Tolkien and the Northern Tradition

By Kveldulfr Gundarsson


    J.R.R. Tolkien was a Professor of Anglo‑Saxon at Oxford for twenty years and, for some time thereafter, a Professor of English Language and Literature (his specialization was the West Midland dialect of Middle English). These positions required him to be fluent and deeply versed in Old English and Old Norse language and literature and to be a first‑rate philologist ‑ an expert in Germanic language and myth. His essay “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics”, for instance, has been one of the most influential writings in the scholarly study of that complex Anglo‑Saxon epic.

    Tolkien’s love for the literatures and languages of the Germanic peoples (especially the English and the Norse) was the guiding light of his career and his life, as he expressed himself in a letter written in 1941. “I have in this war a burning private grudge against that ruddy little ignoramus Adolf Hitler for ruining, perverting, misapplying, and making for ever accursed, that noble northern spirit, a supreme contribution to Europe, which I have ever loved, and tried to present in its true light.” (quoted by Humphrey Carpenter in Tolkien: A Biography. New York: Ballantine Books, 1977, p.218) It should, therefore, come as no surprise that his fictional writings were permeated with elements from his studies ‑ that he should have given the sagas and myths of the North a new lease on life.

     As a christian gentleman whose ideas of propriety were formed in the first quarter of this century, Tolkien was not inclined to put forth the religion of the Vikings as part of his own artistic truth, nor was he willing to present the literature of the North in its original starkness. Thus the gods of the North -Ódhinn, Thórr, and the rest, do not appear directly in his writings (though Gandalf, with his wide‑brimmed hat, silver‑gray steed Shadowfax, and penchant for disguise, bears a certain resemblance to Ódhinn). The aspects of the Northern literary and mythical tradition on which Tolkien drew most heavily are those dealing with humans and demi‑humans such as Elves and dwarves: his Middle‑Earth is a “sanitized” version of the Old Norse Midhgardhr, from which the Viking gods have been evicted and in which all the heroes have been taught to act like Englishmen of the late nineteenth/early twentieth century. Still, a great deal of the power of his work lies in the elements of the Norse tradition which he retained. Middle‑Earth appeals because it is, in large part, real rather than invented; Tolkien’s books reawakened, at least partially, the lost ethnic heritage of the English‑speaking peoples.

Gandalf ‑ “an old man wrapped in a dark cloak” (Hobbit, XVI); this is a typical description of Ódhinn, who usually appears as an old man in a black or dark blue cloak (when he is not in full battle‑armour). Gandalf, whose name also comes from the Eddic “Catalogue of Dwarves” (means “Sorceror‑Elf”), appears, in general, as a grandfatherly version of Ódhinn ‑ the all‑knowing wanderer/wizard who often speaks in riddles, giving good advice to his favourites and occasionally appearing to bail them out in sticky situations; who has many names among many people (Ódhinn’s  surviving heiti, or use‑names, number well over 180), and frequently appears in disguise or semi‑disguise, only to reveal himself in his full power at moments of crisis (see the exerpt from “Grímnismál). Like Ódhinn, and unlike the general Western concept of the studious Qabalist/ ceremonial magician, Gandalf is a mighty fighter as well as a magician.

Runes ‑ literally means “secrets”, generally applied to the Runic “futharks” or alphabets (“futhark” comes from the first six letters: F U Th A R K), which were used in slightly different forms by the Germanic peoples and survived up until the seventeenth century in Iceland. This system of writing was used primarily for magical and memorial inscriptions. People who could read and write in runes were highly respected. Tolkien’s runic system uses the runes of the Anglo‑Saxon Futhorc, plus variants created by reversing the runes; however, he changed all the phonetic values. See “The Runes” in materials provided, and the exerpt from “Sigrdrífumál”. 

Dwarves ‑ The dwarves of Norse legend were the greatest of craftsmen: they made most of the treasures of the gods, including Thórr’s hammer Mjöllnir, Freyr’s golden boar and ship, Ódhinn’s spear Gungnir, and Freyja’s necklace Brisingamen. Especially good swords were also made by the dwarves for mortal men, such as the sword Týrfingr of Hervör’s and Heidhrek’s saga. Scandinavian dwarves, according to the Prose Edda, dwell “in the depths of the earth and in rocks”; many of their names imply that they have something to do with the dead (Dáin = “dead one”; Nár = “corpse”, etc.). Because of this, dwarves and dragons are natural competitors: both live in barrows filled with the treasures buried with the dead and are greedy for gold. Tolkien’s dwarves are more lively and cheerful than the Norse dwarves, who are a fairly grim lot, delighting only in gold and in lust for various goddesses (Freyja got her necklace by spending four nights with four dwarves; in the Eddic poem “Alvísmál”, Thórr traps a dwarf who has come with the intention of wedding his daughter Thrudhr). Still, even in Tolkien, “dwarves are not heroes, but calculating folk with a great idea of the value of money; some are tricky and treacherous and pretty bad lots; some are not, but are decent enough people like Thorin and Company, if you don’t expect too much.” (The Hobbit, Chapter XII)

Elves ‑ Tolkien’s Elves owe something to both Celtic and Norse folklore. The Scandinavian Elves (Old Norse álfar) are a higher order of being, closely related to the gods, though slightly inferior; this is preserved in Tolkien’s presentation of the High Elves. His Wood‑Elves are closer to the Celtic Elves, who enchant and imprison mortals who surprise them at their dancing and feasting.

The smith‑craft of Tolkien’s Elves probably comes from “Völundarkviûa”, an Eddic poem about the greatest smith of Germanic legend, Völundr or (as he was known to the Anglo‑Saxons) Wayland. In this poem, Völundr is described several times as a “wise Elf”. I know of no other references to Elvish smithing, except that the dwarves are also called Svartálfar (Swarthy  Elves) or Dokkálfar (Dark Elves). In at least one case, that of the reforging of Aragorn’s sword in Fellowship of the Ring, Tolkien has Elvish smiths doing the job done by a dwarf in his Old Norse source. Both the Norse and the Celtic Elves are the size of humans, though fairer in appearance and basically immortal. 

Dragons ‑ All the elements of Tolkien’s dragons are drawn directly from the Northern tradition. The general description of the flying, fire‑breathing wyrm comes directly from the dragon of Beowulf, as does the description of the dragon’s habits; Smaug also, as discussed below, draws some of his character from Sigurdhr’s dragon Fáfnir; it is from Fáfnir that Tolkien gets his ideas about dragons being particularly wise. The “dragon‑sickness” is also characteristic of the Norse tradition: in several of the Old Norse sagas, a greedy man takes a quantity of gold, flees with it, and eventually dies and becomes a dragon who watches over it (the Old Norse dragon is never a natural animal). Tolkien follows the christian Beowulf scribe’s insistence that the dragon be something separate from the man who dies alone with the gold (cf. C.S. Lewis’ Voyage of the Dawn Treader in which Eustace sleeps on the dragon’s hoard and “turned into a dragon while he was asleep. Sleeping on a dragon’s hoard with greedy, dragonish thoughts in his heart, he had become a dragon himself.” ‑ here Lewis is following the Old Norse examples which Tolkien was unwilling to use). The idea of a great hoard which is cursed comes from the same cycle, the German/Old Norse tale of the Völsungs and Gibichungs ‑ best known for its hero Sigurdhr/Siegfried’s slaying of Fáfnir, and for Wagner’s treatment of the story in his Ring des Nibelungen. The hoard causes nothing but desire in those who do not have it, and death for those who do.

The Hobbit

Chapter II: Roast Mutton

 Trolls ‑ large coarse manlike beings, with a strong taste for human flesh, are a commonplace in Scandinavian legend. A frequent curse in Old Norse was “Trolls take you!” Trolls cannot stand the light of day, which turns them to stone. Both in the poetry of the Elder Edda and in Scandinavian folklore, trolls are often tricked into staying out until the dawn catches them. 

 Runes on swords ‑ the best Germanic weapons have runic inscriptions, sometimes scratched in and, in some cases, inlaid with silver.

Chapter V: Riddles in the Dark

he contest of knowledge, in which the loser generally loses his life, is a frequent theme in Old Norse literature. In the Eddic poems “Alvísmál” and “Váfthrúûnismál”, the contest is not one of riddles, but might better be described as a sort of cosmological game of Trivial Pursuit. In Hervör and Heidhrekr’s saga, King Heidhrekr has a riddle‑game with Ódhinn, who has come  disguised as someone else. In this work and “Váfthrúdhnismál”, Ódhinn ends the riddle‑game by asking the Unanswerable Question (“What did Ódhinn whisper to Baldr before he was put on the funeral pyre”), by which the god’s victim recognises him. “What have I got in my pocket?” is a comic version of the Unanswerable Question, I think. The Anglo‑Saxons were particularly fond of riddles; the verse‑form is typical both of the Anglo‑Saxon and the Norse.

Chapter VI: Out Of The Frying‑Pan Into the Fire

Wargs ‑ the word warg (Old Norse vargr), meant both outlaw and wolf to the Germanic people. It is uncertain which meaning came first; Tolkien, as a Germanic philologist, would certainly have been aware of the discussion on the point. By a fairly early date (no later than, probably 500 C.E.), the “warg” as outlaw (and possibly werewolf) had become pretty well identical with the “warg” as a wolf. The word was also used as a verb by the Anglo‑Saxons to indicate someone being cursed; in the A‑S translation of Genesis, Cain is “awyrged”. Tolkien’s Wargs are, thus, particularly big, nasty, evil wolves.

“Sometimes (the goblins) rode on wolves like men do on horses.” In Scandinavian tradition, troll‑women or witches often rode on the backs of wolves. Cf. the Eddic lay “Helgakvidha Hjörvarzsonar” in which “Hedhinn fared home alone through the forest on Yule evening and found a troll‑woman, who rode a warg and had wyrms as reins” and Thord’s dream in King Harald’s Saga, which describes how “In front of the defending army there was a huge ogress riding a wolf, and the wolf was carrying a human carcase in its mouth, with blood streaming down its jaws, and as soon as the wolf had eaten the first corpse, she hurled another into its mouth, and then another and another…”

Chapter VII: Queer Lodgings

Beorn the Skin‑Changer is a figure directly out of Norse legend. Often it was said of men that they were “eigi einhamr”, “not of one skin”, which is to say, capable of taking on the shape of an animal and going out at night. Kveld‑Ulfr, the grandfather of the notable poet Egill Skalla‑Grímsson, was one such; so was the famous Bodhvar‑Bjarki (“Little Battle‑Bear”), of Hrolf Kraki’s Saga. One possible etymology of berserk is “bear‑sark”, implying that these warriors put on bears’ skins before going into battle. As described in Chapter XVII, Beorn (in his bear‑shape) is capable of going into a classic berserk‑frenzy, in which “nothing could withstand him, and no weapon seemed to bite upon him.” The name “Beorn” is, of course, simply Anglo‑Saxon for “Bear” (cognate to Old Norse “Björn”).

Mirkwood ‑ The “Mirkwood” of Old Norse legend lay between the Rhine and the land of the Huns ‑ it also seems to have been a sort of border between the world of humans and the world of monsters.

 Chapter XI: On The Doorstep

  “A large grey stone lay in the centre of the grass…They all fell silent, the hobbit standing by the grey stone…” The “grey stone” is a typical marker of the dwelling place of a dwarf, barrow‑wight, or other dead thing; cf. Beowulf 2553, where Beowulf shouts at the dragon in the barrow and his voice is heard ringing “under harne stan” ‑ under the grey stone.

Chapter XII: Inside Information

 The description of the thief stealing a cup for his lord and the dragon, aroused, hurtling out in fire, is directly from Beowulf, lines 2200‑2350 or so; see materials.

   Smaug’s dialogue with Bilbo is a comic version of Sigurdhr’s dialogue with Fáfnir in “Fáfnismál”; see materials.

Chapter XIII: Not At Home

  “Arkenstone” is a simple English adaptation of the Old Norse “iarkensteinn”, a word used for very specially beautiful and magically created gems, such as the jewels which the Elvish smith Völundr (Wayland) makes out of the eyes of Nidhödd’s sons as part of his revenge (Poetic Edda, “Völundarkviûa”).

Chapter XV: The Gathering of the Clouds

 Learning wisdom from the speech of birds is another thing which appears in Norse legend; see “Fáfnismál” (presumably, if someone had dared to taste Smaug’s blood, that person would have had no trouble understanding the thrush). The theme of the ravens as bearers of news comes from Ódhinn’s two ravens, Huginn (“Thoughtful” or “Bold”) and Muninn (“Mindful” or “Desirous”), who fly out over the worlds and bring information back to Ódhinn.






Saruman ‑ Like Gandalf, Saruman resembles Ódhinn in his magic, subtlety, verbal skills, and occasional use of disguise; however, Saruman embodies Ódhinn’s dark side ‑ treachery, manipulation, and the lust for power.

The Barrow‑Wight ‑ In Germanic tradition, barrows and their treasure are often guarded by dead men, who have frightful strength and a hunger for the flesh of the living. A proper Germanic hero (such as Grettir or Beowulf) would wrestle with the barrow‑wight and overcome it by sheer physical strength. Hobbits, of course, are not that sort of hero.

Aragorn son of Arathorn ‑ the broken sword which is reforged as a sign of/prelude to the royal heir reclaiming his ancestral rights comes, again, from the Sigurdhr story. The sword of the Völsungs is broken in Sigmundr’s hand at his last battle. It is reforged  by the dwarf Reginn just before Sigmundr’s son Sigurdhr goes to avenge his father and claim his heritage; Aragorn’s sword is reforged by Elvish smiths. Note also the alliterative continuity of the primary name‑element, which is a Germanic tradition. Like Sigurdhr, also, Aragorn renames the sword when it has been reforged (Sigurdhr gives his the name “Gram”).

Riders of Rohan ‑ “Theoden King” is an Anglo‑Saxon title, meaning “folk‑king”; the White Horse is the traditional emblem associated with the Saxons in their conquest of Britain. The House of Eorl is “the noble house” (“eorl” is cognate with Old Norse jarl, modern earl). The name Eomer (“famous horse”) appears in Beowulf as the name of a minor character; Eowyn (“horse‑joy”) is also an Anglo- Saxon name, as is her role as guardian of the hall in wartime. Her role as shieldmaiden and Maiden Warrior is more a part of Norse tradition: the figure of the noblewoman who runs away from home in the armour of a man and does mighty deeds appears in both myth and saga. Basically, the Rohirrim are Anglo‑Saxons with a serious horse fetish. Note also the Anglo‑Saxon verse‑form used by the Rohirrim, as in Eomer’s lament for Theoden:

    “Mourn not overmuch!  Mighty was the fallen,

     meet was his ending.  When his mound is raised,

     women then shall weep.  War now calls us!”

Orcs ‑ the word is from the Old English, appearing in Beowulf 112‑13, as part of the description of the unearthly “kin of Cain”: “eotenas ond ylfe   ond orcneas / swylce gigantas” (“etins and elves   and orcs / such giants”). Etins and elves are both basically human in shape, differing only in size, character, and abilities; Tolkien presumably found “orcs” to be a more original name for his critters than the “goblins” of The Hobbit, as well as more appropriate by virtue of its sound.


Entts ‑ the Old English “ent” means “giant”.