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  • “Tricksy Lights”:Literary and Folkloric Elements in Tolkien’s Passage of the Dead Marshes
  • Margaret Sinex (bio)

In his chapter "The Passage of the Marshes" in book four of The Two Towers, Tolkien creates a memorable landscape, one that has received significant critical attention to date. Recent scholarship has probed the biographical inspiration for the Dead Marshes, that is, the rich parallels they share with the topography of northern France in World War I where Tolkien himself served for some months in 1916. Yet, with its focus on battlefield memories (recollections whose role Tolkien himself acknowledged) scholarly discussion has not highlighted its preternatural elements—its many paradoxes. The terrible topography of the Somme cannot fully account for these crucial features. The Mere of Dead Faces is a unique liminal zone marked by cryptic ambiguities (e.g. the living dead, fire in water) and located between the living lands nourished by the Anduin and the lifeless desolation before the Black Gate. In addition, few (Tom Shippey excepted) have explored in any detail the scene's function in the work as a whole. The Hobbits' passage of the Marshes presents them with a particular spiritual trial and their successful passage transfigures them in such a way as to render their perseverance on the quest the more poignant and laudable.

The nightmare core of this treacherous landscape poses not only an obvious mortal peril (accidental drowning) but also a very particular spiritual temptation for the hero at this moment in his quest. As Shippey has noted in J. R. R. Tolkien: Author of the Century, that temptation is despair. In his view, Frodo and Sam's passage of the Dead Marshes is an episode that "lean[s] towards despair" (216).

Tolkien synthesized his memories of the Somme together with elements drawn from medieval literature and European folklore to create this landscape and especially the profoundly unnatural objects—corpses holding candles—lying at the heart of an otherwise apparently natural landscape. Literature and folklore best account for the Mere's central paradox, the candles held in the hands of combatants who died long ago, tapers that ignite inexplicably at nightfall, that burn under water, and that exert a potent malign influence upon the three intruders. Tolkien fashioned his unique mesmerizing corpse lights in the Marshes to symbolize the temptation of suicide for the Ringbearer, especially in the form of recklessly brave acts committed in the hope of bringing a swift death and of shortening personal suffering (since the submerged long dead corpses [End Page 93] hold candles whose flames possess lethal alluring properties). With both a hypnotic and partially paralyzing power, these lights disorient the living, and above all, exercise a compulsion over them, luring them to an apparently restful, watery death. To drown here is to sleep, an equation the text repeatedly stresses. With a horrific and repellant immediacy, the Marshes and the corpses they conceal reify the danger of turning aside from the quest, of falling off the path to rest at last.

In creating what Gollum calls "'The tricksy lights'" Tolkien combined several traditions (TT, IV, ii, 234). He drew on medieval Icelandic literature (Bárðar Saga and Eyrbyggja Saga) as well as on European folk motifs (the Hand of Glory and Will o' the Wisp). We can identify the deadly properties of Tolkien's "wicked lights" in these prior texts (TT, IV, ii, 236). Of course, he has not imported (so to speak) these elements and their functions unaltered. Tolkien has in fact reversed the function of the candlelight in his creation since in Bárðar Saga the candlelight protects the living from the dead. There, penetrating the realm of the dead, the hero Gestr holds the magic candle aloft and finds that its flame paralyzes five hundred men poised to assault him. In addition, an especially rich source, the Hand of Glory motif, also combines the elements of the corpse and the candle as well as sleep since the taper is usually created from the hand of a hanged murderer. Its light lulls those who see it to sleep while the bearer remains immune to its effect.

Tolkien himself acknowledges two other influences upon this landscape as...