Stay on the Path

About once a year, I indulge in a Lord of the Rings re-watch.

I’ve seen the trilogy more times than I can count, and it nevers get old. Typically, however, I skip over large portions of the stuff with Gollum once I get into the second and third films. A little bit of Gollum goes an awfully long way, but—as often happens—the filmmakers were so enamored of the character that they overexposed him. It hurts the film somewhat, in my view, but it serves as a good cautionary tale for aspiring writers: a reminder not to fall too in love with any one character. Once that happens it’s devilishly hard to stop the story from becoming about that character in ways it probably shouldn’t, but I digress. As I said, I generally skip over a healthy majority of the Gollum stuff, but one bit that never gets skipped is the scene in The Two Towers where Frodo, Sam, and Gollum cross the Dead Marshes and Frodo gets hypnotized by the ghost lights in the marsh. It’s a deliciously creepy sequence that draws its inspiration from history (the Battle of the Somme) and fiction (the legend of the Will o’ the Wisp) and blends them in an incredibly horrific fashion.

The Will o’ the Wisp is a creature that I had very mistaken ideas about when I was a child. My conception of it was of a simple wanderer—a person struck with wanderlust—but that’s quite incorrect. The Will o’ the Wisp wanders, it is true, but with a decidedly unsavory purpose: to lead others astray. The Will o’ the Wisp is known by many names, most notably Ignis Fatuus— ‘the foolish fire’—and Jack-o-Lantern (which has taken on entirely different connotations in the modern-day US). Pretty much any culture that has bogs or marshes in their topography, which is most, have a concept of the Will o’ the Wisp.(1) The name Ignis Fatuus provides what is perhaps the most succinct explanation of what a Will o’ the Wisp actually is, however. A phenomenon in which lights are seen in a bog or marsh, but which can never be successfully approached. If you follow the lights of the Will o’ the Wisp, it will lead you off your path and then leave you in darkness. The agent of this action can be any number of things—faerie, spirit, or monster—but the result is inevitably same. You follow at your peril.

The Will ‘o the Wisp and the Snake
Hermann Hendrich, oil on canvas, 1823

The motivations of the Will o’ the Wisp are less clear. Typically, they are thought to be driven by outright malevolence, or by a desire to do mischief, or out of sheer obliviousness. Obviously, the capriciousness of Faerie needs no particular explanation. Inhuman actors cannot, after all, be expected to abide by human concepts of purpose and desire. The revenants who linger in the Dead Marshes, on the other hand, have clear and even understandable motivations. In Tolkien’s imagining, the miasma of battlefield death provides the impetus for the deadly “candles” that lead travelers astray in the marsh. The tens of thousands who lie dead and have lain dead, unmemorialized and unremembered, light the candles to entrance and ensnare those who come to the place because they cannot rest and therefore cannot allow anyone else to rest either. It’s a classic vengeful ghost scenario—irrational, yes, but grounded in a fundamentally human point of view. And it is that fundamentally human point of view that makes Tolkien’s ghosts so frightening. More frightening, perhaps, than the coldly inhuman Will ‘o the Wisp.

Either way, however, it’s best to remember, I think, that when passing through unknown territory and in the face of tempting distractions it behooves us all to stay on the path.

1) The Japanese, like the British, have an impressive array of names for the phenomenon: hitodama 人魂, mujinabi 狢火, kitsunebi 狐火, onibi 鬼火. 


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