Step 7 of 9

The White Horse of Rohan

Fig: “Flag of the Kingdom of Rohan” – [Wikimedia Commons](

Fig: “Flag of the Kingdom of Rohan” – Wikimedia Commons

When one thinks of horses in Tolkien’s work, the first image to come to mind is undoubtedly that of the Riders of Rohan. The Rohirrim are the Horse-lords of Middle-earth. They bear a strong connection to the Anglo-Saxons: their country is called “the Mark,” providing a link to the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of “Mercia.” Within the borders of this Anglo-Saxon kingdom, you can now find the cities of Birmingham and Oxford, which is where Tolkien lived, studied and workedShippey, Road p. 139.. The link between Rohan and Mercia is furthered by the presence of white horses. Where the area that was Mercia is home to the Uffington White Horse, Rohan’s white horse is present on its banner, which shows the “white horse on the green field” (Fig 1)Shippey, Road p. 140.. The image of the white horse seems very close to Tolkien’s heart: by using this imagery, he connects the Rohirrim, of whom he was very fond, to the chalk-figure of the Uffington Horse, which is only fifteen miles away from his studyShippey, Road p 140. and therefore surely an important aspect of what he regarded as his home.

The white horse on the green field is not only present on Rohan’s banner. When Éomer takes up his role as king after Théoden’s death at the Pelennor Fields, he plans on riding into battle, toward death, as he thinks Éowyn has died as well. He sees the Corsairs of Umbar approaching and believes that all is lost and that “no man should be left in the West to remember the last King of the Mark. So he rode to a green hillock and there set his banner, and the White Horse ran rippling in the wind”J.R.R. Tolkien. The Return of the King. HarperCollins, 2008, p. 1109.. Éomer then laughs in the face of death and despair, but the placing of his banner shows that there is still a need in him to be remembered as the king of Rohan. The placement of the banner on the hill will ensure that the Rohirrim will not pass into oblivion, but will endure, if only in memory.

Thankfully, Éomer soon spots the banner of Gondor on the Corsairs’ front ship, which heralds Aragorn’s return from the Paths of the DeadTolkien, Return p. 1109.. Aragorn’s banner appears to stand opposite Éomer’s banner, and the engagement between the two banners echoes the function of the horse we find in Beowulf. There, the gifting of horses stands for an exchange of loyalty and gratitudeNeville, “Hrothgar’s Horses” p. 131.. The same exchange occurs between Éomer and Aragorn at the Pelennor Fields. There is no gifting of horses involved, but the image of Rohan’s horse on top of the hill stands strong and is seemingly answered by Aragorn’s banner. Aragorn unintentionally gives answer to the horse placed by Éomer, which means he engages in the exchange of loyalty and gratitude as symbolised by the horse. After the battle is over, he receives this loyalty and gratitude from Éomer: loyalty to Aragorn as the new king, and gratitude toward Aragorn for coming to Éomer’s aid. Despite the gifting of horses as seen in Beowulf then not being repeated in The Lord of the Rings—Éomer is not higher in rank than Aragorn and does not gift him a horse in this moment—the symbolism of the horse we see in Beowulf is certainly repeated through the function of the banners at the Pelennor Fields.

If we solely look at Éomer’s initial intentions with the placement of the banner, the Uffington Horse’s qualities are clearly echoed: the banner with the white horse promotes a sense of shared identity by representing the people of Rohan, and due to Éomer’s intention for it to serve as a reminder of his people, the Uffington Horse’s function as a reminder of the past in the present is repeated. On top of that, the banner also parallels the Uffington Horse’s ability to keep watch over its surroundings, as it is placed on a hillock, high enough to oversee all around it.