Amazons, Anglo-Saxon, Bayeux Tapestry, Burial mounds, Cavalry, Charge of the Light Brigade, descendants, Edoras, Eotheod, Horse people, Indo-European, Kurgan, language, Middle-earth, Normans, Rohan, Rohirric, Rohirrim, Scythians, The Lord of the Rings, The Mark, Tolkien, Tom Shippey
Dear Readers, welcome!
In this post, we want to think out loud a bit about the Rohirrim.
Everyone knows where their language is from, as Tolkien says in a letter to “one Mr. Rang”:
“…’Anglo-Saxon’…is the sole field in which to look for the origins and meaning of words and names belonging to the speech of the Mark.” LT 381
And yet they are horse people (their own name for themselves, in fact, is Eotheod, “horse people”), which the Angles and Saxons who went to make up the Anglo-Saxons, were not. Tolkien was well aware of this difference, saying in Appendix F of The Lord of the Rings:
“…this linguistic procedure does not imply that the Rohirrim closely resembled the ancient English otherwise, in culture or art, in weapons or modes of warfare, except in a general way due to their circumstances…” L1136
Tom Shippey, in The Road to Middle Earth, suggests that
“The Rohirrim are nothing if not cavalry. By contrast the Anglo-Saxons’ reluctance to have anything militarily to do with horses is notorious…How then can Anglo-Saxons and Rohirrim ever, culturally, be equated? A part of the answer is that the Rohirrim are not to be equated with the Anglo-Saxons of history, but with those of poetry, or legend.” (112)
Or, could there have been other models?
Tolkien may have been suggesting one when, in a letter to Rhona Beare of 14 October, 1958:
“The Rohirrim were not ‘mediaeval’ in our sense. The styles of the Bayeux Taptestry (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 chain-mail of small rings.” Ltr 280-281.
The Bayeux Tapestry depicts both Normans and their allies, on the one hand, and the Anglo-Saxons, on the other, but Tolkien doesn’t appear to distinguish between them. The Normans themselves are mounted, the Anglo-Saxons on foot, as was their custom (they did use horses to move rapidly from place to place, as in the race north to Stamford Bridge and then back south to face the Normans).
Here, to the left, we see those mounted Normans and, to the right, the Anglo-Saxons behind their shield wall. The “tennis-nets” are clearly visible and would actually have looked like this:
In this further illustration, by the way, it’s easy to see the consequences of having the shield wall crumble: men on horseback can have a significant advantage when their opponents lose cohesion.
This, however, is only their look . What about those horses and an entire culture based around them?
For a clue, we look to another element in the culture of the Rohirrim, the use of burial mounds. Here they are at Edoras.
(We can’t resist, by the way, saying that our absolute favorite part of the Jackson movies is anything to do with the Rohirrim—to us, absolutely inspired and we see the depiction of the charge of the Rohirrim against the army besieging Minas Tirith as being right up there with the Charge of the Light Brigade at Balaclava in 1854 and the charge of the Australian Light Horse at Beersheba in 1917–
One might say, in reply, that there are Anglo-Saxon mounds—like the famous Sutton Hoo ship burial.
But that leaves us where we started, in the land of foot soldiers.
So, let’s go farther afield, to the north of the Black Sea.
Here, we see the so-called “Kurgan Culture”, with its burial mounds
[This, by the way, is not to be confused with The Kurgan from the first Highlander movie
These were a people who:
- are believed by many linguists (and some archeologists) to be the direct ancestors of the Indo-Europeans who gradually invaded Asia Minor and western Europe (including, eventually, the Anglo-Saxons) as well as moving east, to India and beyond
- buried their dead (at least what appear to be the high status ones) in mounds
- were a horse culture
And, in fact, were seemingly the forerunners of the Scythians, a later well-known Indo-European horse people
And the Scythians, in turn, may have been the model for those mythical horse folk, the Amazons.
In the 19th century, when the idea of Indo-Europeans began to circulate, there was a preference for a northern European origin (a theory no longer held), but the idea of an eastern home was also circulating and we would suggest that Tolkien would have known about this, as well as, from his early classical training, Scythians and Amazons, their actual and mythical descendants.
Imagine, then, that what we see in the Rohirrim is, in fact, an interesting mixture of people sprung from an earlier people (as Tolkien tells us, the Rohirrim were descended from the Edain of the First Age—see LOTR, Appendix F 1129), both in our world and in Middle Earth, who based their culture upon horses, and bury their dead in mounds, combined with people who may also bury their dead in mounds, who speak a version of Anglo-Saxon and who dress like the Normans and Anglo-Saxons of the 11th century AD.
What do you think, dear readers?
Thanks for reading, as always.