The connection between the Medieval history and LOTR!!
Sources for the History of the Numenorean Realms in Exile
Everyone knows that Tolkien based the languages of Middle Earth on the languages of mediaeval Europe. The sources he used for their history, however, haven't received anything like as much coverage. In this essay I argue that the history of the Numenorean realms in exile - Arnor and Gondor - follows that of the Roman and Byzantine empires. Government and the Army
Tolkien had far more imagination than most of those who followed him. A common criticism of the worlds described in fantasy novels is that they are "just like mediaeval Europe, only with magic". They have knights on horseback, an aristocracy of nobles under a king, and so on, coexisting with magicians, fantastical creatures and items of cosmic power beyond belief.
You won't find any of these feudal European elements in Gondor. The only identifiable vassal state of Gondor is Dol Amroth, otherwise the kingdom is unitary. The army of Gondor fights on foot, even the nobility like Aragorn and Boromir. Faramir rides a horse during his retreat from the Pelennor wall, but he doesn't participate in cavalry charges: the couched lances of Arthurian tradition are strictly a Rohirrim technique. In fact there are references to there being only one company of cavalry in the entire army of Gondor.
I think Tolkien had a particular culture in mind. These features are much more reminiscent of imperial Rome than of feudal Europe. To be honest, they army is more reminiscent of early imperial Rome than of Byzantium, but I never expected this to come out perfect.
One other analogy should probably be mentioned: Minas Tirith is, of course, Byzantium. An almost impregnable fortress sitting astride an absolutely critical path, protecting the remnants of the empire from the forces that destroyed the rest, a magnet for every attacker.Foreigners
If Gondor is the Byzantine empire, who are its enemies? Let's try this descriptions of orcs:
... blood drinking ferocious creatures ... evil ... cannibalistic and cruel ... all were possessed of the same barbarous nature; and they were hideous, with jagged fangs, flared nostrils, broad faces and slanting eyes. and this of their armament: scimitars and shields of hide to which we should add bows, from many sources. Orcs do not farm, although they do enslave humans to do their farming for them, notably around the sea of Nurnen in southern Mordor. This is obviously a fantastical monster, and nothing from the real world.
Or can we be sure? Consider this description of a Far Haradrim:
black men like half-trolls with white eyes and red tongues which makes you wonder what colour tongues other humans have in Middle Earth. Or this of a Lossoth: The Lossoth house in the snow, and it is said that they can run on the ice with bones on their feet, and have carts without wheels. Distorted descriptions of a Negro and an Inuit respectively. But only the Far Haradrim were enemies, so only that description is laden with perjoratives.
Stripping out the Numenorean war propaganda and the Dunedain xenophobia, we have a description of a people that prefer bows and curved swords, with broad faces and slanting eyes, who don't use farming much. Considering its brevity you couldn't ask for a much better description of Mongoloid nomad herders from the Central Asian steppe. The three famous cases of people like this invading Europe are the Huns, the Turks and the Mongols. I'd argue that the long wars fought between Gondor and the orcs, that culminated in the War of the Ring, borrow heavily from the wars between the Byzantine empire and the Turks.
It might be instructive, or at least amusing, to try the mirror thought-experiment. Go back to dark ages Europe and tell someone you know where Huns come from. "An evil satanistic fallen angel called Sauron took unbaptised babies and put them into a vat to distort them into these hideous forms. They've been breeding like rabbits ever since." You might not have the weirdest theory in town. The Byzantines, though, were a bit more sophisticated and probably wouldn't fall for this explanation applied to Turks.Dialogue
Couldn't it all be coincidence?
I don't think it's likely. If you haven't found this convincing then I'm either unpersuasive or deluded, but I obviously can't tell you which.
Are you sure? Some of these analogies seem to be a bit of a stretch.
Fair cop, some of them are: the Anchises and Aeneas bit for instance. But the argument doesn't depend on the weakest link unless we want to argue the histories are identical, and I'm just saying they're related. So we have to ask ourselves what the most reasonable explanation is, and I can't see coincidence is in the hunt.
So did Tolkien steal his history?
Yes, just the way he stole his languages. Quenya, for instance, isn't Finnish, exactly, but a synthetic "undiscovered" Finno-Ugric language whose closest known relative is Finnish. Gondor's history isn't exactly that of Byzantium, but it's a synthetic "undiscovered" imperial history whose nearest living relative is that of Byzantium.
Why would he do this?
Why did he steal anything? As far as I can tell, he seems to have thought taking elements from his mediaeval studies was kind of neat. Also, he needed an empire which had been slowly declining for a long time from a very high peak. Something that represented a crumbling island of civilisation in a rising tide of barbarism. The Roman empire fits perfectly so it must have been continuously suggesting itself. And it would be extremely familiar to Tolkien's intended audience: academically inclined humanities majors much like Tolkien and C.S. Lewis' friends. Tolkien was a big believer in assembling his fantastic world out of familiar elements - familar to anyone with Tolkien's background, anyway.
Wouldn't it be better if he'd been more original?
Depends on your point of view. I doubt Tolkien lost an hour's sleep over it. He did this sort of thing a lot, and he seems to have had some success on the whole, so it can't be too bad.
Is the War of the Ring something from Byzantine history?
A matter for debate, but I'd say not. It's a triumphant happy ending long after Byzantium lost any chance of that. And in my opinion, the story's much the better for it. It's one thing to steal the backplot, another entirely to steal the plot of the actual story you're writing. Harry Turtledove has a series developed by taking the second world war, moving it to the southern hemisphere so all the cold places are hot and vice versa, shuffling the cultures randomly, renaming the characters and replacing all the technological elements with magical ones. It leaves me cold, but your mileage may vary.
Aren't there other influences?
Sure. The Atlantis myth must have influenced the fall of Numenor, for example. And Christianity is all through it. Classical history was just another thread in the tapestry.
Are there other analogues? Are the elves Greek, or Sumerian, or something? Does Morgoth have an analogue?
A damned fine question and you should write it up. I've given it no thought and I have no idea. Credits and References
Most of the raw data for this came out of J.E.A. Tyler's The Tolkien Companion. The original seed for this idea was a remark years ago by Tim Allen. Controversy created by J.R.R. Tolkien. http://www.geocities.com/davidbofinger/numenor.htm