“The Shadows Where the Mewlips [really] dwell” – Mapping the road to Mordor?

The Mewlips.png

I’m chuffed by the eager response asking me to post the paper I presented at this year’s Oxonmoot. Well, here it is in full (with a few additional notes) for your enjoyment, if such be its fate.

“The Shadows Where the Mewlips [really] dwell”

Mapping the road to Mordor?

James Moffett

Tom Bombadil book

In 1962, a collection of 16 poems by J.R.R Tolkien was published under the title of The Adventures of Tom Bombadil. It was the author’s intention to present these short works as part of the Red Book of Westmarch*, the volume of work that incorporates the accounts found in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, which Bilbo and Frodo Baggins, together with Samwise Gamgee, were purported to have written following their adventures through Middle-earth.

Among the rich and varied assortment of verse, the ninth poem in the collection titled ‘The Mewlips’, stands out for its rather grotesque visual style, with an overpowering element of horror imbued within its sinister verses.

Despite the poem’s sense of unearthliness and peculiar imagery, its inclusion in The Adventures of Tom Bombadil was part of Tolkien’s concept of integrating several of his previous works into the framework of Middle-earth. ‘The Mewlips’ is in fact a reworking of an older poem the author had written around 1927 and revised in 1937, under the title of ‘Knocking at the Door’ (Scull, Hammond, 2006).

He admitted, however, that some of the revised poems in the collection did not integrate as smoothly as others within his fantasy world, and added:

[…] that fits some uneasily. I have done a good deal of work, trying to make them fit better.

— Letter 237: The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien

It is indeed highly intriguing how a poem that contains so many descriptive sounds and visuals, detailing little nuances about the environment in which these creatures — these Mewlips — live, remains elusive and concerned with keeping the proposed geographical location a mystery. Whether this is a result of the reworking process Tolkien underwent, or a deliberate withholding of information in order to transform the poem into something more exceptional and engaging, is still up for debate.

Middle-earth is vast and complex, but at the same time very recognisable — thanks to the author’s decades-long work in producing much-loved and praised children’s books, short stories and epic fantasy novels. As such, there can be a variety of interpretations to the poem, and the analysis of a reader is very much limited by one’s subjectivity. John D. Rateliff in his The History of The Hobbit speculates that the dark, ominous and perilous dwelling of the Mewlips is to be found in and around the vast stretches of marshlands of the Long Lake, south of the Lonely Mountain — a supposition that is held by many others who read both the poem and The Hobbit. Suffice to say, most of the descriptions fit rather uncannily.

Middle-earth Map

Nevertheless, that should not keep an ardent reader, keen to learn more and attempt to better understand the motivations and decisions of the author, from venturing further; questioning the nature and scope of the poem beyond the 32 verses that occupy two pages of a small collection of other poems and short stories.

It is thought that the poem serves as a symbolic representation of Orcs and other horrors in Hobbit folklore and tradition. In an attempt to veer away from this concept, I undertook a similar exercise by reading through each line, in search of specific or distinctive geographical references. The aim was to then cross-examine them with other descriptions found in both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

It is thus the purpose of this paper to argue that the clues scattered throughout the poem indicate the literary author of the poem is a hobbit who has himself waded through the treacherous geographies encountered along the way. In addition, this argument proposes that Samwise Gamgee is the author of ‘The Mewlips’, and that the location of these creatures’ dwelling lies closer to Mordor than may initially be evident to the reader at first glance

In order to arrive at the crux of this proposition, one must begin with a verse-by-verse analysis, picking out the words that come across as descriptive and geographic in nature. However, rather than starting from the first few lines of the poem, it would serve the purpose of this proposal to look at the concluding stanza in order to be able to map the route through which Tolkien intended to lead his readers. The concluding verses run so:

Beyond the Merlock Mountains, a long and lonely road,
Through the spider-shadows and the marsh of Tode,
And through the wood of hanging trees and gallows-weed,
You go to find the Mewlips – and the Mewlips feed.

— ‘The Mewlips’, lines 29-32,
The Adventures of Tom Bombadil

At a glance, none of the above names or descriptions bring to mind a specific location in Middle-earth. The geography is familiar, and references to mountains, spider-shadows, a marsh and a wood, will no doubt present a number of possibilities to anyone who has read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and consulted their respective maps.

The Misty MountainsOne has to step away from the whole picture conjured up by these verses and look at the elements separately, before reassembling the puzzle into a coherent geographic representation. Given that ‘The Mewlips’ most probably derives from Hobbit folklore, the Merlock Mountains have often been thought of as a representation of the Misty Mountains, the range running north to south along the edge of the Wild, forming an imposing barrier before coming face-to-face with the real dangers of Middle-earth. Robert Foster in The Complete Guide to Middle-earth suggests the possibility that these mountains could be where the Mewlips lived. However, this is not entirely correct, given that the poem specifically makes reference to a journey “beyond” the Merlock Mountains, and therefore such a suggestion must be abandoned.

The use of the word merlock is curious, however. The suffix mer– comes from Old English mere, relating to the sea or a lake. Meanwhile, lock is both Old English and Old Norse for fastening, which is where our modern word loch originates, a narrow or partially landlocked body of water. If one had to glance at a map of Middle-earth and venture south of Lórien and past Fangorn Forest, one comes across the unmistakeable and rather unique features of the Emyn Muil landscape and the Falls of Rauros.

Nen Hithoel

The large expanse of Nen Hithoel, a partially landlocked lake between the arms of the jagged and drear hills of the Emyn Muil, might be a possible contender for the Merlock Mountains.

The pent waters spread out into a long oval lake, pale Nen Hithoel, fenced by steep grey hills […]

— ‘The Great River’, Chapter 9, The Fellowship of the Ring

That being said, the pronounced difference between a range of hills and a range of mountains is almost a sure case for no further argument. Yet, the geographical position of the Emyn Muil, past the Misty Mountains and set deep within the perilous lands of the Wilderness, is a unique proposition for an otherwise weak case in favour of such a location. In addition, a set of impassable hills would have looked or felt like mountains to two weary hobbits.

This supposition must be supported in light of the subsequent geographical descriptions that follow in the last stanza.

Sam Gamgee’s journey from the Emyn Muil towards the East, and eventually to the Dead Marshes, strengthens the argument in favour of his authorship of the poem, having travelled the “long and lonely road”. The poem speaks of the marsh of Tode, yet another example of geographical ambiguity, nowhere else referred to in any Middle-earth story or map.

Considering how Tolkien, the dedicated linguist that he was, built his fantasy world around languages, the starting point for any location begins with its etymological roots. In another simple exercise to hunt for traces in the name, the word tode seems to be of Low German origin meaning to drag — a rather apt name for a marshland.

The Dead Marshes

The Dead Marshes are described in detail in The Two Towers, as Frodo and Sam cautiously follow Gollum through that vast and treacherous land, always in constant danger of losing their footing and falling into the slimy pools:

The fens grew more wet, opening into wide stagnant meres, among which it grew more and more difficult to find the firmer places where feet could tread without sinking into gurgling mud.

— ‘The Passage of the Marshes’, Chapter 2: The Two Towers

Further reinforcing the idea that the Dead Marshes might appropriately stand in for the marsh of Tode, are the various descriptions of this place. As the hobbits wade through the Marshes, we are constantly told of the “livid weed” and the “dark greasy surfaces of the sullen waters”, amid a “deep silence”. Comparing these details with those found in the poem, there are remarkable resemblances to the descriptions in the verses, such as the “dark pool’s borders without wind or tide,” where the Mewlips live. Or, more tantalisingly, the presence of a “single sickly candle” light coming from the “deep and dank and cold” cellars where the Mewlips count their gold. The appearance of lights also occurs in the chapter on the Dead Marshes, when the hobbits come across this ghastly sight:

[…] lights appeared […] above unseen candles; here and there they twisted like ghostly sheets unfurled by hidden hands.

— ‘The Passage of the Marshes’, Chapter 2: The Two Towers

In addition, following the discovery of the dead faces emerging from the dark pools of the marshes, an exhausted and entranced Frodo informs Sam of their presence:

I have seen them too. In the pools when the candles were lit. They lie in all the pools, pale faces, deep deep under the dark water […] weeds in their silver hair.

— ‘The Passage of the Marshes’, Chapter 2: The Two Towers

The parallels between the chapter extracts and the poem are singular. The Mewlips may well have been a representation of the dead Elves, Men and Orcs that lay rotting in the stagnant pools, pulling unwary travellers down with them into the cold and lifeless waters. Indeed, one can only speculate about the possibility that the Dead Marshes left a strong influence on the hobbit author, who utilised many of its horror elements in the verses of the poem.

While we find ourselves in the realm of speculation, it is necessary to consider the remaining geographical reference alluded to in the poem, as our hobbit journeys further south from the Dead Marshes and along the Mountains of Shadow bordering the land of Mordor.

We learn that the Mewlips lived in a “[m]oonless and sunless” place filled with “[s]hadows” as “dark and wet as ink”. No other land in Middle-earth exemplifies these characteristics more than Sauron’s own realm, the Black Land itself.

Frodo-Sam Mordor Journey

As the road from the Dead Marshes follows both the Great River and the western borders of Mordor, our hobbit traveller would soon have found himself at the Cross-roads, where the main road south branched off west and east towards Osgiliath and Minas Morgul respectively. As Frodo, Sam and Gollum journey through this road, readers are constantly reminded of the growing gloom and deepening silence of that land, until finally they reach the Cross-roads themselves:

[…] looming up like a black wall, they saw a belt of trees […] these were of vast size, very ancient it seemed, and still towering high, though their tops were gaunt and broken […]

— ‘The Journey to the Cross-roads’, Chapter 7: The Two Towers

Meanwhile, a “wood of hanging trees and gallows-weed” is said to lie upon the road towards the Mewlips’s dwelling. Gallows-weed is only mentioned once in Tolkien’s works and we cannot be certain what they refer to exactly, however, the conjunction of the two words would suggest that the trees in question are to be found in the swamps and marshes of Tode — a geographical feature that is not found in the Cross-roads that flanked the Mountains of Shadow.

Apart from the mountains, trees, marshes and dense shadows, the Mewlips are said to live in a “mouldy valley”.

While down the grinning gargoyles stare
And noisome waters pour.

Beside the rotting river-strand
The drooping willows weep,

— ‘The Mewlips’, lines 7-9,
The Adventures of Tom Bombadil

The Morgul Valley, through which the Morgulduin river flowed out from Minas Morgul, the Tower of Black Sorcery, would seem to fit with each of these distinct geographic features. When Gollum leads the two Hobbits from the Cross-roads and into the Vale, they witness a “poisonous stream” passing in the midst of the valley under a bridge that leads to the fortress itself.

Figures stood there at its [the bridge’s] head, carven with cunning in forms human and bestial, but all corrupt and loathsome. The water flowing beneath was silent, and it steamed, but the vapour that rose from it, curling and twisting about the bridge, was deadly cold.

— ‘The Stairs of Cirith Ungol’, Chapter 8: The Two Towers

In addition, the “deep and dank and cold” cellars of the Mewlips, with their “single sickly candle” light, reflects almost word-for-word the “corpse-light” that is said to have emanated from Minas Morgul. If there was any dwelling fit for a Mewlip to live in, the rotting river of the Morgul Vale would have been the ideal place.

The Morgul Vale is also the location that leads further into the Mountains of Shadow and eventually to Shelob’s lair. The verse in the poem referring to the “spider-shadows” provides for another alternative location to Mirkwood, a commonly alluded to place.

It is beyond the scope of this paper to discuss the nature of the Mewlips themselves. However, I shall offer a tantalising quote found in the third part of The Lord of the Rings which, rather than confirming or denying any sort of argument, leaves the mystery open to any reader’s interpretation.

The extract in question takes place after the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, when Aragorn leads the army of the West towards the Mountains of Shadow. Together with the wizard Gandalf, he passes into the Morgul Vale and looks upon the fortress.

It was dark and lifeless; for the Orcs and lesser creatures of Mordor that had dwelt there had been destroyed in battle.

— ‘The Black Gate Opens’, Chapter 10: The Return of the King

Whether these lesser creatures included such beings as the Mewlips, remains only an intriguing thought.

There are other elements in the poem that remain unsolved, however. The gorcrows that are said to croak in their sleep, or the cellars where the Mewlips count their gold, with the soft ringing of their bell, remain an elusive aspect of the mystery.

Ultimately, if Sam were the author of this poem and after the War of the Ring presented it as part of the Red Book, it would probably have served as the hobbit’s own way of dealing with the horrors of the journey via a semi-symbolic piece of writing. This is akin to many real-life poets who, returning from the battlefields of the First World War, tried to put down in words and explain to others the inhuman experiences they would have had to deal with.

This is what makes ‘The Mewlips’ such a distinct piece of writing. This oddity allows for the poem to maintain a sense of uniqueness in style and a detachment from the intricate and revealing details of the fantasy world it belongs to — making it an almost other- worldly construction of verses set apart from any other poem Tolkien wrote.

____________________________

Notes

* In his Preface to the book, J.R.R. Tolkien states that the poems are “mainly concerned with legends and jests of the Shire at the end of the Third Age, that appear to have been made by Hobbits.”

“Tolkien did what Niggle had done with his earlier pictures: he put these early compositions into the overall frame of his greater one.” Tom Shippey’s introduction to the Tales from the Perilous Realm (Tolkien, 2008)

 ‡ Something can be said however, about both the reference to the gorcrows and the bell. For if we had to follow Sam’s journey even further, after having passed through the “grinning gargoyles” and the “spider-shadows” of Shelob’s lair, he would have ended up outside the Tower of Cirith Ungol, standing defiantly on the highest ridges of the Mountains of Shadow, and overlooking the land of Mordor. Tolkien informs his readers that at the entrance to this structure:

[…] within the shadow of the gate he saw the Two Watchers […] seated upon thrones […] The heads had vulture-faces, and on their great knees were laid clawlike hands.

— ‘The Stairs of Cirith Ungol’, Chapter 8: The Two Towers

It might be too much of a stretch to compare the gorcrows that “stand / Croaking in their sleep”, to the Watchers at the gate of the Tower who were “immovable, and yet they were aware”. Gorcrows seem to be a type of bird species unknown anywhere else in Middle-earth, and whether or not this is a more sinister word for the typical crow we are familiar with, it is somewhat telling that the Old English prefix gor- refers to our own Modern English term gore, and hence a rather apt description for the real-world species of bird known as carrion crow.

The Two Watchers at the Tower of Cirith Ungol are the only geographical marker within that region to feature a tantalising link to such carrion birds. Vultures and crows share certain common characteristics and the fact that these evil statues stand idle, and yet can determine who comes and goes into the Tower, provides for a curious parallel to the gorcrows that stand at the entrance to the Mewlips’ dwelling.

Furthermore, the “harsh bell” that ensues after Sam forces himself past the Watchers and into the Tower, is reminiscent of the third verse in the poem. Granted, this is not the same soft ringing bell of the Mewlips, but it is certainly something to consider or, at the least, keep in mind when re-reading the poem.

____________________________

Bibliography

Carpenter, Humphrey (editor), Tolkien, Christopher (assistance), The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. 2nd edn. London: HarperCollins, 2006.

Foster, Robert., The Complete Guide to Middle-earth. 2 edn. London: HarperCollins, 2003.

Murray, James A. (editor), Simpson, J.A. (prepared by), Weiner, E.S.C., The Oxford English Dictionary. Clarendon, 1989.

Scull, Christina., Hammond, Wayne G., The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide: Chronology. 1 edn. London: HarperCollins, 2006.

Rateliff, John. D., The History of the Hobbit – Part One: Mr. Baggins. 2 edn. London: HarperCollins, 2008.

Tolkien, J.R.R., The Hobbit. 2 edn. London: HarperCollins, 1999.

————, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. 50th Anniversary edn. London:

HarperCollins, 2005.

————, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. 50th Anniversary edn. London: HarperCollins, 2005.

————, Tales from the Perilous Realm. Expanded edn. London: HarperCollins, 2008.

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5 thoughts on ““The Shadows Where the Mewlips [really] dwell” – Mapping the road to Mordor?

  1. Great piece! I should definitely reread The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, I’ve only read it once a couple of years ago and I don’t remember it very well. Thank you for sharing your paper, a very interesting reading.

  2. It all makes sense now! Putting things into perspective, this seems like a plausible explanation.

    Love the in depth cross reference. Good stuff.

  3. Hi James. Again, you give me much to think about. The above presents a picture of Sam being able to communicate the horrors he experienced (and perhaps he was singularly aware of these horrors because of the preoccupation and distracted attention of Frodo with the ring) to other hobbits in a way that would be accepted by them, especially his descendants who would have kept it as a ‘difficult and odd’ part of the excepted corpus of the Red Book.

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