Although Were-worms don’t get too much screen or page-time in the LOTR universe, they do make a dramatic entrance in The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies.
During the battle between the Elves and Dwarves, they erupt from the surrounding mountainside, having burrowed tunnels for the Orc forces to enter the battlefield unseen.
Whether or not creatures like the Were-worms we see in the films are Middle-Earth canon, is highly debatable.
Vague references to “Were-worms” and similar creatures have given fans plenty of fuel to develop interesting theories.
Below we take a detailed look at what Were-worms are and if other earth-eating creatures exist in Middle Earth.
What is a Wereworm?
Were-worms are gigantic worm-like creatures, also called “earth eaters,” capable of burrowing massive underground tunnels to travel through. They appear once in the films during The Battle of the Five Armies and are also mentioned by name in the book version of The Hobbit.
Wētā Workshop, which worked on The Hobbit films, described them as approximately 400 feet long and 75 meters wide. However, we only see them for a few brief moments in the film.
The term “Were-worms” is only used once in all of Tolkien’s writings, and it’s not clear that they are the same creatures as in the movies.
Aside from a reference to creatures that “gnaw at the earth” we never get any further details about possible Were-worms from the books.
Why Are They Called Were-worms?
The term “were-worm” is most likely a combination of the word “were,” as in werewolf, and “worm,” either as in a real worm or a dragon, serpent, or snake. Both Gandalf and Bilbo Baggins use the name “were-worm in the film and book versions of The Hobbit.
Neither Tolkien, nor the creators of the The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies have officially explained where the term “were-worm” comes from. All we know is that this is what Gandalf calls them in the film and what Bilbo calls them in the book.
Etymologically, “were” comes from German, meaning “male human.” When used today, it refers to shapeshifting creatures that take on human-like features or intelligence, such as werewolves.
We know that werewolves exist in Tolkien’s writings. They originated as wolves bred for war by Morgoth and were inhabited by evil spirits.
As for Were-worms, some theories also suggest that Were-worms are a type of dragon. We know that Tolkien often referred to dragons as “worms” as in the Old English “wyrm,” which means snake, serpent, or dragon.
We can only assume that it refers to a worm-like creature that has some powers or abilities that one does not associate with typical worms.
Tolkien also called them “Wireworms” in earlier versions of The Hobbit.
Are the Were-Worms a Peter Jackson Invention?
The were-worms that feature in The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies are an invention created by Peter Jackson for cinematic effect. Were-worms never make a direct appearance in the book version of The Hobbit with only vague references elsewhere.
In The Hobbit book version, The Battle of the Five Armies is fought only between the Goblins and Wild Wolves on one side and the Dwarves, Elves, and Men on the other. There is no mention of Were-worms or similar creatures participating in the battle.
In the film, the first hint we get of their existence is when Azog and Ragash inspect gigantic tunnels.
Later, they appear during the actual battle, bursting through the mountainside and leaving tunnels for the orc forces. Gandalf himself identifies them as “Were-worms.”
Whether or not the Were-worms in the films also exist in the books is up for debate.
The Were-worms may, however, be an Easter Egg reference to the book. Bilbo does mention them by name during the Unexpected Party:
Tell me what you want done, and I will try it, if I have to walk from here to the East of East and fight the wild Were-worms in the Last Desert.The Hobbit, Chapter 1, An Unexpected Party
However, the books never mention the ability to chew through rock or burrow underground.
In the Director’s Commentary for the film, Peter Jackson indicates that Were-worms were a necessary invention for the plot. They needed a way to get the orc forces to The Lonely Mountain was quick and unseen.
Similar creatures, also called Were-worms, featured in the 2003 videogame, The Hobbit. They also make an appearance in the video games Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor, and The Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle-earth II.
Do Other Earth Eating Creatures Exist in Middle-Earth?
Gandalf mentions “nameless things” that “gnaw at the Earth and live in subterranean tunnels deep below the Mines of Moria. However, there is no detailed information about them or conclusive evidence that they are the same creatures as the “were-worms.”
A quote from Gandalf himself indicates that certain “earth eating” creatures do exist in Middle-Earth:
Far, far below the deepest delving of the Dwarves, the world is gnawed by nameless things. Even Sauron knows them not. They are older than he.The Lord of The Rings, The Two Towers, Chapter 5, The White Rider
If Sauron himself does not know about Were-worms, then very few individuals in Middle-Earth should have any idea they exist.
Considering how memorable they are, that would only be the case if Were-worms very rarely make an appearance.
Still, there might be other “earth eaters” residing in Middle-Earth that we have not encountered.
In an earlier version of The Hobbit, Bilbo’s quote was that he would go to “the Great Desert of Gobi and fight the Wild Wire worm(s) of the Chinese.” Some speculate that this is Tolkien referencing a real-world Mongolian myth about desert-dwelling “death worms.”
Others argue that “Were-worms” are simply a name that Hobbits use for dragons.
“Were” indicates some human-like intelligence, which applies to dragons as they are capable of speech. And, “worm” might simply be a name for wingless dragons, hence “were-worm.”
Another fan theory is that Were-worms are actually a highly specialized type of wingless dragon that can dig underground.
We know that there were many different types of dragons throughout the ages, some of which were flightless, like Glaurung.
Morgoth created Dragons, in turn, were created by Morgoth to serve him in his wars against Men, Elves, Dwarves, and the Ainur.
It’s still a leap to go from flightless dragons to the underground burrowing creatures from the film. However, it’s a fun possibility to consider that Morgoth created them to dig tunnels for his forces.