The Marshes of My Mind

Emergent vegetation in Night-Heron Shallows - 2

I’ve been working on an article on Layamon’s Brut for a while, and I keep hitting figurative walls. Some of my difficulty is due, no doubt, to the numerous demands on my time—I’m teaching two online classes, I’m packing my house, and I have a young child. At some point, I need to start thinking about the upcoming semester. But having started this blog, I’ve come to an important realization: I really don’t like academic writing.

In my experience, academic writing requires a firm hand and lots of structure, and I can do it. I just would prefer not to. My mind is constantly meandering despite my best efforts, and I keep discovering interesting threads in a text that threaten to draw me off course.

Like this morning: I was suddenly struck by the use of marshes in Layamon’s Brut, particularly in the Arthurian section. There are two notable instances. First, when Arthur is fighting against the invading Saxons, he drives his enemies to a deep river and manages to deny them the ford. As the Saxons drown by the thousands, the narrator interrupts the battle scene with this lovely simile:

Summe heo gunnen wondrien swa doð þe wilde cron
i þan mor-uenne þenne his floc is awemmed
and him haldeð after hauekes swifte,
hundes in þan reode mid reouðe hine imeteð.
þenne nis him neouðer god, no þat lond no þat flod:
hauekes hine smiteð, hundes hine biteð.
þenne bið þe kinewurðe foȝel fæie on his siðe. (10061-67)

Here’s the translation by W. R. J. Barron and S. C. Weinberg:

Some went wandering as does the wild crane in the moorland fen when his flock is scattered and swift hawks pursue him, hounds ruthlessly attack him in the reeds. Neither the land nor the water is safe for him then: hawks strike him, hounds bite him. Then the royal bird is doomed in his tracks. (43-45)

Here, the fens are presented as a threatening place, one devoid of sanctuary of any sort and filled with predators. Consisting of neither land nor water, it is not a place to enter on one’s own.

Later in the Brut, Arthur hosts a feast and invites the nobles from the various countries he has conquered. Not surprisingly, a fight breaks out. Arthur’s response? Kill the instigators and mutilate their female kin. I’m going to ignore the second part of Arthur’s command here (my article addresses it to some extent) and focus just on the first part. Arthur is quite specific in how the instigators shall be put to death:

[D]oð wiððe an his sweore; and draȝeð hine to ane more,
and doð hine in an ley uen þer he scal liggen. (11394-95)

And Barron and Weinberg’s translation:

[P]ut a cord about his neck and drag him to a marsh, and thrust him into the bog where he shall lie. (111)

I’m intrigued by Arthur’s choice of wetlands as an instrument of death. What does it mean to be bound and thrown into a bog? Seamus Heaney’s poem “Punishment” immediately comes to mind. Heaney addresses one of the “bog people” (bodies preserved in Danish marshes from 2-3 thousand years ago; you can learn more about them here), imagining a backstory for how she came to be entombed in that marsh (and the link above offers a new understanding of that particular bog body, one which contradicts much of what Heaney imagined).

Why a marsh? Why not death by fire or beheading? Why not death by dismemberment? These men have violated Arthur’s court, and their actions could be seen as treasonous, and dismemberment was the usual punishment for such crimes.

I imagine death by bog to be a slow process. Whereas decapitation offers a fast release, a marshy death might allow more time for reflection. Dismemberment and death by fire would be painful experiences (I’m guessing–absolutely no firsthand experience with any of this), which might prevent any kind of meditation while conscious.

Many people in Layamon’s Brut are drowned, especially women and children, but Arthur’s enemies as well, but perhaps the type of drowning that takes place in a marsh would be worse. The weight of the water-sodden mud pressing down upon one’s chest. The mouth open to scream, only to be silenced by an influx of sludge. And bodies that drown ultimately float back up, don’t they? Entombment in a marsh might have struck those living in the Middle Ages as a more permanent location. After all, the bog people were only discovered thousands of years later, often by people in search of other things (like peat, for example). Long before death, though, those doomed to die might endure a worse suffering–the mental anguish of isolation from human society, or the verbal assaults of demonic creatures believed to dwell in such spaces (Guthlac’s demons, for example, in Guthlac A).

My personal experiences with marshes have been, on the whole, fairly positive (I hedge only because, you guessed it, I’ve come across a lot of snakes in these venues). My undergraduate university owned several hundred acres of wetlands, and we would often spend a few hours each week, weather permitting, exploring or managing them in my science courses. I still vividly recall watching what seemed like thousands of swallows swooping through the air to feast on insects. We found a young owl in one of the duck houses one time, its feathers incredibly soft. We waded through shallow ponds to catch minnows in our nets to  determine the diversity and quantity of the fish in the spring.

A few years back, I taught a course on J. R. R. Tolkien, and so when it came time to talk about the Dead Marshes, I was excited. We started out talking about World War I and the experience of trench warfare. I showed them photographs of the trenches, of the injuries, of the massive scarring upon the landscape and the eternal mud. It was easy for the students to find connections with Tolkien’s marshes, especially given the dreary depiction brought so vividly to life by Peter Jackson.

The Dead Marshes in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings film trilogy, from

Then I asked my students to look at the marshes in a different way. We talked about the terminology used to describe these particular habitats, and we learned that there is a lot of diversity between words such as “bog” or “marsh.” “Wetlands” seems to the the umbrella term for what is in reality several different landscapes. Here are a few examples, taken from the Oxford English Dictionary:

Slide12We talked about the ecological functions of wetlands. Here’s a handy chart that we looked at:

urlWetlands are such a vital part of our world. Some people view them as “wastelands”–that is, “waste” in the sense that they are not useful to humans, and therefore should be drained and turned into something more productive, such as arable land (and this is a long-held perspective, going back at least to the tenth-century Benedictine Reform in England, if not further). During my time as an undergraduate, my university’s wetlands were threatened by the city’s desire to build a highway right through the middle (yeah, it happened). Wetlands are easily dismissed, and they shouldn’t be.

We then turned back to Tolkien’s The Two Towers to re-examine Chapter II, “The Passage of the Marshes.” Tolkien did not settle on one term, but rather uses a variety: “bog,” “fens,” “mires,” “marshes.” Such a place is, I think, difficult to describe, and this is reflected in Tolkien’s language. What seems to be a uniform landscape (particularly in the cinematic depictions) is really quite diverse. Of course, there is little color (the “only green was the scum of livid weed on the dark greasy surfaces of the sullen waters”), and the sun fails to give any hint of warmth. There is an absence of birds (often a marker of ecological problems), but there is the movement of air, movement in the water. There is life.

So must we read the passage through the Dead Marshes as a funereal experience? The presence of dead grasses and rotting reeds might lead us to answer, “yes,” but it’s winter. Might the fact that the plants are “rotting” suggest that new life can be restored? That this remains a place of change? There is so much activity in these pages. The present participle of “rotting” reveals ongoing activity and change; the water becomes personified–it is “sullen”; and the weeds are “livid.” After all, the name “The Dead Marshes” is merely a mortal interpretation of natural landscape.

To return to Layamon and his marshes–in a sense, death by marsh may have been seen as a sort of obliteration in the literal sense–an erasure of one’s identity. Given that by mutilating the men’s female kin, Arthur intends to prevent future generations from being created (“‘swa ich wulle al for-don; þat cun þat he of com'” (11400)), so it may be that by condemning the men to a burial in the marshes–a place of constant change–he removes them from the pages of history, their tombs never to be found (at least, not until centuries later). Marshes were seen by some during the medieval period as places that either had never felt the touch of civilization or had overcome it to return to a purer state, so they seem an appropriate place for those who threatened Arthur’s rule to be swallowed up by them.

But at the same time, as threatening as these wetlands may have been to some during the medieval period, their presence in Layamon’s Brut shows that not all viewed marshes as places to avoid. For Arthur, these places were merely an extension of his power, his ability to dominate all that he looks upon. And from an ecological viewpoint, the use of the marshes as a repository for the dead would ultimately benefit the land–not only by removing obstacles from Arthur’s power (and thus potentially avoiding or shortening conflicts), but by capturing nutrients from decaying bodies and recycling them though uptake by plants and insects.


3 thoughts on “The Marshes of My Mind

  1. Tolkien class!! I loved our discussion on bogs, partly because I also love carnivorous plants, which tend to live in them. I have to wonder what kind of relationship medieval people had to carnivorous plants, if they noticed them. There are no eye-catching Venus fly traps in Europe, but there are butterworts and (I think) sundews, which catch and slowly digest insects in much the same way that the you speculate the bogs did to Arthur’s enemies.


    • That’s a great question! I glanced through Isidore of Seville’s _Etymologies_ but didn’t see anything on carnivorous plants. I might check Mandeville or the bestiaries, or some of the herb manuals. I’ll let you know if I find anything!


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