Welcome back to Part II of my two part discussion on whether J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth qualifies as a medieval world (Part I here). Last time I argued that the vast majority of Middle Earth bears no resemblance to medieval Europe. Today, I’m going to take a look at Rohan and Gondor, the two regions of Middle Earth that do bear some resemblance to civilizations from the medieval period.
Tolkien was himself critical of the idea that he based his cultures off of medieval Europe.
The Rohirrim were not ‘mediaeval’, in our sense. The styles of the Bayeux Tapestry (made in England) fit them well enough, if one remembers that the kind of tennis-nets [the] soldiers seem to have on are only a clumsy conventional sign for chainmail of small rings. The Númenóreans of Gondor were proud, peculiar, and archaic, and I think are best pictured in (say) Egyptian terms. In many ways they resembled ‘Egyptians’ – the love of, and power to construct, the gigantic and massive. And in their great interest in ancestry and in tombs.Tolkien, Letter 211
I could accept Tolkien’s words as gospel, but that would be pretty superficial analysis (and a pretty short blog post), so let’s dig deeper. Even if Tolkien didn’t intend to hearken back to medieval times, it’s entirely possible that the civilizations described in his book resemble medieval Europe. To investigate this possibility, let’s take a deep look into what The Lord of the Rings has to say about Rohan and Gondor.
A Note on Terminology:
Tolkien has a tendency to use political and social terms that, to a modern reader, seem to hearken to a very specific period of history. For example, he refers to both the horsemen of Gondor and Rohan as ‘knights’ and Gondorian infantrymen as ‘men at arms.’ Knights may remind the modern reader of the High Middle Ages, Ivanhoe and jousts, to writers of Tolkien’s time, the term had a much broader meaning. Latin translators, for example, would often translate the Latin term ‘equites’ (referring to a type of cavalryman from the Roman Republic) as ‘knights,’ despite the fact that equites had essentially nothing in common with medieval knights. Translators in the early 20th century terms preferred to use the term more generally, to refer to all kinds of cavalry nobility. Other terms that Tolkien uses, such as ‘fief’ have a similarly storied past of being broadly interpreted.
Many readers have assumed to Rohirrim to be a romanticized version of the Anglo-Saxons and Norse during the Middle Ages. There is undoubtedly some truth to that claim. Meduseld, the hall of the king of Rohan, bears many similarities to Heorot, the hall of Hrothgar in Beowulf. The similarity is certainly not a coincidence, as Tolkien was among the leading Beowulf experts of his time (much of The Hobbit also comes from Beowulf). Scholars like Tom Shippey have argued that Tolkien places the places the Rohirrim in same ‘virtuous pagan’ archetype that uses for Anglo-Saxons and Scandinavians in his other writings.
They are proud and wilful, but they are true-hearted, generous in thought and deed; bold but not cruel; wise but unlearned, writing no books but singing many songs, after the manner of the children of Men before the Dark Years.Tolkien, the Two Towers
While Rohan undoubtedly has a connection to Northern Europe, there is one problem with the comparison. The entire culture of the Rohirrim is built around horses. The name Rohan itself means “horse country” in Tolkien’s Elvish. In real history, however, horses were not particularly common or significant in either Anglo-Saxon or Scandinavian culture. At the Battle of Hastings, the Anglo-Saxons famously deployed no cavalry at all, deploying an all-infantry force against the Norman knights. Similarly, the flat, grassy expanse of Rohan in no way resembles Scandinavia or England.
The closest historical analogue to Rohan is the horsemen of the Eurasian steppe. Like the Rohirrim, many Eurasian nomads eventually became agrarian and sedentary, yet retained a culture of horsemanship. Eastern Europe saw a more or less uninterrupted sequence of these settled nomads from classical antiquity to the end of the medieval period, including groups like the Scythians, the Sarmatians, the Avars, and the Bulgars. Tolkien’s own description of Rohirrim history backs the comparison up, since he makes it clear that the Rohirrim had once been nomads and had settled in Rohan many years before the story begins.
The Horsemen of the North, the Rohirrim or Riders of Rohan, taken into perpetual alliance, settle in the now unpeopled green plains that were once the northern pan of the realm of Gondor.Tolkien, Letter 131
The established empires onto whose land the nomads tended to migrate unsurprisingly treated them as barbarians, but steppe nomads had a rich and sophisticated culture which archaeology has only begun to uncover (for much like they Rohirrim, they did not write books). Once settled, most groups developed a kind of monarchical system with kings and nobility. There is even evidence that women fought alongside men in these Eurasian horse societies, much like Eowyn in the Lord of the Rings.
In short, civilizations similar to Rohan have existed in the past, but they were based in the Eurasian steppe, not Western Europe. Furthermore, while many Rohan-esque civilizations existed in the Middle Ages, they were equally a feature of the ancient world.
Aside from Egypt, Tolkien’s most significant influence in his description of Gondor was the Byzantine Empire. Like Gondor, the Byzantine empire was an embattled empire protecting a long and cherished legacy. Similarly, the great and impregnable, yet declining city of Minas Tirith serves as an analogue for Constantinople. Tolkien wrote as much in letter 131. “In the south Gondor rises to a peak of power, almost reflecting Númenor, and then fades slowly to decayed Middle Age, a kind of proud, venerable, but increasingly impotent Byzantium.” The history, geography, and traditions of Gondor have many, many similarities to those of Byzantium.
Gondor’s state organization is highly reminiscent of the Byzantine Empire (395-1453 CE). This is especially evident in the aspect of state power Tolkien primarily concerns himself with: warfare. For much of Byzantine history, the Byzantine military consisted of a combination of troops raised by provinces (known as themes) and a powerful royal army. The existence of a professional royal army distinguished Byzantium from the feudal states of Western Europe. France, for example, did not recruit a professional, salaried army until the 1400s, at the very end of the Middle Ages. England, for its part, did not have a standing army until the 1640s. Professional soldiers are expensive to train, equip, and maintain, and unpopular among nobility (whose power central armies diminish) so the existence of a professional army in Byzantium speaks volumes about the unique centralization of the Byzantine state.
Tolkien makes it clear that although Gondor draws troops from its various lords (a lengthy scene in Return of the King describes the contributions of each of Gondor’s regions to the defense of Minas Tirith) it also has a standing army. Tolkien mentions permanent garrison forces in the Rammas Echor (the defensive wall surrounding the Pelennor Fields) and the beacon towers, as well as in Ithilien and Osgiliath. The military system of Gondor, then is very similar to that of Byzantium, but bears little resemblance to Western European feudal states of the same period.
So are Rohan and Gondor medieval? Well… sort of. But the Eastern European world in which Rohan and Gondor’s historical mirrors existed was very different from the castles and knights of feudal Western Europe.
The Bottom Line
I’ve spent a lot of time comparing various parts of Middle Earth to historical civilizations. The bottom line is that Tolkien borrowed freely from history, from ancient Egypt to Byzantium to the 20th century English countryside. The result is a world the historically minded reader might find jarring, but I feel obliged to emphasize that the varied historicity does not diminish Tolkien as a writer. Unlike fantasy authors like George R. R. Martin or Miles Cameron, who use history to create an internally consistent world, Tolkien, for his part was interested in the mythic, the evocative, and, well, the fantastical. I hope that you will finish this series with the impression not just that “Tolkien isn’t medieval” but that Tolkien deserves better than to have the ambition and scope of his world shrunk to a single era.