The Lord of the Rings (1954) is a text unlike any other. While millions of readers have no doubt picked up the books to give them a read, some fans may have gotten more than they bargained for in doing so. Perhaps Tolkien experienced a similar circumstance himself in the writing of these works?
After all, the three novels making up the story, The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King, are more than ‘just stories’. One could argue that the narratives were largely a result of Tolkien, a philologist, playing with the languages he invented for fun. From that stemmed explorations of culture, history, and of course, mythology. Aside from the hobbits and perhaps Boromir, who undergo excellent character development, the depiction of most taller figures in the tale seems to belong more to a fairytale. It could be that Tolkien’s focus was elsewhere; building out his flourishing Middle-earth, rather than delving deep into the psychology of flawed, three-dimensional characters we consume in our fiction today.
And yet, despite the (mostly) thin characterisations in the text, The Lord of the Rings still feels ‘real’ to those fortunate enough to read it. After all, Tolkien wrote Middle-earth with the idea that his fictional universe would predate our own. The people in the text are our descendants. Their languages, journeys, and feats of heroism are ours. For that foundational aim of making Middle-earth pre-history, the text itself almost becomes a myth, and the ‘fantasy’ feels more resonant for it.
What some readers might have missed or forgotten is that The Lord of the Rings is also a translation of the fictional ‘common tongue’ language in Middle-earth, Westron. Tolkien only wrote in English for the benefit of the reader, rather than filling his manuscript with made-up words. So, it might surprise some fans to learn that the ‘real’ name of Frodo Baggins is Maura Labingi, for example. But, once again, this could offer an interesting take on the potential ‘mythological’ status of The Lord of the Rings; that through the years, the stories and tales are bent into new shapes and presented anew, though their core narrative remains intact.
Of course, the Lord of the Rings itself isn’t its own isolated mythology, but rather a hybrid of several. The evidence of this is:
• The creatures that feature in The Lord of the Rings and elsewhere; dragons (dragons also hoard gold in caves in Norse mythology), eagles (summoned by Zeus in the wars of Greek mythology), wargs and barrow-wights (featuring predominantly in Norse mythology), and many more.
• The events that take place; instances such as the dragon Smaug’s awakening and the reforging of the sword Narsil are believed to have intriguing parallels to Germanic mythology.
• The naming of swords; Arthurian mythology gives us Excalibur, while Middle-earth mythology gives us Andúril (formerly Narsil), Glamdring (the foe-hammer), and Sting among others.
• The naming conventions of characters; names like ‘Frodo’ have an Old English and Old Norse origin in Fróda.
• The use of magical trinkets; in Norse mythology, Draupnir (Odin’s magic ring) and the Ring of Niflungs were forged by dwarves. In Norse mythology, the rings are only given to powerful people, which Sauron lives up to by bestowing three rings of power to the elves, seven to the dwarf lords, and nine to the kings of men.
So, as you can see, Norse mythology appears to be the utmost inspiration Tolkien drew on. A 2022 article from the BBC covers this subject in far greater detail. It explains that Tolkien’s love of Norse mythology began during his time at King Edward’s school in Birmingham, and that one of his earliest Norse-related purchases was the Völsunga saga, which similarly featured golden rings and reforged swords. Tolkien was even said to passionately recite Old Norse and other medieval material to his closest of chums. All things considered, it’s no wonder that The Lord of the Rings was sprinkled with much of that magic, too!
We’ve only lightly touched upon mythology in The Lord of the Rings here, quickly exploring how Tolkien has both wielded it and been influenced by it. To explore the seismic scale of mythology in and around The Lord of the Rings would likely take up several posts on this good blog, but hopefully, you now have some understanding of its role in Tolkien’s texts, and in fantasy at large. After all, plenty of today’s fantasy authors have been inspired by the works of Tolkien!
If you want to know more about Tolkien’s construction of fictional languages, you can find an article on the subject here. And if you are interested in his work beyond Middle-earth, you can find read about it here.
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