Tolkien's Middle-earth doesn't look like Medieval Europe
To J.R.R. Tolkien it did not, but apparently to Peter Jackson it does. One of my concerns about the movies is that Jackson is severely influenced by the medieval interpretation of John Howe. Howe is a great artist but a terrible Tolkien interpreter. He has reduced Tolkien's panoramic vision of a lost ancient world to a misapplication of medieval Europe.
There are aspects of Tolkien's world which are derived from medieval influences, but few if any of them are actually visual. The medievalisms come most often in story ideas, such as Bilbo's theft of the cup from Smaug's hoard, the story of Turin Turambar, etc. The one aspect of Middle-earth most people seem to feel is derived from Anglo-Saxon England is, in fact, nothing of the sort. I refer to the Rohirrim.
Tolkien used Anglo-Saxon to represent the language of Rohan, and many people assume this means the Anglo-Saxons were the model for the Rohirrim. A couple of years ago I examined the Anglo-Saxon myth in Things You Might Not Have Known About the Northmen, an essay for the collection Parma Endorion: Essays on Middle-earth, Revised Edition.
The key points of the argument include these facts: the Anglo-Saxons were a seafaring people, whereas the Rohirrim don't even appear to use boats; the Rohirrim have a culture built entirely around horses, whereas the Anglo-Saxons didn't have much of a horse tradition at all (and most of what we know about the Anglo-Saxons' use of horses came to light after Tolkien devised the Rohirrim); the Anglo-Saxons were derived from numerous peoples and tribes (Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Frisians, and a few others), whereas the Rohirrim began as a remnant of a greater nation but were always a cohesive and single tribe; and the Anglo-Saxons were generally poorly armed, equipped, and organized compared to the highly trained and professional army of the Rohirrim.
This latter point has been the subject of numerous discussions on The White Council (search the archives), as well as alt.fan.tolkien and rec.arts.books.tolkien. Just how professional was the army of Rohan? People are are quick to point out that King Harold had a small professional force that he led about England, defending his realm against Vikings and Normans alike, reinforcing his army with local levies called fyrds.
Nonetheless, the Rohirrim lived in mountains and the English lived in the lowlands. The Rohirrim organized their Riders into an army called the Muster of Rohan, which was divided into three forces: the Muster of Edoras, the Muster of the East-mark, and the Muster of the West-mark. These musters could be supplemented by local levies (as Theodred, Second Marshal of the Mark and commander of the Muster of the West-mark, raised levies from the West-mark to fight Saruman). The fact that Tolkien distinguishes between the local levies, however, and the Riders of Rohan shows that the Riders were indeed a different kind of army. They were the first line of defense for Rohan, and the local levies seem to have provided infantry forces not included in the Muster. (Details concerning Rohan's military may be found in Unfinished Tales.)
Visually, Middle-earth simply doesn't look like any historical period, and it
shouldn't. Tolkien's stories are set in an imaginary time in our past, about
6,000 years ago (according to Letter 211 in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien).
This puts the end of Middle-earth's Third Age at the dawn of Biblical events,
and Tolkien was very specific about Middle-earth's pre-Judeo-Christian
theology because it existed prior to that time frame (Cf. Letter 153: "There
are thus no temples or
churches or fanes in this
peoples....this is a
Middle-earth thus has nothing like the Catholic church, nor any great religious schisms and persecutions, such as may be found in Europe during the Middle Ages. The religio-political setting of Middle-earth is very unlike that of Europe in any period. Mankind has not yet developed full religions with pantheons and hierarchies, although the worshippers of Sauron and Morgoth have been initiated into "dark cults" which lead men away from the one true god.
There are four primary cultures in The Lord of the Rings: (1) the Shire and Bree, (2) the Elven realms of Imladris and Lorien, (3) the Rohirrim, (4) Gondor. Little in these four cultures resembles medieval Europe.
The Shire and Bree are derived mostly from Tolkien's childhood memories of a
village in Warwickshire. These are very familiar settings to the modern
English audience and Tolkien intended them to be so. "
The Shire is based on
rural England and not any other country in the world," Tolkien wrote to his
publisher Rayner Unwin in 1956. "The toponymy of The Shire...is a
that of rural England, in much the same sense as are its inhabitants."
Anyone who has visited an English pub knows the sights, sounds, and smells Tolkien envisioned for the conversations in Hobbiton's Ivy Bush, Bywater's Green Dragon, and Bree's Prancing Pony. The atmosphere is ripe with ale. The hum of numerous conversations keeps the night buzzing. The barkeep is intently discussing matters with his friends, unlike an American bartender (say) who listens politely to what strangers have to say.
The Hobbits with their umbrellas, waistcoats, silk handkerchiefs, and brass buttons are anything but a medieval people. They are very modern and very rustic at the same time. Tolkien is thus at ease in comparing the sound of a fireworks display in the Shire with the sound of an "express train". Not that Hobbits had express trains, but rather, that their world is so familiar to a modern reader -- a modern English reader -- it shouldn't seem medieval at all.
Hobbits built with brick and stone, too, an uncommon style for medieval peasants, who often built with wattle and daub.. In the book Frodo and his companions ride past "some hundred stone houses of the Big Folk, mostly on the Road, nestling on the hillside with windows looking west" when they enter Bree. The Bree structures built for the movies look like wattle and daub buildings (identified as "Tudor style" by some). No stone. The windows don't appear to be looking west. And never mind what happened to the hill, which appears not to be part of the set at all.
Of course, Bree will not ruin the movies. In fact I've been told it's to be filmed at night and in the rain (although it's not raining when Frodo arrives at Bree in the book), so purists like me won't have too much to grumble about.
The Elven cultures don't compare to anything in our medieval experience. The House of Elrond is viewed as a sort of country manor by many people, but there are no serfs in evidence. Tolkien was very inspecific in describing Elrond's house, although he painted it. In fact, Tolkien made several renderings of the house, but the most prominent features are the porch and the second storey, the latter being the floor with the vanishing windows. In one image it has three windows to a side, in another it has two, and in the final rendition, a spectacular watercolor named "Rivendell", there is only one window.
Elrond's house was not the only Elven abode in the valley of Rivendell, but it's the only one we see. We are told in The Road Goes Ever On that Gildor's people lived in or near Rivendell. Even if all of Elrond's servants and counsellors actually lived with him this custom is so ancient as to be far removed from the concept of a medieval lord supporting villeins and soldiers on his estate.
Elrond's house has a great hall for feasting and a separate hall for other functions. This is much unlike the medieval manors where life centered about a single great hall.
The city of Caras Galadon, on the other hand, is a uniquely Elvish arrangement. We have nothing like it in Euro-American experience and I doubt anything like it was ever attempted anywhere in the world. Add to that the "magical" devices which are as common as everyday lamps and lightbulbs for us, and it's a very enchanted place.
Medieval European did not build houses on platforms in the trees. The lanterns, ropes, boats, and cloaks of the Elves are all examples of the "magical" things they took for granted -- these were items of everyday use and construction for the Elves, who put their thought into all they made. While medieval Europe feared and yet sometimes pursued "magic"; Middle-earth is loaded with "magic".
Rohan is an oft-misunderstood country in Tolkien's world. Many people envision the Rohirrim leading a semi-nomadic way of life, but Tolkien went out of his way to emphasize their sedentary existence. When Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli first met Eomer he told them he had removed "all our herds and herd-folk" from the northern lands. He does not speak of all his people, only the "herds-folk". Eomer lived in the city of Aldburg in the eastern White Mountains. Theoden lived in the city of Edoras, built on a hill, behind which ran the valley of Harrowdale, in the midst of which were small villages with names like Underharrow and Upbourn. As Theoden's army passed through women watched from their houses. And when Saruman's army attacked the Hornburg it burned many farms in the valley below the fortress.
Theoden's hall has often been compared to Heorot, Hrothgar's hall in "Beowulf". The chief resemblance is that both halls had gilded rooves and could be seen far across the land. Both halls are modelled on the long-house architecture which was utilized throughout northern Europe for thousands of years, with some stylistic differences added for artistic purposes. The Viking hall of the 9th - 11th centuries represents the pinnacle of the northern hall tradition in our imagination, but Heorot comes from an earlier age set at the very beginning of the medieval period.
There are a few parallels between Beowulf's approach to Heorot and Gandalf's approach to Meduseld, but they are mostly superficial. The most striking parallel is when Gandalf and his companions are required to lay their weapons outside the door of Meduseld. This is very much like the poem, which in turn only reflected a prudent custom throughout the ancient world.
But do the similarities between Meduseld and Heorot mean the Rohirrim are medieval? Of course not, and the fact that the Rohirrim were most renowned as horsemen is reminiscent of when the Romans encountered peoples from the eastern steppes whose prowess on horseback both amazed and terrorized their enemies. The Huns are the most famous mounted people to enter Europe, but the Goths are embedded in our imagination as a warlike nation of mounted warriors who moved into the empire and eventually helped bring about about its decline in the west.
We have a different view of the Goths now than in Tolkien's day. Nonetheless, the Rohirrim's devotion to their horses, their expertise in mounted warfare, even their arms and armor all evoke images of Alaric's Goths charging across the field save for one discrepancy: Alaric's warriors did not use stirrups, whereas the Rohirrim did.
It has also been argued that the great cavalry charges of the Rohirrim could not have been inspired by the armies of antiquity, but this is incorrect. Tolkien loved the classics, and he read them in the original Greek and Latin. On several occasions in his letters he makes casual reference to Alexander, the young Macedonian king who led armies across the known world. Tolkien was thus familiar with Alexander and knew his adventures.
Although ancient cavalry most often attacked enemy flanks, one of the tactics Alexander perfected with his Companion Cavalry was the straight-forward charge, used to break through the center of an enemy line. Companion Cavalrymen even used extremely long spears.
A popular misconception about the Macedonian cavalry is that they, like other ancient cavalry, had to use their spears overhand instead of couched underarm like medieval knights. But a Companion Cavalryman's spear was too long and cumbersome for such a tactic. It's also believed that a lighter-armed cavalry force, called prodromoi, may have been armed with even longer spears.
So, are the Rohirrim derived from Goths and Macedonian cavalry? Not necessarily. Rather, they are too broadly painted as a horse-loving culture specializing in mounted warfare to be derived from any medieval European people. Nor are they culturally similar to the Anglo-Saxons whose language Tolkien used to represent the language of Rohan. The Rohirrim are idealized Northmen, romanticized beyond any singular identification, and as the Romans discovered, the peoples of northern Europe were a force to be reckoned with long before there was a medieval period in which Rome's accomplishments would recede into whimsical memory.
Tolkien himself was very clear about the Rohirrim. In Appendix F to The Lord of the Rings he described the linguistic device he employed for representing their language with Anglo-Saxon. In a footnote Tolkien cautioned his readers, "this linguistic procedure does not imply that the Rohirrim closely resembled the ancient English...."
When asked about the clothing used in Middle-earth, Tolkien wrote (in Letter 211): "I do not know the detail of clothing." He went on to say "males, especially in northern parts such as the Shire, would wear breeches, whether hidden by a cloak or long matle, or merely accompanied by a tunic."
Further on he mentions the applicability of the designs in the Bayeux
Tapestry: "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 are only a clumsy
conventional sign for chain-mail of small rings."
Tolkien's specific reference to the Rohirrim comes on the heels of a cautious
admonition about clothing in Middle-earth: "I have no doubt that in the area
envisioned by my story...the
dress of various peoples, Men and others, was
much diversified in the Third Age, according to cliimate, and inherited
custom. As was our world, even if we only consider Europe and the
Mediterranean and the very near
East (or South)...."
The breeches-tunic-and-cloak style Tolkien suggested is quite ancient, worn by northern Europeans and steppe peoples in the 1st millenium BC or earlier. Clothing thus is no indication of period influences. Tolkien was being very vague and generic, even when pressed for detail, but he clearly denied any medieval connections with respect to the Rohirrim.
Chain-mail, for instance, originated with the Roman empire, and it replaced earlier types of mail which had been in use for several centuries BC. Roman soldiers first widely used chain in the 1st century BC. Roman Cibinarii, heavily armored horsemen who used lances, were covered in mail. They did not use stirrups but their high saddles gave them the stability they required for their charges.
Concerning Gondor, in Letter 211 Tolkien wrote "the Numenoreans of Gondor were proud, peculiar, and archaic, and I think are best pictured in (say) Egyptian terms." It is significant that the author uses an Egyptian rather than medieval model for the Gondorians. However, we should not be looking for heiroglyphics on the walls of Minas Tirith. The Dunedain used the Tengwar, the Elvish alphabet, or the Cirth, the Runes devised by the Elves and enhanced by the Dwarves.
"In many ways they resembled
Egyptians," Tolkien continued, "the love of,
and power to construct, the gigantic and massive. And in their great interest
in ancestry and in tombs. (But not of course in 'theology': in which respect
they were Hebraic and even more puritan ...)."
He is at pains here to emphasize ancient models, not medieval European ones, for his Gondorians. Tolkien never once conceded a medieval influence.
"I think the crown of Gondor (the S. Kingdom) was very tall, like that of Egypt, but with wings attached, not set straight back but at an angle....The N. Kingdom had only a diadem. Cf. the difference between the N. and S. kingdoms of Egypt." Hence, when Tolkien thought of Arnor and Gondor, he thought of Egypt's North and South Kingdoms. Culturally, these two kingdoms were much closer to Egypt than to anything else in Tolkien's imagination.
On the medievalists' side there is Tolkien's use of the word "fief" to refer to the regions of Gondor, but "fief" has more than one meaning and Tolkien was not constrained to use it to imply feudalism. To explain how he was using familiar terms for his own purposes, Tolkien wrote a lengthy essay which was severely abridged at the time of publication to save on space. The full essay was published only in The Peoples of Middle-earth, volume 12 of The History of Middle-earth.
The essay, published as "On Translation" in Appendix F, lays out the fiction of Tolkien's work as translator, and in the process explains how he intends the terms to be understood: "$41 The nomenclature of the Hobbits themselves and of the places they lived has, nonetheless, presented some obstacles to the satisfactory carrying of this process of translation. Their place-names, being (in the Shire especially) almost all originally of C.S. form, have proved least difficult. I have converted them into as nearly similar English terms as I could find, using the elements found in English place-names that seemed suitable both in sense and in period: that is in being still current (like hill), or slightly altered or reduced from current words (like ton from town), or no longer found outside placenames (like wich, bold, bottle)."
At this point Tolkien commences to discuss shire at length, and the word he
translated it from, suza-t (suza in the final texts), is used both in the
north and in the south. "The Shire seems to me very adequately to translate
the Hobbit Suza-t, since this word was now only used by them with reference
to their country, though originally it had meant
a sphere of occupation (as
of the land claimed by a family or clan), of office, or business. In Gondor
the word suza was still applied to the divisions of the realm, such as
Anorien, Ithilien, Lebennin, for which in Noldorin [Tolkien subsequently
changed Noldorin to Sindarin] the word lhann was used...."
Hence, where Tolkien speaks of "the fiefs of the south", he is not referring to feudal lands but rather to regions of the realm. The Lords of Dol Amroth were, after the end of the Kingly line, essentially autonomous according to Tolkien. If they were feudal vassals, how could they have become autonomous since the authority of the kings was retained by the Ruling Stewards?
Feudalism is not a particularly medieval European convention. It also arose in the Orient but is most closely identified by medievalists with Tolkien's Gondor. He never once speaks of feudalism in any text or letter. Feudalism is essentially a contract of personal obligation between two individuals, as opposed to a contract for service in exchange for payment. A tenant who pays rent is not feudally obligated to the land owner.
Many who argue that Gondor was feudal infer there must have been feudal estates. Such conventions arose in Europe because the monied economy of the Roman Empire broke down and national armies seized to exist. The tribal armies of the Franks, Saxons, Angles, et. al., were gradually replaced by small professional cadres augmented by regional forces. The leaders of these regional forces were usually military officers given special responsibility for defending those lands.
Sometimes the offices became hereditary, or as kings conquered neighboring realms they divided their lands among their sons upon their deaths (or the sons divided the lands themselves). The gradual unification of England under the kings of Wessex and the advent of Charlemagne's empire stalled or even reversed the decentralization. But within 100 years France and the low countries developed a complicated feudal hierarchy as freemen gave up their land rights in exchange for protection from local nobles, who in turn assigned lands to their own soldiers to defend. The ever-shifting politics of the Franks, whose empire broke up into three kingdoms, and their lack of agricultural and economic sophistication, ensured that regional authority increased as new threats arose, such as the Vikings.
England retained a regional hierarchy reminiscent of its ancient kings, but these Earls did not sub-divide their lands to lesser feudal vassals as the Franks did. In Germany the Holy Roman Empire sought to govern regional princes and church prelates who had been conquered or empowered by Charlemagne and his successors. The emperors had no real lands or wealth of their own and were forced to recruit allies among their titular vassals. And in Spain the ancient Visigothic kingdom had been overthrown by a superior Moslem enemy which took advantage of the Visigoths' divisions. Their successors, outlaws in the northern mountains, eventually established small kingdoms founded on strong central authority but which had limited resources. Thus more kingdoms emerged because the ever-shifting borderlands between the Christians and Moslems provided opportunities for a few resourceful leaders to carve out their own realms.
These conditions are not found in Middle-earth, especially Arnor and Gondor. We know little about the actual structure of these kingdoms, but we do know there were princes who were not direct descendants of Elendil and who had some autonomy. In Unfinished Tales a note to "Cirion and Eorl" says Elendil gave the title of "prince" to Imrahil's family because they were related. This anecdote implies that Elendil was active within the governance of Gondor, and that his title of High King was not merely cermonial. Hence, the dual crowns of Isildur and Anarion were subject to Elendil's, and yet there is no indication of a feudal obligation. When Sauron attacked Gondor, Elendil did not move immediately to defend his sons' realm, but rather formed an alliance with Gil-galad which went on the offensive.
Yet some medievalists point out that Pippin pledged his personal service to Denethor. Hence, his seems to be a feudal contract. Well, yes and no. First of all, Pippin's pledge was to "Gondor and to the Lord and Steward of the realm". His oath was thus not to Denethor alone, but also to Gondor. On the other hand, Pippin offered his service to Denethor in partial payment for the sacrifice of Boromir, who died defending Merry and Pippin. It is not possible to fully refute the feudalist on this point. Nonetheless, Pippin was eventually arrayed in the armor of the Guards of the Citadel, whose emblems were royal, not those of the House of the Stewards.
Was this a matter of convenience? Perhaps. Denethor, when he went to his funeral pyre, released Pippin from his service. And yet Pippin marched with the Army of the West to Mordor as a soldier of Gondor, and later Aragorn made him a knight of Gondor. Did the knighthood confer some personal obligation on Pippin? If so, why was he a knight of Gondor instead of one of Aragorn's vassals?
Dol Amroth's cavalry were called knights. But though the word "knight" itself is derived from an ancient German word for "rider", it is often used to translate words in ancient Greek and Latin which were applied to special classes of warriors. The Internet Classics Archive provides a search utility which locates such uses in the translated texts (including the adjective "knightly"). If Tolkien pretending to be a translator used the word "knight", was he specifically using it to refer to a soldier in a feudal hierarchy? There is no indication of this in the texts, and his unconventional use of "fief" implies "knight" may have been used in the more classical sense. In fact, in the same passage where he discusses the meaning of the word suza (translated as "Shire" and "fief"), he goes on to discuss the money of Gondor. So Gondor apparently had a monied economy -- and though Europe never fully lost the use of money, the presence of money in Middle-earth leaves serious room for doubt on the feudalism issue.
When Pippin watches reinforcements march into Minas Tirith, he hears the men of the city complaining that only one tenth of the men hoped for arrived. Some people view this as evidence that the regional lords must have been poweful enough to withhold troops from Denethor. And yet many of these lords helped defend Minas Tirith. Also, when Denethor argues with Gandalf in council, he emphasizes his concern for all of Gondor, and he rules his council of lords and captains with an iron fist. He doesn't seem like a weak and impotent feudal lord whose needs are subject to the whims of the vassals. Tolkien seems to imply the decision to leave the coasts strongly defended may have come from that council, if not from Denethor himself.
The various men who march to Minas Tirith are the subject of debate as well. Are these professional soldiers or merely provincial levies? Only three groups are clearly not soldiers: the men from the Ethir Anduin, the "few grim hillmen" from Lamedon, and the varied hunters and herders from Anfalas. Dol Amroth's force, more than 700 strong, may be an independent army. But are the 500 bowmen from Morthond really the primary feudal troops sworn to Duinhir's service? They seem a rather specialized lot. The remaining groups are so non-descript we can infer nothing reliable from their descriptions.
Whether professional or provincial, it is not clear whose army these men are enlisted in, except for Dol Amroth's. Imrahil is autonomous, and yet he is loyal to Gondor and willing to defend the entire realm, and not just his own domain of Belfalas. The evidence of feudalism, let alone feudalism modelled on medieval Europe, is therefore virtually non-existent. The arguments are based on inferences which are not directly contradicted by the texts. And yet, was Tolkien obligated to refute every unlikely inference his readers might draw?
A better argument for a feudal organization can be made for Arnor, for King Argeleb II did confer some obligations upon the brothers Marcho and Blanco in exchange for their colonization of the Shire. And yet, Tolkien's definition for suza includes no feudal connotations. Furthermore, when the kingdom failed the Shire was not governed by any descendants of Marcho and Blanco. Rather, the various clan/family chieftains elected a Thain to retain the king's authority. This action implies that Arnor's king directly governed the Shire, but for the most part left its people alone.
The division of Arnor into three smaller kingdoms suggests to some people there may have been a vassaldom which became divided among the sons of Earendur, the last High King. Cardolan, at least, had a princely house like the Lords of Dol Amroth, not descended from Elendil. The last heir of this line died in the year 1407, at least 50 years after the last male descendant of Isildur from Cardolan had died.
And yet, again, the evidence for feudalism, particularly medieval European feudalism, is virtually non-existent. There are no indications of personal obligations between the lords and the kings, let alone exchanges of land for service. On the contrary, Elendil and his fellow Numenorean exiles joined existing populations in both Arnor and Gondor. Unless they engaged in undocumented wars of conquest, they could not simply have usurped total authority from the local leaders. Hence the most popular arguments for interpreting Middle-earth as "medieval" are not only contradicted by Tolkien himself, but fail to provide explicit evidence where he doesn't directly refute the inferences.
Many of the inferences are certainly applicable, if not textually supportable, but such applicability in no way excludes the applicability of other inferences. It is easier to show the classical influences in Tolkien than the medieval ones because he at least gave us some examples from the classics. Where he provides medieval examples Tolkien is careful to caution the reader against inferring too much (especially medievalism itself), or qualifies his sources by emphasizing the story structure rather than the culture being portrayed in the story.
And that is why I look forward to Peter Jackson's interpretation with some trepidation. I believe I will enjoy these movies. I have no fears on that score. But the evidence we've seen so far implies strongly that Jackson has, despite his well-announced intentions, already departed from the original story in theme and context and there will be little of Tolkien's hand in the visible cultures. The medievalists have won this round, but sadly that only means we'll have to wait for the next attempt to see if someone will try to do it right.
Michael Martinez is the author of Visualizing Middle-earth, which may be purchased directly from Xlibris Corp. or through any online bookstore. You may also special order it from your local bookstore. The ISBN is 0-7388-3408-4.
And be sure to download your free copy of Parma Endorion: Essays on Middle-earth, 3rd edition at Free-eBooks.Net!