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  • The White City: The Lord of the Rings as an Early Medieval Myth of the Restoration of the Roman Empire
  • Judy Ann Ford (bio)

Pippin gazed in growing wonder at the great stone city, vaster and more splendid than anything that he had dreamed of; greater and stronger than Isengard, and far more beautiful. Yet it was in truth falling year by year into decay; and already it lacked half the men that could have dwelt at ease there. In every street they passed some great house or court over whose door and arched gates were carved many fair letters of strange and ancient shapes: names Pippin guessed of great men and kindreds that had once dwelt there; and yet now they were silent, and no footsteps rang on their wide pavements, nor voice was heard in their halls, nor any face looked out from door or empty window.

(RK, V, i, 24)

In this passage, Pippin marvels at Minas Tirith, the capital city of the kingdom of Gondor. He sees great age, the remnants and signs of the decline of a once great civilization. This splendid, though decayed, city of the south strikes Pippin as quite different not only from his native Shire but also from anything else he encountered in Middle-earth.

For The Lord of the Rings, as for the Silmarillion, one of Tolkien's declared intentions was to create a mythology for England; The Lord of the Rings was intended to be an epic such as the Anglo-Saxons and other northern-European Germanic peoples might have composed.1 Of course, The Lord of the Rings is a twentieth-century novel which draws on a variety of historical cultures and literatures, not excluding the Europe of Tolkien's youth. Nevertheless, in a multitude of ways explored by scholars, The Lord of the Rings is grounded in the language, literature, and culture of the early Germanic North. Yet the Anglo-Saxons and their Germanic and Celtic neighbors did not build cities in stone; the only culture within their historical memory that had made places like Minas Tirith was the Roman Empire.

The Germanic peoples shared a lengthy history with the Romans. Rome was an exceedingly long-lived political state: it emerged as a tiny independent republic in the late sixth century B.C., its republican institutions gave way to a form of government dominated by an emperor at the turn of the millennium, and it fell in the late fifth century A.D. When the Germanic tribes encountered Rome in the first century A.D. it was [End Page 53] the largest empire that western civilization had known. Settling into agricultural villages on the empire's north-eastern boarders, the Germanic peoples admired and imitated their wealthy, successful neighbor. As historian Richard Fletcher notes, they followed a familiar pattern in which peripheral outsiders model themselves upon the hegemonic power on whose boarders they are situated (Fletcher 71). The Germanic peoples interacted with the Romans for centuries, peacefully through trade and travel, and violently through boarder skirmishes. Although the Germanic tribes were peripheral to Rome, both geographically and culturally, Rome became a central focus of Germanic attention. Their elites learned Latin; they copied Rome's coinage and its law codes. When the western half of the empire began to collapse from internal weaknesses in the late fourth century, the Germanic peoples pushed into its territory. In 410 the Visigoths sacked the city of Rome, and during the remainder of the fifth century the Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Vandals, Franks, Angles, Saxons, and other tribes carved out kingdoms on territories once ruled by a Roman emperor. A glance at a map of western Europe in the year A.D. 500 shows nearly all the lands that were once Roman in Germanic hands. Rather than seeing themselves as Rome's enemies, the Germanic peoples saw themselves becoming part of the empire. "When the defenses of the Roman empire gave way the Germanic barbarians entered upon an inheritance for which they had long been preparing themselves. They came not to wreck but to join" (Fletcher 71). But the Germanic peoples found that they could not easily step into this inheritance. The Romans could...