Tolkien and the Viking Heritage
By Sophie Hinger
Master’s Thesis, University of Vienna, 2014
Abstract: This thesis analyses different aspects of Vikings culture and their influence on The Lord of the Rings the books and films. The first part argues that Tolkien was deeply inspired by Norse Mythology in terms of characters and storyline. Parallels are drawn between the poetry and legend of the Vikings and the poems in The Lord of the Rings, and between the oral tradition of the Vikings and that of the Rohirrim. The second part compares historical aspects, such as historical events, languages and runes, of the Vikings to those of cultures in The Lord of the Rings, especially to the culture of the Rohirrim. The third part analyses the social system of the Vikings and compares it to societies in The Lord of the Rings, especially regarding the role of women and the Moot. The fourth part deals with Viking archaeological findings and their reflection in The Lord of the Rings. The burial customs, housing and weaponry of the Vikings are compared to those of the Rohirrim. Special attention is given to the sets and costumes of the film adaptation.
It is concluded that Tolkien and Jackson succeeded in creating a plausible and believable fantasy world by taking inspiration from real cultures. The subtle references to the Vikings and other Germanic tribes evoke an image of a northern society. The Rohirrim are not Vikings or Anglo-Saxons, but a new race that is distinguished from other societies in Middle-earth because of their northern feature.
Introduction: The Oxford Companion to English Literature calls J.R.R Tolkien “the greatest influence within the fantasy genre”. His The Lord of the Rings can be seen as the first epic fantasy novel and the foundation stone for modern fantasy literature. Many fantasy novels followed it, but The Lord of the Rings still is unique and differs from its successors. The reason for its uniqueness is Tolkien’s wish to create a mythology rather than a fantasy. He wanted to write a mythology for England and therefore created Middle-earth as a mythological version of Europe rather than creating a new and separate world as many fantasy authors after him did. For this reason he had to create a world as realistic as possible and similar to cultures that had a rich mythological tradition.
Two cultures which fulfil these requirements are the cultures of the Anglo-Saxons and the Vikings, both being Germanic peoples. The Anglo-Saxons are an important part of English history, while Viking culture has widely influenced Northern European culture and history. Norse mythology is still fascinating for many people today. Much has already been written about the influence of Norse mythology on The Lord of the Rings. Less research has so far been done about how other aspects of the culture and history of the Vikings and Anglo-Saxons influenced Tolkien’s writing. This thesis will take a step in that direction. The Germanic influence is most prominent in the depiction of the people of Rohan. So far some scholars have compared them to ‘Anglo Saxons on horseback’. There are, however, several similarities between the Rohirrim and the Vikings that support the assumption that Viking culture also played a role in the creation of the people of Rohan. These similarities can, for example, be found in burial customs, the representation of women and historical events. The Germanic, and especially Viking, influence on The Lord of the Rings is, however, not only restricted to the people of Rohan. It can also be seen in the general treatment of mythology and poetry and in parallels between some characters in Norse sagas and The Lord of the Rings, as for example Odin and Gandalf.