Spudmonkey’s take on: Tolkien’s Norse influence

I have, for a while now, had a great interest in Norse mythology. Why? Well, really for no other reason than it seems to be the “forgotten” mythology, quickly cast aside by most people who instead obsess and scrutinize its counterparts, Greek and Roman mythology. We all seem to know that Icarus tried to fly with wax wings, Sisyphus rolled a ball up a hill endlessly, and Hercules was a half-god born of Zeus. Why then, does no one know the story of how Balder, the most beloved god within the Norse pantheon (the Aesir), died because his blind brother Hod flicked a mistletoe dart at him? I still don’t rightly know the answer to that question. Having read some of the Norse poems, or Eddas, myself, I’ve found that they are very rich with the same sort memorable stories as the famous Greek and Roman myths.

Even though no one seems to show interest in the actual mythology itself, its characters and plot, I’ve found that we see various elements of it all the time in pop culture. This is, in large part, due to Tolkien. Elves, giants, dwarfs – these are all things that we see as integral to the entire fantasy genre now, correct? Well, these are things that Tolkien literally directly took from Norse mythology. He managed to popularize what hundreds of years of Nordic tradition couldn’t. To be fair, this is probably because the mythology had always been an oral tradition, and wasn’t written down even until Christianity was dominating Europe. The only person that could even come close to his bringing the Norse mythology into the mainstream would be Richard Wagner, who’s famous “Ring Cycle,” three-part opera was based directly on events within the Eddas.

There are several other smaller plot details within “The Lord of the Rings” that could be seen as taking from Tolkien’s Norse influence. The Ring concept in general is a very important one in the Eddas. The mythological world was encapsulated by Jormungand, the world serpent, who had forever bit his own tail. Also, the world was always acknowledged to be cyclical, and even after Ragnarok (the world’s end), things would start up again in the same way as before. There is even a story of a broken sword that would need to be reforged in order to smite evil (Aragorn anyone?). Basically, I think it is important to acknowledge how much Tolkien was inspired by Norse mythology, and how much he recreated it with his own fantasy world. Because of him, the “forgotten” mythology has become much more accepted in pop-culture, in all forms of media. Perhaps people don’t even know it, but it is there.

(If you’ve found this interesting, I highly recommend you at least check out a new game, Too Human (Silicon Knights), set to ship in the first quarter of 2008. It is a modern interpretation of the events of Norse mythology, as if it were set in a supremely technological past (ala Star Wars). And it’s intended to transcend genres, as it will be a Devil May Cry-esque (Capcom) action-game, coupled with Diablo (Blizzard) role-playing, 4-player co-op, and item-collecting elements. Needless to say, it is bound to be straight up baller.)

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2 thoughts on “Spudmonkey’s take on: Tolkien’s Norse influence”

  1. I love the Elder Eddas too. W. H. Auden has a great translation of some of these sagas. That may be what drew him to Tolkien, or maybe it was vice versa. I’m suspect Auden’s biography could answer that question.

  2. I spent some time in Denmark. Those crazy norseman in their long houses and dark days in the winter time came up with some amazing mythology. Imagine just comiing home from raiding the coasts of northern England and chatting with your friends around the long house fire … Valhalla here we come.

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