On the Corpse Road

The Passage of the Marshes

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The Old Corpse Road, Lake District, United Kingdom (Source)

The journey of Frodo, Sam, and Gollum through the swamp just outside the lands of the Dark Lord is a haunting and intentionally-uncomfortable experience for the reader, foreshadowing the unpleasant and frightening paths of the Dead and Cirith Ungol that lay before us. Foul water; faces in the water; little corpse candles: all off-putting, all unnatural. And all the more surprising, therefore, that these concepts come not from Tolkien’s imagination entirely, but instead a little forgotten part of history: the corpse road.

A corpse road is a pathway made for the practical movement of the deceased from communities to cemeteries. These final resting places, for sanitary, geographic, and religious reasons, were often some distance from the places where the living resided, and therefore a road connecting them was needed for transporting the body. What’s more, especially in Britain, only certain churches (called “mother churches”) held the right of burial for the parish, and so bodies from the outlying areas would need to be brought in. These paths would travel through uninhabited and difficult terrain, often only marked by a few coffin stones (where the bodies could be lain while the bearers rested) and a name incorporating the phrase “church-way” or “bier road”.

Many of these roads have lost, or are likely now only recognized as normal footpaths. However, in their prime, corpse roads were frequently associated with spirits, ghosts, wraiths, and other spiritual disturbances. The combination of their isolation and their primary use as a funerary conduit brought about the folklore of the paths of the dead, the major roadways of the spirits between our world and theirs. For example, as the corpse roads often took the clearest and straightest path between the community and the cemetery, it came to be understood the spirits could only travel in straight lines (which is one of the assumptions underlying the development of mazes and labyrinths for prayer and all the way to Halloween). Another phenomenon were corpse candles, little specks or balls of eerie light that would appear out of the corner of a traveler’s eye and vanish. While now believed to be some combination of foxfire (bio-luminescent fungi) and methane outputs, in older times these mysterious candles were the signals of the dead passing in and out of the physical world.

It is clear that Tolkien understood these ideas and incorporated them into his grand vision of a larger corpse road than could ever exist in our own world: the Dead Marshes. The features are all enumerated in the pages of the passage of the marshes, but with an addition tinge of darkness and foulness: for these corpse roads near the Enemy, and his corruption lays upon them. But, like corpse roads today, the Dead Marshes are long forgotten, and the details of what happened within them lost to all save for a few vague and simple details. Much knowledge seems only left in lore.

We, like Frodo and Sam, wish not to travel the corpse road; we wish we could avoid the Dead Marshes. Yet such things appear on our path, though we may not realize it until we are upon it. Then we must gird ourselves and traverse it to the best of our ability. As we do, we might consider folklore, and the dead, and the ancient ways of making sense of the world.

2016’s Reflection: “On Dead Grasses and Rotten Reeds
2015’s Reflection: “On the Internal Monologue of Temptation


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