Pre-release Excerpt from Dr. Higgens’ “Anglo-Saxon Community in J.R.R. Tolkien’s ‘The Lord of the Rings’”
The upcoming release of the long-awaited Anglo-Saxon Community in J.R.R. Tolkien’s ‘The Lord of the Rings’ by Dr. Deborah A. Higgens coincides with the Fellowship’s journey into Rohan in this month’s readings for the Tolkien Read-Along 2014. In celebration of both the Tolkien Read-Along and the book’s release, Oloris Publishing has excerpted a section from Chapter 4 “The Role of the Lord, Comitatus, and Gift-Giving within the Mead Hall” in the upcoming title. Here, Dr. Higgens examines the Germanic tradition of the comitatus oath. In this excerpt, she draws parallels between the characters, events, and cultures within The Lord of the Rings and Beowulf, cementing the importance of the Anglo-Saxon epic in the creation of Tolkien’s masterpiece.
Renowned Tolkien illustrator Ted Nasmith has graciously given permission to let his piece, The Riders of Rohan, front the book. Nasmith’s thundering cavalry on the rugged landscape captures the heart and culture of the Rohirrim, who are central to Higgens’ work. The interior accompaniment to this book excerpt is a glimpse of the continuing Anglo-Saxon-themed chapter artwork by Danielle Storey. Inspired by the Hiberno-Saxon art that comprised a great deal of the artistic heritage of the early medieval period in the British Isles, Storey has given the tradition of illumination a more contemporary flair in execution whilst also taking into account the cultural flavours of Middle-earth. Each chapter is preceded by one of these illuminations as well as a historiated initial, giving the reader a glimpse of the chapter’s content. Both Nasmith’s and Storey’s talents have brought a new dimension to this journey through time and across the plains of Rohan.
A must-have for Tolkien fans, early English literature enthusiasts, and Anglo-Saxon historians of all levels, Anglo-Saxon Community in J.R.R. Tolkien’s ‘The Lord of the Rings’ by Dr. Deborah Higgens will be available in both eBook and print versions on March 25, 2014. Enjoy 20% off your print copy if you pre-order now!
Tolkien manipulates the comitatus oath, and the bond it represents, in multiple ways; however, it is in the land of Rohan and its king, Théoden, that we view the Germanic oath in its purest expression. As discussed in the previous chapter, Tolkien borrowed extensively from Beowulf to describe the physical structure of the mead hall; however, he also models the function of hall society on Beowulf. Tolkien splits the Fellowship into three different quests by the beginning of The Two Towers: Boromir dies an heroic death defending Merry and Pippin, who are then taken captive by the orcs; Frodo and Sam flee from Boromir and the Fellowship and head towards Mount Doom; and Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli track the orc raiders to the land of Rohan. As the trio spy the mead hall of Rohan for the first time, Tolkien begins drawing a parallel to the Beowulf poem’s structure and events. In both stories, the group views the splendor of an “ideal” hall from a distance; the halls are richly decorated in much the same manner, using gold and woven tapestries and patterned floors. After a description of the hall from a distance, and setting its stature as the greatest hall, then Aragon relates the story of its founding by Eorl the Young, who rode down from the North (TT 112)—just as Scyld Scēfing was the glory of Denmark in Beowulf (ll. 1-11; 26-52). A guard meets the group in Rohan and takes them part of the way to the hall before returning to guard duty (TT 114)—as does the guard in Beowulf (ll. 312-19). Furthermore, the guard’s language is closely styled in the two pieces: the initial greeting is harshly spoken, demanding why the travelers have come to his land; then the guard, a horseman in both stories, demands the names of the travelers, pays them a compliment about their appearance, leads them up the pathway towards their goal, makes a personal decision to trust them, and then takes leave to return to guard duty (Beowulf ll. 229-319; Tolkien, TT 112-14). As the small group approaches the hall doors, they are requested to leave all weapons outside (TT 115-16), recalling the request made of Beowulf and his warriors (ll. 395-97), and permission is sought from the lord of the hall before either group may enter. Both stories then describe the physical splendor of the inside of the hall; and after the warriors approach the lord and offer an introduction and greeting, a counselor—Unferth (in Beowulf) or Gríma Wormtongue (in LOTR)—sitting (or crouching) at the lord’s feet, speaks “contrary words” to the main representative of the group and has to be put in his place, verbally by one, and verbally and physically by the other (ll. 499-502; Tolkien, TT 117). Also similar in both stories is the prediction of the destruction of the hall, set alongside its splendor: “Fire shall devour the high seat” says Théoden (TT 120), just as is predicted for Heorot (ll. 82-85).
In Tolkien’s story, Old English tradition and culture continue to be represented in a variety of ways. Tacitus explains the Germanic warband relationship of the sister-son:
The sons of sisters are as highly honoured by their uncles as by their own fathers. Some tribes even consider the former tie the closer and more sacred of the two, and in demanding hostages prefer nephews to sons, thinking this gives them a firmer grip on men’s hearts and a wider hold on the family. (118)
Beowulf is the faithful nephew, sister-son, to Hygelac (ll. 2169-71), as is the future king of Rohan, Éomer, sisterson to Théoden (Tolkien, TT 127).44 All swords borne by nobility or heroes are ancient and are named, indicating wealth and honor—Beowulf ’s sword is Nægling, gomol ond græg-mæl, “ancient and grey-colored” (ll. 2680-81), and Théoden’s “ancient blade” is Herugrim, “a long sword in a scabbard clasped with gold and set with green gems” (Tolkien, TT 123). Traitors in both stories are treated with mercy, their judgments to be played out in their lives. Unferth is accepted honourably at court despite his reputation as a kin-slayer, and Gríma Wormtongue is offered mercy even after he is found to be serving Saruman—instead of punishment, he is offered the choice to continue serving the king or to leave the city (TT 125). The guests in both stories enter halls that represent powerful kingdoms and great lords, yet have become dysfunctional, rendering the lords powerless due to evil forces: the threat of Grendel controls Hrothgar’s hall and lordship while Saruman, through Gríma Wormtongue, controls Théoden’s hall and lordship. And both halls, as well as their lords, are restored due to the arrival of the warriors: Beowulf cleanses Hrothgar’s hall, and Gandalf frees Théoden from the spell woven around him (TT 120). Tolkien creates his own characters and quest, yet follows the structure and Germanic motifs employed in Beowulf.
Higgens, Deborah. “The Role of the Lord, Comitatus, and Gift-Giving within the Mead Hall” in Anglo-Saxon Community in J.R.R. Tolkien’s ‘The Lord of the Rings’. Toronto: Oloris Publishing. 2014. 95-98.
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