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Knowledge of our past is our inheritance. What we do with that knowledge will shape our destinies...

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The Dead Marshes and World War 1

Did you know...?

That J.R.R. Tolkien's inspiration for the locale of the Dead Marshes Same and Frodo pass through is routed in history, both his personal history and the world's?

Tolkien lived through both world wars, though by the second one me was an old man. During the first, however, he was young and served in the army for his country.

 If you know anything about WWI, you know how messy it was.  The military strategy hadn't caught up to the technology, with the result that hundreds--perhaps thousands--of young men were needlessly killed. For years, warfare had consisted of digging trenches for cover, and running out of them for attacks.  The problem was, WWI was the first major war that made use of things like machine guns and mustard gas. Given these weapons, the trench strategy was ludicrous! There was no advantage to it whatsoever and men on both sides were cut down without a prayer of life or victory.  Many harsh lessons were learned during this war.  It's one that even today fascinates and inspires because of the epic tragedy it engendered.

On the psychological side, things were even sadder.  While war always does a number on soldiers, this one was particularly nasty for them.  Not because it was any gorier than later wars, but because the soldiers were not prepared psychologically for what they would experience.  I don't think anyone ever can be, but in our case today, we know what's out there.  We have movies, the internet, the news, video games, books, etc that prepare us--at least somewhat--for what we might be facing should we choose to go to war.  That was not so with these boys.  Most of them were very honorable and went to war because they were loyal and nationalistic and wanted to fight for their country.  It wasn't so much that those attitudes changed, but that they were utterly ignorant of what it would be like on the war front.

Enter a young J.R.R.  Though it's hard to say what he felt about his experiences in WWI, what we know is that he made it out and lived a long, respectful life.  Though he didn't know it in his lifetime, he wrote what would become one of the most famous, inspirational fantasy epics ever penned.

Within that epic are clues to how his wartime experiences affected him.  The imagery he uses to describe the Dead Marshes in Book 2, The Two Towers is reminiscent of the horrors of the trenches.  In the chapter entitled, "The Passage of the Marshes," Gollum explains why they can see dead bodies in the water.  When you read the following excerpt, think of Tolkien's memories of WWI and the trenches.  The 'pools' are symbolic of the trenches themselves; the marshes of the filthy, muddy conditions the soldiers endured.  See what other parallels you can draw between Tolkien's words and WWI.

" 'They lie in all the pools, pale faces, deep deep under teh dark water.  I saw them: grim faces and evil, noble faces and sad.  Many faces proud and fair, and wees in their silver hair.  But all foul, all rotting, all dead...'

'Yes, yes,' said Gollum. 'All dead, all rotton. Elves and Men and Orcs. The Dead Marshes. There was a great battle long ago...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, swallowing up the graves; always creeping, creeping...You cannot reach them, you cannot touch them...Only shapes to see, perhaps, not to touch.  No Precious!  All dead.' "

What do you think?


  1. Interesting. I did not know this about Tolkien. I do think nothing prepares a man for the horrors of war. Nothing, nada, zip. and yet,it changes everything abouthim.

    1. Agreed. And, if they can find it in themselves to channel it into art, (in the case of writers) it can make for some amazing stories!