I wonder, has Tolkien ever mentioned if the great battles in The Lord of the Rings (Helm's Deep, Pelennor Fields) were inspired by any particular historical events, or has he ever stated otherwise?

I'm wondering especially about the cavalry charges, but the mentioning of any other moments of the battles will be also great.

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    I do know that Tolkien served in France in WWI, which was likely a source of the idea of the terror of mechanized war (bred Orcs, Grond, etc). As for specific battles, I'm not sure. – Plutor Mar 28 '13 at 14:21
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    The battle of the Somme would be the main one, which Tolkien took part in, but any influence would not have been so direct. – user8719 Mar 28 '13 at 15:27
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    According to Tolkien's foreward in later editions of LotR no events in any of the books are intended to reflect real world events and he hated that kind of allegory. – IG_42 Oct 1 '16 at 13:23

I don't think there's much evidence Tolkien was a history buff. He doesn't mention it in his letters, and I don't recall it being mentioned in Carpenter's (excellent) Tolkien biography.

Remember the inspiration behind LoTR and the rest of the legendarium was linguistic in nature: he wanted to create a world for his languages to live in. Historical accuracy was not really among his motives.

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    As @Plutor said though, there was inspiration from the destruction of Europe after the World Wars. – The Fallen Mar 28 '13 at 14:40
  • Tolkien does mention this in a roundabout way in a letter. Basically, he says his experience in the war(s) didn't affect the overall plot, but did affect the geography. EG Dead marshes were based on marshes in France. tolkiengateway.net/wiki/Letter_226 – Wulfhart Apr 19 '13 at 23:26
  • Tolkien did not seem to have much interest in military tactics. I think it's significant that both the key battles in LOTR involve the defence of a fortress without much tactical cleverness on either side. In the books we mostly see either the viewpoint of a single individual within a battle, or the much bigger picture of the rise and fall of kingdoms (as in the appendices to LOTR). – Royal Canadian Bandit Jan 27 '14 at 10:22
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    I don't think one can know medieval literature and, more broadly, European literature inside and out like Tolkien did without being something of a history buff. As a linguist, I can attest that you have to know history by default to understand the relationships (both diachronic and synchronic) between and across languages. – FoxMan2099 Mar 16 '14 at 2:34
  • Yes, but I think the influence of heroic songs like the Beowulf and the Eddas was much more direct and important to both plot and world-building than actual history (very unlike, say, George RR Martin). – melissa_boiko Oct 1 '16 at 10:00

I don't think many can really say for certain what inspired the great battles of LOTR, but there are at least a number of parallels with real events.

The most notable being the similarities between the Battle of Pelennor Fields and the Siege of Vienna 1683.

At the time Vienna was viewed as the gateway to Europe, so when the Turks invaded, it was an essential objective. The European leaders recognized that if it were to fall, the Turkish army could advance deeper into the continent. The Attacking force was far greater and the defending garrison woefully undermanned. Sounds an awful lot like Minas Tirith.

However, a call for aid was sent out, and King Sobieski of Poland answered. Although that was also in response to an existing treaty. A relief force was also underway from the Holy Roman Empire.

When the relief force finally arrived, the German and Polish infantry set to work attacking the opposing force, which they did with great effectiveness. The Cavalry maneuvered into a better position to attack the greater Turkish force. Though the infantry were very effective, they were quickly becoming exhausted. Finally Sobieski emerged with a force of Cavalry numbering ~18,000 strong, with the Polish Hussars forming the vanguard. His charge routed the Turkish Army, and relieved the city. Incidentally his charge also has the honor of being the largest cavalry charge ever recorded.

These battles are hardly mirrors of one another, there are obvious differences. But I think it is easy to see how the battle of Vienna, it's importance to the Europe, and conclusion in a massive cavalry charge, could have inspired Tolkien's Battle of Pelennor Fields

I am not a very articulate individual, so my case may not be very convincing. But I encourage you to have a look at the Battle and determine whether or not you think there is any merit to the suggestion.

I read through both accounts and they strike me as very similar.

Hope this helps!

(also, this is a very old post, sorry about that!)

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    +1. No need to apologize for answering an old question. Answers are always welcome. – Wad Cheber stands with Monica Sep 23 '15 at 21:12
  • Thanks for the great answer. I think the similarities are even bigger between the Battle of Helm's Deep and the Siege of Vienna due to: (1) the Ottoman's plan to break the walls of Vienna was to plant several bombs underneath the walls -- which eventually they failed -- like in Helm's Deep, with the twist that there the orcs succeeded; (2) the "18,000 horsemen charged down the hills" (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Vienna#Battle) sounds a lot like the Gandalf-led cavalry charge of the relieving force in Helm's Deep. So really a lot of coincidences between fiction and reality. – epsilone Oct 25 '19 at 8:09

As noted in the comments on the question. Tolkien had experience of the horrors of 20th century warfare, which may well have influenced his description of Saruman's strategies.

But for the most part, the great battles in The Lord of the Rings (Helm's Deep, Pelennor Fields, The Black Gate) seem to recall a simpler age when there was, at least occasionally, an opportunity for individual heroism to affect the outcome.

As a professor of Anglo-Saxon, Tolkien studied and translated many old English texts that described battles in the first millennium, so he would have been familiar with how they were described. It is reasonable to believe that he drew from these accounts when describing battles in The Lord of the Rings.

One possible source is the poem referred to as The Battle of Malden which described the defeat of a Saxon army by Viking invaders. Tolkien studied the poem enough to be credited as assisting with the publication of a modern translation.

The Battle of Maldon is an edition of the Old English poem The Battle of Maldon. In his Preface, editor E.V. Gordon notes that J.R.R. Tolkien "read the proofs", made "corrections and contributions", and offered solutions "to many textual and philological problems".

The Tolkien Society has a document Angle-Saxon - Part Two that discusses (on pages 8 and 9) similarities between Tolkien's battles and the Battle of Malden. It also discusses (on pages 4-6) similarities between Tolkien's fiction and the Beowulf epic (of which Tolkien published a translation).


It is also interesting that Helm was an ancient Slavic name for the Balkans (Balkan is Turkish word for "mountain chain") which is mostly mountainous like Helms Deep. Can't help but think it was an inspiration for Tolkien. However unlike the battle at Helms Deep, when medieval Serbia called for aid, none of the European nations answered, so it was overwhelmed by a Turkish onslaught.

  • Do we have any reason, beyond blind supposition to believe that "Helm" in "Helm's Deep" had anything to do with the ancient Slavic name for the Balkans? – Edlothiad Jul 20 '18 at 12:07

I thought the Battle of Pelennor Fields was based on the Battle of Brunanburh in the 937 in England.

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    Why? What similarities are there? – phantom42 Feb 28 '17 at 16:18

i somehow believe the battle of helms deep was inspired by the battle of szigetvar (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Siege_of_Szigetv%C3%A1r)

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    This post only vaguely addresses the question - tell us more about these two battles rather than simply posting a link with a one-liner about it. – Often Right Mar 16 '14 at 2:17

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