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Lauri Linask (Tartu State University)

Influences of the germanic and scandinavian mythology in the works of J.R.R. Tolkien

Учёные записки Тартуского государственного университета, вып. 646. Литературоведение. Теоретические и практические вопросы взаимодействия литератур, 1983. с.с. 77-91.

   J.R.R. Tolkien's fantasy world depicted in his three major works "The Hobbit", "The Lord of the Rings" and "The Silmarillion" could be called "new" because it is an imaginary one, it is not historical and neither is it of collective origin like the case is with the overwhelming majority of legends and myths all over the world. But, Tolkien's world is certainly not groundless. It is traditional, "borrowing from the power and import of his sources - the "middangeard" of "Beowulf", the grim and brutal cosmos of "The Volsunga Saga", the cold and bitter realm of the "Eddas", all of which left their traces and worked their sway over his own imagination" (Helms, R., 1974). With "The Hobbit" and his early lectures ("Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics" in 1936 and "On Fairy-Stories" in 1938) he had rediscovered the value and relevance to our own time of mythic literature and set out to convince his audience of this value because people had in his view "lost the keys to mythic response" (Helms, R., 1974). And as his opinion was one of distress that the English had so few myths of their own and had to live on foreign borrowings, so "he thought he'd make one himself" (Cater,В., 1972).

   As it was mentioned above, Tolkien has to a great extent borrowed from Icelandic sagas, Germanic mythology and the Anglo-Saxon epic "Beuwulf". The latter, belonging to the cultural heritage of the author's own nation, played a most significant role as Tolkien's interest in it later enabled him to develop his theory of fantasy, the practical application of which we can follow in his literary works. In his "Beowulf" lecture he undertook to argue with W.P. Ker whom he quotes as to have said: "The fault of "Beowulf" is that there is nothing much in the story. The hero is occupied in killing monsters... Beowulf has nothing else to do when he has killed Grendel and Grendel's mother in Denmark: he goes home to his own Gautland, until the rolling years bring the Fire-drake and his last adventure. It is too simple..." (An Anthology..., 1963) Tolkien's view was that the dragon, as the most serious issue of the whole epic, "is not an inexplicable blunder of taste: they (the monsters) are essential, fundamentally allied to the underlying ideas of the poem, which gave it its lofty tone and high seriousness." (Ibid.) "Beowulf", according to Tolkien, is concerned with a number of mythicized "events" in the past. The term "event" could not be attributed to either minor or major household problems or anything that came to pass in everyday routine of those times. That was the viewpoint shared by the authors of ancient Icelandic sagas and the same applies to Tolkien's work. The slaying of a monster is certainly an "event" which is worth recording, any major conflict between good and evil is an "event" both for ancient authors and Tolkien. Middle-Earth is also inhabited by dragons, orcs or goblins, werewolves and other strange creatures, and his trilogy is also an account of a series of "events" connected with the Quest that was undertaken by his protagonists. There are fights and ambushes, fierce battles and fell deeds, there is often witchcraft involved and in the end a price is exacted from both the good and the evil. Tolkien thinks very highly of the heroic narrativesin Norse, Icelandic or ancient English because their heroes and their embodiments of evil belong generically to the same class as those of Tolkien.

   To fully assess the influence of Scandinavian and Germanic mythology on Tolkien's work a lengthier study is required. Suffice it here to bring a striking parallel with "The Elder Edda" to illustrate Tolkien's borrowing from early Icelandic records. There are thirteen dwarves in "The Hobbit" and their names are given as Dwalin, Balin, Fili, Kili, Dori, Nori, Ori, Oin, Gloin, Bifur, Bofur, Bombur and Thorin. Together with them Gandalf, a wizard, is introduced to the reader. Robert Foster informs us in "The Complete Guide to Middle-Earth" that Dwarves were "one of the speaking races of Middle-Earth, and one of the Free Peoples. Created by Aule, Smith of the Valar (Guardians of the World), ... the Seven Fathers of Dwarves slept after their making until the awakening of the Elves." (Foster, 1979) Of the above-mentioned Fathers only Durin is mentioned by name and Tolkien says next to nothing about the rest. During the Quest Gimli, a descendant of Durin, sings an ancient ballad of his folk:

"The world was young, the mountains green,
No stain yet on the Moon was seen
No words were laid on stream or stone
When Durin woke and walked alone
He named the nameless hills and dells
He drank from yet untasted wells..."

   Although Paul Kocher only hints at the possibility in his "Master of Middle-Earth" there is little room for doubt that Tolkien derived Durin's name and function from "The Elder Edda". The same can be said about the uniqueness of the Dwarves and their origin although in "The Voluspaa" a more detailed, and somewhat different, account is given of their creation: they were made from the dead body of the giant Ymir:

then went the rulers there all gods most holy
To their seat aloft and counsel together took,
Who should of Dwarfs the race then fashion,
From the livid bones and blood of the giant,

Modsognir, chief of the dwarfish race,
And Durin too were then created,
And like to men Dwarfs in the earth,
Were found in numbers as Durin ordered".
(The Elder Eddas and the Younger Eddas, trans. B. Thorpe and I.A. Blackwell, 1906, quoted by P. Kocher, 1975)

   A list of Dwarves, who were then created "as Durin ordered", then follows and of the 13 Dwarves in "The Hobbit" the names of 9 are mentioned there: Dvalinn, Fili, Kili, Nori, Gloi, Bivorr, Bavorr, Bomburr and Thorinn. In "The Fjolsvidr Saga" we can find the names Ori and Dori and in "The Sigvordr Saga" Oinn occurs. One Dwarf in "The Voluspaa" Gandalfr seems to have given rise to Gandalf the Wizard and a place-name Gimli suggests connection with the trilogy's chief Dwarf protagonist Gimli. In on" of the. Appendices to "The Lord of the Rings" Tolkien provides the reader with the genealogical tree of Gimli and, again, most of his ancestors seem to have stepped out; of "The Elder Edda".

   In "The Hobbit" the reader also finds Beorn, "Northen man, chief of the Beornings, a berserker." (Foster, 1979) Ability to turn into a bear and fight in that powerful and savage form is attributed to him. That characteristic feature is suggested already by his name which bears a strong resemblance to the Icelandic noun "bear".

   Numerous parallels can also be drawn with "Beowulf". They are not so direct and self-explanatory as the above-mentioned ones but Tolkien has rather borrowed from the philosophy and general atmosphere prevalent in it. Some parallels can be followed in the author's peculiar laws for the fantasy world which will be given below.

   J.R.R. Tolkien was well. aware of the inevitable precondition that the aesthetic, moral and philosophical principles governing a fantasy world are different both from the laws and decrees of our own world of common sense reality and from those prevalent in realistic literature. It is evident that fairy-tale morality, common sense and legitimacy could never change places with our everyday social principles, yet at the same time we can export our real i.e. "primary world" to the "secondary one" (as Tolkien called it) exactly to the extent we think necessary, provided its consistency is not violated. Realistic views are based on the ontology that grants reality only on a basis of cause-and-effect sequences but fantasy may be founded on a different theory of reality and its aesthetic, moral and philosophical principles must accord with the laws of the "secondary world". To maintain its credibility the author may never break his world's inner consistency. Tolkien himself has said that "what really happens is that the story-maker proves a successful "sub-creator". He makes a Secondary World which your mind can enter. Inside it, what he relates is "true" - it accords with the laws of that world. You therefore believe it, while you are, as it were, inside." (Tolkien, R., 1965) So there must be a "secondary belief" in the "secondary world.

   At the same time, the world of Tolkien is still a crossbred one which is only natural because he knew that "no audience can long feel sympathy or interest for persons or things in which they cannot recognise a good deal of themselves and the world of their everyday experience," (Kocher, R., 1977) This paradoxical situation actually has a simple solution. On the one hand Tolkien has created a world of fantasy, has endowed it with peculiar or strange realities and inner laws, and has tried to induce a belief in the whole system; on the other hand his imagination has been restricted by the requirement to remind the reader of his own world, not to carry him too far away, and he has saved himself no trouble in trying to provide his world with a suitable amount of realities, phenomena and moral categories the knowledge of which is inherent in every reader. The solution lies in the fact that this "secondary belief" is not a purpose or a goal in itself, but rather a means which the author has chosen (as different authors choose different genres) to convey his message. As far as the latter is meant for human beings aid not for imaginary creatures, the target, i.e. the reader, must be able to transplant himself into the "secondary world" - Tolkien's Faerie, and therefore the reader must be assured by some elements to feel at home and not be taken to completely new surroundings. Tolkien himself manifestly expected that "secondary words" would combine the extraordinary with the ordinary and the fictitious with the actual. Consequently it is not unlimited imagination but rather the author's capacity for combining the above-mentioned opposites which is essential for a successful achievement.

   Tolkien has produced a number of parallels with the real world fulfilling one requirement for creating "secondary belief" and retaining credibility, but in order to maintain it he must also keep an eye to the structural principles, the internal laws of the world he is creating, and therefore has to respect perhaps even a larger set of limitations than a realistic writer. Fortunately, as the Tolkien critic Helms has said, "the limitations, however, bring their own kind of freedom" (Helms, R., 1974) the greatest of which is perhaps in the enormous range in the kind of experiences the author can present. On the other hand, a fantasist is restricted in the ways his characters can react to these experiences because a fantasy world is one of the extremes and, owing to this "holy antagonism" (Helms, R., 1974), the characters can be at a time either good or evil, white or black, the golden mean never comes in. A realistic writer has to face contrary limitations because he can present only experiences which are believable according to common-sense reality but he can choose from an infinitely wide range of responses to a restricted set of experiences. This gives a general (but by no means absolute) rule for all narratives: as to the laws of forms, in realism action is limited, range of reactions infinite, in fantasy range of experiences is infinite, reactions limited. Consequently, the value of a work of fantasy does not depend on the author's skill of presenting reactions but rather on the quality of action, which in its turn is dependent upon "the richness and the complexity of the interrelationships between the action ... and the internal laws ... of the fantasy world." (Helms. R., 1974) The internal, laws of Middle-Earth, i.e. Tolkien's fantasy world, have their own consistency while they may overlap in their effects, and some of them can be abstractly produced:

   (1) Middle-Earth is providentially controlled;

   (2) intention determins the consequences and results according to the formulae + . + = + and - . - = + which means that a good action with a good objective point produces a good result whereas a bad action with an evil intent or purpose will eventually also bring about a good result;

   (3) will and various states of mind, both evil and good, can have objective reality and act as out of physical energy;

   (4) moral and magical law have the force of physical law;

   (5) proverbial truth finds proof in all experience.

   There may be more inner laws in Tolkien's world of fantasy, (cf. Helms, R., 1974) for instance, oaths and curses have effectual consequences, whether given on good or evil purposes, but these five are most consistently followed by the author, although deviations from every law occur at some stages of the narrative.

   (1) At several turning points or crucial moments in the series of events Tolkien's protagonists utter, though mostly in an extremely vague manner, opinions and presages that the events in which they participate and all the decisions about a further course of action which ostensibly lie with them, are actually planned from somewhere higher and form only a link in the irrevocable chain of events. (This pertains mostly to his trilogy "The Lord of the Rings".) All intelligent beings virtually come to believe in a universal moral system represented and guarded by a higher order, to which each of them freely contributes without any exact knowledge of what their actual task is and without any clear-cut idea how their purposes and courses of action will eventually work out in the fight against the enemy. In the trilogy it has often been indicated that a planner operates through a definite pattern where the inhabitants of Middle-Earth are only implements in his hand. Actually there is more in this law than Providence: it certainly cannot be identified with predestination because Tolkien never strips his heroes of free will and consequently the law of providential control is - providence + voluntary co-operation = positive effect. Tolkien sometimes gives the idea between the lines that there may be predestination but it is impotent without volunteering co-operators. The structure of that law coincides formally with that of Marxist phiosophy on historical progress and development: social laws find no enactment on their own but depend on the correct or distorted cognition of them on the part of the members of society - progress can be accelerated by cognizant enactment of the laws or it can beslowed down by counter-actions although progress cannot be stopped or reversed. When it is added that in Tolkien's fantasy world providence + counter-action to it = temporary standstill or reversion but never absolute frustration of providential positive ends, then the structural identity is established and the fantastic element boils down to a mutation of real operators in our real world, but retention of formal structure. These two formulae are also relevant to the second law which says that an evil action with a bad intent never produces an absolutely unfavourable result, the maximum it can achieve is to cut down the speed of progress.

   Providential control can be illustrated by Gandalf the Wizard's remark to Frodo[1] about the discovery of the One Ring given at the beginning of the trilogy, "I can put it no plainer than by saying that Bilbo[2] was meant to find the Ring and not by its maker. In which case you also were meant to have it." (Tolkien, R., 1966 Vol. I) He also says that "there was something else at work, beyond the design of the Ringmaker" (Tolkien, R., 1966 Vol. I) and it is implied that this vague "something else" is stronger than the evil spirit's (i.e. Ringmaker's) intentions. The reader often gets the impression that Gandalf knows more than he says because if he is not one of the "higher order" he is at least a messenger or representative of the Valar (Angelic spirits under the One who is the creator of all the world) but he is bound by instructions not to impose his will and rather try to persuade, educate, and encourage, if necessary. ("The Silmarillion" actually provides Gandalf's rank in the universal hierarchy.)

   In the trilogy the reader gets the notion that the particular "something else" has its own plans and objectives in the Middle-Earth, but it never interferes directly with events there. Yet it is known that it has been done before, in the earlier stages of Middle-Earth's history. It has not been indicated in the trilogy why they do not offer any supernatural or natural aid directly, and have forbidden the wizards to use their actual might, but there is no striking conflict between their power and their factual idleness as both their existence and higher intentions are something vague, and somehow they still guide and direct. Their operators - the inhabitants of Middle-Earth, are ever in suspense and uncertainty of their future, yet no protagonist would ever utter the most natural question: why don't the mighty Valar, dethrone Sauron as they did long ago with the fallen evil Vala Melkor? It would require much less effort as Sauron is only a former servant of Melkor, wielding only a fragment of his master's evil powers. In the light of "The Silmarillion" this inertia of the higher order becomes already ridiculous because they have the power and the glory (of which the reader of the trilogy had but a vague notion), and yet they toy with the hobbits and dwarves, ents and men, and even their beloved elves, at the cost of innumerable lives. They do nothing save let them walk on knife-edge until graciously allow them take their victory in the nick of time before total catastrophe. Essentially, it is a disharmony in Tolkien's well ordered, perfectly structured and wisely guided universe. A clear and final solution by the Valar would naturally render Tolkien's work void of sense because in that case there would be no room for individual heroism, nothing exemplary to educate the reader as his protagonists would have no tangible chance to do deeds of renown and prowess, yet, the Valar and other powerful spirits having been created, they should also help, but directly they do not and it gives rise too a controversy which renders their existence equally absurd. This is a serious criticism to Tolkien's work as a whole but as far as "The Hobbit", "The Lord of the Rings" and "The Silmarillion" do not form a trilogy, being quite different in ambition, the author may be excused of inconsistencies inside his Faerie.

   (2) In Tolkien's world the result of an action is the product of its intent. This contains a difference between the moral structures of Middle-Earth and those of the real world. In everyday human interrelationships the difference is often observable but if we take a larger social scale, it is vice versa and the formulae pertaining to the fantasy world find enactment in the real world as well. R. Helms is in the wrong when he openly declares: "we know that intention has nothing to do with result." (Helms, R., 1974) History proves the opposite: Hitler's Germany started a war to conquer the whole world, the price of millions of casualties was exacted from a number of nations, but the final outcome was the ultimate defeat of fascism, which gave the world a bitter lesson, but also sent fascism to the pillory of world opinion for ages to come. As a most reactionary totalitarian system it would have collapsed anyway but instead it committed suicide: owing to mistakes in political strategy, lack of any common sense, and a gnawing desire to rule the world, it existed only little over a decade. An extremely inhumane intent plus extremely inhumane methods for achieving these ends produced a positive result: the destruction of Nazi Germany. It may be argued that this accelerated collapse of Germany occurred at too high a cost but neither does Tolkien leave his protagonists unharmed in similar situations. A fight without casualties is impossible, one side may win, but losses are mutual. The author has unambiguously asserted that his work is not allegorical and the War of the Rings is not World War II, yet the struggle between good and evil is to some extent reminiscent of the greatest war of our time.

   On the other hand, good intentions never produce bad consequences or after-effects, and all positive qualities the heroes possess, are well rewarded. When, for instance, Frodo tells Gandalf his opinion that it was a pity Bilbo did not stab the vile creature Gollum when he had a chance, Gandalf replies that all the rest of Bilbo's life and the events to come will be positively affected by his good judgement: "Pity? It was Pity that stayed his hand. Pity and Mercy: not to strike without need. And he has been well rewarded, Frodo. Be sure that he took so little hurt from the evil. ... because he began his ownership of The Ring so. With Pity." (Tolkien, R., 1966 Vol. I)

   (3) That will and states of mind can have physical power, working at a distance, is apparent from the field of terror around The Ringwraiths. As the Hobbits are told, terror is their main weapon, one need only see or feel the presence of them and he is shivering with blind fear. Positive will power can be seen with Aragorn, the heir of ancient Kings of Middle-Earth. As he has determined to ride the Paths of the Dead with a company of his warriors in order to muster the spirits of oathbreakers from an earlier age, mortal perils lie before his men. At the entrance to the Paths "the company halted and there was not a heart among them that did not quail... then Aragorn led the way and such was the strength of his will in that hour that all (his men) ... followed him." (Tolkien, R., 1966 Vol. Ill) The essence of this law, at least as an absolute one, is fantastic but parallels with the real world can be found. Hypnosis works much in the same way, rendering one person or a group of persons susceptible to external mental influence which is always dependent on the hypnotist's will and, to some extent, his state of mind. Will power in this sense can also be used for good and bad ends. History knows several cases of so-called mass hypnosis when a person or a group has found a gap in general world outlook or social cognition and then filled it for his own benefit. The results have sometimes been stunning: the conversion of a whole nation to nationalist hysteria in Germany in the 1930s, the overnight boom of Mary Baker-Eddy's "Christian science" serve only as a couple of marked cases. At the same time contemporary mediciae uses hypnosis for various curative purposes and its effects have often proved lasting. Needless to say, that it would be extremely far-fetched to associate Tolkien's "material" will power with contemporary developments in the field of hypnosis or any other suggestive influences but these parallels like the case is with the previous laws, serve to indicate that, however independent the laws of the "secondary world" be, they still have certain reminiscent features in the real world.

   (4) Physical force in magical law could be illustrated by Gandalf's attempts at finding a password that would open the doors to the old mines of Moria. Eventually he succeeded when "he said in a clear voice: Mellon! .... Then silently a great doorway was outlined... slowly it divided in the middle and swung outwards inch by inch..." (Tolkien, R., 1966 Vol. I) "Open, Sesame!" varieties have established themselves in fairy-tale literature long ago and Tolkien could not do without one, yet he is closer to reality than his predecessors because his time already saw "acoustic locks" whicli would open when a certain combination of sounds is uttered. In this case the solution is, needless to say purely technical and there is nothing magical about it.

   (5) As to the realisation of proverbial truth, it reflects the way things have always happened from the perspective of Middle-Earth's inhabitants'. This law is the least uncommon because there are proverbs in the folklore of every nation and as far as their validity is established with their existence in the collective memory of a nation, there is no reason why Tolkien's presentation of the proverbs of Middle-Earth should be followed by their refutation.

   In general, the inner laws of J.R.R.Tolkien's fantasy world find relatively inviolable enactment, although his richly inventive mind has not always been at its best and occasional inconsistencies in the interrelationships of those laws and the protagonists' actions occur.

1. A Hobbit, chief protagonist of the trilogy;

2. A Hobbit, chief protagonist of "The Hobbit", Frodo's step-father.


An Anthology of Beowulf Criticism (Edited by L.E. Nicholson) Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1963.

Foster, R. The Complete Guide to Middle-Earth. From "The Hobbit" to "The Silmarillion". - New York: Ballantine Books, 1979.

Helms, R. Tolkien's World. - Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. 1974.

Kocher, P. Master of Middle-Earth. J.R.R.Tolkien's Fiction. - New York: Ballantine Books, 1977.

Tolkien, J.R.R. Tree and Leaf. - Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1965.

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Fellowship of the Ring. - New York: Ballantine Books, 1966 I

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Return of the King. - New York: Ballantine Books, 1966 III.

Cater, B. More and More People are Getting the J.R.R. Tolkien Habit. - Los Angeles Times Calendar, April 9, 1972.

Л. Линаск

Влияние германской и скандинавской мифологий на творчество Дж.Р.Р. Толкина


   Мир фантазии Дж. Толкина является курьезом в сказочной литературе XX в., поскольку ни один писатель до него не подавал читателям произведений, которые, обладали бы такой философской глубиной и представляли бы столь энциклопедический обзор всех сфер этого мира.

   Так как Толкин получил специальность филолога и в свое время глубоко изучал древнеанглийский язык, то вполне понятен его интерес к английскому эпосу "Беовульф". Влияния дрсвнескандинавской и германской мифологии можно заметить во всех произведениях Толкина. Их мрачная атмосфера и философские убеждения воздействовали особенно на трилогию Толкина. В его сказке для детей "Хоббит" имеются самые прямые влияния древнеисландского эпоса "Старшая Эдда", например, имена его героев-гномов он почти полностью взял из эпоса и древнеисландского языка.

   В свой мир Толкин внес к многие специфические закономерности, которые властвуют только над его миром. Например, воля и настроенность могут в его мире иметь объективную реальность и физическую энергию, весь его мир провиденциально контролирован, замысел действий всегда определяет возможные результаты и другие закономерности, но все эти сверхъестественные закономерности имеют параллели в реальном мире.

   Множество информации о мире фантазии Толкина дает много возможностей для дальнейшего изучения творчества писателя.



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