Horatius at Khazad-dum
In his critical study J. R. R. Tolkien: Author of the Century, Tom Shippey remarks on Tolkien's use of the term "lay", as in his references to the "Lay of Leithian". Characteristically, Shippey suggests, Tolkien used the word in a precise technical sense, to refer to a narrative poem composed close in time to the events it recounts, and serving as a source for later historical works in a more literate age, as the "Lay of Leithian" putatively served as a source for The Silmarillion. In alluding to such original sources, and even writing some of them, Shippey believes that Tolkien was following the example of Thomas Babington Macaulay, whose Lays of Ancient Rome, written in 1842, attempted to recreate the narrative poetry that was the source for Roman historians; and Shippey goes on to point out that
The first poem [Tolkien] ever published ... was an account of an inter-house rugby match, called 'The Battle of the Eastern Field' ... it is quite clearly written, if in mock-heroic spirit, in a style which closely imitates Macaulay's Lays."Horatius at the Bridge"
But Macaulay's influence on Tolkien can be seen, not only in Tolkien's juvenilia, but in his later writing, even in The Lord of the Rings. Shippey notes this at an abstract level, remarking on the tendency of Tolkien's characters to preserve oral traditions of the heroic deeds of the past. But at a more concrete level, various passages in The Lord of the Rings parallel, more or less closely, passages from Macaulay, sometimes generally, sometimes in quite specific content or imagery.
Most notably, the best known of Macaulay's poems is "Horatius", often referred to as "Horatius at the Bridge". In it, Macaulay describes the heroism of Horatius Cocles and of two comrades, Herminius and Spurius Lartius, who volunteer to buy time for the city to destroy a bridge over the Tiber that is an invading army's only way to reach Rome — by standing guard on the far side, keeping the enemy off the bridge:
"In yon strait path a thousand
The situation parallels that at the bridge of Khazad-Dum in The Fellowship of the Ring, when Gandalf holds it against the balrog and ultimately destroys it. And other parallels can be drawn. For one, as the bridge over the Tiber starts to fall, Horatius's comrades run back to the Roman side,
But when they turned their faces,
— much like Aragorn and Boromir seeing Gandalf alone on the bridge of Khazad-Dum. It is also notable that after the bridge over the Tiber falls, Horatius hurls himself down into the river, still wearing full armor; and to the wonder of the Romans, he is able to swim across and reemerge. (Macaulay notes the existence of divergent traditions; in one tradition, Horatius defended the bridge alone and drowned in the Tiber.) Viewed as pictorial images, Gandalf's heroism strikingly resembles that of Horatius, of which we know the young Tolkien, like many Victorian and Edwardian schoolboys, often read; and we also know that Tolkien's imagination worked largely in pictures.
Another of Macaulay's poems, "The Battle of the Lake Regillus", shows Rome taking the offensive, in a cavalry assault against its former kings and their Etruscan allies. In Roman legend, the divine twins Castor and Pollux came to the battle to fight in Rome's cause:
Then the good sword of Aulus
Tolkien portrays a similar headlong charge over the fields of Minas Tirith in The Return of the King:
Behind him his banner blew in the wind, white horse upon a field of green, but he outpaced it. After him thundered the knights of his house, but he was ever before them. Eomer rode there, the white horsetail on his helm floating in his speed, and the front of the first Eored roared like a breaker foaming to the shore, but Theoden could not be overtaken ... he was borne up on Snowmane like a god of old ...
And earlier in the same poem, describing the exiled Tarquin king, Macaulay offers what could almost be an image of Theoden riding to battle:
Though white as Mount Soracte,Further resemblances
Other coincidences of image, or of narrative formula, are less specific, but worth noting. In another of his lays, "The Prophecy of Capys", Macaulay has a Roman poet describe Romans' first encounter with an exotic type of military force:
"Beside him stalks to battle
Both the shaking earth and the castle on the elephant's back found their way into Sam Gamgee's memorable encounter on the roads of Ithilien.
Several passages in "Horatius" resemble passages from the siege of Minas Tirith, but their common details could be found in a multitude of other literary sources, going back to Homer. For example, Macaulay describes the assembly of the Etruscan army:
From lordly Volaterrae,
Macaulay also portrays the crowds of refugees seeking passage not out of, but into Rome on the eve of the attack:
And endless trains of wagonsMacaulay and historical authenticity
Influence hunting is an easy game to play; and even if it succeeds in carrying its points, it often establishes less than the influence hunter might be tempted to believe. Was Tolkien retelling Roman history, or Macaulay's version of Roman history? Clearly not; he had his own story to tell. Any description of the plot of "Horatius" that recalled the plot of The Lord of the Rings would have to be at a level so abstract as to apply to dozens of real and fictional battles. And catalogs of assembling armies are equally generic; both Tolkien and Macaulay could have turned to the Iliad for their model of such lists.
But it does seem plausible to say that Tolkien learned something about how to tell the story of a war from Macaulay. We know that he had read Macaulay and even pastiched his work. And we can see that some of Tolkien's images and scenes look strikingly like Macaulay's. The imagination that gave us The Lord of the Rings appears to have gained some of its early stock from Macaulay's Lays.
A further similarity can be seen in the kinds of historical scruples that both authors felt. Tolkien made a point of not including "religion" in Middle-Earth, because it was before not only the Christian but even the Jewish revelations and could not reveal their influence without historical falsification. From Tolkien's letters we know of his objection to anachronisms in proposed cinematic treatments of Middle-Earth. Macaulay similarly remarks that
To portray a Roman of the age of Camillus or Curius as superior to national antipathies, as mourning over the devastation and slaughter by which empire and triumphs were to be won, as looking on human suffering with the sympathy of Howard, or as treating conquered enemies with the delicacy of the Black Prince, would be to violate all dramatic propriety.Introduction
Having read Macaulay at school, Tolkien was almost surely aware that his view of historical authenticity was part of a tradition, and not merely his personal quirk.
Finally, Tolkien's writing, for all its vivid evocation of war's horrors, conveys a sense of the ethics of war — both the conviction that war is sometimes just and necessary, however regrettable, and the sense that war reveals the ethical character of its participants, demonstrating the worth of those who are worthy. Macaulay's expression of this same admiration for human resolution is so memorable that he could hardly have forgotten it:
Then out spake brave Horatius,
We know that World War I was one of the formative experiences that shaped his life. It's possible to read The Lord of the Rings as his imaginative reworking of his experience of that war. He clearly knew Macaulay's lines when he went to war; extraordinarily enough, he still seems to have believed them when he came back.
© 2003 William H. Stoddard
Poetry at Troynovant