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.