As famous as the father of modern fantasy is, few people know where the inspiration for “Lord of The Rings” and “The Hobbit” came from.

A hobbit hole: immediately recognizable and associated with Tolkien's work.
A hobbit hole: immediately recognizable and associated with Tolkien’s work.
Picture by Jeff Finley from Unsplash

J. R. R. Tolkien is considered one of the fathers of modern fantasy. The classic fantasy tropes of knights, wizards, and dragons are the direct result of his work. While other authors such as his friend C. S. Lewis were crafting similarly fantastic worlds, the world of Tolkien is credited as the archetypal works of classic high fantasy. But as well known as Tolkien is, far fewer people are aware of the places where he took his inspiration from.

Who Was Tolkein?

Tolkien's house in Warwickshire.
Tolkien’s house in Warwickshire.
Picture by Dorian Le Sénéchal

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born in South Africa in 1892, later moving to Warwickshire in England. His father died when he was 4 years old, his mother when he was 12, leaving him and his brother in the care of a Catholic priest. Despite these losses, Tolkien himself described his childhood in Warwickshire as an overall happy one. He later went on to marry his childhood sweetheart, in spite of the fact that his legal guardian forbade their romance.

He went on to study Classics at Oxford, though he later found a greater passion for English Literature. Despite doing well in school, Tolkien developed a keen interest in other languages and would often spend large amounts of time studying them. Shortly after finishing his degree in 1916, he enlisted in the British Army and served on the Western Front; going on to fight in The Battle of The Somme. Tolkien wrote the first draft of the “Silmarillion” In the trenches of WW1. This book is less of a story than a general outline of the history and inner workings of a separate universe. As dense as it was, the “Silmarillion” was the text that established the world of Middle Earth, which the “Lord of The Rings” and “Hobbit” books are set in.

By 1918, all but one of my close friends were dead.

J. R. R. Tolkien, recounting his time during WWI. Biography

Another important aspect of Tolkien’s life that he cited as an influence on his work was his religious beliefs. Likely due to being raised by a Catholic priest, Tolkien was a devout Catholic in life. Many of the themes of his work echo this, such as the seduction of the One Ring and the triumph of characters with notably Christian morals over evil. However, unlike his contemporary and friend C.S. Lewis, Tolkien was opposed to direct allegories and does not have any distinctive Christ-figure in either “The Lord of The Rings” or “The Hobbit”.

Mythology

Ancient wood carving of a Norse dwarf.
Ancient wood carving of a Norse dwarf.
Photo by Kristijan Arsov

As mentioned, Tolkien studied both classics and language while at university. When he later became a professor at Oxford, he published several papers on medieval literature such as “Beowolf” and “Sir Gawain and The Green Knight.” Both of these stories, as well as many others he wrote about, are often used by scholars to learn about the beliefs and traditions of Pre-Christian Europe. In “Beowolf,” aspects such as a dragon hoarding treasure and Beowulf’s epic funeral are common in ancient Norse mythology.

Tolkien himself confirmed that Smaug, the dragon from “The Hobbit,” was directly inspired by the Norse dragon Fafnir. In fact, the concept of elves and dwarves that we have today, largely thanks to Tolkien, comes from descriptions in the Voluspa poem from the Codex Regius. This is considered the most important piece of Norse literature, both for understanding their mythology and for the translation of their language. It is still used as one of the main books used to do so, in fact, and is certainly a text Tolkien would have used. The names of most of Tolkien’s dwarves, both from “Lord of The Rings” and “The Hobbit,” are present in the Voluspa poem.

In the case of “Lord of the Rings” specifically, there is a connection to the Volsunga Saga in which a magic ring is the source of all evil in the world. In writing “Lord of the Rings,” Tolkien said that he wanted his work to contribute to the wider canon of English folklore. Knowing this, and his love of literature, it makes sense that so many of Tolkien’s ideas would come from ancient stories like these.

Linguistics

A fountain pen writing cursive.
A fountain pen writing cursive.
Picture by Aaron Burden

As mentioned, Tolkien had a deep passion for new languages. He even is credited with creating several of his own. The most well known of these is his Elvish speech, which was featured in “The Lord of The Rings” movies. In truth, this is only one of several dialects in a family of Elvish languages he wrote over many years.

The dwarves and hobbits also originally had their own separate languages, but these are not as well-known due to not being portrayed in the movies. They are portrayed in the “Silmarillion” in great detail. Even with all of these detailed languages, Tolkien’s Elvish is by far the most complex. In fact, Elvish is regarded as a full-fledged speakable language.

By his own admission, Tolkien wrote the “Silmarillion” as a way to give context to the Elvish language he was developing. Creating a world in which his languages could be spoken led to creating cultures that migrated and split off from one another, and led to writing histories for those people and nations. This is how Tolkien built the entire world of Middle-Earth.

A pile of books by famous fantasy authors, with LoTR as the foundation.
A pile of books by famous fantasy authors, with LoTR as the foundation.
Picture by Annie Spratt

Tolkien is the father of high fantasy. The world he created has inspired countless other authors and directors over the years. But maybe he has influenced them too much. A common criticism of fantasy is that it deviates too little from the world of Middle-Earth, so much so that literary agents who publish fantasy works make a point of discouraging too much similarity. This includes asking for non-European-based settings in fantasy as well as “fresh takes” on fantasy world-building. When Tolkien sat down to write, the ideas he was presenting were fresh takes in his time. By looking at how he developed his world and ideas, the next great fantasy writers can do the same for a new age of readers.