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Tolkien’s Cauldron: Northern Literature and The Lord of the Rings

Tolkien’s Cauldron: Northern Literature and The Lord of the Rings

By Gloriana St. Clair

Carnegie Mellon University, 2000

Abstract: Tolkien’s Cauldron studies the sources of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien was a scholar of Old Norse literature and much of his work in the Lord of the Rings is informed by his knowledge of old Norse mythology, Eddic poetry, and saga. Tolkien’s use of these sources enriched this complex story of Middle-earth.

Introduction: The early reviews and criticisms of The Lord of the Rings  make a persistent and provocative suggestion that in some way the essence of his work derives from the world of the sagaman — Norse mythology, folklore, and literature. In a review in the New Statesman and the Nation, Francis Huxley notes Tolkien’s familiarity with epic saga and suggests that the outline was based in saga. In the Spectator, Elizabeth Leigh Pemberton calls The Lord of the Rings “the heroic saga of the imaginary world of Middle ‘Earth [sic]…” The Times Literary Supplement reviewer also used the term “saga” in describing Tolkien’s work. Robert J. Reilly notes borrowings from Anglo-Saxon, Celtic, and Norse; Thomas J. Gasque acknowledges that Tolkien was steeped in Northern mythology; William Ready focuses on courage as a key element of Norse myth; and Patricia Spacks comments on the darker view of Northern mythology in Tolkien’s work.

Most of these studies focus on Norse mythology rather than on Icelandic literature, and most allude to influences instead of exploring the technical details of such influences. This book discusses the observations and references to Norse mythology made by this and other writers about Tolkien. However, the purpose of this book is to go beyond the mythology to explore the Icelandic sagas and their contributions to Tolkien’s background in story and characterization, to his technique and style in composing tales about Middle-earth, and to his choice of themes, values, and motifs.

Colleagues and critics often pose three puzzles for Tolkien scholars. First, the colleagues want to know why so many millions of readers bought, read, and discussed The Lord of the Rings in the 1960s and subsequently. This book does not answer that question. Literary scholars interested in social commentary and observers of popular culture must assess the popularity of The Lord of the Rings to a wide audience in that decade of American life. J.R.R. Tolkien: This Far Land edited by Robert Giddings contains several articles on the social influence, but since most of the critics writing for the volume do not like or admire Tolkien, their commentaries are biased and their conclusions tainted. No satisfactory explanation of this phenomenon has yet been produced.

Click here to read this online book from Carnegie Mellon University

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