Today I have a guest post for you from a new independent author. Charlie Anderson is the author of The Vision. She lives across the pond in the UK and is here to talk about three of my favourite things (and yours too, I hope): fantasy, Tolkien, and Norse mythology.
Over to you, Charlie:
Norse mythology, fantasy and Lord of the Rings (LOTR)
I want to thank Brondt for inviting me to guest-blog. It’s a great privilege, and Brondt, I appreciate your generosity.
In this post, I’ll discuss how J R R Tolkien’s background as a linguist might have helped him create a new branch of fantasy.
Tolkien’s mesmerising Lord of the Rings (LOTR) trilogy (1955) was one of the first books I read, and I couldn’t get enough of humans; Elves; Orcs; Goblins; Trolls and Dwarves living alongside dragons; magic; magic swords; walled forts; magic finger-rings and a thrilling battle that decided the fate of the heroes and villains. Once I discovered that these were all elements of Norse (Northern European) myth, I started reading anything I could find on these myths in earnest.
The Prose Edda and the Poetic Edda, the oldest and main sources of the Norse myths, describe humanoid beings with different cultures and languages / dialects called ‘Aesir’, ‘Vanir’, ‘Jotnar’, ‘Trolls’, ‘Elves’ and ‘Dwarves’ living alongside humans. Having learnt nine languages with varying degrees of success, for me the Poetic Edda poem Alvissmal is fascinating, because it gives glimpses into the dialects / languages of these beings. For example, the human himinn (‘sky’) is hlyrnir to the Aesir, vindofni to the Vanir, uppheim to the Jotnar, fagraræfr to the Elves and drjupansal to the Dwarves.
Tolkien was a Professor of Anglo-Saxon and then of English at the University of Oxford in England. He lived and breathed the sources of Anglo-Saxon and Germanic myth, which are related to Norse myth. As a professional linguist, Tolkien must have seen that some translations of Alvissmal, for example Bellows’ (1936), failed to show that the different dialects / languages might be unintelligible, and that the common language between the Aesir and the Dwarves was the language of humans. Imagine sports-shoe being a sneaker in the US, trainer in the UK, runner in Canada, and basket in France, and basket is translated as ‘container’ and sneaker as ‘someone who sneaks’!
Furthermore, the Eddas list different types of elves:
dokkalfr = dark elf
alfr = elf
ljosalfr = light elf
svartalfr = black elf
Brodeur, Bellows, Hollander and others translated alfr and ljosalfr as ‘Elf’, and dokkalfr, svartalfr and dvergr as ‘Dwarf’. Dwarves live in stones and in the ground, and Elves live in the sky (Gylfaginning chapters 14 and 17, Prose Edda). Thus, in Norse myth, Elves and Dwarves can be seen as one people (alfr, pl. alfar) with linguistic, cultural and physical differences, but Tolkien made them two peoples, and other writers followed him. What Tolkien did, very brilliantly, was reinvent Elves, Dwarves, Trolls and humans. He built on their cultures and physical appearances as described in the Norse myths, expanded the vocabulary for their dialects, and gave each dialect a script so that they became separate languages.
Other Norse mythology elements that are important in LOTR are:
- the setting: LOTR’s human-habited ‘Middle Earth’ brings to mind the Old Norse ‘Midgard’ (‘Middle Enclosure’) in which the home of humans lies;
- a hypnotically desirable gold finger-ring which brings trouble on the bearer: in LOTR this was Sauron’s One Ring, and in Norse myth it is Andvari’s ring;
- a final war / battle: in LOTR, this was Aragorn against Sauron, and Frodo against Saruman. In Norse mythology, it’s Ragnarok;
- an army of the dead: compare Aragorn’s with the Norse Einherjar;
- dragons: in The Hobbit, the prequel to LOTR, there’s Smaug, who’s based on the gold-hoarding Fafnir of Norse myth;
- the use of battle axes, swords and shields;
- the wise, bearded, wandering wizard: compare LOTR’s Gandalf and Norse myth’s Odin;
- warrior women: there’s LOTR’s Eowyn and Norse myth’s Valkyries and Freyja;
- names: Frode, Gimle and Gandalf are Old Norse names.
These elements, as well as Elves, Trolls and Dwarves, are still seen in fantasy today, eg in the BBC TV series Merlin (2012).
In fantasy, the hero has a clear quest, reason or purpose, whereas Norse myth describes people getting on with whatever life throws at them. I also think Tolkien’s dogmatic Roman Catholic faith (I know first-hand as I am RC) with its emphasis on ‘sins’, plus his experiences in two World Wars, influenced him to add a ‘good / bad’ dichotomy to LOTR, which Norse myth lacks. LOTR’s Frodo and Sam are ‘good’ and Sauron is ‘bad’, and we know who to support, but in Norse myth, Odin, Loki and nearly everyone else is ambiguous like LOTR’s Gollum / Smeagol.
My challenge when writingThe Vision (an Amazon ebook) was to use the surviving sources of Norse myth to create a story arc with many interlinked stories, like a soap opera novel, whilst trying to stay true to the sources. Unlike Tolkien, I couldn’t use a uniform, Norse saga-like descriptive and narrative voice because for a gobby person like me, that’s hard! And since I was using the soap opera format, I tried to use thoughts, speech and action to show place, culture and language.
Tolkien’s genius was to blend his moral framework, his knowledge of linguistics, the products of his imagination and Norse myth to create a new branch of fantasy. One only has to look at Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance Cycle (2011) and the BBC TV series Merlin (2012) to fully appreciate Tolkien’s legacy, and to realise that Norse mythology is still live and kicking.
Thanks again to Brondt for my guest post, and thank you for reading it!