JRR Tolkien’s Middle Earth is generally understood to have been substantially inspired by the author’s long career as a medievalist at Oxford University and was explicit about the ways in which he borrowed heavily from medieval names, myths and historical figures. Aragorn, as imperial restorer, was Charlemagne; “Mardil the Steward,” founder of the lineage of Denethor, clearly referenced the emperor’s grandfather, Charles Martel. Sometimes, Tolkien seemed almost over-the-top in the relish with which he made his world an idealized, enchanted recapitulation of European history, as with his description of the siege of Gondor being all but directly lifted from Edward Gibbon’s narration of the siege of Byzantium in Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, right down to the feared siege engine and its projectiles.
Especially central to Tolkien’s medieval source material is the Carolingian dynasty, the first Holy Roman Emperors and attempted restorers of ancient Rome. The choice by Martel, steward to the Merovingian Emperors, to depose their lineage and substitute his own, is one that Tolkien judges harshly and credits as a key factor in the downfall of the West. He expresses this criticism in Mardil the Steward making the opposite choice when the line of Gondor’s kings failed, instead founding the line of ruling stewards who governed in anticipation of the return of the true king. Because Tolkien’s references are made to isolated moments and individuals, his uncharacteristic direct admission that Aragorn, whose line descends from the true kings and not the stewards, is analogous to Charlemagne—both being imperial restorers—is unproblematic. His judgement of the partition of the Holy Roman Empire in the Treaty of Verdun (843) is similarly heavy-handed, with Arnor (corresponding to the HRE, as distinct from Gondor, which represents the Byzantine Empire) being fatefully partitioned into the three kingdoms of Rhudaur (corresponding to the Kingdom of Louis the German), Arthedain (the kingdom of Charles the Bald) and Cardolan (the kingdom of Lothar); this partitioning, Tolkien states, resulted in the dissolution of Arnor into “petty realms and lordships,” in the precise words Gibbon uses to narrate their ultimate fate.
It is surprising, then, that so little attention has been directed to other Carolingian sources in deciphering the rich and complex world of Tolkien’s Middle Earth. In the case of the four ages of the world, with which I deal here, the lacuna may be credited, at least in part, to the existence of ready-made four- and five- age schemas in a variety of mythologies with which Tolkien was acquainted, such as in Hesiod’s Works and Days.
This was my view until I encountered an apocryphal document known as the Vision of Charlemagne. As historian Paul Dutton notes, even more than other medieval European societies, subjects of the Carolingian Empire tended to articulate social and political criticism in a fraught political environment by recounting real and alleged dreams. So it was that in approximately 870, an unknown individual, likely seeking to curry favour with the oldest and most stable of the Carolingian monarchs, Louis the German, penned an account of a lost document, allegedly written by the emperor Charlemagne himself, sometime between 806 and 813. In the Vision, the emperor is presented with a sword with an inscription organizing present and future events into four periods: 1. RAHT, 2. RADOLEIBA, 3. NASG and 4. ENTI. Situating Charlemagne in the first period when “there is abundance of material success,” these periods or ages are then described as follows:
“RAHT, that is, abundance of all things… RADOLEIBA… will be fulfilled in the times of my sons [when] there will no longer be such a great abundance… and certain peoples, now subdued, will break away… When… those sons have died and their sons have begun… to govern, NASG will exist, which was inscribed in the third place. For the sake of filthy lucre, they will… oppress travelers and pilgrims… have no sense of modesty… collect riches with great disorder and dishonour… But what was written at the point of the sword, ENTI, that is the end, can be understood in two ways. Either it signifies the end of the world or the end of our line.”
The similarity of the word “nasg” to Tolkien’s cognate for the rings of power “nazg,” (“ash nazg,” meaning the one ring, “nazgul” meaning the ring wraiths, etc.), grows only more striking to the observer the greater one’s prior efforts to locate this word or anything like it elsewhere. It appears that “nasg” was a term made by the anonymous ninth-century author that languished in obscuring for more than a thousand years before being picked up by Tolkien, the prodigious reader of medieval Germanic texts in their original language. As far as I can tell, it just doesn’t show up anywhere else.
Then, of course, is the simple fact that the first three ages bear such a striking resemblance to the Tolkien schema, especially as it relates to the elves, with the world growing less abundant and more depleted with each age, with both the land and people growing both less fecund and less virtuous with each passing epoch. The little-narrated second age of Middle Earth fits especially easily with the literal sons of First Age elvish heroes, such as Elros, founding new kingdoms in a still-bountiful but declining world, in which human kingdoms gradually break away from the elves and their exalted human allies. The third age, specifically described as the age of the rings of power by Tolkien, is one of accelerated decline as avarice, pettiness and vanity drive the free peoples of Middle Earth to ruin. The triumph of evil in Tolkien’s age of Nazg or the Carolingian age of NASG is one made possible by greed and divisiveness, traits the rings fashioned by the Dark Lord Sauron were designed to amplify in those who wore them.
In the third age, the power of evil does not wax so much as the power of good wanes until there is a final crisis that threatens to plunge the whole world into a final darkness, from which it will never emerge. The division of the realms of Elendil, the human High King of the second age and Gil-galad, the elvish High King into separate, smaller kingdoms marks the beginning the third age, a fate wrought when Elendil’s son Isildur chose not to destroy Sauron’s one ring but instead to take it for himself and make it an heirloom of his kingdom. This similarly parallels the Vision which dates nasg to the Treaty of Verdun, when the Carolingian realm was divided and “Lothar, Pepin and Louis began to extend nasg for themselves throughout the neglected kingdom.” Indeed, this theme of neglect and disuse suffuses Tolkien’s writings about the failures of the Third Age as cities like Fornost, Annúminas and Osigiliath fall into ruin.
But it is actually the point of divergence between Vision and Lord of the Rings that makes it a key to understanding the fundamental themes in LOTR and more than just an antiquarian curiosity, allowing us greater clarity on Tolkien’s larger project as both medievalist and novelist. Ultimately, the question LOTR, as distinct from the Hobbit or Silmarillion, asks is “what if people had risen to the occasion instead?” Gondor’s ruling stewards, the line of Mardil, are his answer to this question as it relates to the Carolingian dynasty using their power as Mayors of the Palace, to usurp the Frankish throne. What, he asks, would have happened if they had awaited the return of the true Merovingian king? Similarly, he asks, what if the Germanic peoples had heeded the pleas of the last Byzantine Emperor and their ancient alliance and ridden south to break the Ottoman siege of Constantinople, as the Rohirrim did during the Siege of Gondor? Not all of these hypothetical questions make us comfortable; Tolkien also asks how much better Europe would have been ruled if the great ancient houses had remained racially pure and not allowed their lineages to be “mingled with the blood of lesser men”? Indeed, what if all the white-skinned peoples of Europe had united to defend Constantinople against the dark-skinned Saharan Africans (the thinly-disguised Haradrim) and the Turkish Seljuks of Rum (the equally obvious people of Rhûn)?
But whatever late Victorian racism Tolkien mobilized in his writing, ultimately, Lord of the Rings is a fairly direct commentary on his view of the importance of hope and selflessness at key turning points history. Writing in the first half of the twentieth century, when structuralist historiographies were on the rise, whether through Marxism, Malthusianism, Whiggism or Social Darwinism, not just in universities but in popular consciousness, Tolkien used his trilogy to say what he could not as a scholar of medieval history: that evil triumphs not because of immutable structural factors but because people lose hope. In one of his few forays the politics of his day, the foreword to the 1954 edition of LOTR pushes back against claims that his novels allegorized the Second World War, remarking that if they did, the Council of Elrond would certainly have chosen to use Sauron’s ring of power, the axiomatically evil “one ring” to defeat him.
In recent years, these seemingly conservative views, at least as they pertain to the history of the Carolingian Empire have been borne-out. It appears that the belief that their empire would fall, termed “consciousness of decline” became a powerful force, independent of material factors that produced fragmentation and collapse in early medieval France. Just as Denethor, the penultimate ruling steward loses hope and commits suicide, nearly causeing Gondor to fall, because he cannot imagine that the Rohirrim really are riding to the rescue to break the siege, it appears that the pessimism in Vision was part of the set of social forces that really did make “enti” come to pass, just as the document foretold. And so, when we read Tolkien’s appendices to Return of the King in which he narrates the Fourth Age of Middle Earth, we encounter a curious alternate early modernity, a hyper-monarchical, harmonious, pastoral, literate, anti-industrial pseudo-Europe, one too humble and virtuous to defy the will of God and permit anyone but the elect to take ship and sail across the ocean to the unknown sacred lands of the West.
As Tolkien says in his abbreviated synopsis or recapitulation of LOTR in the final chapter of the Silmarillion, it is the character of Gandalf who is explicitly revealed to be the true hero of the Third Age. As the author’s Christ-figure, a hypostatic being who is resurrected halfway through the story, he is revealed to be this hero because his power, assisted by Narya, one of the three unsullied rings of power, is to kindle hope in the hearts of mortals, causing ordinary people to undertake world-changing acts of extraordinary bravery. This bravery, he suggests, is anchored in humility because, in the words of Gandalf, “help oft shall come from the hands of the weak when the Wise falter,” as pointed a response as any to the historical determinists who surrounded him.
Much as I love his books and have a special place in my heart for them, I don’t find Tolkien’s particular alternate utopia compelling or his racism easy to tolerate, despite it being unexceptional bordering on unavoidable in his time. Nevertheless, I think there is real value in ignoring his obfuscations and denials that his books were as precisely referential as they clearly are and, instead, engaging thematically with Lord of the Rings by looking at times past and present and asking “what if people rose to the occasion and acted with unexpected hope and courage even in the face of long-foretold and certain doom?”
Stuart Parker isn’t just a failed politician and seasonally employed academic; he remains a committed geek too.