Blogging through LOTR: Anglo-Saxon echoes


‘Halflings! But they are only a little people in old songs and children’s tales out of the North. Do we walk in legends or on the green earth in the daylight?’

‘A man may do both,’ said Aragorn. ‘For not we but those who come after will make the legends of our time. The green earth, say you? That is a mighty matter of legend, though you tread it under the light of day!’

I’ve been looking for Norse elements in The Two Towers. Of all the LOTR books, I think this one is richest in Scandinavian echoes – or at least Anglo-Saxon, which is as close as makes almost no difference, when you’re thinking of the Age of Beowulf (who lived in what is now Sweden, after all). Because the Rohirrim are plainly modeled on the Anglo-Saxons (though I suspect a tribe of horsemen would have developed the kite-shaped shield by this point, as the Normans did when they took to fighting on horseback).

There’s the boat-burial of Boromir, similar to the classic (mythical) Viking burial. Although most people think of ship burials at sea as a Viking custom, it’s actually undocumented in history or archaeology. Where it comes from is a passage in Beowulf (fully legendary), and the funeral of Baldur in Norse mythology (fully mythical). But it works well for the kind of high fantasy we’re involved with here.

Treebeard gives a list of living things, in which he can’t find hobbits:

‘Eldest of all, the elf-children;
Dwarf the delver, dark are his houses;
Ent the earthborn, old as mountains;
Man the mortal, master of horses…’

I’m almost certain Tolkien is echoing a medieval poem here – the medievals loved this kind of list. But I can’t identify a model. Probably one of our readers can enlighten me.

In Chapter 6, Aragorn, observing the Riders of Rohan, recites a poem Tolkien based on a passage in the Anglo-Saxon poem, “The Wanderer,” which goes like this:

Where has the horse gone? Where the young warrior? Where is the giver of treasure? What has become of the seats for the feasts? Where are the joys of the hall?… (From the translation by M. H. Abrams (?) in The Norton Anthology of English Literature, 1968).

When Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas approach Edoras, the watchman of the Rohirrim speaks to them in words reminiscent of the coast-guard in Beowulf:

“What are you, bearers of armor, dressed in mail-coats, who come bringing a tall ship over the whale-road, over the water to this place?” (Norton Anthology, again.)

I note further that the men of Rohan call Minas Tirith “Mundburg.” That’s consistent with Old Norse naming practices – they called Rome “Romaborg.”

Also there’s a part of Rohan called Westfold. There’s a Norwegian county (Oslo is there) called Vestfold.

A warrior of Rohan is named Gamling, and he is identified as an old man (he appears briefly in the movie, but is played by a young man). Even today, “Gamling” means “old man” in Norwegian.

That’s as far as I’ve gotten to date (I’m half way through the book). I’ll let you know if I find more.

4 thoughts on “Blogging through LOTR: Anglo-Saxon echoes”

  1. I don’t own a copy, but the first hardcover book of essays on Tolkien — Isaacs and Zimbardo’s Tolkien and the Critics — has an essay, by John Tinkler I think, on Old English in Rohan, which might be worth looking up.

    The very first book of essays on Tolkien was, I think, the university print shop-produced edition of essays from Mankato State College. Yes, Lars, your home state was the first to host an “academic” Tolkien conference — and this was before the soul-desiccating encroachment of Theory.

    Both books are still worthy of attention.

  2. Wait until you get to the Battle of the Pelennor Fields. It begs to be read aloud. The cadence draws each sentence from the last and the images …


    Stern now was Éomer’s mood, and his mind clear again. He let blow the horns to rally all men to his banner that could come thither; for he thought to make a great shield-wall at the last, and stand, and fight there on foot till all fell, and do deeds of song on the fields of Pelennor, though no man should be left in the West to remember the last King of the Mark.

    So he rode to a green hillock and there set his banner, and the White Horse ran rippling in the wind.

    Out of doubt, out of dark to the day’s rising
    I came singing in the sun, sword unsheathing.
    To hope’s end I rode and to heart’s breaking:
    Now for wrath, now for ruin and a red nightfall!

    These staves he spoke, yet he laughed as he said them. For once more lust of battle was on him; and he was still unscathed, and he was young, and he was king: the lord of a fell people. And lo! even as he laughed at despair he looked out again on the black ships, and he lifted up his sword to defy them.

  3. One of the Norse elements that stood out to me was the names Tolkien’s used for many of his characters. Most of the names for the dwarves come from the Eddic Poems. Gandalf’s name comes from the Heimskringla and refers to Gandalf Alfgeirsson. I’m sure none of this is news to you and if you have mentioned it before I apologize for the redundancy.

    1. I blogged about that earlier in this series. The name Gandalf, though it does appear in Heimskringla, was probably lifted from Gylfaginning, where it appears in the same list of dwarfs as Bifur, Bofur, Bombur, etc.

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