Beyond Anduin: Rhovanion as the northern frontier of Gondor

This essay inaugurates what I hope will become a regular feature of Other Hands; informed discussion of various aspects or themes of Middle-earth which will fully take into account what Tolkien himself has written or said about them. As role-players it is our job to be sub-creators — that is, to make Middle-earth our own by inventing something new, rather than limiting ourselves to the printed page; and as each reader of The Lord of the Rings will have his or her own unique picture of what Middle-earth is like, so too each gamemaster will create an idiosyncratic version of its history and of the events which take place within that setting.

Tolkien’s annalistic histories of the Third Age (as found in the infamous Appendix A) lend themselves to such diversity. They are painted in broad strokes and leave many blank spaces to be interpreted and explored by the enterprising gamemaster. There is, in fact, a long tradition of mock history” among Tolkien fans — of pretending to write about Middle-earth as if it were the real world (i.e. applying principles of real world” historiography to Tolkien’s imaginary history in the hopes of achieving a supposedly more objective” or less idiosyncratic version of the gaps” left by Tolkien’s writings).

These mock histories of Middle-earth provide an abundant resource for role-players seeking creative ideas to incorporate into their own games, and are therefore usually worth a read (they are an endemic feature of most Tolkien fanzines). They also have a tendency to be frustrating if one already has a highly opinionated view on things Tolkien (as do I). This is partly due to their inevitable idiosyncrasy, but often they lack any discernible rhyme or reason whatsoever. This, in turn, is usually the result of a certain morbidity that must accompany any attempt to write a mock history of a fictional world for the hell of it. This morbidity (I use the term jokingly) is less characteristic of the role-player, for whom the desire to contemplate the secondary world is closely linked” to a practical goal: the need to create a richly-detailed background in which to set a game. In other words, mock history conjured up by the role-player is usually more interesting than that of the pure Tolkien junkie since the former intends to do something with it.

But while the will to game is perhaps an important ingredient to more consistent mock history writing, it does not wholly erase conflicting interpretations of Tolkien’s world. This section of Other Hands will be devoted to such history writing; and to open further debate and interchange among roleplayers regarding different possible ways of reading the evidence.” I want to emphasize in closing that the goal of this section, as with everything else in Other Hands, is to further enjoyment of Middle-earth as a setting for fantasy role-playing. We welcome submissions which invent new material out of whole cloth, but the focus of this particular section will be on what Tolkien has actually written (i.e. the published works to which we all have access) and how it might best be interpreted and used creatively.

Rhovanion and the Realm of Gondor

The lands described by Tolkien as Rhovanion” (Wilderland) have been the subject of a number of Iron Crown publications, beginning with Southern Mirkwood in 1983. In these modules, the view has been advanced that during the Third Age the Dúnadan realm of Gondor formally occupied and administered the wide plains south and east of Greenwood the Great, giving to them the name Dor Rhúnen” (cf. Mirkwood: The Wilds of Rhovanion, 1988:46 – 47). The scenario proposed, then, is of a territory controlled directly as a military border-march. Tolkien, however, seems to suggest a rather different picture of the relationship between the South-kingdom and the plains of Rhovanion. What I want to argue, on the basis of the information provided in Gondor and the Heirs of Anarion” (RoTK: 324 – 3 37), is that Rhovanion is better understood as frontier than as a border-march. Rhovanion, I suggest, was never occupied by the men of Gondor as portrayed in the ICE modules. The Sindarin designation Dor Rhúnen” is here fore inappropriate.

Rhovanion as a frontier

The view that the Dúnedain occupied the plains of Rhovanion derives fom Tolkien’s statement that during the reign of Hyarmendacil I (1015 – 1149) the realm of Gondor extended east to the inland Sea of Rhûn” ibid:325). This is accounted for by te reference to the ninth king Turambar (541 – 667), who avenged his father’s death at the hands of the Easterlings and won much territory eastwards” (ibid:324). This view is most likely correct, since there are no further references to Rhovanion until the time of Hyarmendacil; however, this does not imply direct occupation or even formal claim to the territory on the part of Gondor, for at a later point in the narrative we are told that the kings gave the Northmen of Rhovanion wide lands beyond Anduin south of Greenwood the Great, to be a defense against the men of the East” (ibid:326).

This suggests two things. Firstly, it appears that the intention of this grant” of land was to create a frontier or buffer-zone against Gondor’s enemies by delegating the burden of military defenses such that the Dúnedain would not have to occupy the region themselves. Secondly, while the kings of Gondor are represented as giving” these lands to the North-men (thus implying some kind of proprietary claim) it seems unlikely that the Dúnedain perceived Rhovanion as belonging” to the territory of Gondor.

Other information would seem to corroborate this view. That Romendacil II would have shown especial favor” to a man who named himself King of Rhovanion” (ibid: 326) implies a recognition of autonomous rule. Whatever the reality of the political situation in 1248 may have been, it would appear that Gondor made no formal claim over Rhovanion in the same way that it claimed possession (for instance) of Harondor. On the other hand, if Vidugavia had been the first Northman to claim royal prerogative over Rhovanion, then previous to him Gondor may have advanced a nominal claim to the lands east to the inland Sea;” but it seems highly unlikely that such a claim would involve any kind of enactment on the part of Gondor. Moreover, the recognition of Vidugavia’s kingship and the absence of any evidence to suggest a change in affairs until the invasion of the Wain-riders points to a strengthening of Northman autonomy as it becomes more and more oriented towards Gondor.

In the first Wainrider assault upon Gondor in 1856, we are told that: The people of eastern and southern Rhovanion (presumably the Northmen) were enslaved; and the frontiers of Gondor were for that time withdrawn to the Anduin and the Emyn Muil” (ibid: 329). Here Rhovanion is called the frontier of Gondor, and this function is linked to the freedom or enslavement of the Northmen. If this can be taken as a model, then we would suspect that Rhovanion emerged in this capacity with Turambar’s initial grant” of the plains to the Northmen in 541, that it reached its culmination in the time of Vidugavia and his descendants, and that some four hundred years later it ceased to be a defensible frontier. We are given no positive evidence that it ever recovered this role.

Thus it seems that Rhovanion functioned as a frontier of Gondor for approximately one thousand-three hundred and fifteen years of the Third Age. It exercised military autonomy throughout the period of its settlement by the Northmen, and at least in the time of Vidugavia (1250 — ?) it enjoyed formally recognized political autonomy as a kingdom in its own right. This frontier autonomy and the absence of any enduring contact with Dúnedain is reflected by the fact that in 1250 Rómendacil had no knowledge of the language, manners, and policies of the Northmen” (ibid:326). Finally, there is no evidence that the frontier ever received a Sindarin name (as would have the case if Dúnedain had settled there or had laid formal claim to the territory). Hence it is likely that its original name Rhovanion” was retained because it was never occupied by the men of Gondor. Finally, the realm of Vidugavia was regarded by the high men of Gondor to be an alien country” (ibid).

The Kings of Gondor and the Northmen

We return now to the problem of the exact nature of the relationship between the kings and their Northman allies, investigating the development of this relationship from the perspective of the emergence and decline of Rhovanion as a frontier. The basis for the grant of Rhovanion to the North-men was their supposed ethnic ties: they were the nearest in kin of lesser Men to the Dúnedain (being for the most part descendants of those peoples from whom the Edain of old had come)” (ibid). The favor” shown them in the grant was therefore probably couched in the idiom of kinship, and most likely lacked any formal character.

The undefined nature of this alliance is made manifest by the fact that Rómendacil found it necessary to strengthen the bond between Gondor and the Northmen” (ibid) as a result of uncertain loyalties on the part of the latter during the second wave of Easterling invasions: the Northmen did not always remain true to Gondor, and some would join forces with the Easterlings, either out of greed for spoil, or in the furtherance of feuds among their princes” (ibid). Earlier we are told that the numbers of the North-men had increased greatly in the peace brought by the power of Condor” (ibid) — most likely this refers to Turambar’s route of the Easterlings in 541. It is therefore probable that these princes” emerged as a result of the expansion of the Northman population and territory from Turambar to the time of Rómendacil. If this is the case, then we can ascribe the cause of the eventual weakening of Northman loyalty to the kings in part to these internal conflicts. At least one characteristic which defined the nature of these princes” was the fact that each controlled a separate realm” (e.g. Vidugavia). Land and booty, then, were apparently the most important elements in establishing ascendancy over competing princedoms.

Rómendacil had two strategies for dealing with this situation, both of which involved co-opting the struggle of the princes for the interests of the ruling house of Gondor. His solution was partially motivated by the external threat of the Easterlings; but perhaps more fundamental to his reasoning was the incipient danger of civil war within the realm he was soon to inherit. Tolkien provides few clues as to the underlying causes of the Kin-strife (1432 – 1447), but one of them surely must have been Rómendacil’s appointment as Regent of Gondor in 1240. This view works off the assumption that Pelargir was the center of opposition to Eldacar, and that the rule of that haven had at least from the time of Siriondil been traditionally bestowed upon the king’s son (thus avoiding any development of Pelargir into a rival power against Osgiliath). 

With the creation of the Regency (an office which most likely did not survive Rómendacil) the heir to the crown was hindered from taking control of the haven, and its rule passed on to (again, my own assumption) Calimehtar and his descendants. When at last the Kin-strife broke out, two reasons are given for Castamir’s ascendancy over the other rebels: 1) he was Captain of Ships, and 2) he enjoyed the support of the people of the coasts and of the great havens of Pelargir and Umbar” (ibid: 327). In other words, it seems that the rift between Pelargir and Osgiliath began with the division of power between Rómendacil and his younger brother Calimehtar; the latter (or his descendants) apparently began to develop military and popular support along the coastal periphery of Belfalas Bay in order to create a separate power base from which to challenge Osgiliath. If this hypothesis is plausible, then it may shed some light on what was going on in Rhovanion between Rómendacil and the Northmen — just as Calimehtar was cultivating his own foundation of power in the south, so too Rómendacil was securing himself and his heirs by strengthening ties with Rhovanion.

The first manner in which Rómendacil exploited the situation beyond Anduin was his recognition and support of Vidugavia’s claim to the kingship of all Rhovanion. Whether or not this favor was formally granted, it was confirmed in practice by the Regent’s sending of his son Valacar as an ambassador. This relationship was renewed by Valacar’s subsequent marriage to Vidugavia’s daughter which ultimately precipitated (or rationalized) the Kin-strife. We do not know how long this relationship endured, but it was certainly in effect for the duration of Eldacar’s reign (1432 – 1490). The sanctuary given the exiled king during the interim of the Usurper’s reign indicates that Vidugavia’s descendants were interested in maintaining Eldacar’s future patronage.

The second means of turning the princely conflict in Rhovanion to the advantage of Rómendacil was his recruitment of Northmen for his military force: he took many of them into his service and gave to some high rank in his armies” (ibid: 326). Eldacar his grandson continued this policy of favor towards Northmen by whose help he had regained the crown” (ibid: 328) by settling many in Gondor following the Kin-strife. In all this it is crucial to keep in mind that the political autonomy of Rhovanion became more sharply defined as its involvement with Gondor increased. There is no positive evidence to suggest that the region was ever directly occupied or controlled by the Dúnedain.


While this scenario of the relationship of Rhovanion to Gondor is, I believe, more plausible than that offered by the Iron Crown modules, we are nevertheless left with the problem of explaining why (if this was the case) the territory beyond Anduin was included within the realm of the kings in reference to the time of Hyar-mendacil. We have imagined that de facto the Northmen of Rhovanion exercised political and military autonomy, while nevertheless acknowledging some kind of bond legitimated by kinship. By way of comparison, the Northmen of the Vales of Anduin are also said to have acknowledged” Gondor’s authority (ibid:325); but unlike their brethren beyond Anduin, the realm of Gondor is never said to have encompassed the Vales of Anduin north of Celebrant. This distinction may therefore be in part a consequence of the fact that Turambar had won” the lands eastward by military conquest, whereas no such military expedition was ever recorded to have been carried out in the northern Anduin vales. The grant of Rhovanion to the Northmen was therefore based upon right of conquest as well as their ancient kinship. This is the most logical explanation for the de iure inclusion of Rhovanion within the realm of the kings until the time of Vidugavia and Rómendacil.


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