Understanding Tolkien: The Ancients

Tolkien was more than just a soldier. He was a scholar as well, and this allowed him to contextualize his experiences against the backdrop of history. Today we will look at the ancient, and largely northern, legends and sagas that Tolkien read and studied for much of his professional life.

There are three main things that Tolkien saw and wrestled with in the ancient lore he studied. First, evil in the old world, it’s pervasiveness and position was in some ways not unlike the images that came out of the Great Wars, but in some ways very different. Second, the concept of fate, or as the ancients called it, Wyrd. Thirdly, in the old stories, there is a sense of looking back and trying to make sense of information that Tolkien felt he could do better.

If you are not familiar with the Norse legends and sagas, it is important to understand they live against a backdrop unlike any other. The Greek Gods kept the Titans at bay, and Christians look toward the return of Christ and eternity in heaven. There was no such triumph in the North. Ragnarok, the Twilight of the Gods and the end of the world awaited them. The world ended in fire and darkness, with no visions of paradise beyond. To get a sense of what Ragnarok meant, watch this short clip from the History Channel show Vikings, where a newly arrived monk asks what Ragnarok is.

And of course, northern lore is filled with all sorts of monsters and dragons from Grendel to Fafnir on top of the ice giants and everyone else waiting to crash the whole world burning party. In a way, this is not too different from the omnipresent evil that Tolkien saw through the 20th Century. There is however, a major difference.

Whereas the Twentieth Century saw evil arising primarily out of man (an internal threat), the ancients saw it primarily as coming from beyond man, from the outside. To be sure there were outlaws and oath breakers, the ancients were under no illusions about the nature of man, but these men were not seen as world breakers the way that 20th Century man saw himself. This is an important difference in determining how you look at and understand evil. More will be discussed on this next week when we look at how Christianity allowed Tolkien to understand and in many ways resolve the contradictions between the ancient and modern experiences.

Before we go farther and jump into the tangled concept that is Wyrd, take ten minute and watch this short summary of Beowulf. Seriously, it’s important and I think you’ll enjoy it.

Wyrd is an interesting concept.  It is similar to our concept of fate, but more nuanced and less understood. The best way to look at it is to examine a quote I have mentioned before, Beowulf’s remark that:

…Wyrd oft nereth

Unfaegne Eorl, thonne his ellen deah

…Fate often spares

The Undoomed warrior, When his courage holds (my translation)

A purely logical academic might point out that, strictly speaking, this is nonsense. Of course fate spares the warrior who it spares, it is axiomatic. Why then, Tolkien might have responded, does Beowulf add the qualifier “When his courage holds?”. If it is necessary for his courage to hold, what happens to an undoomed man if his courage doesn’t? Conversely, what happens to a doomed man whose courage holds.

What emerges is a sense that an individual’s actions are important in determining, in some way, the outcome and our fate, but not completely. For a sense of how this plays out, let’s examine one of the more interesting discussions about Beowulf: Who is the better ruler, Hrothgar or Beowulf?

Both achieve their crown through martial prowess, both keep their people safe (the sacred duty of northern kings) until they are challenged by a terrible monster, Grendel for Hrothgar and the dragon for Beowulf. Both are vitally important to the peace of their kingdoms, the poet mentions that after Hrothgar dies the peace treaty falls apart and his people are destroyed and also that with the death of Beowulf, all the surrounding nations that had been cowering from the warrior all return to destroy Beowulf’s kingdom. But here is where they differ, Hrothgar calls for aid to deal Grendel, thus surviving and securing several more years of peace and prosperity for his people, while Beowulf fights the dragon himself and is killed, dooming his people.

Some point to this as evidence of Hrothgar knowing his limits, others point that it highlights the no-win situations many heroes are placed in. But if fate is predetermined, if the destruction of their people is inevitable, does it matter what their choices are? Many modern academics would argue that it doesn’t, and that was a prevailing view for many coming out of the Great Wars, but Tolkien believed that the poets would disagree, and that they were right to do so.

This leads into the third point, the looking back. I believe that Tolkien felt he was looking back to the ancient poets that we still have in the same way that they looked back on their predecessors. This is characterized by two things. First a lack of “chronological snobbery”, as C.S. Lewis described it, and second a certain puzzled confusion over things that did not make sense.

It is an interesting literary fact that ancient literature looks back quite fondly on history. Whereas the 20th Century is characterized by a disdainful neglect of the past as it rushed on toward utopia, the old poets look nostalgically back to a time when men were stronger, women wiser, and all things better. More will be said about this also next week, but it is important because it gives the past a voice. Modern skeptics, having rejected the past, had neither the context in which to put the horrors of the 20th Century nor the perspective to evaluate mankind as he stood among the rubble. This abbreviated vantage point allows views to swing wildly between man as a god building utopia to man as a demon, the agent of his own destruction.

The puzzled confusion will be apparent to those who have read much of the legends. Ancient authors ideas appear vague on some subjects or confused on others. Take the tale of Sigurd and Fafnir for instance. Sigurd refuses to tell Fafnir his name, lest he be cursed. Yet only a few stanzas later, Fafnir is apparently well read up on Sigurd and all his exploits, and no curse is forthcoming.

Yet, as a philologist, Tolkien also was able to pick out more subtle confusions. Take for instance, this excerpt of the list from the Dvergatal (Tally of the Dwarves) in the poem Voluspa.

“Orinn, Onarr, Oinn, Miothvitnir,

Vigr og Gandalfr, Vindalfr, Thorinn

Fili, Kili, Fundinn, Vali…”

On an initial reading, one’s eyes can quickly get bored and float over them, but as Thomas Shippey points out in Author of the Century, what is Gandalfr or Vindalfr doing on this list? They contain the element alf, meaning elf which is “a creature in all tradition quite distinct from a dwarf” (16). Tolkien apparently interpreted Gand as staff or wand, leading to a staff-elf, and it is not far from there to a wizard.  

There are countless other instances where we could walk through such oddities that gave rise to Tolkien’s creations, many of which are attempts to make sense of things like Gandalfr. But those shall be addressed another time, in another post. My point here is to try to give you a glimpse of what was working in Tolkien’s mind as he created.

It may seem like I’m leaving a lot of loose ends floating around, and I am, they will be pulled together soon, but hopefully a picture is starting to emerge. Next week we’ll look at how Tolkien’s faith allowed him to pull together and understand the contradictions between the moderns and the ancients.  Leave a comment (or comments) and let me know if I’m missing something you’re curious about and I’ll see about plugging it in.

Also coming up next week, I’ll hopefully be ready to introduce my project for NanoWrimo (hint, the main character is mentioned but not met in Dragon of Kveldmir). Thanks for reading, don’t forget to follow my blog, and have a wonderful weekend!


Here is the link to the Youtube Channel Overly Sarcastic  Productions, where I got the Beowulf summary. I think I found my new favorite channel.

First: Understanding Tolkien: The Three Pillars of His Influence

Previous: Understanding Tolkien: The Great Wars Part II

Next: Understanding Tolkien: Christianity