Dwarves and Elves: Tolkien’s Norse Influences
We talk frequently on this blog about how many of our Norse stories went on to influence J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of The Rings and surrounding books. But folks, it’s not just the little things. The main foundations of Tolkien’s work were inspired from his scholarly love of the myths of Northern Europe. Let’s take a very brief look at some of these pillars.
A Scholar Before a Writer
Most people think that Tolkien was a writer by trade, but his main career was actually as a scholar– and a scholar of languages. Tolkien made over fourteen languages, and Middle Earth was merely a land for those languages to play around in, like a bunch of Mirkwood elves who’ve had too much too much wine, or some dwarves with a big, barrel of ale. He constructed this world, its mythos, characters, and drama to surround these languages because he knew that language isn’t just a bunch of sounds strung together, it’s the culture that formed around those sounds. Think about your friends and the inside jokes you have– you speak a different language with the people that you are close to than you do with your coworkers, because you have a deeply intimate history together. Tolkien planted this world and these characters and let that language grow within them, which is why his seminal work, The Silmarillion, took his entire career to write.
Finnish at the…Beginning?
Tolkien was the hardest stan for the Finnish language. Is that weird? It’s easier to see him deeply into Gaelic, Norse, or even Icelandic, but that wasn’t how Tolkien rolled. His favorite created language, Quenya (the loopy Elvish writing you’re used to seeing on the One Ring and in many other places), was actually based off of Finnish. Of that very real language, Tolkien said:
[Finnish was] like discovering a complete wine-cellar filled with bottles of an amazing wine of a kind and flavor never tasted before. It quite intoxicated me.
Wizards, Elves, and Dwarves
Of course, it should come as no surprise that much of Tolkien’s mythos comes straight from Norse mythology. He was an avid reader of the Prose Eddas, and was particularly taken and obsessed (much like one of his heroes, Samwise Gamgee) with the Norse concept of Elves, which was far different than the wee-folk of most of Europe. Norse elves were otherworldly and strange, and so are Tolkien’s. They aren’t just small, happy creatures who live in the woods and make cookies. They’re wild, temperamental, and beholden to strange desires and prides. Norse elves are some of the most enigmatic creatures in mythology from all the world over.
Likewise, Norse dwarves and Tolkien’s dwarves share a lot of similarities. The creation of the dwarves by the smith god, Aule, mirrors their creation in Norse mythology
And of course, there’s Gandalf, who is a mirror to Odin. The wandering god and the wandering wizard are like mirrors unto one another: both are wise, both can be foolishly prideful, both are the leaders and mentors of great heroes. Both promote justice and truth– and both love story and song. And both simply love to hang out with birds.
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