Hobbit folklore is a very curious layer of their culture, giving an insight into the race’s beliefs, views of the world, fears and ways of storytelling. Among the usually light-hearted, simple tales, there can be found some truly creepy oddities, which is rather peculiar for the quiet hobbit folk most of whom will not come within gunshot of anyone smelling even faintly of adventure. Despite looking like spooky tales to give hobbit children nightmares and keep them clean of any unwholesome, disreputable (in the hobbits’ opinion) spots after dark, they may as well be based on real places or creatures inhabiting Middle-earth, albeit largely unseen by the general public. One of such tales is about the Mewlips. Written in verse form, it is one of the creepiest stories of hobbit folklore.

The poem does not tell directly what the Mewlips are or where exactly they dwell. It can be gathered, though, that these creatures prefer shadowy cellars, somewhere near or with shallow water, like pools or ponds, or in marshy lands. One thing that especially strikes about their dwelling place is its uncanny stillness: there seem to be hardly any noises and hardly any light. “Sunless and moonless”, the Mewlips dwell by the dark pool livened up by neither tide, nor wind. Everything in their lair is damp, dank, wet, unwholesome. But in a way the scarceness of light and sound might be a blessing in disguise as when you do hear something, you would rather wish you had not.

All the noises heard deepen the atmosphere of the dismal gloom inhabiting the dreary place together with the Mewlips. The ceiling drips, the gorcrows utter occasional croaks in their sleep and the “grinning gargoyles“, if any of the “noisome water” comes through them, are likely to make a very unpleasant gurgling sound in their stone throats — the very one which gave them their name. While water can sound calming and nice, in the Mewlips’ dwelling place we see the worst sonic manifestations of its voice: dripping, gurgling, pouring. As for the light, the only one that can be seen is that of a “sickly candle” in which the Mewlips count their gold, and that stands for scarcely any light at all.

Everywhere near and around the Mewlips there are signs of decay, beginning with the “mouldy valley” with grey trees or “spider-shadows” leading to their hiding place, the “rotting river-strand“, and finishing with the dampness of their abodes, the deadly, cold, quiet eeriness of it and, most likely, a very unpleasant watery smell. The willows, surrounded by the darkness and shadows, are drooping and weeping, lifeless and limp.

The inhabitants themselves are very much fitting for their dwellings. They have “feeling fingers” and move softly with the “squish-flap-flip”. This description sound-imitates their movements with that unpleasant sound of walking in thick mud and maybe even a trifle bit haltingly as flap-flip sounds less regular than flip-flap. Everything about the Mewlips’ soft movements is sly and coy with a very ominous edge: they are secretive, dangerous, barely seen and heard. These creatures choose peeping out instead of looking and sidling instead of walking. These ways are enough to show the Mewlips as very cunning predators easily devouring any travellers unfortunate to have wandered into their lands and straight to their dinner table. The only memorial of the once travellers would be their bones that the Mewlips keep in the sack after their feast is over.

The structure of the poem itself reminds of a narrow valley ending in an overflowing pool, with the lines getting longer and the rhythm changing from a rather abrupt, like timid tentative steps through an unfamiliar territory, to the more prolonged and steady. It almost imitates the way to the Mewlips’ dwelling in its structure, while the ominous warning hangs in every word of the tale: beware, traveller, you might never come back once you come near the Mewlips:

Beyond the Merlock Mountains, a long and lonely road,

Through the spider-shadows and the marsh of Tode,

And through the wood of hanging trees and the gallowsweed,

You go to find the Mewlips—and the Mewlips feed.

(Adventures of Tom Bombadil, pp. 86-87)

Note from this world:

In the world outside Middle-earth the poem about the Mewlips is covered in mystery. Tolkien is believed to have written it around 1927, and ten years later it was published as Knocking at the Door in The Oxford Magazine under the pseudonym Oxymore. Its subtitle Lines Induced by Sensation When Waiting for an Answer at the Door of an Exalted Academic Person might be hinting at the poem’s being the satire of the academic life. The poem was rewritten for the 1962 collection The Adventures of Tom Bombadil where it appeared under the name The Mewlips. A letter from Tolkien to Rayner Unwin from February 1962 [1] shows that it was one of the last poems the Professor chose for the collection. John Rateliff suggests in The History of the Hobbit that Tolkien might have wanted to arrange an encounter for Bilbo and the Dwarves with something unpleasant in the Long Marshes, the unpleasantness probably being the Mewlips. Mr Rateliff draws this conclusion off Tolkien’s notes where raftsmen speak about people and animals disappearing as they are passing by the Long Marshes (and marshy lands seem to be rather beloved by the evil creatures in question). Tolkien might have changed his mind, though, as in a letter from February 1963 to a Miss Allen [2] the Mewlips are said by Tolkien himself to be imaginary creatures of the hobbit folklore showing their taste for macabre tales.

The creatures’ image, dwellings and habits bring associations with Gollum and thus make them reminiscent of him, though they are far from being the same thing. While the places mentioned in the poem are similar to some of the dreariest spots in Middle-earth and can be seen as references to the likes of the Misty Mountains, Mirkwood, the Old Forest or even the Dead Marshes, it does not seem to be following any known paths of Middle-earth: none of the names from the poem could be found in relation to Middle-earth, so it would be probably safe to say that the poem is a piece of folklore within the secondary world of Arda.


[1] The Adventure of Tom Bombadil (p. 214)

[2] ibid. (p. 213)

Works consulted:

  1. J. R. R. Tolkien – The Adventures of Tom Bombadil and Other Verses from the Red Book (edited by Christina Scull and Wayne G. Hammond); HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2014.
  2. John. D. Rateliff – The History of the Hobbit; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2011 (E-book edition)

Featured image: pixabay.com

10 thoughts on “Down in the inky dark.

  1. Great, as always!
    I read the poem a couple of years ago, and while I don’t remember the details, I rememebr thinkign it was really very creepy.
    Besides I think that Tolkien has an hidden vein for horror. I’ve just reread the episode of the Barrow-down a couple fo weeks ago. Enjoyed it a lot, but really, that’s true horror literature.

    1. Thank you!
      Indeed, Tolkien had a talent to describe creepy places and scenes in the way that makes one’s hair stand on end. His descriptions are sometimes subtle and not straightforward, but that makes those scenes even scarier.

  2. Thank you so much for reposting this fine piece. I was about to say that the sonic landscape in which the Mewlips seem to exist seems very similar to Gollum/Sméagol’s but Jo got there before me! “Squish, flap, flip”. And I can see in your reply that the same thought has occurred to you as well. I don’t know about Sméagol’s people. Clearly in the days near the Gladden Fields they were a river people but then so were the people of Buckland too. But the Mewlips are clearly more than a river people. They are a people of the bog with the smell of rotting vegetation. That evocative word, noisome. The Marish is clearly a fenland corner of the Shire, the dark place where everything ends up and just sinks into the dark never to be seen again. In Beowulf, Grendel is a creature of the bog and in order to find Grendel’s mother the hero has to descend into its depths. In one of the finest of modern British myths, Conan Doyle’s, The Hound of the Baskervilles, the place of horror where the hound lurks is the bog of Dartmoor. And in The Lord of the Rings the place in which the relationship between Gollum and Frodo really develops is The Dead Marshes.
    Farmer Maggot on the other hand, a Marish man, is a proper and quite modern fenland farmer whose land is crisscrossed by drainage ditches. He is strong and solid. The very opposite of the Mewlips or Gollum for that matter.

    1. Thank you for your thoughts, Stephen! There are so many wonderful connections, with most of them showing how dark and dangerous bogs are. One can find a lot of unpleasant characters there.
      It’s no wonder that a lot happens there, like glory won or relationship changed.

      1. But the bog is always a fearful place. I listened to a radio programme yesterday evening on poetry and our need for human touch. At one point a contributor was talking about the terrible war of 1914-18 and how soldiers gained comfort from the physical closeness of comrades. And then he spoke of how they had a greater fear of the mud than of the shells that were bursting about them. I knew that many soldiers died, literally drowning in the mud but had not thought about this fear. Might this have been a part of Tolkien’s imagination, himself a soldier in the mud? I know that many have related the Dead Marshes to his memory of the battlefields.

      2. This is truly terrifying.

        If I’m not mistaken, John Garth wrote about how the trenches of the Somme might have been a prototype for the Dead Marshes in many aspects. Tolkien had a first-hand experience of this muddy place and he definitely was very much influenced by the experience.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.