NOTE: The following essay was written when I was in high school. It's predecessor was merely a paraphrased version, but in light some questions I've received via email, I've decided to post the original. So for all you PhDs out there, be warned. I was 15 when I wrote this.
The culture of Rohan in Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings" is an unusual one. Affected on all fronts by warring forces within the framework (indeed, even beyond the framework) of the story, the Norse-seeming kingdom has come to represent the endless reshaping faced by Tolkien's own home of Britain.
In the same way that 'Beowulf' is a story about Norse adventurers, yet is written (we predict) by an English-speaking poet sometime between the 7th and 10th centuries, so too is Rohan a reflection of a Norse-like culture as seen through the eyes of a "Westron"-speaking author--Tolkien himself. But Rohan is not a representation of Norse or Viking culture (and certainly not, as some believe, a reflection of Celtic culture). If Middle-earth and the West-lands are, as Tolkien suggests, symbolic of England, they must certainly be symbolic of a more modern England, while the kingdom of Rohan would be parallel to Anglo-Saxon England.
As a linguist, Tolkien studied 'Beowulf', and the heroic narrative (all three thousand lines of it!) was, in large part, inspiration for 'The Lord of the Rings.' And just as 'Beowulf' examines and praises Norse culture and heroism from an Anglo-Saxon (or English) perspective with interweavings of both cultures and languages within the poem, Tolkien's description of Rohan through prose and dialog is an equally interwoven glimpse into those same Anglo-Saxon and Norse worlds.
What's interesting about the 'Beowulf' manuscript itself is that it's written in an Old English meter in the Old English language with all the familiar accessories characteristic of Old English verse. Yet the story concerns Scandinavian characters. All the names are Scandinavian in nature. It's essentially a story about Vikings, but the story is literally an English one.
The kingdom of Rohan in Tolkien's Middle-earth is treated similarly, by both the author and other characters. Rohan is first of all the biggest piece of real estate in the 'The Lord of the Rings,' and is situated in the center of the story's setting, both geographically and literally (the problems faced by Rohan and its people comprise a sizable chunk of the second book, 'The Two Towers.' Indeed, the actual "two towers" themselves--Orthanc in Isengard and Barad-Dur in Mordor--lie at opposite ends of Rohan's borders).
Earth's own British Isles have faced a similar political position throughout history. As Rohan suffers invasion from warring forces on all sides--Saruman's forces, the mountain-dwelling Dunlendings, Easterlings, and forces from Mordor--so too has England been caught in similar crossfire, whether from the Celts, the Vikings, the Saxon and Germanic tribes of mainland Europe, or even the Romans. England has been fought for and fought over for some two thousand years or more, with each new conqueror reshaping the political and cultural landscape. This is why the language of Modern English is such a complicated, oft-paradoxical entity.
If we consider the argument that Middle-earth is Tolkien's own England in disguise, then coming upon Rohan would be like coming upon a county populated by Danish-speaking warriors. Since you are more likely to find sheep instead of Danes in central England, it seems puzzling that Rohan exists as it does in Middle-earth--as a "Westron"-speaking, anglicized tribe of horse-lords. Shouldn't the people of Rohan be speaking a Scandinavian language, or at least something evolved from Norse languages rather than the Anglo-Saxon languages of England?
In fact, they do. As Tolkien explains in 'Appendix F: The Languages of Men':
From the lands between the Gladden and Carrock came the folk that were known in Gondor as the Rohirrim, Masters of Horses. They still spoke their ancestral tongue, and gave new names in it to nearly all the places in their new country; and they called themselves Eorlings, or the Men of the Riddermark. But the lords of that people used Common Speech freely, and spoke it nobly after the manner of their allies in Gondor (1103).
A curious observation, if we consider the part 'Beowulf' played in Tolkien's creation of Rohan. The "ancestral tongue" Tolkien speaks of in Appendix F is what gives us many of Rohan's proper names, including the names of people, cities, and regions. But many, if not all, of these names come from Old English. An open and deliberate nod to the inspiration 'Beowulf' lended to the creation of Middle-earth?
In fact, many proper names in Rohan have been pulled directly from the Old English manuscript itself (see article "Beowulf and Old English Influences" for specific references).
But there are problems with this seemingly nice, neat observation. 'Beowulf' was written in Old English, yet its characters have Scandinavian names. A simple matter of plot and setting, since any author can write a story about characters of another land in his or her own native language, provided the appropriate names be utilized for sake of believability. Afterall, part of what makes 'The Lord of the Rings' so magical is its depth and diversity of proper names.
The people of Rohan have names derived from both Old-English and Scandinavian. This seems like a contradiction. If we presume that the "Eorlingas" represent a Norse presence in the West-lands, then surely their "ancestral tongue" should be wholly Scandinavian in nature, not Anglo-Saxon. Yet we find predominantly Anglo-Saxon names among the Rohirrim.
There is a simple solution to this. The "ancestral tongue" Tolkien speaks of is called Adunaic, which is, for better or worse, Old English. Old English as we know it is derived, in great part, from Old Norse--what the people of Middle-Earth might call Sindarin (since Sindarin, as Tolkien himself has disclosed, was based on Finnish). If you're not too confused yet, this simply means that, just as our Modern English has words derived from both Old English and Old Norse, so too does the Common Speech of Middle-Earth have words derived from both Adunaic (Old English) and Sindarin (Old Norse). It's just that the people of Rohan favor, for the most part, their "Old English" language roots.
This is how we get names like Theoden, Eowyn, and Riddermark. Domestic names among the Eorlingas. Yet other names, names which were applied to the Eorlingas by the people of Gondor, for example, who had better preserved the Sindarin threads in their language, are more Elvish in nature. Rohan itself is an Elvish word, as is Rohirrim.
We do get a few glitches in the system. For example, there is character in Rohan named 'Baldor.' Is this a name derived from Adunaic or Sindarin? Hard to tell, since in reality 'Baldor' comes not from Old English but from Old Norse mythology (a completely different route of discussion).
Language is one thing, though. Culture is an entirely different animal.
The Vikings were known for their ability to adapt, not necessarily to assimilate themselves into a new culture, but to use bits and pieces of other cultures to benefit their own way of doing things.
Yet while the invading Scandinavians of old England wove their culture into their surroundings, we don't notice this characteristic at all among the Rohirrim. As the country is not particularly enterprising (so much of what we read in 'The Lord of the Rings' regards Rohan's defending itself against invasion, with little time for cultural exchange), it has sought to preserve its identity since the time when its people descended from lands in the north.
This fact alone dismisses any theory that Rohan is Norse or Viking in culture. Ultimately, the only thing that Rohan shares with the Scandinavian stories of old are the patterns we find in 'Beowulf,' and epic as English as Tolkien himself.
---. 'The Lord of the Rings: Appendix F.' New York: 1995.
October 2003 (page update). Original essay written in November, 1994.
This article is a revision of an earlier article. Click here to read it.