Tolkien and His Medieval Icelandic Models

The following article is from Ármann Jakobsson Professor in Medieval Icelandic Literature at the University of Iceland

All Icelanders know that J.R.R. Tolkien used Icelandic material in his work but know less about how he used it. There are many rings in Icelandic medieval literature but magic rings are a fairly ubiquitous folklore theme and thus it is somewhat far-fetched to imagine that the ring narrative was inspired by Iceland. But some other material does come from Iceland and I will say a few words here about how Tolkien’s dwarves, elves, dragons and ghosts are partly inspired by medieval Icelandic matter. 

Many of Tolkien’s Icelandic readers have finished The Hobbit by the age of 18, when they read Snorra-Edda and Völuspá in school and realise that the dwarf-names of the former (such as Thorin, Dwalin, Bifur, Bofur, Bombur) are also in the latter. But therein the resemblance ends. While many medieval Norse dwarf names are known to us, only a handful of dwarves appear as characters in Old Norse narratives. In the eddas and sagas I have counted seven in toto – well, perhaps eight but the number seven is better since it is a number people have to associate with dwarves in contemporary culture. Dwarves can also be found in the indigenous Icelandic romances, narratives that are clearly inspired by continental tradition, but in a somewhat restricted role as supernatural helpers that may be of assistance to a hero in his efforts to become betrothed to his bride. They are almost non-existent in post-medieval Icelandic folktales.

While Tolkien did indeed take the dwarf-names from Icelandic texts (though famously adding Balin whose name is nowhere to be found in the eddic tradition), the character of the dwarf, established so clearly in Tolkien’s work, is hardly present in the Icelandic material he used. It is at once his creation and his interpretation of his eddic material, but it is very much his and not simply appropriated from medieval literature. Such is the power of Tolkien’s fiction that often even scholars fail to realise this. Thus, for medievalists, Tolkien has become an attractive siren totreat with suspicion. I have found many examples of his portrayal of dwarves (and possibly also other dwarf portrayals from the literary culture of the 19th and 20thcenturies) getting in the way of what is actually said about dwarves in the medieval material.

For Tolkien, the dwarf develops a character compatible with rock and stone and earth, materials that are in some legends (but far from generally) associated with dwarves in the medieval sources that inspired him.Tolkien’s dwarves are heavy, solid, loyal, atavistic, resilient, stubborn, materialistic, prosaic, implacable, and vindictive. All these traits may possibly owe something to Old Norse narratives, but they are far from apparent in most of them. Tolkien has, of course, somewhat typically for scholars of his generation, combined all known dwarf narratives and tried to find common denominators. This is how mythologists worked for most of the 19th century until the last few decades. But he is also creative, he is deliberately filling in the gaps and creating new myths to make up for the paucity of old myths.

Tolkien’s elves may also be seen as his own interpretation of older material. It is evident that he has used Icelandic material, mostly the eddic poems Alvíssmál and  Völundarkviða, and possibly younger folktales, of the 18th and 19th centuries,where elves are far more prominent than dwarves. However, the truth is that elves in Icelandic medieval sources are shadowy creatures that are a far cry from the very clearly defined race of elves that appears in the works of Tolkien. In fact, the term álfrseems to have been fairly broad in the Middle Ages, and possibly applicable to any supernatural creature with magic powers that still remained outside the Norse pantheon of the æsir

I have noticed that modern scholars often seem to be envisioning Legolas when they write about medieval elves. Indeed, Tolkien’s elves are compelling, but the medieval Icelandic elf may have been completely differently envisioned, though the sources hardly allow us to establish that. Thus, Tolkien is again creating from sources that do not really yield much detail and the result is an elf that for most contemporary people has becomethe image of the traditional elf.  

Tolkien mined medieval Icelandic material in many other ways. His most direct borrowing from eddic poetry is possibly the conversation between Bilbo Baggins and the dragon Smaug, surprisingly mundane and even amiable in part, but eerily resembling the conversation between the dragon Fáfnir and his slayer Sigurðr (the Siegfried of the Wagnerian cycle) that is related in the eddic poem  Fáfnismál. Again, Tolkien is not only a shrewd literary critic, but also a compelling creator. One of the things a modern reader of Fáfnismál will notice is the fact that Sigurðr and the dragon finish their encounter with a fairly polite conversation, which makes the dragon not only more accessible but also, perhaps somewhat paradoxically, far more terrible.

Tolkien uses this to great effect: the chilling guile of Smaug when he seeks information from Bilbo, juxtaposed with Bilbo’s shameless flattery, intended to lure the dragon into revealing a weakness, is far more unusual and in my mind also more effective than any battle with a mindless monster might have been. Indeed, Tolkien confounds his readers’ expectations by making Bilbo’s encounter with the dragon a duel of wits, whereas the dragon is instead killed by a completely new character with no back story (Tolkien invented that later). In this way Tolkien departs radically from the narrative conventions that partly inspired him and instead presents the worldview of the common soldier of the 20th century who may be participating in a gigantic struggle but is more or less powerless to do much about it. Bilbo does not distinguish himself in battle in this story because the 20th century anti-hero does not need to do that. What he instead does is stumbles more or less accidentally on new technology (or as it happens ancient, as the ring is in the story) and uses it (mostly its ability to make the wearer invisible) successfully to tilt the adventure game in his favour. That all technology is dangerous only occurred to Tolkien later.

There are no ghosts in The Hobbit, unlike Icelandic folktales and sagas, but in The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien very successfully adapts the Icelandic ghost to a new genre, possibly inspired by such stories as Bram Stoker’s Dracula, published when he was five. While ‘ghost’ is a term often used about the medieval Icelandic undead, they are much more closely akin to vampires, as Andrew Lang, whose anthologies of traditional material aimed at children were eagerly devoured by Tolkien, realised when he called the undead Glámr a “vampire” in 1897 in his English retelling of Grettir’s duel with this notorious undead. Essentially Icelandic ghosts are corporeal, and this corporality is also a feature of the nine ring-wraiths, the ghouls that Frodo Baggins has to face in The Lord of the Rings, which is, thus, perhaps surprisingly to some, also a ghost story. Not only is Frodo trying to evade these wraiths for most of the first book, he is also attacked by a barrow-wight, and other ghosts play a substantial part in the great battle of book five. More importantly, Frodo himself is slowly becoming a ghost throughout the narrative, due to the evil influence of the ring but possibly also due to infection from the magic blade of the wraiths (vampirism is notoriously infectious both in the Icelandic sagas and in 20th century horror). As Tom Shippey has remarked, the wraiths operate mostly through fear, as is also true of Old Norse ghosts. Their power is not really of this world and yet they have a clear physical presence in it. As a ring-bearer, Frodo suffers more or less the  same fate. He does not turn to evil, although in the end that happens partly through accident, but even though he nominally survives the fall of Sauron and the end of the third age, the last part of the story