On their way to Mordor Frodo and Sam encounter various places with a different degree of weirdness to them. However, few of them stand out in the same manner as the Dead Marshes. Lying between the plain of Dagorlad and the Emyn Muil, they become a grave test for the travellers en route to an even darker place.
Crossing the Dead Marshes was a true trial for Frodo, Sam and Gollum as their guard. On the one hand, the servants of Sauron always took a roundabout way and never went directly through the marshes: doing so was downright perilous, and if even the Orcs shunned the place, it does say a lot about its reputation. Gollum, though, had long ago in his own suspicious travels found out the path through the treacherous land that could in a more or less safe manner take the travellers through the marshy lands to the firm ground and at the same time leave them unseen by the enemy.
Being a network of pools, mires and clogged water bodies, the Dead Marshes presented a labyrinth where picking firm ground to tread on was a matter of life and death. Covered with mist, being all rotten and deadly, reeking unpleasantly, the Dead Marshes posed a serious challenge both to the travellers’ lives, moods and senses and to even Gollum’s ability to navigate his way through the dangerous region.
When strange lights began to appear in the darkness all around the Dead Marshes, the place became even more eerie and creepy:
When lights appeared Sam rubbed his eyes: he thought his head was going queer. He first saw one with the corner of his left eye, a wisp of pale sheen that faded away; but others appeared soon after: some like dimly shining smoke, some like misty flames flickering slowly above unseen candles; here and there they twisted like ghostly sheets unfurled by hidden hands.
(Two Towers, p. 287)
The uncanny sight of the pale lights scattered all over the marshy land could be enough to petrify anyone with fear. Those lights turned out to be an even bigger trial for the two hobbits than the way itself: they had Gollum for a guide through the marshes, but nobody and nothing could shield them from the creepy allure of the lights. Looking into the water when those candles were lit was a dangerous thing to do: their hypnotising, enchanting effect could be enough for Frodo or Sam to end up dead in the slimy water with the lit candles themselves. The little flames were referred to as “tricksy lights” and “candles of corpses” by Gollum, and once followed there was no way back from the noisome depths of the Dead Marshes. Sam saw enough of the company they could have joined:
There was a faint hiss, a noisome smell went up, the lights flickered and danced and swirled. For a moment the water below him [Sam] looked like some window, glazed with grimy glass, through which he was peering. Wrenching his hands out of the bog, he sprang back with a cry. ‘There are dead things, dead faces in the water,’ he said with horror. ‘Dead faces!’
(Two Towers, p. 288)
Frodo did fall under the unwholesome enchantment of the lights for a while, though, and nobody knows what could have happened, had it not been for Sam’s interference. The younger Baggins was under a great impression from seeing the dead faces in the water. Only they were not real bodies, but ghostly phantoms of the once living Elves, Men, Orcs. The visions appeared different to Frodo: good and evil, noble and plain, but the quality that united them was that all of them were rotting, dead and had a fell light in them.
Such an appalling landscape has its story. By the time Frodo, Sam and Gollum reached them, the marshes had been in existence for a long time. However, it is likely that their name used to be different before the Battle of Dagorlad took place in the Second Age. During that battle a great part of the army of the Elves of Lórien was driven into the marshes and perished there. That was possibly how the Dead Marshes became the horrifying place the travellers encountered and how they got their name.
Both, marshes and spooky lights are not unknown in myths and folklore. Being a transition and a mix between watery and earthly territories, the land of decay, marshes have been believed to be inhabited by various monsters since times uncounted. While the nature of monsters may vary from country to country, and from tale to tale, they are never even remotely pleasant or amiable. The Hydra of the Greek and Roman mythologies lurked in the marshes of Lerna; Grendel from Beowulf took grim fens not far from Heorot as his abode; Will-o’-the-wisp haunts swamps, fens, marshes and lures travellers to their deaths.
This last example of a folkloric belief to be found all over the world under various names and various significances reminds of the lights Frodo, Sam and Gollum encounter in the Dead Marshes. Will-o’-the-wisp is believed to be a ghostly light seen by travellers at night over bogs, fens, marshes or swamps. The most common belief in the UK is that a will-o’-the-wisp is the spirit of dead people, sometimes referred to as stuck between Heaven and Hell, trying to lead the living to their deaths (1). Some versions of the tale include a dark figure carrying the light, but barely seen in the dark. In any case, those lights have the quality of being very attractive for travellers and very malevolent in their nature as their intention is to lead them away from their trodden path and into a deadly trap.
The legend of the origin of will-o’-the-wisps explains the name and the essence of those uncanny lights. After his death Will the Smith, who dwelt in Shropshire, received a chance from St Peter to live his life better. However, on his return to the world of living Will led his second life in a far worse way than the first one. Thus he was barred from both Heaven and Hell and was doomed to roam the Earth forever. The Devil gave Will a piece of coal to warm himself on cold days, and the Smith chose to use the light to lure travellers into bogs .
Elizabeth Mary Wright provided a very accurate verse to describe will-o’-the-wisps:
Hovering and blazing with delusive light,
Misleads th’ amaz’d night-wanderer from his way
To bogs and mires, and oft through pond or pool,
There swallow’d up and lost, from succour far.
(Rustic Speech and Folk-Lore, p. 307)
That is very much “tricksy lights”, indeed, that nearly drove Frodo into the marsh to his own death with delusion, unhealthy allure and hypnotic ghostliness. The very landscape of the marshes was inspired by the real-life events, though. According to Tolkien himself, their look was shaped by his war experience: “The Dead Marshes and the approaches to the Morannon owe something to Northern France after the Battle of the Somme.” (Letters, № 226).
Marshes are a dangerous, treacherous land, and it does not seem to be a coincidence that folklore inhabits them with all kinds of evil creatures. Having made their way safely through the Dead Marshes, Frodo, Sam and Gollum passed a severe trial that the deadly region made them face. It is likely that that trial was another building brick of the stamina and endurance the hobbits needed for their gruesome task of entering Mordor and destroying the One Ring.
(1) Other interpretations of those lights include their marking the place of buried treasure or being the doings of fairies.
- J. R. R. Tolkien – The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2001.
- H. Carpenter – The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien; with the assistance of Christopher Tolkien; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2012 (Kindle edition).
- Elizabeth Mary Wright – Rustic Speech and Folk-Lore; Oxford University Press; 1913 (digital edition).
- K. Briggs – An Encyclopedia of Fairies, Hobgoblins, Brownies, Bogies, and Other Supernatural Creatures; Pantheon Books; New York; 1976.
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