The Roman crisis that inspired J.R.R. Tolkien.

Aug 2012
Washington State, USA.
The Roman crisis that inspired J.R.R. Tolkien.

by Ray Buckridge.

In 1916, a young J.R.R. Tolkien was in the trenches in France as many know. Across no man's land was the mighty army of Germany, a nation who's people were popularly referred to back then as "The Huns." The conditions the soldiers had to fight in were some of the worst any has ever had to endure, especially during the Battle of the Somme that Tolkien took part in. Most of Tolkien's close friends in the British army were dead before the war ended, but Tolkien was himself perhaps spared by coming down with Trench Fever, and being sent home to England in November of 1916. During his recovery, he began his long and complicated work of putting Middle Earth together.

During his life Tolkien always fiercely resisted theories that his stories were an allegory for anything. People linked his stories to events such as WWI or WWII, or guessed that the ring was a symbol for the A-bomb. He acknowledged though: "An author cannot of course remain wholly unaffected by his experience," so his being influenced or inspired is open for debate.

Tolkien's study of European languages and mythology is something that can be factually tied to his creation of Middle Earth. His involvement in the study of a 4th century cursed Roman ring shortly before he published The Hobbit in 1937 has gained much popular acceptance as the inspiration for The One Ring. As far as the dramatic events in the books go however, no one theory has gained dominance for what inspired Tolkien. Similarities in history are usually written off as coincidence. When it comes to the world wars of the 20th century, I have to agree there is not much evidence. Still, the corpse strewn Dead Marshes near Mordor were cited by Tolkien as having been inspired by his awful experiences in the trenches. The history of the ruined fortress of Amon Súl (Weathertop) might be oddly similar to the Belgian fortress of Eben-Emael that was overwhelmed by German commandos in 1940. Both forts were placed near the border intersections of three nations, and both were destroyed to make way for conquest by evil forces (The Witch King and Hitler). Though these and other modern similarities can be amusing, they aren't much unless compared to much greater historical parallels that exist in the fifth century, around the time of the fall of the West Roman Empire.

Two of my favorite things to read have always been History and Fantasy, so when I'm reading either, I'm usually on the lookout for parallels between the two. The following theory that the events in The Lord of the Rings was inspired by the fifth century crisis that the Romans suffered under Attila the Hun and King Geiseric of the Vandals was not created by myself, although I stumbled upon some evidence before I knew it was an idea that had already been entertained. When I started to read Peter Heather's The Fall of the Roman Empire (2006) many years ago, something caught my eye early in the book. In the late Roman Empire's frontier city of Trier, there was a large gate to the city called the Porta Nigra, which translates from Latin to Black Gates (it's a double-gate). Like the Black Gates in Middle Earth, these gates are massive and complex. They still survive today as a tourist attraction in modern Trier. There's a difference though in that the Porta Nigra guarded a city, while the Black Gates of Mordor protected one of the entrances to that land. Still, the Roman city of Trier was itself a garrison city, in a position to help secure the borders of Germania on the Empire's border. In Middle Earth lore; after the defeat of Sauron 3,000 years before the time of Frodo, the Black Gates became the site of a Númenorian garrison, meant to contain the evil of Mordor. Eventually, the forces of evil controlled it again. I find this odd because Trier during both world wars was a part of Germany, as it is today. It was enough to draw my attention as I read the rest of the book.

When I'd reached the mid 5th century in Heather's volume, I learned how Attila the Hun built an empire and began attacking the East Romans to the south of his home on the Great Hungarian Plain in 441. In the beginning, he shared power with his brother Bleda, but eventually had total control. Roman cities in the Balkans began to fall. The Huns even earned a reputation for proficiency at siege warfare; building their own rams and rolling siege towers, which was very unusual for barbarians of that time. In Heather's section on Attila, he cites an account of the historian Priscus describing the siege of Naissus:

When…a large number of [Hunnic siege] engines had been brought up to the wall…the defenders on the battlements gave in because of the clouds of missiles and evacuated their positions; the ro-called rams were brought up also. This is a very large machine. A beam is suspended by slack chains from timbers which incline together, and it is provided with a sharp metal point and screens…
The account describes the battering rams for a few more lines and continues:

From the walls the defenders tumbled down wagon-sized boulders …Some [rams] they crushed together with the men working them, but they could not hold out against the great number of machines. Then the enemy brought up scaling ladders…The barbarians entered through the part of the circuit wall broken by the blows of the rams and also over the scaling ladders…and the city was taken.
Even though this account is vaguely similar to the Battle of the Hornburg in The Two Towers, it's certainly nothing to get too excited about. An educated person like Tolkien would make a siege similar to actual ones in history.

In 447, Attila defeated two Eastern Roman armies; one which was near Constantinople, but the awesome fortifications of the Eastern Roman capital proved too great for even Attila to lay siege to. Some Tolkien fans have compared the city to Minas Tirith, citing the excellent triple-walled fortifications as being similar to the multiple walls of Tolkien's capital of Gondor. It's even suggested by Heather that these triple-walls were constructed in 413 AD as a response to the Huns moving into Europe. They must have been pretty scary folk from the moment they arrived.

In 451, Attila suddenly invaded the West, pouring the biggest army he could muster into Gaul. The riddle of the sudden change of direction is still a mystery, but some believe he had bled the Eastern Empire of so much gold through embezzlement and conquest that he wanted a fresh source of treasure. Some believe that it was the sister of the Western Emperor Iusta Grata Honoria offering her hand in marriage to Attila, with half the Western Empire as her dowry that did it. Still another theory is that Geiseric; the king the Vandals, had bribed Attila to move on the West, possibly because of animosity he had with the Visigoths in Gaul. Whatever the case, the Huns could not be stopped until they laid siege to the city of Orléans. By this point in the book my mind had wandered back to Tolkien a few times, but I thought myself silly for it. Once I read Heather's account of the 451 Battle of Châlons though, I was immediately convinced this era was a major inspiration for Tolkien.

Heather describes Orléans as being placed under a heavy siege, but the approaching army of Romans and Visigoths led by Flavius Aetius compelled them to withdraw. Later in the same month, the armies met and fought a massive battle 150 kilometers from Orléans. Heather's main source cites an awesome 165,000 as having died in the battle, which Heather and most historians consider nonsense. Heather never gives a name to the battle; which is known by several, but described it as having taken place at the Catalaunian Fields. This actually is one of the lesser-known names for the battle. He also described the death of Theoderic; the king of Rome's Visigoth allies, as being either from a spear thrust by a fellow named Andag, or by falling from his own horse and being trampled by his own men.

In the book The Return of the King, Minas Tirith was under heavy siege by the forces of Mordor, but then are relieved by Gondor's Rohirrim allies, led by King Théoden. What followed was the Battle of Pelennor Fields. King Théoden was killed in the battle when his own horse fell upon him after being struck by a black dart.

Being absolutely thrilled at what seemed to be more than a coincidence, I searched the internet to see if others had made the same connection. I found one person who had. In a great article published in 2012 called Tolkien and Attila, I found many more parallels that I had not yet noticed. The article mentioned one historical account that the walls of Orléans were breached when the army of Aetius showed up to rescue the city and put the Huns into flight. This and other parallels brought up in the essay further convinced me of the theory.

As exciting as I found this, I didn't want to write my own article on the subject unless I could find a large amount of additional evidence to lend more to the theory. The rest of this article summarizes some that I found in the Tolkien and Attila article, but also much more that I found in my own research. Some of it is widely accepted as having influenced Tolkien, but not in a way that connects the material directly to the 5th century Roman crisis as far as I can tell.

The awful aftermaths of Châlons, and Tolkien’s Pelennor Fields battle were both described as having so much carnage that nearby watersheds ran red from blood.

From The Return of the King:

All were slain save those who fled to die, or drown in the red foam of the river.

Jordanes describing the Châlons battlefield:

…a brook flowing between low banks through the plain was greatly increased by blood from the wounds of the slain.

The Black Gates in the Roman city of Trier that I mentioned earlier not only existed in Attila’s time, but actually fell to him after he briefly took the city during his 451 rampage.

Attila, after being defeated at Châlons built a pyre out of saddles, determined to burn himself alive if the Army of Aetius came to take him. This is vaguely similar to Gondor's steward Denethor II burning himself alive on a pyre because he believed the war with Mordor was lost.

The night that Attila died, the eastern emperor Marcian in Constantinople supposedly had a happy dream that Attila's bow broke in two. When Boromir died, his father Denethor II and brother Faramir both could barely hear him sounding his horn over a great distance. Later, Gandalf and Pippin met Denethor in Minas Tirith clutching Boromir's horn that was split in two. He knew of his son's death.

The son of Rohan's King Théoden was named Théodred. The Visigoth King Theoderic and one of his sons are both called Theodorid in an alternate spelling used by Jordanes.

Sauron and Attila: The 6th century historian Jordanes wrote of a letter sent to the Visigothic King Theodorid (Theoderic) by the Roman emperor Valentinian. He was requesting their aid against Attila.
Bravest of nations, it is the part of prudence for us to unite against the lord of the earth who wishes to enslave the whole world; who requires no just cause for battle, but supposes whatever he does is right. He measures his ambition by his might. License satisfies his pride. Despising law and right, he shows himself an enemy to Nature herself. And thus he, who clearly is the common foe of each, deserves the hatred of all. Pray remember--what you surely cannot forget--that the Huns do not overthrow nations by means of war, where there is an equal chance, but assail them by treachery, which is a greater cause for anxiety. To say nothing about ourselves, can you suffer such insolence to go unpunished? Since you are mighty in arms, give heed to your own danger and join hands with us in common. Bear aid also to the Empire, of which you hold a part. If you would learn how such an alliance should be sought and welcomed by us, look into the plans of the foe.
Jordanes also cites the response by Theoderic as well:

By these and like arguments the ambassadors of Valentinian prevailed upon King Theodorid. He answered them, saying: 'Romans, you have attained your desire; you have made Attila our foe also. We will pursue him wherever he summons us, and though he is puffed up by his victories over divers races, yet the Goths know how to fight this haughty foe. I call no war dangerous save one whose cause is weak; for he fears no ill on whom Majesty has smiled.' The nobles shouted assent to the reply and the multitude gladly followed. All were fierce for battle and longed to meet the Huns, their foe. And so a countless host was led forth by Theodorid, king of the Visigoths, who sent home four of his sons, namely Friderich and Eurich, Retemer and Mimnerith, taking with him only the two elder sons, Thorismud and Theodorid, as partners of his toil. O brave array, sure defense and sweet comradeship, having the aid of those who delight to share in the same dangers!
The account of Jordanes repeatedly uses the word races to refer to the mixture of people who united to fight Attila. A feeling you get from his account is that Attila was a threat to all, and all had to come together to resist him (sound familiar?). Valentinian refers to Attila as the Lord of the Earth. This is one of the titles of the Dark Lord Sauron as well.

A quote that is attributed to Attila on the internet reads as follows:
There, where I have passed, the grass will never grow again.
Attila was known for causing great devastation wherever he rampaged, but the quote has a sinister, almost supernatural sounding boast to it.

In Middle Earth lore, the lands ruled by Sauron always seemed to be devastated. The longer they were under his control, the more poisoned the land. His Orcs were even described in the books as madly chopping at the vegetation as they passed in order to cause destruction.

Mordor and The Great Hungarian Plain: Before the War of the Ring, Sauron gathered all his forces to the volcanic plain of Mordor. The land was poor near Mount Doom, but Sauron's horde survived there while he waited for the right time for his main attack on Middle Earth.

In our history, Heather suggests it was about 405 - 408 AD that the Huns arrived from the East and found a new home on the plains now bearing their name, shortly before Constantinople beefed up its fortifications as mentioned earlier. The Huns were a nomadic people who traditionally fought on horseback. The plains of Pannonia simply offered graze for these horses and other livestock. Heather writes of the Hunnic Empire incorporating people, not territory. It's well established that the Huns themselves were a minority in their empire, as so many Germanic and other groups were brought into the Hun's orbit of control. I don't think it's a stretch to suggest Attila had brought in massive numbers of his allies close to his home prior to his 451 invasion of Gaul, since his entire army that was made up of such a mixture of different tribes, all marched together in a massive force along the Danube as they invaded the Roman West.

One of the defining characteristics of Mordor was how the land was almost completely surrounded by mountains, with few places from the West where one could easily gain access, especially since the approaches were guarded by Orcs. On Earth, the former Roman province of Pannonia where the Great Hungarian Plain lay was completely under hunnish control by the mid 5th century. The Pannonian Basin is an area largely filled with plains, and surrounded by mountains. While it's surely not as neatly cut off from surrounding areas as Mordor, there are spots where the obstacles are comparable. Also, the elevations of Mordor and the mountains surrounding the Great Hungarian Plain look vaguely similar when viewed closely (see picture).

The Iron Gates of the Danube even give Attila‘s lair a familiar flavor. They are described by Peter Heather in Fall of the Roman Empire as follows:

…at the end of the first century AD, Roman military engineers carved a road through sheer solid rock at the Iron Gates, where the River Danube cuts through the southern extension of the Carpathian Mountains, to connect the Lower and Middle Danube regions. The Balkans was the junction between east and west, and the Empire didn't skimp on its highways.
It's important to remember that the Danube runs right through the plains of Pannonia after it runs through the mountains from the northwest, and then through the southeast Carpathians. The Iron Gates guard a narrow vale on the southeast approach to the plains that eventually was controlled by Attila as his empire grew. This reminds me a little of the Morgul Vale that connects Mordor and Gondor. In the War of the Ring, the main body of Mordor's army marched out from the city of Minas Morgul (located in the vale) to attack Minas Tirith. As they marched through the vale, they went alongside the toxic river Morgulduin. Attila often used the Danube as a route to attack the East Roman Empire, and surely passed through his Iron Gates that were built by the Romans. Although Sauron’s army didn't march straight from Mordor in it‘s big attack on Minas Tirith (which would make a better parallel), there were two passes in the Morgul Vale that led into Mordor. The road along the vale led to the Morgul Pass, and the pass of Cirith Ungol that was used by Frodo and Sam to get into Mordor after climbing a stair carved into the rock of the vale, and having some dangerous encounters.

Like Rome had controlled the Iron Gates before the Huns grew in power, the Morgul Vale was once the domain of Gondor. Minas Morgul was originally one of their cities in Tolkien lore. When the Huns attacked the Western empire in 451, they once again used the Danube to travel along in the opposite direction, again through some narrow vales, but surely not as striking as the Iron Gates.

Orcs and Huns: In order to find the interesting parallel here, one must not just look for the truth of who the Huns were, but also how they were perceived by those who had to endure their ravages, or who wrote of them in a less objective time. The 4th century Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus had this to say: 

The people called Huns, barely mentioned in ancient records, live beyond the sea of Azof, on the border of the Frozen Ocean, and are a race savage beyond all parallel. At the very moment of birth the cheeks of their infant children are deeply marked by an iron, in order that the hair instead of growing at the proper season on their faces, may be hindered by the scars; accordingly the Huns grow up without beards, and without any beauty. They all have closely knit and strong limbs and plump necks; they are of great size, and low legged, so that you might fancy them two-legged beasts, or the stout figures which are hewn out in a rude manner with an ax on the posts at the end of bridges.
 They are certainly in the shape of men, however uncouth, and are so hardy that they neither require fire nor well flavored food, but live on the roots of such herbs as they get in the fields, or on the half-raw flesh of any animal, which they merely warm rapidly by placing it between their own thighs and the backs of their horses.
Our 6th century friend Jordanes gave this account of the Huns: 

For by the terror of their features they inspired great fear in those whom perhaps they did not really surpass in war. They made their foes flee in horror because their swarthy aspect was fearful, and they had, if I may call it so, a sort of shapeless lump, not a head, with pin-holes rather than eyes. Their hardihood is evident in their wild appearance, and they are beings who are cruel to their children on the very day they are born. For they cut the cheeks of the males with a sword, so that before they receive the nourishment of milk they must learn to endure wounds. Hence they grow old beardless and their young men are without comeliness, because a face furrowed by the sword spoils by its scars the natural beauty of a beard. They are short in stature, quick in bodily movement, alert horsemen, broad shouldered, ready in the use of bow and arrow, and have firm-set necks which are ever erect in pride. Though they live in the form of men, they have the cruelty of wild beasts.
The Romans already had a long tradition of disliking barbarians, but when the Huns invaded Europe, they not only observed another race, but people who had with pride mutilated themselves to look different. The shapeless lump of a head Jordanes mentioned was most likely caused by the hunnic practice of binding the heads of their infants, causing the skull to be misshapen. Add to all this a lifetime spent outdoors on the plain, and the Huns must have seemed subhuman to the snooty Romans. Tolkien described Orcs in one of his letters as such: 

...they are (or were) squat, broad, flat-nosed, sallow-skinned, with wide mouths and slant eyes; in fact degraded and repulsive versions of the (to Europeans) least lovely Mongol-types."
Also, see the below section on the writings of William Morris.

Minas Tirith and Constantinople: It's very interesting to look at a map of Middle Earth, as the lands along the Bay of Belfalas to the south and southeast of Gondor have a vague similarity to North Africa and the Middle East. The placement of the Haradrim people in these lands supports this, not only in that they are similar to Middle Eastern peoples in name, complexion and apparel, but also by their riding of elephant-like creatures into battle. Minas Tirith rested in a position to be threatened by both the East (Mordor), as well as the South and Southeast (The Corsairs and the Haradrim). Constantinople was very similarly threatened by approaches from modern Turkey as well as the often warlike migrations that came from the East out of Scythia, one of which was the Huns. Of course, the multiple-walled fortifications in both cities mentioned earlier lends to the idea. It still might seem that the parallel isn't very good, as it was Orléans that was laid siege to in 451 just before Attila was at last soundly beaten, but the fact that he backed away from the awesome fortifications of Constantinople several years earlier in 447 makes it worth consideration. It is even known that Tolkien himself referred to Minas Tirith as a "Byzantine City."

The Vandals and the Corsairs: Geiseric; the future king of the Vandals, was born in modern Hungary. His people in 406 AD crossed the Rhine into Roman Gaul and ravaged their way to Roman Spain where they dwelled for years. Some sources maintain that the Roman general Boniface who ruled much of North Africa from Carthage invited the Vandal king Gunderic to come to North Africa and fight for him in exchange for land rights. Gunderic died, and his brother Geiseric ended up becoming king and leading the expedition to North Africa. Geiseric came as a conqueror however, committing atrocities against Roman citizens – especially Catholics. When he took Carthage; Rome's greatest North African seaport, the Vandal king's future as a sea raider was cemented.
Umbar was once the greatest port of Southern Gondor on the southern side of the Bay of Belfalas. This city is in the land I compared to North Africa earlier. Gondorian rebels called the Castamiri were supported by Umbar, and caused the city to break from Gondor during the Kin-strife. These people became the Corsairs of Umbar, and raided and harassed Gondor. They endured Gondor's revenge largely by allying and mixing with the Haradrim. The Castamiri were supporters of Castamir the Usurper. 

The time when the Vandals ravaged Roman lands was one of great strife in the West Roman Empire, as violent contention for the role of Western Emperor was largely responsible for opportunistic barbarians being able to roam across Rome's territory. A Roman general named Castius supported John the Usurper, who came to power for only a year and a half before he was executed. Boniface never gave North African backing to John, but he did once support Castius in barbarian ravaged Spain as he tried to restore order. Boniface married a Vandal, which might support the theory that he invited them to Africa, but when Geiseric rampaged across North Africa, Boniface fought to hold them back. Boniface died in Italy on the battlefield fighting our friend Flavius Aetius in 432. Carthage fell to Geiseric soon after in 439 AD. 

Attila and Geiseric weren't just two thorns that happened to be in Rome's side at the same time. As mentioned earlier, Peter Heather claims there is convincing evidence that they were in contact before Attila invaded Gaul. While Attila was waging there, Geiseric was in the process of conquering the large, Roman islands of the Western Mediterranean. In a similar fashion, the Corsairs of Umbar worked with the Dark Lord Sauron; going so far as sailing up the Anduin, and attempting to link up with the army of Mordor.

Rome and Gondor: Gondor was a declining empire much as the two Roman Empires were, most notably the West Roman Empire. Peter Heather wrote extensively on the weakened state of the Roman army in his book The Fall of the Roman Empire. Not just in the number of troops, but in the use of garrison soldiers and others not properly trained for open battle. Characters in The Lord of the Rings lament often of the declining glory of Gondor. The loss of territory is also very familiar.

The Romans had lost most of North Africa – Gondor had lost their possessions on the south shore of the Bay of Belfalas.
The Romans lost Pannonia, and eventually had to deal with the Huns who moved there – Gondor, while having never controlled the similar Mordor, did build the later accursed city of Minas Morgul near the passes to Mordor before it was taken by evil.
As the Romans grew weaker, they had to allow barbarians to settle on Roman lands and help with the defense of the empire – Gondor asked for help from the ancestors of the Rohirrim, and gave them land to dwell in (see Visigoths and Rohirrim section below).

The Gondorians are described as having dark hair, while the Rohirrim have a tendency for fair hair, just as one would suspect for the Romans or the Germanic Goths. The people of Gondor have ancestors that sailed from a long-before sunken island called Númenor, while any well read Roman knew of a great land that Plato wrote about called Atlantis that had also sunk into the sea.

The writings of William Morris: In a letter published in 1960 Tolkien mentioned a 19th century historical fantasy writer that inspired his work. Tolkien wrote:

The Dead Marshes and the approaches to the Morannon owe something to Northern France after the Battle of the Somme. They owe more to William Morris and his Huns and Romans, as in The House of The Wolfings or The Roots of the Mountains.
Even without this quote by Tolkien, it surely would still be widely accepted that this work inspired him. In The House of the Wolfings (1889), a tribe of Goths live in an area called the Mark in a forest called Mirkwood, and rally together to fight Imperial Rome. In its sequel The Roots of the Mountains (also 1889), the descendants of the Wolfings from the first book are fighting the Dusk Men (the Huns). The second book has been compared with the story of the Dunedain protecting the peaceful Shire from Orcs in Tolkien lore according to the Wikipedia page on the volume.

If we look at the history between Rome and the Visigoths, the Visigoths fought Rome for many years before they finally joined forces to fight the Huns. Though Morris’ second book depicts no massive battle with the help of Roman allies, the strange connection between Huns, Goths and Tolkien is strangely there.

The Rohirrim and the Visigoths: This is perhaps the strongest parallel between the history and the fantasy in this article. As noted in the above section, the Goths portrayed in the works of William Morris directly influenced Tolkien as a matter of accepted fact, but there is much more than this alone. The Goths are commonly accepted as a major influence on the creation of the Rohirrim.

At the Tolkien Gateway website under the article on Rohan, this is written:

Several aspects of Rohan's culture and history seem to be inspired by both Goths, Scandinavians and the medieval Anglo-Saxons.
Just like the Germanic Ostrogoths, Rohirric culture was a mounted culture. It had separated from the Northmen, moved south, and had settled in close proximity with a civilization. In the Goths' case it was the Byzantine Empire and in the case of the Rohirrim, it was Gondor.
The people at Tolkien Gateway seem to have edged very close to the territory of this theory, although they mentioned the Ostrogoths and not the greater parallel of the Visigoths. If you look at artist’s depictions of Gothic 5th century warriors (see picture), they resemble greatly the Rohirrim as they appeared in the Peter Jackson films.

The Rohirrim of Tolkien lore came from the north under King Eorl to fight for Gondor, and were granted the Calenardhon to dwell in. They took an oath from then on to come to Gondor’s aid whenever called.

The Visigoths in the early 5th century were living in Iberia (Spain) after a century of conflict with Rome after first emerging from the east, but by 417 they were Roman allies and were ordered into southwest Gaul by Rome. The Romans allowed them to settle there as Federati of the western empire. Federati were expected to give military assistance to Rome when called. The location of this land was northwest of the 5th century West Roman capital of Ravenna. When the Rohirrim rode to Minas Tirith, they came from the northwest.

The greatest single parallel is surely the similar deaths of the fictional King Théoden, and the historical King Theoderic. This similarity is even greater when looked at closely. They were both very old for kings leading men into combat, and both died on the battlefield under the aforementioned similar circumstances, and both of their heirs were crowned king before the battle was fully over. Well, in the case of the newly crowned king of history Thorismund, Attila was hiding in his wagon fort threatening to burn himself alive, but Aetius convinced a vengeful son to instead go home and secure his throne.

In ROTK, the newly crowned nephew of Théoden fought on for many hours longer until Argaorn arrived and the host of Mordor was beaten.

Both kings were lost track of by their men, and were discovered amongst large numbers of the slain.

Jordanes tells us this:

Now, during these delays in the siege (of Attila‘s wagon fort), the Visigoths sought their king, and the king’s sons their father, wondering at his absence when success had been attained. When, after a long search, they found him where the dead lay the thickest, as happens with brave men, they honored him with songs and bore him away in sight of the enemy.
In ROTK, a mortally wounded King Théoden was found by his nephew and heir Éomer by chance, but Théoden lived long enough to pronounce him king. The spot had many slain nearby from a fight between Théoden’s knights and Haradrim cavalry. Also, the body of the Witch King’s flying beast lay there as well as Éomer’s sister Éowyn who was believed to be dead. The remaining knights of Théoden bore him and Éowyn from the battlefield in a dignified fashion, while an enraged Éomer charged off to continue the battle. No songs were sung as Théoden was carried away, but the lyrics of a song for the lost king are cited at the end of chapter six of ROTK.

One good parallel is in a book published by a British botanist named William Herbert in 1838. In his book Attila, King of the Huns, he writes an account of Attila from a very religious Christian perspective. The text that leaped off of the page at me concerns more the Siege of Orléans than the Battle of Châlons that came later. An Alan king Sangiban was in the city while it was under attack, but according to this account the defense seemed to be organized by Bishop Anianus (St. Aignan). While I wouldn't try to convince anyone that a Bishop managing the defenses of Orléans is anything like Gandalf giving commands during the siege of Minas Tirith, the following account from Herbert's book is very striking in its similarity to that siege: 

The operations of the Hun were perhaps impeded for a few days by unseasonable weather, but his engines battered the town with irresistible force, and it seemed as if nothing but the direct interposition of Providence could save the town and its inhabitants from the terrible chastisement, which Attila never failed to inflict upon those who presumed to defend themselves. Bishop Anian prayed, and prayed, and prayed; but the walls were shaken by the force of the battering rams, the garrison were driven from the battlements by the Hunnish archery, and the battlements themselves crumbled under the repeated shocks of the blocks of stone that were hurled by the machines of the besiegers. He sent his attendant to look out and report whether he saw anything in the distance. The answer was, no. Again he sent him, and nothing was distinguishable.
A third time, and he reported, like the messenger of Elijah, that a little cloud was rising on the plain. The bishop shouted to the people, that it was the aid of God, and throughout the whole town there was a cry of the aid of God, mingled with the shrieks of women; for at that very instant the Huns were scaling the breach and actually in the town, and in a few moments the city would have been a blazing and bloody example of barbarian vengeance. But Attila had seen the little cloud that was advancing in the distance, and recognized the dust that was raised by the rapid advance of the Gothic cavalry, which formed the van of the army of Aetius.
I wish I didn’t have to say that this more closely resembles Peter Jackson’s cinematic depiction of the siege of Minas Tirith than the way it is told in ROTK, but I do. In the book, most of the siege engine damage to Minas Tirith is to the gate, and from missiles flying over the walls and landing on structures behind and starting fires – still, this historical account describes the relieved citizens of Orléans praising the arrival of the Visigoths specifically in much the way the people of Minas Tirith were joyous over the arrival of the Rohirrim.

Linking the parallels: While not every parallel is perfectly neat, an inspiration from history would not reflect perfectly in a work of fiction. The “Byzantine City” of Constantinople might not be so close to the site of the great battle of Châlons, but the Huns and even Attila did threaten the city more than once. The Black Gates of Trier might not be all that similar to the gates that guard Mordor, but there again was Attila, taking control of them in 451. In the writings of William Morris, there again are the Goths, Romans and Huns, and the widely accepted association with Tolkien. The dream of emperor Marcian of Attila’s split bow, telling him the villain was dead may not be exactly like Denethor holding Boromir’s split horn and knowing his son was dead, but he had the dream in Constantinople of all places.

The maps of the elevations of Mordor and the Great Hungarian Plains that I posted may not be so similar to cinch this theory as a fact, but the routes of the attacks of both Sauron in ROTK, and Attila in 451 went west in the same general direction. One from the Morgul Vale along the toxic river Morgulduin, and the other along the Danube as Sauron moved northwest along the gorges of the river with his massive army (the ancient accounts all say it was massive). Although the deep, dramatic gorges of the Iron Gates to the east are more like that of the Morgul Vale, Attila did use this route to attack the East Roman Empire and approach Constantinople in 447, before deciding that the city was too great to lay siege to. It seems to me that the War of the Ring was inspired by a mixture of the 5th century threats against the East Roman Empire and Constantinople, and the awful battle of Châlons in modern France…or, are all these things only coincidence?

Thanks for reading – feedback is appreciated.