Maldon, Gettysburg, and the Somme: Tolkien’s Homecoming and the Idea of Chivalry

Tolkien’s legendarium constitutes, among other things, a revaluing of medieval chivalry in the face of the Great War’s devaluation of it. American culture had already provided a critique of nineteenth-century chivalry in responses to the Civil War, as exemplified by Pickett’s Charge at the Battle of Gettysburg. Tolkien’s revaluing is the most effective, but by no means the only, instance of post-WWI chivalric revival (indeed, there are even any number of American examples); in his treatment of the Battle of Maldon in The Homecoming of Beorthnoth Beorthelm’s Son and its accompanying essay “Ofermod,” Tolkien nonetheless provides a critique of chivalry, aimed (ostensibly) not at the Great War but at the Charge of the Light Brigade at the Battle of Balaklava in the Crimean War. Tolkien’s revival of chivalry has entered our popular culture, but his critique of it has not been equally effective.

Under our rubric of “Tolkien as a Gateway to Medieval Studies,” I want to consider not the primary task of medieval studies (which I take to be the investigation of the Middle Ages simply as matters of interest in themselves), but rather the secondary issue, Medieval Studies as the investigation of the reception, appropriation, and reuse of the Middle Ages by later periods, and particularly those which have the most impact on us. The exercise here is not analytical or historical amplification of Tolkien: indeed, I take it that all the points of literary criticism I intend to make are well-established in the scholarly community, particularly in such recent books as John Garth’s Tolkien and the Great War[1] and Allen Frantzen’s Bloody Good.[2] Rather, the issue is how aspects of Tolkien’s thought are-or, in this case, how one significant aspect of his thought is not-influencing the culture around us.

The particular form of medievalism I want to talk about is chivalry, not in the attenuated, and I suppose now nearly extinct, form of holding doors and taking off one’s cap in conversation with a lady, but rather in the strong, and I suspect still vigorous, form of a particular attitude about warfare-and even, in some cases, a particular way of engaging in combat. This form of chivalry is, obviously, a European (and perhaps even a northern European) idea, but it is one which has thriven on our side of the Atlantic, and thus qualifies as a reuse of the Middle Ages with a direct impact on us.

Chivalry in this sense famously played a role in the American Civil War, largely but by no means exclusively on the Confederate side. To cite only two examples: on the one hand, J.E.B. Stuart’s officers reminisced about him as “chivalrous” and “a pure knight”[3]; on the other, Harvard’s tribute to its fallen sons was the Ruskinian Gothic Memorial Hall (completed in 1878). But alongside such positive views of chivalry there was a critique of that medieval attitude. In 1885, Mark Twain, notoriously, mocked Walter Scott-and with him the whole of romantic chivalry-as the wrecked steamboat in Huckleberry Finn; Twain’s 1889 Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court is even more explicit in its condemnation of the aristocratic chivalrous world. Twain’s mockery did not, however, extinguish the chivalrous instinct, which was still available for use in response to World War I: my own high school, Culver Military Academy, a few miles south of here [Kalamazoo] in Indiana-a school whose first Superintendent had been a Confederate Colonel, one of those present at Appomattox-commemorates its Gold Star men from the Great War with the Culver Legion Memorial Building, a copy of Herstmonceux Castle in Sussex (itself a twentieth-century reconstruction of a fifteenth-century brick original), though without the moat. Similarly, Harvard, only a few yards from the Civil War Memorial Hall, remembers its World War dead, generally, with the Memorial Church, but more specifically with a statute of Mother Harvard mourning her departed son, pictured as a knight in plate armor with the Veritas shield at his feet.

Now, not to make too fine a point: While Culver was remembering its fallen sons with a castle amongst the cornfields, and well before Harvard built Memorial Church, back in the European homeland of chivalry a young British veteran, first in his convalesence, then at the OED, and then at Leeds, was beginning to write the history of the War of the Jewels. And if the steamboat of Walter Scott’s chivalry was still afloat in Indiana and Massachusetts, the story of Beren and Luthien (and the whole structure of myth and legend that came along with it) would turn out to be not just another repair to the old Mississippi paddlewheeler, but its replacement by a new queen of the seas.

Tolkien’s literary reinvigoration of chivalry, however, is more nuanced than the few American architectural examples I have just cited. Some of that nuancing comes in the principal works, as I hope to indicate in the conclusion of this paper. But in his play “The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm’s Son” and its accompanying essay “Ofermod,” Tolkien makes the nuancing particularly clear: in fact, like Twain, he makes an explicit critique of chivalry, and does so in part with reference to the nineteenth century, though with a British, rather than American, war in mind.

I have taught these texts in both formal and informal classes. [4] The two pieces together amount to some thirty pages of reading (the play could, of course, be read aloud in class), and should be accessible to any high school students whom one might ask to read Beowulf or the “Battle of Maldon” itself. The play (preceded by a four page historical introduction) is a dialogue in alliterative verse between two of Beorhtnoth’s retainers, Tídwald, an old man, and Torthelm, a young one, who have been dispatched by the monks of Ely to bring back the Earl’s body for burial. They find it, headless, but still with its gold-hilted sword, and carry it back in a wagon: along the way, Torthelm uses the sword to kill a pitiful corpse robber; later, having fallen asleep in the wagon bed, pillowed on the Earl’s remains, he hears Beorhtwold’s famous “Hige sceal þe heardra” lines in his sleep. It is a story of innocence and experience: Young Totta has a mind full of the old tales-he says early on that the eyes of dead Viking remind him of Grendel’s (86); old Tída knows the stories, too, but hears them from the perspective of one who has known war-and as a Christian looking back on the heathens. “Beorhtnoth we bear, not Beowulf here,” he says at one point: “No pyres for him, nor piling of mounds” (89). Tída criticizes Totta’s killing the robber as an illusion of heroism: it was unworthy of Beorhthelm’s sword to use it to kill a wretched creature who could have been driven off with a swift kick (we may remember Gandalf lecturing Frodo on the role of pity). Later, when the young man is chary of using the Earl’s “body for bolster” (98), Tida tells him that he would think the situation noble if he heard it in the language of the poets rather than in plain English.

Explaining all of this in “Ofermod,” Tolkien says that the play is an “extended comment” on lines 88-89 of the Old English poem (“da se eorl ongan for his ofermode / Alyfan landes to fela laþere deode,” which Tolkien translates “then the earl in his overmastering pride actually yielded ground to the enemy, as he should not have done” [102]). The original poem, he says, has more commonly been taken as a commentary on lines 312-313, the “Hige sceal þe heardra, heorte þe cenre, / mod sceal þe mare, þe ure mægen lytlað” lines (which he translates in the play, “Heart shall be bolder, harder be purpose / more proud the spirit as our power lessens”). These lines, Tolkien argues, may authentically express a heroic-chivalric spirit, but that spirit is inevitably compromised when a culture rewards it, and the compromise rises to the level of “a defect of character” (105) when the chivalrous desire for honor moves a leader needlessly to risk the lives of those in his charge. To do so is not heroism on the leader’s part (though his people’s loyal obedience may well be heroic): it is, rather, folly, “Magnificent perhaps, but certainly wrong” (105). Poets, Tolkien holds, are (unlike loyal retainers) above both chivalry and heroism: The Beowulf-poet criticizes his hero for being “lofgeornost,” most eager for glory, and so too the Maldon-poet criticizes Beorhtnoth.

The formal course in which I used these texts was “Twice-Told Tales,” a senior elective structured around parallel readings of medieval texts and their modern reflexes. (I discussed that class in a paper at the Teaching the Middle Ages conference in Emporia, and later published the paper in Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Teaching.) In that course, it was not in fact Tolkien, but rather Mark Twain, that we used as a “gateway to medieval studies”-at least in the sense that the students had A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court as summer reading. We came to Tolkien’s play and essay six weeks into the course, after the Arthurian unit and after reading both Beowulf and “The Battle of Maldon.” In that context, they served to bring us back to the theme with which we had begun the semester, now in another key: we had seen in Twain the appropriation of Arthur for a critique of nineteenth-century Arthurian appropriation, the critique of Jeb Stuart as Galahad, so to speak; now, in Tolkien, we saw the appropriation of tenth-century heroism for a critique not only of the tenth-century appropriation of ancient northern tradition but also of modern chivalry. I say “modern” here advisedly: Tolkien’s nineteenth-century example, to which I have already alluded, is the Battle of Balaclava, fought in October of 1854, and made famous in Tennyson’s poem. Beowulf’s Wiglaf and Beorhtnoth’s Beorhtwold, Tolkien says, like the men of the Light Brigade, saw it as their duty to do or die, without question. Had he been writing for an American audience-or even one which had just been reading Connecticut Yankee-he might have referred instead to our own bloody miscalculation, our own symbolic piece of magnificent folly, nine years after Balaclava: Major General George Pickett’s charge against the center of the Union line at Gettysburg on 3 July 1863, a chivalrous action (though carried out by infantry) at least as deadly to the men of Pickett’s division and its allied units as was the charge at Balaclava to Lord Cardigan’s brigade.[5]

But even if Balaclava and Gettysburg do serve to make Tolkien’s point about the post-medieval role of chivalrous leadership, one can not help noticing that, writing in 1953, he has reached back almost a hundred years and skipped over some of the central experiences of his life and of the twentieth century-experiences which, as we know, are tied to the beginnings of the legendarium. One Confederate error at Gettysburg had been over-reliance on the ability of an artillery barrage to clear a way for the infantry: precisely fifty-three years later, in the first days of July, 1916, British commanders repeated that mistake at opening of the Battle of the Somme. Tolkien was at the Somme with the 11th Lancashire Fusiliers, a battalion that suffered nearly 300 dead and wounded in the first two weeks of July 1916; his school friend, Rob Gilson, was among the 20,000 British troops killed) on July 1-the first day of the battle-alone (nearly 40,000 more were wounded) (Garth 158). Tolkien might have quoted Tennyson’s “someone had blundered” of his own experience as fittingly as he did of Wiglaf’s and Beorhtwold’s: though he did not.

To have read Connecticut Yankee put Tolkien’s critique of chivalry in a particular context for my American students in St. Louis; I might have made the same point for a group of Culver students simply by taking them to the Legion Memorial. In fact, however, neither the book nor the building is necessary. My use of Beorhtnoth and “Ofermod” in an informal class came in the summer of 2003 (part of the informality, I have to say to begin with, was that the whole thing was so spur-of-the-moment that I didn’t have time to have the kids read the texts, and ended up talking through them: not a pedagogy I mean to recommend). In any case, this past summer, in the significant month of July, I took a group of American teenagers from Pembroke College, where we were staying, and where of course Tolkien was a fellow, to the Wolvercote Cemetery, where we sat on the gravel path not far from his grave, with its significant inscription linking John Ronald and Edith to the two characters at the center of his mythology. We talked about Beren and Luthien, and about this play and essay, and about Gettysburg, which the kids remembered at least well enough to draw the sort of trajectory I have just been indicating: and we talked, too, about the fact that our very presence at that place reflected the renewed vigor of medievalism in our day. Our conversation on the bus on the way north from the stop at the Randolph Hotel had, after all, been almost entirely about The Movies-about the advantages and disadvantages of the first two, and about the potential (as it still was then) of the third.

The final point to be made, one that I am not sure that we got to as we walked back into the center of Oxford, is that this medievalism may be spreading-is almost certainly spreading, I would guess-without the corrective element Tolkien provides explicitly in his account of Maldon and implicitly in the Lord of the Rings. Consider, for example, the two highly chivalric videos, “Transformation” and “Chess,” made for the Marine Corps by the J. Walter Thompson agency about ten years ago (Frantzen 267, note 13). They emphasize the knightly character of the individual Marine, but, as recruiting materials, they understandably do not go into any detail about the perils of chivalrous leadership. Or, for an example less political and closer to home, consider Jackson’s version of The Return of the King. In the scene equivalent to the end of Tolkien’s “The Ride of the Rohirrim,” Theoden “rallies the Rohan troops” (in the words of screen writer Philippa Boyens).[6] He says, according to a transcript being used to promote the video release:

Theoden: Eomer. Take your éored down the left flank. Gamling, follow the King’s banner down the center. Grimbold, take your company right, after you pass the wall. Forth. Down fear of darkness. [sic: possibly misheard for the original “Forth now, and fear no darkness” ?]
Arise. Arise, Riders of Théoden.
Spears shall be shaken, shields shall be splintered.
A sword day… a red day… ere the sun rises. [line breaks added]
Eowyn: What ever happens, stay with me. I’ll look after you.
The King rides past his men, hitting their spears with his sword as he goes
Theoden: Ride now… Ride now… Ride. Ride for ruin and the world’s ending.
He stops and prepares to face Sauron’s army
Theoden: Death.
: Death.
Theoden: Death.
: Death.
Theoden: DEATH.
: Death.
Theoden: Forth, Eorlingas.

If I were simply talking about the quirks of the movie, I might note that this speech begins by changing Tolkien’s version of Theoden’s troop arrangements for no apparent reason: but for our purposes the significant point comes further on. In the book after the line “A sword day, a red day, ere the sun rises!”, Theoden blows his horn so hard that it bursts, and then speaks another line of verse: “Ride now, ride now! Ride to Gondor!” (870). The lines that Theoden speaks at that point in the film, however, are taken from the following chapter of the book, “The Battle of the Pelennor Fields,” where they are spoken, not by Theoden looking at Minas Tirith besieged, but by Eomer looking (as he thinks) at the bodies of his uncle and sister. Tolkien says “a fey mood took him” (877), where “fey” means “about to die,” [7] and goes on to comment “Then without taking counsel or waiting for the approach of the men of the City, he spurred headlong back to the front of the great host” (877). When the Corsairs of Umbar (again, as Eomer thinks) appear, Tolkien says “Stern now was Eomer’s mood, and his mind clear again” (880). As Tolkien wrote of Beorhtnoth’s ofermod, “These are lines of severe criticism, though not incompatible with loyalty, and even love” (105). We are supposed to see a contrast between (on the one hand) the framing elements of Theoden leading the first charge of the Rohirrim and Eomer, his mind cleared, forming his shield wall, and, on the other hand, that which is framed, Eomer’s fey, redeless, hasty, headlong charge. The framing elements show proper leadership: but Eomer in the middle is exactly the sort of chivalrous aristocrat Tolkien condemns: “Magnificent perhaps, but certainly wrong.” And the fact that the screenwriters don’t get it, that audiences don’t get it, suggest that the ship Tolkien launched may be turning out to be more like Walter Scott’s than that veteran of the Somme could ever have intended.

John W. Houghton, Ph.D.


  1. John Garth, Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle-earth (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2003).
  2. Allen J. Frantzen, Bloody Good: Chivalry, Sacrifice and the Great War (Chicago: U. of Chicago Press, 2004).
  3. “This is an inexhaustible theme, and it is impossible for me in these remarks to follow this chivalrous knight through all of his campaigns and to give you the faintest record of his great deeds.” CAPT R. E. Frayser, in remarks prepared for delivery at the dedication of a monument to J. E. B. Stuart, 18 June, 1888. Southern Historical Society Papers. Vol. XXVI. Richmond, Va., January – December. 1898. “Noble heart! pure knight! Many are the tears which I have seen do honor to thy memory from those whose hearts were won by little acts of courtesy such as this.” Address of Major H.B. McClellan, of Lexington, Ky., on the Life, Campaigns, and Character of Gen’l J.E.B. Stuart. Southern Historical Society Papers. Vol. VIII. Richmond, Oct., Nov. and Dec., 1880. Nos. 10, 11 & 12. < http://www.swcivilwar.com/Stuart_HBMcClellanTribute.html , 23 April 2004> See also Escott, Paul D. “The Uses of Gallantry: Virginians and the Origins of J.E.B. Stuart’s Historical Image.” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 103 (Jan 1995): 47-74.
  4. Essays and Studies by members of the English Association, New Series VI (London: John Murray, 1953), 1-18. Reprinted in J. R. R. Tolkien, Poems and Stories (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1994), 77-109.
  5. Pickett’s Charge involved his own division, at full strength some 5,000 men, and the remains of the divisions of Major General Isaac R. Trimble and Brigadier General James Johnston Pettigrew: nine brigades, altogether perhaps 12,000 men. Casualties for Pickett’s division alone are estimated at about 3,000. < http://www.militaryhistoryonline.com/gettysburg/getty32.aspx , 25 April 2004>. Estimates for Lord Cardigan’s Light Brigade are a strength of about 670 men, of whom about 110 were killed and another 200 wounded or captured. < http://www.national-army-museum.ac.uk/pages/faq.html , 25 April 2004>.
  6. King Theoden has a great line in the battle when he rallies the Rohan troops, which is, ‘Ride now, ride for ruin and the world’s ending,'” reveals screenwriter Philippa Boyens, who also says that some of the best acting in the trilogy occurs during the Pelennor Fields battle. “And that’s just what the whole battle feels like – it’s the end of all things, it’s so huge and phenomenal….”
  7. C. f. “The Battle of Maldon,” line 117-121:
    “Gehyrde ic þæt Eadweard    anne sloge
    swiðe mid his swurde,    swenges ne wyrnde,
    þæt him æt fotum    feoll fæge cempa;
    þæs him his ðeoden    þanc gesæde,
    þam burþene,    þa he byre hæfde.”
    < http://www.georgetown.edu/labyrinth/library/oe/texts/a9.html, 2 May 2004>”I heard that Eadweard slew one
    fiercely with sword, withheld not its swinging,
    that at his feet a fey warrior fell;
    for that his lord thanked him,
    his bower-thegn, when he could.”
    –Trans. by Jonathan Glenn
    < http://faculty.uca.edu/~jona/texts/maldon.htm, 2 May 2004>

Original Citation: Scientia Scholae, Volume III, Issue 1, Spring 2005
http://www.teamsmedieval.org/scientia_scholae/0505/tolkien.html

NOTE: Links have been corrected and/or deleted.  The original “look and feel”  of the journal has been preserved as much as possible, but the original logos have also been removed.  No editing to the actual texts has been done since their original publication.

TEAMS: Teaching Association for Medieval Studies