Tolkien, Morris, and the Dead Marshes: An Unrecognized Connection


“Where did The Lord of the Rings come from?” This question has interested me for a long time – especially the question of Tolkien’s modern sources. Over the last year and a half, my research has taken form in the book I’m currently working on – Tolkien’s Modern Sources.

Modern sources – really? Yes! The idea of Tolkien as immune from influence of any kind, has been persistent – in large part because of comments such as C.S. Lewis’s offhand remark, “you might as well (to adapt the White King) try to influence a bandersnatch.”[1] However, recent scholarship, most notably Diana Glyer’s The Company They Keep: C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien as Writers in Community, has successfully challenged this misconception.[2]

Similarly, although many critics have explored Tolkien’s use of medieval source material,[3] and John Garth has brilliantly demonstrated in Tolkien and the Great War that Tolkien’s experiences shaped his writing, most critics seem tacitly to accept Humphrey Carpenter’s image of Tolkien as an isolated and limited reader, who “read very little modern fiction, and took no serious notice of it.”[4]

As I did my research, though, I became increasingly convinced that Tolkien read a great deal more widely in modern literature than is generally recognized – and that these modern sources are a rich vein for discovering influences and source material for The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. I’m very excited about what I’ve found, and so I’ve decided to give a bit of a preview of some of my discoveries about William Morris….


Tolkien, Morris, and the Dead Marshes

In one of the most memorable episodes in The Lord of the Rings, Gollum leads Frodo and Sam through a treacherous and noxious marsh-land, the site of many a battle in days gone by, where dead warriors now lie submerged, pale and hideous, from whom misty flames flicker up with a fatal allure. “The tricksy lights,” says Gollum, “Candles of corpses, yes, yes. Don’t you heed them! Don’t look! Don’t follow them!”

About this episode, Tolkien famously wrote: “The Dead Marshes and the approaches to the Morannon owe something to Northern France after the Battle of the Somme.” He then goes on: “They owe more to William Morris and his Huns and Romans, as in The House of the Wolfings or The Roots of the Mountains.”[5]

Considerable attention has been paid by scholars to Tolkien’s experiences in World War I. John Garth’s magnificent Tolkien and the Great War is foremost among those studies which have investigated the impact of his war-time service on the later shape of The Lord of the Rings. That attention has been fully warranted and has enlarged our understanding of Tolkien’s epic most helpfully. However, the very brilliance of this scholarship, not unlike the tricksy candles themselves, has led scholars somewhat astray, with the result that Tolkien’s debt to Morris has been almost totally overlooked. The Dead Marshes actually “owe more to William Morris”, in Tolkien’s estimation, than they do to the Somme. Tolkien’s acknowledgement of Morris’s influence is not just a casual wave of the hand in his general direction, but specific and detailed, identifying two of his novels in particular. A careful study of these two books shows a number of very interesting and important connections between Morris’s writing and Tolkien’s.

Although Tolkien references both The House of the Wolfings and The Roots of the Mountains, it is in the latter novel that we find clear antecedents of these parts of Middle-earth.

In the last third of The Roots of the Mountains, the gathered Dalesmen and their allies advance to re-take conquered Silver-dale. Despite the pleasant name, Silver-dale has a rather Mordor-like feel to it, since we have learned that the Dusky Men are wantonly cruel and destructive overlords, indeed hardly human at all; also like Mordor it is almost inaccessible, such that the Dalesmen must be led by guides from a community of hardy folk who escaped the Dusky Men. Tolkien’s depiction of Frodo and Sam’s journey to Mordor in The Lord of the Rings may well have been inspired in part by the passage through the mountains to Silver-dale:

From the height in the pass those grey slopes seemed easy to traverse; but the warriors of the Wolf knew that it was far otherwise, for they were but the molten rock-sea that in time long past had flowed forth from Shield-broad and filled up the whole valley endlong and overthwart, cooling as it flowed, and the tumbled hedge of rock round about the green plain by the river was where the said rock-sea had been stayed by meeting with soft ground, and had heaped itself up round about the green-sward. And that great rock-flood as it cooled split in divers fashions; and the rain and weather had been busy on it for ages, so that it was worn into a maze of narrow paths, most of which, after a little, brought the wayfarer to a dead stop, or else led him back again to the place whence he had started; so that only those who knew the passes throughly could thread that maze without immeasurable labour.[6]

As Frodo and Sam begin their journey alone to Mordor, they struggle on “the barren slopes and stones of the Emyn Muil, sometimes retracing their steps because they could find no way forward, sometimes discovering that they had wandered in a circle back to where they had been hours before…. always they found its outward faces sheer, high and impassible, frowning over the plain below; beyond its tumbled skirts lay livid festering marshes where nothing moved and not even a bird was to be seen.”[7] Later, as they draw close to the Morannon, the gate of Mordor, the hobbits pass through another stony area reminiscent of the mountains of Silver-dale: the Morgai, which is “pathless” and “scored with deep ghylls.”[8]

Here we can see a connection to The Roots of the Mountains in Tolkien’s use of the word “ghyll.” The word gill, meaning ‘narrow ravine,’ is of Old Norse origin, so Tolkien would likely have encountered it in his language study, but the particular spelling ghyll is modern, and originated with Wordsworth.[9] It seems most likely that Tolkien would have encountered this distinctive spelling in Morris, rather than Wordsworth; Morris uses it repeatedly[10] in The Roots of the Mountains. The connection is made all the stronger by the fact that Tolkien uses the word only twice in The Lord of the Rings: in the passage quoted above, and in a description of the same general area from the perspective of Aragorn, Gandalf, and their army en route to the Black Gate, looking up at “a tumbled land of rocky ghylls and crags, behind which the long grim slopes of the Ephel Duath clambered up.”[11]

In The Roots of the Mountains, after passing through this rocky area, the Dalesmen find that “the ground fell steadily toward the north, and hereabout the scattered stones ceased, and on the other side of the crest the heath began to be soft and boggy, and at last so soft, that if they had not been wisely led, they had been bemired oftentimes.”[12] The image is suggestive of Gollum leading Frodo and Sam through the marshes, where “The fens grew more wet, opening into wide stagnant meres, among which it grew more and more difficult to find the firmer places where feet could tread without sinking into gurgling mud. The travellers were light, or maybe none of them would ever have found a way through.”[13] Furthermore, the Dalesmen’s journey to Silver-dale has some of the same gruesome surprises as Frodo and Sam encounter in the Dead Marshes. The scouts of the Dalesmen find evidence of the work of the Dusky Men:

they had found a man and a woman dead and stark naked hanging to the boughs of a great oak-tree deep in the wood.  This men knew for some vengeance of the Dusky Men, for it was clear to see that these poor people had been sorely tormented before they were slain.  Also the same watch had stumbled on the dead body of an old woman, clad in rags, lying amongst the rank grass about a little flow; she was exceeding lean and hunger-starved, and in her hand was a frog which she had half eaten.[14]

When, after the battle, the victorious Dalesmen enter into the recovered Hall, they find more horrors:

from the last tie-beam of the roof over the daïs dangled four shapes of men-at-arms, whom the older men of the Wolf knew at once for the embalmed bodies of their four great chieftains, who had been slain on the day of the Great Undoing; and they cried out with horror and rage as they saw them hanging there in their weapons as they had lived. … There they hung, dusty, befouled, with sightless eyes and grinning mouths, in the dimmed sunlight of the Hall, before the eyes of that victorious Host, stricken silent at the sight of them.[15]

The combination of the harsh landscape, both stony and swampy, which the Dalesmen must traverse secretly so as not to warn the Dusky Men of their coming, with the grisly touches of the dead whom they find along the way, is striking in its similarity to Frodo and Sam’s passage to Mordor. It seems likely that these passages from The Roots of the Mountains were, at least in part, the inspiration to which Tolkien referred many years later. As with other elements from these novels, these landscape images are like rough sketches that Tolkien transformed into full-color paintings. What Morris was able to suggest, Tolkien developed with rich detail and meaning.


Further Connections

The Dead Marshes connection is one of many that I’ve found with Morris’s novels The House of the Wolfings and The Roots of the Mountains. In The House of the Wolfings, we see a precursor of Tolkien’s Elves – especially Galadriel – in the character of Wood-Sun, and an intriguing possible source for Bilbo’s mithril vest. In both novels, we see women-warrior figures who prefigure Éowyn in intriguing ways – especially the character of the Bride, in The Roots of the Mountains. Other connections include Morris’s distinctive blending of prose and verse, which Tolkien adopts as a feature of both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, place-names, word choices, and themes.

But Morris was not the only modern author with an influence on Tolkien – I’m also tracing connections between Tolkien’s work and that of authors such as MacDonald, Haggard, Dunsany, and Chesterton, as well as others who are almost forgotten today – seeing, for instance, the possible origins of Goldberry’s description in a book called Dream English by Tolkien’s friend Wilfred Childe.

All of this is going into my new book: Tolkien’s Modern Sources. I’m excited!

[1] C.S. Lewis, letter to Charles A. Brady, Jan. 5, 1957. The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Volume III. Ed. Walter Hooper. New York: HarperCollins, 2007. 824.

[2] Glyer has demonstrated that Lewis and Tolkien did, in fact, influence each other: they and the other Inklings “read their manuscripts out loud to one another, encouraged and criticized one another, and revised their books based on the feedback they received”. The Company They Keep: C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien as Writers in Community. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 2007. xvi. I explore this point further in chapters 8 and 10

[3] See, for instance, Tolkien and the Study of His Sources: Critical Essays. Ed. Jason Fisher. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2011.

[4] Carpenter, The Inklings. 158.

[5] Tolkien, letter to Professor L.W. Forster, 31 December 1960. The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. Ed. Humphrey Carpenter. London: George Allen and Unwin, 1981. 303.

[6] Morris, The Roots of the Mountains, 335.

[7] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, 50th Anniversary One-Volume Edition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2004. First published 1954-1955. 603.

[8] Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, 924.

[9] “Gill, n.” The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, Sixth Edition. Volume 1. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007. 1105.

[10] Fourteen times. The word does not appear at all in The House of the Wolfings.

[11] Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, 885

[12] Morris, The Roots of the Mountains, 338-339.

[13] Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, 627.

[14] Morris, The Roots of the Mountains, 345.

[15] Ibid, 386.

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