Classics that Inspired Tolkien: The Legends from the Ancient North
"I was from early days grieved by the poverty of my own beloved country: it had no stories of its own… not of the quality that I sought, and found… in legends of other lands. There was Greek, and Celtic, and Romance, Germanic, Scandinavian, and Finnish… but nothing English."
Recently, Penguin Books sent me their collection of new books, Legends from the Ancient North which is comprised of classics that inspired Tolkien including: The Elder Edda, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Beowulf, The Wanderer: Epics, Elegies, Riddles and The Saga of the Volsungs. I’m going to be completely honest: they are bloody gorgeous. These legends had a vast impact on shaping the work of Tolkien who, as he wrote in a letter to Auden in the above excerpt, longed for legends of his own land that had all the fantastical elements that are found in the foreign myths and legends, some of which feature in Penguin’s new collection.
Those of us who know Tolkien and his works well will know that, as a philologist, he had a love of languages, so it’s no surprise that the etymology of the creatures and the names in his books are influenced heavily by the works in this collection. Völuspá, the first poem of the Elder Edda, has a few names that may ring a bell. Just maybe. Durin, Dwalin, Bifor, Bofur, Bombur, Nori, Thrain, Thorin, Thror, Fili, Kili, Gloin, Dori, Ori… Yep, all from The Elder Edda. Plus, someone named Gandalf is mentioned. Sounds like a top bloke. We should probably throw the Vikings a ‘thank you’ for Aidan Turner and Dean O’Gorman appearing on our screens. Another fun fact, in a letter to friend and poet, W.H. Auden, Tolkien revealed how the name of Ents (whom he describes to be ‘composed of philology, literature and life’) is derived from the Anglo-Saxon line ‘eald enta geweorc' from the poem 'The Wanderer’, meaning ‘idle stand these old giant works’, which is pretty cool. The persona in the poem is a lonely exile, and his solitude reminds me of the poor little Ents (‘little’ probably isn’t the right word) who were without the Entwives after they disappeared in the Second Age.
As well as their names, characters also share similar traits to those from the Legends from the Ancient North. The Saga of the Volsungs draws so many parallels between the character Sigurd the Dragon Slayer and Tolkien’s Túrin Turambar (hint: they both slay dragons). I’m also ploughing my way through Beowulf (as y’know, it’s a pretty significant work in Anglo-Saxon literature and is kind of a big deal) which features a Dragon that is awakened by the theft of a cup from its trove. Sounds familiar, no? (Maybe Benedict Cumberbatch would be interested in the role, even if the past three attempts to make into a film have flopped, he hasn’t seemed to be getting much work lately). It’s heavy going, but is definitely worth the effort particularly since Tolkien was so invested in its critique (see ‘Beowulf: the Monsters and the Critics). He called for it to be considered more as a literary work (hello, there’s a giant and a dragon involved) because he felt the fantasy features where played down by critics. At first, they put more emphasis on the historical elements of the document (as the characters in the poem correspond with historical figures), so by focusing on the fantastical elements and themes of the epic poem, he shows how fantasy and reality can fit hand in hand, like in his own legendarium.
I could go on for so long but really, I think fans of The Hobbit or any of Tolkien’s other work would genuinely enjoy these, and if you’re interested you shouldtry and get hands on them. They’d be fantastic additions to any bookshelf of a more dedicated Tolkien fan who would enjoy the ease of just falling into worlds so similar to that of the one we all visit so often, while also learning more of the legends that influenced Tolkien’s works and making the interesting connections between them. There are so many elements within this set of works that all Tolkien lovers will find comfortingly familiar; the dragons of Beowulf and The Saga of the Volsungs and the ring of power in the latter, the dwarves of The Elder Edda and the idea of a hero embarking on a journey which puts him to the test and changes him which is present in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (which Tolkien translated for the modern reader). There really is something for every fan here.