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I have been reading "The Lord of the Rings" and came across this phrase in the "The Return of the King".

Where will wants not, a way opens, so we say,” he whispered. “and so I have found myself.” Merry looked up and saw that it was the young Rider whom he had noticed in the morning. “You wish to go whither the Lord of the Mark goes: I see it in your face.” (p. 787, ch. The Muster of Rohan)

Here Eowyn disguised as a man (for she is not supposed to go to the war herself) is speaking to Merry (who is also not supposed to go). However both wish to go and Eowyn offers to take Merry with her hiding him under her cloak.

What does this phrase mean? To me, it appears that this is similar to the common phrase

Where there is a will, there is a way.

And it also fits the context. But what is the "not" doing in the phrase then? Can someone please explain this phrase. Did I misunderstand the meaning?

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3 Answers

up vote 20 down vote accepted

You can paraphrase the proverb as:

Where there does not lack will, a way opens.

or:

Where there is no lack of will, a way opens.

Both want and not call for a little explanation.

want

The verb want can mean “lack or be short of something desirable or essential”.¹ This is an archaic sense of want, and Tolkien was a language expert and fond of archaisms. You see this sense of want in sentences like

Where obedyence wanteth … there is no goodnes. (The Pilgrimage of Perfection, 1531)
Where Power wanteth Rigor weakneth. (The Illustrated Magazine, 1863, quoting Doctor Dee, 1588)
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. (Psalms 23:1 KJV, 1601)
If you marry me, you will want for nothing.

not

Tolkien’s syntax “will wants not” (N V not) is an example of simple negation. Again, Tolkien is using something rare in modern English, but this syntax was once common. You see this syntax in sentences like

Jesus saith unto her, Touch me not. (John 20:17 KJV)
Waste not, want not. (proverb)
She loves me … she loves me not. (children’s game)

Simple negation is also discussed in a related question.

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+1 for the accuracy and explanation … but is it just me, or does “where there does not lack will” sound extremely clumsy and borderline ungrammatical to anyone else? –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Aug 21 '13 at 15:34
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@JanusBahsJacquet The original is much more charming. The paraphrase you refer to is awkward; the second paraphrase gets away from the use of the verb "will" (substituting instead the noun "will"), so it's less of a parallel construction, but it is also less awkward. –  MετάEd Aug 21 '13 at 16:15
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It means "Where will is not wanting", or, "Where will is not missing".

The formation is an odd one (and I don't know what it's called), but you see it sometimes particularly in older texts:

  • It matters not (it doesn't matter)
  • He loves me, he loves me not (he loves me, he doesn't love me)
  • Where will wants not (where will isn't wanting).

The other oddity in this is that we normally think of it being people who want things. In this case, though, we're using "want" in the sense of "missing or being absent".

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Quite simply, where there's a will there's a way

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+1 For stating the phrase as we would today. –  ryan Aug 21 '13 at 18:55
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Note that Vivek mentioned this version in the question. –  MετάEd Aug 21 '13 at 23:26
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-1 for simply restating something already mentioned in the question. –  TrevorD Aug 21 '13 at 23:39
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