The Tolkien Mythology
J.R.R Tolkien's greatest passion was to create an entire mythology for England, to write an
novel came second, but was of course always linked to this desire. It nagged him that England
had no great legacy of myth and legend, as he once wrote in a letter to a reader:
'I was from early days grieved by the poverty of my own beloved country: it had no
stories of its own, not of the quality that I sought, and found in legends of other lands.
There was Greek, and Celtic, and Romance, Germanic, Scandinavian, and Finnish; but
nothing English, save impoverished chap-book stuff.'
To create an entire English mythological system was a very great task indeed, and the fact that
he succeeded so well, makes it a deed unmatched. It has been said that, what Tolkien did,
would be as if Homer had invented the whole Greek mythology and history himself, before
writing the Iliad and the Odyssey. Tolkien's invented mythology has the most complex and
detailed invented world in all literature, and furthermore, it has been made a national symbol
for England, the mythology it never had. Where Germans have had their Gnomes,
Englishmen got their Hobbits.
Tolkien was a professor in Anglo-Saxon language in Oxford University, and therefore
had a great skill in linguistics. In his world he did not only create legends and myths, but also
languages. He worked quite a bit on Dwarven tongue (Khûsudul) and Black Speech (those
tongues spoken by minions of Sauron), but his main area was Elvish (First of all Quenya, of
the Elven tongues). This language he made so thoroughly that you can actually speak it and
write it, in Elven runes. Interestingly, the languages he made suggested a world, not the other
way around. That is, first he made languages, then he made their world and history.
But that was only one of the many areas Tolkien mastered, to create his world of Arda,
in addition to being a philologist; he has also been called: a creative author, historian,
folklorist, mythographer, geographer, philosopher and artist.
To describe every aspect of the Tolkien mythology, would be too great a task for this
project, so instead of embarking on that journey, we will try to find some of the things that
inspired Tolkien's world, from mythology, legends and other stories. We will try to explain
what his inspirations were, with some small examples without going too far in this analysis,
which one very well might do if not restricting oneself.
Tolkien wanted to create a world based on typically English archetypes and characters,
and since there were few left from what little there were of English mythology, he had to
make what would be the English mythology. He would, in a sense, try to re-invent what had
been Anglo-Saxon mythology, before the Normans invaded England. That is why you can
recognise many Anglo-Saxon words or sounds in this mythology.
He found up some names himself, like Balrogs and Nazgûl, but mostly he took words
from ancient mythologies and legends. Words like Orc, Ent and Wose, were taken from Old
English, and then altered and expanded, to original creations. He also took clichés from myth
and fairy tales like: Elf, Dwarf and Wizard. This is not to say that he merely copied things, on
the contrary, he re-invented them and created a new world for them to interact in.
What strikes most people when thinking of mythology and Tolkien's world, is that the
world of mortal men, «Middle-Earth», is the same as «Midgard» in Norse mythology. Indeed,
Tolkien's mythology was very much inspired from the Norse mythology and sagas. We can,
for example, see the similarities between Odin and both Gandalf and Sauron. Whereas
Gandalf is similar to the 'good' sides of Odin, and Sauron the 'bad' sides, since Odin has a
dual nature, rather than just being 'good' or 'evil'. In Odin we find from his different aspects;
the warrior, the sorcerer and the figure of power, that leads to both Gandalf and Sauron, to the
more obvious similarities, like Odin's Sleipner and Gandalf's Shadowfax. Both fantastic
steeds that can outrun the wind. As yet another example, of his inspiration from Norse
mythology, we actually find from the Icelandic «Prose Edda» all the Dwarven names from
the «Hobbit»: Thorin, Dwalin, Balin, Kíli, Fíli, Bifur, Bofur, Bombur, Dori, Nori, Ori, Óin
and Glóin. Apart from Norse mythology, which was the most important, Tolkien was also
inspired by Roman and Greek mythology.
One of the legends, which has a clear link to the latter, is Tolkien's legend «The
Downfall of Númenor» or «Akallâbeth», which is meant as the 'true' myth behind the famous
story of Atlantis, told by Platon. Of other legends, where we can see clear threads to,
Tolkien's world is, for example, the Arthurian legends of King Arthur of Camelot. Where the
most obvious similarities are Merlin and Gandalf, and Arthur and Aragorn.
The last area, from which he drew inspiration, was other stories. The most interesting
here is Shakespeare's «Macbeth». Although fascinated by its myth and history, he actually
hated the play. And in this hatred, he found inspiration to, in a way, rewrite the play into a
story, a literature he found much more respectable than a play. As he said himself:
'«Macbeth» is indeed a work by a playwright who ought, at least on this occasion, to
have written a story, if he had the skill or patience for that art.'
So in «the Lord of the Rings», Macbeth is made into the Witch-king, Lord of the Nazgûl, and
the prophecy of «Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill» is the March of the Ents
towards Saruman, where he wanted to make the trees really march into war, instead of what
he saw as a rather shabby scene by Shakespeare.
It cannot be stressed enough, though, that what Tolkien did was not to just 'pick out
things' from myth, legends and stories, to create his own. What he did was in fact very
purposefully done. He wanted to take elements which were known to us, in our own
conscience by heritage and culture, to re-invent them and create a new mythology which we
would accept and which would feel as a part of us, since it contained those well known
elements already built into us. This in addition to his own desire, for instance, to sort of re-
write things for his own sake.