Adam’s Notebook
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Adam’s Notebook

Black Riders: a Note on Tolkien and Scott

There’s no question but that Tolkien read Scott. Everyone in his generation who read, read Scott (it’s really remarkable actually how far Scott has fallen, from being one of the most popular and widely read authors in the world to today’s obscurity).

In this old blog, I discuss [you need to scroll down a few paragraphs] some of the ways in which The Lord of the Rings is an exercise in Scottian writing, with its leisurely, peripatetic narrative, it’s middling, ‘wavering’ (that is, ‘waverley’) protagonist caught between opposing forces at a moment of great historical interest (fictional history in Tolkien’s case, but still), its narrative set against a backdrop of deeper time, and its textual strategies of prose and inset verse — in all this, Tolkien as writer was working in the idiom established by Scott. But I think he took various other, more specific things from Scott too.

So here’s Quentin Durward (1823). Quentin is our upstanding young hero. He has come from what is, from the point of view of the Europe in which the novel is set, a small, far-flung realm away to the north-west — Scotland — and has a series of adventures as he travels across the continent, through a 15th-century marked by upheavals and war. He and his party take sanctuary in the holy house of Schonwaldt [that is, beautiful forest], maintained by the good Bishop of Liege; but this place is beseiged and overrun by the bestial Baron de la Marck, known as ‘the Boar of the Ardennes’ (a man ‘well deserving that dreaded name in which he affected to delight’) and his savage, animalistic soldiers:

Over his shoulders hung a strong surcoat, made of the dressed skin of a huge wild boar, the hoofs being of solid silver and the tusks of the same. The skin of the head was so arranged, that, drawn over the casque, when the Baron was armed, or over his bare head in the fashion of a hood, as he often affected when the helmet was laid aside, and as he now wore it, the effect was that of a grinning, ghastly monster. [Quentin Durward, ch. 22]

Quentin, rescuing the beautiful young Isabelle, Countess of Croye, escapes; and the two of them ride across the open landscape. But the Boar sends after them a troop of his Black Riders:

They were pursued by a party of De la Marck’s Schwarz Reiters. These soldiers, or rather banditti, were bands levied in the Lower Circles of Germany. To maintain the name of Black Troopers, and to strike additional terror into their enemies, they usually rode on black chargers, and smeared with black ointment their arms and accoutrements, in which operation their hands and faces often had their share. In morals and in ferocity these Schwarz Reiters emulated their pedestrian brethren the Lanzknechts.

On looking back, and discovering along the long level road which they had traversed a cloud of dust advancing, with one or two of the headmost troopers riding furiously in front of it, Quentin addressed his companion: “Dearest Isabelle, I have no weapon left save my sword, but since I cannot fight for you, I will fly with you. Could we gain yonder wood that is before us ere they come up, we may easily find means to escape.”

“So be it, my only friend,” said Isabelle, pressing her horse to the gallop. [Quentin Durward, ch 23]

Schwarz Reiters, Black Riders. It seems to me likely that Tolkien, reading Scott’s adventure story, retained a memory of this episode and reworked it for Fellowship of the Ring: not just men riding black horses, but black men riding black horses, at the behest of a terrible malevolent master, pursuing our heroes across a spacious, late medieval landscape of field, stream and woodland.

One of Scott’s footnotes makes plain that the Schwarz Reiters were historical; but that seems to me only to reinforce the aptitude of the Tolkienian appropriation:

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