‘Yes, there can be no doubt,“ said Aragorn. ‘At last we know the link between Isengard and Mordor, and how it worked. Much is explained.’
     ‘Strange powers have our enemies, and strange weaknesses!’ said Théoden. ‘But it has long been said: oft evil will shall evil mar.
     ‘That many times is seen,’ said Gandalf. ‘But at this time we have been strangely fortunate. Maybe, I have been saved by this hobbit from a grave blunder. [‍…‍] ’

―‍J R R  Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, Book 3, Chapter XI: ‘The Palantír’

The formulation of this phrase seems odd and I can’t pick the full meaning out of it. He says it after Wormtongue (Gríma) has thrown the palantír out of the tower of Orthanc, which seems to be a great example of evil shooting itself in its own foot, but that doesn’t seem to be the thrust of the phrase.

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    It may help to realize that "will" is being used as a noun, not a verb. – Kevin Jun 14 '13 at 1:09
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    This is a garden path sentence: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Garden_path_sentence – Lucas Jun 14 '13 at 2:42
  • What goes around, comes around; often with compound interest...and directly up the tailpipe. – Esteban Cafe Dec 26 '16 at 1:42

That's exactly what it means.

The desires and plans of evil people ("evil will;" "will" in this case being the noun relating to intent and desire) often ("oft") ruin ("mar") the cause of evil.

That is, the phrase says that evil people are selfish, petty, and short-sighted, and that this quality in evil individuals often impairs the grander world-embracing schemes of capital-E-Evil. It's ironic, and the context of Wormtongue and the Palantir is a great example of that irony.

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    People are also no longer used to objects coming between the auxiliary and the main verb (“shall evil mar” meaning ”shall mar evil”), but it sounds right in an old saying. See also “With this ring I thee wed, till death do us part.” It has something of a “Come not between the Nazgûl and his prey” feel to it. :) – tchrist Dec 26 '16 at 2:01
  • Agreed. I think the reason why at first the meaning of the phrase might not seem to fit the context is the buts before and after it. Reinterpret those, and it fits. – Cerberus_Reinstate_Monica Jan 6 '20 at 17:26
  • @Cerberus_Reinstate_Monica That's a really big 'but'. – Mitch Jan 6 '20 at 17:29
  • @Mitch: As we say in good Dutch, kijk naar je eige. – Cerberus_Reinstate_Monica Jan 6 '20 at 17:42

This is very similar in meaning to a more usual phrase:

come back to bite you

If something will come back to bite you, it will cause problems for you in the future. Her unpleasant remarks may well come back to bite her later.


In this case it may also mean that one evil person is likely to spoil the plans of another evil person. Such people want everything their own way and don't like to co-operate. If they have opposing ideas then conflict will follow. This is often seen in gang warfare.

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