Name: The Dead Marshes
Location in Peter Jackson’s films: Kepler Mire, near Te Anau in New Zealand’s South Island, and Weta Digital Wet-Set at Lower Hutt, Wellington Region in North Island.
Description: Cadaverous wetlands between Dagorlad and the Emyn Muil. The graveyard section of Dagorlad. Dead faces pervade the Dead Marshes.
The Kepler Mire is one of South Island’s less glamorous, marshier landmarks. Based in the Te Anau basin complex, it’s notable for its size and its location near Lake Te Anau. Named as a shortened version of the Māori phrase “Te-Ana-au,” rendered in English as “Place of the Swirling Waters”, Lake Te Anau was initially home to Māoris, particularly the iwi (Māori nation) Ngai Tahu. In 1852, Māoris guided Europeans C. J. Nairn and W. J. Stephen around Lake Te Anau, the first recorded European visit to those shores. The lake was then surveyed by James McKerrow in 1863, and since then has been partially subsumed into Fiordland National Park and the Te Wahipounamu World Heritage site.
In November 1999, the crew of The Lord of the Rings used the Kepler Mire as a location for the Dead Marshes in The Two Towers. For landscape shots, the Kepler Mire was evinced in its sprawling, lugubrious glory (some scenes of Frodo, Sam and Gollum were shot later at Weta Digital’s Wet Set in Wingate). The Mire’s presence in the film is fleeting but memorable, enough to make it a potential tourist stop alongside the rest of New Zealand’s Rings filming locations. In Ian Brodie’s The Lord of the Rings Location Guidebook, these places are treated as the holy ground on which The Lord of the Rings’ protagonists walked. Brodie describes the Kepler Track, a hiking track near Te Anau, as “travers[ing] lake edges, beech forests, mountaintops and a U-shaped glacial valley, and provid[ing] a more personal appreciation of our heroes’ journey!” (The Lord of the Rings Location Guidebook) While the gaudiness of this prose is a perfectly common part of tourism, it also exemplifies its purpose of selling views of landmarks and reductive historical narratives at the expense of natural geography and history. In the weird ritualization and mystification of fandom, New Zealand is sometimes noted more for The Lord of the Rings than for its lands and people — it’s worth noting this colony is the shooting location for a movie about a subaltern figure like Gollum. Members of the cast and crew have at times bolstered this narrative. The Location Guidebook quotes Gimli actor John Rhys-Davies, the British National Party’s favorite Lord of the Rings cast member:
Tolkien was writing about a different world, a different land, a primitive land and a primitive time in history. New Zealand — breathtakingly beautiful — is just perfect for that.
While it’s true that Tolkien wrote about “a different world,” or our world at “a different state of imagination” as he put it, Rhys-Davies’ use of the word “primitive” is fraught to say the least. The concept of primitivism has long been a loaded trope leveled at subaltern and non-white populations living outside of European society, virtually always while ignoring the innovations and societal workings of indigenous or marginalized populations. Rhys-Davies also seems to imply that New Zealand is an untamed wilderness, unpeopled except for the film crews and casts who shoot there. The erasure of Māori history is blatant and tacitly racist, as well as historically inaccurate. It’s a simple quote, and probably harmless on its own merits, but taken in context it’s an active problem. The Lord of the Rings is a cultural achievement — the fact Kiwi filmmakers changed how the world watched and produced films is astonishing. But let’s not pretend that The Lord of the Rings is the breadth and totality of cultural landmarks in New Zealand. It’s a country where people live, including Māori, not a long-deceased wasteland of ghosts.
Tolkien was no stranger to ghosts. Even the most vibrant parts of Middle-earth are graveyards of their pasts, as all places are. . As both a graveyard and a marsh at once, it reeks, although exactly what impact the corpses in the Marshes have on the environment is complicated by their hauntological nature. The Dead Marshes lie northwest of the Morannon, and hold corpses of the Silvan elves who were slain in the Battle of Dagorlad (Unfinished Tales, “The History of Galadriel and Celeborn”), Orcs and Men, as well as chronologically later Gondorians and Easterlings who perished in an early conflict of the Third Age (Unfinished Tales, “Cirion and Eorl”). Few locations reek of death the way the Dead Marshes do, with their olfactory assault on travelers; “the reek of them came to [Frodo and Sam’s] nostrils, heavy and foul even in the cool night air” (The Two Towers, “The Passage of the Marshes”). Its most significant hour, though, is its part in Frodo and Sam’s journey to Mordor. At the outset of Book IV, the hobbits are lost, having resigned themselves to a lone suicide mission as the Fellowship of the Ring has been broken. Frodo especially has found his role as Ring-bearer an insurmountable burden, musing on the inevitably fatal outcome of their quest to Sam; “I ask you, Sam, are we ever likely to need bread again? I think not. If we can nurse our limbs to bring us to Mount Doom, that is all we can do. More than I can, I begin to feel” (The Two Towers, “The Passage of the Marshes”).
In this context Frodo and Sam encounter Gollum face-to-face, having attempted to outwalk him before getting lost in the labyrinthian hills of Emyn Muil. A trickster character of the highest degree, Gollum signifies the hobbits’ journey into overt weirdness. Gollum is a mutant of hobbithood as Frodo and Sam understand it, in keeping with Tolkien’s Thomist understanding of evil as the explicit obviation of good. As per usual with Tolkien, Gollum is not wholly evil; at times he proves capable of unselfish behavior. But Tolkien’s troubling (if complex) views on purity come into play once again. Gollum is a corruption of the genteel English, petit bourgeois race of hobbits. His corruption has been orchestrated by the products of Mordor, ever an implicitly Orientalist country. But Gollum is also a completely ruined being, worthy of sympathy even in his darkest moments. As Gandalf notes in the Mines of Moria, “Gollum has
some part to play in [the quest], for good or evil, before this is over” (The Fellowship of the Ring, “A Journey in the Dark”). Pure condemnation of any being is beyond Frodo’s ability, although Gollum’s status as a subaltern keeps him useful as a subjugated figure rather than worthwhile in his own right. In keeping with Tolkien’s Catholicism, there are forces at play beyond the egos of hobbits and Men, although as ever, the politics of whether free will applies to Gollum are sketchy.
Gollum’s corruption is crucial to the twist of the Dead Marshes’ chapter, “The Passage of the Marshes,” one of the most powerful sequences in The Lord of the Rings. The Dead Marshes exemplify how the earth in The Lord of the Rings is like a body; it’s wounded. It retains trauma. And it lashes out if you jeopardize it. It’s not unlike Gollum, who operates similarly. Gollum has a childlike nature, retaining bits of his past life as a Stoor hobbit, occasionally recalling people he once knew (he references his grandmother at times), and having a childlike tendency to break into bits of sing-song that quickly devolve into menace and predation:
“The cold hard lands
they bites our hands,
they gnaws our feet.
The rocks and stones
are like old bones
all bare of meat.
But stream and pool
is wet and cool:
so nice for feet!
And now we wish—
‘Ha! ha! What does we wish?’ he said, looking sidelong at the hobbits. ‘We’ll tell you,’ he croaked. ‘He guessed it long ago, Baggins guessed it.’ A glint came into his eyes, and Sam catching the gleam in the darkness thought it far from pleasant.”The Two Towers, “The Passage of the Marshes”
Gollum’s playfulness lends a creepy nursery rhyme quality to the Dead Marshes. It’s also key to establishing the tactility and humanity of the Dead Marshes as a setpiece. Gollum’s treacherous nature matches that of the
Marshes; yet he offers a reliability the Marshes lack. He has memories of his time as a Stoor hobbit, and some semblance of history.
“‘Yes, yes,’ said Gollum. ‘All dead, all rotten. Elves and Men and Orcs. The Dead Marshes. There was a great battle long ago, yes, so they told him when Sméagol was young, when I was young before the Precious came. It was a great battle. Tall Men with long swords, and terrible Elves, and Orcses shrieking. They fought on the plain for days and months at the Black Gates. But the Marshes have grown since then, swallowed up the graves; always creeping, creeping.’”
This framing positions Gollum as part of the same history as Frodo and Sam. It also serves to mystify the Dead Marshes’ historical role, turning it into an obscure ground for death and decay without details or clear historical voice. It’s a part of Middle-earth where the players of past historical eras are visible; decaying in the sight of the world forever. The journey devolves into a vision of quasi-ghosts:
“When lights appeared Sam rubbed his eyes: he thought his head was going queer. He first saw one with the corner of his left eye, a wisp of pale sheen that faded away; but others appeared soon after: some like dimly shining smoke, some like misty flames flickering slowly above unseen candles; here and there they twisted like ghostly sheets unfurled by hidden hands.”
“The Passage of the Marshes” is chock-full of such memorable pieces of prose, including my favorite line in The Lord of the Rings: “The gasping pools were choked with ash and crawling muds, sickly white and grey, as if the mountains had vomited the filth of their entrails upon the land about.” The Dead Marshes are functionally a possessed entity; land occupied by the spirit of the past. Peter Jackson renders this more literally, having a hypnotic Frodo collapse into the Marshes and be attacked by ghouls. A high point of Tolkien’s creation, the Dead Marshes remind us that Middle-earth’s history and geography are in a deadlock, fighting to the death, strangling each other forever.