The Rohirrim and the Anglo-Saxons – an overview
It is generally considered that the Rohirrim are modelled closely on the ancient Anglo-Saxons – though more the Anglo-Saxons of song and legend than the actual historical figures. This connection with the Anglo-Saxons of myth struck many chords with Tolkien:
– Anglo-Saxon: his specialist area of study,
– Myth – by the time he wrote “The Lord of the Rings” this was his first love, and
– A connection with his beloved West Midlands by calling Rohan “The Mark”.
This connection is apparent in language, characters, places and behaviour, and is stated explicitly in several places:
“a simpler and more primitive people living in contact with a higher and more venerable culture, and occupying lands that had once been part of its domain.” (“The Lord of the Rings”, Appendix F)
“Thus ‘Rohan’ is only the Gondorian word for the Riders’ country’ they themselves call it ‘the Mark’. Now there is no English county called ‘the Mark’, but the Anglo-Saxon kingdom which included both Tolkiens’ home-town Birmingham and his alma mater Oxford was ‘Mercia’ – a Latinism now adopted by historians mainly because the native term was never recorded. However the West Saxons called their neighbours the Mierce, clearly a derivation (by ‘i-mutation’) from Mearc; the ‘Mercians’ own pronounciation of that would certainly have been the ‘Mark’, and that was no doubt once the everyday term for central England. As for the ‘white horse on the green field’ which is the emblem of the Mark, you can see it cut into the chalk fifteen miles from Tolkien’s study, two miles from ‘Wayland’s Smithy’ and just about on the borders of ‘Mercia’ and Wessex, as if to mark the kingdom’s end. All the Riders’ names and language are Old English, as many have noted; but they were homely to Tolkien in an even deeper sense than that.” (Shippey)
Furthermore, the correspondence is even more apparent from the Rohirric chapters of “The Lord of the Rings”, especially with the chapter “The King of the Golden Hall”, which is straightforwardly calqued on “Beowulf”, both in language and theme.
The subject of Anglo-Saxon influences on the creation of the Rohirrim is a huge one, and one that cannot be covered fully in one article, so here a few simple examples are put forward. These are the use of mead-halls and the behaviour of those in mead-halls, characters in the king’s household, language, and fate.
Tolkien’s main source for the nation of Rohan was “Beowulf”.
Beowulf was composed by an unknown Anglo-Saxon poet in around 700AD, basing the tale on events of history and stories that had already been known for many years. It was written at a time of great change of Europe, the writer being a Christian, and imposing Christian values on characters that would have been pagan.
Only a single manuscript of “Beowulf” survived the Anglo-Saxon era. For many centuries, it was all but forgotten, and, in the 1700s, it was nearly destroyed in a fire. In the 1800s, it started to attract interest among scholars and translators of Old English, their primary interest being historical. It was not until 1936, when Tolkien published a groundbreaking paper entitled “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics” that the manuscript gained recognition as a serious work of art.
In 1938 Tolkien wrote to the editor of the Observer thus:
“Beowulf is among my most valued sources; though it was not consciously present to the mind in the process of writing, in which the episode of the theft arose naturally (and almost inevitably) from the circumstances. It is difficult to think of any other way of conducting the story at this point. I fancy the author of Beowulf would say much the same.” (Letters, #31)
But many of the characteristics of the people of the Riddermark are found in other sources, such as “The Wanderer” and “The Battle of Maldon”.
“The Wanderer” is thought to date back to the sixth century, and is a lament for the dead and the glories of the past. The narrator of the poem has lost his kin in battle and is wandering alone and contemplating the temporal nature of life. The narrator’s lament also displays the permeating cultural belief that everything in life is predetermined by fate.
“The Battle of Maldon” is known from a 17th-century copy of a now-lost and incomplete manuscript of an Old English poem about the conflict. The battle of Maldon was fought in August 991 between English forces commanded by Byrhtnoth, Ealdorman of Essex, and Vikings raiding around the east and south of England. It is one of the finest Old English battle poems, and gives clearest expression to the heroic ideals of Anglo-Saxon England. There is constant reference to conventional, ancient heroic ideals: loyalty, vengeance, fighting for one’s lord.
Meduseld: the Anglo-Saxon mead hall
The first parallel between the Anglo-Saxons and the Rohirrim is the concept of the mead-hall. Indeed, the word meduseld in Anglo-Saxon means mead-hall.
Mead-halls were places of warmth and communality, away from the cold and windswept outside. Under the protective wood of the hall’s steep gables, fires blazed and people feasted, drank and sung.
When one thinks of how a mead-hall must have been a symbol of all that was safe and warm in both Anglo-Saxon lands and the Riddermark, it is easy to see how devastating Gríma’s treachery must have been, changing that wonderful safety into suspicion and worry.
All the qualities of a traditional Anglo-Saxon mead-hall were encompassed in Meduseld, as the following quote shows:
“Inside it seemed dark and warm after the clear air upon the hill. The hall was long and wide and filled with shadows and half lights; mighty pillars upheld its lofty roof. But here and there bright sunbeams fell in glimmering shafts from the eastern windows, high under the deep eaves. Through the louver in the roof, above the thin wisps of issuing smoke, the sky showed pale and blue. As their eyes changed, the travellers perceived that the floor was paved with stones of many hues; branching runes and strange devices intertwined beneath their feet. They saw now that the pillars were richly carved, gleaming dully with gold and half-seen colours. Many woven cloths were hung upon the walls, and over their wide spaces marched figures of ancient legend, some dim with years, some darkling in the shade. But upon one form the sunlight fell: a young man upon a white horse. He was blowing a great horn, and his yellow hair was flying in the wind. The horse’s head was lifted, and its nostrils were wide and red as it neighed, smelling battle afar. Foaming water, green and white, rushed and curled about its knees.” (The King of the Golden Hall)
Mead-halls were also places where warriors would gather in the presence of their lord to drink, boast, tell stories, and receive gifts. These sentiments are admirably expressed in “The Wanderer” and “Beowulf”:
“I went thence in wretchedness with wintry care upon me over the frozen waves, gloomily sought the hall of a treasure-giver wherever I could find him far or near, who might know me in the mead hall or comfort me … he thinks of retainers in hall and the receiving of treasure, of how in his youth his gold-friend was kind to him at the feast” (The Wanderer)
“… So his mind turned
to hall-building: he handed down orders
for men to work on a great mead-hall
meant to be a wonder of the world for ever;
it would be his throne-room …
… And soon it stood there,
finished and ready, in full view,
the hall of halls. Heorot was the name
he had settled on it, whose utterance was law.
Nor did he renege, but doled out rings
And torques at the table. The hall towered,
Its gables wide and high …”
(Beowulf lines 69-72, 77-83)
And when we first hear of Meduseld, Legolas’s words clearly show the importance of the Hall – the Golden Hall of the Lord of the Mark, on a hilltop, looking out protectively over the land.
“Within there rise the roofs of houses; and in the midst, set upon a green terrace, there stands aloft a great hall of Men. And it seems to my eyes that it is thatched with gold, the light of it shines far over the land.” (The King of the Golden Hall)
As an aside, Legolas’s words “The light of it shines far over the land”, are a direct translation of line 311 of Beowulf, “lixte se leoma ofer landa fela“.
While the mead-halls offered sanctuary, they could not totally counteract the feeling of foreboding and doom that ran through the times of the Anglo-Saxon poems. This, of course, is echoed in “The Lord of the Rings”, with the general air of uncertainty from Sauron’s plottings, Sauron trying to recruit the Rohirrim to his side, and on the top of that, Gríma Wormtongue and the death of the heir, Théodred. This underlying sense of doom shown in some of Théoden’s words:
“Not long now shall stand the high hall which Brego son of Eorl built. Fire shall devour the high seat.” (The King of the Golden Hall)
Rohirric / Anglo-Saxon mead-hall customs
Approaching the king
Beowulf and “The King of the Golden Hall” agree, down to minute detail, on the procedure for approaching kings. Each party approaching the mead-hall has two challenges – by a coastguard and then a doorwarden in Beowulf; and by the Edoras gatewarden then Háma in “The Lord of the Rings”. The doorwarden then takes their names in to the king.
“You are free now to move forward
to meet Hrothgar, in helmets and armour,
but shields must stay here and spears be stacked
until the outcome of the audience is clear.”
“”Follow me!” he said. “Théoden gives you leave to enter; but any weapon that you bear, be it only a staff, you must leave on the threshold.”” (The King of the Golden Hall)
The giving of gifts
Giving of gifts was a traditional and essential part of Anglo-Saxon mead-hall life, with the kennings for a lord generally revolving around that theme – ring-giver, gift-giver, treasure-giver.
“Then the Danish prince, descendant of Ing,
handed over both the arms and the horses,
urging Beowulf to use them well.”
Gift-giving occurs also in “The Lord of the Rings”, after Théoden’s healing. Gandalf asked for Shadowfax, and they are all given their pick of armour. Gimli picked a helmet that had been Théoden’s when younger, in the same manner that Beowulf was given arms and armour from both Hrothgar and Heorogar.
“Helms too they chose and round shields: their bosses were overlaid with gold and set with gems, green and red and white.” (King of the Golden Hall)
The people of Meduseld / Heorot
The correspondence of characters in “The Lord of the Rings” and the Anglo-Saxon works, especially “Beowulf”, is the subject of an article on its own, so here is just a brief overview.
Eomer / Éomer
Well, there’s even a character called Éomer in Beowulf! And he sounds rather like the Marshal of the Mark in “The Lord of the Rings”:
… from him there sprang Eomer,
Garmund’s grandson, kinsman of Hemming,
his warriors’ mainstay and master of the field.”
Grima / Umferth
There seems to be somewhat of a correspondence between Gríma and Unferth, more in character than actual deed:
From where he crouched at the king’s feet,
Unferth, a son of Ecglaf’s, spoke
contrary words …”
“Now I cannot recall
any fight you entered, Unferth,
that bears comparison. I don’t boast when I say
that neither you nor Breca [another name used by Tolkien in the Mark!] were ever much
celebrated for swordmanship
or for facing danger on the field of battle.
You killed your own kith and kin,
so for all your cleverness and quick tongue,
you will suffer damnation in the depths of hell.”
Éowyn / Wealhtheow
Éowyn is represented in “Beowulf” by Wealhtheow, Hrothgar’s wife and queen, and the mistress of Heorot. While Hrothgar’s and Wealhtheow’s relationship is obviously a different one to that of Théoden and Eowyn, the role of the two women within the hall is very similar. The similarity is highlighted in one particular part, the passing of the stirrup cup around the hall:
“… Wealhtheow came in,
Hrothgar’s queen, observing the courtesies.
Adorned in her gold, she graciously saluted
the men in hall, then handed the cup
first to Hrothgar, their homeland’s guardian,
urging him to drink deep and enjoy it
because he was dear to them …
… it was Beowulf’s turn to take it from her hand.
With measured words she welcomed the Geat
and thanked God for granting her wish
that a deliverer she could believe in would arrive
to ease their afflictions. He accepted the cup,
a daunting man, dangerous in action
and eager for it always. …”
(Lines 612-618 624-630)
“Éowyn came forward bearing wine. ‘Ferthu Théoden hál! she said. ‘Receive now this cup and drink in happy hour. Health be with thee at thy going and coming!’
Théoden drank from the cup, and she then proffered it to the guests. As she stood before Aragorn she paused suddenly and looked upon him, and her eyes were shining. And he looked down upon her fair face and smiled; but as he took the cup, his hand met hers, and he knew that she trembled at the touch. ‘Hail Aragorn son of Arathorn!’ she said. ‘Hail Lady of Rohan!’ he answered” (The King of the Golden Hall)
“Then he began to chant softly in a slow tongue unknown to the Elf and the Dwarf; yet they listened, for there was a strong music in it.” (The King of the Golden Hall)
The first real glimpse into the Rohirrim is provided by Eorl’s Hymn, a tale of the first king of the Rohirrim, inserted into the narrative of “The Lord of the Rings” in a fashion similar to the “Lay of Hildeburh” and the “Tale of Sigemund” in Beowulf – a memory of the past. Though, of course, in Beowulf the tales are cautionary, in “The Lord of the Rings”, they are lauditory.
Eorl’s Hymn is also composed in a similar way to the insets of “Beowulf”, both using alliteration, and though not written that way in “The Lord of the Rings”, also obeys the Anglo-Saxon use of distichs and caesura. The hymn is written in that way below:
Where now the horse and the rider? Where is the horn that was blowing?
Where is the helm and the hauberk, and the bright hair flowing?
Where is the hand on the harpstring, and the red fire glowing?
Where is the spring and the harvest and the tall corn growing?
They have passed like rain on the mountain, like a wind in the meadow;
The days have gone down in the West behind the hills into shadow.
Who shall gather the smoke of the dead wood burning,
or behold the flowing years from the Sea returning?
The Lord Of the Rings, Book III, Chapter VI
There is a fantastic article in Elrond’s Library Literature Studies section about Eorl’s Hymn. A link is here.
The hymn is actually based on some lines from “The Wayfarer”, another Anglo-Saxon poem:
“Whither has gone the horse? Whither has gone the man? Whither has gone the giver of treasure? Whither has gone the place of feasting? Where are the joys of hall? Alas, the bright cup! Alas, the warrior in his corslet! Alas, the glory of the prince! How that time has passed away, has grown dark under the shadow of night, as if it had never been!”
While typically Anglo-Saxon alliteration is used in Eorl’s Hymn, it becomes a more important device in the alliterative dirges made for Théoden by Gleowine and for the dead of Pelennor by an anonymous `maker’, and even in the rhyming couplet made for Snowmane. Perhaps the best example of these is Théoden’s Lament, some lines of which are shown below:
Farewell he bade to his free people,
Hearth and high-seat, and the hallowed places,
Where long he had feasted ere the light faded,
Forth rode the king, fear behind him,
Fate before him. Fealty kept he;
Oaths he had taken, all fulfilled them.
Forth rode Théoden. Five nights and days
East and onward rode the Eorlingas
Through Folde and Fenmarch and the Firienwood,
Six thousand spears to Sunlending,
Mundburg the mighty under Mindolluin,
Sea-king’s city in the South-kingdom
Doom drove them on. Darkness took them,
Horse and horsemen; hoofbeats afar
Sank into silence, so the songs tell us.
(The Battle of Pelennor Fields)
Fame, fate and doom
The Rohirrim are also distinctly reminiscent of the Anglo-Saxons in their view of life, where events and people are governed by fate and doom. And this idea is brought out in the Mark from the start, when Gandalf and the others see the barrows covered in simbelmynë – the burial mounds of kings, reminding all of death, but also of the lineage and glory of the Kings of the Mark.
More than any other people in Tolkien’s works, the Rohirrim recall the legendary, heroic ideals of Anglo-Saxon and Germanic sagas. Théoden, Éomer, and Eorl in particular, are the embodiment of the glorious warrior – showing unswerving courage and loyalty in the face of inevitable defeat:
“Purpose shall be the firmer, heart the keener, courage shall be the more, as our might lessens. Here lies our lord all hewn down, good man on ground. Ever may he lament who now thinks to turn from war-play. I am old of life; from here I will not turn, but by my lord’s side, by the man I loved, I intend to lie.” (“The Battle of Maldon”)
Both the Rohirrim and the Anglo-Saxons of song have a very fatalistic attitude to life. Their lives are governed by their doom, death is expected, even awaited, and a glorious death which is remembered in song is the ultimate accolade for a brave warrior.
We can see this in the old poems and in “The Lord of the Rings”.
“And if death does take me, sent the hammered mail of my armour to Higlac, return the inheritance I had from Hrethel and he from Wayland. Fate will unwind as it must!” (Beowulf)
“Doom hung over them, but they faced it silently.”
“‘Farewell, Master Holbytla!’ he said. ‘My body is broken, I go to my fathers. And even in their mighty company I shall not now be ashamed. I felled the black serpent. A grim morn, and a glad day, and a golden sunset!”
“Éowyn stepped to the king. “Alas, Théoden, son of Thengel,” she said. “But you have turned the tide. See, they fly. The enemy is broken by fear. Never did an old Lord of Men die better. You shall sleep well, and no Shadow nor foul thing assail your bed.””
The ultimate goal of the Anglo-Saxon poems’ heroic protagonists was to achieve glory in life and to gain a similar renown in legend or history. The Anglo-Saxons longed for fame, as fame meant immortality. It was so important that warriors would give up their lives, and the lives of others, if only to receive glory. This attitude is summed up in The Battle of Brunanburh, when the victory of King Æthelstan and his brother Edmund is said to yield “ealdorlangne tir“, eternal fame. As the Edda puts it:
we ourselves also die;
but the fair fame
of him who has earned it.”
Théoden perfectly encompassed these values – albeit with one major twist that clearly increased the courage of his later actions. The twist, of course, was his seduction at the hands of Wormtongue and Saruman, and his rejection of those whisperings to become the king he needed to be.
– “The Lord of the Rings”, “The Two Towers”
– “The Lord of the Rings”, “The Return of the King”
– “The Monsters and the Critics,” JRR Tolkien
– “Beowulf”, translation by Heaney
– “The Wanderer”, “The Battle of Maldon”, translations by Gordon
– “The Road to Middle-earth”, TA Shippey