Of Wood Woses and Wild Men

24 Apr

In The Lord of the Rings a strange and primitive folk named the Woses came to aid the men of Gondor in breaking the siege of Minas Tirith. These wild woodland people lived in the ancient forest of Druadan, below the White Mountains. In form they were weather-worn, short-legged, thick-armed and stumpy-bodied and they knew wood-craft better than any man. The men of Gondor called the Woses the Wild-men of Druadan and believed that they were descended from the even more ancient Pukel-men of the First Age. These Wood Woses or Wild-men were an example of J R R Tolkien’s seemingly boundless capacity to invent plausible and memorable fictional races from the gaps and errors in ancient literature – in this particular case the mysterious medieval poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. For Tolkien was by no means the first author to make use of the literary and mythical archetype of the Wild-man. This is a mythological figure that appears fairly frequently in the artwork and literature of medieval Europe, comparable to the satyr or faun type in classical mythology and to Silvanus, the Roman god of the woodlands. Tolkien’s skill is in adapting this archetype to the landscape of English folklore through his fantasy masterpiece.

Tolkien’s creation of the Woses shows at once his dependence on ancient texts, his conviction that at times he knew better than the authors (or anyway than the copiers) even of those texts, and his ability to set academic puzzles in entirely contemporary contexts. His inventions often sprang from words, or from names. But in investigating the words, and the names, he worked on the principle that they must at one time have had known referents, which with patience and imagination could be recovered. In this case, when he came across the word wodwos while translating Gawain, he concluded that its origin was in fact Old English wudu-wása. The first element of this compound word was common and familiar, being no more than the ordinary word for ‘wood’, but the second element was rare or unknown – the use of the compound designates a non-human creature, to be guessed at only from the word. Having gone so far, though, the next question was what then were these wood-woses? Tolkien answered the question in chapter 5 of The Return of the King, where we meet, for a moment, ‘the Woses, the Wild Men of the Woods’.

In Middle-earth, the origin of the Woses seems to be the Pukel-men of the First Age. On the great citadel of Dunharrow was set an ancient maze of walls and entrances that would break the advance of any army before it reached the stronghold. At each gate in the road huge stone guardians stood. These guardians were called Pukel-men by the Riders of Rohan, who came to Dunharrow centuries after the race that built it had vanished. The Pukel-men statues were of crouched, pot-bellied, man-like beings with almost comic, grimacing faces. By the end of the Third Age, Orcs, Wargs and other malevolent creatures often came into Druadan, where they plagued the descendants of the Pukel-men. So it was that, though the Woses desired no part in the affairs of men beyond their forest, their chieftain, who was named Ghan-buri-Ghan, offered to help the Rohirrim reach the Battle of Pelennor Fields. The eventual victory of the Rohirrim and their allies, the Dunedain, saw release from this continual woodland warfare. Following the destruction of the Orc legions, the new king of Gondor and Arnor granted that the Druadan Forest would forever be the inalienable country of the Woses, to govern as they saw fit.

Concerning the creation of the Woses, one other element in Tolkien’s thinking may well have been this: his office at the University of Leeds was just off a road called Woodhouse Lane, down which he had to come every day from his house in Darnley Road. Woodhouse Lane leads over Woodhouse Ridge and Woodhouse Moor, the latter areas still wooded and largely undeveloped even now because of the steep fall down to the stream at the bottom. Tolkien thought that the modern surname Wood-house derived from wudu-wása, and he knew also that in several Northern dialects, ‘wood-house’ and ‘wood-wose’ would be pronounced exactly the same, i.e. ‘wood-’ose’. So the road that at one stage he went up and down every working day might preserve, in a completely prosaic context, a memory of uncanny creatures, the ‘wild men of the woods’ who once haunted the tangles above the River Aire. The guarantee of Middle-earth, as of the verbal reconstructions of philologists, was inner consistency. The Woses are not demanded by the plot of The Lord of the Rings, but they feel as if they should be there. They help to create the fullness which is the major charm of Tolkien’s Middle-earth.

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6 Responses to “Of Wood Woses and Wild Men”

  1. RSGullett April 24, 2016 at 1:38 pm #

    Tolkien had a way of taking the smallest detail (or the smallest peoples) and making them a big deal. It’s something I’ve always loved in his writing.

  2. RSGullett April 24, 2016 at 1:38 pm #

    Reblogged on rsgullett.wordpress.com.

  3. simon7banks April 24, 2016 at 7:53 pm #

    That’s very interesting. I suppose myths about such creatures may reflect agrarian humans’ folk-memories of a hunter-gatherer past and also, like elves very likely, reflect a mythologisation of human races displaced by later settlers and maybe even homo races not “sapiens” (the Wood-woses seem to have a Neanderthal physique, but as Tolkien invented them, I suppose that’s coincidence).

    I’d think, though, that “Woodhouse” is usually much more likely simply to mean “the house in the woods”, similar to Woodgate, Woodley and so on.

  4. Tanya Cliff April 24, 2016 at 11:42 pm #

    “These Wood Woses or Wild-men were an example of J R R Tolkien’s seemingly boundless capacity to invent plausible and memorable fictional races from the gaps and errors in ancient literature – in this particular case the mysterious medieval poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.”

    Absolutely! Tolkien created layers of rich detail around even his minor “races”. I look forward to reading more here…

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