JRR Tolkien’s sources for The Lord of the Rings and the rest of his Middle-earth mythology are widespread and various. Tolkien was a very widely-read scholar on a variety of subjects ranging from philology (the study of language and its development) to literature, mythology, religion, and philosophy.
Tolkien was one of the foremost philologists of his day, and dedicated much of his life to the study of languages, particularly their roots and development.
- See the
Tolkien and Language
page for more info on Tolkien’s studies and relationship with language, as well as its influence upon the creation of Middle-earth.
Mythology, also, was one of Tolkien’s foremost interests and scholarly pursuits, and these mythologies became perhaps the foremost literary precursors and influences upon the “sub-creation” of his secondary world.
During his early days at King Edward’s School in Birmingham he first encountered the mythology of Greece and Rome. During his later school years, he discovered the mythologies of the northern peoples…The Elder Edda and Prose Edda of Norse mythology, the Kalevala of Finnish myth, and the Irish and Welsh myth cycles.
Outside of mythological texts, Tolkien drew from a large pool of creative literature from the distant (and not-so-distant) past. Tolkien wrote in his famous essay “On Fairy Stories”, “I have been a lover of fairy stories since I learned to read” and fairy stories have roots that run from nearly the very beginning of literature to Tolkien’s immediate precursors.
Anglo-Saxon literature was a source of great fascination for Tolkien, and he became one of the most well-respected scholars of Anglo-Saxon literature. In the 1920’s, during his time as a Professor at the University of Leeds, Tolkien teamed up with fellow scholar E.V. Gordon to translate the medieval Anglo-Saxon poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
Tolkien also later gained notice for his oft-quoted essay, Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics, which championed the Anglo-Saxon poem as a masterpiece.
Outside of Anglo-Saxon literature, Medieval Romances were also precursors to Tolkien, and Tolkien was very familiar with them. The French chanson de geste or “songs of deeds” have many elements in common with Tolkien’s tales of Middle-earth, as Lin Carter points out in Tolkien: A Look Behind The Lord of the Rings, particularly “the dual epic themes of quest and warfare as standard plot motifs” (pg 102).
The epic romances of Ariosto, especially Orlando Furioso, certainly influenced the sub-genre of "fairy stories", if not Tolkien directly.
Tolkien was also quite fond of John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost, and his entire Middle-earth mythology has much in common with Milton’s epic. Tolkien once wrote to publisher Milton Waldman:
“There cannot be any ‘story’ without a fall – all stories are ultimately about the fall – at least not for human minds as we know them and have them” (The Letters of JRR Tolkien, No. 131)
Also playing a major role in the development of the Middle-earth mythology was the flowering of folklore and folk tales that emerged in the early nineteenth century. The Brothers Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm, traveled rural Germany collecting and publishing old Germanic folktales. Hans Christian Anderson, though much of his writing was original, mined a similar set of Scandinavian folklore.
During the early nineteenth century, fantasy was introduced to “modern” literature by a writer who would have a profound effect upon Tolkien…William Morris. Morris was a member of the Victorian artistic movement known as the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a group of individuals who looked to the idyllic past in the midst of the nature-destroying Industrial Revolution.
The past they looked toward was a largely imaginary one…the Middle Ages and Arthurian courts full of beauty and chivalry had never existed – that was a brutal era full of endless wars and cruel persecution - but such simplicity seemed a much better alternative to the dark clouds of coal smoke that rolled from factory stacks.
Like Tolkien, Morris was enchanted by the Norse myths, and a number of his best-known poems are based upon these myths.
Aside from this shared interest, Morris also wrote novels. While other authors had written of dream worlds and epic heroic quests, their adventures were inevitably tied to this world. Morris was among the first to write stories that took place entirely in a land of fantasy. In the words of Lin Carter, “he had invented the heroic fantasy novel” (Tolkien: A Look Behind The Lord of the Rings, pg 114).
Several of Morris’s novels have resonances in Tolkien, particularly The House of the Wolfings, based in part upon Norse mythology. The Rohirrim in The Lord of the Rings echo Morris’s creation in Wolfings.
Tolkien wrote to professor L.W. Forster in 1960, “[The Lord of the Rings] owe more to William Morris and his Huns and Romans, as in The House of the Wolfings or The Roots of the Mountains” (Letters, no 226)
The direct successor of Morris, Lord Dunsany, became the master of the fantasy short story, and the one book of stories that we know Tolkien read, The Book of Wonder, had some effect upon him.
Dunsany was among the first to mix the “high seriousness” of a fairy-story with wit, a tradition Tolkien carries forward in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.
Another author that Tolkien was deeply influenced by was E.R. Eddison, a contemporary of Tolkien who wrote several fantasy novels, most notably The Worm Ouroboros. Tolkien wrote in a 1967 letter, “I have read all the E.R. Eddison wrote, in spite of his peculiarly bad nomenclature and personal philosophy” (Letters no 294).
Tolkien also cited an influence by Victorian writers Andrew Lang and George MacDonald. Tolkien was a noted admirer of MacDonald’s fairy-stories, particularly The Golden Key, though he professed acquiring a dislike of it later in life.
He also noted in Letter No. 25 that ideas for The Hobbit were “derived from (previously digested) epic, mythology, and fairy-story – not, however, Victorian in authorship, as a rule to which George MacDonald is the chief exception”.
Andrew Lang wrote and published a number of books of fairy-stories, well known for their color-coded titles (ex. The Red Fairy Book, The Green Fairy Book). Tolkien mentioned in his essay, “On Fairy Stories”: “In English none probably rival either the popularity, or the inclusiveness, or the general merits of the twelve books of twelve colors which we owe to Andrew Lang and to his wife” (TR pg 39-40).
There were a few other authors who had at least a passing influence on Tolkien, and whom he was certainly familiar with. Chretien de Troyes, the medieval French author of numerous Arthurian romances, and Sir Thomas Malory, author of Le Morte d’Arthur. He also professed a liking for several more modern (at that time) authors such as H. Rider Haggard, Lewis Carroll, and E.A. Wyke Smith (whose “Marvelous Land of Snergs”, which Tolkien read to his children, may have led to the development of hobbits).
Check out this essay for more info on the links between Tolkien and Wyke-Smith.
Tolkien Scholar Douglas A. Anderson (editor of The Annotated Hobbit) has also edited an excellent book of fairy-stories that were precursors to Tolkien titled Tales Before Tolkien: The Roots of Modern Fantasy
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