Norse Influences on J. R. R. Tolkien’s Tales

May 6, 2021 by Essay Writer

The Influence of Northern Mythology in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Narn i hin Hurin

J.R.R. Tolkien is an author known famously for his masterful craftsmanship of the Lord of the Rings trilogy and The Hobbit. The Norse influences on Tolkien’s writing cannot be denied; Norse elements are woven throughout most, if not all, of his works. Narn i hin Hurin, or “The Tale of the Children of Hurin”, is one of the most direct examples of Tolkien’s usage of Old Norse lore and is fraught with themes similar to those which are heavily emphasized in Viking sagas. Honor, shame, power, heroism, and tragedy are only a few of the numerous ideas that these tales and The Children of Hurin have in common. Along with Norse mythology, a Finnish epic poem finds a way into this novel through Turin’s death. Truly, if every trace of Norse and Finnish lore were removed from the text of The Children of Hurin, the tale would merely concern a foolish man with a knack for making poor decisions. Themes of sword lore, powerful helms, and death by suicide run deep within both Tolkien’s imagined mythology and Northern story telling, fundamentally shaping the dark and captivating nature of Tolkien’s most tragic tale ever published.

Helmets are often viewed as little more than a protective piece of armor that can be decorative or simple and functional. Tolkien takes the basic helmet and enhances it, creating the Helm of Hador. The concept of the Helm of Hador may be inspired by the “Helm of Awe”, which can be found within the Saga of the Volsungs (Clair 71). This helmet is most often referred to as a “Helm of Terror” and it is best represented with this ominous title. When Sigurd encounters Fafnir, the two hold a tense conversation, during which the topic of Fafnir’s Helm of Terror is brought to the surface. Fafnir boasts proudly of this helmet’s ability to bring about victory due to its magical ability to strike great fear into the hearts of those who set eyes upon the helm. Sigurd dares to contradict Fafnir, stating: “This Helm of Terror you speak of gives victory to few, because each man who finds himself in company with many others must at one time discover that no one is the boldest of all” (Volsung 64). Sigurd wisely acknowledges the fact that if the fear caused by this helm can only be overcome by the very bravest men, many weak-hearted men will flee in terror from the wearer’s side. Though Sigurd seems to think rather unfavorably of the helmet, after he defeats Fafnir, Sigurd does return to the serpent’s treasure hoard and, where he takes “from there the Helm of Terror” (Volsung 66). Tolkien’s version of the magical helmet, The Helm of Hador, which Turin inherits, defends the wearer from “wound or death” and deflects any weapon that comes into contact with it (Tolkien 78). Unlike the Helm of Terror, the Helm of Hador has a very specific description of its appearance: “That helm was made of grey steel adorned with gold, and on it were graven runes of victory…It had a visor…” (Tolkien 78). The helmet is described majestically and from the materials used to create the helmet it is apparent that this particular piece of armour was made for an especially great warrior. In the description of the Helm of Hador, Tolkien references “runes of victory”, a detail also mentioned in the Saga of the Volsungs. Brynhild teaches Sigurd about magic runes and in the poem she recites to him, she chants:

“Victory runes shall you know

If you want to secure wisdom

and cut them on the sword hilt,

on the center ridge of the blade…” (Volsung 68)

The tradition of carving victory runes on swords is transferred to the Helm of Hador, which has a grand reputation in battle. The Helm of Hador is visible across the battlefield, which is a beneficial trait that gives the wearer a great advantage, for it strikes “fear into the hearts of enemies”, just as the Helm of Terror does (Tolkein 78). Apart from these runes, the most prominent feature of the physical helmet is that “upon its crest was set in defiance a gilded image of Glaurung the dragon”, a symbol that foreshadows Turin’s eventual defeat of the dragon (Tolkien 78). Both the Saga of the Volsungs and The Children of Hurin prove that the importance placed upon of the Helm of Terror and the Helm of Hador lies not only within the traditional protective uses of armor, but also in their unusual, magical properties and history that is contained within each of these helmets. The Helm of Hador’s rich history, which is described in immense detail in The Children of Hurin, identifies the helmet an honored possession, and it is therefore the greatest heirloom that Turin owns. Likewise, the Helm of Terror embodies Sigurd’s victory over the serpent Fafnir, showing him to be a worthy opponent, brave ally, and dangerous foe.

One of the most common examples of valor and heroism in Tolkien’s works is the sword, a weapon that requires great strength to wield with precision and skill. Sigurd’s sword Gram in The Saga of the Volsungs bears many similarities to Turin’s sword Gurthang in The Children of Hurin. The most significant sword in Turin’s tale was first wielded by Beleg Cuthalion, an Elf of Doriath, the realm over which King Thingol presides. He requested it to aid him in his quest to find Turin, who had fled the realm after an incident for which he had believed there was no pardon. Beleg’s purpose was to go seek Turin and inform him that Thingol had forgiven him and that he was welcome once more within the city. The sword Beleg selected was created by Eol, the Dark Elf. Eol was the one who gave Anglachel to Thingol, who then allowed Beleg to take it. King Thingol’s wife, Melian, knew from the moment she set eyes on the sword that the blade was evil, stating frankly that “There is malice in this sword”. She goes on to say that the “heart of the smith dwells in it, and that heart was dark” (Tolkien 97). Melian is referencing Eol’s corrupt nature here, implying that the craftsman of the sword passes on a part of himself through the weapon he has created. It can easily be determined that “Eol’s counterpart may be Regin, the smith-tutor whose machinations set in motion the multiple curses and adventures” in The Saga of the Volsungs (Clair 71). Sigurd, son of Sigmund, goes to the Regin in search of a sword that has no equal, a sword strong enough to defeat the dragon Fafnir. Regin fails twice to make a sword that Sigurd approves of and finally Sigurd goes to his mother and asks her if his father, King Sigmund had given her “the sword Gram in two pieces”. She gives him the broken sword and Sigurd takes it to Regin to be reforged. With these shards, Regin “made a sword” that “seemed to the apprentices as if flames were leaping from its edges” (Volsung 60).

The description of flame-like edges on the reforged sword is used in The Children of Hurin, when the “sword Anglachel was forged anew” for Turin, the son of Hurin, after he mistakenly murders his friend Beleg Cuthalion. The incident came about when Beleg attempts to free Turin from the clutches of the servants of the Dark Lord Morgoth. Beleg “drew his sword Anglachel and with it he cut the fetters that bound Turin” but as the Elf Queen Melian predicted based upon the sword’s dark past, the blade betrayed Beleg and “slipped in his hand, and pricked Turin’s foot” (Tolkien 154). Turin had been drugged in his captivity and was delirious, so when he saw a shape “standing over him with a naked blade” he assumed that his captors had returned to torment him. Turin wrestled with Beleg and “seized Anglachel, and slew Beleg Cuthalion thinking him a foe” (Tolkien 154). After Beleg’s death, the elf who had been travelling with Beleg through the woods, Gwindor gives “the sword Anglachel into [Turin’s] hands” and thus the sword becomes Turin’s to bear. The blade has become dull and black after slaying its former master and Gwindor explains this by telling Turin that “It mourns for Beleg even as you do” (Tolkien 157). Turin and Gwindor travel to Nargothrond where Anglachel is reforged. Despite being remade, the blade remained black but “its edges shone with pale fire”. Turin then renames the sword “Gurthang” or “Iron of death” (Tolkien 160). Anglachel’s reforging is just like Gram’s reforging: the sword “takes on a new identity” (Clair 71). Anglachel, now called Gurthang, “partakes of the characteristics of heroic-literature swords” that carry a reputation of being unable to be sheathed “without first drinking blood” (Clair 71). The blood-thirsty nature of Gurthang drives Turin’s story forward, bringing Turin closer and closer to his fate.

Turin’s “doom” is a curse brought down upon his family by the Dark Lord Morgoth, who is similar to the modern concept of a fallen angel (an example of which would be Lucifer), because of his father Hurin’s defiance against Morgoth’s evil. Morgoth speaks this curse to Turin’s father hurin: “But upon all whom you love my thought shall weigh as a cloud of Doom, and it shall bring them down into darkness and despair. Wherever they go, evil shall arise. Whenever they speak, their words shall bring ill counsel. Whatsoever they do shall turn against them. They shall die without hope, cursing both life and death.” (Tolkien 64). This curse bodes very ill for Turin, who at the time is a young boy. His life from the time of the curse and onwards is now beset with misfortune and failure. Turin does not know that his family has been cursed, but when Gwindor says to him, “…rumor runs […] that [Hurin] still defies Morgoth; and Morgoth has laid a curse upon […] his kin.”, Turin says that he believes it, for his life has been filled with terrible incidents (Tolkien 158). The doom that lies over Turin is perceivable by may who know him, and a man named Brandir even speaks to Turin’s lover Nienel and tells her of his concerns surrounding the man: “…there lies a shadow on this man, and I am afraid.” (Tolkien 219). With Turin and Nienel’s hopeless suicides, Morgoth’s sinister curse is fulfilled. After Turin throws himself upon the blade of Gurthang, it fragments apart, perhaps signifying in a physical way the end of Morgoth’s curse. Throughout the second half of Turin’s tale, this sword proves to be a truly wicked object. Gurthang’s role in Turin’s death ties together a long series of events leading up to the demise of Hurin’s son.

There is a curse within the context of a Viking saga that is somewhat similar to the curse Morgoth placed upon Hurin’s family, though the motivations behind the curse are slightly different. Egil, in Egils saga Skalla-grimssonar, turns a curse upon the spirits of King Eirikr’s land, raising a hazelnut wood “pole of infamy” and shouting, “I turn this infamy against the spirits of the land, that inhabit this land, so that they all lose their way” until King Eirikir and Queen Gunnhild are driven from the land (Gallo 130). In both Tolkien’s work and in Viking lore, curses seem to hold a certain power over revenge and spite. Curses provide a driving force behind Viking stories to give the hero a challenge to overcome. In the case of the Children of Hurin, a curse is not simply an obstacle, it is prophetic and seems to dictate the fates of those who have been cursed.

Turin’s “doom” lies at the core of his misfortunes, producing his hubris and his rash nature. Turin’s downward spiral begins when he discovers that his wife Nienel is his long lost-sister, who forgets her former life as the daughter of Hurin when she is placed under a “spell of dumbness” by the serpent Glaurung (Tolkien 254). Nienel discovers the wrongness of her marriage first when the spell over her is broken and her memories return. At the same time, she believes her beloved husband and brother to be dead, slain by the dragon Glaurung. Broken hearted, Nienel casts herself from the edge of a cliff and into a river, effectively taking her own life. Turin proves to be quite alive, but his survival is discovered too late to save Nienel. When Turin hears of his wife’s demise he goes to the cliff where Nienel threw herself into the swift currents of the river below and follows her example; Turin commits suicide by throwing himself onto the blade of his sword and dies “without hope”, just as Morgoth’s curse dictated (Tolkien 254). Turin and Nienel’s tragic deaths directly mirror two suicides that occur within the Finnish epic poem titled Kalevala. Though not truly a “Viking” poem, one particular stanza bears critical similarities to the relationship between Turin and Nienel. The poem involves a man named Kullervo and the young maiden that he woos. One scholar puts these similarities into simple terms, summarizing what transpires within the tale: “Kullervo seduces a young maiden, they discover they are siblings. His sister kills herself first and ‘In great distress, Kullervo killed himself at the same place.” The scholar then elaborates: “the female was greatly distressed and[…] she drowned herself” (Pridmore, Ahmadi and Majeed 322). Kullervo’s fundamental character traits even resemble Turin’s in the sense that “Kullervo was a tragic individual”, a trait of Turin’s that is mentioned repeatedly throughout the novel (Pridmore, Ahmadi and Majeed 322). Kullervo’s suicide can be set side by side with Turin’s and very few differences can be found between the two. Turin’s blade speaks to him as he prepares to kill himself. Turin asks of the sword Gurthang, “Will you slay me swiftly?” and the sword replies, “Yes I will drink your blood, that I may forget the blood of Beleg my master, and the blood of Brandir slain unjustly”. The sword then agreeing to be Turin’s instrument of death, admitting: “I will slay you swiftly” (Tolkien 256). This phenomenon is rare, even in Tolkien lore, and is unheard of in Viking lore. This type of personification of a lethal object is very unique to Turin’s tale and seldom reused in Tolkien’s other narratives. However, Kullervo questions similarly to his blade as he prepares to die, asking “Tell me, O my blade of honor, dost thou wish to drink my life-blood, drink the blood of Kullerwoinen?” (Crawford 147). The sword replies in a manner akin to Gurthang, “Why should I not drink thy life-blood, blood of guilty Kullerwoinen, since I feast upon the worthy, drink the life-blood of the righteous?” (Crawford 147). The ability to compare The Children of Hurin to the Kalevala is not the only significant comparison that can be made between lore and Tolkien’s writing. The image of a cliff is commonly associated with suicide and this is no different in Viking Sagas.

The deaths of two members of the House of Hador, Turin and Nienel, occur on the edge of a cliff, which raises the idea that perhaps another connection can be made between Turin’s tale and Gautrek’s saga. Gautrek’s family has a strange tradition where members of the family would leap to their deaths from a “precipice called the Gillings Bluff” that is close to their home to “cut down the size of our family whenever something extraordinary happens” (Gautrek 27). “Something extraordinary” includes anything from a shortage of food to minor illness. The family uses the cliff to avoid misfortune and die without suffering. The cliff in The Children of Hurin is symbolic simply in the way it looks over the river where Turin slew the dragon Glaurung and where Nienel fell to her death; it could easily be said that the cliff represents the reduction of Hurin’s family. Turin is buried like a viking, being laid in a mound with his broken sword beside him. His body is left unchanged and runes are engraved upon a marker which reads, “Turin Turambar Dagnir Glaurunga” and below this inscription the carved the name “Nienor Nienel. Turin’s name is followed by one of his other names as well as a description of one of his most iconic deeds. The name of his sister Nienor who is also his wife, Nienel, is written under his in memory of her death (Tolkien 257). This is where the tale of The Children of Hurin ends, at the site of Turin’s grave.

J.R.R. Tolkien masterfully works Northern mythology into his work, using it to craft the themes surrounding the legend of Turin. Turin’s sword Gurthang, the weapon that should have embodied the definition of trustworthiness and loyalty, indeed proves to be a traitorous object with personified characteristics that spur the story on, providing yet another burden for Turin to carry. Indeed, Northern lore inspired most, of not all, of Turin’s woes through curses and dragons, hubris and helms, and dramatic scenarios worthy of the greatest Viking hero. The Saga of the Volsungs provides the model of an epic hero that inspires the character and nature of Turin, making him fierce, bold, and somewhat sinister in personality. The influence of the Kalevala shaped the arrival of Turin’s inescapable fate, inspiring Turin and Nienel’s grave acts of suicide. Gautrek’s saga brings forth an interesting perspective on the symbology of the cliff and how it corresponds with the loss of family by suicide, not only in Norse mythology, but in Tolkien’s work and modern culture. Tolkien’s manipulation and handling of the Saga of the Volsungs, the Kalevala, Gautrek’s saga, and Norse burial traditions brings to light the best aspects of Northern literature and culture. The Children of Hurin is, without a doubt, one of the gloomiest legends created for Tolkien’s world and observing the deep-running Northern roots that permeate the novel allows for a clearer, fuller, and more enjoyable appreciation for one of Tolkien’s most sorrowful tales.

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