Heorot — Tolkien’s Meduseld, Hall Of Kings
Overlooking a shallow meandering valley, raised on a hill facing South are the remains of perhaps, two of the most important constructions for our collection understanding of the Hero Age in the middle of what is known as the Dark Ages.But before we get to this place, let’s go to somewhere we all know.
Rohan in Middle-Earth is the name given to the windswept open plains north-west of the realm of Gondor. Here the horse lords dwell, the Rohirrim — Sindarin for People of the Horse-lords, the herdsmen and warriors of the ‘riddermark’. Riddermark is a translation of the Nordic ‘knight-riding field’ — a ‘ridder’ being a knight and ‘mark’ a field or landscape. Conceptualized as the “Horse Lords of Rohan” allied with Gondor in early drafts of 1939, the Rohirrim took their final form in 1942 when about one third of The Lord of the Rings was completed.
The place we know is the one that is central to the lands of Rohan – Edoras, the city of the horse-lords built on the hill in a valley of the white mountains at the top of the valley known as Harrowdale. Crowning the town on a hill was the great horse-lord hall called Meduseld. This article is all about such halls that existed in real life, the basis for the tale of Beowulf.
Tolkien based the Rohirrim on Anglo-Saxon/ Beowulf tradition, Anglo-Saxon horse warriors themselves being part of a greater common cultural warrior identity that spread from Sweden through Denmark and North Germany, Holland to East Anglia.
Meduseld is described as a large hall with a straw roof which, in the low rays of the sun gave it the appearance of being made of gold. The word Maeduselde, in Anglo-Saxon means mead-hall, a hall where, just like the Vikings, mead-drinking feasts were held to celebrate kings, festivities, and victories. Within, the halls of Meduseld were adorned with rich tapestries and the sigils of the horse lords.
The direct source for Meduseld is the legendary hall of Heorot, the mead-hall of Hroðgar, the king of Denmark. The name Heorot means “Hall of the Hart” (a Hart is a male deer), being “the foremost of halls under heaven”. This is how the description of Heorot would have sounded in the days of Beowulf’s composition:
Then, as I have heard, the work of constructing a building
Was proclaimed to many a tribe throughout this middle earth.
In time — quickly, as such things happen among men —
It was all ready, the biggest of halls.
He whose word was law
Far and wide gave it the name “Heorot”.
The men did not dally; they strode inland in a group
Until they were able to discern the timbered hall,
Splendid and ornamented with gold.
The building in which that powerful man held court
Was the foremost of halls under heaven;
Its radiance shone over many lands.
In prose this reads:
“It came in his mind to bid his henchmen a hall uprear, a master mead-house, mightier far than ever was seen by the sons of earth, and within it, then, to old and young he would all allot that the Lord had sent him, save only the land and the lives of his men. Wide, I heard, was the work commanded, for many a tribe this mid-earth round, to fashion the folkstead. It fell, as he ordered, in rapid achievement that ready it stood there, of halls the noblest: Heorot he named it whose message had might in many a land. Not reckless of promise, the rings he dealt, treasure at banquet: there towered the hall, high, gabled wide, the hot surge waiting of furious flame. Nor far was that day when father and son-in-law stood in feud for warfare and hatred that woke again. With envy and anger an evil spirit endured the dole in his dark abode, that he heard each day the din of revel high in the hall: there harps rang out, clear song of the singer.”
Was there a real Heorot?
In a word, yes, though this is ‘speculative probability’, meaning, it is probable but not certain. The evidence lies in the legends and sagas and certainly, many researchers and scholars think so. I believe so, certainly, based on going through the different sources, comparing these to the archaeological evidence. Heorot corresponds to Hleiðargarðr, seat of King Hroðulf — Hrólfr Kraki, the great hall mentioned in Hrólf Kraki’s saga. This was located at present day Old Lejre.
In my fiction work, I use the place name ‘Lethragard’, as this is the name I have provided for the seat of the legendary kings of old based at Old Lejre, stemming from Leðra, pronounced in English ‘Lethra’. Gard is the Nordic name for a place, as we know from Tolkien as in Isengard, the place of Isen. Gard can mean farm, or a homestead. It is also used to mark the seat of a ruler, hence Lethra-gard.
I have visited Old Lejre many times over the last ten years during the development of The Elements. Called ‘Lethra’ in The Elements, in accordance with the old name leiðar with the soft ‘d’, this little village South of Roskilda nestles next to a stream-valley where the monuments of the later Vikings can still be seen today. The area is mentioned by the medieval chroniclers Saxo Grammaticus. It has been written by the medieval chronicler Sven Aggesen in the 12th century, the very oldest of the written material from Denmark chroniclers, that Lejre was the chief residence of Hroðgar’s Skjöldung clan, or Skjoldungs (“Scylding” in Beowulf).
The hall being large enough to allow Hrothgar to present Beowulf with a gift of eight horses, each with gold-plate headgear. As halls in the Viking age, the great abode functioned both as a throne-room, a hearth, a residence for the king’s thanes (warriors). It was the very symbol of rule and power, coming to manifestation under the Danish Viking King who built a series of circular forts, all divided into quadrants, each quadrant featuring four great halls arranged as squares, each fort comprising 16 halls in all. This, like Heorot not only from legend — but Heorot in reality, was the epitome at that time of human civilization and culture in the North, as well as the might of the Danish kings.
With the legendary deeds of Haldan and his successors written by the Danish chroniclers of the 12th century from oral tradition and possibly older written sources no longer known, it is most probable that the entire area around Lethra was founded on oral tradition. Such traditions continued on into the Age of Nordic Heroes with the tales told that were the real legends based on real deeds behind the telling of the tale of Beowulf. As testimony to this area and the importance it holds not only for the Norse, but indeed for the world understanding Norse culture in the age of heroes I decided to base the first three books in The Elements series in a fictional rendition of present-day Lethra for the simple reason, that the history of this area is fascinating. Little remains today to make a visit any kind of revelation.
Interested in Tolkien’s sources, Viking legends and cutting edge fiction?
I’m currently developing a new no-holds-barred series, making my research available for reading or as sources for those interested fantasy, history, legend and mythological interest.
Each book in the Viking Legends and Norse Mythology series will be digital-only, published as eTEXT linking to the world’s online sagas, libraries and resources.
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