Boromir, buccinae, Cavalry charge, Chanson de Roland, Charlemagne, cornet, Easterlings, Eorl the Young, Gondor, Greek, horn, Meduseld, Militari, Rohan, Rohirrim, Roman, The Lord of the Rings, Theoden, Tolkien, trumpet, Trumpeter, Vegetius, war-horn
Welcome, dear readers, as always.
Our friend, Erik, once said that one of his very favorite passages from The Lord of the Rings began with this: “And as if in answer there came from far away another note. Horns, horns, horns. In dark Mindolluin’s sides they dimly echoed. Great horns of the North, wildly blowing. Rohan had come at last.” (The Return of the King, Book Five, Chapter 4, “The Siege of Gondor”)
Of course this brings on the charge of the Rohirrim, one of our own favorite moments in the Jackson films.
And what is more exciting than a cavalry charge (as long as you don’t think too hard about the fate of the horses)?
Those horns begin blowing because Theoden:
“…seized a great horn from Guthlaf his banner-bearer, and he blew such a blast upon it that it burst asunder. And straightaway all the horns in the host were lifted up in music, and the blowing of the horns of Rohan in that hour was like a storm upon the plain and a thunder in the mountains.” (The Return of the King, Book Five, Chapter 5, “The Ride of the Rohirrim”)
A number of images immediately come into our minds when reading this.
First, when Gandalf, Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli initially come to Edoras and enter Meduseld,
(This is a particularly fine possible Meduseld by Inger Edelfeldt.)
they look up to see:
“Many woven cloths were hung upon the walls, and over their wide spaces marched figures of ancient legend, some dim with years, some darkling in the shade. But upon one form the sunlight fell: a young man upon a white horse. He was blowing a great horn, and his yellow hair was flying in the wind. The horse’s head was lifted, and its nostrils were wide and red as it neighed, smelling battle afar. Foaming water, green and white, rushed and curled about its knees.
‘Behold Eorl the Young!’ said Aragorn. ‘Thus he rode out of the North to the Battle of the Field of Celebrant.’” (The Two Towers, Book Three, Chapter 6, “The King of the Golden Hall”)
Thus, we’re reminded of an earlier rescue, when Eorl brought the Rohirrim out of the north in TA2510 to aid Gondor in defeating a combined army of orcs and Easterlings.
Second, anyone interested in Western medieval literature would be reminded of the early French poem, the Chanson de Roland (c1000AD),
in which Roland, a young warrior and leader of the rear guard of Charlemagne’s army, refuses to blow his horn for reinforcements when his men are ambushed in a pass, saying that to do so would be cowardice.
Rather than his horn exploding, Roland’s head does, from the exertion, but the broken horn makes us think of Boromir’s last stand, where he blows his horn, but no help comes until it’s too late.
All that we know of the horn which Theoden blew was that it was “great”—that is, big—but perhaps it looked like Boromir’s?
“On a baldric he worn a great horn tipped with silver that was now laid upon his knees.” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book Two, Chapter 2, “The Council of Elrond”) Here’s a medieval one from the British Museum.
It should be remembered, of all of these horns, that they have a military use, both in Middle-earth and in our world, as a method of transferring commands from officers to soldiers, both in and out of battle, and what Theoden is actually doing is the musical equivalent of shouting CHARGE! to his 6000-man eored. Nowhere is the military use of horns made clearer for earlier warfare than in the writing of the late Roman (4th c. AD) author, Vegetius. In Book II of his De Re Militari (“Concerning Military Affairs”) he describes the use of such instruments:
“The music of the legion consists of trumpets, cornets and buccinae. The trumpet sounds the charge and the retreat. The cornets are used only to regulate the motions of the colors; the trumpets serve when the soldiers are ordered out to any work without the colors; but in time of action, the trumpets and cornets sound together. The classicum, which is a particular sound of the buccina or horn, is appropriated to the commander-in-chief and is used in the presence of the general, or at the execution of a soldier, as a mark of its being done by his authority. The ordinary guards and outposts are always mounted and relieved by the sound of trumpet, which also directs the motions of the soldiers on working parties and on field days. The cornets sound whenever the colors are to be struck or planted. These rules must be punctually observed in all exercises and reviews so that the soldiers may be ready to obey them in action without hesitation according to the general’s orders either to charge or halt, to pursue the enemy or to retire. F or reason will convince us that what is necessary to be performed in the heat of action should constantly be practiced in the leisure of peace.” (This is taken from a 1944 digest of the 1767 translation by John Clarke—if you would like to see the Latin original, here’s a LINK to a text. The relevant passage is: “XXII. Quid inter tubicines et cornicines et classicum intersit.”)
The three Latin terms translated as “trumpets, cornets and buccinae” are actually, “tubicines cornicines bucinatores”, meaning “players of tubae, players of cornua, players of buccinae”. In this ancient relief, we can see, on the left, tuba-players, and, in the center, either players of cornu, or the buccina, as the instruments appear to be rather hard to distinguish in shape.
And here’s a modern reconstruction, by Peter Connolly.
We live in a world of such rapid electronic communication
that it might be easy to forget that, for centuries, any order beyond the sound of a general’s voice had to be transferred by other means. Like Greek trumpeters,
or medieval mounted messengers (the Latin says “messengers of William”).
Drums might be used—
and the early 18th-century British general, the Duke of Marlborough even had his own foot-messenger squad, wearing distinctive clothing (one, in blue, with a jockey cap, is just to the left of the Duke in this tapestry).
But what, we asked above, is more exciting than a cavalry charge (we once did a posting devoted specifically to them)—and what makes that more exciting than the trumpeter at the front, sounding the charge?
Thanks, as always, for reading.