, despite being the target of an attempted murder, offers words of kindness and forgiveness to Saruman. Stirred up after more abuse and the kindness of Frodo, especially after allegedly being forced to kill (and possibly eat) Lotho Sackville-Baggins, Gríma cuts Saruman’s throat before receiving an untimely end by hobbit-arrows there on the steps of Bag End.
But at that something snapped: suddenly Wormtongue rose up, drawing a hidden knife, and then with a snarl like a dog he sprang on Saruman’s back, jerked his head back, cut his throat, and with a yell ran off down the lane. Before Frodo could recover or speak a word, three hobbit-bows twanged and Wormtongue fell dead.
The more interesting fate of Gríma, however, we learn in the Unfinished Tales. Further background information, how he came into the employ of Saruman or which part of Rohan he hails from, is not granted but we do learn that he twisted the paths of many on one fateful day. The Nine were set loose in T.A. 3017 after receiving information from a rather forthcoming Gollum about a ‘Baggins of the Shire’. Trouble was that they didn’t know where this ‘Shire’ happened to be. On the road, these black riders came upon another rider: Gríma the Wormtongue, out in western Rohan on his way to report back to his master, Saruman. Then, it is said:
In that hour the Wormtongue came near to death by terror; but being inured to treachery he would have told all that he knew under less threat.
The Black Breath drove poor Gríma to a maddened terror and he spilled many a bean, about the Shire, about Saruman and his shady dealings, and who knows what else. From there the relationship between Gríma and his master began to crinkle and rot until their tragic end.
Gríma provides a nice counterpoint to Éomer as we begin our adventures into the Ring-maker Cycle and serve the White Wizard not knowing his evil designs. Like most of the characters in Rings who ride the ‘gray area’ of good and evil, Gríma is one of the more interesting. His is yet another sad story of redemption gone wrong: once a free man, he falls into forced subservience and co-dependency only to rise up again and remove Saruman from Middle-earth before he can do more mischief. A sad tale, but so are many tales in Middle-earth.