On the anniversary of J.R.R. Tolkien’s birth, we look at some of his primary influences.
On Jan. 3, 1892, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born. Forty-five years later, he published The Hobbit, the first of his books set in Middle Earth and the precursor to his The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Along the way, as a child and young adult, J.R.R. Tolkien gathered a collection of influences – stories and authors and mythological traditions that helped him envision his richly detailed world of hobbits and elves, orcs and ents. On the anniversary of Tolkien’s birth, we look at some of his primary influences.
Most obvious to many critics and readers is Richard Wagner (1813 – 1883) and his operatic cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung). Centering on a magical but cursed gold ring that grants the power to rule the world, the operas follow the exploits and conflicts of gods, humans, heroes and mythical creatures as they battle for ownership of the ring and the power that comes with it. Sound familiar? Tolkien himself dismissed claims that he based his story on Wagner’s: “Both rings were round, and there the resemblance ceases.” Critics argue back and forth about the degree of importance of the Ring cycle to The Lord of the Rings, but one thing they generally all agree on is that both Tolkien and Wagner were heavily influenced by Northern European mythology. Wagner appears to have been the first to have combined the mythic elements of a golden ring and an object conferring power over the world into the power-rich ring itself, and Tolkien certainly wrote about a similar ring. But his epic stands on its own as a companion to Wagner’s Ring, not in its shadow.
Tolkien may have denied his work’s similarity to Wagner’s, but he didn’t completely deny the fact that he had influences. William Morris (1834 – 1896) was an author he strove to emulate, and he happily admitted it. Morris was a textile designer, artist, translator and writer. Like Wagner, Morris drew inspiration from Norse and Germanic tradition, publishing translations and retellings of Icelandic sagas. His prose romances were what Tolkien most admired and wished to recreate in his own work. Rather than love stories in the current sense of the word, these romances were fantasy novels that, like The Lord of the Rings, were set in a wholly-invented world. They were written as attempts to imitate medieval romance, the chivalric tales of knights and quests and adventures. Morris in turn passed these themes along to Tolkien and others – he was also a noted influence on C.S. Lewis and James Joyce.
H. Rider Haggard’s (1856 – 1925) adventure novels excited the young Tolkien – especially She, the story of a lost African kingdom ruled by a mysterious, immortal white queen. Around the turn of the 20th century, the idea of societies cut off from the modern world, full of rich and strange occupants and just waiting to be discovered, was wildly popular with young readers – and more than a few adult ones, too. Real-life adventurers were exploring the deep jungles of Africa and rainforests of South America, stumbling upon ruins that hinted at marvelous kingdoms and tantalized the imaginations of writers like Haggard. Best known for his King Solomon’s Mines and its sequel Allan Quartermain, Haggard was a pioneer in the Lost World genre of fantasy. Though Tolkien’s fantasy world was entirely separate from the real world, rather than the worlds-within-our-world Haggard created, he took elements of Haggard’s work and reshaped them for his own. And Tolkien wasn’t the only one influenced by Haggard – his Allan Quartermain, hunter and man of adventure, was an inspiration for the character of Indiana Jones, and was portrayed by Richard Chamberlain in 1987’s Allan Quatermain and the Lost City of Gold and by Sean Connery in 2003’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.
Edward Wyke-Smith (1871 – 1935) was a children’s author whose most notable and influential book was The Marvellous Land of Snergs. Tolkien read the book to his children, and both he and the kids were charmed by the snergs, a race of short, stocky people. With their familiar physique and names like Gorbo, there’s little doubt that the snergs were in Tolkien’s mind when he created hobbits. And he made no secret of his admiration for the book, stating, “I should like to record my own love and my children’s love of E. A. Wyke-Smith’s Marvellous Land of Snergs, at any rate of the snerg-element of that tale, and of Gorbo the gem of dunderheads, jewel of a companion in an escapade.” Wyke himself may have drawn inspiration from Peter Pan and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, children’s fantasies with many similar elements.
Another influence Tolkien freely admitted was Samuel Rutherford Crockett (1859 – 1914) and his novel The Black Douglas. For about ten years at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th, Crockett churned out at least a book a year, all of them Scottish historical novels. The Black Douglas was his 1899 take on the 15th-century fall of the House of Douglas. It was a book Tolkien loved as a boy, and its villain, Gilles de Rais, helped inform the creation of Tolkien’s Sauron. A real-life French knight, de Rais was a convicted murderer of dozens of children and may have been the inspiration for the fairy tale Bluebeard. Sauron’s story is clearly quite different from de Rais’ – an immortal necromancer, Sauron forged the One Ring and ruled Mordor – but Crockett’s depiction of de Rais’ ruthless evil played a part in Sauron’s creation.
Then there are the unknown authors who helped forge The Lord of the Rings – those writers lost to antiquity who created the Anglo-Saxon epic poem Beowulf, the Norse sagas of the Volsunga and the Hervarar, the legends of King Arthur and his knights. And the influences on The Lord of the Rings go far beyond literature – from Tolkien’s Roman Catholic faith to the mythology of Northern Europe, from his experiences fighting in World War I to his work in philology (the study of the historical development of languages).
Tolkien returned the favor by influencing countless minds who came after him. Elements of The Lord of the Rings can be seen in a huge variety of fantasy and science fiction writing, in George Lucas’ Star Wars movies, in the game Dungeons and Dragons and in any number of fantasy-quest video games, in the music of Rush and Enya and Led Zeppelin. We can watch visually-stunning film adaptations and parodies alike. Though J.R.R. Tolkien died on September 2, 1973, he’ll continue passing his influences on to new generations.
Originally published January 2011