Alan Lee, Anglo-Saxon, Bayeux Tapestry, Christian Schwager, Dernhelm, Eowyn, Frank Frazetta, great helm, Great War, helmets, Howard Pyle, John Howe, kettle helm, King Arthur, spangenhelm, Tolkien, vikings, WWI
As ever, dear readers, welcome.
In our last, we focused upon the helmets worn by Tolkien and other European and US soldiers in the Great War, the French
and the British (US troops eventually settled on the British pattern).
The British helmet, we said, has produced the common comment that it looks like it was inspired by the medieval “kettle helm” (the second image being from the 13th-century Maciejowski Bible—but these helmets were clearly so practical that they continued to be used well beyond that time).
“inspired by medieval” is the way we commonly see JRRT’s Middle-earth, and it made us wonder about the kinds of helmets we would meet in The Lord of the Rings. Unfortunately, if there were a concordance (that is, a book dedicated to listing all the times various words are used within a text, like this concordance for Homer’s Odyssey)
for Tolkien’s work, we are betting that perhaps the only word we would find there would be “helm”, which is generic, unless one adds “great”, which produces a more specific kind of head protection, looking like these, in use from the late 12th to the mid-14th centuries—
With only “helm” to go on, what clues might help us better to visualize what warriors are wearing?
We’ve suggested before that one possible visual resource for JRRT’s images of medieval warfare was the work of the American illustrator, Howard Pyle (1853-1911), in books like The Story of King Arthur and His Knights (1903), which Tolkien could have read as a boy.
And here’s a well-known illustration—with a knight in a great helm, in fact.
But what did Pyle use for models?
In Pyle’s time, the collection and classification of armor was still at its very beginnings (the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York only instituted an Arms and Armor Department in 1912, for example). We can only assume, then, that he thought “knights = medieval” and so any armor might do. (If Arthur were real—there’s been argument about this for many years—he would have lived centuries before the medieval period and so would have had neither knights nor the military equipment of later days anyway. As myth, Arthur can live at any time, of course. We think of Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant, where, at one moment, we’re facing Huns and, at the next moment, Vikings.)
If Pyle were one of JRRT’s sources, then, “helm” can easily stand for any kind of protective headgear made of metal and vaguely medieval. We think that there is more to be said on this, however, and we’ll go into a bit more detail about helmets in The Lord of the Rings in the third part of this little series, but, for now, we want to concentrate on one helmet in particular.
Normally, one thinks of helmets as protection, but, in the novel, we see one also used as a disguise, as Eowyn becomes “Dernhelm” (Old English dirne, “hidden/secret” + helm “head covering/helmet”, so, something like “a helm which hides”?).
What kind of helmet, we asked ourselves, would Eowyn be wearing which would:
- keep her identity hidden
- blend in with the helmets of other Rohirrim?
We began by looking at modern illustrations of Eowyn but, unfortunately, a cursory survey shows us that almost all modern illustrators appear to have chosen the same scene: the moment when Eowyn has removed her helmet when facing the Witch King.
So far, we’ve found only a few artists who capture the previous moment:
- whose name so far has eluded us, but who shows a rear view of something which looks rather like a French Great War helmet.
- the second, another anonymous (to us), again shows Eowyn from behind, but with a style of helmet which appears to owe more to fantasy than to any medieval reality—
and perhaps a little something to Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
- the third is Christian Schwager, based in New Zealand.
Her armor is full plate, which, in our world, is later medieval. As for the helmet, it somewhat resembles a visored sallet, but only vaguely.
And that plume and its placement strike us as problematic, at best.
- the last is the well-known fantasy illustrator, Frank Frazetta, and although we enjoy some of his work, this illustration suggests to us that the artist doesn’t appear to have taken the scene–or Eowyn– seriously—or practically.
As we wrote in a post some time ago, the basis of the Rohirrim is Anglo-Saxon, men who wore long mail shirts and conical spangenhelm,
making them look very much like dismounted versions of their Norman opponents, both being shown in the following panel from the Bayeux Tapestry.
A characteristic feature of the spangenhelm is that nasal—the bar which comes down to protect the wearer’s nose.
Potentially, this and the helmet’s brim might shade the eyes and make the face less visible.
So, with the need for disguise and blending-in being crucial, and only “helm” to go on in the text, we asked ourselves what did the two artists who acted as inspiration for Jackson’s films, Alan Lee and John Howe, choose to do? Here’s a picture of the battlefield confrontation by Lee—
Eowyn is, as in the case of other illustrators, here depicted as having removed her helmet, and, even under magnification, it’s difficult to make much out. Howe, however, has given us a very detailed picture.
It’s clear, however, that, in choosing to emphasize the dirne in “Dernhelm”, he’s stepped away from the world of knights entirely and into a slightly older world, that of the Vikings, as his helmet more closely resembles the so-called “spectacle helmets”, of which a few examples survive from Viking burials, like this, reconstructed from a discovery at Gjermundbu, in Norway. (For a very useful view of Viking helmets in general, follow this LINK.)
In turn, Jackson’s designers have followed Lee—
This certainly gives us the “hidden/secret” part of “Dernhelm”, but what about the idea of blending in? Looking at a group shot of Rohirrim, we find a little surprise.
Instead of looking like Anglo-Saxons, as depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry, Jackson’s Rohirrim look more like Vikings—and so Eowyn’s helmet blends right in (in fact, in this picture, you can see at least one other warrior with a spectacled helmet), almost as if her helmet and its secrecy requirement have been the basis for all of the warriors of Rohan.
There are lots of other helmets to pursue, however, which we’ll do in our next, so, with thanks to you, dear readers, for reading this, we’ll say