13 December 2015

Morþorhete and the Spirit of Mordor

The day after Sam rescues Frodo from the tower of Cirith Ungol, two orcs, an Uruk and a smaller tracker, nearly catch them, but a fight breaks out between them:
The big orc, spear in hand, leapt after him. But the tracker, springing behind a stone, put an arrow in his eye as he ran up, and he fell with a crash. The other ran off across the valley and disappeared.  
For a while the hobbits sat in silence. At length Sam stirred. 'Well I call that neat as neat,' he said. 'If this nice friendliness would spread about in Mordor, half our trouble would be over.' 
'Quietly, Sam,' Frodo whispered. 'There may be others about. We have evidently had a very narrow escape, and the hunt was hotter on our tracks than we guessed. But that is the spirit of Mordor, Sam; and it has spread to every corner of it. Orcs have always behaved like that, or so all tales say, when they are on their own. But you can't get much hope out of it. They hate us far more, altogether and all the time. If those two had seen us, they would have dropped all their quarrel until we were dead.'  
(RK 6.ii.927)
As is often the case with Tolkien a glance at Beowulf can prove interesting. For in line 1105 we encounter a word that suits the orcs and Frodo's description of them perfectly.  It is morþorhete, a compound of morþor, whose primary meaning is 'murder' and from which of course derives 'Mordor', and hete, 'hate.' Morþorhete, occurring only here in extant Old English, denotes a murderous or deadly hatred. Keep in mind, moreover, that every time we see orcs interacting with each other, whether they are of different kinds, as here, of different loyalties (TT 3.iii.444-60), or of different commands (TT 4.x.734-42; RK 6.i.899-910, they always come to blows. So the word is generally applicable to orcs. 

In Beowulf the word appears in the account of the oath that was meant to restore peace after the attack on Finnsburgh:

  Ða hie getruwedon    on twa healfa                        1095
  fæste frioðuwære.    Fin Hengeste         
    elne unflitme    aðum benemde
    þæt he þa wealafe    weotena dome
    arum heolde,    þæt ðær ænig mon
    wordum ne worcum    wære ne bræce,                   1100
    (ne) þurh inwitsearo    æfre gemænden,
    ðeah hie hira beaggyfan    banan folgedon,
    ðeodenlease,    þa him swa geþearfod wæs.
    Gyf þonne Frysna hwylc    frecnen spræce
    ðæs morþorhetes    myndgiend wære,                    1105
    þonne hit sweordes ecg    syððan scede.*

Then they concluded strong terms
Of peace for both sides. Finn declared
On oath to Hengest, nobly, with no dispute,
That he, by the authority of his council,
And with acts of kindness, would rule
The sad remnant, that neither by word
Nor by deed would any man break the accord,
Nor through malice would they ever complain --
Though, kingless now, they followed the killer
Of their generous lord: it had been
Necessary for them. Then if any of the Frisians
With reckless speech called to mind
Their murderous hate, a sword would settle it.*

The connection here is not to be found in the details of the story of Finn and Hengest, but in the morþorhete that remains alive just below the surface, so ready to break forth that only the threat of violence can suppress it even temporarily.  In the end the terms do not prove strong enough, any more for Finn and Hengest than for the orcs Frodo and Sam see in Mordor.  A passion so strong can unite or divide.

© Tim Kirk

*The translation offered above is mine, based on the text and notes in Klaeber's Beowulf (Toronto, 2014). It may not be elegant, but I believe that it is at least not inaccurate. There are, however, points in the Old English that are not entirely clear, but these do not touch the issue of morþorhete directly.

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