The Origins of Middle-Earth: Gods, Poems, and Dragons
In addition to being the popular and celebrated creator of Middle-Earth, J. R. R. Tolkien was a renowned scholar in Anglo-Saxon languages and literature. His essay entitled “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics” is considered the turning point in interpretation of the poem Beowulf, and his own translation of the ancient poem was just recently posthumously published. As for Tolkien’s legendarium surrounding The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, it has been interpreted in many ways. Some have argued that the War of the Ring is an allegory for the Second World War, while others maintain that Frodo’s bearing of the One Ring is a symbol for the Christian’s battle against the temptation of sin and power. While those would be terrific articles to write, the purpose of this essay is not to pick sides of interpretation, but rather to uncover the Norse and Anglo-Saxon literature – in which Tolkien was so well-versed – and synthesize its impact on Tolkien’s Middle-Earth. Literature such as that of Tolkien is much more understandable – and enjoyable – when its origins can be identified and analyzed.
Of Gods and Dwarves
The origins of Middle-Earth and many of Tolkien’s characters can be found in Norse mythology, specifically The Elder Eddas written by Saemund Sigfusson. The name of Middle-Earth is derived from Midgard, the Norse name given to the whole of the man-inhabited world. According to The Elder Eddas, Midgard was created by Odin. However, he is not named at first as Odin but rather, in the first sentence of the edda, as Valfather, or “All-Father” (Sigfusson 1). Similarly, in Tolkien’s The Silmarillion, the first sentence introduces Eru, “who in the Elvish tongue is named Ilúvatar” (25). In the index of the book, Ilúvatar is listed as meaning “Father of All” (336). Additionally, any fan of The Hobbit or the Dwarves of Middle-Earth in general will find that in the first section of The Elder Edda concerning the creation of the world, there can be found many familiar names. “Then was Môtsognir created greatest of all the dwarfs, and Durin second; there in man’s likeness they created many dwarfs… Nâin, Dain, Bömbur, Nori… Thrain, Thekk, and Thorin, Thrôr… Fili, Kili, Fundin…” (Sigfusson 2).
Thorin is the name to attract attention, as he is known by Tolkienites as the Dwarf who dared to reclaim the Lonely Mountain from the dominion of the dragon Smaug. Thorin, then, is rightly named; in the index of the Saemund’s edda, Thorin’s name is derived from the Norse noun thor meaning “audacity,” and the verb thora “to dare” (Sigfusson 344). Additionally, in The Hobbit Thorin describes the coming of his grandfather Thror to the Lonely Mountain, saying he and his people “made huger halls and greater workshops… [and] grew immensely rich and famous… Altogether those were good days for us, and the poorest of us had money to spend and to lend” (Tolkien, Hobbit 23). Thror, being King under the Mountain and the progenitor of Erebor’s greatness, also has a significant name that comes from the Norse verb throa “to increase, to amplify” (Sigfusson 344). Tolkien was no doubt well-versed in the mythology the Anglo-Saxons borrowed from their Nordic forefathers.
Kings and Golden Halls
To keep Norse mythology from overrunning this article, the gears ought to be shifted to Beowulf, the ancient poem concerning an aging Danish king who is aided against the monstrous intruder Grendel by a noble Geatish warrior and his companions. The story of Beowulf is comparable to the subplot of The Two Towers in which Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli help King Théoden in his own war against Saruman. Firstly, the similarities between Aragorn and Beowulf should be outlined. Both are of noble birth and possess great strength. When Beowulf arrives with his band on King Hrothgar’s shores, his first lines of dialogue are, We belong by birth to the Geat people and owe allegiance to Lord Hygelac. In his day, my father was a famous man, a noble warrior-lord named Ecgtheow. He outlasted many a long winter and went on his way. All over the world men wise in counsel continue to remember him… So tell us if what we have heard is true about this threat, whatever it is, this danger abroad in the dark nights… I come to proffer my wholehearted help and counsel (Beowulf 47). Here, Beowulf is more or less giving his credentials to Hrothgar’s lookout as to why he should be permitted to go to Heorot where Hrothgar rules.
In The Two Towers, Aragorn, unlike Beowulf, is welcomed into the kingdom of Rohan with much more skepticism by Éomer, King Théoden’s nephew, who asks, “At whose command do you [Aragorn] hunt Orcs in our land?”. Aragorn responds by crying, “I am Aragorn son of Arathorn, and am called Elessar, the Elfstone, Dúnadan, the heir of Isildur Elendil’s son of Gondor” (Tolkien, Lord 433). Both of our heroes gain access to the kings in each story by telling of their noble birth. Aragorn being a Dúnadan is important because the Dúnedain, in Tolkien’s fiction, are the descendants of the lost kingdom of Men called Númenor. According to Tolkien, they were “far fewer in number than the lesser men among whom they dwelt and whom they ruled, being lords of long life and great power and wisdom” (Tolkien, Lord 1129). Éomer himself shows admiration for Aragorn’s speedy arrival in Rohan: “Forty leagues and five you have measured ere the fourth day is ended! Hardy is the race of Elendil!” (436). So also must Beowulf be equally superhuman if he can rip Grendel’s arm from its socket with his bare hands (58) and afterward live as king of the Geats for half a century (89), which is an unusually long reign even by today’s standards.
Also worthy of note are the similarities between Hrothgar’s court at Heorot and Théoden’s at Meduseld. In Beowulf, Heorot was established by Hrothgar himself, “a great mead-hall meant to be a wonder of the world forever… The hall towered, its gables wide and high and awaiting” (43). Later, as Beowulf and his men approach Heorot, “the timbered hall rose before them, radiant with gold. Nobody on earth knew of another building like it. Majesty lodged there, its light shone over many lands” (48). Strikingly similar is Legolas’ description of Meduseld as he, Gandalf, Aragorn, and Gimli approach it, describing the houses of Edoras and “in the midst, set upon a green terrace, there stands aloft a great hall of Men. And it seems to my eyes that it is thatched with gold. The light of it shines far over the land” (507). The line concerning “light” was almost certainly borrowed directly from the description of Heorot.
Where is the Horse and the Rider?
There are also similarities between the poetry of Meduseld and that which was once enjoyed by the Anglo-Saxons themselves. One famous example is “The Wanderer,” a poem of nostalgia and longing whose speaker – an old warrior who yearns to find the fellowship he once had with his long-dead comrades – delivers the most poignant lines near the end:
Where did the steed go? Where the young warrior? Where the treasure-giver?
Where the seats of fellowship? Where the hall’s festivity?
Alas bright beaker! Alas burnished warrior!
Alas pride of princes! How the time has passed,
gone under night-helm as if it never was. (120)
This is almost certainly the influence on the Rohirric lament for Eorl the Young Aragorn sings upon entering into Meduseld, capturing the same elegiac mood and borrowing almost the same lines as those of “The Wanderer”:
Where now the horse and the rider? Where is the horn that was blowing?
Where is the helm and the hauberk, and the bright hair flowing?
Where is the hand on the harpstring, and the red fire glowing?
Where is the spring and the harvest and the tall corn growing?
They have passed like rain on the mountain, like a wind in the meadow;
The days have gone down in the West behind the hills into shadow (508).
Tolkien, of course, expanded on the lines from “The Wanderer” by illustrating what would have characterized the “hall’s festivity,” using such images as the singing bard’s “hand on the harpstring” and the hearth’s “red fire glowing.”
The Dragons Awake
The last point worthy of note is the parallelism between the dragon Smaug in The Hobbit and that which Beowulf fights in the end of the poem. Firstly, both dragons, naturally, guard a hoard of treasure and do not cause much trouble until an intrusion. In The Hobbit, Bilbo sneaks into Smaug’s lair via the secret entrance indicated on Thror’s map. Bilbo may have been able to sneak past the dragon unnoticed had he not “grasped a great two-handled cup, as heavy as he could carry” (The Hobbit 216). Although Smaug is not immediately awoken, he is troubled in his sleep, for “Dragons may not have much real use for all their wealth, but they know it to an ounce as a rule, especially after long possession; and Smaug was no exception… He stirred and stretched forth his neck to sniff. Then he missed the cup!” (217). Immediately thereafter, Smaug launches out from his lair and wreaks havoc through both the mountain and Esgaroth.
Then there is the dragon from Beowulf. As Beowulf grows old and rules his kingdom without much trouble, a dragon is introduced:
from the steep vaults of a stone-roofed barrow where he guarded a hoard; there was a hidden passage. Unknown to men, but someone managed to enter by it and interfere with the heathen trove. He handled and removed a gem-studded goblet; it gained him nothing, though with a thief’s wiles he had outwitted the sleeping dragon. That drove him [the dragon] into rage, as the people of that country would soon discover (89).
Both dragons are thus driven from their slumber through the theft of a small goblet by a crafty thief who had no intention of provoking the destruction wrought by the monster. Tolkien himself argues in one of his essays regarding Beowulf that the dragon is “a personification of malice, greed, destruction… and of the undiscriminating cruelty of fortune” (The Monsters and the Critics 17). When taken out of context, this description could easily be attributed to Smaug, and is almost mirrored when Thorin refers to him as “a most specially greedy, strong and wicked worm” (The Hobbit 23). While the aggregation of treasure and loot was encouraged in Germanic society, to hoard it selfishly was frowned upon and considered dishonorable. Hrothgar, for instance – though the greatest and wealthiest of his dynasty – does not keep his fortune to himself. Rather he, as the text described him, “doled out rings and torques at the table” (43) and is even given the titles “giver of rings” (49) and “treasure-giver” (54). Graciousness was thus seen as a kingly virtue, and sets both Hrothgar and Beowulf apart from their draconic foe.
As outlined above, the works of Tolkien are so greatly influenced by the ancient poetry and cultures in which he was so learned. Much like Beowulf, Tolkien’s works are a style of epic just in a new form, in which heroes feast in great halls after defeating great foes, whether they be fiery dragons or hordes of Orcs. Such etymological and mythological influences are so important and even enjoyable to study as they give us further insight not only into the origins of such fiction as that of Tolkien, but into why that fiction was written. Tolkien himself wanted to write for England its own sort of mythology, intentionally giving The Lord of the Rings an ancient and almost nostalgic tone. What better way to do this than to borrow and learn from the classics? By harkening back to the Old English poems and Germanic mythology with which he was so familiar, Tolkien produced an imaginarium that presents ancient core motifs yet in a way that is both original and outstanding.
Beowulf. The Middle Ages. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. Vol. A. New York, NY: W. W. Norton, 2012. 41-117. Print. The Norton Anthology of English Literature.
Thorpe, Benjamin, I. A. Blackwell, Rasmus Björn Anderson, and James W. Buel. The Elder Eddas of Saemund Sigfusson. London: Norrœna Society, 1906. Print.
Tolkien, J. R. R. The Hobbit. New York: Ballantine Books, 1982. Print.
—. The Lord of the Rings. New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2004. Print.
—. The Silmarillion. New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1999.
Tolkien, J. R. R., and Christopher Tolkien. The Monsters and the Critics, and Other Essays. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1984. Print.
“The Wanderer.” The Middle Ages. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. Vol. A. New York, NY: W. W. Norton, 2012. 118-120. Print. The Norton Anthology of English Literature.
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