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A Promise Made Is a Promise Kept: Oath-Breakers and Keepers in Tolkien’s Middle-earth
By Michelle Boere
MA Thesis, Leiden University, 2017
Introduction: ‘Forth rode the king, fear behind him, Fate before him. Fealty kept he; Oaths he had taken, all fulfilled them’. This passage from the song of King Théoden’s death evokes the sentiment of a fallen heroic leader from another age. An era in which heroism was praised and loyalty and sworn oaths were highly valued.
Tolkien himself was fascinated with the heroic culture of past times. As a professor he had done a lot of research into the language and history of what we now call England. Given Tolkien’s love for and knowledge of the Old English language and AngloSaxon culture, it is generally acknowledged that these two fascinations have influenced his shaping of Middle-earth. Many scholars therefore state that Tolkien’s races represent ‘real’ historical cultures: the Rohirrim, for instance, might represent the Anglo-Saxon warrior culture. They believe that Tolkien’s knowledge of Anglo-Saxon culture did not only inspire him to write his fiction, but that he also reproduced the Anglo-Saxons and their warrior culture in his works.
Critics claim that the linguistic backgrounds of the races of Hobbits and Rohirrim respectively are similar to Old English. Furthermore, it is believed that the clothing, appearance and behaviour of the race of Men are comparable to that of the Anglo-Saxons. The Germanic heroic ethos in particular would have been imitated by the heroes in The Lord of the Rings.
To fully understand the statements about the degree to which Tolkien’s specialisation influenced his works, it is useful to know what Anglo-Saxon warrior culture represents. This particular warrior culture is characterized by its type of heroism: Germanic masculine heroism. Germanic masculine heroism has a specific heroic ethos, which consists of an agreed set of norms and values. Two important values that the Germanic heroic ethos contains are the taking of oaths and the loyalty attached to the sworn language. The Old English poems Beowulf and The Battle of Maldon are first-class examples in which this heroic ethos is noticeable.