“Tricksy lights”:  Will-o’-the-Wisps in Folklore & J.R.R. Tolkien

Das Irrlicht, by Arnold Böcklin, 1882

Will-o’-the-wisps are little dancing lights sometimes seen on bogs and moorlands, and occasionally in forests.  Some have been reported to retreat from the viewer if followed, thus giving the impression that it was leading the viewer somewhere.  Unfortunately, because will-o’-the-wisps were often seen on bogs and marshes, people who attempted to follow them were led into the trackless, ever-shifting mire and either became lost or drowned and never returned.  This led to the belief that will-o’-the-wisps were supernatural phenomena specifically sent to lure travellers to their deaths.

Each country has its own will-o’-the-wisp origin tale.  Most of them center around an exceptionally evil blacksmith named Will (or Jack in some versions1) whose life was so wicked the Devil turned him away from Hell.  Will was given a coal to keep himself warm as he wandered the world, but he used the coal to lure travellers off the road into the bogs and marshes.  He was called “Will of the Wisp” or “Jack of the Lantern.”  In Scandinavia it was believed that will-o’-the-wisps were lanterns carried by the souls of unjust land-surveyors, perpetually trying to remedy their false measurements.2  Other tales say will-o’-the-wisps mark the location of fairy treasure.3

Attempts have been made to scientifically explain the will-o’-the-wisp.  One explanation is that the gases produced by decaying matter in a bog combust when they come in contact with oxygen in the air, producing a flame.  This would explain why will-o’-the-wisps are so often seen on bogs and marshes.4

In The Lord of the Rings, Frodo and Sam see will-o’-the-wisps while they are travelling through the Dead Marshes.  Here, explanations that would be considered superstitions in our world, are true.  As evening falls over the Marshes, Sam sees lights appear at various spots.  Tolkien describes them as, “A wisp of pale sheen…some like dimly shining smoke, some like misty flames flickering slowly above unseen candles.”5  When Sam asks Gollum what they are, Gollum says, “The tricksy lights.  Candles of corpses, yes, yes.  Don’t you heed them!  Don’t look!  Don’t follow them!”6  Later he warns, “Or hobbits go down to join the Dead ones and light little candles.”7   Here the will-o’-the-wisps that Sam sees really are the “candles of corpses” that lie beneath the Marshes.  The Dead Marshes cover the plains on which Men and Elves fought against Sauron in the Last Alliance and the corpses of the slain lie beneath the bog.

The will-o’-the-wisp is a phenomenon that can be explained by science or optical illusion, but also has gathered around it a hefty stock of superstition—and understandably so.  There is plenty of room for story in the idea of unexplainable dancing lights that beckon people to follow, and which subsequently disappear, leaving the follower lost in the middle of a bog.  It is intriguing to consider the balance of scientific fact and folklore and see how current writers, like J.R.R. Tolkien, incorporate it into their stories.


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1In the Welsh version of this tale, the main character’s name is Sion, the Welsh version of JohnJack is the diminutive form of John, though it has now become a name in its own right.

2Shropshire Folk-lore: A Sheaf of Gleanings, Volume 1, by Geogina Frederica Jackson, Chapter IV (available to read online here)

3In Dracula, by Bram Stoker, the main character sees blue flames in a forest.  Dracula tells him that “a blue flame is seen over any place where treasure has been concealed.”  Dracula, by Bram Stoker, Chapter 2 (available to read online here)

4A more detailed explanation of this process can be found in this video.

5The Two Towers, by J.R.R. Tolkien, Book IV, Chapter II



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