Two days ago, Tolkien fans toasted the legendary author on what would have been his 125th birthday. J.R.R. Tolkien in some ways is a mysterious person. He was a devout Roman Catholic with a strong interest in Norse Mythology. And it was his writing that took the Norse mythology that he studied and loved, and created an entire literary genre around it.
THE NORSE INFLUENCE
During Tolkien’s education at King Edward’s School in Birmingham, the then young Tolkien read and translated from the Old Norse on his own time. One of his first Nordic purchases was the Völsunga saga ( a late 13th century Icelandic prose rendition of the origin and decline of the Völsung clan). Both the Volsunga Saga and the Nibelungenlied were texts that had roughly the same date and origin. And both of these provided some of the basis for Richard Wagner’s opera series, Der Ring des Nibelungen, featuring in particular a magical golden ring and a broken sword reforged. In the Völsungasaga, these items are respectively Andvarinaut and Gram, and they correspond broadly to the One Ring and the sword Narsil (reforged as Andúril).
So hmmm…Tolkien was inspired by a story about a magical ring, that sounds kind of familiar…
THE ROMANTIC INFLUENCE
One important thing to understand about Tolkien is that he had an intense hatred of industrialization, which he considered to be devouring the English countryside. And much of the forces of evil in Lord of The Rings can be analogous to the forces of industrialization both Tolkien’s time, as well as our time today.
What is interesting to note, is that in the late 19th century and early 20th century there was a movement of “neo-romanticism.” The romanticism of the late 18th century had a strong emphasis on emotion, and the glory of the past and nature, as well as an intense disdain for industrialization. So neo-romanticism was a reinvention of that in later times.
(Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, 1818)
In the Romantic as well as Neo-Romantic movements, there was a romanticized ideal of the past as a time when people were more noble and heroic. Many of these themes are obvious in Wagner’s extraordinary operas (for instance, Flight of the Valkyries). Afterall, as mentioned above, Wagner wrote a certain opera about a certain magical ring and the curse of material greed (very familiar sounding).
Of course, Wagner had very controversial associations, given his anti-semitic ideas, and the Nazis’ love for Wagner. So if Tolkien was inspired by Wagner, he certainly wasn’t going to go around saying so. Especially not after World War II.
But in Tolkien’s work, he did manage to express a sort of Romantic yearning for the glory of the past, as well as a contempt for the power and forces of greed in modern times. The Lord of the Rings Films are also like a work of Romantic art, in Peter Jackson’s emphasis on large, powerful landscapes in which man is only a tiny, and small wanderer lost in the power of nature.
(Landscape from The Hobbit Trailer)
(Here’s a piece of romantic landscape art in comparison. Albert Bierstadt’s Storm in the Rocky Mountains, 1866)
ELVES AND DWARFS
In continuation with the discussion about Tolkien’s norse influences, there are the elves and dwarfs in his story. They’re not something he just made up. They were based on Norse and Germanic mythology. The Prose Edda and the Elder or Poetic Edda contain descriptions of elves and dwarfs.
In Germanic mythology, dwarfs are short, humanoids who dwell in mountains and in the Earth. They are associated with wisdom, smithing, mining and crafting. Dwarfs are also described as short and ugly.
(Here’s a dwarf!)
In terms of elves, there are the Dökkálfar (Old Norse “Dark Elves”, singular Dökkálfr) and Ljósálfar (Old Norse “Light Elves”, singular Ljósálfr). The Dark Elves dwell in the Earth and are swarthy. While the Light Elves live in Álfheimr (one of the nine Norse worlds) and are fairer than the sun to look at.
(Here’s an elf!)
GANDALF THE GREY
The figure of Gandalf the Grey is also influenced by the Norse deity Odin, who was described as a wanderer, an old man with one eye, a wide-brimmed hat and a long beard. In a letter of 1946, nearly a decade after the character was invented, Tolkien wrote that he thought of Gandalf as an “Odinic wanderer (Carpenter 1981, #181)”. Much like Odin, Gandalf promotes justice, knowledge, truth, and insight.
(Gandalf fan art)
However, Norse myth wasn’t the only cultural influence. Tolkien’s work was also influenced by Old and Middle English, he based the Elvish language on Finnish, Greek mythology (in terms of the island Numenor being an allusion to Atlantis), Celtic influence in terms of the exile of the Noldorin elves and the parallels of that with the mythical Tuatha Dé Danann, and Arthurian Legend .
Tolkien was also influenced by his own Christian religion as well. The biblical narrative about the fall of man influenced The Silmarillion (in terms of the fall of the elves).
The poem below is from The Fellowship of the Ring. I think it definitely shows the Romantic influences in Tolkien’s work. I.E. the yearning for ancient ways. The contempt for greed.
All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.
From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows shall spring;
Renewed shall be blade that was broken,
The crownless again shall be king.
Also read: “I Sit Beside the Fire and Think“
I sit beside the fire and think
of all that I have seen
of meadow-flowers and butterflies
in summers that have been;
Of yellow leaves and gossamer
in autumns that there were,
with morning mist and silver sun
and wind upon my hair.
I sit beside the fire and think
of how the world will be
when winter comes without a spring
that I shall ever see.
For still there are so many things
that I have never seen:
in every wood in every spring
there is a different green.
I sit beside the fire and think
of people long ago
and people who will see a world
that I shall never know.
But all the while I sit and think
of times there were before,
I listen for returning feet
and voices at the door
I Sit Beside the Fire and Think is a song by Bilbo Baggins, which he sang softly in Rivendell on 24 December T.A. 3018, the evening before the Fellowship of the Ring set out upon their quest. Bilbo sang the song in the presence of Frodo, after giving Frodo the mithril-coat and Sting. The song is a contemplative piece, sung by a now-aging hobbit recalling past events that ends in anticipation of hearing returning friends.
But could it also have another meaning? A longing for the return of ancient ways? For the return of the spring after a long and cold winter?
Source for poem: Tolkien Gateway
The following “Song-Poems” are taken from the Cantares Mexicanos, a late 16th-century collection transcribed by a Franciscan monk, Bernardino de Sahagún – of Náhuatl-language (Aztec) poetry known as “flower and song” (” xóchitl in cuícatl “): stylized, symbolic poem forms composed and performed by nobles – including kings. These song-poems were believed to be carriers of sacred ritual energy. (Original Source: “War is Like a Flower“)
To the God of War: Huitzilopochtli
Huitzilopochtli, the Warrior,
He who acts on high
Follows his own path.
Oh marvellous dweller among clouds,
Oh dweller in the region of the frozen wings.
He causes the walls of fire to fall down
Where the feathers are gathered.
Thus he wages war
And subdues the Peoples.
Eager for war, the Flaming One descends,
He rages where the whirling dust arises.
Come to our aid !
There is War, there is burning.
Those Pipitlan are our enemies…
Explanation of Terms:
Huitzilopochtli: Aztec god of War, from the Náhuatl words for
“hummingbird of the left-side/south-side” – the hummingbird being
known for its aggression, daring, and persistence
Pipitlan: a people to the south of Tenochtitlan (capital of the
Aztec Empire, site of present-day Mexico City)
Heart, have no fright.
There on the battlefield
I cannot wait to die
by the blade of sharp obsidian.
Our hearts want nothing but a war death.
You who are in the struggle:
I am anxious for a death
from sharp obsidian.
Our hearts want nothing but a war death.
Sacred crazy flowers,
flowers of bonfires,
our only ornament,
How do they fall? How do they fall?
These hearts, ripe fruit for harvest**.
Look at them,
These fall, the hearts — oh our arrows
These fall, the hearts — oh our arrows.
Explanation of Terms: **These hearts, ripe fruit for harvest – a reference to the
human hearts that must be offered to Tonatiuh – the Sun god –
to ensure he will make his daily journey across the sky;
Tlaloc, the Rain god, also required human hearts – and
Waging War was the surest method to get them…)
Where are you going? Where are you going?
To war, to the sacred water.
There our mother, Flying Obsidian,
dyes men, on the battlefield.
The dust rises
on the pool of flame,
the heart of the god of sun is wounded.
Oh Mactlacueye, oh Macuil Malinalli!
War is like a flower.
You are going to hold it in your hands.
Explanation of Terms: Mactlacueye – volcano north of the present-day city of Puebla;
locally known as La Malinche
Macuil Malinalli – a friend of Aztec King Nezahualpilli (1465-1515)
May Brigid bless the house wherein you dwell
Bless every fireside, every wall and door
Bless every heart that beats beneath its roof
Bless every hand that toils to bring it joy
Bless every foot that walks it’s portals through
May Brigid bless the house that shelters you.
Many of us modern folk may think of the Spring Equinox on March 21st as the first day of Spring. But back in ancient Ireland, it was actually around January 31st. It was the day that marked the waning of winter and the coming of longer days. A time when the snow started melting, the animals began coming out of hibernation and birds started singing. A day in between the winter solstice and the spring equinox.
The term ‘Imbolc’ derives from Old Irish and means “in the belly,” or alternately “ewe’s milk,” pointing to the the time when the first lambs were born, associated with a celebration of fertility, reproduction and the young.
This is a day connected with the Celtic goddess Brigid, and Imbolc is one of the few contemporary Pagan holidays that is connected completely and solely to a Goddess. Brigid is the goddess of creativity, warfare, healing, fertility and the hearth.
In Christian times, the goddess Brigid was transformed to a Saint. Saint Brigid is still a pretty big deal in Ireland today. The second most popular saint after Saint Patrick. It is believed that Saint Brigid could perform miracles, such as healing the sick. She also acted a bridge between Christianity and Paganism. Even Brigid’s cross is both a reference to both Jesus and the Celtic sun wheel. So as a bridge between two religions, she is a fitting symbol of the threshold between winter and spring.
A good way to celebrate this holiday is by doing some spring cleaning. Getting rid of the old and preparing your home for the new season to come.
Since Brigid is a goddess of creativity, another good way to celebrate is by trying your hand at writing a poem, maybe even writing a song or doing some other creative project.
Most importantly, this is a time of renewal. Do you have any new projects you’d like to start? Or old ones that you need to finish? Is there something you’ve been wanting to do, but haven’t gotten around to doing it yet? Or any old habits that need to thaw out and melt away like the winter snow? This may be the time, and the strength of Brigid will help guide you through.
THEY AWOKE TO THE SCENT OF SPRING
(I know I shared this song before, but it’s a good one for the occasion)
Lady of The Flame (Metal-Gaia)
How to celebrate Imbolc (Pagan Wiccan)
The Right and Wrong of Imbolc (Patheos)
Imbolc 2016: Facts, Dates, Traditions And Rituals To Know (Huffington Post)
Pagans Celebrate Coming of Spring with Imbolc Festival (World Religion News)
Imbolc Poem (The Fellowship of The King)
Learn more about Odin from the links below:
“DEPARTED to the judgment,
A mighty afternoon;
Great clouds like ushers leaning,
Creation looking on.
The flesh surrendered, cancelled,
The bodiless begun;
Two worlds, like audiences, disperse
And leave the soul alone.”
“Departed to The Judgement”- Emily Dickinson