Letter to Gene Wolfe

From Tolkien Gateway

On 7 November 1966, J.R.R. Tolkien wrote a letter to Gene Wolfe.[1][2]

  • Comment: Answer from Tolkien to a fan letter, discussing the origin of the names orc and warg. Gene Wolfe: "The body of his letter is typewritten (I would judge on an electric typewriter) but the footnote is in script. I would like to express my appreciation to Douglas A. Anderson, who is familiar with Tolkien's hand and has very kindly corrected my misreadings of it."
  • Publication: The essay "The Best Introduction to the Mountains", in which the transcription of the letter is contained, was offered by Mr Wolfe to the anthology Meditations on Middle-earth, edited by Karen Haber, but was rejected. Interzone magazine published the essay in December 2001 (in issue 174). The essay can also be found on here (external link).
  • Archive: The letter is held at the collections of the Marion E. Wade Center.[3]


Dear Mr Wolfe,

Thank you very much for your letter. The etymology of words and names in my story has two sides: (1) their etymology within the story; and (2) the sources from which I, as an author, derive them. I expect you mean the latter. Orc I derived from Anglo-Saxon, a word meaning demon, usually supposed to be derived from the Latin Orcus -- Hell. But I doubt this, though the matter is too involved to set out here. Warg is simple. It is an old word for wolf, which also had the sense of an outlaw or hunted criminal. This is its usual sense in surviving texts.* I adopted the word, which had a good sound for the meaning, as a name for this particular brand of demonic wolf in the story.

Yours sincerely,

J. R. R. Tolkien

*O.E. wearg

O. High German warg--

O. Norse varg-r (also = "wolf", espec. of legendary kind)