The Historical Inspirations For 'The Lord of the Rings'
J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy and The Hobbit adventure that preceded it are full-fledged mythologies and histories unto themselves, making it a little strange to discuss the impact of real-world mythology and history on Tolkien’s saga. But the list of historical references in The Lord of the Rings is long and the impact of influences on his writings, including Norse mythology and Tolkien’s own WWI experiences, is undeniable.
Tolkien lived through one of the most tumultuous periods in modern history and had a life story of his own worthy of a book or two. Some of what he learned and experienced was bound to influence his writing. On the record, Tolkien was generally shy about admitting direct influences and allegories, but the historical parallels are too obvious to ignore.
The One Ring And The Sword Narsil Are Inspired By His Favorite Norse Saga, And Perhaps A Wagner Epic Based On The SamePhoto: The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring / New Line Cinema
When he was a young man, J.R.R. Tolkien described The Story of Sigurd, from a translation of the Norse Völsunga Saga, as “my favourite without rival.” He liked it so much, in fact, that one of his first attempts at writing was his own adaptation of the saga - and it’s clear that some of the story’s themes stuck around in his head.
The two most prominent plot points Tolkien appears to have borrowed from The Völsunga Saga are that of an important yet dangerous ring and a sword of destiny that needs to be re-forged. It’s not too difficult to draw the obvious parallels between those objects and The Lord of the Rings’ One Ring and Narsil, Aragorn’s sword.
Another notable creative figure, composer Richard Wagner, was also heavily influenced by The Völsunga Saga when writing Der Ring des Nibelungen, and that’s led to some accusations that Tolkien ripped Wagner off - especially since Wagner’s composition specifically combined elements of the Volsunga into a ring of power and control that needed to be destroyed.
Tolkien, for his part, claimed that, when it came to Wagner’s story, “Both rings were round, and there the resemblance ceased.”
The Ring May Also Have Been Inspired By A Roman Ring Found At An Architectural Site Near Tolkien's HomePhoto: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey / Warner Bros. Pictures
In 1929, J.R.R. Tolkien had the opportunity to work as an advisor on the archaeological study of an ancient Roman temple in Lydney Park that became known as “Dwarf’s Hill.” And as far as the eventual development of The Lord of the Rings is concerned, it proved a worthwhile endeavor.
The ruins beneath the Roman temple consisted of tunnels and mines dug into the hill itself, and it provided imagery that Tolkien would later use when crafting Bilbo Baggins’s home in Hobbiton.
While on the job, archaeologist Sir Mortimer Wheeler shared with Tolkien an artifact that had been found in a farmer’s field not too far from there - an ancient gold ring, inscribed with Latin, that was apparently tied to a Roman curse. It seems unlikely that this object didn’t provide at least some of the inspiration for the appearance and traits of Sauron’s One Ring.
The Basic Plot, And The Elven Language, Are Based On The People Of Finland
When J.R.R. Tolkien was a teenager, he discovered an epic Finnish tale called the Kalevala. It sparked in him a lifelong interest in the peoples and mythologies of Finland, both of which would end up having a major impact on his own Lord of the Rings saga.
Tolkien himself called the Kalevala, featuring an object of power, the “Sampo,” which must be destroyed, “the germ of my attempt to write legends,” and Tolkien biographer Professor John Garth said:
Tolkien liked the fact that this was a national myth. He wished that England had something similar. Britain had Celtic stories but England had not preserved its mythology. With The Lord of the Rings he wanted to give England its own Kalevala.
The Kalevala also influenced Tolkien’s storytelling in an indirect fashion. His fascination with Finnish legends led to an interest in learning the Finnish language, which in turn led to the creation of his own Finnish-influenced language, Quenya, or Elvish. It was this language that Tolkien would eventually build Middle-earth’s history around, making Finland the true birthplace of his saga.
‘Gandalf’ Means ‘Wand-Elf’ In Ancient Norse And He Shares Many Characteristics With The Norse God Odin
Most actual Norse tales depict the character of Odin much differently than the bellowing, regal brute that occupies the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Instead, he’s usually seen in the old sagas as a mysterious traveler from a higher realm that disguises himself as a wizard in order to mingle with humanity. In other words, he acts an awful lot like Gandalf the Grey.
J.R.R. Tolkien himself saw the connection, once referring to Gandalf in a letter as an “Odinic Wanderer.” Both sorcerers have memorable steeds and iconic weapons, and both are shapeshifters of a sort. There’s even a scene in the Heimskringla in which Odin fights a magical duel with Gylfi that reads very similarly to Gandalf’s own bout with Saruman.
And similarities to Odin aren’t the only thing Gandalf Stormcrow borrows from the Norse. His name itself is an Old Norse moniker first applied to a dwarf in the Poetic Edda, and it roughly translates to “wand-elf.”
The Shire Was Modeled After English Country Villages Of The Late 19th CenturyPhoto: The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring / New Line Cinema
Growing up, J.R.R. Tolkien only spent the ages 4 through 8 in the quaint hamlet of Sarehole, which even then was an anachronistic reminder of the English country villages of a century past. Still, Tolkien recalled his time there fondly, once reminiscing:
It was a kind of lost paradise. Here was an old mill that really did grind corn with two millers, a great big pond with swans on it, a sandpit, a wonderful dell with flowers, a few old-fashioned village houses and, further away, a stream with another mill.
In many ways, his memories of Sarehole and the bygone era it represented served as inspiration for the Shire, and the Hobbit lifestyle in general. Or, as Tolkien himself wistfully puts its:
The hobbits are just what I should like to have been but never was - an entirely unmilitary people who always came up to scratch in a clinch. Behind all this hobbit stuff lay a sense of insecurity. I always knew it would go - and it did.
Mordor And The Dead Marshes Were Inspired By Tolkien’s Experiences In The Battle Of The Somme
Most know that J.R.R. Tolkien served in the British Army in WWI, and that the horrors of that conflict can be felt thematically throughout his writing. His most notable combat, however, came in the Battle of the Somme - the bloodiest of the Western Front - and Tolkien has admitted that what he saw there stayed with him long enough to make it into The Lord of the Rings.
Specifically, Tolkien, who lost close friends in the battle, once wrote, “The Dead Marshes and the approaches to the Morannon owe something to Northern France after the Battle of the Somme.” It seems the conflict-scarred landscape had nearly as much of an impact on Tolkien’s later writings as the tragedies that occurred upon it.