Perhaps unusually for your usual diehard Tolkien fan, I was shown the world of Tolkien through the films, having not read the books when I saw Fellowship at the cinema. By the time I saw Two Towers I was a committed Tolkiemaniac. The race that quickly became my favourite were the Rohirrim. (I still think one of the greatest moments in the trilogy is the ride of Rohirrim onto the fields of the Pelennor in Return). Teenage me thought, ‘hey, those guys kind of look like Vikings’, and a lot of my friends said so at the time; it wasn’t until I had the privilege of studying Tolkien that I realised that Tolkien’s entire world of Middle-Earth was largely inspired by his studies of Old English and Norse literature and myth. I’d like to share a few things that for me, really deepened Tolkien’s fantasy writing for me.
From South Africa to Norway, via Oxford
Where to start? Well Tolkien was born in South Africa of all places, but as a university student in England, he got the bug. He formed a club in Oxford called ‘The Inklings’, with like-minded students (one of whom was C.S. Lewis), and they spent all the time they could translating and reading aloud translations of Icelandic, Norse and Old English sagas. Tolkien’s own translation work as a professor is often overlooked in light of his fiction, but he was a real master. Incidentally, his translation of the Old English epic poem Beowulf was released this year, and I can highly recommend it! He also produced works on the Arthurian legends and wrote his own saga-poems in the style of the Anglo-Saxons.
Dragons & Rings
But here’s some specific examples of all that in The Lord of the Rings; the Norse phrase for earth was Mid-gard, literally ‘Middle-Earth’, as they believed the earth to be on a level of Yggdrasil, the world-tree at the centre of the universe. The idea of a cursed ring is all over Germanic myth; the Volsunga Saga tells the story of Sigurd the dragon-slayer’s quest to kill Fafnir, a character transformed into a dragon by a cursed ring, given to him by a dwarfish smith.
If this is ringing bells (no pun intended), it’s because it’s what inspired Tolkien’s idea for a magic ring, back in the days when he wrote the Hobbit. Back then, in the mid-1930s, Middle-Earth was not yet completely formed in his mind, and the ring was a simple piece of enchanted gold that had a strange effect after long use, but when he began to write The Lord of the Rings, it soon assumed a deeper and more epic character. Originally the character called ‘Strider’ was going to be another hobbit, but Tolkien soon realised that his story was going to be a lot bigger than the adventures of Hobbits.
Tolkien & the Word-Hoard
Tolkien was also a professional philologist, essentially meaning he was concerned with discovering the original meaning of old languages. His knowledge of Norse and Old English (the name for the languages spoken by the Anglo-Saxons) gave him so much inspiration for names. The Ringwraiths (literally one of the scariest things 13-year old me had ever seen on screen) take their name from the verb writhan, meaning ‘to bend to one’s will’, and Eowyn’s name translates as ‘Horse joy’. Orthanc, Saruman’s tower, takes its names from Orðanc, a word meaning skilful or cunning. The more I learnt about all this, the more I wanted to learn, as it deepened the world so much.
Singing Round the Fire
There’s also a key element of the Rohirrim culture that I only spotted after a few read-throughs; they have almost no written language, and besides the fastness of Helm’s Deep, they build almost entirely with wood, much as the Saxons did in their Germanic homeland (what is now North-West Germany). Tellingly, the Saxon warrior culture of the Rohirrim is reflected in their attack on the orc-band that captured Merry and Pippin. Tolkien describes how Éomer dismounts and defeats the orc chief in single combat. Individual skill in battle was often prized over fighting as a larger body.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg. I can really recommend Humphrey Carpenter’s biography of Tolkien if you want to know more about the man who created Middle-Earth, and there are so many books out there on his influences. Also, you know you’re a certain type of geek when your computer’s spell-checker doesn’t challenge ‘Yggdrasil’…hope you’ve enjoyed reading!