The Birth of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Love-Child Culture in “The Two Towers”
Although he is renowned worldwide for his works that revitalized the high fantasy literary genre, J. R. R. Tolkien was, first and foremost, a philologist and literary scholar before he was ever a writer. As such, his expansive knowledge of North- and West Germanic traditions, mythologies, and languages had a profound influence on the deep lore of the various peoples of his constructed world, Middle-earth.
One such people group, known as the Rohirric culture, was introduced in The Two Towers, the second volume of Tolkien’s greater work, The Lord of the Rings. Inspired by the advantageous aspects of the real-life Anglo-Saxons’ geopolitical reality, language, and kinship hierarchy, the author designed the Rohirrim to express his vision of what an ideal medieval British culture could have been. By incorporating details from the ethnogenesis of the real-life Anglo-Saxon culture into that of the Rohirrim, Tolkien exemplifies how a distinct national identity can emerge and thrive as a result of geographic insularity.
According to Appendix A of the text – wherein the author elaborates on the lineage of Middle-earth’s various leaders – the “forefathers” of the Rohirrim were the “Éothéod,” a horse-riding nation of humans “straitened in the land of their own home” in northern Middle-earth (1395). “[I]n reward for [their] aid” driving the “savage” eastern invaders away from the frontier of the influential Kingdom of Gondor, the Éothéod were granted permission to settle the very territory that they had liberated (1396). Better known by its exonym “Rohan,” this temperate steppe was characterized by “wide meads” and seemingly endless pastures reminiscent of the southern British lowlands upon which the migratory Angles, Saxons, Jutes, and Frisians established their kingdoms in the Early Middle Ages (Tolkien 549; Higham and Ryan 6).
Just as the English Channel and North Sea isolated these intersecting West Germanic cultures from the European mainland, the Rohirrim also remained culturally distinct from their neighbours in part thanks to the insularity provided to them by the forests of Fangorn and Lórien to the North, the rivers to the East and West, and “the wooded eaves of the White Mountains” to the South (555). In spite of the advantages provided to both newly-settled nations by these physical barriers, the political interests of their stronger neighbouring allies had the potential to infringe on the survival of their respective cultures. Whereas the horseless Anglo-Saxons ultimately fell to the influence of the Danish Vikings and the Norman French Elite, Tolkien deliberately illustrates the Rohirrim as masters of their terrain and imbued with horses. Although subject to the condescending influence of the neighbouring Gondorian allies that regarded them as mere “Middle Peoples,” their prowess as warriors on horseback allowed them to hold their lands much longer than the Anglo-Saxons ever could (887). As such, the people of Rohan remained free “under their own kings and laws,” surpassing their real-life counterparts technologically by not only building straw houses and mead halls, but fortified structures such as the one at Helm’s Deep (1396). By equipping the Rohirrim with the tools required to transcend the Anglo-Saxons within their accorded geopolitical reality, Tolkien demonstrates how the unadulterated Anglo-Saxons that he valued so much had the potential to resist the strong external influences that resulted in the patchwork English culture of today.
If the unique geography of Rohan were not a clear enough nod toward the culture of the Anglo-Saxons, Tolkien’s outright representation of the Rohirric language as Old English asserts the resilience of the Rohirrim vis-à-vis their neighbours. From the very moment that readers first encounter Rohan, the author introduces them to the distinct flavour of Anglo-Saxon nomenclature; for instance, the éo- prefix present in many Rohirric anthroponyms is Old English for “horse”; the name of Rohan’s King is directly inspired by the West Germanic word þēoden, meaning “Leader of the People”; and the toponym “Dunharrow” is derived from the compound word Dūnhaerg, meaning “the heathen fane on the hillside” (Tolkien, “Guide”). The purpose of implementing such authentic Anglo-Saxon naming is by no means solely to reinforce the Medieval ambience of the text, but rather to set the Rohirric language apart from “the Westron or ‘Common Speech’… [that] had become the native language of nearly all the speaking-peoples (save the Elves) who dwelt within the bounds” of the vast, western continent of Middle-earth (1480). Given that the Westron tongue and all its dialects were rendered by the author as Modern English for the readers’ convenience, the author deliberately allowed the contemporary lingua franca of our world to coexist alongside its uncontaminated, extinct predecessor in Middle-earth.
A philologist at heart, Tolkien mirrored the significant impact of French admixture on the Old English language following the arrival of the Norman Elite through his juxtaposition of the Westron and Rohirric tongues (Higham and Ryan 12–14). Once mutually intelligible with the language of Rohan, Westron was also a “Mannish Speech” that shared an ancestral proto-language with Rohirric. However, it was later “enriched and softened under Elvish influence” following the arrival of the Dúnedain – humans with partial Elvish lineage – to the shores of Middle-earth (1482):
The Dúnedain […] among whom they dwelt and whom they ruled […] used therefore the Common Speech in their dealing with other folk and in the government of their wide realms; but they enlarged the language and enriched it with many words drawn from elven-tongues. (1483)
Akin to the drastic social and linguistic reforms enacted following the Norman Conquest of England, Tolkien indicates how this foreign, minority population with knowledge of other languages and high prestige inevitably had a profound influence on the languages of the people indigenous to Middle-earth. Despite Westron’s newfound popularity as a native language, “the Rohirrim […] still spoke their ancestral tongue, and gave new names in it to nearly all the places in their […] country” (1484). Though surrounded on all sides by an influential lingua franca from the same language family, the Rohirrim exhibit a feat of conscious linguistic protectionism so remarkable that it was impossible for the Anglo-Saxons to achieve the same in the real world.
In addition to developing an awareness of its dynamic geopolitical and linguistic environment, Tolkien asserts that a nation whose leaders are determined by a kinship hierarchy is much more resilient to the hardships brought on by perpetual change than one led by royals who are disconnected from their people. Unlike the other attested nations of Middle-earth, whose royal families have direct genealogies that extend thousands of years into the past, the earliest recorded King of Rohan was born in “2485[…] according to the reckoning of Gondor (Third Age),” which was only circa five hundred years before the events of The Lord of the Rings (1401). With a ruling family whose legitimacy was not based in any ancient lineage comparable to those of their neighbours, the Rohirrim allocate a much greater value to their leader’s excellence, “intelligence, […] strength in arms, […] and hospitality,” akin to the values observed in Anglo-Saxon culture (Million). Aware of the transience of good leaders, the people of Rohan endorsed the practice of pledging fealty to their chieftain as an individual (given that they are worthy enough to rule), rather than to their rank. This not only led to the rapid “wax[ing] and wan[ing]” of dynasties, but it also meant that the kingdom itself was only ever as strong or as courteous as its monarch (Fisher). Tolkien illustrates this phenomenon through the sly deception of Théoden, the reigning King of Rohan during most of the novel, by his closest advisor, Gríma. Here, even a breach in the monarch’s mental fortress breeds miscommunication and mistrust in the hearts of the Rohirrim and lessens “[t]he courtesy of [their] hall” (670).
In spite of the apparent instability of such a system, Tolkien also demonstrates how a nation’s readiness toward a shift in governance is still beneficial when the winds of change inevitably arrive to shake its foundations. For instance, when Théoden King decides to lead his men into battle to defend the western borders of Rohan from the treacherous forces of the wizard Saruman, there is consensus among the Rohirrim that his niece, Éowyn, should lead as regent until they return from battle because she is “fearless[,] … high-hearted,” and loved by all (683). Though uncharacteristic of most other cultures in the Early Middles Ages, perhaps this Anglo-Saxon openness to electing a strong woman to rule during such an interim period is incorporated by Tolkien into the framework of Rohirric culture to exemplify its benefits: the utmost value that the Rohirrim place on their transient leader’s attributes rather than on superficial traits such as gender and pedigree allows for their swift adaptability in times of grave turmoil.
Although the Rohirrim were bestowed with an Anglo-Saxon-like geopolitical reality, language, and kinship system, Tolkien also makes certain adjustments that were necessary to ensure the survival of the untarnished, bygone culture that he valued so dearly. Had the Anglo-Saxons benefitted from the aid of horses, been more mindful of their linguistic environment, and maintained their kinship hierarchy, perhaps they would have resisted the natural entropy of cultural intermingling in the same manner as Tolkien’s Rohirrim.
Fisher, Genevieve. "Kingdom and Community in Early Anglo-Saxon Eastern England." Regional Approaches to Mortuary Analysis. Springer US, 1995, pp. 147–166.
Higham, Nicholas J., and M. J. Ryan. The Anglo-Saxon World. Yale University Press, 2013. Retrieved on 13 November 2022 from: https://books.google.ca/books?id=E5JNtIuJdC0C&dq=anglo‑saxon&lr=&source=gbs_navlinks_s.
Million, Rebecca. “Anglo-Saxon England: Background for the creation of Middle earth” Literary Themes: Lord of the Rings, Fall 2022, Dawson College, Montreal, QC. Class Notes.
Tolkien, J. R. R. “Guide to the Names in The Lord of the Rings” A Tolkien Compass: Fascinating Studies and Interpretations of J.R.R. Tolkien's Most Popular Epic Fantasies. Del Rey, 1975. Retrieved on 28 November 2022 from: https://www.tolkien.ro/text/JRR%20Tolkien%20-%20Guide%20to%20the%20Names%20in%20The%20Lord%20of%20the%20Rings.pdf.
Tolkien, J. R. R. The Return of the King. 1954. 50th anniversary ed., HarperCollins, 2007, pp. 1351–1496.
Tolkien, J. R. R. The Two Towers. 1954. 50th anniversary ed., HarperCollins, 2007.