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Thor’s Day Alert #25: Tolkien and Norse Myth

Happy Thor’s Day, everybody!

Today ends Tolkien month at Storm of the North blog. If you’re a fan of Norse lore and you’ve also read The Lord of the Rings, you’ve no doubt noticed similarities that go way beyond the presence of dwarves and elves and cursed rings. You’ve probably even noticed certain names that come directly from Norse myth, among them Gandalf and Middle-earth.

Did you also know that Tolkien named his dwarves for some of the very dwarves listed in Prose Edda? Tolkien apparently also modeled dwarf lineage after a first dwarf, Durin, who was granted human shape and understanding by the gods. If you’re a Tolkien fan, perhaps you’re also familiar with the following names, which are the names of dwarves in Norse myth who are hinted to be descendants of Durin:

Bifur, Ori, Dori, Oin, Gloin, Fili, Kili, Thorin, Thror, Nain, Dain, Fundin

I know, Gimli isn’t on that list. It appears his name comes from a gold-roofed hall in Asgard, where good men were said to go upon their death. Oh, and Gandalf? That too is a dwarf-name, but check out its meaning: staff elf or wand elf.

Okay. That’s the easy stuff. For some thematic examples of Norse influence on Tolkien’s writing, check out the gems I found in a book called TOLKIEN AND THE INVENTION OF MYTH. The four middle chapters of this book deal squarely with the influences of Norse myth on Tolkien, all written by way smarter folks than I. Here are a few samples, the first of which are excerpted from Andy Dimond’s essay, The Twilight of the Elves, where Mr. Dimond observes the similar fates of Tolkien’s elves and the Norse gods:

In his letters J. R. R. Tolkien makes several comments that reveal his close study of the Ragnarok legend. In a letter written as an attempt to convince Milton Waldman of Collins to publish The Silmarillion, Tolkien confesses that that book’s concluding battle “owes, I suppose, more to the Norse vision of Ragnarok than to anything else, though it is not much like it.” It is not this last battle of the First Age but that of the third that interests us here, but this quote does serve to illustrate Tolkien’s desire to play with the idea of apocalyptic battles.

. . . the apocalypse of Tolkien’s Third Age does have certain differences from that of the Icelandic cosmos. The apocalypse is not prophesied, though dark, foreboding rumors circulate in the years leading up to it: the Shire’s borders experience a scourge of strange Men and beasts; the Elf and Dwarf populations have begun to scatter or decline. As early as the time of Bilbo’s adventures in The Hobbit, tales tell of a “Necromancer” gathering forces abroad. Like Fenrir and many of the other Norse monsters, Sauron is a threat long ago subdued but not destroyed, returning to wreak havoc.

At this point it might be easy to equate Surt — the Fire Giant who leads the Muspel horde against the Norse gods and einherjar at Ragnarok — with Sauron. Not so fast. In quoting another Tolkien critic, Dimond mentions Ruth S. Noel, who

. . . notes the Balrog’s obvious similarities to Surt and compares its fight with Gandalf on the bridge of Khazad-Dum to Surt’s destruction of the bridge Bifrost.

Keen. Also in his essay, Dimond quotes the writer J. R. Wytenbroek when introducing another cool Ragnarok observation regarding Tolkien and Norse myth:

. . . the White Tree of Gondor “suggests the ash Tree Yggdrasil, the tree of Life” in representing the renewal of the world after the final battle.

The last gem I’ll pull from Dimond’s The Twilight of the Elves essay leads us from the thematic influences of Norse myth on Tolkien’s work and toward the stylistic influences. Here Dimond quotes Tom Shippey:

“[A]” major goal of The Lord of the Rings was to dramatise that ‘theory of courage’ which Tolkien had said in his British Academy lecture was the ‘great contribution’ to humanity of the old literature of the North.”

Did you catch that? What Tolkien admired so much about Northern lore was its strength — the essence of courage with which the gods both live well and fight fiercely despite knowing they will die in the Ragnarok battle. Whether we as fans of Norse myth are aware of it or not, this heroic struggle — this fight against fate, this fatalistic hope — resonates long after the tale is told. And it doesn’t diminish with each new telling.

As for Tolkien, Tom Shippey himself explains his own quote in the essay Tolkien and the Appeal of the Pagan, which also is found in TOLKIEN AND THE INVENTION OF MYTH:

By the “theory of courage” [Tolkien] did not mean that in Norse mythology courage was admired, as it is in all human traditions. He meant that Norse mythology was unique in confronting certain and ultimate defeat, but regarding that neither as an excuse for giving up nor as a logical refutation of one’s position. Evil will triumph, but it will still be evil . . .

And that’s what makes Norse myth or beliefs different from so many others: the good guys lose. There’s no happy ending. And yet we as fans can no more turn away from the disaster than can the gods themselves — just as Frodo and Merry and Pippin couldn’t turn away from their errands, though the hobbits, too, seem all but sure of the doom awaiting them.

Still, there’s humor and happiness throughout the myths. Tolkien, too, made good use of humor in his writing — a brand of humor that just might be as identifiable as the unique sort of courage he noted in the Norse. He was, after all, striving to “flavour” and add “rootedness” to his own mythopoeia. In the “Works Rooted and Uprooted” section of his essay, Tom Shippey quotes Tolkien, who said:

“It is an interesting question: what is this flavour, this atmosphere, this virtue that such rooted works have.”

Shippey continues:

. . . it remains an interesting question, not least because Tolkien so clearly devoted much of his lifelong writing effort to attempting to duplicate, or emulate, or counterfeit whatever the secret ingredient was.

So if we’ve seen the heroic ingredient from Norse myth, here’s an example of the humorous ingredient as Shippey relates it first from the pen of Snorri Sturluson in the Prose Edda:

One is [Snorri’s] remarkable laconicism, a habitual use of understatement. When the Aesir bind Fenris-Wolf, he refuses to allow them to put the fetter Gleipner on him, fearing treachery, unless the god Tyr will stand with his hand in Fenris’s mouth as a guarantee of good faith. Once it is clear that Fenris cannot escape from the fetter, “[all the gods] laughed, except for Tyr. He lost his hand.”

Shippey goes on to talk about similar humor in Tolkien and his writing:

The  [laconic] trait remains perfectly familiar: in some English social groups, including Tolkien’s, “not bad at all” is about the highest compliment that can be paid. Tolkien certainly aimed at similar effects from the start of his writing career.

. . . one might note the end of chapter 2 of the “Quenta Silmarillion,” when Yavanna warns Manwe that trees now have protectors (the Ents) : “Now let thy children beware! For there shall walk a power in the forests whose wrath they will arouse at their peril!” Aule says only, “Nonetheless they will have need of wood,” and goes on with his work (Silm, 46).

If Aule’s line here doesn’t make for a good conclusion to this post, I don’t know what would; it captures those trademarks of Norse myth — fatalism and humor — and does so through the hand of J. R. R. Tolkien, whose own work was so strongly influenced by the Norse and, indeed, may very well outlive it.

Thanks for stopping by! My next post will be Tuesday, May 19.


5 responses

  1. Nice post. I enjoyed reading your thoughts. 🙂

    I would offer a small correction, that it is really the Poetic (or Elder) Edda, and not the Prose (or Younger) Edda, from which Tolkien drew the dwarves’ names. They come from the Dvergatal, the so-called Catalog of Dwarves, a portion of the Völuspá (or Song of the Sybil). But in any case, many of these names appear through the Eddas and Sagas. Gandalf, for example, appears not only in the Völuspá but also in the Ynglinga Saga, a part of the Heimskringla of Snorri Sturluson.

    And did you know that in the original drafts of The Hobbit, Tolkien used the name Gandalf for the chief of the dwarves? Only later on in the writing process did he change this to Thorin Oakenshield, a name also drawn from Old Norse literature, and give the name Gandalf to the wizard. Originally, the wizard we all now know as Gandalf was called Bladorthin!

    May 7, 2009 at 9:28 am

  2. Glad you enjoyed the post, Jason. Thanks.

    I meant only that those names also appear in Prose Edda; I didn’t mean to imply the Younger Edda was Tolkien’s primary source material. No question he was a student of both Younger/Prose and Elder/Poetic — still, I’m FAR from being a student of Tolkien (thus the many quotes from other writers!) so I defer to you.

    Also enjoyed your comment and the revelation of Gandalf’s original name. I totally can’t imagine him as Bladorthin — sounds like some kind of medicine! Finding/creating good names for characters is both one of the funnest and toughest tasks for me in my own writing.

    Oh — because you’re obviously well read in both Tolkien and Scandinavian lore, you should definitely check out the book I referenced. In the second half of Shippey’s piece he talks about the influence of a Finnish work called the Kalevala. Very interesting stuff.

    May 7, 2009 at 5:23 pm

  3. I totally can’t imagine him as Bladorthin — sounds like some kind of medicine!

    You’re so right! I never thought of that, but it sounds like a blood-thinner, doesn’t it? Or, if you mispronounce the name, it could be a bladder drug. 🙂

    Oh, and I have read Tolkien and the Invention of Myth. It’s a good collection over all, though some of the pieces are better than others (which I suppose is typical of any collection written by many hands). I’ve written about the influence of the Kalevala on Tolkien myself, by the way (a chapter in the book, The Silmarillion: Thirty Years On, in case you are curious).

    Tom Shippey is my academic role model. And what a great guy, too! If you ever get the chance to hear him speak in person, don’t pass it up. (Though he has gone into retirement, and back to the U.K., now.)

    May 8, 2009 at 8:04 am

  4. An anticoagulant, eh? Warfarin is still the coolest drug name ever. As for Bladorthin, I too was thinking of a bladder cancer drug. How awesome of a job would it be to name drugs for a living?!

    I only read the Norse-related chapters of TOLKIEN AND THE INVENTION OF MYTH. I wasn’t familiar with Shippey before reading that — nor the Kalevala — so I doubly enjoyed it. That’s cool you got to meet him. I’m constantly amazed at how deep (or would it be wide?) the field of Norse studies is. I think I know what I’d do if I were 18 and beginning college again . . .

    Congrats on the chapter in SIL 30 YEARS ON. I may indeed check that out!

    May 8, 2009 at 5:09 pm

  5. Thanks much! (And both deep and wide, I would say. 😉

    May 11, 2009 at 8:56 am

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