Linguist, folklorist and, most famously, writer, J.R.R. Tolkien is, of course, most well known for his Lord of the Rings series and its accompanying works. The core trilogy itself boasts a stunning 576,459 words – which isn’t even counting the accompanying stories such as The Hobbit, or The Silmarillion.
In these works, it is clear to see the influence of Tolkien’s other interests. He had a passion for words and language, and so created dozens. He fell in love with a village in the French Alps, and so Rivendell came to be. He had a fascination with dragons as a child, and so the mighty Smaug came to exist. While Tolkien – his works being set in a fantastical universe – did not directly link his work to the myths and legends across Europe, they are plain to see on the page, with Tolkien’s creative re-imaginings of elves, goblins, trolls and dwarves.
While Tolkien drew inspiration from many different sources, one key influence was Norse Mythology, which many of his fantastical creatures and settings can be linked to thematically, or in appearance.
The first and perhaps easiest to overlook of these, is the name ‘Middle Earth’ itself. In Norse mythology, the word for Earth is ‘Midgard,’ a word which literally means ‘Middle Yard’ but is generally translated as Middle Earth. One of nine realms, bound by Yggdrasil, the World Tree, Midgard is inhabited by humans and interpreted as a flat world, encircled by a vast ocean, home to the serpent Jormungandr. In Tolkien’s Middle Earth (also known as Arda) the world is initially flat, during the early years, and encircled by a vast ocean. The world of Arda remained flat for many centuries, and it was only after the destruction of Númenor that the world was transformed into the traditional (and scientifically accurate) globe.
Another key influence of Nose mythology can be found in Tolkien’s reinvention of the mythical dwarf. Tolkien remains true to the generally acknowledged appearance of the dwarf (as short, bearded, and often armoured men.) Dwarven women were rarely mentioned, and Tolkien alludes to this within his work – stating that dwarven women were rare and made up only a third of the dwarven population.
Tolkien expands on the culture and abilities of the dwarf, a being that was often underutilised in fantasy by giving them a rich (if secretive) culture. They were miners and metal smiths, capable of digging deep and creating wonderous, impossible marvels out of the metal and jewels that they mined. This is in keeping with the dwarves of Norse mythology, though they were often crueller creatures than Tolkien imagined them as. The purpose dwarves of Northern myth was often creators, inventors or blacksmiths. This was most apparent in the legend that depicts the creation of Thor’s hammer. During a competition, the dwarves create an enchanted ring, living boar made of gold, and a hammer named Mjolnir which never missed its mark and always returned to its caster.
The most blatant influence of Norse mythology on Tolkien’s dwarf population is in the names. All but one dwarf is named from Norse mythology. Durin was the second dwarf created in Norse mythology, and the first dwarf created in Tolkien’s Middle-Earth. Thorin, Dwalin, Fili, Kili and all the other dwarves from Tolkien’s The Hobbit are listed beneath Durin in the Prose Edda which lists the order that the first dwarves were created. Another familiar name on the list is Gandalf, although Tolkien chose to give this name to his wizard. The only exception to this rule is, perhaps, the most famous of Tolkien’s dwarves, Gimli.
Gimli is of course the dwarven warrior who accompanied Frodo on his quest to destroy the One Ring. His name is the Icelandic form of Gimlé, a glittering place where the survivors of last battle between good and evil – Ragnarok – will go. This is perhaps a reference to the fact that, after surviving the final battle against Sauron, Gimli was the only dwarf ever to be granted access to Valinor – the undying lands of the Elves, often compared to heaven or paradise.
Tolkien did not just draw inspiration to create his people and places – he also used it to create epic scenes and key themes in the story. The battle on the bridge of Khazad-dûm echoes the battle of Surt and Freyr. In Khazad-dûm, the wizard Gandalf fights a Balrog – a giant creature made of fire and evil that emerged from the depths of the earth. During the battle, the bridge breaks and both are seemingly plunged to their deaths. In the battle of Surt and Freyr, Freyr, a god of the sun and rain, fights Surt, a fire giant armed with a flaming sword. They fight on the Bifrost – the rainbow bridge – and both die during the conflict. Tolkien does, however, give his reimagining of the scene a happier ending. While both Gandalf and the Balrog appear to have died when the bridge broke, Gandalf in fact survives, and resurrects as Gandalf the White.
The most important part of Lord of the Rings though, is arguably, the ring. There are many myths and legends around the world that feature magical rings. In the legend of King Solomon, Solomon used a ring with his seal to control Djinn – spiritual creatures of significant power, the ring of Gyges in Greek mythology granted the ability of the wearer to turn invisible, and in the legend of Charlemagne, there appeared a ring that could render the wearer impervious to all enchantments.
While there are many rings (and other pieces of jewellery) of great power in Norse Mythology, there are two in particular which may have had some influence on Tolkien’s creation of the One Ring. During the dwarven crafting competition mentioned earlier, in addition the Mjolnir and the golden boar, the dwarves also created a golden ring named Draupnir. The ring was said to have the power to multiply itself. Every seven days, it created eight identical copies of itself –while the copies were identical, they lacked the magical abilities of the first. This may have inspired some of the back story to the One Ring. One master ring of incredibly power, and several inferior rings, beholden to it (as with the nine rings of the mortal kings).
The second legend significant to Tolkien’s work was the ring Andvarinaut. The ring helped its original owner acquire a fortune of gold, bringing him good luck along with wealth. The owner, Andvari, was a dwarf with the rather anachronistic ability to transform into a pike. The trickster god, Loki, captured the dwarf in fish form and forced hand over the ring. Afterwards, a furious Andvari cursed the ring to bring misfortune to all who owned it. Loki later gives the ring to Hreidmar, king of the dwarves. The cursed ring proves a temptation too great, and Hreidmar’s son, Fafnir kills his own father in order to steal it. The legend continues along these lines, with the ring passing from hand to hand via murder in much the same way that the One Ring does in Lord of the Rings.
Tolkien is neither the first, nor the last, to draw inspiration for his fantasy works from pre-existing mythology, though of course the canon of his universe is exceptionally detailed and meticulously crafted. In many ways the influence of Norse (and other) mythology on his works may have contributed to the enduring popularity of the universe that he created. Myths from around the world are not self-contained stories –they are oral retellings that bleed into each other as ancient societies mixed and interacted. The names and detail may change – for example, the story may be called Psyche and Cupid, East of the Sun and West of the Moon, or Beauty and the Beast, but the key premise – a girl is taken to a magical place to marry beast who turns out to be a prince –remains the same. We are used to seeing familiarities in our fairy-tales, and by including elements of these legends in his own comprehensive and detailed mythos, Tolkien conjures a sense of an alternate history and culture that could very well slip neatly into our own.
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