Tolkien and the medieval

J. R. R. Tolkien was attracted to medieval literature, especially poetry, and made use of it in his writings both in his poetry, which contained numerous pastiches of medieval verse, and in his Middle-earth writings where he embodied a wide range of medieval concepts.

Tolkien enjoyed medieval works like Fastitocalon, and often imitated them in his poetry, in this case in a poem of the same name. French manuscript, c. 1270

Tolkien's prose adopts medieval ideas for much of its structure and content. The Lord of the Rings is interlaced in medieval style. The Silmarillion has a medieval cosmology. The Lord of the Rings makes use of many borrowings from Beowulf, especially in the culture of the Riders of Rohan, as well as medieval weapons and armour, heraldry, languages including Old English and Old Norse, and magic.


Of all medieval cultures, Tolkien was most familiar with that of the Anglo-Saxons. 11th-century illustration of a king and his council.[1]

J. R. R. Tolkien was a scholar of English literature, a philologist and medievalist interested in language and poetry from the Middle Ages, especially that of Anglo-Saxon England and Northern Europe. His professional knowledge of works such as Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight shaped his fictional world of Middle-earth. His intention to create what has been called "a mythology for England"[T 1] led him to construct not only stories but a fully-formed world with languages, peoples, cultures, and history, based on medieval languages including Old English, Old Norse, and Old High German.[2]

In the history of Europe, the Middle Ages or medieval period lasted approximately from the 5th to the late 15th centuries, similarly to the Post-classical period of global history. It began with the fall of the Western Roman Empire and transitioned into the Renaissance and the Age of Discovery.[3] In the Early Middle Ages, the End of Roman rule in Britain c. 400 was soon followed by the Anglo-Saxon settlement of Britain. By the sixth century, Anglo-Saxon England, "the bit [of Medieval culture] that Tolkien knew best",[1] consisted of many small kingdoms including Northumbria, Mercia, and East Anglia, engaged in ongoing warfare with each other.[4]


Alliterative verseEdit

The Riders of Rohan lament for Théoden

We `heard of the `horns     in the `hills `ringing,
the `swords `shining     in the `South-`kingdom.
`Steeds went `striding     to the `Stoning`land
as `wind in the `morning.     `War was `kindled.
There `Théoden `fell,     `Thengling `mighty,
to his `golden `halls     and `green `pastures
in the `Northern `fields     `never `returning,
`high lord of the `host.

— from "The Mounds of Mundburg"[T 2]

Among the many poems in The Lord of the Rings, and one of the most clearly medieval, is the Riders of Rohan's Old English-style lament for Théoden, written in what Tolkien called "the strictest form of Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse",[5] complete with balanced half-lines separated by a caesura, each half-line with two stresses, and a varying pattern of alliteration and use of multiple names for the same person.[6]

Varied formsEdit

Tolkien stated that when he read a medieval work, he wanted to write a modern one in the same tradition. He constantly created these, whether pastiches and parodies like "Fastitocalon"; adaptations in medieval metres, like "The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun" or "asterisk texts" like his "The Man in the Moon Stayed Up Too Late" (from "Hey Diddle Diddle"); and finally "new wine in old bottles" such as "The Nameless Land" and Aelfwine's Annals. The works are extremely varied, but all are "suffused with medieval borrowings", making them, according to the Tolkien scholar John D. Rateliff, "most readers' portal into medieval literature". Not all found use in Middle-earth, but they all helped Tolkien develop a medieval-style craft that enabled him to create the attractively authentic Middle-earth legendarium.[7]


The history of Middle-earth attempted to combine classical, medieval, and modern notions by means of violent transitions from one cosmology to another, such as the Atlantis-like downfall of Númenor that reshaped the flat medieval earth into a modern round world.[8]


The cosmology of Middle-earth is magical but not purely medieval, as it embodies classical ideas like Atlantis on the one hand, and modern cosmology with a round world on the other. Tolkien was trying to weave together and reconcile different conceptions of the world, including the medieval Germanic migrations and the culture of Anglo-Saxon England, to create his mythology.[8] The world of Middle-earth is overseen by the godlike Valar, who resemble the Norse Æsir, the gods of Asgard;[9] but they function in some ways like Christian angels, mediating between the creator, named as Eru Ilúvatar, and the created world, and have free will, so that Melkor is able to rebel against the will of Eru.[10]


Beowulfian: Bödvar Bjarki shifts shape to fight in the form of a bear, as Tolkien's Beorn does.[11] Painting by Louis Moe, 1898

J. R. R. Tolkien drew on the medieval Old English poem Beowulf for multiple aspects of Middle-earth: for elements such as names, monsters, the importance of luck and northern courage, and the structure of society in a heroic and pagan age;[12] for aspects of style, such as creating an impression of depth[13] and adopting an elegiac tone;[14][15][16] and for its larger but hidden symbolism.[17]

He derived the names of Middle-earth races including Ents, Orcs, and Elves,[12] and names such as Orthanc and Saruman,[18] rather directly from Beowulf. The were-bear Beorn in The Hobbit has been likened to the hero Beowulf himself; both names mean "bear", and both characters have enormous strength.[11] Scholars have compared some of Tolkien's monsters to those in Beowulf. Both his trolls[19] and Gollum[20][21] share attributes with Grendel, while Smaug's characteristics closely match those of the Beowulf dragon.[22] Tolkien's Riders of Rohan are distinctively Old English, and he has made use of multiple elements of Beowulf in creating them, including their language,[23] culture,[24][25] and poetry.[6]

Tolkien admired the way that Beowulf, written by a Christian looking back at a pagan past, as he himself was, embodied a "large symbolism"[17] without ever becoming allegorical. That symbolism, of life's road and individual heroism, and that avoidance of allegory, Tolkien worked to echo in The Lord of the Rings.[17]

Weapons and armourEdit

Tolkien stated that the styles of the Bayeux Tapestry fitted the Rohirrim "well enough".[T 3]

Tolkien's modelled his fictional warfare on the tactics and equipment of the Ancient and Early Medieval periods. His depictions of weapons and armour are based in particular on the Northern European culture of Beowulf and the Norse sagas.[26] As in his sources, Tolkien's weapons are often named, sometimes with runic inscriptions to show they are magical and have their own history and power.[27] In Tolkien as in the medieval epics, one weapon, the sword, announces a hero; his fate and the fate of his sword are linked closely together.[28][29]


Elvish heraldry: the lozenge of Finwë, High King of the Ñoldor

Tolkien invented quasi-heraldic devices for many of the characters and nations of Middle-earth. His descriptions were in simple English rather than in specific blazon language. The emblems correspond in nature to their bearers, and their diversity contributes to the richly-detailed realism of his writings. Scholars note that Tolkien went through different phases in his use of heraldry; his early account of the Elvish heraldry of Gondolin in The Book of Lost Tales corresponds broadly to heraldic tradition in the choice of emblems and colours, but that later when he wrote The Lord of the Rings he was freer in his approach, and in the complex use of symbols for Aragorn's sword and banner, he clearly departs from medieval tradition to suit his storytelling.[30][31][32][33]


Tolkien likely based his Balrog fire-demons on his professional study of the Old English word Sigelwara.[34]

Tolkien both created his own languages for Middle-earth,[T 4] and made use of his knowledge of real medieval languages including Old English and Old Norse. An item that may have been crucial in his creation is the Old English word Sigelwara, used in the Codex Junius to mean "Aethiopian". Tolkien wondered why there should have been a word with this meaning, and after some years of research suggested it could be derived from Sigel, meaning both sun and jewel, and *hearwa, perhaps meaning soot, giving a conjectural original meaning for Sigelwara as "soot-black fire-demon". The Tolkien scholar Tom Shippey links this to the Balrog fire-demon and the Silmaril sun-jewels.[34]


Merry's magic horn brought joy and cleansing to the Shire.[35]

Middle-earth is pervaded with medieval-style magic, its races such as Wizards, Elves, and Dwarves each possessing their own inherent powers, which they could embody in magical artefacts such as a wizard's staff, Elvish waybread, and rings of power. Magical beasts derived directly from medieval concepts include dragons with their hoards of gold, and birds such as crows and ravens carrying omens. Norse mythology is rich in seeresses, dwarves, giants, and other monsters. The medieval world held that plants and other objects had magical powers. Tolkien absorbed all of these ideas and reworked them for his version of Middle-earth.[36][37] Thus for example the Hobbit Merry returns from Rohan with a magic horn, brought from the North by Eorl the Young, from the dragon-hoard of Scatha the Worm. Blowing it brings joy to his friends in arms, fear to his enemies, and it awakens the Hobbits to purify the Shire of Saruman's ruffians.[35]


The Lord of the Rings has an unusual and complex structure, interlacing or entrelacement, in which multiple threads of narrative are maintained side by side. It was used especially in French medieval literature such as the 13th century Queste del Saint Graal,[38][39] and in English literature such as Beowulf[T 5] and The Faerie Queene.[39] This enables Tolkien to achieve a variety of literary effects, including maintaining suspense, keeping the reader uncertain of what will happen and even of what is happening to other characters at the same time in the story; creating surprise and an ongoing feeling of bewilderment and disorientation. More subtly, the leapfrogging of the timeline by the different story threads allows Tolkien to make hidden connections that can only be grasped retrospectively, as the reader realises on reflection that certain events happened at the same time, and that these connections imply a contest of good and evil powers.[40]



  1. ^ Carpenter 1981, #131
  2. ^ The Return of the King, book 5, chapter 6, "The Battle of the Pelennor Fields"
  3. ^ Carpenter 1981, #211
  4. ^ Carpenter 1981, #163
  5. ^ Tolkien 1997, pp. 5–48


  1. ^ a b Shippey 2005, pp. 146–149.
  2. ^ Chance 2003, Introduction.
  3. ^ Power 2006, p. 3.
  4. ^ "Anglo-Saxons: a brief history". Historical Association. 13 January 2011. Retrieved 26 September 2021.
  5. ^ Carpenter 1981, #187.
  6. ^ a b Lee & Solopova 2005, pp. 46–53.
  7. ^ Rateliff 2014, pp. 133–152.
  8. ^ a b Shippey 2005, pp. 324–328.
  9. ^ Garth 2003, p. 86.
  10. ^ Wood 2003, p. 13.
  11. ^ a b Shippey 2005, pp. 91–92.
  12. ^ a b Shippey 2005, pp. 66, 74, 149.
  13. ^ Shippey 2005, pp. 259–261.
  14. ^ Shippey 2005, p. 239.
  15. ^ Burns 1989, pp. 5–9.
  16. ^ Hannon 2004, pp. 36–42.
  17. ^ a b c Shippey 2005, pp. 104, 190–197, 217.
  18. ^ Shippey 2001, pp. 88, 169–170.
  19. ^ Fawcett 2014, pp. 29, 97, 125–131.
  20. ^ Nelson 2008, p. 466.
  21. ^ Flieger 2004, pp. 141–144.
  22. ^ Lee & Solopova 2005, pp. 109–111.
  23. ^ Shippey 2001, pp. 90–97, 111–119.
  24. ^ Shippey 2005, pp. 139–143.
  25. ^ Kennedy 2001, pp. 15–16.
  26. ^ Piela 2013, pp. 26–27.
  27. ^ Burdge & Burke 2013, pp. 703–705.
  28. ^ Whetter & McDonald 2006, article 2.
  29. ^ Flieger 1981, pp. 40–62.
  30. ^ McGregor 2013, pp. 95–112.
  31. ^ Purdy 1982, pp. 19–22, 36.
  32. ^ Hriban 2011, pp. 198–211.
  33. ^ Hammond & Scull 1998, pp. 187–198.
  34. ^ a b Shippey 2005, pp. 48–49, 54, 63.
  35. ^ a b Shippey 2005, pp. 198–199.
  36. ^ Eden 2005, pp. 256–257, citing Bates 2003.
  37. ^ Perry 2013, pp. 400–401.
  38. ^ Seaman 2013, p. 468.
  39. ^ a b West 1975, pp. 78–81.
  40. ^ Shippey 2005, pp. 181–183.