Are the Rohirrim Patterned on the Anglo-Saxons?
by: Erik Tracy

I'll come right out and say yes, they are, more than any other people or culture.

I can just sense the blustering and the flying fingers as they flip to the Appendices for Tolkien's comments on this subject. Relax, take a breath, I'm simply offering some arguments that suggest that maybe a different approach should be taken: the Rohirrim are a fictional culture, so instead of looking for a match using "historical" cultures we look for the best literary fit. Meaning, the Rohirrim best fit the Anglo-Saxons from their stories, legends, and poems.

This makes perfect sense for it corresponds to the mode in which Tolkien created; he was not an historian, he was a philologist - he worked not from historical works but literary ones.

In his book, The Road to Middle-earth, T.A. Shippey offers some arguments that are pretty hard to ignore or refute. I have taken the effort to transcribe his arguments here for your review. It is a bit long, so I suggest saving the file, log off, read it, and then fire off those responses I know will be forthcoming.

" This led him, indeed, into yet further inconsistencies, or rather disingenuousnesses. Tolkien was obliged to pretend to be a `translator'. He developed the pose with predictable rigour, feigning not only a text to translate but behind it a whole manuscript tradition, from Bilbo's diary to the Red Book of Westmarch to the Thain's Book of Minas Tirith to the copy of the scribe Findegil. As time went on he also felt obliged to stress the autonomy of Middle-earth - the fact that he was only translating analogously, not writing down the names and places as they really had been, etc. Thus of the Riddermark and its relation to Old English he said eventually `This linguistic procedure [i.e. translating Rohirric into Old English] does not imply that the Rohirrim closely resembled the ancient English otherwise, in culture or art, in weapons or modes of warfare, except in a general way due to their circumstances...'(III, 414).

But this claim is totally untrue. With one admitted exception, the Riders of Rohan resemble the Anglo-Saxons down to minute details. The fact is that the ancient languages came first. Tolkien did not draw them into a fiction he had already written because there they might be useful, though that is what he pretended. He wrote the fiction to present the languages, and he did that because he loved them and thought them intrinsically beautiful. Maps, names and languages came before plot. Elaborating them was in a sense Tolkien's way of building up enough steam to get rolling; but they had also in a sense provided the motive to want to. They were `inspiration' and `invention' at once, or perhaps more accurately, by turns. [pg. 89]

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 `Merica' 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.

As has already been remarked, though, the Riders according to Tolkien did not resemble the `ancient English...except in a general way due to their circumstances: 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'. Tolkien was stretching the truth a long way in asserting that, to say the least! But there is one obvious difference between the people of Rohan and the `ancient English', and that is horses. The Rohirrim call themselves the Eotheod (Old English eoh=`horse'+peod=`people'); this translates into Common Speech as `the Riders'; Rohan itself is Sindarin for `horse-country'. Prominent Riders call themselves after horses (Eomund, Eomer, Eowyn) , and their most important title after `King' is `marshall', borrowed into English from French but going back to an unrecorded Germanic *marho-skalkoz, `horse-servant' (and cp. the name of the hobbits' Hengest). The Rohirrim are nothing if not cavalry. By contrast the Anglo-Saxons' reluctance to have anything militarily to do with horses is notorious. The Battle of Maldon begins, significantly enough, with the horses being sent to the rear. Hastings was lost, along with Anglo- Saxon independence, largely because the English heavy infantry could not (quite) hold off the combination of archers and mounted knights. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle entry for 1055 remarks sourly that at Hereford `before a spear was thrown the English fled, because they had been made to fight on horseback'. How then can Anglo-Saxons and Rohirrim ever, culturally, be equated?

A part of the answer is that the Rohirrim are not to be equated with the Anglo-Saxons of history, but with those of poetry, or legend. The chapter `The King of the Golden Hall' is straightforwardly calqued on Beowulf. When Legolas says of Meduseld, `The light of it shines far over the land', he is translating line 311 of Beowulf, lixte se leoma ofer landa fela. `Meduseld' is indeed a Beowulfian word (line 3065) for `hall'. More importantly the poem and the chapter agree, down to minute detail, on the procedure for approaching kings. In Beowulf the hero is stopped first by a coastguard, then by a doorward, and only after two challenges is allowed to approach the Danish King; he and his men have to `pile arms' outside as well. Tolkien follows this dignified, step-by-step ceremonial progress exactly.

This in `The King of the Golden Hall' Gandalf, Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli are checked first by the guards at the gates of Edoras (=`enclosure'), and then by the doorward of Meduseld, Hama. He too insists on the ceremony of piling arms, though Tolkien's character object more than Beowulf does, largely because he is a volunteer and in any case fights by choice bare-handed. There is a crisis over Gandalf's staff, indeed, and Hama broods, reflecting rightly that `The staff in the hands of a wizard may be more than a prop for age'; he settles his doubts with the maxim `Yet in doubt a man of worth will trust to his own wisdom. I believe you are friends and folk of honour, who have no evil purpose. You may go in.' In saying so he echoes the maxim of the coastguard of Beowulf (lines 287-92), `a sharp shield-warrior must know how to tell good from bad in every case, from words as well as deeds. I hear [from your words] that this warband is friendly...I will guide you.'

The point is not, though, that Tolkien is once more writing a `calqued' narrative, but that he is taking advantage of a modern expansive style to spell out things that would have been obvious to Anglo-Saxons - in particular, the truths that freedom is not a prerogative of democracies, and that in free societies orders give way to discretion. Hama takes a risk with Gandalf; so does the coastguard with Beowulf. So does Eomer with Aragorn, letting him go free and lending him horses. He is under arrest when Aragorn re-appears, and Theoden notes Hama's dereliction of duty too. Still, the nice thing about the Riders, one might say, is that though `a stern people, loyal to their lord', they wear duty and loyalty lightly. Hama and Eomer make their own decisions, and even the suspicious gate-ward wishes Gandalf luck. `I was only obeying orders', we can see, would not be accepted as an excuse in the Riddermark. Nor would it in Beowulf. The wisdom of ancient epic is translated by Tolkien into a whole sequence of doubts, decisions, sayings, rituals.

One could go further and say that the Riders spring from poetry not history in that the whole of their culture is based on song. Almost the first thing Gandalf and the others see, nearing Meduseld, are the mounds covered in simbelmyne either side of the way. Simbelmyne is a little white flower, but also means `ever- mind', `ever-memory', `forget-me-not'. Like the barrows it stands for the preservation of the memory of ancient deeds and heroes in the expanse of years. The Riders are fascinated by memorial verse and oblivion, by deaths and by epitaphs. They show it in their list of kingly pedigrees, from Theoden back to Eorl the Young, in the suicidal urges of Eomer and Eowyn to do `deeds of song',(9) in the song that Aragorn sings to set the tone of the culture he is visiting: "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?..."

Most of all it comes over in the alliterative dirges made for Theoden by Gleowine, for the dead of Pelennor by an anonymous `maker', even in the rhyming couplet made for the horse Snowmane.

These preserve the sonority, the sadness, the feeling for violent opposites (`death' and `day', `lords' and `lowly', `halls' and `pastures') integrated in the Riders' language and culture. Their visual correlatives, one might say, are the spears planted in burial-mounds by Fangorn and at the Fords of Isen; or perhaps the spears are the men and the mounds are poems, for Eomer says of one burial, `when their spears have rotted and rusted, long still may their mounds stand and guard the Fords of Isen!' The men die and their weapons rust. But their memory remains, passes into simbelmyne, `evermind', the oral heritage of the race. One should see at this point how far Tolkien's imagination surpasses that of most fantasy-writers. Proud barbarians are ten a penny in modern fantasy. Hardly one of their creators grasps the fact that barbarians are sensitive too: that a heroic way of life preoccupies men with death and with the feeble, much-prized resistances to death which their cultures can offer. Of course Tolkien drew his knowledge from Old English, from that literature whose greatest monument is not an epic but the `dirge' of Beowulf; `The King of the Golden Hall' echoes that poem as closely as Aragorn's song above echoes the Old English Wanderer. However, Tolkien was trying to go beyond translation to `reconstruction'. And this is what explains the horses. The feeling of Anglo-Saxon poetry for these was markedly different from that of Anglo-Saxon history. Thus the retainers of Beowulf youthfully race their mearas back from the monsters' lake as they sing their praise songs; the ancient gnomic poem Maxims I observes enthusiastically that `a good man will keep in mind a good, well-broken horse, familiar, well-tried, and round-hoofed'; it has already been noted that the same poem declared that `an earl goes on the arched back of a war-horse, a mounted troop (eored) must ride in a body', only for a historical Anglo-Saxon scribe to rewrite eored foolishly as worod or '(foot)body guard'.

Tolkien may have known that the confusing Anglo-Saxon words for colour were once words for the colour of horses' coats, like Hasufel=`grey coat', suggesting an early society as observant of horses as modern African tribes of cows.(10) Maybe the infantry- fixation of historical periods was the result of living on an island. Maybe the Anglo-Saxons before they migrated to England were different. What would have happened had they turned East, not West, to the German plains and the steppes beyond? In creating the Riddermark Tolkien thought of his own `Mercia'. He also certainly remembered the great lost romance of `Gothia' (see pp.11-15 above), of the close kin of the English turning to disaster and oblivion on the plains of Russia. No doubt he knew the dim tradition that the word `Goths' itself meant `Horse- folk'.(11) This is what adds `reconstruction' to `calquing' and produces fantasy, a people and a culture that never were, but that press closer and closer to the edge of might-have-been. (pages 93-97) "