When readers of The Two Towers first encounter the Riders of Rohan there immediately seems to be something vaguely familiar about them. Their names, mode of speech and manner of dress all recall those ancient inhabitants of the British Isles, the Anglo-Saxons. Although this is a culture that, even more than that of the Celts, has been in so many ways lost to history, Tolkien, as an Oxford Professor of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic, as well as a gifted storyteller, was perhaps better qualified than almost anyone to bring them to life in fiction. Interestingly, however, Tolkien seemed at great pains to distance himself from the notion that he was doing any such thing. In a footnote to Appendix F (II) of The Lord of the Rings Tolkien insisted that the fact that he had ‘translated’ all Rider-names into Old English did not mean that Riders and Anglo-Saxons were any more than generally similar. But this process of ‘translation’ – beginning with the Riders’ own name for their land, ‘The Mark’ – runs very deep. Among historians the central kingdom of Anglo-Saxon England is invariably known as ‘Mercia’. This is however a Latinization of the Anglo-Saxon word ‘Mearc’. It takes no great leap of logic to link this Anglo-Saxon word with the Rohirrim term ‘Mark’, as translated by Tolkien. As for the white horse that is the emblem of the Mark, this is present in the form of the White Horse of Uffington, cut into the chalk a short stroll from the great Stone Age barrow of Wayland’s Smithy in Oxfordshire, one of the counties which, along with Worcestershire, Warwickshire and others made up Mercia. All the names given to the Riders, their horses and weapons are pure Anglo-Saxon. The names of their kings, Théoden, Thengel, Fengel, Folcwine, etc., are all simply Anglo-Saxon words or epithets for ‘king’, except, significantly, the first: Eorl, the name of the ancestor of the royal line, just means ‘earl’, or in very Old English, ‘warrior’. It dates back to a time before kings were invented.
The one thing about the Riders of Rohan which does not resemble the historical ancestors of the English, of course, is the fact that they are expert horsemen. Texts of the later Anglo-Saxon period like the poem The Battle of Maldon or the prose Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, make it clear that they were a people who had an almost pathological aversion to fighting from horseback. It could even be argued that the Battle of Hastings in 1066 was lost because of this insular insistence on fighting on foot, ending the age of the Anglo-Saxon kings of England and ushering in the era of Norman dominance. In modern English there is no native word for a flat sea of grass and instead we make do with foreign words like ‘steppe’, ‘prairie’ and ‘savannah’, largely because of the almost total absence of such landscapes in England. The nearest thing that we have is the flatlands of East Anglia and Tolkien worked out that the native word for steppes or prairies among the Anglo-Saxons in this part of the world might have been ’emnet’. This Old English term, when translated into modern English, literally means ‘even meadow’, which is quite clearly the same idea as a steppe or prairie. There is even a real place called ‘Emneth’ in Norfolk. In the imaginary world of Middle Earth, meanwhile, emnet is the first place name in the Riddermark that we are given, with the Eastemnet being mentioned early on in The Two Towers, as Aragorn and the others pursue the Uruk-hai. It is possible, therefore, that Tolkien speculated that if the Old English, too, had encountered a sea of grass then they would have called it an emnet, and the Riders of Rohan may well be the result of his imagining what might have happened to them if they had.
Allusions to the Rohirrim’s Anglo-Saxon heritage continue throughout The Lord of the Rings. Eomer’s name, roughly translated from Old English, is a term for one who has in some way won great renown through horses, while his sister Eowyn’s name similarly suggests one who rejoices in or loves horses. The Rohirrim term eored is also almost certainly derived from the Old English worod, a term used to describe an Anglo-Saxon warband. The underlying model for much of what the Riders do and how they behave is furthermore perfectly obviously the Old English epic of Beowulf, which Tolkien knew so well. Theoden’s hall is called Meduseld; so is Beowulf’s. The courts round it are called Edoras; see again Beowulf. In the chapter The King of the Golden Hall, the etiquette of arrival and reception corresponds to that of Beowulf point for point. Beowulf and his men are challenged by the Danish coastguard three times and on each occasion are allowed to pass. Similarly, Gandalf, Aragorn and company are met and challenged three times by guards in almost exactly the same way (virtually word for word). Beowulf is even insulted by the king’s counsellor in much the same manner that the Fellowship are by Grima Wormtongue. The Riders of the Mark are then a reconstruction from many sources, like so much in Tolkien, a blend of ancient and modern, the strange and the familiar, the learned and the absolutely matter-of-fact.
The resemblance of the Riders of Rohan to the Anglo-Saxons is something that was picked up on and run with in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films. At one point in the Extended DVD extras, John Howe, one of the conceptual designers for the movies, admits that it was his hope in some way to recall the findings at Sutton Hoo – a famous Anglo-Saxon archeological dig – in the design of the weapons, armour and dress of the Rohirrim. Equally significantly, whenever the Riders speak to each other in their own language, this is represented by Old English in the films. The musical theme of Rohan is played on a Norwegian Hardinger fiddle – another touch which feels very authentic and appropriate given the cultural relationship between the Norsemen and the Anglo-Saxons, who had a similar language, customs and religion. In his own way, therefore, Peter Jackson has been almost as successful on screen as Professor Tolkien was on the page in bringing to life a civilisation that never was: a latter-day Anglo-Saxon kingdom that might have existed had the Norman invasion never succeeded.
Like the very best fantasy writers, Tolkien took a number of familiar elements to create something incredibly original and memorable. Others who have tried to re-create the barbarian cultures of the past in their fiction have failed to give them the air of authenticity that Tolkien so imbues the Riders of Rohan with. This is perhaps because of how well he knew his subject – something which he aptly demonstrates by the oral nature of much of Rohirrim culture and the almost sacred significance of poetry within it. The very fragility of written record in such societies must have made poetry all the more precious, its expressions both sadder and more triumphant. One illustration of this occurs in The Two Towers, chapter 6, when the Riders of Rohan are introduced by Aragorn, who chants in the language of the Rohirrim words ‘laden with the sadness of Mortal Men’. To achieve a resonant sense of the lost past, the now-legendary time of a peaceful alliance of the Horse-lords with the city of Gondor, Tolkien has adapted lines of the Old English poem The Wanderer:
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 harp-string, 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?
Not for the first, or last, time Tolkien’s imaginative re-creation of the past adds to his work an unusual emotional depth that is almost unique in all of fantasy – much like the Riders of Rohan themselves.
(As with my post Concerning Hobbits, I’m indebted to Professor Tom Shippey’s two excellent books, The Road to Middle-Earth and J R R Tolkien: Author of the Century, as an invaluable resource on the culture of Rohan.)