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.


Invasive Species and Medieval Literature

In Layamon’s Brut, a thirteenth-century early Middle English chronicle, based on the earlier accounts by Wace and Geoffrey of Monmouth, England is a land that is constantly under siege. The section that I work with the most–known as the “Arthurian Section”–documents the invasion of the Saxons and their depredations against the English people.

According to Wace:

Fors de lur nés a terre eissierent,
Par tut le päis s’espandirent,
Armes quistrent e robes pristrent,
Maisuns arstrent, humes ocistrent

[They swarmed off their ships onto land and spread through the region, seeking weapons, taking clothes, burning houses, killing men] (from Judith E. Weiss’s 2002 edition and translation, Wace’s Roman de Brut: A History of the British).

Layamon expands significantly on this moment:
Sone swa heo a lond comen; þat folc heo a-sloȝen.
þa cheorles heo uloȝen; þa tileden þa eorðen.
heo hengen þa cnihtes; þa biwusten þa londes.
alle þa gode wiues; heo stikeden mid cnifes.
alle þa maidene; heo mid morðe aqualden. (10457-61)

The violence enacted by the Saxons is much more explicit and detailed than in Layamon’s sources. The people are broken down into their tripartite functions–those who work the earth (the “cheorles”), those who protect the physical bodies of the citizens (the “cnihtes,” or knights), and later, those who protect the souls of the people–the priests (not in the excerpt above)–and all are slaughtered. What interests me here is the relation between the people and the land, especially since Layamon explicitly references the land (“eorðen” and “londes”) more than Wace does. The land becomes inert–there are no longer people to till it or to protect it, and the females capable of birthing future generations are destroyed in a violent parody of the agricultural process.

And that led me to wonder: to what extent do medieval texts include descriptions of the land and the impact of invasions on it?

In the Middle English 13th-century King Horn, Horn’s father encounters “Saracens” (a vague term often applied to non-Christian groups in medieval literature) while riding along the shores of his land. The invaders tell the king,

“Thy lond folk we schulle slon,
And alle that Crist luveth upon
And the selve right anon.
Ne shaltu todai henne gon.” (47-50)
The Saracens kill the king and proceed to slaughter the inhabitants–those who refuse to give up their religion–but there is no mention of the people’s relationship with the land, and while the churches are destroyed, the land seems to remain fairly intact. Interestingly, Horn’s mother retreats into a “roche of stone” (77) until her son matures and avenges his father.

While the 14th-century Fouke Fitz Waryn is not necessarily an invasion story (it’s often classified alongside the Robin Hood ballads as an “outlaw” tale), it offers an interesting picture of the impact of local skirmishes between the Normans and the Welsh upon the Marcher landscape. Throughout the text, towns and castles are constantly constructed, and these same towns and castles are constantly destroyed. Keep in mind that at this time, castles were large fortifications, often surrounded by earthen ramparts and wooden palisades. Construction required massive amounts of rock from quarries and timber from forests, and the creation of moats and ramparts would significantly disturb the soil. The sieges themselves could last for entire summers (this was the prime time because the invading armies could find adequate supplies). Just as in Layamon’s Brut, the rural populations were either destroyed or displaced–which would prevent opportunities to plant new trees (and other crops). The Marcher areas were largely mountainous, which means that the thin layers of soil would easily be eroded away once the trees and other natural vegetation would be harvested.

But all of these details are absent from the text; at no point does the narrator draw attention to the depredations on the land or express concern about the ecology. Of course, this is due to the purpose of the text–it is an “ancestral” romance, designed to highlight the struggles and victories of an aristocratic family.Another 14th-century outlaw tale, the Norse Saga of Án Bow-Bender, recounts a feud between Án Bow-Bender and King Ingjald. What is interesting is that whereas there seemed to be no concern for the land in Fouke Fitz Waryn, it is implicitly present here. This is, I think, due to the significantly different ecology of Norway as compared to England. The Norse relied heavily on both animal husbandry and agriculture, but because they did not use crop rotation techniques until late in the medieval period, they relied heavily on manure to ensure adequate crops. Therefore, livestock and plants–including fields that provided fodder for livestock–were valued highly. Although the king’s men do burn down a farm at which Án sought refuge (and Án subsequently rebuilds the structure), they only do so once (as opposed to the repeated cycles of destruction and rebuilding in Fouke Fitz Waryn). Rather than seek protection in a large man-made fortification (as Fouke and his relatives do), Án is more likely to turn to natural strongholds, such as caves, forests, etc. (and Grettir follows a similar pattern in Grettis Saga).

I can’t help but think that if Án’s story took place in England, either he would deplete the surrounding landscape to build castles, or if he retreated to the natural landscape, his enemies would subsequently raze his land to the point where it could no longer sustain human life (at least not for a while). From what I’ve read in Middle English literature (and there are several other texts that I could reference aside from the few mentioned here), there seems to be an indifference to the extent of natural resources at hand. While the medieval Norse texts do contain destruction of man-made structures, they do not occur with the frequency that they occur in the Middle English works. Perhaps this is due to the smaller scale of conflicts in Norway. Or perhaps it is an implicit recognition that in Norway (and Iceland), resources were much more limited and therefore could not be destroyed as willfully as in England.

Right now, the forests in Colorado are under siege. In part by humans–Colorado is a destination location, so new houses will always require timber. But there is another invasive species that has resulted in many dead and diseased trees that not only do not serve the local ecology (human or otherwise), but they also have added to the number and intensity of wildfires in the state. Not much, if anything, can be done to stop the spread of the Mountain Pine Beetle. Here are two pictures that I took a few years ago which show some of the damaged trees; the top picture shows trees after a wildfire swept through the area, and the second shows several trees killed by the Pine Beetle.

Foothills outside of Boulder, July 2013

Foothills outside of Boulder, July 2013

Rocky Mountain National Park, June 2013

Rocky Mountain National Park, June 2013

What’s the connection between invading forces in medieval literature and the Pine Beetle? Both seem to be unstoppable. Neither seem cognizant of the harm being done. Both are driven, at least to some extent, by the need for survival. The Pine Beetle does not maliciously kill these trees, after all–as it bores through the bark of pine trees, the side effect is the death of the tree. The “Saracens” were in search–historically and in the literature–of resources–treasure as well as natural resources–to ensure their survival (and their ability to flourish). And of course, one of the conditions that has allowed the Pine Beetle to spread so quickly is global warming–that is, higher temperatures which, through our continued drive to use resources with little thought to how they will be replenished, is also due to human activities. How different are we, then, from the Pine Beetle?