J. R. R. Tolkien's influences
While highly creative, the fiction of J. R. R. Tolkien was influenced by a number of sources. Tolkien was inspired by his academic fields of philology and early Germanic literature, especially poetry and mythology, as well as a wide range of other beliefs, culture, and experiences.
- 1 The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings
- 2 The Silmarillion
- 3 Footnotes
- 4 References
The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings
|Author||J. R. R. Tolkien|
|Genre||High fantasy, Adventure novel|
|Publisher||Allen & Unwin|
|21 September 1937|
|Media type||Print (Hardback & Paperback)|
|Pages||310 pp (first edition)|
|Author||J. R. R. Tolkien|
|Genre||High fantasy, Adventure novel, Heroic romance|
|Publisher||Allen & Unwin|
|1954 and 1955|
|Media type||Print (Hardback & Paperback)|
|Pages||1216 pp (total pages)|
|Preceded by||The Hobbit|
The Lord of the Rings is a sequel to The Hobbit and so shares influences with it. At the same time, it is a novel which is much greater in scale and scope and so encompasses many other influences as well.
Tolkien once described The Lord of the Rings to his friend, the English Jesuit Father Robert Murray, as "a fundamentally religious and Catholic work, unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision." Many theological themes underlie the narrative, including the battle of good versus evil, the triumph of humility over pride, and the activity of grace, as seen with Frodo's pity toward Gollum. In addition the epic includes the themes of death and immortality, mercy and pity, resurrection, salvation, repentance, self-sacrifice, free will, justice, fellowship, authority and healing. Tolkien mentions the Lord's Prayer, especially the line "And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil" in connection with Frodo's struggles against the power of the One Ring.
Tolkien was heavily influenced by Nordic mythology. During his education at King Edward's School in Birmingham, the then young Tolkien read and translated from the Old Norse on his own time. One of his first Nordic purchases was the Völsunga Saga. It is known that while a student, Tolkien read the only available English translation of the Völsunga saga, that by William Morris of the Victorian Arts and Crafts Movement and Icelandic scholar Eiríkr Magnússon. The Völsunga saga and the Nibelungenlied were coeval texts made with the use of the same ancient sources. Both of them provided some of the basis for Richard Wagner's opera series, Der Ring des Nibelungen, featuring in particular a magical golden ring and a broken sword reforged. In the Völsungasaga, these items are respectively Andvarinaut and Gram, and they correspond broadly to the One Ring and the sword Narsil (reforged as Andúril). The Volsunga Saga also gives various names found in Tolkien. Tolkien wrote a book entitled The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún, in which he discusses the saga in relation to the myth of Sigurd and Gudrún.
Tolkien's Elves and Dwarves are by and large based on Norse and related Germanic mythologies Two sources that contain accounts of elves and dwarves that were of interest to Tolkien were the Prose Edda and the Elder or Poetic Edda. The descriptions of elves and dwarves in these works are ambiguous and contradictory, however. Within the contents of the Völuspá, specifically in stanza 9, the creation of Dwarves predates Man, which is precisely the formula Tolkien uses for Middle-earth. The names of Gandalf and the dwarves in The Hobbit were taken from the "Dvergatal" in the Elder Edda and the "Gylfaginning" in the Prose Edda. Other themes, such as the conversation between Bilbo Baggins and Smaug, the dragon from The Hobbit, as well as the antagonism created by the mere mention of gold and even the concept of riddles, are also reflected in Norse sources such as the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf.
The figure of Gandalf is particularly influenced by the Germanic deity Odin in his incarnation as "The Wanderer", an old man with one eye, a long white beard, a wide brimmed hat, and a staff. Tolkien, in a letter of 1946, nearly a decade after the character was invented, wrote that he thought of Gandalf as an "Odinic wanderer". Much like Odin, Gandalf promotes justice, knowledge, truth, and insight.
Tolkien based the people of Rohan, the Rohirrim, on the historical Anglo-Saxons, giving them Anglo-Saxon names, customs, and poetry. The Anglo-Saxon poem, "The Wanderer," is paraphrased by Aragorn as an example of Rohirric verse.
The Balrog and the collapse of the Bridge of Khazad-dûm in Moria, is a direct parallel of the fire giant Surt and the destruction of Asgard's bridge in Norse myth.
Other mythological and linguistic influences
Finnish mythology and more specifically the Finnish national epic Kalevala were also acknowledged by Tolkien as an influence on Middle-earth. In a manner similar to The Lord of the Rings, the Kalevala centres around a magical item of great power, the Sampo, which bestows great fortune on its owner, but never makes clear its exact nature. Like the One Ring, the Sampo is fought over by forces of good and evil, and is ultimately lost to the world as it is destroyed towards the end of the story. In another parallel, the latter work's wizard character, Väinämöinen, is similar to Gandalf in his immortal origins and wise nature, and both works end with the wizard character departing on a ship to lands beyond the mortal world. Tolkien also based elements of his Elvish language Quenya on Finnish. Both Kalevala and The Lord of the Rings also have similar ending; wizard crowns the new king and then sets sail to beyond.
The extent of Celtic influence is debatable. Tolkien wrote that he gave the Elvish language Sindarin "a linguistic character very like (though not identical with) British-Welsh ... because it seems to fit the rather 'Celtic' type of legends and stories told of its speakers". A number of the names of characters and places in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings have been found to have Welsh origin. In addition, the depiction of elves has been described as deriving from Celtic mythology.
Though Tolkien denied the influence of Arthurian legends, several parallels have been drawn. Gandalf has been compared with Merlin, Frodo and Aragorn with Arthur, and Galadriel with Lady of the Lake.
Modern literary influences
Tolkien was also influenced by more modern literature. The Ent attack on Isengard was inspired by "Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane" in Shakespeare's Macbeth. Charles Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers has likewise been shown to have reflections in Tolkien.
One of the greatest influences on Tolkien was the Arts and Crafts polymath William Morris. Tolkien wished to imitate Morris's prose and poetry romances, along with the general style and approach; he took elements such as the Dead Marshes in The Lord of the Rings and Mirkwood in The Hobbit from Morris. He was also influenced by the modern fantasy author, George MacDonald. Books by the Inkling author Owen Barfield are also known to have contributed to his world-view, particularly The Silver Trumpet (1925), History in English Words (1926) and Poetic Diction (1928). Edward Wyke-Smith's Marvellous Land of Snergs, with its 'table-high' title characters, strongly influenced the incidents, themes, and depiction of Bilbo's race in The Hobbit.
In his biography of Tolkien, Carpenter notes that in the limited amount of time Tolkien could apply to the reading of fiction, he “preferred the lighter contemporary novels,” and the stories of John Buchan are listed as an example . Critics such as Hooker have detailed the resonances between the two authors.
Another contemporary adventure novel, H. Rider Haggard's She, was acknowledged by Tolkien in an interview: 'I suppose as a boy She interested me as much as anything—like the Greek shard of Amyntas [Amenartas], which was the kind of machine by which everything got moving.' A supposed facsimile of this potsherd appeared in Haggard's first edition, and the ancient inscription it bore, once translated, led the English characters to She's ancient kingdom. Critics have compared this device to the Testament of Isildur in The Lord of the Rings and Tolkien's efforts to produce as an illustration a realistic page from the Book of Mazarbul. Critics starting with Edwin Muir have found resemblances between Haggard's romances and Tolkien's.
Tolkien scholar Mark T. Hooker has cataloged a series of parallels between The Hobbit and Jules Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth. These include, among other things, a hidden runic message and a celestial alignment that direct the adventurers to the goals of their quests.
Tolkien wrote of being impressed as a boy by Samuel Rutherford Crockett's historical novel The Black Douglas and of basing the Necromancer - Sauron - on its villain, Gilles de Retz. Incidents in both The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings are similar in narrative and style to the novel, and its overall style and imagery have been suggested as having had an influence on Tolkien.
Some critics have suggested that The Lord of the Rings was directly and heavily derived from Richard Wagner's opera cycle, Der Ring des Nibelungen which also centres its plot on a powerful ring. Others have argued that any similarity is due to Tolkien being influenced by the legendary Volsunga saga and the Nibelungenlied, which were the basis for the operas.
Tolkien sought to dismiss critics' direct comparisons to Wagner, telling his publisher, "Both rings were round, and there the resemblance ceases." According to Humphrey Carpenter's biography of Tolkien, the author claimed to hold Wagner's interpretation of the relevant Germanic myths in contempt, even as a young man before reaching university.
Some researchers take an intermediate position: that both the authors used the same sources, but that Tolkien was influenced by Wagner's development of the mythology, especially "concept of the Ring as giving the owner mastery of the world that was Wagner's own contribution to the myth of the Ring". Wagner probably developed this element by combining the ring with a magical wand mentioned in the Nibelungenlied that could give to its wearer the control "over the race of men". In addition, the corrupting power of Tolkien's One Ring has a central role in Wagner's operas but was not present in the mythical sources.
Some argue that Tolkien's denial of a Wagnerian influence was an overreaction to the statements of Åke Ohlmarks, Tolkien's Swedish translator, who in the introduction to his much-criticized translation of The Lord of the Rings "mixed material from various legends, some which mention no ring and one which concerns a totally different ring". Furthermore, critics believe that Tolkien was reacting against the links between Wagner's work and Nazism.
Some locations and characters were inspired by Tolkien's childhood in Birmingham, where he first lived near Sarehole Mill, and later near Edgbaston Reservoir. There are also hints of the Black Country, which is within easy reach of north west Edgbaston. This shows in such names as "Underhill", and the description of Saruman's industrialisation of Isengard and The Shire is explicitly stated by Tolkien to have been based on the industrialisation of England. It has also been suggested that The Shire and its surroundings were influenced by the Iron Age and Roman mineral workings and remains which Tolkien saw in 1929 when working with archaeologist Mortimer Wheeler at Lydney Park in the Forest of Dean; or alternatively were based on the countryside around Stonyhurst College in Lancashire where he frequently stayed during the 1940s.
After the publication of The Lord of the Rings these influences led to speculation that the One Ring was an allegory for the nuclear bomb. Tolkien, however, repeatedly insisted that his works were not an allegory of any kind. He states in the foreword to The Lord of the Rings that he disliked allegories and that the story was not one. Instead he preferred what he termed "applicability", the freedom of the reader to interpret the work in the light of his or her own life and times. Tolkien had already completed most of the book, including the ending in its entirety, before the first nuclear bombs were made known to the world at Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945.
1977 George Allen & Unwin hardback edition.
|Author||J. R. R. Tolkien|
|Genre||Alternate history, Fantasy|
|Publisher||Allen & Unwin|
|Media type||Print (Hardback & Paperback)|
The Silmarillion is a complex work exhibiting the influence of many sources.
A major influence was the Finnish epic Kalevala, especially the tale of Kullervo. Tolkien admitted that he had been "greatly affected" by Finnish mythologies, and even credited Kullervo's story with being the "germ of [his] attempt to write legends". Tolkien attempted to rework the story of Kullervo into a story of his own, and though he never finished, similarities to the story can still be seen in the tale of Túrin Turambar.
Similarly, the Valar also contain elements of Norse mythology. Several of the Valar have characteristics resembling various Æsir, the gods of Asgard. Thor, for example, physically the strongest of the gods, can be seen both in Oromë, who fights the monsters of Melkor, and in Tulkas, the physically strongest of the Valar. Manwё, the head of the Valar, exhibits some similarities to Odin, the "Allfather".
The division between the Calaquendi (Elves of Light) and Moriquendi (Elves of Darkness) also echoes Norse mythology, which has its own Light elves and Dark elves. The Light elves of Norse mythology are associated with the gods, much as the Calaquendi are associated with the Valar.
Influence from Greek mythology is also apparent. The island of Númenor, for example, recalls Atlantis. Tolkien's Elvish name "Atalantë" for Númenor resembles Plato's Atlantis  furthering the illusion that his mythology simply extends the history and mythology of the real world. In his Letters, however, Tolkien described this merely as a "curious chance."
Greek mythology also colours the Valar, who borrow many attributes from the Olympian gods. The Valar, like the Olympians, live in the world, but on a high mountain, separated from mortals; Ulmo, Lord of the Waters, owes much to Poseidon, and Manwë, the Lord of the Air and King of the Valar, to Zeus. But the correspondences are only approximate; Tolkien borrows ideas from Greek mythology, but does not model the Valar and Maiar on Greek deities. Note that both the Olympians and the Valar are twelve.
Fëanor has been compared with Prometheus by researchers such as Verlyn Flieger. They share a symbolical and literal association with fire, are both rebels against gods's decrees and, basically, inventors of artifacts that were vessels to divine flame/source of light.
The Bible and traditional Christian narrative also influenced The Silmarillion. Tolkien was a devout Roman Catholic. The conflict between Melkor and Eru Ilúvatar parallels that between Satan and God. Further, The Silmarillion tells of the creation and fall of the Elves, as Genesis tells of the creation and fall of Man. As with all of Tolkien's works, The Silmarillion allows room for later Christian history, and one version of Tolkien's drafts even has Finrod, a character in The Silmarillion, speculating on the necessity of Eru's (God's) eventual Incarnation to save Mankind. A specifically Christian influence is the notion of the Fall of man, which influenced the Ainulindalë, the Kinslaying at Alqualondë, and the fall of Númenor.
Though Tolkien wrote of "a certain distaste" for Celtic legends, "largely for their fundamental unreason", The Silmarillion may betray some Celtic influence. The exile of the Noldorin Elves, for example, has parallels with the story of the Tuatha Dé Danann. The Tuatha Dé Danann semi-divine beings, invaded Ireland from across the sea, burning their ships when they arrived and fighting a fierce battle with the current inhabitants. The Noldor arrived in Middle-earth from Valinor and burned their ships, then turned to fight Melkor. Another parallel can be seen between the loss of a hand by Maedhros, son of Fëanor, and the similar mutilation suffered by Nuada Airgetlám ("Silver Hand/Arm") during the battle with the Firbolg. Nuada received a hand made of silver to replace the lost one, and his later appellation has the same meaning as the Elvish name Celebrimbor: "silver fist" or "Hand of silver" in Sindarin (Telperinquar in Quenya).
Another similarity between the Silmarillion and the Lebor Gabála Érenn can be seen by comparing Nuada and Lugh (who possessed a famed magic spear, the Spear Luin) and the outcome of their respective confrontations against Balor of the Evil Eye with the events surrounding Celebrimbor and Gil-galad (whose weapon is the spear Aeglos) and their conflicts with Sauron of the Lidless Red Eye in the Second Age.
Other authors, such as Donald O'Brien, Patrick Wynne and Carl Hostetter, Tom Shippey, David Day have pointed out the similarities between Beren and Lúthien, one of the main storylines of the Silmarillion, and Culhwch and Olwen, one the tales collected in the Welsh Mabinogion.
In both, the male heroes make rash promises after having been stricken by the beauty of non-mortal maidens; both enlist the aid of great kings, Arthur and Finrod; both show rings that prove their identities; both are set impossible tasks that include, directly or indirectly, the hunting and killing of ferocious beasts (the wild boars, Twrch Trwyth and Ysgithrywyn, and the wolf Carcharoth) with the help of a supernatural hound (Cafall and Huan). Both maidens possess such beauty that flowers grow beneath their feet when they come to meet the heroes for the first time, as if they were living embodiments of spring.
The Arthurian legends are part of the cultural heritage appearing in Celtic and Welsh mythology. Though Tolkien denied this influence, several parallels between the legends and Tolkien's stories have been found by numerous specialists. Verlyn Flieger, in particular, has investigated the correlations at length and has studied their numerous parallels with Tolkien's creative methods. Flieger points out visible correspondences such as Avalon and Avallónë and Broceliande and Broceliand, the original name of Beleriand. Tolkien himself said that Frodo and Bilbo's departure to Tol Eressëa (also called "Avallon" in the Legendarium) was an "Arthurian ending". Such correlations are discussed in the posthumously published The Fall of Arthur, which includes an entire section, "The Connection to the Quenta", on Tolkien's treatment of Arthurian material and its influence on The Silmarillion.
Another parallel is the tale of Sir Balin in the Arthurian Legend with that of Túrin Turambar. Though Balin knows he wields an accursed sword, he nevertheless continues his quest to regain King Arthur's favour; yet he unintentionally causes misery wherever he goes. Fate eventually catches up with him when he unwittingly kills his own brother, who in turn mortally wounds him.
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Whosoe’er its powers / full might understand,
The same might make him master / o’er all the race of men."
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- Tom Shippey, The Road to Middle Earth, pp. 193–194: "The hunting of the great wolf recalls the chase of the boar Twrch Trwyth in the Welsh Mabinogion, while the motif of 'the hand in the wolf's mouth' is one of the most famous parts of the Prose Edda, told of Fenris Wolf and the god Tyr; Huan recalls several faithful hounds of legend, Garm, Gelert, Cafall."
- Day 2002, p. 82. "In the Celtic tradition, when these radiant beings — these 'ladies in white' — take on mortal heroes as lovers, there are always obstacles to overcome. These obstacles usually take the form of an almost impossible quest. This is most clearly comparable to Tolkien in the Welsh legend of the wooing of Olwyn. Olwyn was the most beautiful woman of her age; her eyes shone with light, and her skin was white as snow. Olwyn's name means 'she of the white track', so bestowed because four white trefoils sprang up with her every step on the forest floor, and the winning of her hand required the near-impossible gathering of the 'Treasures of Britain'". "In Tolkien, we have two almost identical 'ladies in white': Lúthien in The Silmarillion, and Arwen in The Lord of the Rings".
- Day 2002, p. 79. "Besides those elements already mentioned, Celtic mythology has played a fundamental part in the shaping of Tolkien's world. When we learn that the most important source of Welsh Celtic lore was preserved in the fourteenth-century Red Book of Hergest, we realize that Tolkien is making a small scholarly joke in naming his 'source' of Elf-lore the Red Book of Westmarch"
- Hooker 2002, pp. 176–177, "The Feigned-manuscript Topos": "The 1849 translation of The Red Book of Hergest by Lady Charlotte Guest (1812-1895), which is more widely known as The Mabinogion, is likewise of undoubted authenticity (...) It is now housed in the library at Jesus College, Oxford. Tolkien's well-known love of Welsh suggests that he would have likewise been well-acquainted with the source of Lady Guest's translation. For the Tolkiennymist, the coincidence of the names of the sources of Lady Charlotte Guest's and Tolkien's translations is striking: The Red Book of Hergest and The Red Book of Westmarch. Tolkien wanted to write (translate) a mythology for England, and Lady Charlotte Guest's work can easily be said to be a 'mythology for Wales.' The implication of this coincidence is intriguing".
- Flieger 2005, The Literary Model: Tolkien and Arthur
- Flieger 2005, pp. 41–42 "It seems clear, however, that Arthur was in the back of his mind, or perhaps in the early, tentative beginnings, Arthur, along with other fragments of England’s history, was in the front of his mind and only later retired to the back. Tolkien’s process of naming, the very root and genesis of his invented languages and of his world, offer examples of both front and back positions. Examples include not just the shift from early Arthurian Broceliand to later Elvish Beleriand but from the early Avallon to the later Avalloné to the still later Tol Eressëa, all names for what remained throughout the naming process the 'Lonely Isle'"
- Flieger 2005, p. 42 "To Bilbo and Frodo the special grace is granted to go with the Elves they loved - an Arthurian ending, in which it is, of course, not made explicit whether this is an 'allegory' of death, or a mode of healing and restoration leading to a return"
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