I found this picture on Imgur:

picture whose claim I am skeptical of

The Rohirrim are know [sic] for their cavalry, unlike their inspiration. Tolkien was a huge fan of Anglo-Saxen [sic] culture, he served as Professor of Anglo-Saxon. He believed that if they had cavalry, they would have been able to fend off the Nordic invasion, so he gave Rohan cavalry.

I am skeptical of this claim. As far as I know, Tolkien never used any such specific influence from Anglo-Saxon history or culture when designing the Rohirrim. He rendered the Rohirric language as Old English just to show that it was a more archaic form of Westron, represented by modern English. I don't have the books to hand, but I also remember the appendices saying the Rohirrim were only Anglo-Saxon in the general sense of being a less developed civilization living under the influence of a greater, more ancient, more advanced civilization (that being Gondor for the Rohirrim, and presumably Rome for the Anglo-Saxons). But the books themselves and the appendices don't suggest the Rohirrim were meant to be direct analogues to the Anglo-Saxons.

This doesn't sound like something Tolkien would do, or admit to doing if he had done. Is this claim actually true? Did Tolkien make the Rohirrim masters of cavalry because of some kind of "what-if" situation about the Norse invasions of England? If so, where is it documented?

  • I know the language was based on Old English. But I always thought the culture was a horse-based version of Vikings. I admit this is mostly because they're tall and blond. But you can equate their cavalry to how ancient Norsemen would go a-viking. And their long halls and small settlements without a central town is more like medieval Scandinavia than Britain. I think Peter Jackson picked up the same cues. The movie culture is very much like a horse-centered Vikings culture. Mar 20, 2016 at 4:22

3 Answers 3


The cavalry of the Rohirrim look like a reimagining of the old Kingdom of Mercia, which was central and western England before Alfred the Great. (I got this idea from one of Tom Shippey's books, either Author of the Century or Road to Middle Earth ... or both. Been a few years since I read them). The old English language that Tolkien used as the model for the language of Rohan is related to the old English from that region.

The symbol of the white horse on a green field (on the banner of the Rohirrim) is, per Shippey, founded on a real world place in Uffington, which is on the southwestern marches of Mercia (current Oxfordshire) where it runs into Wessex (which was for a while included in Mercia). In Shippey's The Road to Middle-earth his analysis is that the emblem of the King's banner was inspired by the Uffington White Horse.

In LoTR, Tolkien did a great job of providing a world with depth. In Middle Earth, you ran across things of great antiquity ... and there are stories behind them. (Example? The two statues at Argonath; the seat at Amon Hen). In Tolkien's reality (England) there were things of great antiquity (Stonehenge, that White Horse, various standing stones, druidic/faerie rings of trees) all of which had stories behind them -- some real and some imagined.

From a story teller's perspective, a banner with a white horse would be the symbol of horse people. Not much of a stretch to render the whole kingdom as the home of great horsemen.

  • This is interesting, but I was hoping for confirmation from Tolkien's own writing that he directly modeled the Rohirrim as "the Old English with cavalry that could resist the Normans/Vikings".
    – Torisuda
    Mar 23, 2016 at 17:34
  • 1
    Shippey's linking Mercia to the Green Horse to Rohan is as close as you'll likely get, since I am pretty sure Shippey (who is very familiar with Tolkiens works and papers) would have mentioned that link were it there. Put another way, your skepticism is warranted. If I can find those books I'll add a few citations at a later time. Mar 23, 2016 at 18:13
  • Gotcha. I was hoping for some statement from Tolkien's letters or notes along the lines of the infamous one about orcs being based on the "least-lovely (to Europeans) Mongol-types", but I'm willing to accept reputable secondary sources as evidence.
    – Torisuda
    Mar 23, 2016 at 19:00
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    FWIW, I think you could call Shippey a Tolkien scholar He wrote the two well researched books, which I mentioned in the answer, and which I heartily recommend to anyone interested in Tolkien's writing. In 1979, he was elected into a former position of Tolkien's, the Chair of English Language and Medieval English Literature at Leeds University.This put him in a unique position to see Tolkien as an author. Mar 23, 2016 at 19:13
  • Yeah, from browsing Shippey's writings, it looks like not only has he studied Tolkien's work quite a bit, he's also studied many of the same areas that interested Tolkien, so I definitely would consider him as a reputable source. Interestingly, this answer supports the idea that the "Nordic invasion" would be the earlier Viking invasions, and not the Norman invasion, since Wikipedia says "following the invasions of the Vikings and their Great Heathen Army, much of the former Mercian territory was absorbed into the Danelaw".
    – Torisuda
    Mar 23, 2016 at 19:53

There is speculation that Tolkien gave the Rohirrim cavalry as a way of fashioning an imaginary Anglo-Saxon riding culture that could have resisted the Norman Invasion. But I'm not aware if there are any writings of Tolkien that would specifically support this.

Wikipedia has this to say:

The names and many details of their culture are in fact based on Germanic-derived cultures, particularly that of the Anglo-Saxons and their Old English language, towards which Tolkien felt a strong affinity. Ultimately Anglo-Saxon England was defeated by the cavalry of the Normans at the Battle of Hastings, and some Tolkien scholars have speculated that the Rohirrim are Tolkien's wishful version of an Anglo-Saxon society that retained a "rider culture", and would have been able to resist such an invasion.

Although the Duke of Normandy was a descendant of Vikings, I'm not sure if the Norman Invasion would be typified as part of the Nordic Invasion. Actually, if I follow the history correctly, the Battle of Hastings was something of a family affair with Viking ancestry on both sides.

The BBC has perhaps too much to say on the subject. I was going to paste it in, but it goes on far too long and far too much off topic. But you can read it here:

I'm neither a Tolkien scholar, nor a historian and I'm sure there are others here who will have more specific information to offer.

  • 1
    I assumed the picture was talking about earlier Viking incursions, e.g. the ones that established the Danelaw, or possibly the 1066 invasion by Harald Hardrada. I've never heard anyone refer to the Normans as "Nordic" since they were culturally French by the time of the invasion. It does make more sense to think it was about the Norman invasion, though, since it's widely agreed that the English lack of cavalry was a factor in their defeat at Hastings.
    – Torisuda
    Mar 20, 2016 at 6:00
  • Actually, I've just reread your comment and I'm not sure I agree. Harald Hardrada lost to Harold Godwinson. That wouldn't seem to require Tolkien to wish for a massive riding force. If any of this speculation is true, I would think it would have been the loss at Hastings that stung and prompted daydreams. But, frankly, I'm over my head here. Mar 20, 2016 at 6:58
  • 2
    Well, really I was thinking of the earlier incursions when the Vikings forced the English to make peace with them and give them land, such as the ones during Alfred the Great's time. But you're right, the whole idea doesn't really make sense; I was just misled by the term "Nordic invasion". The Norman invasion is really the only one that makes sense; that's the one where cavalry could have helped the English win. The author of the picture either remembered the story wrong or didn't understand the difference between "Nordic" and "Norman."
    – Torisuda
    Mar 20, 2016 at 7:30
  • It was a really interesting question. It made me think and do a lot of research. Even if the original author of the picture was confused, I learned a lot trying to come up with a reasonable answer. Thanks! Mar 20, 2016 at 7:33

It was about myth. Anglo-Saxon myth was horse oriented. Their legendary leaders during the Saxon invasion of Britain were Hengist and Horsa, twins whose names are both words for stallion. Tolkien designed the Rohirrim based on an idealized version of these myths and the culture of ancient England. Anglo-saxons were sea people (interestingly there's always been a connection in Indo-European myth between the sea god and horses, compare greek Poseidon and the strong connection between rivers and "river horses".) Tolkien simply used the idea of Saxons from a land locked area as inspiration for the Rohirrim. There are clearly many aspects of Rohirric society that are derived from Anglo Saxons (burial practices, nobility, combat) but it's impossible to say how much, as Tolkien himself pointed out that the Rohirrim were NOT anglo-saxons in all ways. Two things we know about Tolkien: he was the chair of Anglo-Saxon studies, and he wanted to create an entirely English mythology based on real myths and legends. No surprise this material turns up in his novels.

Anglo Saxons had cavalry. The Norman French had THE cavalry. The last king of the house of Wessex had died childless and he was succeeded by Harold Godwinsson amid much controversy. Everyone wanted Britain, and because of the Heathen invasions of the Viking age, there were legitimate claims to the throne from Scandinavia and Norman France. So Harald Hardrada of Norway invaded and was defeated by a hastily assembled English army. Unfortunately for Harold, William the Conqueror invaded immediately afterward with a well planned and organized campaign and defeated Harold's army at the battle of Hastings in 1066.

The English had successfully and repeatedly repulsed almost 300 years of Norse invasion. They did this using strategically placed fortresses called "burhs". Since most of the Norse raids were for plunder and slaves, the English would enclose entire cities worth of people and stuff in these burhs. The Norse, too far from home for reinforcements, were unwilling to lay long expensive sieges. Harold attacked William to try and contain him in the beachhead. He meant to raise armies and bring them south and probably would have used the same burh based strategy while trying to cut off the supply and reinforcement lines to the Norman army. Defending an island is a huge advantage. The invading army must supply itself from the surrounding land and either transport siege machines or build them on a foreign shore.

So it might have been a popular romantic thought (and romantic though was varied and bizarre at the time) that cavalry could have changed the outcome, but it seems unlikely from what we know. Harold lost because he'd just fought a huge pitched battle and never recovered.

While William was a descendant of Rollo, the first Duke of Normandy, a viking who was given extensive lands in exchange for basically not destroying Paris, the invading were French. They spoke French and were integrated into French (i.e. Frankish) society. Harald Hardrada was a viking from Norway. Harold Godwinsson was Anglo-Saxon.

The Uffington horse is modern. Tolkien did say that Theoden's banner was inspired by the White Horse, but that's really the only connection there. It's no stretch to think that such a culture would use horses on their banners.

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