J.R.R. Tolkien's Dead Marshes - Literature of the First World War

I know I promised to talk about Henri Barbusse's Under Fire, but University has started and my time management is only slowly becoming a thing. So today, I will discuss the Dead Marshes in J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. Some of the pictures in this may be shocking because they show dead soldiers. In this "series" of First World War Literature, in which I am discussing a piece of literature or art, inspired by or created during the First World War up until the 28th of June, the anniversary of the assassination on Archduke Franz Ferdinand, for many marking the beginning of the First World War.

Johnathan Ronald Reuel Tolkien joined the army after finishing his degree in 1915 and was shipped to France in 1916. There, he was placed at the Somme, one of the most intense battles in the First World War. Using his language skills, he created a secret code to keep hi wife Edith up to date with where on the front he was. Many of his friends died in battle, but Tolkien's poor health meant he was returned to England. Critics often look for parallels to the Second World War, but he himself has stated he has been much more influenced by the First, considering he was young then. One of the passages that shows this is from the chapter 'Passage Through the Marshes' from The Two Towers.

Tolkien himself has admitted in letters that part of the Dead Marshes are inspired by what he saw at the Somme. Trench warfare had a catastrophic effect on the landscape of France. Grenades and bombs created craters and gullies that both provided shelter for incoming fire but were also inescapable death traps.The novel discussed last week,  All Quiet on the Western Front, also describes this scenery vividly, presenting it to the reader as a quiet graveyard. The dead soldiers could sometimes not be retrieved so stayed there, exposed to the elements. The gullies and craters filled up with water over time and became cesspools for diseases. The phrase No Man's Land couldn't have been more applicable, since no one could have lived in this wasteland that was the ultimate symbol of the destruction Man can wreak.
The hobbits soon found that what had looked like one vast fen was really an endless network of pools, and soft mires, and winding half-strangled water-courses. ... It was dreary and wearisome. Cold clammy winter still held sway in this forsaken country. The only green was the scum of livid weed on the dark greasy surfaces of the sullen waters. Dead grasses and rotting reeds loomed up in the mists like ragged shadows of long-forgotten summers. 
The passage above is where Tolkien overs his astute description of the wasteland caused by War. The Dead Marshes are part of Dagorlad, the battle field where the battle of the Last Alliance against the forces of Mordor and lies north of the Black Gate. At this point in the trilogy, Frodo and Sam have forced Smeagol into being their guide to Mordor and they have to cross the Marshes. Hobbits are cheerful creatures, but this place strikes them as 'dreary and wearisome'. A stench of death hangs over these Marshes and to them it feels like a 'forsaken country'. Tolkien here possibly describes the complete feeling of abandonment that must have come over the soldiers in France and all over the Western Front. It is 'winter' there, nothing can live or grow, nothing good can come from it. The only 'weed' that survives' is 'livid', as if the rage that changed the country has sunken into the ground and poisoned it forever. Everything that does grow is 'dead' and 'rotting' and reminds Frodo and Sam of 'long-forgotten summers'. The Marshes remind them of the potential that the ground holds, but that is corrupted by Mankind.

There was a faint hiss, a noisome smell went up, the lights flickered and danced and swirled. For a moment the water below him 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!' Gollum laughed. 
'The Dead Marshes, yes, yes: that is their names,' he cackled. 'You should not look in when the candles are lit.' 
'Who are they? What are they?' asked Sam shuddering, turning to Frodo, who was now behind him. 
'I don't know,' said Frodo in a dreamlike voice. 'But I have seen them too. In the pools when the candles were lit. They lie in all the pools, pale faces, deep deep under the dark water. I saw them: grim faces and evil, and noble faces and sad. Many faces proud and fair, and weeds in their silver hair. But all foul, all rotting, all dead. A fell light is in them.' Frodo hid his eyes in his hands. 'I know not who they are; but I thought I saw there Men and Elves, and Orcs beside them.'
'Yes, yes,' said Gollum. 'All dead, all rotten. Elves and Men and Orcs. The Dead Marshes. There was a great battle long ago, yes, so they told him when Smeagol was young, when I was young before the Precious came. It was a great battle. Tall Men with long swords, and terrible Elves, and Orcses shrieking. They fought on the plain for days and months at the Black Gates. But the Marshes have grown since then, swallowed up the graves; always creeping, creeping.' 
It is not only the nature that has been corrupted in the Dead Marshes. Not even the Dead are allowed to rest. Their 'pale, 'grim' and 'noble' faces stare up to the empty sky like an accusation. The evil that was there does not allow them their final peace. They are 'all foul, all rotting, all dead'. I want to extent this phrase a bit further and also apply it to the survivors. Experiencing something like the First World War leaves a mark on a person and all three authors discussed so far, Owen, Sassoon and Remarque, have written about this. All of their characters carry the burden of their experiences, of what they have seen, and feel themselves as if they are slowly decaying. The 'great battle' Smeagol talks about is the one in which Sauron was "defeated". It was a righteous war, a necessary war, but all that remains are all the dead. According to Smeagol, the Marshes 'have grown since then', have 'swallowed up the graves' and will continue to creep on. The Marshes here possibly personify the growing danger of War and nationalism, the creeping evil that you one day find has overtaken your lands and then it is too late.

This is one of the reasons why I do this series, for myself and perhaps for anyone who reads it. These kinds of dangers are constant, ever-present. We haven't forgotten the Wars, but sometimes I think we forget the complete and utter destruction that comes along with it. Not only are the lands corrupted, but so are the minds and spirits of those involved. In all the works I have read so far, the War has been nothing but destructive. Although there is camaraderie and touching moments, these battles change the course of humanity and influence an entire generation to the core. Even the hobbits walking through these Marshes, centuries removed from the Great Battle, feel its echo and see its consequences.

Have you read The Lord of the Rings? What did you think of 'The Passage Through the Marshes'.

Next week, I promise to write about Barbusse's Under Fire.


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