Finding Inspiration: A Guide From JRR Tolkein

Posted on 30/05/2018

Who hasn’t heard talk about J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, probably one of the most famous literary works of the 20th Century? His story of a quest to destroy a magical ring has captivated the hearts of many people worldwide. However, The Lord of the Rings is much more complex than it may seem at first. In order to write it, Tolkien combined several of his personal experiences and beliefs with vast ancient European mythological and legendary influences. In this article, we will talk about Tolkien’s sources of inspiration to create what has become one of the greatest literary works of all times… and prove that the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur’s theory that everything we see, read and experience can shape our thoughts and inspire us to write our own stories and create something new!

The Bible

Believe it or not, The Lord of the Rings contains many religious allegories. But taking into account that Tolkien was a devout Catholic throughout his entire life, that shouldn’t really surprise us. To begin with, The Lord of the Rings is a story about the battle between Good and Evil, and that should give us a clue about the religious influences it has.

In fact, remarkable Biblical figures and facts are evoked in several passages of the story. For instance, the wizard Gandalf’s quest, during which he apparently dies while fighting against the Balrog (the fire-spitting demon), has been compared to Christ’s Calvary and death. Another similitude Gandalf would share with Christ is that he later resurges as “Gandalf the White”, just as Christ resurrected also robed in white garments. But Gandalf is not the only character who displays Christian influences.

Frodo has also been compared to Christ in the sense that he practically becomes a “martyr” of the adventure, only going on it in order to repair the mistake that his uncle Bilbo made so many years ago by getting hold of the One Ring. He laments throughout the novel about the pains of being the Ring-bearer, and his ultimate temptation to keep the Ring for himself instead of throwing it into the fires of Mount Doom has also been compared to the biblical passage contained in the Gospel of Saint Matthew in which Satan tempts Christ during his fasting in the desert. The only difference is that, unlike his biblical “counterpart”, Frodo is unable to resist and succumbs to the Ring’s demonic powers. In the end, the Ring is only destroyed because of Gollum’s intervention and the struggle that followed.

Nordic mythology

Another of Tolkien’s main sources of inspiration to write The Lord of the Rings were the ancient Norse sagas and Viking culture and traditions.

Several of the names of the characters and locations that appear in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, such as Gandalf’s, were directly taken from the Edda, a collection of old Viking tales and poems that were later transcribed in the Icelandic language during the Middle Ages.

In fact, the character of Gandalf has also been notably modelled after the ancient Norse god Odin, considered the wisest and most powerful of the gods of Valhalla. Odin was well-known for often taking the identity of an old wandering man with a long beard, a wide hat and a grey cloak, an appearance that has been attributed to knowledgeable men such as sorcerers, wizards, druids or shamans since unmemorable times. And, just like Gandalf’s transformation from the Grey to the White, Odin had to face a terrible initiation ritual in order to acquire the knowledge of runes, by having his body hung by a gallows and pierced with spears.

The choice of the Ring as the principal object in the novel is also related to Viking culture since rings represented fame and wealth to them, and receiving one by a king or earl was considered a great praise. There are many Nordic legends that revolve around magical rings such as the Draupnir, which had the ability to multiply itself, or the mythical Andvaranaut, with corruptive powers and sharing a great similitude to Tolkien’s One Ring. In fact, according to the Völsunga Saga, a late 13th Century Icelandic narrative work, the Andvaranaut was originally stolen from his owner Andvari by the god Loki and offered to king Hreidmar as a reparation gift for having inadvertently killed the king’s son Ótr. The ring conferred wisdom and youth to Hreidmar; but Andvari, furious for having been robbed, placed a curse on the object, claiming that it should be the bane of every man who owned it thereafter. The ring, therefore, became corrupting and aroused the desire of its possession in the hearts of others. Hreidmar’s eldest son Fafnir eventually murdered his own father in order to get the ring for himself. However, the ring’s corrupting curse transformed him progressively into a monster. Notice that what happened to the character of Gollum in The Lord of the Rings is extremely alike.

The Kalevala

The Kalevala is a collection of traditional Finnish and myths and legends whose origins are thought to date back to pre-Christian times when writing didn’t still exist. Throughout history, the oral tradition of the Kalevala faced the danger of becoming extinct, in part due to the dominion Sweden had exerted on Finland since the late Middle Ages and the incorporation of the latter to Russia in 1809, only to regain its independence in 1917.

It was a Finnish rural doctor named Elias Lönnrot who practically “rescued” the traditional verses of the Kalevala, travelling through the Finnish countryside during the 1830s and compiling the old runic songs he heard there. Slightly modifying some parts and organizing them in a linear story, he created the “official” Kalevala, which is now available in several libraries, both physical and online.

Today, this work of epic poetry is regarded as one of the most important expressions of Finland’s cultural heritage, and the national Kalevala Day is celebrated in this country every February 28th.

Just like The Lord of the Rings, the Kalevala tells a story of strife between Good and Evil. Tolkien grew fascinated with it during his teenage years and modelled several aspects of his magnum opus out of it.

The protagonist of the Kalevala, Väinämöinen, is an old wise man with magical powers, notably based on the pagan nomadic shamans who inhabited Finland many years ago. He is portrayed as a knowledgeable and righteous chieftain who often resorts to magic in order to achieve his goals and improve his people’s living conditions. His figure has served as an original model for the wizard Gandalf: both characters share an apparently immortal origin and are similar in personality and outward appearance.

The plot of the Kalevala revolves around a magical object, the Sampo, which was forged by a blacksmith called Ilmarinen at the request of Väinämöinen for the female leader of a mythic land called Pohyola, who had promised Väinämöinen the hand of her daughter in return. Väinämöinen complies and gives her the object; however, as the story progresses, he and Ilmarinen decide to steal the Sampo back, provoking a fierce battle between their fellowship and the people of Pohyola during which the Sampo falls to the sea and breaks down into many pieces.

The main axis in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is also an object forged by a blacksmith, which is linked to the story in a very similar fashion to the Kalevala’s Sampo. However, while Tolkien states that the object is a magical ring, it is not known what a Sampo really is. It is hinted that it may be some sort of quern-stone, but the true nature of this object still keeps intriguing scholars. Both Tolkien’s One Ring and the mythical Sampo are very powerful objects for which battles are fought. However, while the One Ring possesses an evil corrupting nature, the Sampo is said to bring joy and abundance, leaving the land of Pohyola mired in famine and misery after it is stolen and destroyed.

Furthermore, the way that the Kalevala ends may suggest the origin of Tolkien’s choice of epilogue: in The Lord of the Rings, some of the most important characters, including Frodo, Gandalf and Bilbo, depart towards distant lands in order to find some peace of mind and never come back. In the Kalevala, Väinämöinen leaves his lands behind and departs never to return in a boat made of copper, after bequeathing his magical zither and his songs to his tribe.

World War I

After World War I broke out, Tolkien was sent to France in 1916 to fight for England. In spite of his short stay at the trenches, for he contracted the louse-transmitted illness known as “trench-fever” and was sent back to England to recover, the War left Tolkien with a permanent emotional scar that would later have some influences in his written work.

He never forgot the horrors he witnessed at the French trenches: mutilated corpses everywhere, people being helplessly killed in front of him, the fouls stench of decomposing bodies that prevailed in the environment, the loss of several dear friends…

As we have previously mentioned, several of the dreadful things he witnessed at the battlefield would later appear in several passages of The Lord of the Rings. For instance, when the characters of Frodo, Sam and Gollum travel through the Dead Marshes on their way to Mount Doom and they see the corpses of men, orcs and elves that were killed in battle through the waters of the swamps, an implicit reflection about the pointlessness of war and the desolation it brings with it is made.

Later in the story, during the siege of the city of Gondor by the enemy orkish troops, it is stated that they dug deep trenches before setting them on fire and retaliated by catapulting towards the city burning projectiles and the decapitated heads of the fallen combatants. Tolkien also decided to pay homage to several friends of humble origins he made in the army with the character of Sam Gamgee, who can practically be considered as the true hero of The Lord of the Rings (if it hadn’t been for him, Frodo, almost complete mad in the end due to the Ring’s corruptive powers, wouldn’t have been able to complete his quest). Sam was of a much more modest background than the other Hobbits in the story, but also the bravest and most selfless, with an unwavering loyalty towards his friends, especially Frodo.

According to Tolkien, everyone is capable of achieving something great, something all students should keep in mind, no matter how hard the circumstances are being.

The lesson here is that your life experiences are perfect for finding inspiration, whether you’re suffered hardship in your life or are passionate about a topic, use that passion and that experience to guide you in your writing.

Did you enjoy this article? Are you a fan of The Lord of the Rings as well; or have you ever read the Kalevala or a Norse saga? What did you think of them? Please let us know in the comment section!

Written by
Sarah Pajares
My name is Sarah and I am a student of Modern Languages. I love literature, ice-skating and cooking (especially ice-creams and sweets!). I'm also a huge fan of Celtic and Baltic cultures and enjoy travelling abroad to learn more about different traditions and customs.