Rings, dwarves, elves and dragons: J. R. R. Tolkien’s Old Norse influences

Thorin Oakenshield, Dvalin, Bifur, Bofur, Bömbur, Nóri, Óinn, Thrór and Thrain, Fíli, Kíli, and Durin's folk – does this list sound familiar?


From The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien, did you say? No, actually, what I had in mind was the ancient poem Voluspá. The poem is so old that no-one knows precisely how old it is. It belongs to the 13th century “Poetic Edda” collection from Iceland, but the poems in this collection are likely to have lived in the oral tradition for many centuries before they were written down. The name Voluspá means “the prophecy of the sibyl”, and in the poem a “Volva” – the Norse counterpart to a sibyl – describes her visions of the beginning and end of the world. She tells how the Earth was created out of the body of a primordial giant named Ymir, and how Odin and the other gods then brought order to the chaotic cosmos. Dwarves and humans are created and live in their respective realms. The realm of humans is called Midgard, or Middle Earth, as Tolkien also calls his earth. Inside is Asgard, the realm of gods, and outside it is the realm of giants. It all seems perfectly ordered.

However, the gods continually have to battle chaos in the form of the Jotnar, the descendants of the giant Ymir. Disorder and war is brought into the initially idyllic world where the gods happily played their board games in the grass, and as the story plays out, it darkens and we come to realise that we are approaching the end of the world: Ragnarok, when the sun in swallowed, the land is scorched by the fire giant Surt and his army, and finally, the Earth sinks into the sea. Thankfully, the story does not end here. A new world emerges from the sea, order is restored, a handful of surviving gods find their old board game in the grass, and a fantastic hall of gold is built for good humans to live in.

It is in this poem that the list of dwarves’ names appears, so this is where Tolkien got them from, as is fairly well known by hard-core Tolkien fans. Even Gandálf is there, but whereas he is a wizard in The Hobbit, he is merely one of the listed dwarves in Voluspá. His name is well suited for a wizard, though, as it can potentially be understood as “magic elf” or as “the elf with the long staff”, as “gand” can mean both a certain branch of magic and the type of staff that those skilled in magic were believed to use as a wand, and which is indeed a trademark of Tolkien’s Gandalf. It has been suggested, for example by Gloriana St Clair in Tolkien’s Cauldron: Northern Literature and The Lord of the Rings, that Gandalf is also meant as a parallel to Odin: The Norse god of wisdom, magic, poetry and war was known for travelling all the worlds in various shapes, sometimes as an old man. Gandalf and Odin also both undergo a transformation through death: Odin hangs himself on the world tree and comes back with deep, magical wisdom. In The Lord of the Rings, Gandalf the Grey dies in the battle with the fire demon Balrog in the underground realm of Moria, but reappears later in the more powerful form of Gandalf the White.

The dwarves are in Old Norse mythology known as master smiths, who could produce the most wonderful weapons. Truly legendary weapons in Old Norse literature also have personal names, as did swords in Celtic other European cultures as well. From The Hobbit we know the swords Orcrist, Glamdring and Sting.

In The Hobbit, we see dwarves living in fantastic halls in their kingdom under the mountains. That is, until their mountain hall of Erebor is taken by the dragon Smaug! The story of Smaug brings The Hobbit in touch with another Norse poem cycle: The legend of Sigurd the Dragonslayer. As well as being professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford University, Tolkien was also an expert on Old Norse language and literature, and he had a life-long passion for these ancient stories and poems. The story of Sigurd appears as several poems, and a story – the Volsunga Saga – which all have to be pieced together to form some sort of a whole. As a result of his passion for Old Norse literature, Tolkien wrote his own poem cycle on the Sigurd theme, amounting to more than 500 stanzas in total, unifying and interpreting the various Old Norse sources. It was never published in Tolkien’s lifetime, but was edited by his son and published posthumously in 2009 as The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun.

The Old Norse legend of Sigurd tells, among other things, of the hero’s encounter with the dragon Fáfnir. Old Norse dragons also Smaug’s love of gold. In Old Norse poetry, the world “gold” can for example be rephrased as “the serpent’s land”, dragon and serpent being interchangeable. When Sigurd meets Fáfnir, and the dragon asks him who he is, Sigurd attempts to conceal his identity by answering in riddles. The riddle motif is repeated twice in The Hobbit: First in Bilbo’s encounter with Gollum, and thereafter in his encounter with Smaug. In both cases, Bilbo has penetrated the underground realm of a dangerous creature, but with Gollum the riddles are about things from the outside world, while with the dragon, the riddles describe Bilbo himself: "I come from under the hill, and under the hills and over the hills my paths led. And through the air. I am him that walks unseen." So also with Sigurd, who initially describes himself to the dragon as a motherless and fatherless man, rather than stating his identity plainly.

In the Old Norse story, Sigurd slays Fáfnir by digging a pit, hiding himself in it until the dragon comes, and then slaying it from below. The Hobbit similarly reveals that Smaug’s weak spot is on his underside: The hobbit Bilbo discovers a small bare patch on the dragon’s left breast, which a master archer later manages to hit. This was the only spot that was not yet covered in gold or precious stones which had embedded themselves in the dragon’s skin after it having lain on it for a hundred and fifty years.

Many creatures and landscapes connect Tolkien’s Middle-Earth to Old Norse literature. One dramatic scene in The Hobbit occurs when Bilbo and the dwarves are lured off their path through the vast and dense forest Mirkwood, after having been specifically warned by their new friend Beorn not to leave the path by any means! Beorn lives surrounded by honey bees on the edge of the forest. His name means “bear” and while he is a man by day, he is a bear by night. Bilbo’s party is lured off their track by the appearance of the dark elves. While Elrond and the elves of The Last Homely House in Rivendell are friendly, the elves of Mirkwood are of a different kind. The separation of “light” and “black” elves can be traced back to Snorri Sturluson’s Edda, where the “black” elves even have their own realm: Svartalfheim. In The Hobbit, the black elves make their home in Mirkwood – a place name which is mentioned in its Old Norse form Myrkvið (dark forest) in the poems Lokasenna, Volundarkviða, Helgakviða Hundingsbana I, Oddrunargrátr and Atlakviða. For example, the opening stanza of Volundarkviða starts: “Meyjar flugu sunnan myrkvið í gögnum” – maids flew from the south through the dark forest. The hero of this poem, Volund, also known as Wayland the smith, is here said to be a prince of the elves.

I cannot leave this topic without saying a word or two about the ring, which is a central plot element in The Hobbit and the core of the tale in The Lord of the Rings. Powerful, magical rings are not unknown in Old Norse literature, either. The chief god Odin himself owned a magical ring named Draupnir, which multiplied every ninth night so that the total number of rings, including itself, would be nine. Like its owner, Odin’s ring transcended the boundary between life and death when it was sent with Odin’s son Baldur to the land of the dead, but later was brought back.

The idea of a set of magical rings is also central in Tolkien’s work, with the well-known quote

''Three Rings for the Elven-kings under the sky,

Seven for the Dwarf-lords in their halls of stone,

Nine for Mortal Men doomed to die,

One for the Dark Lord on his dark throne

In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.

One Ring to rule them all,

One Ring to find them,

One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them

In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie."

The power of Tolkien’s One Ring, however, is quite different from that of Odin’s ring.

The magical ring is also central in Richard Wagner’s opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen. Inspired by the Norse Sigurd story mentioned above, and by its German version Nibelungenlied, the ring in this story grants the power to rule the world. Furthermore, it is made from gold from the river Rhine. Tolkien’s One Ring was found in a river by the creature Gollum. Despite these similarities, Tolkien himself is said to have always maintained that the only resemblance between his ring and Wagner’s is that they are both round!