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How Icelandic Norse Mythology Influenced Tolkien

How Icelandic Norse Mythology Influenced Tolkien

Picture of Camille Buckley
Updated: 11 September 2017

The famed author of The Lord of the Rings trilogy and other subsequent novels about the same fantasy world, J. R. R. Tolkien, was very much inspired by Iceland. Aspects of the landscape, the language, folk tales, and Norse mythology were influential in shaping the legendary fantasy world of Middle Earth.

Tolkien had an Icelandic nanny from the West Fjords who lived with the author and his family in the early 1930s in Oxford, England. It was through the nanny that the author became further acquainted with Icelandic folk tales and mythology and was able to practice Icelandic. The author began writing The Hobbit during this time.

Heavily influenced by Norse mythology, Tolkien had been a reader of the Icelandic sagas since childhood. In the Völsunga saga – the text that also inspired Richard Wagner’s opera, Der Ring des Nibelungen – an all-powerful ring and a broken sword that is reforged are both main features of the story, similar key elements in Tolkien’s novels.

Rings and swords are both very prevalent in the Prose and Poetic Edda. The most magical rings were the Ring of Odin and the Rings of the Niflungs, both forged by dwarves. The rings were often used as a metaphor for power in Norse poems. To own rings was to have power and to share a ring is to share a property with someone – a sentiment that is carried into present day marriage ceremonies. All famous swords in Norse mythology have names which tell about their history, very similar to the swords belonging to many of the main characters of Middle Earth.

Other parts of Tolkien’s universe, the elves, and dwarves especially, were based largely on the Norse mythological sources, the Poetic and the Prose Edda. Tolkien’s Gandalf is particularly reminiscent of the Norse god Odin, who is described as having a long white beard, wide brimmed hat, staff, and cloak. Similar to Odin, Gandalf spreads wisdom, truth, and knowledge.

The geography of Middle Earth, the fantasy world in which the stories take place, greatly resemble aspects of geography in Norse mythology. The name itself is significant; in Norse mythology, ‘Midgard’ is one of three worlds that compose the universe where men, dwarves, elves, and giants live. Another location in Tolkien’s universe that shares aspects to Norse mythological locations is Valinor. In Norse mythology, Asgard is the home of the Gods and the highest world, situated above Midgard as a place of peace and joy, very similar to how Valinor is a described.