Although Tolkien was also inspired by Arthurian legend and the journals of William Morris’ journey in Iceland, I want to specifically focus on the main mythologies that they are rooted in.
Not all of Celtic mythology can directly be counted as inspiration, since a lot of it inspired Arthurian legend, such as Morgan le Fay and the Lady of the Lake. Tolkien himself grew up in the Victorian Age, specifically during the Pre-Raphaelite movement, which sought to revive Celtic themes.
Although he did try to distance himself from the faery-like Celts, nonetheless the Celtic legends and language did provide a focus for Middle-Earth. More specifically, the inspirations behind Galadriel and the elves came directly from Celtic mythology. The Morrigan, an Irish goddess of war, became the inspiration for the fae, particularly in Arthurian legend with Morgan le Fay, who was the nemesis of King Arthur, but also his benefactor. However, there are similarities between Galadriel and Morgan, the former does not have the seductiveness or the manipulation that Morgan has. However, her home Lothlorien is very similar to Morgan’s home.
Tolkien, however, did have the preconceived notion that the Celtic tribes were passive, as part of a false dichotomy compared to the Norse, who were brutish. In reality, both groups were historically brutish.
Since what is known of Finnish mythology comes from The Kalevala, Tolkien took inspiration from it, specifically from the tragedy of Kullervo. He was a foundling who fell in love with a woman who turned out to be his long-lost sister, which leads to both of their suicides. Tolkein wanted to make a more sympathetic version, so he wrote the Kullervo character, Hurin, who marries Morwen and begats a son named Turin who becomes prideful and is slain by a dragon, which ends with Hurin and Morwen mourning his death.
Norse mythology provides the most visible influence to Middle-Earth, since many of its main attributes can be traced to it. The elves and dwarves can be directly seen in Norse Mythology. Much of what is known about Norse mythology is found in the Eddas, which is also were the inspirations are found, such as the races and the gods.
Gandalf, in particularly, is directly inspired by Odin in the amount of monikers that is given. But, more specifically, he was inspired by Odin’s disguise as a wise wanderer who arrived in the home of the giant Vafthrufnir. As such, Gandalf is constantly roaming around the world, even as Bilbo and Frodo are on their quests.
The Ring of Power, which is the most notable component of Middle-Earth, comes directly from the rings forged by the smith Wayland. He was forced to forge rings made from red gold, and he was made to do so due to the fact that his legs were incapacitated so he would not escape.
The prevalence of wolves and bears, or characters or fictional creatures based on them, also derive from Norse or the related Anglo-Saxon mythology and language. Beorn is derived from the Anglo-Saxon word for “bear” but also means “man.”
- Arje, Matias. “Hvannadalshnjúkur.” Wikipedia. 2005. CC BY-SA 3.0. Change incudes cropping image.
- Burns, Marjorie. Perilous Realms: Celtic and Norse in Tolkien’s Middle-Earth. 3rd Edition. University of Toronto Press. 2018.
- Snyder, Christopher. The Making of Middle-Earth: A New Look Inside the World of J. R. R. Tolkien. Sterling. 2013.