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Dear Reader,

Welcome, as always.

In this posting, we want to take something we mentioned in our last about Tolkien having read Tennyson. This is our guess—but in the late Victorian world into which JRRT was born, he must have been inescapable.

We _could_ say that medievalism was in the air then, brought in by Romanticism—and even before, by pre-Romantics, like Horace Walpole, with his mock-castle at Strawberry Hill (1749-76).



There were lots of early neo-medievalist things—some of Sir Walter Scott’s novels, like Ivanhoe (1820)—not to mention his mock-castle, at Abbotsford.



the absolutely wonderful and crazy Eglinton Tournament of 1839 (we may have to have a posting about this)


the medieval-revival architecture of Pugin



before Tennyson began publishing Idylls of the King in 1859, with its poems about King Arthur and his court.



Even before Idylls, Tennyson had been interested in writing about King Arthur’s world, producing the poem “The Lady of Shalott” in his Poems (1833, revised version 1842), in this poem, a lady under a curse sees, from her tower, Sir Lancelot riding by, and falls in love with him without ever meeting him. What happens next was what brought us to write this posting.

Because it reminded us of Boromir.

At the beginning of The Two Towers, Aragorn finds the dying Gondorian sitting, with his back against a tree, and, scattered around him, and “Many Orcs lay slain, piled all about him and at his feet.” (The Two Towers, Chapter 1, “The Departure of Boromir”) When Legolas and Gimli join Aragorn, they decide upon a hasty, but they hope, appropriate burial.

“ ‘Then let us lay him in a boat with his weapons, and the weapons of his vanquished foes,’ said Aragorn. ‘We will send him to the Falls of Rauros and give him to the Anduin. The River of Gondor will take care at least that no evil creature dishonours his bones.’” (The Two Towers, Chapter 1, “The Departure of Boromir”)

In other burial scenes of important people in The Lord of the Rings, we see that the Kings and Stewards of Gondor are laid to rest in special vaults, rather like medieval and later English kings buried either in St. George’s chapel at Windsor or in Westminster Abbey.




The Kings of Rohan lie beneath a series of mounds just before Edoras,


like those of the Silla kings of Korea at Gyeongju (57BC-935AD).

Or like the sort of ship burials of which Tolkien must have read in the newspapers of 1939, the famous Sutton Hoo grave.


From which came treasures like this helmet (with its reconstruction).



A number of ship burials of northern European upper class people survive, all more or less in the same pattern: the ship is dragged to a spot where it is filled with the deceased, occasionally accompanied by others and even animals, and grave goods of a high quality, then a mound is built over it. The deceased may have been cremated beforehand, but not necessarily. There is a well-known description of this process by an Arab traveler, Ibn Fadlan. (for a translation of this with copious annotations, see James E. Montgomery, “Ibn Fadlan and the Rusiyyah”, Journal of Islamic and Arabic Studies 3, 2000—available on-line by googling “Ibn Fadlan and the Rusiyyah”)

Here’s an 1883 reconstruction of one part of that process by the Polish painter Henryk Siemiradski.


In contrast, the image of the deceased being placed in such a ship, the ship being launched, and then torched, would appear to be a Hollywood popularization, perhaps originating with the 1958 movie, The Vikings, of something rare (or at least difficult to document).


At the conclusion of this film, a major character is given this treatment.

Vikiing Funeral - The Vikings burning ship

(That the Victorians were aware of this alternative can be seen in this 1893 painting by Sir Frank Dicksee.


Dicksee had based this painting not on a scholarly source, but upon a lecture by Thomas Carlyle, “The Hero as Divinity. Odin. Paganism: Scandinavian Mythology”, which he would have found in Carlyle’s On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History. Carlyle very loosely cites “Snorro” for his description of such an event, by which he means Snorri Sturluson, author of the Prose Edda)

But this brings up back to “The Departure of Boromir”—and to Tennyson.

In “The Departure of Boromir”, as we have seen, Boromir is placed into one of the Elven boats.

(FOTR) Boromir Dead in Boat

The three companions tow the boat as close to the Falls of Rauros as they can, then cast it loose to be carried over the Falls.


The companions, of course, are pressed for time: Frodo and Sam have gone one direction, Merry and Pippin have been carried off in another and there isn’t time, they feel, to bury Boromir or to build a cairn over him. As they have boats and there is the river below them, the method chosen seems a natural one, but we wondered if the author didn’t have Tennyson’s model in his mind, as well.

In “The Lady of Shalott”, after seeing Lancelot through her window (or in a reflection in the 1842 version of the poem), the Lady places herself in a small boat, with note in hand, and dies on her way down the river on the way to Camelot, apparently of a broken heart (as the backstory, appearing as early as the 13th century, tells us).

The Lady of Shalott 1888 by John William Waterhouse 1849-1917


Not only would the poem (which has a rather catchy rhythm) have been readily available, but there were a number of paintings and engravings illustrating the story, practically from the time of the 1842 version.

Lady_of_Shalott_edmo lady1 lady2









This is not so dramatic as going over the falls and her death is pale in comparison to multiple arrow wounds, but there is that rhythm, the image of the body in the boat going downstream, and the popularity of the poet—plus the numerous illustrations. We’ll include a link to the poem so you can judge for yourself: was this a possible influence on JRRT?

Thanks, as always, for reading.