the imaginative conservative logo

arwen-and-arwen-chace-dove-gray-suede-outfit-galleryThe New York Times Review of Books once placed J.R.R. Tolkien’s collective writings and stories about Middle-earth on its list of the twenty greatest literary works of the twentieth century. The ability of Tolkien to create an alternative society with a fully developed system of morals and beliefs was cited as the main reason for this choice. Tolkien’s mythological stories are deeply profound and deserve a careful and thoughtful inspection. From what sources did the mythology of Tolkien come? According to C.S. Lewis, Tolkien was influenced by both Norse Myths and Christianity.

The similarities between his work and mine are due, I think (a) To nature – Temperament, (b) To common sources. We are both soaked in Norse mythology, George MacDonald’s fairy tales, Homer, Beowulf, and medieval romance. Also, of course, we are both Christians (he, as R.C.).[1]

Lewis is undoubtedly correct. The purpose of this essay is to show that Tolkien was heavily influenced, not only by his readings of Norse mythology as a child, but also by a deep faith in God, believing Him to be the ultimate source of all mythological ideas throughout history.

The Influence of Norse Mythology

Tolkien’s reading of children’s fairy tales provided his first major influence of Norse mythology. As a young boy, Tolkien fell in love with Scandinavia and its ancient stories. His mother provided him with numerous books, and Tolkien willingly devoured them. His favorites were those written by George MacDonald, those about Arthur, and especially the Red Fairy Book by Andrew Lang which contained the story of Sigurd and Fafnir: “This was the tale of Sigurd who slew the dragon Fafnir: a strange and powerful tale set in the nameless North. Whenever he read it Ronald [Tolkien] found it absorbing.”[2]

As Tolkien grew, so did the influence of Norse mythology. Sagas and epic poems provided his second major Norse influence.

“His own mind and imagination had been captivated since schooldays by early English poems such as Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and Pearl, and by the old Icelandic Volsungasaga and Elder Edda. These were all the literature that he needed.”[3]

So enthralled was Tolkien with the Icelandic sagas that he taught himself Old Norse and read the sagas in the original text.[4] These Icelandic sagas are important for the culture and history of the Icelandic and Norse people.

“The Sagas of Icelanders have no counterpart either in the remaining countries of the North or in the rest of contemporary Europe. The complete absence of any definite points of contact with other literatures is striking. On the Continent the thirteenth century is the era of scholasticism with such great builders of philosophical systems as Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas.”[5]

The immense literary development of the Icelanders during the Middle Ages was miraculous and their genius and quality of work is simply extraordinary.[6] It is in this literary tradition that the sagas and myths were written and presented. Especially influential were two of the four parts of the Elder Edda by Snorri Sturlson, the Gylfaginning, “a comprehensive survey of Old Norse mythology”[7] and the Voluspa, or Prophecy.[8] Ironically Sturlson wrote the works as “a handbook in poetics for young skalds,”[9] rather than as profound writing in the history of the world and its literature. However, Tolkien saw both the literary profundity and the poetic devices employed as vitally important and they became prominent in his thinking and usage.

“Tolkien at about the age of eighteen conceived the idea of recreating the ‘Northernness’ that delighted him by writing a cycle of myth and legend … And while Lewis soon passed on from his adolescent ‘Northern’ writings to other kinds of poetry, Tolkien continued to work at his cycle year after year. It remained the center of his imaginative life.”[10]

The Icelandic sagas lent several vital influences to Tolkien’s own mythological world. The first of these influences was found in the Nordic creation myth of the human race.

“There were not yet any human beings upon the earth, when one day, as the sons of Bor (Odin, Hoener and Loder) were walking along the sea-beach, they found two trees and created from them the first human pair, man and woman. Odin gave them life and spirit, Hoener endowed them with reason and the power of motion, and Loder gave them blood, hearing, vision and a fair complexion. The man they call Ask, and the woman they call Embla. The newly created pair received from the gods Midgard [meaning Middle-earth] as their abode; and from Ask and Embla is descended the whole human family.”[11]

The similarities between this version of the creation of man and the awakening of men in The Silmarillion are striking. The next influence was the dwarves. As seen in the Elder Edda they are quite similar to the hardworking dwarves of Tolkien.

Till he came where the dwarves stood hammering steel,

By the light of a furnace blue.

I trow’t was a goodly sight to see

The dwarves, with their aprons on,

A-hammering and smeltering so busily

Pure gold from the rough brown stone.[12]

One can easily picture Tolkien’s Mines of Moria before their fall. The final example of Norse influence is that of languages. Gandalf, the leading wizard on the side of good, has a name that in old Icelandic means “wizard” or “sorcerer-elf.”[13] The name of Gandalf’s lightning-quick horse, Shadowfax, a mixture of English and Old Icelandic, means a horse with a mane seen as shadow.[14] From these examples it is obvious that Tolkien’s mythology is greatly indebted to the Norse and the Icelanders. In the words of Humphrey Carpenter:

“Among the mythological lays in the Elder Edda none is more remarkable than the Völuspa, or Prophecy of the Seeress, which tells the story of the cosmos from its creation, and foretells its doom. The most remarkable of all Germanic mythological poems, it dates from the very end of Norse heathendom, when Christianity was taking place of the old gods; yet it imparts a sense of  living myth, a feeling of awe and mystery, in its representation of a pagan cosmos. It had a profound appeal to Tolkein’s imagination.”

These examples provide only a small glimpse into the feel of Tolkien’s admiration and subsequent influence by the Icelandic mythology. From his first readings to his first translations to his full writings, Norse myth played a major role in affecting Tolkien’s unique world of Middle-earth.

The Influence of Christianity

Even more influential than Norse mythology, Christianity was vital to the world created by Tolkien. Tolkien, a Roman Catholic, was intensely bound to God through his faith and it was important in all aspects of his life. An interviewer of Tolkien stated, “I do not recall a single visit I made to Tolkien’s home in which the conversation did not at some point fall easily into a discussion of religion, or rather Christianity.”[16]  His biographer, Humphrey Carpenter, stated the same thing in a different manner:

“Even during an English mass in the bare modern church in Headington that he attended during his retirement, where he was sometimes irritated by the singing of the children’s choir and the wailing of babies, he would then, receiving communion, experience a profound spiritual joy, a state of contentment that he could reach in no other way. His religion was therefore one of the deepest and strongest elements of his personality.”[17]

With such a profound faith, it would be unusual for Tolkien not to be overtly influenced by his Catholic/Christian beliefs. These influences make themselves obvious in many aspects of Tolkien’s interests and writings.

One of the greatest Christian influences on Tolkien comes from the Old English (Anglo-Saxon) poem Crist written by Cynewulf about the Advent, the Ascension, and the Last Judgement of Christ. The poem contains the line, “ea/a Ea rendel engla beorhtast ofer middengeard monnum sended,”meaning, “Here, Earendel, brightest of angels, sent from God to men.”[18] Tolkien was moved by the idea of God giving man such a gift. Tolkien later uses Earendel as a major character in The Silmarillion and the term “middengeard” can be translated as Middle-earth. Another Christian influence was Francis Thompson, a Christian mystic poet. Thompson wrote extravagantly about dancing and merry elves.[19] Elves, quite similar, appear often in Tolkien’s writings and represent good wholesome people.

“They are to all intents and purposes men: or rather, they are Man before the Fall which deprived him of his powers of achievement. Tolkien believed devoutly that there had once been an Eden on earth, and that man’s original sin and subsequent dethronement were responsible for the ills of the world; but his elves, though capable of sin and error, have not “fallen” in the theological sense, and so are able to achieve much beyond the powers of men. They are craftsmen, poets, scribes and creators of works of beauty far surpassing human artefacts. Most important of all they are, unless slain in battle, immortal. Old age, disease, and death do not bring their work to an end while it is still unfinished or imperfect. They are therefore the ideal of every artist.”[20]

Inevitably the most pervasive Christian work of all time, the Bible, is a third influence on Tolkien despite the fact that many readers see Tolkien as Christian in intent, but pagan in his writing.

The Silmarillion is the work of a profoundly religious man. It does not contradict Christianity but rather complements it. There is in the legends no worship of God, yet God is indeed there, more explicitly in The Silmarillion than in the work that grew out of it, The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien’s universe is ruled over by God, ‘The One”. Beneath Him in the hierarchy are ‘The Valar’, the guardians of the world, who are not gods but angelic powers, themselves holy and subject to God; and at one terrible moment in the story they surrender their power into His hands.”[21]

Several authors and literary critics, as well as theologians have also found many blatant parallels between The Silmarillion and the Bible.

The most important Christian influences, however, are less noticeable and much deeper. Tolkien believed that God was the true source or Fountainhead of all knowledge. From this Ultimate Source man can and does derive all his knowledge. Man may corrupt the thoughts into lies but the original thoughts still come from God. This is expressed in a conversation of the “Inklings,” a literary/fantasy/religious group to which Tolkien was a major member.

‘I don’t know how you think of these things,’ says Havard, who does not actually find it easy to appreciate The Lord of the Rings, but who certainly admires the fertility of Tolkien’s imagination.

‘How does any author think of anything?’ answers Jack Lewis, quick as usual to turn the particular to the general. ‘I don’t think that conscious invention plays a very great part in it. For example, I find that in many respects I can’t direct my imagination: I can only follow the lead it gives me.’

Havard asks: ‘What do you suppose is the explanation, or the significance? I imagine Jung would ascribe it to the collective unconscious, whose dictates you are being obliged to follow.’

‘Maybe,’ Lewis says. ‘Jung’s archetypes do seem to explain it, though I’d have thought Plato’s would do just as well. And isn’t Toilers [Tolkien] saying the same thing in another way when he tells us that Man is merely the sub-creator and that all stories originate with God?’ Tolkien grunts in agreement.[22]

Indeed, Tolkien felt as though God was more or less giving the ideas to him, or that they were previously ingrained or innate. Often Tolkien was quite shocked as events would happen in his story for which he was not prepared. These included the characters of Aragorn and the Black Riders among others. It was not unusual for lines of poetry to spring up in his head that he would later find to fit perfectly into his story.[23] He simply let the story go its own way without conscious coercion. “They arose in my mind as “given” things, and as they came, separately, so too the links grew…yet always I had the sense of recording what was already ‘there,’ somewhere: not of inventing.”[24]

Tolkien believed that all myths, pagan or otherwise, contained an element of truth for they were the ideas of God being expressed in man. They all represented the true myth: that of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the other stories found in the Bible.

“Well then, Christianity”, he said, “is exactly the same thing – with the enormous difference that the poet who invented it[the story of Christ] was God Himself, and the images He used were real men and actual history.”

“Do you mean,” asked Lewis, “that the death and resurrection of Christ is the old ‘dying god’ story all over again?”

“Yes,” Tolkien answered, “except that here is a real Dying God, with a precise location in history and definate historical consequences. The old myth has become a fact. But it still retains the character of a myth.” [25]

It seems Tolkien hoped that through his stories he was doing God’s will and revealing a portion of a profound truth.

An Interpretation and Conclusion

Jungian psychologists offer a compelling interpretation of Tolkien’s profound truth. Whether believing the origin is from God or not, the Jungians believe in Tolkien’s ability to tap into the universal truth. In fact this is exactly what he should have done or he would have been considered a poor artist. “If the artist has listened with his inner ear to the truth within himself, the myth he creates will reflect it.”[26]

This reflection, the Jungians believe, stem from the archetypes of the collective unconsious. Whereas Freud, the precursor to Jung, believed the unconsious to be best represented by an iceberg and the conscious merely as the visible tip, the Jungians take this a step further and say that all tips, all consiouses, are connected underneath the surface, or in the subconscious. Therefore we all have similar images conjured up when confronting a situation or idea. These can be found in man’s myths and symbols. “Myth, we may say, is the transmission of the cumulative knowledge, experience, and universal truths constant in our human existence, through the consistent symbologies known to folklore”[27] Studies have shown the vast similarities between myths of very dissimilar culture to be striking high in number. Therefore, no matter how strange we find the magic of Gandalf, the frolickings of the elves or the power of the Ring, we feel comfortable in this world because we recognize the situations and can relate to the symbologies. “That the world of Middle-earth seems real to so many readers of Tolkien’s subcreation does not appear surprising in this light, for the experiences of the characters are universally valid, no matter how otherworldly their trappings may be.”[28]

Norse mythology and Christianity, directly and indirectly, were the most important influences on Tolkien’s writings. Out of these influences he created a unique world in which he attempted and hoped to show a portion of the universal truth. All who have read Tolkien know the magic.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.


Anderson, R.B. Norse Mythology: The Religion of Our Forefathers. Chicago: Scott, Foresman & Co., 1896.

Carpenter, Humphrey. The Inklings. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1979.

Carpenter, Humphrey. Tolkien: A Biography, New York: George Allen & Urwin Publishers Ltd., 1977.

Hallberg, Peter. The Icelandic Saga. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1962.

Kilby, Clyde S. Tolkien and the Silmarillion. Wheaton: Harold Shaw Publishers, 1976.

Petty, Anne C. One Ring to Bind Them All: Tolkien’s Mythology. The University of Alabama Press, 1979.


[1] Clyde S. Kilby, Tolkien and the Silmarillion, (Wheaton, Ill.: Harold Shaw, 1976), p. 76.

[2] Humphrey Carpenter, Tolkien: A Biography, (New York: George Allen & Urwin, 1977), p. 24.

[3] Humphrey Carpenter, The Inklings, (Boston: Houghton Mil(lin Co.. 1979), p. 25.

[4] Humphey Carpenter, The Inklings, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1979), p. 29.

[5] Peter Hallberg, The Icelandic Saga, (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1962), p. 1.

[6] Peter Hallberg, The Icelandic Saga, (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1962), p. 46-47.

[7] Peter Hallberg, The Icelandic Saga, (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. 1962), p. 42.

[8] Humphrey Carpenter, Tolkien: A Biography, (N York: George Allen & Urwin, 1977), p.72.

[9] Peter Hallberg, The Icelandic Saga, (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1962), p. 41.

[10] Humphrey Carpenter. The Inklings. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1979), p. 29.

[11] RB. Anderson, Norse Mythology: The Religion of Our Forefathers, (Chicago: Scott, Foresman & Co., 1896), p. 183.

[12] R B. Anderson, Norse Mythology: The Religion of Our Forefathers, (Chicago: Scott, Foresman & Co., 1896), p. 104.

[13] Humphrey Carpenter, Tolkien: A Biography, (New York: George Allen & Urwin. 1977), p. 199.

[14] R B. Anderson, Norse Mythology: The Religion of Our Forefathers, (Chicago: Scott, Foresman & Co., 1896), p. 178.

[15] Humphrey Carpenter, Tolkien.: A Biography, (New York: George Allen & Urwin, 1977). p. 72.

[16] Clyde S. Kilby, Tolkien and the Silmarillion. (Wheaton. Ill.: Harold Shaw. 1976), p. 53.

[17] Humphrey Carpenter, Tolkien: A Biography, (New York: George Allen & Urwin, 1977), p. 143.

[18] Clyde S. Kilby. Tolkien and the Silmarillion (Wheaton, Ill.: Harold Shaw, 1976), p. 57.

[19] Humphrey Carpenter, Tolkien: A Biography, (New York: George Allen & Urwin. 1977).

[20] Humphrey Carpenter, Tolkien: A Biography, (New York: George Allen & Urwin, 1977), p. 104-105.

[21] Humphrey Carpenter, Tolkien: A Biography, (New York: George Allen & Urwin, 1977), p. 102.

[22] Humphrey Carpenter, The Inklings, (Boston: Houihton Mifflin Co., 1979), p. 138.

[23] Humphrey Carpenter, The Inklings, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co.. 1979), p. 139.

[24] Humphrey Carpenter, Tolkien: A Biography, (New York: George Allen & Urwin. 1977), p. 103.

[25] Humphrey Carpenter, The Inklings, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1979), p. 44.

[26] Arme C. Petty. One Ring to Bind Them All: Tolkien’s Mythology. (The University of Alabama Press. 1979), p. 30.

[27] Arme C. Petty, One Ring to Bind Them All: Tolkien’s Mythology. (The University of Alabama Press. 1979), p. 10.

[28] Anne C. Petty, One Ring to Bind Them AU: Tolkien’s Mythology, (The University of Alabama Press. 1979), p. 104.

Print Friendly
"All comments are subject to moderation. We welcome the comments of those who disagree, but not those who are disagreeable."

Leave a Reply