When J.R.R. Tolkien published The Lord of the Rings in the mid fifties, it was broadly assumed–at least by some–that his fantasy trilogy, much of which was written during World War II, was meant as an allegory for the war itself. Here Gondor stands for Britain, Rohan for the U.S., Mordor and company for the axis powers, etc. It makes sense, from a certain point of view, but the speculation irritated Tolkien intensely, to the point that, in an introduction added to later editions, he explicitly debunked it, explaining, “I cordially dislike allegory in all its forms,” and noting that, if it were properly an allegory, Sauron would be enslaved, not destroyed, and Isengard would wind up creating its own ring, setting off a lengthy period of hostilities with Gondor. Or some such.
I’m willing to take Professor Tolkien’s word that no conscious allegory was intended. Still, there are intriguing historical parallels, which I think are worth examining. One of the critical errors made by the “allegorizers” (for lack of a more graceful term) was to seek out links to modern history, when the author was a medievalist, and his magnum opus takes place in a world which is not just technologically, but spiritually, medieval.
First, consider the Medieval world. Rome fell, gradually but perceptibly, by the fifth century in the West. Waves of barbarians washed over it, but meeting no resistance (and having no particularly strong, unifying cultural identity of their own) each wave eventually settled down and was assimilated by Western culture, generally blending some of its own traditions into the existing Western Christian framework. What we think of as Medieval civilization was the result: a fusion, or perhaps confusion, of Germanic customs, Christian faith, and Roman tradition. Most non-historians don’t realize the tremendous extent to which these people looked back with fondness and regret on the Roman past. Charlemagne, and all the kings who followed him, ruled as heirs to Rome. But for all that, Western Europe was a chaotic and unhappy place for many centuries, and standards of living dropped dramatically.
In the East, however, the Roman Empire held fast, though it had abandoned Rome itself. We call them “Byzantine” today, but they still called themselves “Roman,” even after centuries had passed, they had become substantially Greek, and almost nobody remembered how to speak Latin. Civilization endured, but it was not what it had been. The Empire, instead of expanding and ruling like the Caesars of old, was forced onto the defensive as the barbarians crashed into them. But if the East still had a strong, unifying law and culture, so did their “barbarians.” Absorbing the Muslims, as the West had absorbed the Franks, Goths, Vandals and Vikings, was out of the question. It was simply a fight to the death, played out over centuries. And while “Rome” put up a stiff fight, the barbarians kept coming, and they kept losing ground.
If you are quite familiar with Tolkien’s world, you have likely already seen the parallels here. Tolkien’s Gondor was the remnant of a much more powerful kingdom established three thousand years before, after the downfall of the mighty kingdom of Numenor. It was still strong, and kept the memory of its heritage, but it had declined greatly, and knew it. Still, it could have been worse. Gondor was originally just the southern half of a state covering almost all of Middle Earth; the North Kingdom had fallen to pieces under invasion many centuries earlier, and was now inhabited only by little pockets of people here and there.
The geographic parallels continue. The Shire, located in the Northwest of Middle-Earth, was essentially Tolkien’s portrait of England, and its insular but good-natured hobbits are quintessentially English in character. They are somehow related, at least linguistically, to the men of Rohan to their southeast, in much the same way England has close ethnic ties to Germany. Here the analogy is spoiled somewhat by the giant, uninhabited blank space on the map of Middle Earth where France should be, but it must be noted that Tolkien had no particular enthusiasm for French culture. To put it mildly.
Shift to the East. The dark-skinned Haradrim, with their “oliphaunts,” come from the Far South, and here the point is too obvious to dwell on. Rhun, a vaguely defined area, doesn’t seem comparable to anything in the real world. Mordor, on the other hand, uses the Black Speech, a (to European ears) rather harsh, guttural tongue with phonetic similarities to Turkish. It sits on a desolate, desert plateau to the east of Gondor’s rump state. I think it’s probably pure coincidence that central Anatolia is pretty similar, right down to the ring of mountains. On the other hand, Tolkien was both very learned and obsessively detail-oriented, so who knows?
As for Gondor itself, most of its territory sits to the west of its “capital,” Minas Tirith. Said territory is mostly mountainous, with some coasts, and thus rather similar to Greece. The old capital, Osgiliath, is ruined, but like Constantinople it straddled a crucial waterway. Minas Tirith acquired Constantinople’s legendary defenses, and more: seven concentric walls, the outermost so strong that (like Constantinople’s) it requires a specially made superweapon to breach it.
And here we depart sharply from history. In our world, the Muslims, especially the Turks, did attack with overwhelming force, and like Gondor the Byzantine Emperor “lit the beacons,” calling the West to their aid. And aid they did, at first. But cultural differences got in the way from the start; the estranged halves of the Christian world despised each other, and the rift only widened with time. The crowning indignity was the Fourth Crusade, which set out for Jerusalem but ran into financial difficulties, and wound up invading Constantinople, looting it mercilessly, and setting up a puppet state. The Byzantines eventually won back their capital, but they never really recovered. When Sultan Mehmet came up to the walls with his hordes of Janissaries and his enormous cannon, he was only giving the deathblow to a terminally ill man. The Emperor had sent emissary after frantic emissary to the West for years, and received only halfhearted replies.
So Tolkien’s world is a might-have-been: one where the North/West and South/East are not divided by suspicion, pride and hate, but come to each others’ aid in good faith, driving back the Enemy and eventually setting up a new, reunited kingdom. Again, I do not mean to suggest a conscious allegory, or even a very neat one. The non-humans and Isengard don’t fit in here at all, and there is no equivalent to Moorish Spain, the Pope, and so on. The only hints of Byzantium in LOTR itself are “dromunds” (dromons, a type of Greek warship) and possibly “Variags” (which I once read was possibly a reference to the Emperor’s elite Varangian Guard). Both are used by the Enemy, not Gondor.
Tolkien was, after all, a Catholic, from a generation raised to sneer at the history of “oriental despotism.” But, in one of his letters, Tolkien did explicitly compare Gondor to “a kind of withered Byzantium.” Middle Earth is a kind of echo of the Medieval world. Perhaps a much louder echo than we usually think.