In almost every way, J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Passage of the Marshes” presents a deeply frightening and suffocating experience for the reader, as the two Hobbits and the decrepit Gollum move across a landscape that has become devoid of grace…
While nearly every decent human being under the age of sixty-five loves and appreciates J.R.R. Tolkien’s inventiveness, his characters, his intelligence, his insights, and his plots, strangely few have given him credit for being a profound stylist when it comes to his mastery of the written word. Yet, in many ways, he is almost beyond compare in the English language of the twentieth century. Certainly, at his best, Tolkien is the equal of T.S. Eliot, Flannery O’Connor, and Ray Bradbury. His greatest strength as a stylist is his ability to connect culture, place, and event with an appropriate atmosphere. He is, truly, a wordsmith, a maker of lush, sparse, and true worlds. When Tolkien writes of The Shire, his prose is agrarian and lush. When he writes of The Council of Elrond, his prose is high and philosophic. When he writes of Lothlorien, his prose is precise and yet voluptuous, somehow timeless and sacramental. Equally important, when Tolkien writes on myth, he is mythic, and when he writes on theology, he is angelic. The styles found in The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion, his academic writings, his speculative imaginings (academic and otherwise), and his personal letters are radically different in tone, though always deep in skill.
One finds the most moving prose of The Lord of the Rings, somewhat surprisingly, in chapter two of Book Four (that is, the second chapter dealing with Frodo and Sam in The Two Towers), “The Passage of the Marshes.” In it, Tolkien offers a vast and broad claustrophobic landscape across which Frodo, Sam, and Gollum must travel.
As is typical with Tolkien, he allowed his experiences to influence and inform his writing, but he refused to let them dominate it. In a 1960 letter, he admitted that the approach came from his reading of William Morris as well as his own experiences in World War I.
The Lord of the Rings was actually begun, as a separate thing, about 1937, and had reached the inn at Bree, before the shadow of the second war. Personally, I do not think that either war (and of course not the atomic bomb) had any influence upon either the plot or the manner of its unfolding. Perhaps in landscape. The Dead Marshes and the approaches to the Morannon owe something to Northern France after the Battle of the Somme. They owe more to William Morris and his Huns and Romans, as in The House of the Wolfings or The Roots of the Mountains. [Letter 226 in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien].
That Tolkien mentions his experience in World War I at all is startling, as he rarely did this, and certainly not until the end of his life. In an interview eight years later, Tolkien confirmed the influence of his experience in the trenches on his writing. “I remember miles and miles of seething, tortured earth, perhaps best described in the chapters about the approaches to Mordor. It was a searing experience.” [Interview by Keith Brace, “In the Footsteps of Hobbits,” Birmingham Post (March 25, 1968)]
In almost every way, Tolkien’s “The Passage of the Marshes” presents a deeply frightening and suffocating experience for the reader, as the three figures—the two Hobbits and the decrepit Gollum, once a Hobbit himself—move across a landscape that has become, and continues to become through the chapter, devoid of grace. Unlike the area of the Old Forest (in The Fellowship of the Ring) that had once been the sight of a terrific battle in the North, the Dead Marshes, and the No-man’s land, just to the northwest of Mordor, has no guardian spirit or caretaker such as a Goldberry or Tom Bombadil. In the Old Forest, the evil of the angry trees and undead wights cannot prevail against the natural goodness of Tom and Goldberry, masters of the land. No such masters ever took hold of the Dead Marshes. Instead, there still lingers the rotting souls of elves, orcs, and men, all the remains of the Last Alliance against Sauron, a pyrrhic victory won more than 3,000 years earlier.
As if in a dream, Frodo describes the lights that haunt the area.
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. (The Two Towers)
If the lights exist beyond mere illusion, they do so in a dreadful, purgatorial state. Even nature, as Frodo saw, has intertwined herself with the dead. Far from its sacramental state as found in Tom Bombadil’s land, the land in the Dead Marshes is fallen, stuck somewhere between Adam and the Flood, diminishing in grace by every moment.
Tolkien masterfully employs the words necessary to create anxiety in the reader: defiled, diseased, pitiless.
Tolkien reveals his finest writing of all in the following paragraph:
Before them dark in the dawn the great mountains reached up to roofs of smoke and cloud. Out from their feet were flung huge buttresses and broken hills that were now at the nearest scarce a dozen miles away. Frodo looked round in horror. Dreadful as the Dead Marshes had been, and the arid moors of the Noman-lands, more loathsome far was the country that the crawling day now slowly unveiled to his shrinking eyes. Even to the Mere of Dead Faces, some haggard phantom of green spring would come; but here neither spring nor summer would ever come again. Here nothing lived, not even the leprous growths that feed on rottenness. The gasping pools were choked with ash and crawling muds, sickly white and grey, as if the mountains had vomited the filth of their entrails upon the lands about. High mounds of crushed and powdered rock, great cones of earth fire-blasted and poison-stained, stood like an obscene graveyard in endless rows, slowly revealed in the reluctant light. (The Two Towers)
If there is a passage in all of English literature that better describes the horrors of the twentieth-century—its world wars, its gulags, its holocaust camps—I have yet to encounter it.
In a genius moment of anti-Romantic Romanticism, “The Passage of the Marshes” echoes the structure of a medieval church—from the “lights” of the purgatorial recesses to the buttresses of the decayed walls to the obscene graveyard. This is a church unprotected, unguarded, unclean. As Frodo and Sam journey through it, even memory itself is elusive and unattainable.
As ghosts, Frodo and Sam continue through this nightmare realm, itself devoid of grace, armed only with the Elvish lembas, what would be translated into English as “the bread of life.”
If there is a story in the English language that better grasps the meaning of life and perseverance in this world of sorrows, I have yet to encounter it.
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