J.R.R. Tolkien and the Norse connection

Tolkien

Image courtesy of The Morgan Library & Museum
J. R. R. Tolkien, “Conversation with Smaug,” 1937. Bodleian Libraries, MS. Tolkien Drawings 30. © The Tolkien Estate Limited 1937.

Victoria Hofmo
Brooklyn, N.Y.

Tolkien mania has hit New York. First there was the record-breaking ticket sales for the exhibit, Tolkien: Maker of Middle Earth at the Morgan Library & Museum. Two days before its closing, the film Tolkien hit the theaters. What do Tolkien’s writings have to do with Scandinavia? They are steeped in Norse mythology.

I hadn’t given a thought to this connection until I saw how Nordic his artwork was at the exhibit. Three pieces stood out.

The first, “‘Me’ and ‘My House,’” 1920, is from his Drawings from Father Christmas series, which comprises letters and illustrations created for Tolkien’s children between 1920 and 1942. Depicted is a nisse-like man with a sack on his back, traipsing through the snow. His house is a round marshmallow of frost, set in a dark Northern sky.

Tolkien

Image courtesy of The Morgan Library & Museum
“Drawing by Father Christmas of the Aurora Borealis,” 1926. Bodleian Libraries, MS. Tolkien Drawings 46. © The Tolkien Estate Limited 1976.

The second image, “Aurora Borealis,” also from the Father Christmas series, shares the exploding riot of color that can only be experienced by this phenomenon.

The third illustration, “Conversation with Smaug,” features a dragon ablaze in fiery hues, hoarding his heaps of gold. I found this reminiscent of Beowulf, the setting and hero of which hail from Scandinavia.

I then began to do some digging to see if my visual hunch was correct.

Tolkien was born in South Africa in 1892 and lived in England from the age of 3. His father was to join the rest of the family, but died of rheumatic fever. He lost his mother at age 12, but this did not stop her from having a great influence on his life, instilling a love of languages, reading, and the natural world, especially botany. He relished reading the Icelandic sagas beginning at this time in his life.

According to Wikipedia, “Tolkien did not set out to create a fictional world or to create anything like the Middle-earth we know today. He began writing stories while he was in the army during the First World War to comprise a ‘mythology for England.’ This mythology for England was based in England.” To do so, he turned to pre-Norman conquest mythology with a large incorporation of Norse mythology. This did not surprise me, after seeing the exhibit. What did surprise me was the extent of this influence and how well it has been documented.

Tolkien

Image courtesy of The Morgan Library & Museum
“Father Christmas drawing of ‘Me’ and ‘My House,’” 1920. Bodleian Libraries, MS. Tolkien Drawings 38. © The Tolkien Estate Limited 1976.

In the 1920s, Tolkien and a colleague created the Viking Club, whose purpose was to focus on Germanic languages, culture, and history. During the 1930s, an Icelandic nanny tended to his children while they were living in Oxford, England. She has been credited for influencing his inclusion of Norse mythology in his writing, as she introduced him to more Icelandic folk tales and mythology. He also practiced Icelandic with her, and he began writing The Hobbit during this time.

There can be no doubt that many elements found in Tolkien’s writing, such as his choice of characters, symbols, place names, and language, attest to the Norse impact on his work: much of Tolkien’s world comes directly from the Icelandic Saga Prose Edda. Gandalf (which translates to “magic staff”), the wandering wizard, is a central figure. He is also a representation of Odin bringing wisdom to the world. Magical Norse creatures—elves and dwarves—also inhabit Tolkien’s fantastical world.

Norse chieftains rewarded bravery and maintained loyalty by distributing gifts, such as arm rings. Rings tie us together and are never-ending; they are a powerful symbol. The author distributed magical rings among his various creatures, and of course they feature prominently in The Lord of the Rings.

Tolkien also borrows from Norse cosmology. He translates Midgard one of the three realms of the Norse world, into English as “Middle-earth,” his prime setting.

Even Tolkien’s use of language can be traced to the Vikings. In The Hobbit, Tolkien’s dwarves communicate using mystical runes. We know this, because he included their written alphabet on a map in that book. He even created a language for the elves, based on Old Norse and other languages, Finnish being the largest contributor.

If you did not have the opportunity to see the exhibit, you can learn about this talented creator and see his artwork on the Morgan Library and Museum’s website (www.themorgan.org/exhibitions/tolkein).

This article originally appeared in the July 12, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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