Mythological Inspirations to Tolkien’s Middle Earth

J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth has fascinated generations of readers and – since the movie adaption by Peter Jackson of both, The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, – viewers all over the world. By profession a linguist and an Oxford professor, Tolkien conducted extended research on historical texts, showcasing the rich mythology of Europe’s past. Some of his biggest inspirations came from the Epic Poetry of the Middle Ages, created all over Northern Europe. Especially important was the Old English poem “Beowulf”, as well as the Icelandic Sagas, written in the ancient language of Scandinavia, Old Norse. From here it is, that Tolkien got many of the names for some of his most important characters, chief among them Gandalf. Gandalf itself seems to be inspired heavily by Odin, who is often described as a grey-bearded figure with a cloak and staff, capable of wielding powerful magic. But other characters are also found in the Eddas, such as the majority of the dwarves around Thorin Oakenshield, who, together with Bilbo and Gandalf, embarked on a quest to claim back their homeland of Erebor inside the stone halls of the Lonely Mountain.

Scandinavian and Anglo-Saxon Influences

In Stanzas 10-16 we find the names of Durin, Dvalin, Bivor, Bavor, Bombur, Nori, Gandalf, Thrain, Thorin, Thror, Fili, Kili, Fundin and Oakenshield, among many others which to my knowledge do not, or at least not prominently, feature in Tolkien’s Middle Earth. Oakenshield is in fact name twice, once in Stanza 13 and once in Stanza 16. It is unclear whether the same Oakenshield is referred to, or whether these are two different individuals, or perhaps even just an accompanying title and not a person altogether.

To get back to the aforementioned poem Beowulf, the Dragon featured in this text, as well as other Dragons featured in Norse and possibly Germanic lyric, may have inspired the Dragons in Middle Earth. At the very least Smaug shows similarities with the Dwarf Fafnir from the Saga of the Volsungs, which was turned into a Dragon by a cursed ring. In this Saga alone we find many different elements which can be found in the Lord of the Rings and in The Hobbit, such as a cursed ring, although, strictly speaking, the One Ring of the Dark Lord Sauron doesn’t seem to be cursed per se, but most definitely holds a considerable measure of inherent evil, affecting it’s bearers and slowly but surely turning them into monsters, such as was Fafnirs fate.

The culture, which gave rise to Beowulf was that of the British Anglo-Saxons, consisting of Germanic settlers from the continent, who had arrived after Rome’s withdrawal from the island, and parts of the original Romano-British (Romano-Celtic) population. The description of the Rohirrim as a fair-haired, horse-riding and warlike people, not particularly educated but hearty, brave and “wise” in their own way, fits a somewhat romanticised description of the Anglo-Saxons at the time of the creation of The Lord of The Rings. Even the language of the Rohirrim itself is just a form of Old English, the language of the Anglo-Saxons.

Interestingly, the pantheon of the world of Middle Earth itself, detailed in the Silmarillion, does not seem to have any overly obvious connections to the Norse or Germanic pantheons, or any other pagan pantheons of ancient Europe.

Another thing to note is the name Middle Earth itself, which is of course a direct translation of Old Norse Miðgarðr (pronounced Mithgardr). Apart from this there a few very obvious connections to pagan mythology stemming from a time before Christianity, such as the Elves, which were probably heavily inspired by the Norse Light Elves (Ljósálfar ) and the dwarves which may or may not be the same as the Dark Elves (Dökkálfar ). Trolls, Giants and sentient Eagles and Wizards (mostly in the form of Odin, but with a different name), all feature heavily in the Icelandic Sagas, but many of these mythological creatures are also present in the Folklore of various European peoples and can perhaps be seen as a common property of these cultures.

Greco-Roman Influence

The Orcs are somewhat of a special case, because they are not mentioned anywhere else before Tolkien’s writings. The name at the very least may be inspired by Latin Orcinus, referring to the realm of the dead, which perhaps would make Orcs something akin to the Undead. This may make sense in the context of the creation of the Orcs by Morgoth in the First Age of Middle Earth. It is said that they were once elves, as Saruman points at in the theatrical versions of the movies, forced into servitude and slave labour, tortured for centuries, if not millennia, until the luminous beings they once were, were turned into the Orcs; something that should be dead, but is still alive.

They may be inspired, again, by the Scandinavian Dark Elves, which are said to be the complete opposite of the Light Elves, quite a fitting description for the Orcs, as well.

There probably are many more sources of inspiration for the amazing works of J.R.R. Tolkien, such as Celtic myths and legends, but this is all that is to be said here for now. Check back periodically for any updates.

Featured Image By: Alexl1400 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=103149549

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