A Time Before Arda: Tolkien’s Inspiration from Christianity and Norse Mythos

lotr
Credit: The CGP Grey

Growing up watching the LOTR Trilogy, there was a handful of references to the spiritual realm of Middle-Earth. Two scenes that come to mind take place in the Mines of Moria when Gandalf tells Frodo, “There are other forces at work in this world…besides that of evil. Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, in which case you were also meant to have it. And that is an encouraging thought.” Later on, when having a stand-off with the Balrog of Morgoth, Gandalf says, “I am the servant of the Secret Fire, wielder of the Flame of Anor.” As a child and even as a young adult, I had no idea how much depth these words had. Foolish was the mind of my former, younger self. Having now read just the first two openings of The Silmarillion, much of it makes sense now, from the Secret Fire to Morgoth himself, aka Melkor, but we’ll get to that later.

As one notices when opening The Silmarillion, the first two sections prior to the first chapter are titled Ainulindalë and Valaquenta. These two sections surround Illúvatar and his creation of the Ainur and of the world, the fall of Melkor, and much more.

Aindulindalë: Biblical Inspiration

As previously mentioned, I generally knew of the spiritual realm of Middle-Earth. That being said, I did not expect to be this detailed. Granted, it is Tolkien, so I should have seen it coming. Being of the Christian, I became greatly interested in the opening of the book. Knowing that J.R.R. Tolkien was heavily influenced by The Bible and theology itself, this was absolutely incredible to read. At first, I was surprised to see certain parallels – Illuvatar creating the heavens and earth like God, Melkor’s rebellion being similar to Lucifer’s, and so on. At first, I was confused, knowing Tolkien was not a fan of allegory, because that is how it came off to me honestly. However, the more I read into it, the more the allegory drifted away. I had a talk with my friend Matthew about Tolkien this past week regarding his Biblical inspiration and he gave some very powerful insight on what he was going for. Matt, this ones for you.

“Tolkien, as a Christian, held very close to his heart the teaching that we’re all made in God’s image. Obviously, this isn’t meant in a physical sense, because God isn’t a corporeal or material being. In the spiritual sense, God’s “imageness” in us is reflected particularly in our desire to love and to be loved, in community with others, and to create. Tolkien deduced that our gift of creativity is a direct reflection of our likeness to God, and is therefore good and holy. He called this idea – the ability of created beings to be creative – subcreatorship. So he made a cosmogonic myth resulting in a community of creative beings. The Ainur are subcreators, aiding in and embellishing upon the greater creation of Eru Illuvatar. Both of those ideas were perfectly embodied in the form of the Great Music. The Ainur had the means to express their creativity in harmony with others, under the greater purpose of Eru Illuvatar.”

The Pride of Melkor & The Pride of Man

One of the areas I have been focusing on theology wise is why life is full of grief, war, and death between people, the very people created in the image of God. In my talks with my Pastor and others, the very root of humanity’s rebellion and betrayal of one another is directly related to Pride, the pride of not having enough, of wanting to be the best, of wanting to be in control at any cost or stake, and so on. Anyone can generally notice the reoccurring theme of pride in history. Assassinations, dictatorship governments, global conflict, civil wars, and so on. My favorite section of history that focuses on pride being the spark of war and chaos is the very war Tolkien himself fought it: The Great War. Unlike World War II that was clearly black and white, The Great War was heavily grey, as various European powers wanted to prove who was the better empire. The very core of the war was pride on multiple sides. The British feared German competition and its dominance over mainland Europe, Germany wanted to be greater in size and influence as a colonial empire, the list goes on. If you really want to know just how power hungry the German Kaiser was, check out this Youtube video here by RealLifeLore. It is definitely worth it.

Reconnecting with The Silmarillion and theology, pride has been the essence of history, Christian history, and is the essence of Melkor’s rebellion. As stated by Tolkien,

“But as [Illúvatar’s] theme progressed, it came into the heart of Melkor to interweave matters of his own imagining that were not accord with the theme of Illúvatar; for he sought therein to increase the power and glory of the part assigned to himself… for desire grew hot within him to bring into Being of his own…”

Similar to Lucifer himself, Melkor “among the Ainur had been given the greatest gifts of power and knowledge,” in other words, he was the best of the best. Yet, it was never enough for him, as he craved to have created beings of his own image and likeness. This is where Balrogs (Demons), Trolls, and Dragons, and eventually Orcs come into play in Middle-Earth. All of what Melkor is can be summed up by C.S. Lewis himself.

“Now what you want to get clear is that Pride is essentially competitive – is competitive by its very nature – while the other vices are competitive only, so to speak, by accident. Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man.”

There was always something about villains that captivated my mind growing up. It was not so much the evil itself as more of how it corrupted giants of history, mythology, and fictional worlds. Pride has encircled a large amount of the characters and figures, the idea of wanting so much to where they are worshipped and adored like a god. It is dark and in some cases, horrific, and that is what makes it intriguing. More to definitely come on the topic of pride as this blog continues!

Valaquenta: The gods of Middle-Earth & Norse Mythology

The irony of being a history buff is that I never have thoroughly delved into Scandinavian history or Norse Mythology. Unlike Rome, The Dark Ages, and The Napoleonic Wars, Scandinavian history had never piqued my interest until recently. As I began thoroughly researching Tolkien’s inspirations for his literature, I began to see just how much Norse Mythology and history inspired his works.

According to Culture Trip, Tolkien was, was had heavy influence from Norse mythology along with The Prose Edda, the Icelandic poetry of the Third Century. Tolkien “had been a reader of the Icelandic sagas since childhood. In the Völsunga saga – the text that also inspired Richard Wagner’s opera, Der Ring des Nibelungen –an all-powerful ring and a broken sword that is reforged are both main features of the story, similar key elements in Tolkien’s novels.”  The more that I read into Norse Mythology, the more I saw where Tolkien gained his inspiration from, regarding the Ainur, Valar, Valier, and Maiar. Multiple gods having multiple purposes in creating and crafting parts of the world. Matthew again touched on this particular subject, considering it is one of his favorite parts of the novel.

“The Ainur, as subcreators, are the equivalents in Christianity to the angels, but given their power and impressive nature, parallels can also be drawn to other mythological deities. This is such a unique sort of mythology because as a result (although this was unintentional) it pays homage to the mythologies of both monotheistic and polytheistic cultures. But considering his intent, it’s most accurate to say it’s monotheistic, while the angelic beings also have creative powers.” 

In relation to Norse Mythology, it was interesting to research how Gandalf was inspired by the Norse God Odin, who spread wisdom and truth as The Great Wizard himself did. The irony about Gandalf being heavily influenced by Odin is that many I knew in the Church saw him as more of a Christ-like figure. Being of wisdom, heavily powerful to stand up against demons, sacrificing himself, returning from the dead more powerful, and so on. To be honest, I did see applications of Christ within him, but never did I see him as an allegory to Christ. In fact, many of The Fellowship characters have some bearing moments of Christ. However, not one character single-handedly represents Him or anyone for that matter. And that is because of Tolkien’s disregard for allegory.

Symbolism and Allegory: The Difference

While I am one to be rather fond of allegories, Tolkien – as said earlier – was not. As stated in the Preface of The Silmarillion, which I recommend reading, he stated that he “cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations,” and that he had always done so as he grew older. “I much prefer history,” he says, “with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse applicability with allegory, but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.” In many ways, Tolkien is right, however, before we get into that, let us go over one thing. While Tolkien was against allegory, he was not against symbolism.

The two honestly are very similar to the other in regards to representing something or someone, but with one major difference. Symbolism or a symbol is an object that stands for a separate object, thereby giving it a particular meaning. Allegory is a narrative that involves particular characters, settings, or events that stand for a specific idea or event.

“There is nothing ‘mystical’ or mysterious about medieval allegory; the poets know quite clearly what they are about and are well aware that the figures which they present to us are fictions. Symbolism is a mode of thought, but allegory is a mode of expression. It belongs to the form of poetry, more than to its content, and it is learned from the practice of the ancients.”

In C.S. Lewis’ series The Chronicles of Narnia, both allegory and symbolism area deeply woven in his characters and settings. Aslan representing Christ’s death and resurrection, Edmond representing Judas, and so on. I thoroughly enjoyed reading The Chronicles of Narnia growing up, and while Tolkien had some strong points on allegory limiting the author’s power, Lewis used it to his advantage to create a whole new world of mythological characters and wonders. More on that for another time, since I don’t want to become too side-tracked.

One thing that both Tolkien and Lewis had in common with their writings and world building was that they were not trying pushing for a religious message or grand moral lesson through allegory or symbolism. When it comes to writers who are Christian or religious, there is this idea that their stories must have some type of religious message towards the end, something for the audiences to take away from. For Tolkien and Lewis, that point really is not brought up. What they primarily focus on is telling of a good story for their readers to enjoy over and over. This is called instrumentalism, which is a pragmatic philosophical approach which regards an activity chiefly as an instrument or tool for some practical purpose, rather than in more absolute or ideal terms. Of course, anyone can learn from these books in their ways, religious or not, but never is their a religious propaganda message or an “us vs. them” mentality, hence why allegory is not the main focus or use. Tolkien said that “‘The Lord of the Rings’ is fundamentally religious and Catholic work, unconsciously so in the making, and consciously in the revision.” In other words, the primary focus was constructing the story while adding in elements of his faith. In many ways, Christian writers can heavily learn from both Lewis and Tolkien of how to apply ones’ belief into a story without it or allegory driving the story as a whole. Donal T. Williams said it best when discussing and comparing Tolkien and Lewis’ writings to Christian writings of today.

“…if evangelism must be the primary purpose of everything we write, then a lot of God’s character will remain unreflected – which will, ironically, not help the cause of evangelism.” – Donald T. Williams, Ph.D, Inklings of Reality

So comes the end of the first of many reflections on Tolkien’s literary work. For just the opening of The Silmarillion – not even the first official chapters – this definitely was a lot to read, digest, analyze, and research. I’ll be honest, I read both Aindulindalë and Valaquenta multiple times to get a thorough understanding of it all. I doubt this will be the only time it happens. ‘Til next time!

2 thoughts on “A Time Before Arda: Tolkien’s Inspiration from Christianity and Norse Mythos

  1. I love this! Being both a Christian and a huge fan of Tolkien and Lewis (on both the page and the screen), I really appreciate the depth you’ve brought into this article. I’ve thought about some of these things quite often and have read various snippets of some of these ideas, but you brought it all together very nicely.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you very much, Michael! Glad you enjoyed it! I read the opening of The Silmarillion over and over again, and honestly couldn’t get enough of it. It was just absolutely fascinating! You may find the next week’s blogpost very interesting, regarding depth and Christianity. Stick around! Thanks again!

      Like

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