the_dead_marshes

In the afterword of Ents, Elves, and Eriador: The Environmental Vision of J.R.R. Tolkien, Tom Shippey writes:

“In a letter he wrote to his son Christopher in 1945, Tolkien remarked, ‘certainly there was an Eden on this very unhappy earth. We all long for it, and are constantly glimpsing it’ (Letters, 110). He provided many glimpses of it himself.

“But the critical word in the passage is ‘was,’ and in the same letter Tolkien notes the ‘many sad exiled generations’ that have lived since the Fall. His fiction also shows again and again that the small bit of Eden left to us has been constantly betrayed and destroyed and is forever under threat. The wars of Middle-earth created the Dead Marshes, where the fair turns foul; Saruman’s activities turn ‘singing groves’ into a ‘waste of stump and bramble,’ all ending in the ghastly polluted plain of Gorgoroth, where nothing can live. In ‘The Scouring of the Shire’ we are presented with the start of the Gorgoroth process in the most homely terms—trees cut down, filth poured into the river, black smoke spewing unchecked from chimneys—all backed by a vague (and unconvincing) ideology progress. It is true that the process can be reversed, as it is in the Shire with the aid of Sam Gamgee and Galadriel’s gift. And the recuperative powers of nature are also strongly present, especially in Ithilien, where Faramir and Éowyn are the counterparts of Sam and Galadriel: the wreath of stonecrop growing round the old king’s brows, the ‘briar and eglantine and trailing clematis’ that cover what was once a ‘place of dreadful feast and slaughter.’ Just the same, Tolkien leaves no doubt about the threat hanging over Middle-earth. It is not just the Elves and Ents and Hobbits that can vanish, but health and beauty as well.”

Fortunately, J.R.R. Tolkien does not leave us without a glimpse of hope. He writes:

“When Sam awoke, he found that he was lying on some soft bed, but over him gently swayed wide beeches boughs, and through their young leaves sunlight glimmered, green and gold. All the air was full of a sweet mingled scent.

“He remembered that smell: the fragrance of Ithilien. ‘Bless me!’ he mused. ‘How long have I been asleep?’ For the scent had borne him back to the day when he had lit his little fire under the sunny bank; and for the moment all else between was out of waking memory. He stretched and drew a deep breath. ‘Why, what a dream I’ve had!’ he muttered. ‘I am glad to wake!’ He sat up and then saw that Frodo was lying beside him, and slept peacefully, one hand behind his head, and the other resting upon the coverlet. It was the right hand, and the third finger was missing.

“Full memory flooded back, and Sam cried aloud: ‘It wasn’t a dream! Then where are we?’

“And a voice spoke softly behind him: ‘In the land of Ithilien, and in the keeping of the King; and he awaits you.’ With that Gandalf stood before him, robed in white, his beard now gleaming like pure snow in the twinkling of the leafy sunlight. ‘Well, Master Samwise, how do you feel?’ he said.

“But Sam lay back, and stared with open mouth, and for a moment, between bewilderment and great joy, he could not answer. At last he gasped: ‘Gandalf! I thought you were dead! But then I thought I was dead myself. Is everything sad going to come untrue? What’s happened to the world?’

“‘A great Shadow has departed,’ said Gandalf, and then he laughed, and the sound was like music, or like water in a parched land; and as he listened the thought came to Sam that he had not heard laughter, the pure sound of merriment, for days upon days without count. It fell upon his ears like the echo of all the joys he had ever known. But he himself burst into tears. Then, as a sweet rain will pass down a wind of spring and the sun will shine out the clearer, his tears ceased, and his laughter welled up, and laughing he sprang from his bed.

“‘How do I feel?’ he cried. ‘Well, I don’t know how to say it. I feel’—he waved his arms in the air—’I feel like spring after winter, and sun on leaves; and like trumpets and harps and all the songs I have ever heard!'” (The Return of the King, pp. 229-230).

The beauty of the earth