J.R.R Tolkien & the Sagas

photo courtesy of QGeekBooks

What influence did Iceland have on the creation of Middle-earth?

Desolate landscapes, dragons, trolls, elves, dwarves and wizards.

Sound familiar to those who know anything about Icelandic folklore or the fictional land of Middle-earth? Hopefully, because there’s an underrated but important connection between the two.

In fact, segments of J.R.R. Tolkien’s beloved Lord of the Rings books and companion works such as The Hobbit and The Silmarillion actually trace directly back to Icelandic Sagas — a collection of Icelandic medieval works, ranging from mythologic tales to historical narratives.

According to Gloriana St. Clair, a scholar of Norse Mythology and its relationship to the works of Tolkien, and other Tolkien scholars like Charles Moorman, the greatest influences on Tolkien were the Sagas of Iceland.

And it’s no secret that Norse mythology coupled with the Sagas heavily influenced him.

Notably, after mastering six other languages in the early 20th century, Tolkien began to decipher the Volsunga Saga in its original Old Norse text. Later, while a professor at Oxford, Tolkien, who had graduated from there in 1915 with a focus on Old Norse, founded groups “Viking Club” and “Coalbiters” for undergraduates. Here, they’d drink beer and read the epics in their original text.

So it may not be a shock when similarities start to appear once Tolkien’s books are published.

The names of Tolkien’s dwarves in The Hobbit (1937) are also dwarves in Snorri Sturluson’s 13th-century Edda — Bifur, Bafur, Bombor, Nori, Ori, Oin. St. Clair argues that the elves in Tolkien's mythology are tall and beautiful and mysterious, better resembling the “hidden people” of Iceland more than the pixies and leprechauns of the British Isles. She points out that elves and their counterparts, dwarves — short, with long beards, bad tempers and a love for treasure — are based on Norse and related Germanic mythologies, particularly in the Prose Edda and Poetic Edda.

Especially, Tolkien’s ever-helpful wizard Gandalf is influenced by the Norse deity Odin in his incarnation as "The Wanderer,” an old man with a long white beard, a wide brimmed hat, and a staff. Tolkien himself even once referred to his Gandalf as an “Odinic wanderer” — and a character named Gandalf appears in the Poetic and Prose Eddas.

Many other parallels are drawn between Tolkien’s fictional world and the Sagas. Perhaps most importantly is the Völsungasaga, a 13th century narrative featuring a cursed golden ring of power and a magical sword that is broken and re-forged.

Of course, other influences and mythologies have impacted Tolkien, no doubt. But it seems the Land of Fire & Ice took hold, and had the same effect on him, according to his biographer Humphrey Carpenter, that it has had on millions of others: “a profound appeal” to his imagination.