Rohan in Tolkien's Letters

compiled by Rogorn, excerpts from the letters of J.R.R. Tolkien

The Rohirrim were not 'mediaeval', in our sense. The styles of the Bayeux Tapestry (made in England) fit them well enough, if one remembers that the kind of tennis-nets [the] soldiers seem to have on are only a clumsy conventional sign for chain-mail of small rings. In such a time private 'chambers' played no part. Théoden probably had none, unless he had a sleeping 'bower' in a separate small 'outhouse'. He received guests or emissaries seated on the dais in his royal hall.

The Rohirrim no doubt (as our ancient English ancestors in a similar state of culture and society) spoke, at least their own tongue, with a slower tempo and more sonorous articulation, than modern 'urbans'. But I think it is safe to represent them when using Common Speech, as they practically always do (for obvious reasons) as speaking the best M[inas] T[irith] [Variety]. Possibly a little too good, as it would be a learned language, somewhat slower and more careful than a native's [like a foreign speaker of English]. But that is a nicety safely neglected, and not always true: Théoden was born in Gondor and Common Speech was the domestic language of the Golden Hall in his father's day.

I came eventually and by slow degrees to write The Lord of the Rings to satisfy myself: of course without success, at any rate not above 75 percent. But now (when the work is no longer hot, immediate, or so personal) certain features of it, and especially certain places, still move me very powerfully. The heart remains in the description of Cerin Amroth, but I am most stirred by the sound of the horses of the Rohirrim at cockcrow; and most grieved by Gollum's failure (just) to repent when interrupted by Sam.

Some critics seem determined to represent me as a simple-minded adolescent, inspired with, say, a With-the-flag-to-Pretoria spirit, and wilfully distort what is said in my tale. I have not that spirit, and it does not appear in the story. The figure of Denethor alone is enough to show this; but I have not made any of the peoples on the 'right' side (Hobbits, Rohirrim, Men of Dale or of Gondor) any better than men have been or are, or can be. Mine is not an 'imaginary' world, but an imaginary historical moment on 'Middle-earth' – which is our habitation. The Númenóreans (and others of that branch of Humanity, that fought against Morgoth, even if they elected to remain in Middle-earth and did not go to Númenor: such as the Rohirrim) were pure monotheists.

I cannot understand why the name of a country (stated to be Elvish) should be associated with anything Germanic; still less with the only remotely similar Old Norse rann 'house', which is incidentally not at all appropriate to a still partly mobile and nomadic people of horse-breeders! Rohan is a famous name, from Brittany [Northern France], borne by an ancient proud and powerful family. I was aware of this, and liked its shape; but I had also (long before) invented the Elvish horse-word [roch], and saw how ‘Rohan’ could be accommodated to the linguistic situation as a late Sindarin name of the Mark (previously called Calenarðon 'the (great) green region') after its occupation by horsemen. [However,] Nothing in the history of Brittany will throw any light on the Eorlingas. The name of [the] country obviously cannot be separated from the Sindarin name of the Eorlingas: Rohirrim. Rohan is stated to be a later softened form of Rochand. It is derived from Elvish rokkō 'swift horse for riding' (Q. rokko, S. roch) + a suffix frequent in names of lands. Rohirrim is a similarly softened form of roch + hîr 'lord, master', + rĩm (Q. rimbe) 'host'. Rohir-rim is the Elvish (Gondorian) name for the people that called themselves Riders of the Mark or Eorlings. The formation [in –rim] is not meant to resemble Hebrew, though. In Grey-elven the general plurals were very frequently made by adding to a name (or a place-name) some word meaning 'tribe, host, horde, people'. So Haradrim the Southrons: Q. rimbe, S. rim, host; Onod-rim the Ents. The Rohirrim is derived from roch (Q. rokko) horse, and the Elvish stem kher- 'possess'; whence Sindarin Rochir 'horse-lord', and Rochir-rim 'the host of the Horse-lords'. In the pronunciation of Gondor the ch (as in German, Welsh, etc) had been softened to a sounded h; so in Rochann 'Hippia' to Rohan.

Since the Rohirrim are represented as recent comers out of the North, and users of an archaic Mannish language relatively untouched by the influence of Eldarin, I have turned their names into forms like (but not identical with) Old English. The reason for using 'Anglo-Saxon' in the nomenclature and occasional glimpses of the language of the Eorlingas – as a device of 'translation' – is given in Appendix F. From which it follows that 'Anglo-Saxon' is not only a 'fertile field', but the sole field in which to look for the origin and meaning of words or names belonging to the speech of the Mark; and also that Anglo-Saxon will not be the source of words and names in any other language [in my tales] – except for a few (all of which are explained) survivals in Hobbit-dialect derived from the region (The Vale of Anduin to the immediate north of Lórien) where that dialect of the Northmen developed its particular character. To which may be added Déagol and Sméagol, and the local names Gladden River, and the Gladden Fields, which contains glædene 'iris', in my book supposed to refer to the 'yellow flag' growing in streams and marshes. Outside this restricted field reference to Anglo-Saxon is entirely delusory.

My dear Rayner [Unwin]: I am singularly fortunate in having such a friend. I feel, if I may say so, that our relations are like that of Rohan and Gondor, and (as you know) for my part the oath of Eorl will never be broken, and I shall continue to rely on and be grateful for the wisdom and courtesy of Minas Tirith. Thank you very much indeed.