Tolkien and Mythology


Mythology was another of Tolkien’s lifelong interests, and that interest not only shone through in the writing of The Lord of the Rings, but very possibly helped to provide the impetus to create Middle Earth in the first place.

Tolkien had great interest, as he once wrote to a reader, “in mythological invention, and the mystery of literary creation”. As a scholar of mythology, Tolkien was also quite aware, as he went on to write in the same letter, that “[England] had no stories of its own, not of the quality that I sought, and found in legends of other lands”

Valkyrien, an 1869 painting by Peter Nicolai Arbo representing the valkyries from Norse myth.

Many understood this comment to mean that Tolkien had undertaken the writing of The Lord of the Rings and the rest of his Middle Earth mythology on the basis of creating a “mythology for England”. 

Perhaps, in some respects, that is exactly what Tolkien intended. And judging by modern readership and esteem alone, he succeeded quite well.

But most of Tolkien’s writing was very personal, and done without any intention of being seen in print. His Middle Earth mythology began to take shape as early as 1914, and continued, according to his son and editor Christopher Tolkien, “throughout my father’s long life”.

Tolkien had a particular love for the “Northern Myths”, myths associated with the cultures of northern Europe. The Norse myths. The Icelandic Sagas. The Finnish myth cycles. Welsh mythology.

These, more than the classical Greek and Roman myths, inspired and fascinated Tolkien. He first studied them at King Edward’s school during the years 1910-1914.

One important idea must be kept in mind in regards to Tolkien and mythology. The Professor believed it was the stories that were important, not simply the study and dissection of their hidden meanings.

Tolkien made this view very apparent in his brilliant lecture Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics. In it he chides the critics of the Old English epic Beowulf as having missed the entire point of the poem. Criticism of the time often downplayed the fantastic elements of the narrative and treated the text as no more than a historical document through which to view Anglo-Saxon society.

Tolkien demanded that these “fantastic elements” were intrinsic to the story and could not be discarded. Tolkien’s view of mythology and story were that these “fantastic elements” went deeper than mere vehicles of plot. They were remnants of the past, pieces of culture and belief that were essential to the works themselves.

As Tolkien put forth in his essay Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics:

    “A dragon is no idle fancy. Whatever may be his origins, in fact or invention, the dragon in legend is a potent creation of men’s imagination, richer in significance than his barrow is in gold.”

Tolkien brought this love and knowledge of mythology to bear on his fiction as well. It is most directly apparent in The Hobbit, where many of the names and events can be traced in some form to mythology, particularly the Scandinavian myth cycle known as The Elder Edda.

Indeed, the names of many of the dwarves, and even the name of Gandalf himself, appears at one point or another in The Elder Edda.

Many off the events that take place in the book also have their roots deep in mythology. Tom Shippey, a prominent Tolkien scholar, notes some of the mythological parallels that occur within The Hobbit in his book J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century.

Shippey declares: “[Tolkien] took fragments of ancient literature, expanded on their intensely suggestive hints of further meaning, and made them into coherent and consistent literature…” (AOTC pg. 35).

Only Tolkien’s study of language (philology) had as great an impact on his scholarly pursuits and his writings. And in many ways, mythology and philology worked hand-in-hand.

Many myth cycles, particularly at that time, were not translated into modern English. They required study in their native language and on their own terms. Tolkien’s knowledge of language (especially ancient language) allowed him to do that.

Conversely, studying these mythological text in their native tongues allowed him to study many of these languages from a philological standpoint, to see how words and languages developed over the course of time.

In the end, these two great influences, mythology and philology, would drive Tolkien to create. They were truly the wellspring of his creativity, and form the foundation of Middle Earth, elves, dwarves, wizards, and yes, even hobbits.

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