Did J.R.R. Tolkien get his 'army of the dead' from Churchill's The River War?

I have a minor question for Tolkien fans.

In ‘The Return of the King,’ an army of the dead rallies to the returning King of Gondor, physically combatting his enemies and turning the tide on the battlefield.

This army is thus not a moral or psychological force alone, but a physical presence that can kill and wound but not be killed or wounded itself. This point is key.

Some time ago, I read a one-volume, paperback edition of Winston Churchill’s famous 1899 account of the Nile campaign to recapture Khartoum, which culminated in the Battle of Omdurman. Churchill participated as a young cavalry officer, seeing combat in a costly charge against the Islamic Dervish forces.

The Muslim leader at Omdurman was known as “the Khalifa,” and had assumed leadership after the death of “the Mahdi,” a charismatic religious leader who began a millennial movement whose army captured Khartoum, killed British General Gordon, and gave rise to an Ango-Egyptian military campaign up the Nile to recapture Khartoum and suppress the movement.

In his account, I recall that Churchill reported the Khalifa had told his troops just before the battle that an invisible army of dead Muslims would join them against the Anglo-Egyptian force the next day. This army would physically fight, not just stand alongside the living offering support in spirit. At least, that is my memory of Churchill’s reporting; I don’t have a copy of The River War in hand, and Amazon doesn’t offer the appropriate chapter for review so I can’t quote Churchill directly.

J.R.R. Tolkien was a young boy of seven, born in South Africa but growing up in England, when Churchill wrote his account of the Battle, and was about 10 when a single volume account was released. That would be about the right age for a boy to be deeply interested in the campaign and impressed by Churchill’s stirring account of the great battle. I’m wondering, therefore, if Churchill’s account of the Khalifa’s promise to his troops might be the source of Tolkien’s “army of the dead” at Gondor.

I suspect Tolkien fans may have a definitive answer to this on better evidence, so I thought I’d post what I have and see what you think.

I’ve read The River War (fascinating account) and would have to say, no, the similarities are too slender.

Now, the similarities of the Sudanis to the Khands and other Easterners in LOTR are real and profound. But, then, to some degree, Mordor is based on Turkey, and the onslaught of Minas Tirith partakes much of the siege of Constantinople.

(And Gandalf is something like the western Pope. Heck, the Pope even has a residence in Castel Gandolfo!)

Tolkien also gives a nod to the myth of Theseus, who was supposed to hoist white sails on his return, but forgot, and left the black sails up, causing his father to commit suicide in despair. The parallel of Aragorn arriving in the Corsairs’ ships, leading to Denethor’s suicide is overt.)

Tolkien borrowed widely…and wisely. I just don’t think the specific parallel you’re seeing is one he had in mind.

Gondor is a city in Ethiopia…

In the books the army of the dead spreads fear and terror, chasing the enemy combatants off the fleet heading up the Anduin. I don’t think they used any physical fighting at all. That fleet is now taken out of the enemy equation, and the reserves in Southern Gondor use the ships to head upstream, where they help to turn the battle.

I think your premise may derive from the movies, rather than the source?

No, but they weren’t just secretly providing moral support to their own side either: their physical presence was evident to the enemy and had a powerful effect on them.

Which I think is the point of the OP’s parallel with the Khalifa’s “army of the dead” actually fighting though remaining invisible.

In both cases, the difference from a generic metaphorical “the spirits of our noble ancestors are fighting alongside us” rallying cry is quite marked.

It’s an old… trope (can we say “trope?”). When the First Crusaders came out of Antioch to defeat the Turks, they claimed their ranks were swelled with their resurrected dead comrades, as well as a few armored saints.

Mordor based, to some degree, on Turkey? That’s an idea I’ve never come across before – am not “rubbishing” it, but do you have any support for it, or is it simply your own conjecture? (I confess to bias in being rather fond of Turkey and the Turks, and wishing that this “basing” might not be so !)

I’d agree that Tolkien borrowed widely; but recall his indicating, I think in a LOTR preface, that such borrowing was highly general, and no sort of matching-up to anything specific in the history of “our time-line” – whereby I take Mordor and her foes as an extremely-general scene of “nasty people in the east (and south), opposed to good people in the west”.

And Chimera writes: “Gondor is a city in Ethiopia…” To be pedantic, the place in Ethiopia – some 300 miles north-west of Addis Ababa – is Gondar or Gonder. Not to say that Tolkien didn’t get thence, his inspiration for the name of the country in Middle-Earth.

The name Gandalf appears in either the Prose Edda or the Poetry Edda. Tolkien was profoundly familiar with the Eddas.

Gandalf’s outer details were based largely on Odin/Wotan. The deity often wandered Midgard (the world of mortals. Midgard translates as Middle Earth) as an old man in grey robes with a blue hat. The only real difference in appearance between Odin and Gandalf the Grey is that Odin was missing an eye.

Gandalf’s role is that of a Christian angel. He’s explicitly revealed to be an angel (technically a Valar) in the Simarillion. The Pope’s role is one of leadership. Gandalf makes it very clear that it’s not his job to make people choose good over Sauron. His role is only to help them once they have chosen to do good.

Technically a Maia, not a Vala. Similar kind of creature, immortal, existing before the world, but of a lesser order. The Silmarillion is only explicit on the point on the assumption that the Olorin referred to there is the same as “Olorin I was in my youth in the West that is forgotten” (Faramir quoting Gandalf), but that is a pretty safe bet.

Bah. I always confuse the Maia and the Vala.

I have to confess, yes, it is a conjecture I developed. I read a paper on the subject at a Mythopoeic Convention. So it’s not just an unsupported notion, it’s a published unsupported notion! :slight_smile:

The strongest part of the argument is the many similarities of the siege of Minas Tirith and the siege of Constantinople. The physical lay-out of the walls is of particular note. “Grond,” which the Orcs use to break the gates, is an interesting cognate of the giant cannon forged by Urban the Dacian to knock in the walls.

The weakest part of the conjecture – but I’ll mention it anyway because I think it’s vaguely amusing – is that the somewhat rectangular “box” shape of Mordor’s bordering mountains resembles the outlines of the coastline of the peninsula of Asia Minor.

(I think Tolkien may also have tossed in some very minor motifs from the siege of Vienna in A.D. 1529.)

“Gondor” could also conceivably have some connection to the fictitious nation of “Gondour”, which Mark Twain wrote about. My money would be on Tolkien’s coinage being independent of both, though, with the similarity of names a coincidence.

Thanks – I didn’t know the history, or the layout of Constantinople’s defences. Likenesses as you describe, taken on board. And I never before thought of the similarity in shape of Mordor, bordered by mountains, with that of Asia Minor on the map. And the Sea of Nurnen perhaps = Lake Van?

One takes it that Tolkien didn’t have a particular “down on” the Turks; rather, he seemingly found inspiration- and borrowing-fodder in parts of that particular scene, as detailed by you. He is at pains to state, is he not, that nothing he writes is a direct allegory of anything in the history of “Our Time-Line” – refutes suggestions of LOTR being an allegory of World War 2, which was going on for much of the time when LOTR was being written.

Poetic - it’s from the Dvergatal (“List of Dwarfs”) in Völuspá.

Some of the very best defensive walls in all human history! Here is a photo someone put up on Flickr. And in depth: concentric rings of walls. Only the advent of gunpowder cannons – and really big boogers! – could ever defeat them. (Well, that, and treachery. No walls will do their job if the Captain of the Guard opens the gates to the enemy!)

I suspect that Tolkien, like many at the time, had a mild anti-Ottoman prejudice, in part a centuries-old holdover from the expansions and invasions of the 16th and 17th centuries, in part a more recent holdover from such things as Gordon and the Mahdi, etc. Tolkien was a product of his times, and that definitely included a Kiplingesque and Churchillian belief in the superiority of western European culture over everybody else. He makes a couple of comments in his letters that are – unappreciative – of Islam. But as far as it goes, he’s comfortably within the mainstream of his times, and does not stand out as a bigot.

(Well ahead of G.K. Chesterton, for instance, who, while a very great writer, was a bit of a stinker when it came to issues of tolerance.)

Tolkien’s mastery involved lots of little homages mixed in with a vast degree of true originality. We can forgive him the allusion to Theseus, for instance, out of sheer admiration for the innovation and sheer dramatic power of Frodo’s failure at the brink of doom. Is there another great literary equal to this?

Surely you mean the Battle of Vienna from 1683- with Theodan and the Rohirrim being the analogues of Jan Sobieski and the Poles.

For sure, the default assumption three-quarters-of-a-century-plus-ago was that western European culture was the best – though folk often harboured fondness for various “inferior” types, even if in a condescending way. I get the picture that back then, there was quite widespread affection in Britain, for the Turks (which maybe I have “caught”) – on the nineteenth-century political scene, Brits tended to regard those in charge of the Ottoman Empire as not-very-savoury tyrants; but colourful and picturesque, and sometimes capable of chivalry and mercy. In the Old World political line-up of the day, Britain was apt to favour the Turks over their enemies and rivals the Russians; who were regarded as just plain nasty, and a potential threat to Britain.

With Tolkien being a strong Catholic, he’d indeed seem an unlikely candidate for being a fan of Islam…

It occurs to me that if Tolkien had been writing today, he’d be liable to get into trouble for having the black-skinned humans of Middle-Earth – the inhabitants of Harad in the hot south – among the bad guys, fighting on Sauron’s side. Though I get the picture from the books, that the more enlightened folk in the Western camp regard the Haradrim, likewise the Easterlings, as not intrinsically evil; but as “standard-issue” flawed humans, largely coerced / duped by Sauron into alliance with him.

I think that Kipling had a similar story. I rather thought the inspiration came from King Arthur (who will return with his knights in time of need), but perhaps that is because I only read in English.

I’d point out that in the book, the army of the dead follow Aragorn’s small company of rangers and that’s it - there is no army to reinforce or inspire. In fact the mere presence of the oathbreaker army terrifies the people of southern Gondor and they hide inside their homes. There’s no reinforcement or morale boost from the army of the dead, simply overwhelming terror.

There are also some strongly anti-racist passages, too. Like when the main characters meet the Druedain: Most folks think them ugly and stupid, and even think they might be related to orcs, but Ghan-buri-Ghan turns out to have a better count of their numbers than they have themselves, and Gandalf points out that no creature related to orcs could have a laugh like theirs.