by Miguel González "Mandos"
translated by Jordi Bosch "Vestri"
"But turn around the eyes to that other place, and you shall see [...] to the always victor and never defeated Timonel de Carcajona, [...] who comes knighted with his weapons broken in quarters: blue, green, white and yellow, and brings in his shield a golden cat over a field of lions, with a letter which says: Mew, which is the beginning of his lady's name, the unmatched Mewlina".
Don Quijote I. Cap. XVIII
Is it proper to speak about heraldry in Tolkien? Or even better, is there any data in The Lord of the Rings which allows us to speak about heraldry? It is customary in these times to attract our fields of interest to one of our favourite literary authors. It is not strange to hear great and loud titles like: "The social and economic moment of the renaissance italian city-states, under the light of William Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice". It is of little use trying to remind it is quite improbable that Shakespeare ever visited Italia. With that said, and with its inviting clear caution, I am prone to thing there are enough elements in Tolkien's narrative of "The Lord of the Rings", and even in other Tolkien works, as to speak of the existence of Middle Earth's heraldry, even if it is a newborn science.
The first statement towards this would be the existence of heralds, both in Gondor and Rohan kingdoms at the very least. The world "herald (1)" appears in several occasions related to the kingdoms of Gondor and Rohan throughout "The Lord of the Rings" narratve. Even Mouth of Sauron takes this title upon himself during the parliament with the Captains of the West (2). It could be objected that the function of this "heralds" is more similar to that of a spokesman or townscrier, or that of a legate and ambassador, instead of wielding the weapons and shields that recognize the lineage of a soldier or a knight. yet it should be reminded that those functions were also the task ot medieval heralds, whose informative tasks were, in many cases, secundary.
The existence od certain shields, signs and emblems, different between regions or kingdoms and by which his wielder could be recognized, and its use during the battle to regroup forces, or when downed or captured, to demoralize the enemy, forces us to consider it is not a mere coincidence and, that with all probability, around this use some basic rules and laws should have emerged, maybe out of simple customs, which regulated the way to design them.
The third and strongest reason that grants to my eyes heraldry's existance in Middle Earth, is given to us in a Faramir's sentence: "Childless lords sat in aged halls musing on heraldry (3)". The word heraldry does not admit in this case any other meaning than that of the study of the shape and composition of shields and banners (except in the case of relating heraldry and genealogy, which I believe is not the case as Tolkien employs the word genealogy in many other occasions, and it couldn't be understood that such a concrete error would appear in the words of Boromir's brother), which reinforces the general sense of this statement. Finally, we can add words such as "field" and "blazon" (4), directly extracted from heraldic language.
A little of history
From an ethimological point of view, Heraldry is the sience of the heralds. These heralds were, in the middle ages, the ones with the task to organize tournaments first, and later on to determinate and assign shields of arms to each family. As a curiosity and still within the ethimological field, we take upon the origin of the word blazon, which according to Julio Atienza, proceeds from the custom of playing a horn or trumpet twice (in contemporary german, blacen) when a knight appeared on a road. At that moment, "the herald examined the shield and other signs of the knight's nobility and , once recognized, two horns were attached to his helm as a sign of his well-proven nobility". A great spectacle, if that was really true.
The birth of this science cannot be told with exactitude. Towards Xth century some signs were used for the first time to differentiate one another in the contests and tournaments (keep in mind the constant evolution of the armour and other defensive elements which covered little by little the knight, to the point he became unrecognizable). Near XIth century some of the basic rules of heraldic art were set, and it appears they came from Germany. In Spain it is not until the beginning of the XIIth century that the we can speak properly of heraldics.
At its beginning, they are very simple shields, which later one got more complex, adding a second surname and later, as influenced from France, four, eight and even sixteen surnames.
Heraldic laws in our world
Traditional heraldics are based over a series of small rules, not always respected, which are as follows:
1. Never place metal over metal, nor colour over colour, except with small details (fruits, nails, beaks, claws...).
Let's make some precisions over this unclear terminology: in heraldics it is named enamel to the colour shown in the figures, background or elements of any type within a shield or banner. Enamels are divided in two metals (gold and silver) and five colours (rez, blue, green, purple, and black (all with their own names). Outside Spain other colours were also accepted, such as orange. Finally, a "natural" element must be added. In the case of naturale figures, this written rule can be ignored.
Some ancient treaties spoke about a symbology related to each enamel, nowadays completely ignored by any serious scholar, except as curiosity. The selection of colours obeyed to make a contrast that allowed to recognize each part or element in the shield, and not an esoteric chomatic symbology.
2. Fillment: when there's only one figure in the shield, it will be place in its center, filling all the field, but without touching its borders.
As this science evolved, it became not only more abstract and excentric, but this rule also was broken several times. One must consider that at the beginning of heraldry, the identifying element was the first one, and so this rule answered to it: the greater the figure, the better it can be seen. As it evolved later, artistic and aestethic gained more importance, lessening this law.
3. Figures should look to the front or to the right. It must be noted if it looks to the left.
The left and the right make reference to the shield's wielder's perspective, so a figure on the right half of the shield will be place on the left to our eyes.
Beside these three basic rules, which are more consensed than a normative code, also exist several customs followed with more or less strength in heraldic shields' creation. Leaving aside any reference to schematization or exaggeration of the figures, or the profound normative about placing of elements when there is a plurality of them.
To finish with the basic concepts of the hermetic heraldry terminology we will keep in mind that a shield is divided in the field (the background enamel) and the pieces or figures (elements placed in the center of the field). These last are classified in Heraldics (geometric figures in general: stripes, windings, borders, etc), Naturals (images of existing figures or bodies, or as Atienza says, "from the Creation", including celestial bodies, birds, animals, human beings and parts from them, etc), Artificials (human made objects) or Chimeras (non-existant beings).
With these little basis, it will be enough to proceed analyzing Tolkien's texts with no further delay.
Heraldic art on Middle Earth
A precision must be noted in the first place: this sketch of a study refers exclusively to the elements which define heraldic art between men and, in a lesses measure, the orcs. I barely make some appointments to elven or dwarven heraldics that, at least in the first case, would deserve a full study on its own. As for the temporal reference, I have chosen the Third Age.
Once this has been established, one question must be made: are there enough human and orc emblems so we can speak about heraldic rules? I think so, and in my humble opinion I would like to highlight the following ones:
The shields described by Tolkien lack the complexity related to the time of decadence of heraldic art. It clearly matches the beginnings that gave birth to this art, in which the identification of the warrior or its people is the main purpose. This can obey two different motivations. One would be, as we said before, the distinction of the contenders as in the beginnings of heraldic art. The other, maybe equally as important, would be the difficulty of a detailed description in a literary narration. Either if it is taking the obscure vocabulary from heralidcs, or making a summary in simple words of what the novel's characters see, a complex shield is a heavy obstacle in a smooth narration. Let's see an exampe; the arms shield of the lineage of Rodriguez de Ledesma or de Sanabria (NftT: the original specific language has been mostly lost in translation): blue, golden cross with silver lis flowers on its four borders. Blue borders with crescents intertwined with silver. For a profane, this definition won't mean much. On the contrary, in lesser words we would get a description as follows: following the silhouette of the shield, some centimeters within, a blue zone limits another one where there are represented some white coloured crescent moons with its borders facing down, eight in total. Then, in the interior border of the shield, there is a division in four from two golden stripes which cross it up-down and left-right. On each of the four partitions there is a stylized white flower. As you can see, any of these explanations is long and tedious.
Examples of this simplicity I refer at the beginning can be found in most shields and banners, which are blank, such as the one from the Stewards of Gondor: white with no figures on it (5). Elfhelm of Rohan has his shield white (6), and Erkenbrand of Rohan is red (7). Elrond's house ("First rode Elrohir and Elladan with a banner of silver" (), the Haradrim ("they held red banners", or "red banners" and "and they have round shields, yellow and black with big spike" (9)) and even a good portion of Isengard's troops when they don't hold the classic White Hand ("black shields" (10)). If we go back in time, we find the shields have the same style, such as the shields of Gondolin's guards or Hurin Thalion (gold (11)).
When they are not of one single colour, they only have a figure and there are no partitions of any kind.
In the first place enamels usually respect the rule to avoid mixing colour with colour or metal with metal. Good examples of that are the standards of Rohan (a silver horse riding on a green field), of Gondor's royal house (a black field with a silver tree with fruits, crowned with stars), or Saruman's (a silver hand over a black field). Going backwards to ancient times, we have the shield Turgon prepares for Turgon, with a blue field and a white swan wing.
The dischordant case is that of the orcs (black field with red eye), and the Haradrim of Pelennor (black field, red snake). In the first case, since the eye is painted "natural", it could be an allowed exception (12). Sauron's heraldic art should have been forcefully different from human one, since he could not use any enamel with white (13). Those of the people from Harad does not offer an easy explanation, and we must consider that the rule of enamels wouldn't be as spread as to reach that place.
We have no reference to the filling rule, so we have no way to know if it was present in Middle Earth. It appears that most frequently it would have applied for utility reasons, yet exceptions such as Saruman's shield still appear (14).
Most Middle Earth's shields are either blank or contain a single natural figure. The most used ones are the Tree (white tree, hollin tree), the Stars (from Elendil's heraldry to Moria's gates), Animals (swans, horses, snakes) and several more present in traditional heraldics, such as body parts (Eye, Hand, Wing). Artificial elements such as a Crown (Winged) or the Boat (Swan-shaped) are not rare either.
In Middle Earth certain colours are constantly used. That could be explained in several ways, one of which would be that they had a meaning in the world created by Tolkien when used for a banner. This would be strenghtened by the fact that the Enemy does not use white nor silver at all, while it is a favoured colour among the people related to elves and numenoreans. In any case it is important to notice that no shield uses purple, and very few shields use green or gold. On the contrary, black fields are predominant both in the peoples under Sauron's influence, and between their enemies.
Three curious shields
Embarked in this hunt for references on shields in Tolkien's works, I found two shields which got me some headache, and a third one which I didn't remember from previous conferences and I found pretty curious. Let us begin with the most complex one, citing it.
The first reference to Imrahil and his shield takes place in the third volume of The Lord of the Rings (15), where we are told that his troops held "with gilded banners bearing his token of the Ship and the Silver Swan"/ Here begin the complexities. The standard is a golden one, but is the cloth golden, or the field? There is no reference to the enamel, so it appears it is the second option the proper one. Then we are told there is a Ship and a Silver Swan. It appears to be two different figures, since the "and" conjunction is used. We are told the colour of the swan but not that of the ship, which would go against enamel rules as it is metal over metal.
Next reference. "...for foremost on the field rode the swan-knights of Dol Amroth with their Prince and his blue banner at their head" (16). The reading of this standard now gives us some difficulties, as there is a new colour not specified before. it could be that the field was blue (though it would be a strange combination with golden strands), or that the ship was blue, or even that the prince had a different standard from that of his city, which is perfectly possible.
Let's go on. "...nd the silver swan of Dol Amroth was borne in the van" (17). The fact that the swan is coloured silver appears to be a given fact. But, what about the ship? Further on, we have "...And in the morning the banner of Dol Amroth, a white ship like a swan upon blue water" (18). Things appear to clarify, yet not much. We still are uncertain about the field, and the figures have become a single one that sails over blue water, a piece of information we did not have so far.
Then we reach "...Upon the other hill hard by stood the banners of Rohan and Dol Amroth, White Horse and Silver Swan." (19). At the sight of what is hinted here, we can be at ease with Rohan's standard, yet Dol Amroth's gives us a doubt: swan, ship, or both?
At Cormallen's celebration we realize, at last, the most clear definition of the standard of Dol Amroth's inhabitants, and the one we will keep: "...upon the left was a banner, silver upon blue, a ship swan-prowed faring on the sea" (20). A single figure in silver (a swan ship) over an undefined field (blue? gold?) over the sea. The issue of the field can be solved considering all the field as blue or strips representing the sea maybe in blue or silver.
Another citing that lead me to greater curiosity was the following one. When Frodo Baggins was a guest of Lady Galadriel in Lorien, he is invited to examine the mirror with "magical" properties. Finally, the ring-bearer makes his mind up, and between what he sees we are told that he saw a ship with a black banner and a white tower. White tower? By Frodo's description of the first numenoreans or, maybe, gondorians from the past or present. Now, which tower would that be? And from what kingdom, citadel or lord would it be? Many ideas came to my mind: Minas Tirith, Minas Ithil, maybe some coast city such as Edhellond, Ecthelion's Tower, etc. The answer, though, lied in my notes with the english original text. It appears the spanish translation is incorrect, in a paragraph not too well translated. In the original, it is "...the emblem of the White tree". Alas, it appears the spanish translator switched "tree" to "tower" and invented a new shield or standard that Tolkien never wrote, exchanging the classical white tree (21).
Finally, an emblem I did not recall and which has some curious details. This is the excerpt: "Two liveries Sam noticed, one marked by the Red Eye, the other by a Moon disfigured with a ghastly face of death" (22). It should be noticed that the Moon disfigured probably refers to ancient Minas Ithil, maybe a deformation of a shield of this city prior to its siege by the Nazgûl. It is a new element which appears nowhere else. The shape, a ghastly face of death, is original from Tolkien, or at least it has no counterpart in any traditional heraldry where only the sun, usually, among the two natural celestial figures, is ever represented with any human facial gesture (usually serious, happy or anguished). There are some rare cases where the moon has a face, but it has no gesture (How would that be? A skull?). The moon, according to traditional heraldry, is usually drawn with no gestures. So we have an interesting issue here: Tolkien's moon is a disfigured moon. We should also notice the use of the white colour, yet we said before Sauron's forces never used it. The possible workaround this is that white here is a "natural" colour, but it doesn't completely solve this contradiction, probably something our author forgot. Quoting Horatio,"aliquando bonus dormitat Tolkien".
de Atienza, Julio. Nociones de Heráldica. Madrid. Aguilar Ediciones. 1989. (Heraldry Notions)
Pardo de Guevara, Eduardo. Manual de Heráldica Española. Edimat Libros. 2000. (Manual of Spanish Heraldry)
Tolkien, Christopher. La Guerra del Anillo. Minotauro. (The War of the Ring)
Note of the Translator: all references are to the spanish edition of The Lord of the Rings. Cites use Ardalambion notation.
1 Pages 162, 168 y 169 LotR II concerning Rohan. LotR 5 X:16 to 18 concerning Gondor, to cite some examples.
2 LotR 5 X:37
3 "heraldry" in the original. pag. 394 LotR II.
4 Among others: 149 LotR II y LotR 6 IV:42
5 pag. 40 Ap. and LotR 6 V:78
6 UT 3 V:12
7 LotR 3 VII:170
8 LotR 6 V:127
9 pag. 114 LotR III y 347 LotR II
10 LotR 3 VII:65
11 UT 1 II:67
12 This would be contradicted by the literal tennant of the following text: "...and a single banner, black but bearing on it in red the Evil Eye". LotR 5 X:35
13 LotR 3 I:38
14 "...a small white hand in the centre of a black field". LotR 3 I:34
15 LotR 5 I:203
16 pag. 114 LotR III
17 LotR 5 VI:35
18 pag. 190 LotR III
19 LotR 5 X:57
20 LotR 6 IV:49
21 It is curious how a bad translation can survive the time. Examining GA 3 II: Note 42, in one of the volumes where we are told how "The Lord of the Rings" was born, we find that the vision that has Frodo in the moment of the introduction of the ship, in the spanish translation we are revealed "a ship with black sailings and a banner bearing a white tower". The original in english is: "Frodo's vision of a ship with black sails and a banner bearing the emblem of a white tree".
22 pag. 234 LotR III