The Old That is Strong: Tolkien & the Anglo-Saxons

Glossary

  • Churl – the OE word Ceorl, meaning common freeman, the lowest class of free citizen in Anglo-Saxon society
  • Danegeld – money paid to Viking raiding armies to leave a territory, or to enlist them as mercenaries against other Viking forces; ‘set a thief to catch a thief…’
  • Old English – the language spoken by the Anglo-Saxon peoples, abbreviated to OE
  • Wyrd – an Anglo-Saxon concept, roughly translated as fate or destiny, the source of the Modern English ‘weird’

Maldon & Minas Tirith

            On 11th August 991, at Maldon in Essex, English forces led by Ealdorman Byrhtnoth were defeated by a Viking army, and he was slain. It was a shocking defeat for England, and prompted the first of a number of payments of danegeld. English forces were possibly outnumbered, but the defeat may have been caused by a tactical error on Byrhtnoth’s part. Compelled by honour, he allowed the Vikings to cross a tidal causeway onto the mainland from Northey Island, where they had landed. The Battle of Maldon is an epic poem, existing as an extant fragment, that portrays the warrior-ideals of the Anglo-Saxons. With their lord slain and large sections of the army abandoning their lord, a soldier named Dunmere, “Then spoke, brandishing his spear, a humble churl, calling out over all, asking that every warrior avenge Byrhtnoth: “Nor can he flinch back at all who intends to avenge his lord in these folk, […] These retainers […] asked God that they be allowed to avenge their friendly lord and work downfall among their foes.”

            In Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, the forces of Rohan prepare to muster all their forces to lift the siege of Minas Tirith, the city of Gondor. Though utterly outnumbered, ‘amid a gathering gloom the King of the Mark made ready to lead his Riders on the eastward road. Hearts were heavy and many quailed in the shadow. But they were a stern people, loyal to their lord […] Doom hung over them, but they faced it silently’. The subsequent Ride of the Rohirrim onto the fields of the Pelennor is one of the most exhilarating passages in fiction, and despite much sacrifice, they are ultimately victorious.

            We see in these two examples a clear comparison. Tolkien’s fiction came from his deep understanding of the literature of the Northern World, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the people of Rohan, a kingdom much like the Anglo-Saxons in their attitudes, language and culture. The world of Middle-Earth (itself the Norse name for the realm of humans, Midgard) is saturated with Old English words, such as Saruman’s tower of Orthanc, a derivation of the OE Orðanc, meaning skilful or crafty work, but the Rohirrim are a particular focus for Tolkien’s knowledge of the Northern World. In this article, I’ll be exploring the Anglo-Saxon influence on the Rohirrim, using three narrative sequences as focal points, and ending with a consideration of King Théoden as the ideal Anglo-Saxon king. Beware spoilers for The Lord of the Rings!

A Warrior’s Meeting: Aragorn and Éomer

            The first encounter the reader has with the Rohirrim is the meeting of Aragorn and Éomer, nephew of King Théoden, and his mounted company. The Rohirrim’s icon of a white horse was an Anglo-Saxon symbol. Horses had religious significance in the pre-Christian era, and to this day, the county symbol of Kent is the white horse. According to mythic history, the two Saxon chieftains who came first to Roman Britain were Hengist and Horsa, who names both are related to horses. Éomer’s name even means ‘Horse-fame’. Now, Aragorn and Éomer begin an exchange that closely parallels the epic poetry of the era. Éomer begins with a challenge and statement of lineage, ‘Who are you, and what are you doing in this land? […] I am named Éomer, son of Eomund, and am called the Third Marshal of Riddermark’. There is then a test of each other’s motivations and character, before Aragorn reveals, ‘I am Aragorn son of Arathorn, and am called Elessar, the Elfstone, Dúnadan, the heir of Isildur Elendil’s son of Gondor. Here is the Sword that was broken and is forged again!’ In Beowulf, the exchange between Beowulf and the coast-guard is almost identical. First comes the challenge; ‘Strangers […] I see you are warriors, I must ask who you are. You had no assurance of welcome here, word of leave from […] Hrothulf! […] I’ll have your names now and the names of your fathers’. We are then told that Beowulf, ‘Gave him a clear answer, […] unlocked his word-hoard […] We are King Hygelac’s hearth-companions. My noble father is known as Edgetheow, a front-fighter famous among nations’. He at last reveals his name to the Hrothgar’s herald. Like Aragorn, Beowulf and his companions leave their war-gear outside the hall, and feast with the king whom they have come to assist.

            The emphasis on the importance of lineage may seem irrelevant to us, in our obsessively individual era, but in that world, your family was important. In a largely illiterate culture of oral storytelling, memory was kept alive by recounting the deeds of ancestors, and the status of your name was linked with the names of your forebears. To bring honour to your ancestors and children, or to lift disgrace from them, was the highest of goals. This exchange also shows the ritual significance of meeting between warriors; the Anglo-Saxons did not think in terms of the nation-state as we do, but of the people to whom you belonged.

A Golden Hall: Edoras

            The second sequence is the view of Meduseld, and the encounter in the hall between Gandalf and Grimá Wormtongue. Tolkien describes, ‘A dike and mighty wall and thorny fence encircle it. […] and it the midst; set upon a green terrace, there stand aloft a great hall of Men […] Edoras those courts are called, and Meduseld is that golden hall’. There are clear similarities to the mythic halls of the Northern World; in the Völuspá, a poem of Norse lore, Valhalla is described as, ‘a hall standing, more beautiful than the sun, better than gold’, and King Hrothgar’s great hall of Hereot in Beowulf is described as, ‘A huge mead-hall, a house greater than men on earth had ever heard of’. As they near the hall, Aragorn recites part of a Rohirric poem; ‘Where now the horse and the rider? Where is the horse that was blowing? […] The days have gone down in the West behind the hills into shadow’. This is clearly influenced by the OE poem The Wanderer. During this poignant lament for the exiled narrator’s lonely wandering, he asks, ‘Where is the horse gone? Where the rider? Where the giver of treasure? […] How that time has passed away, dark under the cover of night’. These parallels are no accident, and show Tolkien’s appreciation of the key Anglo-Saxon value of hospitality. The magnificence of a hall is always linked to the king’s generosity as ‘ring-giver’, ‘gift-giver’. The film of The Two Towers has Gandalf speak the significant line, ‘The courtesy of your hall is somewhat lessened of late, Théoden King’, as he approaches the enfeebled king. This is a humiliating insult for cultures of the Northern World, for in a world without digital navigation or electric light, not offering hospitality to travelers, friends or visitors was a point of shame. Icelandic exile laws stated that the criminal could not be offered fire or shelter by anyone in the country he was exiled from, and in a wild and dangerous natural world, that was the worst of penalties.

            Once in the hall of Edoras, the contest begins; ‘…Why indeed should we welcome you, Gandalf Stormcrow? Láthspell I name you, Ill-news’. Crows were birds of ill-omen in the Northern World, and the word Láthspell is a kenning of láð, meaning what is hateful or causes injury, and spell, meaning story, news, message or narrative. There was a belief that words constituted a form of binding magic in the Northern World, which is why our word ‘spell’ has evolved to mean a magic rite. It has been suggested that the Viking destruction or theft of Christian manuscripts was the raiders’ belief that the manuscripts were the source of the Christian ‘magic powers’ of healing and prophecy. Indeed, we still talk of someone who is able to ‘weave a spell’ with their words. But Gandalf, indomitable, frees Théoden from the serpent-like words of Grimá, and the King leads his people to the fortress at Helm’s Deep, and prepares for battle with the army of Saruman.

            This sequence shows Tolkien’s deep love for the Old English language. He could speak it with some fluency, and has Legolas describe the language as, ‘like to the land itself; rich and rolling in part, and else hard and stern as the mountains’; this is an apt rendition of what Old English sounds like when spoken. Such was Tolkien’s veneration for Old English, that he gives it to a people who live up to its ideals. The language of The Lord of the Rings itself is a striking example. Despite some archaisms, the language is usually simple and easy to understand, but draws its power from Tolkien’s ability as a writer to weave the spell. CS Lewis said that Tolkien, ‘Not only understood the language of poetry, but the poetry of language’. Like the Rohirrim, Tolkien deeply appreciated the Old English style of creating striking word-images with everyday language.

An End Worthy of Song: The Battle of the Pelennor Fields

            We come now to the events of The Return of the King, where the Rohirrim are mustered by Théoden, and ride to the battle before the walls of Minas Tirith. The word ‘doom’ is often used by Tolkien, and to us it means a dire fate, but in old usage it merely refers to a path or fate laid before an individual. To submit to one’s doom was not an act of futile inevitability, but a proud and desirable act. We see this in the saga accounts, where facing death with a sardonic word, defiant verse, even a grim-humored joke, was of the utmost importance in the Northern World. Tom Shippey’s Laughing Shall I Die is a fascinating exploration of this belief.

            Accordingly, a key moment is always the time when a character meets their death. As Beowulf throws himself into his fatal duel with the dragon, ‘He must now dispute this space of time, the first in his life when fate had not assigned him the glory of the battle’. He knows his wyrd is not to survive this encounter, but faces it with resolve and determination. We see the same theme in The Return of the King, where Éomer, knowing that Théoden is slain and believing that all is lost, resolves to a heroic last stand; ‘He thought to make a great shield-wall at the last […] And lo! Even as he laughed at despair he looked out again on the black ships, and he lifted up his sword to defy them’. He also embodies the warrior-ideal when his company destroys the Uruk-Hai in The Two Towers: ‘There he [Ugluk, the orc-captain] was slain at last by Éomer, the Third Marshal of the Mark, who dismounted and fought him sword to sword’. He could easily have ridden down the captain from horseback, but to punish the cruel and wicked orc who has slain his soldiers and despoiled his homeland, Éomer defeated him in honourable single-combat. His sister is no different; Éowyn fears, ‘neither death nor pain’, but her great fear is ‘A cage […] To stay behind bars, until use and old age accept them, and all chance of doing great deeds is gone beyond recall or desire’. This maps beautifully onto the lament in The Wanderer, whose narrator, ‘cannot withstand fate, nor does a rough or sorrowful mind seek any noteworthy deed’. In other words, his exile has denied him the chance to perform great deeds; what matters is not victory, but how the warrior meets their end.

            The veneration Tolkien displays for these ideas is a key facet of his fiction. The Anglo-Saxon poetry age is characterized by what is called the ‘heroic-elegiac’ mood, which is a sense of all things coming to an end, failing and finishing, what might be called The Spirit of Ragnarok. Tolkien, inspired by his Christian faith and his love for the Northern World, wished to restore this heritage to a brighter future, where the values of honour, self-sacrifice, duty, courage and loyalty, were rewarded with victory, instead of the melancholic sense of fighting the inevitable. Indeed, it is a mark of his more pathetic characters that they easily despair at the seeming totality of the enemy’s power.

Westu Théoden Hal: The Redemption of Byrhtnoth

            Lastly, Théoden, King of Rohan, is arguably Tolkien’s ideal Anglo-Saxon king, a redeemed Byrhtnoth. Where Byrhtnoth’s warrior-ideals are touted as outdated and prideful, Théoden leads his people to victory by adhering to the ideal honour-code of Anglo-Saxon warrior-kings. Where Byrhtnoth was abandoned by his army, the Rohirrim stay with their king, and assault the enemy, rallied by heroic captains who love and honour their lord.

            Théoden can also be implicitly contrasted with Denethor, Steward of Gondor; the two leaders face almost identical problems and opportunities. Both are the leaders of kingdoms under siege, both have hobbits swear fealty to them, both are the last of their ruling line, both have Gandalf offer them counsel, and both are faced with leading armies in war. Where Denethor despairs at the apparent overwhelming strength of the enemy, Théoden rallies his men and leads them fearlessly in battle. Denethor treats Pippin as a tool of limited use, but Théoden takes Merry into his halls, and is like a father to him. In grief and folly, Denethor sends his son Faramir on a suicidal assault against the enemy; but Théoden names his nephew to rule in his stead, and loves his niece dearly. Gandalf is spurned by Denethor in his arrogance and delusion, but welcomed to the courts of Edoras as counselor and friend. At the last, Denethor meets a miserable death in madness and despair, forgotten by his people, but Theoden rides at the front of his forces, and after earning a warrior’s death, is lamented as a beloved king.

            This rescue of Byrhtnoth is Tolkien’s way of giving the literature that he loved the ending he felt it deserved. A beautiful example can be found in Éowyn’s stirring defiance of the Witch-King; prompted not by a cold sense of duty or arrogant pride in her own martial skill, but by a deep love for her King and foster-father, mirroring the last stand of the young warrior Wiglaf beside the stricken Beowulf. In Tolkien’s Northern World, the Rohirrim stand for all that is noble and true; ‘They do not lie, and so are not easily deceived’. Largely illiterate and with no ambitions for conquest, they are a lament for an England swallowed up by industrialism, and the mechanized brutality of the First World War, in which Tolkien fought. They are a people who exemplify the ideal of the warrior-code, bound to their lord by love and honour, who live unconquered, free and proud.

Further Reading

            This has necessarily been a short introduction to Tolkien’s influences; below is a list of books if you want to find out more about the topics discussed here.

  • The Lord of the Rings, by JRR Tolkien.
  • The Elder Edda, a Book of Viking Lore, translated by Andy Orchard
  • The Wanderer, by Anonymous, available online, or as part of collections of Anglo-Saxon poetry
  • Beowulf, by Anonymous, available in many different translations.
  • Laughing Shall I Die: Lives & Deaths of the Great Vikings, by Tom Shippey
  • The Warrior-Queen, the Life & Legend of Athelflaed, Lady of Mercia, by Joanna Arman

2 Comments

  1. Your statement ” In a largely illiterate culture of oral storytelling, memory was kept alive by recounting the deeds of ancestors, and the status of your name was linked with the names of your forebears.” reminds me of a quote from the Elder Edda used as a chapter heading by Poul Anderson:

    “Kine die, kinfolk die,
    And so at last yourself.
    This I know that never dies:
    How dead men’s deeds are deemed.”

    (“After Doomsday”, Chapter Eleven)

    I like the effective use of alliteration in those lines. I do not know who translated them from the Old Norse. It may have been Anderson himself since he had some knowledge of the language and considerable talent as a poet.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. They’re beautiful lines, and well-translated. Some of the original was written by Snorri Sturlason, the translation I have is by Andy Orchard, but I love Anderson’s style

      Liked by 1 person

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