Facts that inspired Tolkien to create the Middle Earth
The writer John Ronald Reuel Tolkien created a fantastic world in which his most known works, 'The Hobbit' and 'The Lord of the Rings' take place. He died on September 2, 1973.
J. R. R. Tolkien and the incredible world that he created have set the pace and style of fantasy literature worldwide. Fond of language, mythology and ancient cultures, Tolkien took what was originally a story for his children to a level of complexity and detail that continues to surprise us as it did the very first time.
Middle-earth, his universe, is not a simple place where only the great stories of the central characters matter, but it is a living world composed of beautiful places and towns that each have their own languages, customs, legends, songs, genealogies and traditions.
It is easy to follow the lineage of the kings of Gondor or Elendil and their predecessors as it is to go back in the European monarchies until the time of Charlemagne.
If Homer wrote ' The Iliad ' and ' The Odyssey ' from Greek legends, John RR Tolkien first created his own legends and then wrote his version of the Iliad. Many criticise his texts for being excessively extensive, dense and detailed, but his style has made him go down in history as one of the most representative authors of his genre and his work as one of the sagas most relevant in fantasy literature.
Some of us don’t - but would like to – know more about Tolkien. This is a list of the writer’s inspirations that helped shape Middle Earth.
Tolkien's childhood was not exactly calm. Born in Bloemfontein, South Africa, he lost his father in 1896, at just four years old, and had to return to England with his mother and brother. In 1904 he was orphaned and was welcomed by pastor Francis Morgan Osborne, who instilled in him strong values and forbade him to see his beloved Edith Mary Bratt until he came of age. He fought in World War I and his fondness for ancient languages, as well as Nordic and Anglo-Saxon cultures, led him to be a professor at the University of Oxford. All these facts are reflected, more or less directly, in the texts and plots of his work.
The writer and philologist always complained that England had a very poor and concise mythology, unlike those in nearby Ireland or Scotland. With his works, Tolkien intended to provide his country with a new mythology and magical worlds mostly based on the cultures and legends of the people of central and northern Europe, especially in Scandinavian and Germanic mythology. Much of his fantastic races and villages, to which he provided a story full of heroes and great epics, emerged precisely from the Eddas, a collection of Nordic tales written in 1220 by Snorri Sturluson.
Mabel Suffield, John's mother, decided to move from Protestantism to Catholicism upon arriving in England in 1896. After many disputes, her family assumed her new faith and she was able to educate her two children according to the Catholic creed. After his death, Father Francis Morgan (Uncle Curro) continued that work and inspired Tolkien. Apart from having clearly adapted numerous elements of the Catholic religion to his works, his way of writing or composing the characters, recalls, at certain times, the biblical style.
In addition to his great fondness for languages, Tolkien felt a true passion for Anglo-Saxon and medieval history. As a child he had been told that his mother came from a noble family in the Mercia region (central England) that fought alongside Charlemagne and that his father's lineage was linked to the Holy Roman Empire during the Ottoman invasion of the 16th century. In fact, a family legend says that the Tolkien surname comes from a warrior who fought during the siege of Vienna in 1529 and whose risky cavalry charges earned him the nickname 'Tolkuhn', which means reckless. His work as a professor of Anglo-Saxon medieval literature at Oxford meant that almost all the towns that occupy Middle-earth have elements taken from different medieval cultures.
The legend of King Arthur is the most widespread and popular fantasy story of the English imaginary. The setting in that medieval world full of magicians, warriors and monstrous creatures served as an important source of inspiration for Tolkien. From the power and wisdom of Merlin to the greatness of Arthur and his knights, who set out in the search for the Holy Grail facing all kinds of dangers, the arthurian cycle legends pose numerous similarities with the misfortunes that the inhabitants of Middle-earth must endure, as well as The Fellowship of the Ring.
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien felt, as a child, a fascination with languages to the point that one of his main hobbies in childhood was to invent complete languages, in which he would speak with his family. As he grew up, he developed his studies in philology and that allowed him to learn (and master) ancient languages such as Latin, Gaelic, Icelandic, Old Norse or Gothic. One of the aims he pursued in publishing 'The Lord of the Rings' was precisely to make known that world in which the languages he invented were spoken following the scrupulous philological method. They are languages that are almost as complete as any other current language. Elvish language and its different variants (Quenya and Sindarin) have influences from Latin and the ancient Indian, while the language of the dwarves and their writing come mainly from the Nordic runes of the Vikings and the ancient Finnish.
In 'The Fellowship of the Ring' we are told that Frodo lost his parents Drogo and Primula at the age of 12, due to a boat accident. After this he was welcomed by his uncle Bilbo (whom we met in 'The Hobbit') and went to live with him, being educated by the old hobbit and his mysterious friend Gandalf. It seems easy to find a certain resemblance to the childhood of Tolkien himself, who was orphaned at the same age as Frodo and was raised by Francis Morgan Osborne, a figure for which he had great affection and respect and who inspired many aspects of his life and work.
In 1915, after graduating from Exeter College, Tolkien enlisted in the army to fight in World War I and was sent to France with the British Expeditionary Force. There, he participated in the brutal battle of the Somme as a communications officer until he suffered from the so-called 'trench fever' and was removed from the front for three months. It was precisely at this time, and having lived the war very closely, when he began writing his 'Book of Lost Tales' that he would end up becoming 'The Silmarilion'. His experience in the Somme would serve, years later, to shape the War of the Ring and battles such as that of Helm's Deep or Pelennor Fields.
In World War I it was customary for men with studies, training or good family to receive high positions within the army while workers and lower classes were mere private soldiers. Tolkien used the brotherhood that arose in the trenches by the soldiers and the fact that each officer was accompanied by an assistant everywhere to create the character of Samwise Gamgee. Sam was Frodo’s faithful servant who followed him to the very fires of Mount Doom. This pair of hobbies also has another more symbolic meaning: Frodo represents rationality and logical thinking while Sam is the personification of sentimentality. They complement each other and present a new version of the material world and the world of the ideas of Aristotle and Plato.
When he was 16 years old, Tolkien met the love of his life, Edith Mary Bratt in his oprhanage. Due to the age difference between the two and the fact that Edith Mary was Anglican, Father Francis prohibited John Ronald from having any contact with the young woman until they both came of age. Tolkien respected this ban and as soon as they were of age they got married. The difficulties that Tolkien experienced in his relationship with Edith Mary inspired the creation of Beren and Luthien, a couple composed of a man and an elf that appears in 'The Silmarilion' and whose impossible love would be the basis of the later history of Aragorn and Arwen. In Bratt’s and Tolkien’s tombs, which can be found in the cemetery of Wolvercote (Oxford), you can read the inscription 'Beren' in his and 'Luthien' in hers.
Tolkien used numerous creatures of medieval European mythology to set the mood and shape his world, but there are two that play a great role in and were created by him. The hobbits arose from the imagination of the English writer and their name comes, according to the theory, from the words 'rabbit' and 'hole builder' referring to the hobbit-holes in which they are living. The other creature that, although already part of the fantasy world, was Tolkien's invention is the orc, that evil spawn that makes up the vanguard of the armies of Mordor. The orcs used to be confused (even by Tolkien himself) with goblins but in 'The Lord of the Rings' the difference between these completely different races was highlighted.
At the beginning of 'The Fellowship of the Ring, Frodo and his entourage are in serious trouble when they cross the Old Forest, but are saved by a curious character named Tom Bombadil. In one of the most memorable scenes of the book, Tom shows off his extraordinary powers and is believed to know the history of the world before even that Gandalf. The character made his first appearance in the poem 'The Adventures of Tom Bombadil' and is based on a Dutch doll belonging to his brother Hilary that John Ronald broke as a child.
A ring, referring to both the form and the object itself, has in almost all cultures and beliefs a deep symbolism that Tolkien knew how to take advantage of. For many people, such as the Egyptians and the Vikings, the rings meant power and victory and were proudly worn by rulers, warriors and wealthy people. On the other hand, a ring is usually a symbol of commitment and promises, either in Catholic marriage ceremonies or in oath rings typical of Nordic temples. Finally, a ring represents "being and not being", since its own nature and form constitute a circumference of metal or wood and a hole in the centre.
These are two of the best known fantastic races and that post-Tolkien literature has used most often. Both elves and dwarves originally belonged to Norse mythology, being creatures that related to the gods of Asgard and being very present in the legends of the Scandinavian people. Tolkien's dwarves are practically identical to those of the ancient world: a race of strong and skilled creatures that excavated huge cities in the mountains and were famous for their work as blacksmiths or jewellers. On the other hand, Tolkien's elves went one step beyond the originals on which they were based, making them perfect and pure creatures, closer to the divine than to the human.
Tolkien created an entire world from birth to near destruction in the War of the Ring. The world of Middle-earth was created by Eru Iluvatar, supreme being of the universe similar to the Christian God, who gave rise to all creatures. In Norse mythology, the gods were divided into Asir and Vanir and Tolkien created the Ainur and the Valar from them. The dawn of Middle-earth bears many similarities with the origin of the Nordic world and some of its most significant creatures, such as the demon of fire and shadow Balrorg, can find its equivalent in monsters like Surtur, which is gigantic being that carries a flaming sword.
This popular legend is one of the most widespread among the Germanic mythology and Tolkien knew how to capture some of its elements in his work. For example, Sigfrid is involved in a risky mission to kill a dragon and recover a great treasure in which he finds a magic ring that is cursed (doesn’t it remind you of the ‘Hobbit’?). We also find parallels with the sword Gram, which must be forged from its broken fragments alike Aragorn’s Anduril, or the scene in which King Gunter takes the magic ring from the bottom of the Rhine River as it did Smeagol. Even if we dig a little, there are certain similarities between Hagen (Snake tongue), who persuaded King Gunter (Theoden) with poisoned words to get rid of his loyal Sigfrid (Eomer) servant.
It seemed impossible to deal with English literature without mentioning the eternal William Shakespeare. Interestingly, Tolkien considered that the work 'Macbeth' had two flaws in its argument and he decided to solve it in 'The Lord of the Rings'. In the Shakespearean theatre, the witches prophecy to the Scottish king is that "he will never be defeated until the Great Birnam wood comes to high Dunsinane Hill,'' which happens when the enemy army cuts the trees to simulate that the forest moves, and that "no man born of woman could kill him", which is solved causing McDuff to be born by caesarean section after the death of his mother. Tolkien corrected the forest scene with the attack of the Ents in Isengard and the solution of the caesarean section with the Witch King of Angmar, who had also said that no man could kill him, but he fell under the sword of Eowyn.
John Ronald wanted to give Middle-Earth a complete and full history of different cultures, catastrophes, legends and details. For years, he was writing that fantastic genesis in what he baptised as 'The Book of Lost Tales’. Years after his death, his son Christopher Tolkien would publish it under the title of 'The Silmarillion. It is considered as the Bible of Middle Earth due to the fact that he narrates everything from the creation of the world until the Third Age, in which 'The Lord of the Rings' takes place, in addition to the style with which he wrote this story.
The influence of Catholicism in Tolkien's work has long been analysed and debated, since the author did not usually talk about the symbolism of his characters. Many scholars have come to identify the elf Lady Galadriel with the Virgin Mary, but there are other similarities that seem more obvious. For example, the main villain of 'The Silmarillion' is Melkor, the Valar or angel who rebelled against Eru Iluvitar and became the master of all the evils of Middle-earth. In 'The Lord of the Rings', the magician Gandalf sacrifices himself for the Fellowship and after being resurrected he continues leading his allies until victory against Sauron, the embodiment of evil. There is even a group of black riders that announce the resurgence of Sauron and the end of Middle Earth. The origin of the devil as a fallen angel or the resurrection of Jesus Christ seems to have been direct references in the development of some of Tolkien's main characters.
Tolkien loved England. The landscapes and history of his country fascinated him and it was logical that they made an appearance in his work. He always defined himself as a defender and lover of nature so characteristic of the English countryside and he openly expressed the rejection produced by the end of this quiet life with the arrival of large industries. This way of thinking is clearly reflected in the lifestyle of the hobbits and the Shire (based on the Sarehole region) and in the destruction of Fangorn forest at the hands of Saruman to create his army of Uruk-Hai, metaphor of the industrialisation that cities like Birmingham experienced.
Although Tolkien always denied that there was any kind of connection between Middle-earth and Europe prior to World War II, the coincidences found by the author's scholars are very numerous. If the map of Middle-earth is superimposed on one of Europe (assuming that England is the Shire), we find that Mordor is more or less located where Hitler's Nazi Germany is. That latent danger that is hidden in plain sight in the east seems a small criticism of Tolkien to the expansion of Nazism and the clear path to World War II.
If the descriptions given in the books already suggested that certain similarities existed, the aesthetics granted to them in the films seemed to confirm that the fierce town of Rohan was based precisely on the Anglo-Saxon and Germanic tribes of the ninth and tenth centuries. Tolkien based Rohan's men on the Icelandic tribes of Beowulf (whose poem was translated into English by Tolkien himself). Rohan's shield - a white horse on a green background - is inspired by the image of the White Horse Hill, to which Tolkien travelled with his family while writing 'The Lord of the Rings'.
Gondor's kingdom is almost an abstract and ideal concept; the last bastion of defence of men against Mordor. Tolkien related the division of the kingdom of Gondor and Arnor in the face of the advance of Sauron's forces and compared it with the great empires that had to face the dismemberment of their territory. From the Egyptian pharaohs to the decadent end of the Roman Empire, Gondor is that place whose culture is lush and rich, but suffers constant divisions and internal disputes. Gondor's kingdom is based on the Holy Roman Empire that faced the Ottoman invasions. On the other hand, Minas Tirith has always been considered as a reinterpretation of medieval Florence, where culture and art grew with splendour.
The grey ports are the place from where the elven ships sail westward, their homeland, to live forever and never return to Middle-earth. At the end of 'The Return of the King' we discover that Bilbo, Frodo and Gandalf have been invited to leave with the elves. The wound that Morgul's dagger caused Frodo and the aftermath that the power ring left in his mind make his stay in Middle Earth was unbearable, and that is why he decides to leave. If we take a look at King Arthur, the legendary king is taken by Morgan to the island of Avalon, where his mortal wounds would heal and he could rest until it was time to fight for the last time. It is very likely that Tolkien relied on the end of King Arthur to create the finishing touch of his great story.
In the books, Aragorn is shown to us as a wise and upright character, aware of his duty as king and able to fight to the death for the good of Middle-earth. He is one of Tolkien's most perfect characters and his personality and history seem to point to certain similarities with King Arhtur. Both were aware of their destiny and prepared for it, becoming kings and characters without any shadow. The similarities between Excalibur and Anduril are also striking: both indicate the right to reign, have a certain magical element and are key objects in their respective stories.
The elves called him Mithrandir, the grey pilgrim. Gandalf is probably the most important character of all those created by Tolkien, playing a great role throughout the history of Middle-Earth. Its appearance comes from an old postcard, that Tolkien saw when he travelled to Switzerland, in which an old man with a tall hat and long beard appeared under the title 'The spirit of the mountain'. It also took certain features from Merlin, the Nordic god Odin or his guardian, Father Francis. Tolkien gathered in a single character the influences that marked his work, which highlights the importance of that old magician in his fantastic world.