Have you read or seen The Lord of the Rings or the Hobbit?
Then you want to hear about Norse mythology and Icelandic folktales
Words by Snædís, one of the expert local guides of Your Friend In Reykjavik
Not many writers can pride themselves on having as good imagination as J.R.R Tolkien had. His books are known worldwide, 70+ years after their release and will hardly be forgotten soon. His brilliant stories were inspired by great folktales and legends and viewed through Tolkien’s cultural lens.
Desolate landscapes, dwarfs, elves and wizards
This sounds familiar to Icelanders and those who know Icelandic folklore and Middle Earth. Tolkien was inspired by Icelandic books written by both known and unknown Icelandic authors, such as the Sagas and Prose Edda. As an Icelander myself, I love Icelandic sagas, Norse Mythology and Tolkien’s work. I even took a Tolkien class once, and here I am, sharing my knowledge of these things combined.
Norse mythology is the sagas of the Æsir religion practised in Nordic countries and is believed to have originated in Sweden. In some ways, it is like Greek mythology and mythologies from cultures worldwide. The Æsir religion is still practised today though obviously, it is not as widespread as before.
In Icelandic, the Æsir Religion is called Ásatrú. Many of the first settlers in Iceland came from Norway. They believed in the old Norse gods and practised that religion until 1000. At that time, Icelanders converted wholly to Christianity, but there had been Christians living in Iceland until that point. Especially people who had come from Ireland and many other parts of the British Isles.
Some Icelanders continued practising the old religion secretly, but the newly established Christianity laws allowed that. This is probably why there are nearly no sources on Ásatrú after the year 1000. However, nature worship was common and still is in some ways, as seen in folktales and folk customs of later centuries.
The Icelandic Ásatrú Fellowship is relatively big, with 5118 people registered in 2021 (3390 men and 1728 women). A few years ago, the fellowship began building a temple in Reykjavik, which will hopefully be finished soon.
Prose and Poetic Eddas
Most of the world’s primary sources of Norse mythology are Icelandic. The two Eddas, Prose Edda and Poetic Edda, are basically the only sources we have on the mythology. Icelander Snorri Sturluson wrote Prose Edda (also known as Snorra-Edda) in the early 13th century.
It is harder to date the Poetic Edda as it is a book of poems, which most likely were narrative poems to begin with. It is believed they were written down in the 10th or 11th century. However, some of the poems probably came from Scandinavia and are older than the Icelandic settlement (Scandinavians most likely settled in Iceland in the 870s). But younger poems are probably Icelandic, so even if some disagree with who “owns” the Poetic Edda, Icelanders usually claim them as theirs.
Norse Mythology’s creation story
Like all religions, Ásatrú has a creation story. The world started empty, apart from cold in the North and heat in the South. The heat and cold collided and created life – a giant called Ýmir and a cow called Auðhumla.
Auðhumla had four teats that milk flowed from and formed four rivers which Ýmir drank from. Ýmir had a few children who later represented a few of the races mentioned in Norse mythology.
Ýmir’s children killed him and created the world out of his remains; his body became the earth, bones became mountains, teeth became rocks, hair became trees, blood made the sea, and his skull was the sky. The sky was held up by four dwarfs named North, South, West and East or Norðri, Suðri, Vestri and Austri.
Norse mythology, not unlike Greek mythology, has gods, giants, dwarfs, elves, and many other creatures. Tolkien was fascinated by this and used some of the creatures, names, and other themes in his works.
Tolkien introduced to Norse Mythology
Tolkien never made it to Iceland for a visit, even if he wanted to. Still, as we have already said, his works were inspired by Iceland, its stories and its language. For example, the trolls in The Hobbit are inspired by Icelandic folktales, and Gandalf is the incarnation of Odin. There are many other examples which we will get to later. But how did he get introduced to Iceland?
Old Norse and an Icelandic Nanny
During his education, he read and translated from Old Norse (the parent language of Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, and Icelandic). He specialized in English philology at Oxford University and graduated in 1915 with Old Norse as his special subject.
In the early 1930s, Tolkien got an Icelandic au-pair. The 20-year-old girl from Bíldudalur, Arndís, loved telling the children – and sometimes Tolkien – stories about Iceland. She told the children Icelandic folktales before they went to sleep and taught them a little bit of Icelandic.
One of her chores was supposed to be teaching Tolkien Icelandic. Still, his wife was jealous of them speaking in a language she didn’t understand, so there wasn’t as much teaching as planned. Tolkien was still fascinated by this world Arndís talked about. Even though he had already begun writing The Hobbit when she came, the influence is evident.
C.S. Lewis was also influenced by the Sagas
Tolkien founded a club that focused on the Icelandic sagas with his friend C.S. Lewis, the writer of The Chronicles of Narnia. They encouraged the reading, translating, and discussing Icelandic sagas in the original language. This club was originally called Kolbítur (a young man who lies in the cinders of the hearth, unpromising). Still, when Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and more started writing their own Sagas, they changed the book club’s name to The Inklings.
Tolkien was, therefore, always in contact with Icelandic literature, and he used what he had learned as an inspiration for his writings.
England Has a Poor Mythology
Tolkien complained that England had very poor mythology, unlike other countries. He wanted to provide his country with new mythology with his writings. Something magical. Something based on the cultures and legends of different countries, and what he knew best was what he had studied. But what came from what he had read and what came from himself?
The similarities between the worlds
Tolkien had a great imagination, and he got a lot of inspiration from plenty of different cultures and legends. Some things could be inspired by combining different stories, while others are almost taken straight from something else. Some Icelanders, like myself, really like to find what could have been inspired by our books, stories, and culture. I will now share some of the most obvious ones with you.
Rings and Swords
In Norse Mythology, both rings and swords are very important and were often used in poems as metaphors for power. To own rings was to have power but to share a ring was to share a property with someone.
The most powerful rings in Norse Mythology were forged by dwarfs, such as The Ring of Odin. All swords in Norse Mythology have names that describe their history, just like in Middle Earth. For example, Glamdring, the sword of Gandalf the Grey and Sting, the sword of Bilbo Baggins.
Gandalf himself is definitely influenced by the Norse god Odin. Gandalf’s character’s name appears in the Poetic and Prose Eddas. Odin is often described in the old texts as The Wanderer, an old man with one eye, a long white beard, and a broad hat, wearing a cloak and wielding a spear. He is the promoter of knowledge, truth, insight, and justice. Starting to sound familiar?
Tolkien even wrote in a letter in 1946 that he thought of Gandalf as an “Odinic wanderer”. The clearest example of direct influence is Gandalf’s name. The name Gandalf appears in a few Icelandic books. It is on a list of dwarfs in both Völuspá and Prose-Edda, and then there is a king Gandalf in Heimskringla. We don’t know more about this king Gandalf than the name means an elf with a staff or a wand in Icelandic.
The elves in Middle-Earth are tall, intelligent, slim, and very beautiful. The elves in Iceland are often called Hidden People or Huldufólk rather than elves or álfar. They are sometimes described as taller, slimmer, and more beautiful than us humans. Sounds quite similar.
In both Middle-Earth and Norse Mythology, we have a few different types of elves.
In Middle-Earth, we have the Calaquendi, the Elves of Light, and Moriquendi, the Elves of Darkness. In Norse Mythology, we have Light Elves and Dark Elves. The Light Elves are often associated with the gods, just like Calaquendi (the Elves of Light) are related to the Valar.
In Icelandic folktales, we have countless stories about giant, ugly creatures that turn to stone when exposed to the sun. They are sometimes described as dumb and like tricking people in their favour. They usually live up in the mountains in caves. In The Hobbit, giant ugly creatures turn to stone when exposed to the sun. When they are not outside, they stay inside caves. Tolkien later explained that since trolls were created from stone by Morgoth using a spell cast in darkness, they change back to their true form when exposed to the sun, therefore turning to stone.
The Balrog, Durin’s Bane
The Balrog, called the Durin’s Bane, became an important character in The Fellowship of the Ring. It was the fire monster in Moria that the fellowship inadvertently awakened. Durin’s bane and Gandalf fought on the Bridge of Khazad-dúm. Gandalf shatters the Balrog’s fiery sword and then strikes the bridge, breaking it in half. The Balrog falls into the deep but then uses its whip and latches onto Gandalf’s legs and drags him down with him.
The Balrog is parallel to the fire jötunn Surtr in Norse mythology. Surtr is a fire giant from extreme heat and fire and bears a burning sword. He leads his kin into battle against the gods during the destruction of the cosmos, Ragnarök. His fate is to kill the god Freyr and be slain by him, just like Balrog and Gandalf slaying each other on the bridge. There are other similarities. In Norse Mythology, Surtr is supposed to destroy Bifröst, Asgard’s bridge, just like Khazad-dúm in Middle-Earth.
Most Icelanders must read The Hobbit in junior college before they’re 18. Most also read Völuspá (which is in Poetic Edda) around the same time. In it, there is a chapter called Dvergatal or catalogue of dwarfs. In Dvergatal, we find Thorin, Dwalin, Bifur, Bofur, Bombur, Nori, Ori and Oin. You will find almost all dwarf names from The Hobbit in Dvergatal, including Gandalf’s name.
We have no descriptions of their characteristics despite having all those names, and dwarfs are not common in post-medieval Icelandic folktales. Tolkien, therefore, did not have much to be inspired by other than the names. Tolkien talks about dwarfs as compatible with rock, stone, and earth. They are heavy, solid, loyal, resilient, stubborn, materialistic, and prosaic.
He might have been inspired by some Icelandic stories, but it is more likely that he mixed dwarf narratives from other countries to create his own. Personally, I couldn’t be happier about how they turned out.
Valar and Ainur
If you know Tolkien’s work, you know the Valar and the Ainur. They were the powers of Arda, who shaped and ruled the world, powerful creatures like the Asir and Vanir, the gods of Asgard in Norse Mythology. We can see similarities in some of the characters.
Thor, for example, is physically the strongest of the Norse gods. Thor is obviously the inspiration for two of the Valars. First is Tulkas, who is physically the strongest of the Valar, and the second is Orome, a fighter of the monsters of Melkor.
Tolkien also drew inspiration from Odin, the all-father, the mightiest of the gods. We can see similarities in Manwe, who was the leader of the Ainur and King of the Valar.
Tolkien did impressive work; he created all the characters, a whole new world, and a few languages.
One of the languages was the Angerthas or Dwarf runes. It was a runic script used by the dwarfs that utilized both runes and glyphs when written. It was created by the elven loremaster Daeron of Doriath and was at first called Cirth or Certar Daeron. The dwarfs learned the runes from the elves and took up that language. Later it became the dwarf language.
While other languages in Middle-Earth, like the Elvish languages (Quenya and Sindarin), were inspired by Latin and ancient Indian, the dwarf runes were inspired by the Nordic runes of the Vikings.
Tolkien has Made Icelandic Books More Interesting
We don’t believe he stole anything despite Tolkien’s obviously having been inspired by the Icelandic Sagas and Norse Mythology.
He was fascinated by many things, and by using the Icelandic source material, he has increased interest in them. In possibly typical teenage defiance, the Icelandic Sagas and Norse Mythology are often scorned, especially since we must read them in school. I was one of those kids, but I liked them more when I reread them in my own time. However, after I read Tolkien’s books, I became fascinated. I’m convinced I am not the only person; for many, the source material is more fascinating now because we have the films and books. It is more fun reading Tolkien’s books when you have read the Icelandic Sagas and Norse Mythology. It puts some things in a better perspective.
Want to know more?
What is even more fun is to get a chance to listen to a guide at Your Friend in Reykjavík telling you stories on a Mythical walk, and you can ask about everything that you would like to know. On the Reykjavik Folklore Walking Tour, you will hear stories about elves, trolls, dragons, ghosts and more while strolling off the beaten path through a less-known part of the center of Reykjavík.
Some of the work we used to make this blog
An Overview of the Northern Influences on Tolkien’s Works by G. S. Clair – Published 1995
Norse Elements in the work of J.R.R. Tolkien by Martin Wettstein
THE NORSE MYTH IN THE WORLD OF TOLKIEN by Daniele Sanacore
Snædís, Your Friend in Reykjavik, and the writer of this blog
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