This Lord of the Rings article contains spoilers for The Rings of Power.
When a fantasy writer sits down to create an imaginary world (or in J.R.R. Tolkien’s case, technically an imaginary ancient past of our own world), they tend to draw on all sorts of influences from reality. Different cultures, histories, and ideas all come together to create something that is new.
George R.R. Martin’s Westeros, for example, famously combines various elements of European history and cultures. The general setting is vaguely “medieval,” the Wall is inspired by the ancient Roman Hadrian’s Wall, the Iron Islands have a generically Viking feel to them, Dorne is an unusual mixture of Spain (in its landscape) and Wales (in its politics), and so on.
Tolkien was no different and several areas of his Middle-earth combine clearly identifiable real-world inspirations. Rohan, for example, broadly reflects various Germanic peoples of the early medieval period, both those who remained on the continent and the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes who colonized England, with a little bit of Viking thrown in for good measure.
The Shire has a lot of similarities with the rural areas around Birmingham and the Black Country where Tolkien grew up. Even the hobbit holes have an early 20th century English counterpart in the rock houses in the Staffordshire village of Kinver, which were inhabited until the 1960s and where children from Birmingham used to be taken on day trips to the tearoom run from one of them.
When it comes to Gondor, though, it’s much harder to pick out one main influence that gives Gondor its identity. Tolkien deliberately drew on several different historical cultures when he was creating this fictional kingdom, producing a new and unique fantasy society. Here are just a few of the most important.
The History of Gondor
First, some made-up history! In Tolkien’s legendarium, Gondor is a kingdom of Men (i.e. human beings, mortals) founded after the fall of of the earlier island kingdom of Númenor.
A man named Elendil escaped the destruction of Númenor and made his way to Middle-earth with his two sons, Isildur and Anárion, where they founded twin kingdoms of Arnor in the north, and Gondor in the south. At first Elendil was the High King, then after Elendil’s death fighting Sauron, Isildur and his heirs ruled Arnor and Anárion (technically sharing rule with Isildur) and his heirs ruled Gondor.
The kingdom of Arnor eventually collapsed, but Gondor was ruled by Stewards after the death of its last king, until Gondor was taken over and Arnor re-founded by Isildur’s descendant, King Elessar (better known as Aragorn) following the destruction of Sauron and his Ring at the end of the Third Age.
In 1958, a woman called Rhona Beare wrote to Tolkien asking a number of questions so she could pass on the answers to a Tolkien fan club she was a part of. One of them was about what the various peoples of Middle-earth wore. Tolkien suggested that the Númenoreans, the ancestors of the Gondorians, “are best pictured in (say) Egyptian terms” and that “[i]n many ways they are ‘Egyptians’ – the love of, and power to construct, the gigantic and the massive. And in their great interest in ancestry and tombs.” The Gondorians took after their ancestors; he also suggested that the crown of Gondor was “very tall, like that of Egypt, but with wings attached” and even included a small illustration.
We can see this Egyptian influence on the Númenoreans and the Gondorians in several places in The Lord of the Rings. The two enormous statues of Isildur and Anárion known as the Argonath, which stand either side of the River Anduin and which the Fellowship of the Ring pass on their journey, are similar to the Colossi of Memnon. These are two colossal statues of Egyptian Pharaoh Amenhotep III in Egypt that used to stand in several feet of water when the Nile flooded every year, before the completion of the Aswan dam in 1970 stopped the annual floods.
Later, Frodo and Sam come across an ancient statue of an old Gondorian king in the border country of Ithilien, with his head knocked off and lying on the ground. This sounds a lot like the Younger Memnon statue of Ramesses II, known as Ozymandias by the ancient Greeks, which inspired the 19th century poet Percy Bysshe Shelley’s famous poem about ruin and destruction – though the Gondorian statue the hobbits find is more lucky, as Aragorn later restores his head.
Faramir, the son of the Steward of Gondor, describes Gondor’s capital city Minas Tirith to Frodo as “the city of the Men of Númenor” and says he loves it for “her memory, her ancientry,” reflecting the position Egypt held as one of the oldest civilizations in the Western world, revered by the ancient Greeks and Romans as the source of ancient wisdom.
Another well-known influence on Gondor was medieval Viking culture, a world which produced poetry Tolkien greatly admired. For example, the wings Tolkien described on the crown of Gondor suggest the headgear worn in Norse mythology by the Valkyries.
Since Númenor was an island kingdom, the Gondorians’ Númenorean ancestors used ship burials for their dead, which is also a well-known Viking custom. Aragorn may have been inspired by this custom when he, Legolas, and Gimli put Gondorian Boromir’s body in a boat and sent it off down the river in The Two Towers, though the fact they needed to respectfully but very quickly dispose of his remains before running after an army of Orcs who had kidnapped their friends may have had something to do with that as well.
But Viking culture has a stronger influence on Rohan than on Gondor – there are other ancient civilizations we can see more prominently in Gondor’s history and culture.
The most obvious influence on the story of Númenor and its destruction is Greek mythology. Númenor was inspired by the story of the island kingdom of Atlantis, told by ancient Greek philosopher Plato, about a great civilization that was drowned in a terrible catastrophe. Tolkien mentioned it several times himself in his letters, calling the destruction of Númenor “a special variety of the Atlantis tradition.” He himself had a recurring dream about a great wave towering over and washing away a green land, which he gave to Faramir in The Lord of the Rings as a sort of ancestral memory of the destruction of Númenor.
Gondor also has some things in common with another city from Greek mythology that isn’t actually in Greece – Troy. Although the stories about it are myths, the ancient city of Troy was a real place, called Wilusa, and located in what is now Turkey. Some of Tolkien’s descriptions of Gondor draw parallels between the cities of Gondor and ancient Troy. He suggested in a letter that the port city of Gondor, Pelargir, was located “about the latitude of ancient Troy” (Hobbiton was about the latitude of Oxford, and Minas Tirith about the same as Florence).
He described the walls of Minas Tirith as “so strong and old that it seemed to have been not builded (sic.) but carven by giants out of the bones of the earth,” which sounds similar to the defensive walls around the city of Troy, which famously could not be breached and which kept the invading Greek armies out for 10 years, until Odysseus snuck them inside in the infamous wooden horse. The presence of seven strong defensive walls might have been inspired by an ancient Greek city, Thebes, which in mythology had seven gates in seven walls (though no one has yet found evidence of these in the real world ancient city).
Some of the story of Gondor in The Lord of the Rings is inspired by Greek mythology as well, like the fate of the last Steward of Gondor, Denethor. In Greek mythology, when Theseus, son of King Aegeus of Athens, left to confront the Minotaur in Crete, Aegeus told him to put up white sails when he returned to show that he was returning home safely. However, Theseus forgot to change the sails, and when Aegeus saw his son’s ship returning homewards to Athens with black sails, he committed suicide by throwing himself from a height – in some versions, throwing himself into the sea and giving the Aegean Sea its name.
Similarly, Denethor is driven to despair both by the mistaken belief that his son Faramir is dead and by the ships with black sails that he sees sailing up the Anduin towards Minas Tirith in the palantír, the seeing-stone. Denethor, like Aegeus, does not wait long enough to find out that it is Aragorn who is, in fact, captaining the fleet, and he despairs and commits suicide, trying to take Faramir with him. This might have been why Peter Jackson had Denethor throw himself from the Spire of Ecthelion (rather than burning in his tomb, as in the book) in the film adaptation of The Return of the King.
The Roman and Byzantine Empires
No part of the ancient Western world was left untouched when Tolkien created Gondor, as he put some aspects of the Roman and Byzantine Empires in there as well.
The Roman Empire, at its height, covered most of the ancient Mediterranean and then some, stretching all the way out to Britain in the west and Syria in the east. In 286 CE, the Emperor Diocletian divided the Empire into an Eastern half (where the common language was Greek) and a western half (where the common language was Latin) to make it easier to rule.
Some time later, the Western half collapsed, and the last emperor in the West, Romulus Augustulus, was deposed by Visigoths in 476 CE. The Eastern half, however, carried on, with its capital in Constantinople, until 1453, when it was conquered by Turks. To distinguish the medieval, Greek-speaking eastern Empire from the ancient, Latin-speaking Roman Empire, historians usually call it the Byzantine Empire. (It is named after Byzantium, the original name of Constantinople – now Istanbul – before the emperor Constantine re-named the city after himself).
Tolkien describes Gondor as the almost-ruined remains of a much bigger ancient civilization, which gives it a lot in common with the Byzantine Empire. Where in the real world the western half of the empire was lost, in Middle-earth, it is the northern kingdom of Arnor that has been lost, while the southern kingdom of Gondor remains. The Gondorian system of warning beacons is a Byzantine invention, and both are large, ancient kingdoms under attack from outside forces.
It was Byzantium that really reflected how Tolkien viewed Gondor in comparison to the rest of Middle-earth. Although their Númenorean ancestors owed so much to the ancient Egyptians, Tolkien in another letter described Gondor as rising “to a peak of power, almost reflecting Númenor, and then fad[ing] to a slowly decayed Middle Age, a kind of proud, venerable, but increasingly impotent Byzantium.”
Reflecting the changing history of a thousand years of the real world Byzantine Empire, Gondor’s political position in Middle-earth and its place as the last remnant of a bigger kingdom give it a parallel history to Byzantium. Their histories are not identical, though. Rather than finally being completely destroyed, Gondor manages to keep up a much better relationship with its Germanic neighbors – represented by the Rohirrim – than either half of the Roman Empire did. As a result, when Gondor calls for aid, Rohan answers. The kingdom is saved, the king returns, the new Steward gets a bit of border country to rule over and a princess to marry and everyone lives happily ever after.* If only the ancient Romans or Byzantines had made friends with the Visigoths, western European history might have looked quite different!
*Except Arwen, who outlives everyone else and lives unhappily ever after.