Memories of (Ancient Roman) War in Tolkien’s Dead Marshes

  • Marian W. Makins University of Pennsylvania
Keywords: classical reception studies, J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, William Morris, Tacitus, war, landscape, memory, fantasy literature


The dark, malodorous wetland called the Dead Marshes ranks among the most memorable and enigmatic landscapes in fantasy literature. While one influential line of scholarship connects the passage to Tolkien’s experiences in the Great War, this article argues that the Marshes should also be read as a reception of Tacitus’s depiction of the Teutoburg Forest. The link between the two texts is both simple and complex. Tolkien read Tacitus, and the latter’s influence has been detected elsewhere in The Lord of the Rings; yet Tolkien identified William Morris as an even more important source for the Marshes than the Great War, and the relevant passage in Morris is also a reception of Tacitus. It will be shown that Tolkien comes closer to Tacitus than Morris in his vision of the way landscapes manifest—to sight, hearing, and touch—the memory and meaning of military losses. Recognizing this reception both explains Tolkien’s ascription of such importance to Morris and offers an important example of a modern author reaching outside his own era and genre to participate in a distinctly Roman tradition of representing war-dead, landscape, and memory.


Le marécage malodorant et sombre appelé les Marais Morts se classe parmi les paysages les plus mémorables et énigmatiques de la littérature fantastique. Bien qu’une tendance influente de la recherche rattache ce passage à l’expérience de Tolkien pendant la Grande Guerre, cet article soutient que les Marais devraient également être interprétés comme une réception de la représentation de la forêt de Teutoburg chez Tacite. La connexion entre les deux textes est à la fois simple et complexe. Tolkien a lu Tacite, et l’influence de ce dernier a été détectée ailleurs dans Le Seigneur des anneaux; mais Tolkien a identifié William Morris comme une source encore plus importante pour les Marais que la Grande Guerre, et le passage en question chez Morris est également une réception de Tacite. On verra que Tolkien se rapproche de Tacite plus que de Morris dans sa vision de la façon dont les paysages rendent sensible à la vue, à l’ouïe et au toucher, le souvenir et la signification des morts militaires. La mise en évidence de cette réception explique l’importance que donne Tolkien à Morris tout en offrant un exemple important d’incursion d’un auteur moderne hors de son époque et de son genre, pour participer à une tradition nettement romaine dans la représentation des victimes militaires, des paysages et de la mémoire.

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