Norse Myths, Tolkien, and Fantasy Worldbuilding

Cover of "The Norse Myths (Pantheon Fairy...
Cover via Amazon

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.

Putting the Divine into your Fantasy Setting

Piazza rotonda - pantheon 2
Piazza rotonda – pantheon 2: the divine has always inspired humans (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of the often over-looked items in the world-builders toolkit is the spiritual. Perhaps one of the defining aspects of humanity in all eras is our desire to describe why things are the way they are in the natural world and what is our place in that world. There are certainly books where the role of gods and the like take center stage and others where their presence is felt. For instance, while the Lord of the Rings is not too overtly spiritual (the movies somewhat more so than the book), Gandalf and Sauruman are agents of the divine entities in the world, Galadriel and her fellows are banished from “heaven” for their transgressions and the wood elves are people who long ago turned away from the “light.” This is a world where the gods matter and the actions of the gods shaped the setting for LOTR (and inspire much more of The Silmarillion).

In history, the development of authority figures was rarely separated from the spiritual. In some cultures, the two were tightly combined as in Egypt and the Ancient Near East where the ruler represented divine power on Earth. In others, there might have been separation of a clan leader from a spiritual leader but the two were closely bound and the leader was anointed and empowered by the shaman or equivalent. The druids of the Celts were a priestly caste of such great power the Romans took pains to extinguish them, although they were not rulers themselves. The Celtic caste system has analogues in the Hindu caste system and might hark back to the same roots shared by Indo-European languages. In the Middle ages, the priests anointed kings and there was much disagreement over just how much authority the divine had over the secular. Priest still anoint kings and presidents are sworn in on Bibles. And, of course, the respect and fear of the divine caused humans to put much treasure and labor into support of a priests and temples.

Thor wades rivers while the rest of the æsir r...
Thor wades rivers while the rest of the æsir ride across the bridge Bifröst as described in Grímnismál. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Just as the spiritual world underpinned much of human endeavor, it can have a place in the fantasy world. I came to this realization more through my fantasy role-playing background (D&D). Like many a gamer before me, I started with generic, Medieval-ish settings with a pantheon tacked on top without much thought. In my high school days, it was not unusual for my group to play with many Earth historical pantheons at the same time but I moved away from that as I learned more about the pantheons: these traditions were meant to be an overarching story of the creation of the world and the place of mortals and divine. It got hard to reconcile so many one, true faiths and was easier just to go with a single one. By my post college days, I also had come to realize that pantheons created to explain the world to historical Earthlings, a world with, in the end, very limited (if any) divine, manifest power, were not that suitable for a D&D game where even your 16 year-old cleric adept (level 1) could cure fatal wounds (fatal for other 1st level characters, anyway), banish undead, and perform other very prominent miracles. And while throughout history through the present, people have always believed in divine power, I find it hard to find evidence for something as obvious as an RPG 1st level spell at work. That is, Earth stories were not created to explain magic as powerful and prevalent as that in D&D.

My pantheon creation began simply as a way to have gods more relevant to a game, a reason for them to bestow game-useful powers on the player-characters. Why, for instance, would there be a god of plagues and who would worship such a god? On Earth, such gods were worshiped to appease them. In a D&D world, they were sometimes useful as objects of a sect of villains, something to oppose the players. There is overlap with the Earth view of such a god but in the end, they aren’t really made of the same cloth. Add in non-human races of great power, rationalizations for all the D&D staples such as demons and devils, and it becomes, to me anyway, much easier to start from scratch and construct something that worked for a game of high magical power, a setting that could start with simple first level spells and could work up to world-shattering magic.

Just as important for a game was a setting where the gods were still active and evolving in the setting. In the old earth pantheons, things are in the end pretty static. The myths actually seemed to have evolved over the years (part of the trouble with teasing out the Norse myths is understanding the changes as they evolved in contact with Christianity) but they always to me seemed to be presented to the worshippers as a static explanation: this is how the world was created, these are the stories of the gods in the early days, this is how the world will end, and you live in a time in-between these stories of old and the end-to-come. This is usually not the case in a D&D setting where sometimes the players become demi-gods and often they are actively acting as agents of the gods, furthering their goals and continuing their stories.

Moreover, there was always the question, when transplanting an Earth mythos, of why the gods still weren’t running around on earth, making new myths. Take the Norse mythos where the gods spent a lot of time walking among mortals: in the mythic, nordic world, a chieftain or petty king might very well expect Thor himself to walk into his hall. In a game world, though, which Thor would walk in? The one who in earlier myths still hung out with Loki or the later one who knew Loki to be completely untrustworthy and the harbinger of destruction? Which myths still applied? And how did you as a referee reconcile the myth that attributes the tides to Thor being so lusty a drinker that he could set the oceans in motion when tricked into thinking he drank from a barrel when he actually drank from the sea? For game purposes, clearly that has to be “just a story” but then, which myths are just stories and which myths can be used to establish the gods of the setting?

Better, I found, to create my pantheon from the actual narrative of what really happened then layer on top of that whatever stories were necessary. This turns the creation of the gods around from the Earth method of starting with the stories and then explaining what really lay behind them. That exercise, by the way, was exactly what occupied late Ancient world pagans as they recast their gods for a more rationale and Christian world: the late pagans didn’t actually believe that their supreme god Jupiter was a serial philanderer , most of what we take to be classical paganism was treated as simply stories by the 300s CE.

Curiously, though, as my game worlds progressed (I almost always create an entirely new campaign setting with every new campaign every 2-3 years), I came back to historical roots. I’ve always loved the idea of spirits living in a pool of water or a holy grove. I like the creation stories and the conflicts in an active pantheon. I love the idea of gods walking among us like they do in the Norse myths. As an exercise, I’m entranced by thinking through a dynamic, spiritual world where a mortal can become the spirit of a holy grove, where the gods are still trying to shape the course of the world for their purposes, where there is a tension and sensible rationale that prevents the gods from simply descending to the mortal plane and duking it out to the doom of mortals.

The game setting that really cemented this for me was based firmly on the Norse world. I couldn’t really figure out how to create a Yggdrasil that towered through the disks of the world that worked for me but short of that, the world is very Norse with an upper disk for mortals (Midgard) and a lower disk for the underworld. The gods do live above the mortals, albeit on some very high mountains on the main disk. There was an original Titan world-creator whose death shaped the world. The gods themselves became immortal through the Titan’s blood and were not accorded the role of gods until much later when the immortals and mortals had to deal with a threat from the remnant spirit of the Titan. The action of the gods persist into the world to the current day and the destruction of a great world empire is directly a result of some of the gods fearing the growing power of mortals. The campaign began at a time when mortals (i.e. the players) had the chance to recognize the malign role of the gods in world affairs and try to recruit other gods to do something about it.

In this world, as in the Norse, there really is an Odin-type figure (a goddess in this setting) who sets mortals against each other to keep them feuding and weak. There is a Thor-like figure who likes to wander among men for his own pleasures of battle and bed. And there is a Loki-type figure although here he is not the schemer for the sake of discord, he is the being who works behind the scenes and has the potential to recognize that the head of the gods should be thwarted. You have all the elements of the Norse myths (including even a creation of the tides connected to the acts of the gods although not something as goofy as a god trying to drink the seas) but one that is dynamic and ongoing, with scope for the players to affect the world.

This setting also made heavy use of spirits: the divine power of clerics did not come from the gods; it came from cleric’s personal association with a local spirit. They had to placate and befriend a being of a river, spring, ancient ruin, tree grove, or what not. If they wanted healing powers, they had to get the appropriate type of spirit  to grant them those powers and remain in that spirit’s good graces. If they wandered hundreds of miles away, they would have to befriend new spirits. There was even a mechanism for a mortal to become a spirit (although the mechanism made it very hard for player characters to do so since they don’t tend to stay put and get attached to one place.)

One of my current projects is set in this world with a story that revolves around the spirits but also includes the gods. If it does okay, the next story will be more focused on the gods. The characters are mortals but the gods and spirits are not distant powers that set events in motion: they are present, they appear, they teach, they have offspring with characters in-story.

My other current project is set in a different world. Here there are ageless beings so powerful and so destructive that a single creator god “put them to sleep” 300 hundred years ago. The story is about a time when the works of these ageless ones are winding down and the mortals need to find and wake them for their own survival. What happens in the story will give birth to gods and order things so that mortals shape the world, not these ageless beings.

Of course, a writer can create wonderful fantasy worlds without such a spiritual or divine underpinning but when you start with the question of the spiritual and build a world from there, you may be surprised at what you bring forth.

  • How did this world come to be?
  • What are the sources of divine power?
  • What regulates the actions of these divine beings?
  • What happens to the dead?
  • What do the divine beings want?
  • How do the desires of the divine affect mortals?

Answer these questions and you may find your plots almost writing themselves.

As you can tell, I do like the Norse setting for gaming and fantasy worlds: it was a world of present, scheming gods, ready violence, small kingdoms (in the early and pre-Viking era): ready-made for heroic fiction.

I’m personally neither religious nor spiritual, though I do respect other’s decision to be so. But I do find spiritual stories and myths moving. Perhaps that actually frees me to experiment with the spiritual side of things from a story and a roleplaying point of view because I don’t feel beholden to a particular spiritual tradition but do appreciate the power of the divine in mortal affairs.