Thursday, 29 August 2019

The human condition and the Riders of Rohan

One of the loveliest, most skilful and poignant passages of Lord of the Rings is easily skimmed-over; coming on the journey of Gandalf, Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli; as they ride between Fangorn Forest and the Golden Hall of King Theoden in Rohan.


At the foot of the walled hill the way ran under the shadow of many mounds, high and green. Upon their western sides the grass was white as with a drifted snow: small flowers sprang there like countless stars amid the turf.

'Look!' said Gandalf. 'How fair are the bright eyes in the grass! Evermind they are called, simbelmynë in this land of Men, for they blossom in all the seasons of the year, and grow where dead men rest. Behold! we are come to the great barrows where the sires of Théoden sleep.' 'Seven mounds upon the left, and nine upon the right,' said Aragorn. 'Many long lives of men it is since the golden hall was built.'

'Five hundred times have the red leaves fallen in Mirkwood in my home since then,' said Legolas, 'and but a little while does that seem to us.'

'But to the Riders of the Mark it seems so long ago,' said Aragorn, 'that the raising of this house is but a memory of song, and the years before are lost in the mist of time. Now they call this land their home, their own, and their speech is sundered from their northern kin.' Then he began to chant softly in a slow tongue unknown to the Elf and Dwarf; yet they listened, for there was a strong music in it.

'That, I guess, is the language of the Rohirrim,' said Legolas; 'for it is like to this land itself; rich and rolling in part, and else hard and stern as the mountains. But I cannot guess what it means, save that it is laden with the sadness of Mortal Men.'

'It runs thus in the Common Speech,' said Aragorn, 'as near as I can make it.

Where now the horse and the rider? Where is the horn that was blowing?
Where is the helm and the hauberk, and the bright hair flowing?
Where is the hand on the harpstring, and the red fire glowing?
Where is the spring and the harvest and the tall corn growing?

They have passed like rain on the mountain, like a wind in the meadow;
The days have gone down in the West behind the hills into shadow.
Who shall gather the smoke of the dead wood burning,
Or behold the flowing years from the Sea returning?

Thus spoke a forgotten poet long ago in Rohan, recalling how tall and fair was Eorl the Young, who rode down out of the North; and there were wings upon the feet of his steed, Felaróf, father of horses. So men still sing in the evening.'


Here Tolkien shows what Fantasy Fiction can do, because the Rohirrim are 'us', the readers - especially if we are English; since Rohan does not just represent a version of our Anglo Saxon past; but is also the race of beings from-which modern Men have mostly descended. We thus see ourselves - ordinary Men - through the eyes of wizard, elf; and Aragorn, who is a Numenorean Man (part elf) and with doubled lifespan - who has served, disguised, in the cavalry of Rohan as a young man.

The Men of Rohan are (apart from their Kings) an illiterate society, whose lives are probably among the shortest in Middle Earth, and whose culture is carried orally - by story, poem and song. They seem child-like to the other races; being impetuous in their bravery, yet they are moody and easily daunted by superstition. They have a clarity and directness of morality, based on the warrior code of personal loyalty. Their short lives are intense and highly coloured; but they do not cling to life; preferring to die in battle and thereby going (they believe) to the halls of their fathers to meet the other courageous dead.

There is thus a sense in which the other races, including the higher Men of Gondor both envy and look-down-on the Men of Rohan - and the unselfconscious nobility they achieve in the recklessness and panache of their cavalry charge against the besieging forces around Minas Tirith make perhaps the highest point of sheer wonder in the entire work of Lord of the Rings - Tolkien mentioned that the horns of the Rohirrim at dawn was perhaps his own favourite moment.

The Men of Rohan have the virtue of their own simplicity; they live for such moments; and to die in such a moment is their greatest wish - if that is what the fates decree.


And there stood Meriadoc the hobbit in the midst of the slain, blinking like an owl in the daylight, for tears blinded him; and through a mist he looked on Éowyn’s fair head, as she lay and did not move; and he looked on the face of the king, fallen in the midst of his glory, For Snowmane in his agony had rolled away from him again; yet he was the bane of his master.

Then Merry stooped and lifted his hand to kiss it, and lo! Théoden opened his eyes, and they were clear, and he spoke in a quiet voice though laboured.

‘Farewell, Master Holbytla!’ he said. ‘My body is broken. I go to my fathers. And even in their mighty company I shall not now be ashamed. I felled the black serpent. A grim morn, and a glad day, and a golden sunset!’


Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

I've always wondered about the choice of names. Can anyone hear "Riders of Rohan" and not think of the Chevalier de Rohan, the French nobleman whose contretemps with Voltaire led to the latter's exile in England? The allusion makes no sense, but it seems impossible that it could be a mere accident on Tolkien's part.

Bruce Charlton said...

@WmJas - Yes. I, for example, have never heard of this chap! And Tolkien derived his names (almost always) from his invented languages, indeed that is the root of his creative process (as described by TA Shippey in The Road to Middle Earth):

William Wildblood said...

I called my son Rohan!

Bruce Charlton said...

@William That makes for a very LotR name. Perhaps a legendary hero...

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

Bruce, of course every name has its in-Legendarium etymology, but that's not always the same as its actual source in Tolkien's creative process -- the most obvious example being Earendil, for which Tolkien created a Quenya etymology even though he actually got it from an Anglo-Saxon poem.

So which came first, the name Rohan or the Sindarin etymology? Possibly Tolkien had already decided that ROH- meant "horse" (perhaps it is the beginning of "horse" spelt backwards, in the spirit of Nevbosh "woc"?) and derived Rohan from that. If so, the fact that there is a House of Rohan in France -- and that one of its historically important members is always referred to simply as "the Rider of Rohan"! -- is just a coincidence. I think it more likely that the Riders of Rohan came first (perhaps because the name Chevalier de Rohan had captured T's imagination much as Earendil had) and that the etymology was created post factum.

Anonymous said...

With respect to Wm Jas Tychonievich's comment and more generally, two papers in Tolkien Among Scholars (Lembas Extra 2016) might be of interest, here: Nelson Goering, 'Old Mercian: From Beowulf to Tolkien's Rohan' and Paul J. Smith, 'French Connections in Middle-earth: The Medieval Legacy'.

This article (for which, thanks!) gives me a sudden vivid sense of the distinctions between the interrelated "worlds" of men and tongues in these northern and western parts of Middle-earth - Gondor, the Westron-speaking 'demi-humanity' of the hobbits, the variously reduced kingdoms of those who have become Nazgul and 'Rangers', the full-sized folk of Bree, and the Rohirrim. I'd have to do a lot of rereading and note-taking to document it, but part of my impression of the Rohirrim is of the sorrow of their - quite understandably, and, practically-speaking necessarily - having become so war-like. It is fascinating that they are presented as something like fully-contemporary 'surviving' cultural ancestors and linguistic 'near-kin', encountered in something of the way modern (15th-20th-c.) 'westerners' encountered various non-western cultures in the far-western 'new world', in the far east, in the southern hemisphere.

David Llewellyn Dodds

Bruce Charlton said...

@Wm _ Fair enough, albeit such externally derived names are the exception rather than the rule; and Tolkien had an oft-articulated aversion to French language and culture.

@David - Interestingly, the Rohirrim are warlike, but only in defense, not conquest or piracy - unlike those other famous light cavalry, the Mongol Horde.

Anonymous said...

Interesting, indeed - how does that compare with any historical 'Germanic' peoples (at what points in their histories)? Has Tolkien imagined uniquely defensive, migratory, equestrian Germanic-like people? And how (I boldly/lazily ask without first consulting the Appendices or any HME volumes) does Eowyn's marriage conduce to possible future developments?

David Llewellyn Dodds

P.S.: On Earendil, see my contribution to Tolkien Among Scholars (Lembas Extra 2016)(always worth trying to interest a local library in acquiring a copy...).

Bruce Charlton said...

@DLD - My current understanding of the imagining of Rohan is derived from Shippey - that they are Anglo Saxons and that the horses come from certain word associations related to Tolkien's West Midland ancestors and that particular Old Engish dialect - these two aspects coming together and catching light.

The marraige of Faramir and Eowyn represents the Numenorean and Middle Men fusion that was the main stream of the future (us); with the half elven offspring of Aragorn and Arwen a much smaller and rarer legacy. For Tolkien the higher streams derive from elves - and as generations pass there is both a dilution of half elven into ordinary Men, but also the possibility of a 'throwback' to an almost pure individual half elven person. Clearly this isn't meant to be a genetic thing, but a spiritual thing.