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Viking ship post (circa A.D. 850)
Viking ship post (circa A.D. 850)
(Photograph © Werner Forman/CORBIS)

Stonehenge, one of the many ancient British ruins that inspired Tolkien
(Photograph from National Geographic Television)

Beowulf essay
A transcript of Tolkien's lecture “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics”
(Photograph from National Geographic Television courtesy Jane Chance)

Kalevala painting
Akseli Gallen-Kallela's 1891 painting “Aino Myth,” which depicts a passage from the Kalevala, a compilation of old Finnish ballads and poems
(Photograph courtesy Art Museum of Ateneum)

Gandalf the wizard
Ian McKellen as Gandalf
(© 2001 New Line Productions, photograph courtesy New Line Cinema)


  • Creating a Mythological Identity for England
  • The Myths That Inspired The Lord of the Rings


    Tolkien created the mythology and history of Middle-earth to serve as the poetic legend he felt his homeland, England, lacked.

    After the last Roman rulers left present day England in about A.D. 400, a series of migrations and invasions altered England's cultural landscape. First came the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes; then the Danish and Norwegian Vikings; and finally the Normans from France in 1066. As a result, many of the oral histories and legends of previous eras were lost.

    In part to make up for this loss, Tolkien spent years developing and fine-tuning the history and mythology of Middle-earth. He meticulously detailed the tales of Middle-earth in his book The Silmarillion, which he began writing during World War I.

    The Lord of the Rings books, published in the 1950s, draw on the mythology Tolkien detailed in The Silmarillion, though The Silmarillion was not released to the public until 1977.

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    Tolkien gave one of his most influential lectures on Beowulf, and he incorporated some of the ideological conflicts present in this poem into his mythology.

    Beowulf is a blend of historical events and Nordic legend. The poem was probably composed in the seventh or eighth century and spread primarily through song or spoken verse.

    A manuscript of the poem, written around A.D. 1000, has preserved the poem, making Beowulf the earliest surviving epic work of northern European literature.

    Beowulf tells of the adventures of a Scandinavian hero, Beowulf, who saves the Danes from the seemingly invincible monster Grendel, then from Grendel's mother. Beowulf finally returns to his own country, where he perishes in a vivid fight against a dragon.

    Tolkien infused The Lord of the Rings with the physical and spiritual conflict evident in Beowulf, as Jane Chance, a professor of English, writes in Tolkien's Art:

    Because the Fellowship is burdened with the responsibility of bearing the Ring and because its presence attracts evil, the greatest threat to the Fellowship and its mission comes not from without but within. The hero must realize that he can become a monster. The two books of the Fellowship trace the process of this realization: the first book centers on the presentation of evil as external and physical, requiring physical heroism to combat it; and the second book centers on the presentation of evil as internal and spiritual, requiring a spiritual heroism to combat it. The hero matures by coming to understand the character of good and evil—specifically, by descending into an underworld and then ascending into an overworld, a natural one in the first book and a supernatural one in the second. These two levels correspond to the two levels—Germanic and Christian—of Beowulf and The Hobbit. For Frodo, as for Beowulf and Bilbo, the ultimate enemy is himself.*

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    Other Mythological Influences

    Iceland's Poetic Edda contains mythological and heroic poems composed over a long period (A.D. 800-1000). The names of the Dwarves in The Hobbit were derived from the Poetic Edda.

    The Finnish Kalevala, a 19th-century compilation of old Finnish ballads and poems, parallels the real history of the Finns. Tolkien was fascinated by the Kalevala, finding in it timeless themes and archetypal characters. The hero of the Kalevala is a wise old shaman named Vainamoinen, who has a flowing beard and magical powers, reminiscent of Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings.

    Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was written anonymously in the late 14th-century in England. The tale of Sir Gawain chronicles the Arthurian knight's numerous physical and mental tests. The major theme in Sir Gawain, resisting temptation, is also a major plot device and theme in The Lord of the Rings.

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    Chance, Jane. The Lord of the Rings: The Mythology of Power. University Press of Kentucky, 2001.

    Chance, Jane. Tolkien’s Art: A Mythology for England. University Press of Kentucky, 2001.

    Shippey, T.A. The Road to Middle-earth. Harper Collins, 1992.

    *Reprinted from Tolkien’s Art: A Mythology for England (Revised Edition, by Jane Chance, copyright 2001) by permission of the University Press of Kentucky.