Welcome, as ever, dear readers.
At the beginning of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Iolanthe, some fairies are discussing the banishment of one of their number, Iolanthe,
when they are interrupted by the Queen of the fairies,
Queen. No, because your Queen, who loved her with a surpassing love, commuted her sentence to penal servitude for life, on condition that she left her husband and never communicated with him again!
Leila. That sentence of penal servitude she is now working out, on her head, at the bottom of that stream!
Queen. Yes, but when I banished her, I gave her all the pleasant places of the earth to dwell in. I’m sure I never intended that she should go and live at the bottom of a stream! It makes me perfectly wretched to think of the discomfort she must have undergone!
Leila. Think of the damp! And her chest was always delicate.
Queen. And the frogs! Ugh! I never shall enjoy any peace of mind until I know why Iolanthe went to live among the frogs! (W.S. Gilbert, Iolanthe, Act I)
This piece of dialogue made me wonder about damp living conditions in a few literary works, and, because I’ve recently taught Beowulf, I immediately thought of Grendel and his mother,
(An Alan Lee illustration.)
whose habitation was in a pool, in the midst of a moor. The poem describes Grendel:
|“wæs se grimma gaést Grendel háten||this ghastly demon was named Grendel,|
|maére mearcstapa sé þe móras héold||infamous stalker in the marches, he who held the moors,|
|fen ond fæsten· fífelcynnes eard||fen and desolate strong-hold; the land of marsh-monsters,|
|wonsaélí wer weardode hwíle||10||the wretched creature ruled for a time”|
I would normally try to translate this myself, but, this time, I want to use this passage to point to a really useful site:https://heorot.dk/beowulf-rede-text.html which, as you can see, has both the original text and a translation, plus extensive notes. There are several Beowulf translations on-line and, along with this one, I would recommend that by Dick Ringler, which you can find at: https://digicoll.library.wisc.edu/cgi-bin/Literature/Literature-idx?type=header&id=Literature.RinglBeowulf&pview=hide
Ringler’s translation, which, like the above, has lots of useful background information, is designed for oral delivery, and so has a very up-to-date feel to it.
If you thought that Grendel’s neighborhood was bad, the pool in which he and his mother live was so terrifying that, as the text says:
|“ofer þaém hongiað hrímge bearwas·||1363||over it hangs frost-covered groves,|
|wudu wyrtum fæst wæter oferhelmað·||tree held fast by its roots overshadows the water;|
|þaér mæg nihta gehwaém níðwundor séon||there one may every night a horrible marvel see:|
|fýr on flóde· nó þæs fród leofað||fire on the water; not even the wise of them lives,|
|gumena bearna þæt þone grund wite.||of men’s sons, that knows the bottom.|
|Ðéah þe haéðstapa hundum geswenced||1368||Though the heath-stepper harrassed by hounds,|
|heorot hornum trum holtwudu séce||the hart with strong horns, seeks the forest,|
|feorran geflýmed· aér hé feorh seleð||put to flight from far, first he will give up his life,|
|aldor on ófre aér hé in wille||existence on the shore, before he will (leap) in|
|hafelan helan· nis þæt héoru stów·||to hide his head; it is not a pleasant place;”|
Iolanthe’s place of exile brought on thoughts of Beowulf. In turn, the half-line fyr on flode, “fire upon water”, will remind The Lord of the Ring readers of:
“Presently it grew altogether dark: the air itself seemed black and heavy to breathe. 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…
At last Sam could bear it no longer. ‘What’s all this, Gollum?’ he said in a whisper. ‘These lights? They’re all round us now. Are we trapped? Who are they?’
Gollum looked up. A dark water was before him, and he was crawling on the ground, this way and that, doubtful of the way. ‘The tricksy lights. Candles of corpses, yes, yes. Don’t you heed them! Don’t look! Don’t follow them!” (The Two Towers, Book Four, Chapter 2, “The Passage of the Marshes”)
I’ve always found this one of the most unsettling moments in Frodo and Sam’s long journey to Mt Doom, I think because of this:
“Hurrying forward again, Sam tripped, catching his foot in some old root or tussock. He fell and came heavily on his hands, which sank deep into sticky ooze, so that his face was brought close to the surface of the dark mere. There was a faint hss, a noisome smell went up, the lights flickered and danced and swirled. For a moment the water below him looked like some window, glazed with grimy glass, through which he was peering. Wrenching his hands out of the bog, he sprang back with a cry. ‘There are dead things, dead faces in the water,’ he said with horror. ‘Dead faces!’”
In a letter to Prof L.W. Forster, 31 December, 1960, JRRT suggested an inspiration for such a place:
“The Dead Marshes and the approaches to the Morannon owe something to Northern France after the Battle of the Somme.” (Letters, 303)
As the Great War progressed, the landscape of northern France/southern Belgium became permanently pock-marked from the endless fall of artillery shells.
As you can see, whenever it rained, these shell-holes filled with water and, during attacks, it was possible for advancing soldiers to fall in and drown. I think that this is what Tolkien is suggesting was one idea behind the Dead Marshes.
Iolanthe is pardoned by the Fairy Queen
and leaves the stream for good, but I can do better than that. In the musical Once Upon a Mattress,
Princess Winifred (her nickname? “Fred”), while waiting to see what Queen Agravaine has in store for her in the way of a contest, (as in the original Andersen fairy tale, the princess must pass a test to gain the prince, Dauntless—but it’s his mother she has to satisfy, not the prince), she is asked by her (temporary, as far as the queen’s concerned) maids to describe her homeland, which she does:
Winnifred: I come from the land of the foggy, foggy dew ooh-ooh-ooh!
Where walking through the meadow in the morning is like walking through glue!
The swamps of home are brushed with green and gold at break of day.
Dauntless: At break of day.
Winnifred: The swamps of home are lovely to behold from far away.
Dauntless: From far away.
Winnifred: In my soul is the beauty of the bog, in my memory the magic of the mud.
I know that blood is thicker than water but the swamps of home are thicker than blood.
Winnifred: Where e’er I roam my heart grows dank and cold,
my face grows gray when shadows fall and I hear the call…
of the swamps of home.
Winnifred: I hear them calling me now, calling me back, calling me Winnifred,
Winnifred, Winnifred, Winnifred, who do you think you are?
Girl of the swamp,
Ladies: Winnifred, Winnifred
Winnifred: You’ve gone to far!
Maid of the marshland, give up the struggle!
Listen to the voice of the swamp;
Winnifred: Where e’er I roam. The whips of fate may smart, but deep down in my heart
Winnifred: One thought will abide and will ne’er be forgotten,
though I search far and wide there is no land as rotten…
Ladies: Rotten, rotten, rotten, Rotten, rotten, rotten, Rotten, rotten, rotten…
Winnifred: As the swamps of home.
Winnifred, Dauntless & Ladies: The swamps of home!
(source: https://www.lyricsondemand.com/soundtracks/o/onceuponamattresslyrics/swampsofhomelyrics.html )
Carol Burnett was the original Princess Fred
and you can hear her singing about her sort-of-happy homeland here:
Thanks, as ever, for reading.
I normally end by saying “Stay well”, these days, but perhaps it would be more appropriate to say
And remember that there is always
“Bog-trotter” is thought to have originally been a slur on Irish country people. As some of my ancestors were probably the very people slurred, I use the term to show that it can suggest something other than Celtic swamp monsters.
I apologize for the weird bracketing around the quotations from Beowulf. I don’t know what produces them, but I suspect that it might be connected to the magic spells which the poem says protect Grendel from weapons!