Monday, November 21, 2011

A Little Known Fact About Tolkien's Dwarves

Yesterday I stumbled across a little known fact about Dwarves. I say little known, when in fact it may be widely known. But it was news to me.

This month I started reading J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit to my daughter, and we’re still at the scene where Thorin Oakenshield and all his Dwarves are invading Bilbo’s hobbit hole. I’ve also been continuing my research on Vikings for my next novel. Well, lo and behold, while studying a book called The Norse Myths, I came across a group of Dwarves that sounded very much like Tolkien’s.

Specifically, in the tale of Loki’s Children, the Norse gods get the Dwarves to make a chain to bind the monstrous wolf Fenrir. And among those chain-making Dwarves were Bifur, Bafur, Bombor and Nori. This sounds a lot like four of the Dwarves in Thorin’s party: Bifur, Bofur, Bombur and Nori. I suspect this is not a coincidence. 

Where did these Dwarves come from?
Tolkien was a professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford and studied many Old English poems, including Beowulf, which has its origins in Norse myth. Also, the Norse gods and their myths are derived from more ancient Saxon and Germanic mythology. For example, the Norse god Odin probably has his origins in the Saxon and Germanic war god, Woden. Tolkien undoubtedly modeled the Dwarves and Elves of Middle Earth after those found in actual myths. Indeed, “Middle Earth” is likely a play on “Midgard,” the middle world of men in Norse and Germanic Mythology. 

Incidentally, some of the other Dwarves I stumbled across in The Norse Myths include Durin, Dain, Dvalin (Dwalin), Nain, and Nar. All of these Dwarves are mentioned somewhere in Tolkien’s mythology, including The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien took actual mythology and used it to build his own world – one that is much more memorable to today’s readers. 

Now, I’ve found no evidence that Snow White’s Dwarves are derived from Norse Mythology. But if I find reference to a Grumpy or a Sneezy while finishing my research, I’ll let you know.

This picture of Odin the Wanderer looks a lot like Gandalf the Grey.


BJB said...

Tolkein's reference to actual dwarves from Norse mythology is proof that The Lord of the Rings Trilogy is actually historical fiction, not mere fantasy. Separately, is The Official Daughter of Fresh Scraped Vellum really ready for and interested in a story as rich and complex as this one?

Joseph Finley said...

I like the idea of Tolkien as historical fiction! Although I'm sure archeologists might disagree. As for the Official Daughter of Fresh-scraped Vellum, we've already read a bunch of C.S. Lewis (including The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe; Prince Caspian; and The Voyage of the Dawn Trader), so I figured the Hobbit was the next logical step. We'll see how it goes ...