Norse Myths, Tolkien, and Fantasy Worldbuilding

Cover of "The Norse Myths (Pantheon Fairy...
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It’s no secret that J. R. R. Tolkien was very familiar with Northern European mythology. After all, he is credited with a seminal lecture on Beowulf and was a professor of middle English literature. Still, it’s quite entertaining to actually peruse the Northern world and its myths. For me, they seem cleaner and more raw than those of the Mediterranean world, part of why they are the underpinning of my Calyx world where my last story took place and where I hope to write more.

Recently I returned to two great sources for this period, The Norse Myths by Kevin Crossley-Holland and Gods and Myths of Northern Europe by H. R. Ellis Davidson. The former consists mostly of translations of the available myths- sadly, there seem to have been many that are now lost. The introductory chapter is a great survey of the culture and available sources. The end-notes also add quite a lot (more on that in a bit, but think “dwarf names”). Davidson’s work is more scholarly and a bit more dry but fascinating all the same. She quotes from the myths but focuses more on the culture, gods, and worship, including especially interesting sections on shamans and seers.

Cover of "Gods and Myths of Northern Euro...
Cover of Gods and Myths of Northern Europe

The Norse gods, such as they come down to us in the fragments we still have, seem more human to me. You could imagine almost any of the warriors in The 13th Warrior revealing himself as a god in disguise, something it is a little hard, for me at least, to imagine with the Greek or Egyptian or other mythos I’m familiar with. The Norse gods are both more fallible and more friendly– except perhaps for Odin. And their cosmology of multiple planes linked by a world tree seems especially romantic (talk about high fantasy 🙂 ). Even the dichotomy of Aesir and Vanir hints at ancient battles ending in stalemate, a fascinating relic to find in the myths. It’s a great place to look for inspiration when creating a fantasy setting.

If there is interest, I’ll start posting about the Norse myths. For today, however, I’ll just end with dwarvish names as listed in the Creation myth. This myth explains the origin of the current world starting with Ymir, a giant who formed in the rime in Ginnungagap, the space between searing Muspell and frozen Niflheim. It continues through the three worlds and the various races. Among the people of the Norse world were, of course, the dwarves. Not to be confused with the un-magical dwarves of D&D and the like, the Norse dwarves are masters of magic, creators of much of the gods’ special items. They tend to be misshapen, small, dwell-underground, and above all, covetous. Tolkien capture much of this sense in The Hobbit and his other works, although he softened them somewhat because in the myths, they tend to be relentlessly dark. Speaking of dark, there’s reason to be believe dark elves and dwarves are the same beings, at least in the Norse myths, if not in D&D 🙂

In the end notes (p. 183 of the paperback edition) on the creation myth, Crossley-Holland gives the names of the first dwarves. You might recognize a few of them, especially if you allow for alternate spellings:

Nyi, Nidi, Nordri, Sudri, Austri, Althjof, Dvalin, Bifur, Bombor, Nori, Oinn, Mjodvitnir, Vig, Gandalf (!), Vindalf, Thorin, Fili, Kili, Fundin, Vali, Thror, Thrain, Thekk, Lit, Vit, Nyr, Nyrad, Rekk, Radsvid, Draupnir, Dolgthvari, Haur, Hugstari, Hledjolf, Gloin, Dori, Ori, Duf, Andvari, Heptfili, Har, Sviar, Skirfir, Virfir, Skavid, Ai, Alf, Ingi, Eikinskjaldi, Fal, Frosti, Fid and Ginnar

I used to think the dwarves in The Hobbit had childish names because it was a children’s book but when you remember that these myths were entirely oral traditions until they were transcribed in the Christian era, you can appreciate that many of the name pairs (Dori and Ori, Bifur and Bombor) were meant to aid recollection. I always get a kick out of seeing Gandalf’s name among the dwarves, as well.

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2 thoughts on “Norse Myths, Tolkien, and Fantasy Worldbuilding

  1. Makes even more sense when you learn that in Tolkien’s early drafts Thorin was named Gandalf and Gandalf was named…something beginning with “T,” I forget what exactly. It was very Norse, though.

    I too find he Norse gods more interesting characters than the Mediterranean pantheon, although they are less godly in their power.

    1. Hard to imagine Gandalf as anything other than Gandalf, isn’t it?

      You’re right about less power but that’s probably what makes them more interesting: it’s more fun when they have to work at it 🙂

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