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Shared Stories: Common themes in myths and legends across cultures

The Influence of European Mythology on Tolkien's Middle Earth

Tolkien's Middle Earth drew inspiration from Finnish and Nordic myths. There have been many articles written about similarities between Tolkien's stories and earlier European legends, such as the Finnish oral epic Kalevala and the Nordic Volsunga Saga. [See sidebar for a sample of such articles.]

The purpose of this article is not to examine in detail the similarities between Tolkien's stories and the Kalevala or the Volsunga saga, as there are many existing articles exploring that area. This article simply lists the known commonalities between The Lord of the Rings or the Silmarillion and traditional European epics, for the purposes of comparing these similarities against the parallels between the Lord of the Rings and the Sundiata Epic of West Africa. It can be seen that the parallels between LOTR and European fables and the parallels between LOTR and the Sundiata Epic are non-intersecting.

Similarities between The Kalevala and Tolkien's The Silmarillion

The human character Turin in Tolkien's Silmarillion was in part inspired by Kullervo of the Finnish epic Kalevala.1 Like Kullervo, Turin commits accidental incest with a long lost sister. In both the Silmarillion ahd the Kalevala, the unfortunate sister casts herself into a raging river on learning of the incest.2 The cursed brother later kills himself by falling on his own sword. In both tales, sword speaks and agrees to drink its master's blood.3

Turin's cousin Tuor (another Silmarillion character) also shares some aspects of Kullervo. Both Kullervo and Tuor were made slaves as a result of war.4 In both Silmarillion and the Kalevala, the boy escaped slavery with the aid of animals. In Tuor's case, the hounds sent by his owner to hunt him let him go out of friendship. As for Kullervo the magician, he enlisted bears and wolves to maul his cruel hostess to death.5

Tolkien's Elven master smith Feanor is also said to owe inspiration to Ilmarinen, the artist/magician/smith of the Kalevala.6 Both craftsmen created a treasure – Feanor's Silmarils and Ilmarinen's Sampo - that was later fought over by many.7 Both Ilmarinen and Feanor were black-haired and handsome immortals, yet both were unlucky in love. Feanor's wife became estranged from him because of his arrogant deeds.8 Ilmarinen's wife was killed by Kullervo's magic, and his subsequent attempt to take his wife's younger sister as a second bride was rebuffed.8

This younger sister of Ilmarinen's wife also shares the fate of the character Elwing of the Silmarillion - both women were changed into seagulls. In the Kalevala, Ilmarinen cursed his dead wife's sister and turned her into a seagull after she rejected him.9 In The Silmarillion, Feanor's sons attacked Elwing's home seeking the Silmarils. Elwing cast herself into the sea and was transformed into a seagull.10

Similarities between The Volsunga Saga and The Lord of the Rings

Much of the Volsunga saga revolves around the different factions battling for possession of a cursed magic ring.11 The Hobbit's dragon is not unlike the Volsunga Saga's dragon Fafnir who lives with his treasure on the Glittering Heath.12 In the Volusunga saga, the hero Sigurd inherited his father's shattered sword which he would reforge for his own use.13 In Lord of the Rings, the hero Aragorn takes the sword Anduril, reforged from his ancestor's broken blade, into battle.14

Tolkien's stories and the Volsunga Saga also share the theme of an immortal woman giving up immortality for a mortal husband. In the Volsunga Saga, Brynhild was a Valkyrie condemned to marry a mortal man and lose her immortality.15 Tolkien repeats this motif, not once, but twice. In Lord of the Rings, Arwen, an immortal elf, marries Aragorn and follows him in death. In The Silmarillion, the Elf princess Luthien gives up immortality to marry the human Beren.16 The hero Beren was the only human to cross the magic barrier of the Girdle of Melian into the forbidden realm where Luthien lived. This is reminiscent of Sigurd, hero of the Volsunga Saga, who was the only mortal able to ride through the ring of fire in which Brynhild slept.17

Tolkien's character of Aerin also bears some resemblance to Signy of the Volsunga Saga. Signy was an aunt of Sigurd. She was forced to marry the evil King Siggeir of Gothland. Seiggir later murdered her father and brothers. Signy's surviving brother and her nephew/son later killed Seiggir and set his palace on fire. Signy chose to stay in the burning palace and die with her husband despite her hatred for him.18 In The Silmarillion, Aerin was an aunt of Turin. She was forced to wed the Easterling chief Brodda who had enslaved her people. After Turin killed Brodda, Aerin set Brodda's hall on fire and perished with it.19


Notes
  1. Tom DuBois and Scott Mellor, The Nordic Roots Of Tolkien's Middle Earth
  2. The Kalevala: Rune XXXV:Kullervo's Evil Deeds
    The Silmarillion, Of Turin Turambar
  3. The Kalevala: Rune XXXVI: KULLERWOINEN'S VICTORY AND DEATH.
    The Silmarillion, Of Turin Turambar
  4. The Kalevala: Rune XXXI: KULLERWOINEN SON OF EVIL
    The Silmarillion, Of Tuor and the Fall of Gondolin
  5. The Kalevala: Rune XXXIII: KULLERVO AND THE CHEAT-CAKE
    The Silmarillion, Of Tuor and the Fall of Gondolin
  6. Tom DuBois and Scott Mellor, The Nordic Roots Of Tolkien's Middle Earth
  7. The Kalevala: Rune X: ILMARINEN FORGES THE SAMPO
    The Kalevala: Rune XLII: CAPTURE OF THE SAMPO
    The Silmarillion
  8. The Silmarillion, Of Feanor
  9. The Kalevala: Rune XXXIII: KULLERVO AND THE CHEAT-CAKE
    The Kalevala: Rune XXXVIII: ILMARINEN'S FRUITLESS WOOING.
  10. The Kalevala: Rune XXXVIII: ILMARINEN'S FRUITLESS WOOING.
  11. The Silmarillion, Of the Voyage of Earendil and the War of Wrath
  12. The Volsunga Saga
  13. The Volsunga Saga: Ottergild
  14. The Volsunga Saga: Death of Sigmund and Sinfjotli
  15. The Lord of the Rings, The Ring Goes South
  16. The Volsunga Saga: Sigurd and Brynhild
  17. The Silmarillion, Of Beren and Luthien
  18. The Volsunga Saga: Sigurd and Brynhild
  19. The Volsunga Saga: Signy and Sigmund
  20. The Silmarillion, Of Turin Turambar