2011 at 10am Posted by Rebecca Joines Schinsky
I’ve had a soft spot for Tolkien ever since my father read The Hobbit to me as a bedtime story more than twenty years ago. I’ve recognized his influence in countless works by contemporary authors, and I’ve always wondered who influenced him. At last, answers! My friend Chris Kubica is a database developer by day and a writer by night, and he runs ePublishing startup neverend media in his “spare” time. He’s here today with a well-researched guest post—think of it as a hypothetical Bare Necessities—about the top ten books that influenced J.R.R. Tolkien. Find Chris on Twitter @chriskubica.
I’m a sci-fi and fantasy buff and have spent many years building (and reading and enjoying) a sizable library of classics in both genres. I keep coming back, as many do, to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy by J. R. R. Tolkien, though, and have re-read each several times. My daughter, Isabella, is just about old enough that very soon I will delight in reading The Hobbit to her aloud as a bedtime story.
Tolkien’s books are classics, of course, and most people I know have read them. But over the years I’ve been fascinated to discover that most people believe that Tolkien single-handedly invented the fantasy genre and before him there was nothing written that could be called what we understand as the fantasy genre…that before him there were fairy tales and before that Greek (and other) myths and before that, the unknown (unknown to my friends and acquaintances, at least). To be honest, I wasn’t sure what came before Tolkien either and I certainly wasn’t aware of what specifically influenced Tolkien’s famous works until I did a little digging…in paper books at first and also online.
I’ve discovered there are many-score books out there that have directly influenced Mr. Tolkien, that we know of, and I thought it would be fun to write briefly about ten of those here—the top ten books that influenced Tolkien, at least in my opinion. Thankfully, most of these books are still in print and available to buy or check out at your local library and if they aren’t in print, many of them are old enough to be in the public domain and thus freely available online or via a free eBook download.
Note: This isn’t an exhaustive list and is totally Chris-Kubica-isn’t-a-credentialed-literature-scholar-subjective, but I’ll bet you haven’t heard of all of these books before!
I’d be happy to hear other people’s thoughts on these and other un-mentioned-here Tolkien influences in the comments.
1. Beowulf by Anonymous
Beowulf is a classic tale of good vs. evil that pits the hero, Beowulf, against two monsters and a dragon. Tolkien was Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford University from 1925 to 1945 and read and wrote extensively about Beowulf and other Old- and Middle English epic poetry. Tolkien delivered a seminal lecture on Beowulf called “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics” in 1936 and a hard-to-find book on the subject, “Beowulf and the Critics”—which collects much of Tolkien’s Beowulf scholarship in one place—came out in 2002. Tolkien even translated Beowulf himself (his hand-written translation was discovered in 2003).
2. The Worm Ouroboros by Eric Rücker Eddison
This very densely written and highly imaginative fantasy novel about a heroic King versus the Lords of Demonland was published in 1922. While Tolkien didn’t buy the philosophical beliefs put forth in the novel and denied that Eddison was an influence on his own writing, he nonetheless once wrote in a letter that “I still think of [Eddison] as the greatest and most convincing writer of ‘invented worlds’ that I have read.” The term “middle Earth” is used in the book, too, to describe the place where the characters live. Eddison was also a sometime guest reader at meetings of The Inklings, an informal literary discussion group at Oxford University that counted Tolkien and Chronicles of Narnia author, C. S. Lewis among its members.
3. The Prose Edda by (probably) Snorri Sturluson and the Poetic Edda by Anonymous
Both of these are quintessential classics of Ancient Norse literature, poetry and mythology. Tolkien wrote about, lectured on and translated these works himself over the course of many years at Oxford University. In addition, many character names like “Gimli” derive directly from Norse mythology. “Gandalf” can be translated as “magic elf” in Old Norse and many believe that Gandalf is inspired by Odin, one of the main Gods in Norse mythology.
4. The Marvelous Land of the Snergs, by A. E. Wyke-Smith
Tolkien called this 1927 collection of tales about a Hobbit-like character (a Snerg) named Gorbo (who is “only slightly taller than the average table”) a “Sourcebook” for The Hobbit and read the book to his children. Read more about the similarity between Snergs and Hobbits here.
5. The House of the Wolfings and The Roots of the Mountains by William Morris
Tolkien read these early fantasy novel reconstructions of early Germanic life as a child and was profoundly influenced by them. In particular, the name “Gandolf” can be found in these books and scholars suggest that Gollum and The Dead Marshes from The Lord of the Rings draw inspiration from Morris’s works. Fangorn forest and the character of Wormtongue are also said to be inspired by characters from Morris.
6. The Book of Wonder by Lord Dunsany
Lord Dunsany was a prolific fantasy short story writer (primarily) who wrote around the turn of the 20th Century. Tolkien mentions Dunsany’s works many times in his collected letters. In one letter he talks about Dunsany’s fantasy character-naming abilities and later in life Tolkien writes fondly about Dunsany’s “Chu-Bu and Sheemish” story. Tolkien also once presented a scholar, Clyde S. Kilby with a copy of The Book of Wonder to help prepare him for his role working on Tolkien’s The Silmarillion (The Lord of the Rings “back story” or “Legendarium” Tolkien wrote over the course of his whole life).
7. She by H. Rider Haggard
Haggard is perhaps best known for his book King Solomon’s Mines which was later made into a several Hollywood movies. But She is acknowledged as one of Haggard’s most influential works—on many writers and books that followed She’s 1887 publication. Tolkien once said in an interview “I suppose as a boy She interested me as much as anything” and also said that another Haggard novel, Eric Brighteyes, was “as good as most sagas and as heroic.” Some scholars have noted similarities between the royal elf Galadriel in The Lord of the Rings and the main character in She.
8. The Red Fairy Book and The Lilac Fairy Book, Edited by Andrew Lang
Scottish dude Andrew Lang edited an immensely popular series of twelve fairy tale collections at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th Centuries. Each book is named with a color and contains fairy tales from around the world including translations of many international tales that, before Lang, had never before been read in English.
“The Story of Sigurd”, the last tale in The Red Fairy Book, contains many parallels to Tolkien’s The Hobbit including magic rings, a magic sword and a grouchy, terrible, ferocious dragon. “The Story of Sigurd” is itself a retelling of the Sigurd story from the Völsunga saga, an ancient Icelandic saga that Tolkien was also quite fond of and studied at Oxford University.
I think I’m the only one to point out that the odd word, “Moria” also appears in the title of another The Red Fairy Book tale called “Soria Moria Castle” and I wonder if Tolkien lifted the word from here for The Mines of Moria locale in The Lord of the Rings (or if it is an uncanny coincidence).
Tolkien refers to the introduction to The Lilac Fairy Book in his seminal lecture/essay on fairy tales called, you guessed it, “On Fairy Stories” which legitimizes Fantasy as a serious adult literary genre/form, some say for the first time in history.
9. A Voyage to Arcturus, by David Lindsay
Tolkien says in a letter in the 1930s that he read the book “with avidity” “as a thriller” and praised it as a work of philosophy, religion, and morality. Fellow Inkling member C. S. Lewis liked it so much that he later wrote his entire Out of the Silent Planet trilogy based on A Voyage to Arcturus’s central premise (which is: traveling spiritually to another planet).
10. The Princess and the Goblin, by George McDonald
McDonald, a prolific Scottish writer of adult literature (and a minister), also wrote several fantasies, including this book which influenced The Hobbit, most strikingly its goblin characters. McDonald’s The Princess and the Curdie also was an influence on Tolkien, as were McDonald’s fairy tales, especially “The Golden Key.” In a 1938 letter to the Observer newspaper, Tolkien stated that some ideas in The Hobbit “derived from (previously digested) epic, mythology, and fairy-story—not, however, Victorian in authorship, as a rule to which George MacDonald is the chief exception”. Tolkien also read The Princess and the Goblin to his kids.
There are tons of Web sites about Tolkien and his influences you can find on your own. I also recommend the following books on Tolkien’s influences, specifically, and Tolkien in general:
1. Tales Before Tolkien: The Roots of Modern Fantasy, by Douglas A. Anderson
2. J. R. R. Tolkien, A Biography, by Humphrey Carpenter
3. J. R. R. Tolkien, Author of the Century, by Tom Shippey
4. The Road to Middle-Earth, by Tom Shippey
5. The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, Edited by Humphrey Carpenter
6. Tree and Leaf, by J. R. R. Tolkien (contains his essay “On Fairy Stories”, mentioned here)
7. The Monster and the Critics (The Essays of J. R. R. Tolkien), by J. R. R. Tolkien
Holler back with your own suggestions in the comments below, and feel free to shoot Chris an email.