If you’ve listened to the podcast enough, you’ve probably heard Alan and I make the bold claim that J. R. R. Tolkien never, ever made an accidental word choice in his writing. Every single word was chosen quite deliberately, we like to believe, and so there’s no shame in delving deep into every single word choice to determine exactly what was in the Professor’s head at the moment of writing. Of course, while we can’t know for sure, this is likely an exaggeration — surely even Tolkien occasionally chose words “just because” — but we’ll never know for sure, and we’ll keep on saying it. One thing that we do know for sure is that Tolkien understood words, and the history of words, well enough to know which one was right for his intended purpose; and that if he wanted to, he could use their histories and multiple shades of meaning to great effect.
One of our favorite words to delve into is doom. Here’s how the free online Oxford Dictionary defines doom. We’ll call this Sense 1:
Death, destruction, or some other terrible fate.
But a glance at the etymology of the word on that same page reveals that the word comes from Old English dōm, ‘statute, judgment’, and is related to the Modern English word deem which means to judge or decide. It’s a fact Tolkien knew well, of course, and he wrote of it in a collection of notes for translation of his work that he prepared for his publisher Allen & Unwin after The Lord of the Rings came out (and which is now printed as Nomenclature of The Lord of the Rings, in Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull’s The Lord of the Rings: A Reader’s Companion:
Doom, Mount Doom. This word doom, original sense ‘judgement’ (formal and legal, or personal), has in E[nglish], partly owing to its sound, and largely owing to its special use in Doomsday, become a word loaded with senses of death; finality; fate (impending or foretold).
(The Lord of the Rings: A Reader’s Companion, p.768)
Tolkien frequently uses the word doom in this original sense as well — ‘judgment’ or ‘decision’, or even simply ‘fate’ in a neutral (not necessarily negative, but unavoidable) sense. We’ll call this Sense 2.
There is, however, a third way in which Tolkien uses the word doom. In The Fellowship of the Ring, he uses it in an onomatopoeic sense, that is, to imitate a sound. Specifically, it imitates the sound of drums in the deep:
Gandalf had hardly spoken these words, when there came a great noise: a rolling Boom that seemed to come from depths far below, and to tremble in the stone at their feet. They sprang towards the door in alarm. Doom, doom it rolled again, as if huge hands were turning the very caverns of Moria into a vast drum. Then there came an echoing blast: a great horn was blown in the hall, and answering horns and harsh cries were heard further off. There was a hurrying sound of many feet.
(The Fellowship of the Ring, p. 315)
It’s a chilling passage, and aside from the way all action seems to stop as the Fellowship begins to hear the orc-drums echoing below the Chamber of Mazarbul, the word choice doom is very evocative. The drums are not just sounding, they are sounding out doom.
Tolkien is keenly aware of
the ambiguity inherent in the word,
and frequently plays with it.
On the surface, it seems that this could be a case of reading too much into it. We do that sometimes at the Prancing Pony Podcast. It’s why you come here, isn’t it!? After all, how many onomatopoeic words are there to convey the sound of a deep bass drum in a mine far below, anyway? Dum doesn’t quite cut it. Tap wouldn’t work, nor rat-a-tat. What about boom? It’s got the same vowel, and it’s certainly more established in English idiom as onomatopoeia for the sound of a deep bass drum. And yet Tolkien only uses the word boom for the sound twice in this entire episode (he uses doom 29 times).
In episode 020 of the podcast, we discussed with Dimitra Fimi and Andrew Higgins the concept of “sound symbolism,” which Drs. Fimi and Higgins define in their Introduction to A Secret Vice as “the idea that there is a direct relationship between the sounds making up a word and its meaning.” (p. li) So choosing an onomatopoeic representation of the sound of a drum that evokes a little extra meaning seems perfectly in keeping with what we know of Tolkien.
And in fact, we know this was his intent (surprise!). In the next paragraph of the Nomenclature entry quoted above for “Doom, Mount Doom” (worst Middle-earth spy parody film ever?) Tolkien goes on to note:
The use in the text as a word descriptive of sound (e.g. especially in Book II, Chapter 5) associated with boom is of course primarily descriptive of sound, but is meant (and would by most E[nglish] readers be felt) to recall the noun doom, with its sense of disaster.
(The Lord of the Rings: A Reader’s Companion, pp. 768-9)
So there we have it. But I’m not done yet, because I’ve spent a lot of time looking at dooms to get here!
There are over 130 mentions of the word doom in the narrative of The Lord of the Rings (not counting the Appendices; there are another 40 or so there, but I didn’t get around to analyzing those, so out they go). Of those, 29 are the onomatopoeic dooms of Book II, Chapter 5, and appear together in pairs or triples. Another 26 are references to proper names: typically ‘Mount Doom’ or something related (e.g., ‘Cracks of Doom’, ‘Ring of Doom’). Of the more than 80 that remain in narration or dialogue, it’s often hard to determine whether a truly neutral Sense 2 is meant or whether there is some ambiguity, but truly negative Sense 1s are rare.
Some of the explicit Sense 1s, interestingly, involve Gondor; such as Faramir’s statement to Frodo that “…the journey of Boromir was doomed” (pp. 655-6), or Pippin and Beregond referring to the flying Nazgûl as “the shadow of doom” (p. 749). By contrast, the Rohirrim almost always seem to use doom in a neutral Sense 2 (as might be expected by the matter-of-fact acceptance of fate one finds in the Anglo-Saxon culture that inspired much of the Rohirrim), such as Théoden’s words to Éowyn upon leaving Edoras for Helm’s Deep: “Not West but East does our doom await us” (p. 512).
An interesting case appears in the speech of the Ents, during the march to Isengard:
To land of gloom with tramp of doom, with roll of drum, we come, we come;
To Isengard with doom we come!
With doom we come, with doom we come!
(The Two Towers, p. 474)
This may be my favorite use in the entire book, because it incorporates every single sense of the word doom we have discussed: it is certainly a terrible fate which the Ents are bringing to Saruman in his stronghold, and yet a long-awaited and inevitable fate. It is the clearest sense of doom as ‘judgment’ that I can find in The Lord of the Rings: a sentence passed upon Saruman for his crimes against nature. And it is, at the last, like much of the Ents’ speech and poetry, onomatopoeic as well.
But I digress.
The distinctions I list are by no means comprehensive, or consistent. Sense 2 doom is also used often by the wise; Frodo begs Faramir to “let me go where my doom takes me” (p. 653) and Gandalf speaks the following to Théoden while passing under the Huorns at Deeping Coomb:
‘The evil of Sauron cannot be wholly cured, nor made as if it had not been. But to such days we are doomed. Let us now go on with the journey we have begun!’
(The Two Towers, p. 537)
As can be seen from the last two examples, Tolkien is keenly aware of the ambiguity inherent in the word, and frequently plays with it, often making it difficult to determine whether an explicitly negative Sense 1 is meant, or a more open-to-interpretation Sense 2, or a mix of both.
“Mortal Men doomed to die” from the Ring-verse is an excellent example. I can still recall my first time reading the book, and the foreboding of these words. It’s natural for a first-time reader to assume that the mortal men who possessed the nine rings died because they possessed them. Of course, the more I read into Tolkien’s legendarium, the more I realized that assumption was false. Mortal Men die. It’s just what they do. It’s what sets them apart from the Firstborn, and is the key identifying trait of Men in Tolkien’s mythology and the philosophy behind it. None of this is news to anyone who’s heard our podcast or read The Silmarillion, but that is exactly my point: with more knowledge, a usage of the word doom that at first comes across as purely negative can be read as neutral (i.e., matter of fact, a simple statement of what is), or even — with a greater understanding (such as an understanding of death as the gift of the One to Men) — as positive.
Other examples of ambiguity abound. Occasionally, characters interpret a mention of doom as bad (Sense 1) but soon learn otherwise:
‘Behold Isildur’s Bane!’ said Elrond.
Boromir’s eyes glinted as he gazed at the golden thing. ‘The Halfling!’ he muttered. ‘Is then the doom of Minas Tirith come at last? But why then should we seek a broken sword?’
‘The words were not the doom of Minas Tirith,’ said Aragorn. ‘But doom and great deeds are indeed at hand. For the Sword that was Broken is the Sword of Elendil that broke beneath him when he fell. It has been treasured by his heirs when all other heirlooms were lost; for it was spoken of old among us that it should be made again when the Ring, Isildur’s Bane, was found. Now you have seen the sword that you have sought, what would you ask? Do you wish for the House of Elendil to return to the Land of Gondor?’
(The Fellowship of the Ring, p. 241)
Boromir’s mistake is to assume the doom he’s heard reference to in his dream is bad, but Aragorn corrects him. It is not doom (Sense 1) that Boromir’s dream prophesies, but doom (Sense 2) that is coming: a time long fated, that may yet end for good or for ill. Again, with knowledge provided by Aragorn, we are taught to see a potentially negative Sense 1 doom as something more neutral or even positive.
I’ve come to believe the use of doom in Book II, Chapter 5, for the drums in the deep, is another of these. Certainly, by Tolkien’s own admission in his notes in the Nomenclature, it is meant to evoke disaster. But I see something else there as well. With the first doom of the drums in the deep, we know that the fight between Gandalf and the Balrog is coming. Certainly, this is something of a disaster for the Fellowship. The great wizard falls, depriving Frodo of his “wise old mentor” figure, and the Fellowship of its leader and chief strategist. The first-time reader is meant to see this as disastrous, a great blow to the Fellowship and a crucial junction from which they may not emerge victorious on the other side. It’s an emotional blow as well, something I find best exemplified by the words of a family member upon seeing Peter Jackson’s The Fellowship of the Ring for the first time: “I cried when the old dude died.” (She Knows Who She Is, 2001).
But savvy readers know that “wise old mentor” figures often die to allow the younger heroes to come into their own. And sometimes, they come back “more powerful than you can possibly imagine” (Obi-Wan Kenobi, 1977). And that’s exactly what happens here. It is because of Gandalf’s sacrifice at the Bridge of Khazad-dûm that the rest of the Fellowship are able to escape. More than that, the apparent death of Gandalf the Grey allows him to be reborn as Gandalf the White, a good deal more powerful than Force-ghost Ben Kenobi. We’ll never know exactly what happened to Olórin the Maia after he passed through fire and deep water, but it seems likely that he faced some kind of judgment by the Valar, and was deemed worthy to be returned in corporeal form and granted the additional strength he needed to face the challenges ahead. (EDIT: As pointed out by mithrennaith in the comments below on March 5, Tolkien’s Letter 156 makes it clear that Gandalf was judged and sent back by an “Authority” greater than the Valar, which we can assume to be Eru himself.)
So the doom that Gandalf faces below Moria, the doom that is coming as soon as the Fellowship awakens the ancient evil that sleeps below, is better than neutral. It is positive, necessary even, for the Fellowship to complete their quest. For all we know, it may have been fated to some degree, and inescapable. It’s hard to imagine doddering old Gandalf the Grey healing Théoden or standing up against the Nazgûl Lord, but these things are easy for Gandalf the White, who was born below Moria (or perhaps, more precisely, somewhere in the West) that day when Gandalf the Grey died.
It is eucatastrophe in action, to see a Sense 2 ‘doom’ wrenched from the jaws of a Sense 1 ‘doom’. And it is a reminder to have hope, for even the very wise cannot see all ends; and sometimes, it is only by passing through that shadow we come to morning.