Old English: Tolkien's Backdrop

Old English: Tolkien's Backdrop

What makes J.R.R. Tolkien’s writings mythic and epic?  It starts with the connection that a reader can have with the characters and background of the story. One of these connecting elements is the language Tolkien uses – his use of Old English as backdrop for the story. Tolkien uses both Old English words and literary devices to connect with modern readers, and this connection is what pulls millions into his sagas; this paper looks at the words, morphemes, and the Old English literary devices to create this connection.

Tolkien wanted his created languages to stand up under scrutiny. He put up elements of real languages next to them. Tolkien stressed that his languages were rooted in real phonology (Baltasar 23). In his essay “Old English in Rohan” John Tinkler outlines many of the OE roots and their meanings that Tolkien uses. Below is a chart of these along with their uses and meanings. The second chart is OE words that Rohirm use as proper names.

Old English Root Rohan Cognate Meaning Use/Name
Eoh Eo Horse Eowyn, Eotheod, Eomer
Theod Theod Nation Eotheod,
Mearh Mer Mare/horse Eomer
Thain Thain Follower of a great man Eothain
Wyn Wyn Joy Theodwyn
Derne Dern Secret Dernhelm


OE Word Rohan Name Meaning
Graeghama Grayhame Gray coated/ housed in gray
Laotspell Lathspell Grievous story
Grima Grima Mask
Glamond Glamond Licentious
Ham Hama House/ home
Eorl Eorl Man of high rank
Gamling Gamling Old man
Baldor Baldor Prince


By looking at how Tolkien uses the OE morphemes to create names they can be looked at to find meaning. “Wormtongue” is an OE compound describing sarcastic and bitter people (Noel 26). This can be read literally as “one who speaks of dirt.” Or “wyrm” could be substituted, showing Grima speaks as a dragon, or with great.

“Theoden” is OE for “lord” or “ruler” (Lee and Solopova 200).  Several Rohirrim kings’ names can be analyzed for OE word compounds (Tinkler 167). Rohirrim naturally contains both male and female names. Since recorded female names are scarce in OE Tolkien put together compounds to create them (Straubhaar 109). For example, “Eowyn” means “joy of the horse,” and “Theodwyn” means “joy of the horse people.”

The use of OE as a basis for names is not restricted to the good guys. Tom Shippey explains that Saruman’s name tells us about his character. “Saru” is Mercian dialect form of “Searu,” which is means “cunning,” and is usually being associated with metal work or treasure. So his name means either a “cunning man” or a “man cunning in metal work” (Tolkien Author 169-170). Either interpretation fits well with Saruman’s character.

Another area to look at for names with OE roots is place names. The Riddermark or kingdom of the Rohirrim is an example. “Ridda” is OE for “horse-man” and “mearc” again is “boundary.” Therefore the meaning ends up being the “boundary of the horse-man/people” (Tinkler 167).

Edor” is a word for “house” in OE, so “Edoras” would be the plural form (167). The word comes from the poem “The Wanderer” where it is used to mean “dwelling house” (Lee and Solopova 194). Pluralizing it means “house of many” or “many halls/houses.” This name is used in Beowulf and means “feasting hall” (Tinkler 167). The very names of their houses denote the Rohirrim as some form of Anglo-Saxon people.

Tolkien made the Rohirrim to resemble ancient Anglo-Saxons in a lot of ways beyond just what they spoke. The Rohirrim live like Anglo-Saxons in an agricultural village based around a great hall (Lee and Solopova 200).

Another essential element connects the Rohirrim and Anglo-Saxons: the horses. Remember that Tolkien was modeling these people as the ancient ancestors of the Anglo-Saxon. In the nineteenth and twentieth century academics the Goths, possible Germanic ancestors to the Anglo-Saxons, were considered great horse people. A pseudohistorical jump from ancient Goths to a great horse people speaking a version of OE is not that hard to see (Drout 239). Splicing of these concepts gives Tolkien’s audience a people who have a full history, making them that much more real.

These historical and mythological connections give a more complete background to Middle-earth. Tolkien did not consider himself much of a mythologist, he was just familiar with the OE and Norse beliefs and archetypes (Petty 36). He did not set out to pillage the Anglo-Saxon culture. Instead he penetrates the spirit of it, creating a modern work of art in the ancient mode (Fuller 29). These themes give his work its depth. It was the OE themes of tragedy that fueled Tolkien’s desire to write stories where the tension between good and evil evoke high drama (Petty 19, 103). The OE legends are anchors that hold his high fantasy work to a reality the reader relates to (Chance 4). Historical realism is one of the keystones of  the popularity of Tolkien’s works.

Tolkien’s style of writing is one of the strongest connections to the OE language. It is very similar to the styles of OE literature, such as the saga The Seafarer (Petty 82). This saga gives the basic concepts for both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. A protagonist goes on a journey and encounters problems and monsters they must overcome (Spacks 54). Another element of OE literature Tolkien uses is the fealty oath binding some characters to those of higher rank. These oaths are taken and discussed throughout The Lord of the Rings. This is a clear connection with Anglo-Saxon and old Germanic cultures, which are based on these oaths (Holmes 252). Oaths and fealty are what determines place in society and loyalties in old Germanic culture.

Tolkien’s texts have the hero face insurmountable odds. This is another example of saga style; in OE the hero operates under the shadow of fate (where he has no control), and even if he is destined to fail he must try (Spacks 56). Frodo with the ring at mount doom reflects this as much as an aged Beowulf fighting the dragon.

What little amount of Rohirrim poetry present also connects to OE. The examples of Rohirrim poetry and song follow OE meter and rhyme schemes, including Theoden’s battle cry, Eomer’s battle cry, and Theoden’s burial rites. Aragon recites a poem to Legolas and Gimili that was about the founder of Rohan in The Two Towers. This poem uses the ubi sunt form, (“ubi sunt” is latin for “where are”). The OE tale The Wanderer uses this same form (Lee and Solopova 195-196). A modern version of this same poetic style is the anti-war song made famous by Peter, Paul, and Mary, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”

OE sagas and Tolkien’s writing both use formal boasting. In OE there are two ways to boast: the beot and the gylp. The beot is an over-the-top boast that cannot be retracted. Boromir is a great example of this. The gylp is the trademark of Aragorn. The gylp is a form of nonboast — instead of telling of great things that will be done, the boaster says “we shall see” and lets his actions speak louder than words (Holmes 259). The two sides of the OE hero are represented in these two characters.

So just how far can readers take this connection between the Rohirrim and Anglo-Saxons? Well really no further than the richness it lends to the story. Their similarity makes the story seem real. Examining authorial intent reveals how far down readers can delve: “No one would learn anything valid about the ‘Anglo-Saxons’ from any of my lore, not even that concerning the Rohirrim; I never intended that they should” (qtd. in Lee and Solopova 202). The parallels between OE and the Rohirrim language, as well as other parts of the text, are just parallels. But parallels are what give the reader context and depth. The parallels give a background for the reader to place the fantasy in a context they understand. Without Tolkien’s use of OE The Lord of the Rings would have been merely another fairy tale, instead of the fantasy epic it is.

Works Cited

  • Chance, Jane, ed. Tolkien and the Invention of Myth: A Reader. Lexington: Kentucky UP, 2004. Print.
  • Drout, Michael D.C. “A Mythology for Anglo-Saxon England.” Chance 229-247.
  • Holmes, John R. “Oaths and Oath Breaking: Analogues of Old English Comitatus in Tolkien’s Myth.” Chance 249-261.
  • Lee, Stuart D., and Elizabeth Solopova. The Keys of Middle-earth: Discovering Medieval Literature Through the Fiction of J.R.R. Tolkien. Basingstoke England: Palgrave MacMillan, 2005. Print.
  • Noel, Ruth S. The Languages of Tolkien’s Middle-earth. Boston: Houghton Millfin Co., 1974. Print.
  • Petty, Anne C. Tolkien in the Land of Heroes. Cold Springs Harbor: Cold Springs Press, 2003. Print.
  • Shippey, Thomas A. “History in Words: Tolkien’s Ruling Passion.” Hammond and Scull 25-40.
  • —. J.R.R. Tolkien Author of the Century. New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2000. Print.
  • Spacks, Patricia Meyer. “Power and Meaning in The Lord of the Rings.” Issacs and Zimbardo 52-67.
  • Tinkler, John. “Old English in Rohan.” Tolkien and the Critics. Eds. Isaacs, Neil D. and Rose A. Zimbardo. Notre Dame: U of Notre Dame P, 1968. 194-169. Print.

One thought on “Old English: Tolkien's Backdrop

  1. Ian! Great piece. I haven’t seen you since our Brit Lit class. Hope all well. I just acquired two new tattoos. JRRT insignia and the mallorn leaf. They are badass! I’ll probably see you around on campus. Good luck with everything!

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