The release of Amazon Prime’s The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power has unleashed a tidal wave of Tolkien nerdery, as fans and foes of the show duke it out over whether the show’s creators adhered to the canonical texts. I loved The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy, but I have not plodded through Christopher Tolkien’s 12-volume collection of his father’s legendarium, The History of Middle-earth, published between 1983 and 1996. The renewed obsession with the minutiae of Tolkien’s work, however, does give me an excuse to revisit my favorite bit of Tolkien trivia. Miltiades Varvounis, the biographer who wrote Jan Sobieski: The King Who Saved Europe, writes that the Polish king’s great victory was the inspiration for Tolkien’s Battle of the Pelennor Fields.
A 1983 iron plaque with Sobieski’s visage on it is bolted to a wall near the Habsburg palaces in Vienna to commemorate the 300th anniversary of the city’s salvation, a short walk from St. Stephen’s Cathedral which is, to my mind, one of Europe’s greatest Gothic churches. Not because of its soaring bell tower and serrated steeples, or because Mozart’s funeral was held there, or because the bones of St. Valentine are kept in a chest in one of the chapels. It is because St. Stephen’s presided over some of the continent’s most consequential battles. When the forces of Islam gathered to conquer Christendom, it was to the gates of Vienna that they came.
The Ottomans thought St. Stephen’s was a prize, and when they laid siege to Vienna in 1529, Sultan Suleiman I (‘the Magnificent’), was riding high. With a string of victories under his belt, he decided that magnificent Vienna would be next. He boasted that he would be having breakfast in St. Stephen’s within two weeks of the siege, but when the date came and went, Vienna’s defenders—a coalition that included German Landsknechts, Spanish Musketeers, and Italian mercenaries, both Catholic and Protestant—sent the sultan a message to let him know that his breakfast was getting cold. Fierce defenders and savage weather eventually drove the Ottomans back.
In July of 1683 the Ottomans decided to try again, this time under the ambitious leadership of Black Mustafa, the Empire’s grand vizier. They demanded surrender. Count Ernst Rudiger von Starhemberg, the commander of Vienna’s garrison, gave a succinct response: “Let them come; I’ll fight to the last drop of blood.” As the siege dragged on and hunger and exhaustion began to fell the city’s inhabitants, it began to look as if the defenders might have to do just that. Frantic pleas for assistance were sent out to the leaders of Christian Europe, calling for men and arms, to repel the invaders. A massive relief force made up of soldiers from Saxony, Baden, Franconia, Bavaria, Swabia, and Poland began to lumber towards Vienna.
The battle began on September 11, 1683. As Black Mustafa and the Turks tried desperately to force their way into the city before the relief troops could arrive, the Polish King Jan Sobieski emerged from the forests on the hills above. At 6 PM, at his command, an awe-inspiring cavalry charge plunged over the crests of the hills and pounded towards the invaders, a magnificent force of 18,000 horsemen—the largest cavalry charge in history. The Polish king, at the head of 3,000 heavy lancers known as the Winged Hussars, led the charge. The knights were named for the wings of birds of prey attached to the backs of their armour, which streamed behind them in the wind and made them resemble a cloud of avenging angels.
The Winged Hussars and the thousands of cavalrymen that followed them smashed into the Ottomans, trampling those in their path. By the time the horsemen hammered down the hill, many of them were simply riding too fast to stop, and the battering ram of horse, man, and steel cut through the besiegers. The charge was a death blow. The battle to save Vienna was won within three hours, with the Polish king entering Black Mustafa’s tent scarcely a half hour after it began. With Vienna delivered from the forces of Islam once again, Sobieski sat down in own his tent to write a letter to his adored wife, something he did nearly every day they spent apart.
Here is where we return to Tolkien’s Battle of Pelennor Fields and the struggle for the city of Minas Tirith between the soldiers of Gondor and the forces of the Dark Lord Sauron recounted in The Return of the King. Tolkien sets the scene with chilling foreboding:
It was dark and dim all day. From the sunless dawn until evening the heavy shadow had deepened, and all hearts were oppressed. Far above a great cloud streamed slowly westward from the Black Land, devouring light, borne upon war; but below the air was still and breathless, as if all the Vale of Anduin waited for the onset of a ruinous storm.
As the battle began in earnest, King Theoden emerges from the forest ahead of his cavalry, the fearsome Rohirrim. As he contemplates the destruction of the city, the king hears a booming sound from Minas Tirith, and suddenly stands erect: “Tall and proud he seemed again; and rising in his stirrups he cried in a loud voice, more clear than any there had ever heard a mortal man achieve before:
Arise, arise, Riders of Théoden!
Fell deeds awake, fire and slaughter!
spear shall be shaken, shield be splintered,
a sword-day, a red day, ere the sun rises!
Ride now, ride now! Ride to Gondor!
With that, he seized a great horn from Guthláf his banner-bearer, and he blew such a blast upon it that it burst asunder. And straightway all the horns in the host were lifted up in music, and the blowing of the horns of Rohan in that hour was like a storm upon the plain and a thunder in the mountains.
Then—the charge of the Rohirrim, one of the great battles of literature:
Suddenly the king cried to Snowmane and the horse sprang away. Behind him his banner blew in the wind, white horse upon a field of green, but he outpaced it. After him thundered the knights of his house, but he was ever before them. Éomer rode there, the white horsetail on his helm floating in his speed, and the front of the first éored roared like a breaker foaming to the shore, but Théoden could not be overtaken. Fey he seemed, or the battle-fury of his fathers ran like new fire in his veins, and he was borne up on Snowmane like a god of old, even as Oromë the Great in the battle of the Valar when the world was young. His golden shield was uncovered, and lo! it shone like an image of the Sun, and the grass flamed into green about the white feet of his steed. For morning came, morning and a wind from the sea; and the darkness was removed, and the hosts of Mordor wailed, and terror took them, and they fled, and died, and the hoofs of wrath rode over them. And then all the host of Rohan burst into song, and they sang as they slew, for the joy of battle was on them, and the sound of their singing that was fair and terrible came even to the City.
I thought of this passage earlier this autumn while I was in Ukraine, when my colleague pointed out the castle in Olesko where Sobieski was born, squat and brooding atop a tree-bristled hill. And of Sobieski’s words at the battle’s ending, a paraphrase of Julius Caesar: “Venimus, vidimus, Deus vicit.” We came, we saw, God conquered.