Classical Sources of Inspiration in J.R.R Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and Other Epic FantasyMay 9, 2020
The epic fantasy genre is relatively new in a commercial sense. People didn’t start stringing together a bunch of bid, elf-like characters until Tolkien did it in the 60s. Of course, after that monumental event in the publishing industry, no can make these guys and gals stop.
The fantasy genre, that over bloated, multi-volume epic copycat forum for those with incredible imaginations and way too many books on their book shelves, is running strong, much as it has for the last 45 years. The books that these authors churn out may or may not be worth reading, but they surely don’t skimp on the details and the research.
Many people might find it easiest to point to Tolkien and his work and say that everyone with a dragon or a medieval setting is stealing from Middle earth, but to be fair Tolkien did a little literary pick pocketing of his own when he wrote his epic. From the book, the person will come to know that Middle-Earth is roughly the size of Europe. Through the information, the covering of the journey will be accessible for the person.
The fantasy genre goes back thousands of years to the earliest epics and longest stories of contemporary literature. And as more and more people these days try to find ways around the trap of writing yet another Tolkien clone, other classical sources are tapped open and delved into.
The Lord of the Rings may be the poster child of all things sword and sorcery, but if you take a good hard look at the literature of the ages, you’ll find that there are numerous influences that not only J.R.R Tolkien borrowed liberally from but every Terry Brooks and Robert Jordan out there as well.
These are some of the most influential pre-medieval pieces of literature out there that helped to form the genre we all know today as epic fantasy.
The Kalevala is the national epic of Finland and according to J.R.R Tolkien an ample provider of inspiration for his novels. Elias Lonnrot compiled the poetry in the 19th century from the oral tradition of Finland and the hundreds of thousands of lines of verse that existed in different villages and households throughout the countryside. Lonnrot is given credit for the compilation because he essentially recorded all of these bits and pieces and put it together into an epic.
The Kalevala itself is the epic tale of creation and destruction and the quest of Vainamoinen and a cast of other characters to retrieve the Sampo, or magical mill, the magical device that brought good fortune to whomever held it. The violent, shamanistic quest of the Kalevala has often been quoted when discussing Tolkien’s world and how he built it. The elvish language, written by Tolkien for his novels, is said to be based partially upon the Finnish in which the poem was originally recorded.
This is a slightly more obvious addition to the epic tradition. The myths of old as collected by Hesiod and relayed in the Homeric Hymns, later put into a more grand poetic tradition by Ovid, and of course carried in the epics of Homer, The Iliad and The Odyssey. Most western literature, regardless of how fantastic or epic it is owes its roots to these original works of literature.
There is a reason they are known only as the classics. The monsters, gods, and titans as described by poets of the time are the basis for many of the fantastic creatures found in modern fantasy. The themes of these stories are timeless, showing up again and again in similar works and in modern fantasy epics. Without mythology, it is likely there would be no fantasy.
Beowulf, the first written literature in the English language, first recorded in the Old English in the middle of the 8th or 9th centuries, it is known for its length, especially compared to other old English poems.
The story of the poem itself pits Beowulf, the hero of the Geats, a Germanic Tribe in Sweden travels to Denmark to defeat Grendel, a mysterious beast terrorizing the people. After Grendel, he is forced to defeat Grendel’s mother. When he returns from his triumphs he becomes king of the Geats and later in his life must battle one last foe, the Dragon, which ultimately kills him.
The origins of the story, while always debated, are believed to be Norse, and the concepts largely Germanic, but the tale has endured as the first lasting piece of English literature and rightfully affected those who write epics now. The story’s tale of heroism and revenge, power, and ultimately defeat are common themes alongside the characters and creatures that make up the cast.
Arthurian Legend, as recorded by the likes of Chretien d’Troyes and Jean Bodel, and anonymously in tales such as Gawain and the Green Knight is a classic source of inspiration in film, literature, and music, a series of English language (ironically, first recorded in French) legends of chivalry, magic, and divine providence.
The results are a coda of sorts for the modern fantasy epic, especially those that take place in similar medieval settings with high courts and knights. The ephemeral image that most take with them of Arthur and his court is of a grand tradition of powerful knights on a grand quest to recover the grail or defeat dark forces.
The allegory beneath many of these stories, both religious and political is not lost on modern writers either, many epic fantasies taking the concepts and reutilizing them in their own way metaphorically.
The Bible as the most widely read piece of literature in the world has likely had a profound effect on many writers, but the stories within are just as important beyond their religious roots.
The stories, especially in the old testament of Moses, Abraham, and others have been reworked, reworded, and reimagined countless times in modern literature. Along with that, the myths and pagan stories that sprout from many of the origin stories in the bible, as well as the conceptualized messiah figure as shown in many modern epics.
The fantasy work of C.S. Lewis is imbued entirely throughout with Christian allegory, Aslan nothing more than a direct interpretation of Christ. The impact of the Western world’s largest religion of course resonates throughout its literature.
The Divine Comedy
Dante’s massive, three volume trip through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven has also been of major importance in the development of fantasy literature. The approach of religious concepts from a fictional standpoint was for a long time in the history of literature, a touchy area.
Writers like Dante showed how to do it and do it well. Now it’s almost impossible to find a fantasy epic without religious or magically related roots that take on these themes.
Tolkien famously rejected that his work was in any way a derivative of this famous Icelandic Epic. That Icelandic Epic was reworked into the medieval German epic, Nibelungenlied, later translated into Wagner’s Ring Cycle, with the obvious comparisons available to be made.
Many of the motifs of modern fantasy derive from the Norse and German mythologies, both represented in these epics, with the dragon slayer, Siegfried. Tracing any one epic to another is always a risky business, but for those that have seen or read the Ring Cycle, the influences are clear.