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Aragorn. Photo: Stine Netman - The National Museum of Denmark

The Return of the King

The idea that ​​a great legendary king will return and restore peace to the kingdom is in many ways also medieval. Despite the fact that the Middle Ages were considered a modern era at the time, there was a clear expectation that Jesus would eventually return to judge the living and the dead. The world was old! An expression one finds both in the medieval sources and in The Lord of the Rings. The medieval mystic Joachim of Fiore (1135–1202) divided the world into three ages: The Age of the Father, the Age of Son and the Age of the Holy Spirit. The last age would begin in 1260 – an idea the Church still considers heretical.

A number of medieval stories and legends also include the concept that a king will return. The best known are the stories of King Arthur and Charlemagne. King Arthur is a legendary English king from the 6th century, but whether he ever actually existed is unknown. He can be found in older poetry as a great warrior who battles the natural and supernatural enemies of the British crown. In the 12th century, a whole body of literature emerges about Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table and their quest for the Holy Grail. This literature has in many ways contributed to Tolkien’s universe

A number of legends in the Middle Ages told of how Charlemagne, the Frankish emperor in the early 9th century, would come back and help defeat the enemies of Christianity. Stories about the King’s return were also linked to the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick II (1194–1250), who would return in the time of need.

In Denmark, it was not a king, but of one of Charlemagne’s heroes, the mighty warrior Holger Danske (Ogier the Dane). In the 16th century, Holger Danske was believed to have conquered all the countries from Jerusalem at the centre of the world, to paradise in the east, and converted them to the Christian faith. The stories of Holger Danske’s feats were widespread in Christian II’s time when the court historian Christiern Pedersen sat working with them. He deduced that Christian II was a direct descendant of the old proto-crusader. The legend went that the slumbering Holger Danske would awaken and come to the rescue of Denmark in the hour of need. In the early 19th century, folklorist J.M. Thiele linked the story to Kronborg, where Holger Danske sits to this day. 

Translatio imperii

In The Lord of the Rings, the great ancient kingdom of Gondor is about to fall, but the dream of a new king and a new beginning is still alive. The notion that the king will return, or that the former glory of the kingdom may be restored in a new form, is also a medieval notion. In the Middle Ages, there was talk of translatio imperii, i.e. that the empire would be transferred or continued in a new form. 

The ancient Roman Empire was first divided into two – an eastern section and a western section – in the 5th century. The last emperor of the west died in 476 and the Western Roman Empire was not re-established until Charlemagne was crowned emperor in 800. In the mid-10th century, the imperial dignity passed to the Holy Roman Emperors. The empire had fallen and risen again. Parallels can be drawn here to Aragorn, who restores the old Numenoric kingdom when he sits on the throne in Gondor after the War of the Ring. Tolkien himself compared Gondor to the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantine), which existed right up until 1453. The whole notion of the king returning, and the resurrection of the kingdom, is also linked to the idea of ​​the restoration of the British Empire, which collapsed after the Second World War.