As I mentioned previously, The Lord of the Rings — and indeed, the whole of Middle-Earth — is Tolkien’s way of giving Britain its proper mythos and legacy, undiluted by the Normans, the French, and pretty much everyone else who has ever invaded the Isle. Ironically, the very sources he puts on a pedestal to define the flavor of Middle-Earth were also invaders. Let’s face it, pretty much everyone who ever came to the British Isles were invaders. The Celts, the Saxons, the Danes… the list just goes on and on. But we’re not here to confuse the issue with facts. The Professor knew what he was doing. His idea of what went wrong starts with the Battle of Hastings in 1066. The turmoil before the Norman invasion is the melting pot that defines Tolkien’s playground. Tolkien surmised that had Harold not ended up with that arrow in his eye, and had instead driven out William and his Normans, the rich tapestry of Britain would have looked very different. He hated the French. He hated their mounted knights — the backbone of their flower of chivalry. He hated their rich traditions. He hated more that they had denied Britain the opportunity to come up with any of that on their own in a way that could match or best the French example. Sure, Britain had the longbow, which went a long way towards ending French supremacy on that front, but it was never enough for Tolkien. He didn’t want revenge. He wanted the grand tradition that never was.
In the Horse-lords of Rohan, we see Tolkien’s idea of that grand tradition unfold. Brave, seemingly tireless warriors astride equally noble and proud steeds who come to the aid of the realm when called, and in return get such aid because they’ve earned it. If you cross your eyes, you can almost see the same pact that got Britain into World War I, albeit a better version, for the right reasons. And even then, that was the war that ended the mounted cavalry and the romance that went with it for good. Cavalry became tanks.
Like the people of Britain in the early Middle Ages, before 1066, the Rohirrim were a race of Men who were primarily herdsmen and farmers, known for their horses and cavalry. In the annals of Middle-Earth, the Rohirrim are the new people, the territory known as Rohan having been formed in 2510 of the Third Age, during the time of Cirion, Steward of Gondor.
Before that point, they were known as the Éothéod, a race of Northmen (re: Vikings) who spread out near the Vales of Anduin and later in Northern Mirkwood from around T.A. 1856, in the days of King Eärnil II. They claimed descent from the kings of Rhovanion, the realm beyond Mirkwood, thus seeing themselves as kin of the kings of Gondor from Eldacar. Following the overthrow of the Witch-king, they sought more room in the North and cleared out the remnants of Angmar. By the time of Eorl’s father, Léod, they were numerous and in need of more land.
In 2509, Gondor faced a new threat in the form of a combined invasion of Men from the Northeast and Orcs from the Misty Mountains. Cirion summoned the Éothéod for aid. Eorl the Young, king of the Éothéod, answered, arriving unexpectedly at the battle of the Field of Celebrant, turning the tide and earning mutual alliance and cooperation between his people and Gondor. The deserted but fertile plains of Calenardhon was theirs as reward. It was renamed the Mark of the Riders (aka the Riddermark), and they called themselves from that day forward the Eorlingas. In Gondor, the territory was simply known as Rohan, it’s people the Rohirrim. Eorl became the first King of the Mark, a proud tradition that would continue through the Third Age and well into the Fourth under Éomer.
Tolkien tells us of the Éothéod king Fram, son of Frumgar, who slew the dragon Scatha, earning peace with the dragons afterward and winning great wealth. However, dispute over the dragon’s hoard earned a bitter rivalry with the Dwarves that would also extend through the Third Age.
Léod, Eorl’s father, was the great horse tamer. It is said that he captured a white foal, and as it grew, no man could tame it. Léod made the attempt and was thrown for his effort, dying when his head struck a rock. In vengeance, Eorl hunted the horse, surrounding it with his men, and essentially placed the horse into servitude, naming it Felaróf. For whatever reason, Felaróf submitted without need of bit or bridle, understanding all that men said, and allowing no one but Eorl to ride him. So it went with Eorl’s descendants and with the line of Felaróf, through the years until Shadowfax allowed Gandalf to ride him.
Of the kings between Eorl and Théoden, it is the legend of Helm Hammerhand that speaks loudest. Helm was the ninth King of Rohan and last of the first royal line. In 2754, a Dunlending of Rohirric blood named Freca planned to have his son, Wulf, marry the daughter of Helm. He rode to Edoras with an army, looking to force Helm’s compliance. Helm smote him with his fist, and Freca died, thus the nickname Hammerhand stuck.
Four years later, the men of Freca returned in force under Wulf, their numbers supplemented by the enemies of Gondor. They overran Rohan. Helm fought at the Crossings of Isen, lost, and withdrew into the Suthburg, enduring a long siege. The fortress was held through the Long Winter. Blowing his war-horn, Helm broke through the Dunlending ranks, slaying them with his bare hands. His sons were slain, and Helm himself withered from grief and famine, ultimately dying from famine and cold. They found his body in the snow, frozen and still standing, ready to fight. That, my friends, is the stuff of legend.
Helm’s nephew, Fréaláf Hildeson, took the kingship and led a daring surprise raid against the Dunlendings. He recaptured Edoras and, with aid from Gondor, drove back his enemies across both rivers, freeing all of Rohan. Those Dunlendings who had captured Isengard were starved out until they vacated.
At the coronation of Fréaláf, Saruman appeared after years of absence. he offered his support and friendship, and on Fréaláf’s advice, Beren, Steward of Gondor, lent Saruman the keys to Orthanc on condition that he must protect it from another conquest. Saruman began to behave as a lord of Men from that time, and while he seemed a friend, there was little doubt he went to Isengard in hopes of finding the Stone and building up his power base. By the time of the last White Council in 2953, his designs towards Rohan were evil. Isengard was built up as though to rival Barad-dûr. Those who served him were drawn from the enemies of Gondor and Rohan.
Tolkien offers up the line of the Kings of the Mark at this point, ultimately coming to the births of Éomer and Éowyn in 2991 and 2995 respectively. By this point, Sauron had risen again, and Orcs raided the eastern regions to slay or steal horses. This carries us through the events of the War of the Ring, wherein Éomer becomes king, reigning for sixty-five years. Elessar, king of Gondor, renewed the gift of Cirion, and Éomer renewed the Oath of Eorl. Together, the two kings rode to subdue the remaining evils in the wake of Sauron’s fall, ensuring peace into the Fourth Age.