Norse mythology and Icelandic folktales inspired Tolkien
Have you read or seen The Lord of the Rings or the Hobbit?
Then you are going to want to hear about Norse mythology and Icelandic folktales
Words by Snædís, one of the expert local guides of Your Friend In Reykjavik
Few writers can say they have as good of an imagination as J.R.R. Tolkien. He wrote books that are known all over the world today and will not be forgotten in the near future. His brilliant stories were inspired by many incredible stories and legends from folklore viewed through Tolkien’s cultural lens.
Desolate landscapes, dwarfs, elves and wizards.
Sounds familiar to Icelanders, those who know any Icelandic folklore and those who have read about the fictional place of Middle-Earth. The reason why is because Middle-Earth was inspired by Icelandic books about Norse mythology and the Icelandic sagas. As an Icelander myself, I love both Icelandic sagas, Norse Mythology and Tolkien´s work. I even took a Tolkien class once and here I am, sharing my knowledge of these things combined.
Norse mythology is a religion practiced in nordic countries and is believed to have originated in Sweden though a lot of things are similar to greek mythology and mythologies from cultures all around the world. It is still practised today though obviously not as much as before.
In Icelandic, Norse mythology translates to Norsk goðafræði, also called Ásatrú (because ás means aesir/gods and trú means faith/religion). Most of the first settlers in Iceland came from Norway and they believed in the old Norse gods and kept on believing in them until around the year 1000. Then Icelanders changed to christianity, or well some did. Others still kept on believing in the Norse gods but in secret because it was not allowed. Today, we have a Norse mythology association in Iceland. It is quite big and it is getting bigger every year. Even though the state religion is Luthern, there are almost 5000 people (3158 men and 1606 women year 2020) registered and they are even planning to build a temple in Reykjavik in the next few years.
Our main sources for this information about Norse Mythology is mainly Icelandic books, books that were written after we the icelandic people had converted to christianity. Books or old manuscripts like The Eddas, especially the Prose Edda of Snorri Sturluson. It is a collection of Nordic tales written in 1220 and it is the closest thing we have to a mythical handbook of pre-Christian belief.
The story of creation according to Norse Mythology
There we can read about their view of the world which is quite different from ours. But they say the world started out as emptiness apart from cold in the north and heat in the south. Then the cold and the heat collided and out came life, a giant called Ýmir and a cow called Auðhumla. The cow Auðhumla had four teats that milk flowed from and formed the four rivers that the giant Ýmir drank from. Ýmir had few children who then represented few of the races that we then see later on in Norse mythology. His children made the world out of Ýmir’s body, They made the earth out of his body, the bones became mountains, the teeth became rocks, hair became trees, the blood became the sea and his skull was used as the sky. A sky that four dwarfs held up, the names of these dwarfs were North, South, West and East or Norðri, Suðri, Vestri og Austri. That is how earth was made according to Norse mythology.
In Norse mythology we have gods, giants, dwarfs, elves, and all kinds of other creatures. Tolkien was fascinated by this and used creatures, names and other things from this in his work.
Tolkien introduced to Norse mythology
Tolkien never visited Iceland but a lot of his work was inspired by Iceland, Icelandic stories and the Icelandic language. The trolls in the Hobbit are from Icelandic folktales, Gandalf is the incarnation of Odin, a god from Norse mythology and so on and so on! So where did he get introduced to Iceland then?
Old Norse and an Icelandic Nanny
During his education he read and translated from old Norse (the parent language of Norwegian, Swedish, Danish and Icelandic). It became his secondary subject. Later in the early 1930´s, his children had a nanny. A woman from Iceland. She loved telling the children, and sometimes Tolkien, some interesting icelandic Folklore before bedtime and also taught them all some icelandic. He was fascinated by what he heard and decided to get to know all this even better. He learned Icelandic and immersed himself into all kinds of old books and manuscripts about the Icelandic sagas and did a lot of research on them.
C.S. Lewis was also influenced by the Sagas
Tolkien even founded a club that focused on the Icelandic sagas along with his friend C.S. Lewis, the writer of The Chronicles of Narnia. They encouraged the reading, translations and discussion of Icelandic sagas in the original language. This club was originally called Kolbítur (Icelandic for the person who stays so close to the hearth or fire in winter that they bite on the coals) but when Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and more started writing their own Sagas they changed the name of the bookclub to The Inklings.
Tolkien was therefore always in contact with Icelandic literature and he used what he had learned as an inspiration for his writings.
England has a poor mythology
Tolkien always complained that England had a very poor mythology unlike other countries. With his writings he wanted to provide his country with a new mythology. Something magical. Something based on the cultures and legends of other mythologies and what he knew best was what he had studied. But what came from what he had read and what came from himself?
The similarities between worlds
had a great imagination and he got a lot of inspiration from plenty of different cultures and legends. Some of the things could be inspired by combining different stories while others are almost taken straight from something. Some Icelanders, like myself, really like to find what could have been inspired by our books, our stories and our culture and I thought I would share some of the most obvious ones with you.
Rings and swords:
In Norse mythological stories, both rings and swords are very important and were often used in poems as metaphors for power, to own rings was to have power but to share a ring was to share property with someone. The most powerful rings in Norse mythology were forged by dwarfs, like for example The Ring of Odin. All swords in norse mythology have names that tell something about their history just like in Middle Earth for example Glamdring the sword of Gandalf the Grey and Sting, the sword of Bilbo Baggins.
Gandalf himself is definitely influenced by the Norse god Odin and the character’s name, Gandalf, appears in the Poetic and Prose Eddas. Odin is often described in the old texts as The Wanderer, an old man with one eye, a long white beard, a broad hat, wearing a cloak and wielding a spear. He is the promoter of knowledge, truth, insight and justice. Starting to sound familiar? Tolkien even wrote in a letter in 1946 that he thought of Gandalf as an “Odinic wanderer”. The clearest example of a direct borrowing from old norse is definitely the name Gandalf. The name Gandalf appears in a few Icelandic books. It is on a list of dwarfs in both Völuspá and Edda and then there is a king Gandalf in Heimskringla. We don’t know more about this king Gandalf than the name means an elf with a staff or a wand in Icelandic.
The elves in Middle-Earth are tall, intelligent, slim and are very beautiful. The elves in Iceland are more often called The hidden people or Huldufólk rather than elves or álfar. They are a little bit taller, slimmer and more beautiful than us humans. Sounds quite similar. In both Middle-Earth and in Norse mythology we have different types of elves. In Middle-Earth we have the Calaquendi or the Elves of Light and Moriquendi or the Elves of Darkness. In Norse mythology we have Light elves and dark elves. The light Elves are often associated with gods just like Calaquendi (the Elves of light) are associated with the Valar.
In icelandic folktales we have countless stories about big, ugly creatures that when exposed to the sun they turn to stone. Sometimes also described as dumb and like tricking people into their favour. They normally live up in the mountains in some caves. In the hobbit we have some big ugly creatures that when exposed to the sun, they turn to stone. When they are not outside they stay inside some caves. Tolkien later explained that since trolls were created from stone by Morgoth using a spell cast in darkness, they change back to their true form when exposed to the sun, therefore turning to stone.
The Balrog, Durin’s Bane:
The Balrog called the Durin’s Bane became an important character in The Fellowship of the Ring. It was the fire monster in Moria that the fellowship inadvertently awakened. Durin’s bane and Ganfalf fought on the Bridge of Khazad-dúm. Gandalf shatters the Balrog´s fiery sword and then strikes the bridge, breaking it in half. The Balrog falls into the deep but then uses it´s whip and latches onto Gandalf´s legs and drags him down with him. The Balrog is parallel to the fire jötunn Surtr in Norse mythology. Surtr is a fire giant from extreme heat and fire and bears a burning sword. He leads his kin into battle against the gods during the destruction of the cosmos. His fate is to kill the god Freyr and be slain by him in turn, just like the Balrog and Gandalf slaying each other on the bridge. Another thing that is similar. In Norse mythology Surtr is supposed to destroy Bifröst, Asgard´s bridge just like Khazad-dúm in Middle-Earth.
Most Icelanders have finished The Hobbit by the age of 18 and most also read Völuspá (an old icelandic manuscript) around the same time. In it we have a part called Dvergatal or catalogue of dwarfs. In Dvergatal we can find names like Thorin, Dwalin, Bifur, Bofur, Bombur, Nori, Ori and Oin. Almost all of the dwarf names in The Hobbit and there, the name Gandalf can be found. Even though we know of many dwarf names from our books, we don´t know of many dwarfs as characters in our books and they are almost non-existent in post-medieval Icelandic folktales. Tolkien therefore did not have a lot to be inspired by other than the names. Tolkien talks about dwarfs as compatible with rock, stone and earth and that they are heavy, solid, loyal, resilient, stubborn, materialistic and prosaic. It could be something from some old Icelandic books but it is more likely that he combined all known dwarf narratives and combined them together to figure out how to have the dwarfs in his writing and personally I couldn´t be happier about how they turned out.
Valar and Ainur:
If you know a lot about Tolkien’s work you know the Valar and the Ainur. They were the powers of Arda who shaped and ruled the world. Powerful creatures just like the Asir and Vanir, the gods of Asgard, in Norse mythology. We can see some similarities in the characteristics of some of those. Thor for example is physically the strongest of the gods of Norse mythology. He can be seen in two Valars. In Tulkas because he is physically the strongest of the Valar and in Orome, who fights the monsters of Melkor. Odin is another god in Norse mythology. He is considered to be the allfather, the mightiest of the gods. We can see similarities in Manwe who was the leader of the Ainur and King of the Valar.
Tolkien did impressive work, he not only made the characters and another world but he also made some languages. One of the languages was the Angerthas or Dwarf runes. It was a runic script used by the dwarfs that utilizes both runes and glyphs when written. It was created by the elven loremaster Daeron of Doriath and was at first called Cirth or Certar Daeron. The dwarfs learned the runes from the elves and then took up that language and then it became the dwarf language. While other languages in Middle-Earth like elvish language (Quenya and Sindarin) were inspired by Latin and the ancient Indian. Dwarf runes were inspired by the nordic runes of the Vikings.
Tolkien has shed light on Icelandic books
Even though he definitely took a lot of inspiration from the Icelandic books about Norse mythology and the Icelandic sagas, we definitely don’t think of him as a thief. He was fascinated by so many things, but especially by these books and by using them as his inspiration he has shed light on these books. Books that a lot of Icelanders, especially the younger generation, did not care about before. In my case, I really disliked them because we were “forced” to read a lot of these sagas in school but when I read them again in my own time I liked it a little bit more and when I read Tolkien’s books, I became fascinated by all of them. I think it is like that for many people. Now it is a fascinating subject because we have Tolkien’s books and the movies as well. It is a lot of fun having read the sagas and know about Norse mythology when reading or watching The Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit because we can see where he got the ideas and how it connects to our stories.
Want to know more?
What is even more fun, is to get a chance to listen to a guide at Your Friend in Reykjavík telling you stories on a Mythical walk and you can ask about everything that you would like to know. On the Reykjavik Folklore Walking Tour you will hear stories about elves, trolls, dragons, ghosts and more while strolling off the beaten path through a less known part of the center of Reykjavík.