FRIDTJOF NANSEN AND J.R.R. TOLKIEN
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For the first time, I reveal here the evidence that J.R.R. Tolkien borrowed from Fridtjof Nansen, through character and plot, and in very great measure.  Tolkien, however, never acknowledged the fact - at least not directly.  Before turning to Nansen, I’d like to look at a couple of other possible influences on Tolkien.  Several authors have attempted to link Tolkien’s writing with sources other than Nansen's writing..

Tolkien and Richard Wagner’s ‘Ring’.

Perhaps most obviously, Tolkien’s writing has been connected to Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle [Der Ring des Nibelungen].  Here, the apparent connection is that both have a magical ring as the central icon. 

Sources

Wagner’s Ring Cycle consists of four long and complex operas.  It is based largely on the legends of the wandering Germanic and Scandinavian tribes.  These powerful tribes are often considered to have conquered the Roman Empire by A.D. 476.  Before this, however, some tribes had acted as mercenaries in order to maintain Roman rule.  At first their stories were handed down by word of mouth in the form of poetry, but most of these tales survived only by being written into the Icelandic Sagas.  Several of the Sagas were included in one of the two Icelandic books known as ‘Eddas’.  The older Edda is a collection of earlier Norse poetry which dates from 800-1100 and the other Edda was a commentary written in the mid 1200’s.  The poetic Edda contains the earliest surviving version of the story of Siegfried - the hero of Wagner’s Ring.  This Elder Edda also contains the Voluspa poem which happens to list most of the names of Tolkien’s dwarfs from The Hobbit.  Nearly all the names appear, including Thorin and even Gandalf’s own name [Voluspa, verses 11-15].


While much early Norse and Germanic legend survives through the Icelandic sagas, the Nibelungenlied is an exception.  This is an epic Germanic poem which dates from around 1200 but which draws on much older fabric.  It appears to consist of several strands of myth and history which are forged together as an integrated whole.  It was written by an unknown Austrian.  It contains material also found in several of the surviving Scandinavian sagas, particularly the Völsunga Saga and Thidrik’s Saga.  These epics tell the story of Sigurd and Brynhild - the equivalent of the Nibelungenlied’s Siegfried and Brünnhilde.  They address the myths and history of the tribe of Burgundians which were confusingly given the name Nibelungen in the Nibelungenlied - this was originally the name of a mythical tribe of German dwarfs.  The Burgundians were a migratory tribe which originated in Scandinavia.  However, they wandered towards the south, giving their name to the area of France where they temporarily settled.  The Burgundians fought with the tribe of Huns, lead by Etzel [also known as Atilla].  The tribe was almost completely destroyed when the Huns, working with the Romans, sacked the city of Worms in A.D. 436.  This event inspired the Nibelungenlied and hence some of the later events portrayed in Wagner’s Ring.


Possible parallels between Tolkien and Wagner

Except in general ways, I can find very little in the course of Wagner’s Ring that has a direct parallel with Tolkien’s Middle Earth: 

Bird talk and rings

Other writers have attempted to make connections between Tolkien’s work and Wagner’s sources.  The Völsunga Saga tells that Sigurd could understand bird-song, cf. The Hobbit.  This legend may have arisen when a foreign language was first contacted.  For example Nansen recounts that on first hearing the language of the Eskimo he initially thought it sounded like bird song.  To Nansen, Eskimo voices were like the calls of diving ducks [known as ‘loons’ in America] while Balto described the Eskimo as sounding like ravens. 

It has been claimed that Tolkien’s gold ring may originate with the Völsunga Saga.  Here Andvari [Alberich in Wagner’s Ring and known as Oberon by Shakespeare] was a dwarf who lived under a waterfall.  He could change into a fish and had a magic ring which drew gold to it.  When he was forced to give up the ring he cursed it with the wish that it would destroy whoever owned it.  It has been asserted that Andvari was the precursor for Gollum/Sméagol.  There are several arguments against this.  While eating raw fish, Gollum did not have the ability to turn into one.  The object of Andvari’s desire, the ring itself, does not personify all the powers displayed by Tolkien’s ring.  With Tolkien, it is the power embedded in the ring itself which destroys the person who wears it - Gollum’s curses on Bilbo and Frodo were wasted.  While Andvari’s ring somehow attracts gold to it, which would make the owner very powerful, it does not confer invisibility. 

The original Nibelungenlied has Siegfried force the dwarf Alberich to give up a ‘cloak of darkness’ which bestows invisibleness.  The Nibelungenlied therefore deals with invisibility - but rather than being imparted by the ring it is the wearing of a magical cloak [as featured in Harry Potter] which causes the transformation.  In Wagner’s Ring, it is a helmet which causes the wearer to become invisible. 

At the start of the Ring Cycle, the ring is forged from stolen gold recovered from a river by the dwarf Alberich.  According to Tolkien it was non-other than the Dark Lord, Sauron, who made the Ring in order to control the other ‘Rings of Power’.  The Elvish smiths made these subservient rings at the behest of Sauron who was disguised as Annatar or ‘Lord of Gifts’ at the time.  [See The Silmarillion, 1977, page 287].  Gollum/Sméagol did not, of course, manufacture a ring.  If Alberich/Andvari is a precursor for any character in Tolkien, it seems to me that it is Annatar, the disguised Sauron.  At least there is the alliterative connection - i.e. the names begin with ‘A’. 

The earliest record of a ring which rendered the wearer invisible was recounted by the Greek philosopher Plato.  He tells of a shepherd, Gyges, who was in the service of the King of Lydia.  Gyges finds a magic ring on a corpse in a cave and discovers that the ring turns him invisible at will.  However, Plato recounts that no man can resist the power given by the ring.  Indeed, the shepherd is corrupted - using the ring, he kills the King and woos and marries the Queen.

Many more recent authors have written of rings with magical powers including invisibility.  Perhaps the closest we get to a proven link between Tolkien and an author who writes of such a ring is with Nesbit’s ring from The Enchanted Castle.  Tolkien used one of Nesbit’s invented characters [the Psammead] in his book Roverandom.  Nesbit’s ring has great power, in the form of suitable wish-fulfilling properties, has negative effects on the wearer and also dominates subservient magical items.  The Enchanted Castle is also a great story which plays upon the reader’s perception of reality.

Dragons

Siegfried [or Sigurd in Norse legend] defeats a dragon, bringing to mind Bilbo’s actions in The Hobbit.  Bilbo Baggins is no big bold hero in the bloodthirsty Norse tradition and although he causes the dragon’s downfall by finding a weak-spot, it is left to someone else to deliver the fatal blow. 

As portrayed in the sagas, Thorin Oakenshield’s band can be considered as little more than a Viking raiding party or even a land-hungry migrating Norse tribe whose presence is revealed through surviving place names such as Burgundy.  While Bilbo returned home, the dwarves remained behind with their treasure to form a new colony, or as they insist, reclaim their birth-right.  Were those cryptically named dwarf couples male and female?  Perhaps the start of a new dynasty?

Away from Norse legend, there are many stories of dragons.  Nesbit [firmly linked to Tolkien by his use of her fictional character, the Psammead] wrote many stories about dragons, including one which turned into the first aeroplane.  Another of her dragons had

‘… a broken spear sticking out of his side, so some one must have had a try at baggin’ him, some time or other.’  [The Magic City, 1910].

A dragon with a weak spot rather like Smaug.  Surely this reveals where Bilbo Baggins’ surname arose?  Just these two elements in a single sentence constitute a closer link with Tolkien than all the events portrayed by Wagner’s Ring Cycle.  [Note, however, that Tolkien's aunt had a farm named 'Bag End'].


Wagner’s epic operatic series is really of secondary importance as much of the subject matter of the Ring Cycle consists of Scandinavian or Germanic legend and tradition - this is precisely the area of Tolkien’s interest and expertise.  In other words both Tolkien and Wagner were interested in the same fragmentary material - the surviving mythology and history of the Norse and Germanic tribes.  They based their work on a common root.  Tolkien did not use Wagner’s Ring Cycle as a direct source, although the resulting overall structure is very similar - four operas or four volumes, the first in each case acting as a prologue for the main narrative contained within the other three.

Tolkien denied the connection between his Ring and Wagner’s Ring in a letter [1961] wrhen he wrote that apart from round rings, there was no resemblance.  [Humphrey Carpenter, editor, with Christopher Tolkien, The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, 1981, page 306].  But, like many of Tolkien’s later forthright disavowals, there is more beneath the surface than this sweeping dismissal indicates.  Where Wagner used Scandinavian Sagas and an Old German source, the Nibelungenlied, Tolkien was interested in Scandinavian Sagas and an Old English source - Beowulf.


Beowulf

There is a much more substantial connection between Beowulf and Tolkien.  Tolkien wrote a paper in 1936 entitled: ‘Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics.’  This extolled the literary virtues of the anonymous work and changed the way scholars viewed it.  Previously Beowulf was considered as a series of fragments which had historical interest but little aesthetic merit.  The surviving manuscript of Beowulf was written around A.D. 1000 but the saga was composed around A.D. 700-800.  It probably refers to wars in Scandinavia dating to A.D. 450-500 when treasure tended to be buried for security.  Beowulf was written after Christianity had been introduced, but referred to a pagan time before the tribes were converted.

Beowulf’s central theme is the progress of the hero, Beowulf, from ‘safe-haven’ to ‘safe-haven’ - the halls ruled over by Norse chieftains.  The halls are known as ring, gift, or treasure giver’s halls or mead-halls, beer-halls.  The chieftain of the hall, according to the custom of the times, hands out gifts to reward good service.  This is very much central to the overall structure of both ‘The Hobbit’ and ‘Lord of the Rings’.  The plot, put very simply, is that Beowulf is invited into a Danish hall, fights and beats a monster, Grendel, and later kills the monster and his mother.  As is the custom, he is then suitably rewarded.  Having established his own hall, he fights a dragon, kills it and secures a hoard of gold but in the process is himself killed.  Tolkien correspondingly has Thorin's band of dwarves [little more than a sort of Viking raiding party] set out from Hobbiton on a quest.  Staying in various lodgings, they ultimately 'liberate' a dragon's hoard.  The structure of The Lord of the Rings is similar, but the climax in this case is a reversal - the destruction of the object of desire.

Rings

There are many rings described in Beowulf.  In addition to gold rings, their distribution and the ring giver himself, there is also a hoard of rings, ring-halls [i.e. halls for feasting and sleeping where the Lord would hand out treasure] a highly prized golden neck-ring [necklace], arm-rings or bracelets, interlaced arm-rings and Ring-Danes [presumably Danes who were particularly notable for wearing rings!].

‘Hringa þengel’ translates roughly as ‘ring prince’ or the ‘lord of the rings’.  The rings, in the context of this usage in Beowulf, being chain-mail armour.

In Beowulf there are various rings made from material other than gold: ring-prowed ships, bone rings [i.e. vertebrae from the spinal column] and several ways of describing chain mail which, of course, consists of a series of linked rings - ring-iron [hringíren]; a net of rings [hringnet]; an iron shirt or coat of mail [írenbyrnan] and ‘searonet seowed smiþes orþancum’ - a cunning net [of armour] sewn or linked by a skilled smith.

Note that orþancum means skilful, ingenious [‘þ’ is pronounced ‘th’].  Here is the origin for Tolkien’s orthanc-stone - a globe which allows communication between
Saruman and Sauron.

Sauron and possibly Saruman can trace their names to ‘searo’- an element in compound words used many times in Beowulf in several different contexts.  It is used with regard to armour, war equipment, gems and even an ornamented saddle and indicates a rare high technology object, cunningly made.  It can also be used with ‘grim’ meaning fierce, hence ‘searo-grim’ - cunning and fierce, and ‘searo-nîð’ - cunning hostility [ð is pronounced ‘th’].  ‘searo-þanc’, þanc meaning thought, presumably means a rare and artful degree of skilfulness, perhaps extending even to genius - perhaps evil genius in the case of Sauron and Saruman?


Names of other characters

Several of Tolkien’s other creations undoubtedly have their names derive from Beowulf:

Tolkien’s ‘Middle earth’ is found in Beowulf as ‘middan-geard’ - literally middle-earth.

King Théoden in The Lord of the Rings is þéoden in Old English [‘þ’ is pronounced like ‘th’ in ‘thin’] and means chief or king and is used on many occasions in Beowulf.  Théoden’s nemesis, Gríma, very appropriately means mask and in Beowulf it is used several times to indicate a war-mask [heregríman] or visored helmet.

Beorn [from The Hobbit] means variously man, hero or warrior and is used on many occasions in Beowulf.

Tolkien’s Éomer probably derives from a genuine historical figure, named in Beowulf, Eómær.  Eómær is said in Beowulf to be the son of King Offa of the Angles, who ruled the tribe of Angles on continental Europe in the late fifth century.  The English Mercian King Offa of Offa’s Dyke fame was a descendant of Eómær. 

Ents, elves and orcs

A passage in Beowulf apparently refers to three groups of giants:

eotenas and ylfe      and orcnêas,
swylce gigantas,      þâ wið gode wunnon

[‘ð’ pronounced like ‘th’ in ‘then’ and ‘þ’ pronounced like ‘th’ in ‘thin’].

‘Eotenas’ and the associated words found in Old Enlglish, ‘eoton’ and ‘ent’ [plural ‘enta’] are generally translated as ‘giant[s]’.  Harrison and Sharp, however, distinguish the word ’eoton’, meaning ‘giant’ from ‘Eoten’ [plural ‘Eotenas’] which they regard as a name for the North Frisian people whose king was Finn.  ‘Ent’ is used in Beowulf to describe the former owners of valuable ancient artefacts [such as a sword hilt] found in Grendel’s home or in the dragon’s cave.  Shippey [J.R.R. Tolkien, Author of the Century, 2000, page 88: The Road to Middle-earth, 2005, page 149] remarks that the word ‘enta’ was used in Old English as a name for the Romans - or at least their works in stone which they left behind.  It is likely that the use of these terms indicates that the knowledge of the owner’s name had been lost and a generic term was substituted.  At any event, these related words became adopted by Tolkien for his giant tree-like characters, the ‘Ents’.

In Tolkien’s Middle Earth the two lines would then translate as:

ents and elves and orcs
such giants with which God strove

Perhaps gigantas [giants] here denotes great, even supernatural, power and strength rather than simply enormous physical size.  Tolkien’s imagination alone seems to be responsible for associating ‘ents’ with trees.  [‘Ents’ by Matthew Dickerson in J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia edited by Michael D. C. Drout, 2007, pages 163-4].

In Tolkien’s Middle Earth the ents and elves are, of course, fighting on the opposite side to the orcs.  However, in an early scheme for The Lord of the Rings Treebeard was an evil character, responsible for imprisoning Gandalf.  [The Return of the Shadow, Christopher Tolkien, 1988, page 363].  The voice of Treebeard the ent was acknowledged by Tolkien as being based on a real person.  This character's booming vocal-delivery was founded on the voice of Tolkien's great friend, C. S. Lewis.  [J.R.R. Tolkien, A Biography, Humphrey Carpenter, Unwin Paperbacks Edition, page 198].  Lewis, although a committed Christian often wrestled with his faith - perhaps he thus strove with God?  His writing shows him to be a staunch defender of trees and forests.

The Encyclopaedia Britannica notes that there are two distinct origins to the word orc:

‘Orc in reference to a vaguely cetacean sea monster is… ultimately descended from the Latin orca, which probably denoted a small cetacean such as the killer whale…’

And

‘Orc, alluding to a demon or ogre, appears in Old English glosses of about AD 800 and in the compound word orcneas (“monsters”) in the poem Beowulf.  As with the Italian orco (“ogre”) and the word ogre itself, it ultimately derives from the Latin Orcus, a god of the underworld.  The Old English creatures were most likely the inspiration for the orcs that appear in J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings trilogy.’  [‘Orc’ Britannica 2002 Standard Edition CD-ROM Copyright (C) 1994-2002 Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.]

As we see elsewhere on the website, there is reason to believe that Tolkien, in settling on the name of his monster, also took account of the killer whale’s Latin name and habits as described by Nansen.  Nansen has much to say about the ‘sea monster’ Orca gladiator [now Orcinus orca], in his books, particularly Hunting and Adventure in the Arctic.

More Dragons

The dragon in Beowulf is often identified with Tolkien’s Smaug.  He lives underground with his hoard of gold.  One of Beowulf’s men steals a precious cup from the dragon’s hoard and the dragon notices that it is missing.  The dragon, in his rage, torches across the sky, burning up the landscape.  Beowulf fights the dragon, wins but dies from his wounds.  The dragon is known in the poem as a lígdraca [fire-drake] or a wyrm or a dracan [dragon].

However, the wyrm, fire-drake, dracan etc. is not called ‘Smaug’. 

Smaug’s name appears within Nansen’s In Northern Mists as does a description of a mountain very like Smaug’s home - the Lonely Mountain.  Nansen tells of a lost work dated 1360 by the Oxford friar Nicholas of Lynn which was said to include a description of a magnetic mountain at the North Pole.  The mountain has streams of water emerging from its feet - just like Tolkien’s Lonely Mountain.  Nansen shows that the compound element Smau… is linked to place-names associated with the Norse.  The sight of an approaching Viking long-ship with a dragon’s head at its prow and banks of oars beating time like wings over the water must have brought fear to the hearts of soon-to-be former occupants of Viking conquests.  It should be noted that Tolkien wrote that the name arose from the past tense of the  Germanic verb 'Smugan' meaning to squeeze through a hole.  This appears to be the only existing use of these words as cited by Tolkien.  Tolkien also says that the name is a pseudonym - and a low joke!.  [Humphrey Carpenter with Christopher Tolkien, The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, 1981, page 31]. 

Tolkien’s illustrations

Tolkien, then, borrowed many words from Beowulf.  He deliberately used these words to connect his Middle-earth with the world of Beowulf - both the real world of the wandering, feuding, Norse tribes of the first millennium and the mythical monsters and magic referred to in the poem.  He wanted his readers to identify the link.  That is why he worked words gleaned from the earliest surviving English tale into his own books.  It would be true to say that the world of Tolkien’s Middle-earth is rather like that of Beowulf - but with some significant changes. 

The illustration of Beorn’s hall in The Hobbit presents a typical Norse hall of the period with an open fire sunk into the centre with a hole in the roof for the smoke to escape.  Tolkien’s technology is also contemporary, very much concerned with chain-mail armour, metal blades, horses etc.  Watermills were in use by the Romans, and the illustration of Hobbiton has a certain Romano-British look about it with red pantiles on the roofs.  However, the illustration of the hall at Bag-End reveals several anomalies.  On the wall there is a large framed mirror and below it is a table which supports a rather pointy hat.  Looking around we see a barometer, a clock, a picture in a gilt frame, chairs, an umbrella stand, a door-mat, a circular table [on castors?].  We are clearly delivered into a [rather rounded] genteel middle-class home of the nineteenth or early twentieth century.  The table has an ash-tray on it and, by the side of it, Mr. Baggins himself stands smoking a long-stemmed pipe.  He appears to be wearing an ornamented jacket and plus-fours [knee-length trousers] and his feet are bootless. 

Descriptions of architecturally advanced stone-built fortress-cities in The Lord of the Rings also bring to mind a rather later time than the wood and metal world of Beowulf.  A royal court built of stone containing a throne and the panoply of chivalry is also of a later date.  Tolkien’s description of clothing worn at these courts appears to be of a similarly later period, with perhaps a nod at the clothing and architecture depicted in the pictures of the pre-Raphaelite and Brotherhood artists of the late nineteenth century.  The feeling of graciousness and high living perched precariously on the edge of disaster which is evoked by Tolkien may come from artists such as Edward Burne-Jones who imaginatively painted scenes of medieval chivalry.  He depicted, for example, the wizard Merlin on several occasions.  Even here, there is a link to the world of the Norse saga.  William Morris, co-founder of the Oxford Brotherhood, visited Iceland and published the first English translations of several Icelandic sagas.


Tolkien and Nansen

The connection between Tolkien and Beowulf has been public knowledge ever since his books were written.  The connection with Nansen is, I believe, entirely discovered by myself and published here for the first time.  Tolkien did make passing reference to one of Nansen's books as a footnote in the published version of his Andrew Lang lecture at St. Andrews.  This implies that at least one of Nansen's books resided on Tolkien's pre-war bookshelves.  'On Fairy Stories' was first published in 1947, again in 1964 as part of Tree and Leaf and most recently in 1983 as part of The Monsters and the Critics.  See page 111 of the 2006 paperback edition of The Monsters and the Critics.

I can link seven of Tolkien’s major characters to Nansen’s books.  There are many other ways to connect the books.  Tolkien left clues regarding the basis of his Hobbits - their origin is also to be found in the writing of Nansen.  I have read widely in this area without coming across another reference to this remarkable occurrence.  However, I believe that Tolkien left enough clues to enable the connection to be made.  He wanted his readers to discover and read Nansen. 

Most startlingly Tolkien used Fridtjof Nansen and Samuel Balto’s names.  Balto was Fridtjof Nansen’s Lapp companion from The First Crossing of Greenland.  Tolkien altered the names slightly and in interesting ways.  I hope you will excuse my detailed treatment of this point.

Balto became Bilbo; Fridtjof [pronounced Frit-yof] became Frodo.

Tolkien did not use the original names - he could hardly use precisely the same name without giving the game away entirely.  However, he did use several linguistic devices to retain the link with the name as it appeared in Nansen’s books.  Although Tolkien never went into details about the influences on his writing of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings he did regard his own interest in language as a large ingredient in the writing of the latter.

The original names and the newly disguised names share the first letters, B or Fr.  Balto and Bilbo; Fridtjof and Frodo.  This sharing of consonants is known as alliteration.  Alliteration is found in many literary traditions, e.g. the ancient Finnish epic Kalevala, and would particularly appeal to this Professor of Anglo-Saxon literature.  The Kalevala provided the basis for Tolkien’s invented language, ‘Quenya’.  Tolkien used alliteration in his ‘Middle Earth’ poetry.  As already mentioned, the Anglo Saxon poem Beowulf displays forceful rhythmic and thematic alliteration.  For example, note the repetition of G’s and M’s of the following passage:

Ða com of more, under mist-hleopum
Grendel gongan; Godes yrre baer...
(Then came from the moor, under the misty hills,
Grendel stalking; the God's anger bare).

The words chosen by the author of Beowulf stress the use of the consonants G or M and help to emphasise the meter and meaning of the language.

The consonants of Frodo’s name arise in several words found in the narrative of Beowulf.  If Tolkien deliberately chose Frodo’s name partly to reflect these words, then we would expect the words sourced from Beowulf to give clues to Frodo’s character.  i.e. the meaning of words beginning fr… and possibly containing a d… may coincide with Frodo’s disposition.  Freód means friendship, and the compound element, freoðo-, implies peace or protection [ð pronounced th].  Frôd has two meanings - old or grey [which Frodo wasn’t, at least at the beginning] and intelligent, experienced and wise [which he perhaps became].  These descriptions also happen to coincide with elements of Fridtjof Nansen’s character over the course of his books.

The name 'Frôda' appears in Beowulf.  Here, he was king of the Germanic tribe of Heathobards [a constituent tribe of the Langobards] and he died at war with the Danes.  The Langobards [Lombards] ruled Italy for over 200 years from A.D. 568. 

The name 'Fróði' appears in Snorri Sturluson’s Icelandic Eddas where he is described as a Danish king.  Snorri and Saxo Grammaticus [a Danish historian responsible for setting down the original tale of ‘Hamlet’] connected him with the period of rule of Emperor Augustus Caesar and hence with the birth of Christ.  Both Snorri and Saxo were active in the early 1200’s, 200 years after the surviving manuscript of Beowulf was written.

Snorri wrote that Fróði ruled in Denmark at the time when Augustus Caesar ruled the Roman Empire and Jesus was born.  Peace on earth was proclaimed, but in Scandinavia it was known as ‘Fróði’s peace’.  Here it was so peaceful that even if a man met the killer of his brother or his father he would not attack him.  There was no robbery and a gold ring lay on open ground for a long time without being touched!
The Gróttasöngr or the Song of Grótti, an Old Norse poem collected by Snorri, tells the legend of how Fróði’s peace came about.  King Fróði set two giant female slaves named Fenja and Menja to work on two enormous mill stones.  This magical mill, known as Grótti, was so large that no man was strong enough to work it.  Fróði asked Fenja and Menja to grind gold, happiness and peace from the mill.  The slaves were given little rest and in revenge they sang a song - the ‘song of Grótti’.  They called forth a sea-born army headed by Mysing, which attacked Fróði during the night and killed him - ending the ‘peace of Fróði’.  Mysing took the mill and the slaves with him on his ship and commanded them to grind salt - a valuable commodity.  A little later the ship sank but the mill continued to grind away at the bottom of the sea.  A maelstrom [‘mal’ meaning mill and ‘ström’ meaning stream] or whirlpool formed which flowed through the hole at the centre of the stones.  And that is why the sea is salt.

Fróði was known as ‘Friðfróði' or ‘Peace-Fróði’ and as such he also mentioned in the Íslendingabók written in the early 1100’s.

Tom Shippey [The Road to Middle-earth, 2005, pages 233-235] regards Peace-Fróði’ as the precursor to Frodo, as Tolkien hints, and lays stress on Frodo’s peaceable disposition.  Remarkably, Fridtjof Nansen’s first name is derived from the same Old Norse element ‘frið’ meaning ‘peace’.  In sharp contrast, the last part of his name derives from ‘þjófr’ meaning ‘thief’, or ‘thief of peace’!

There are, as we have seen, several contenders for the origin of Frodo’s name - both legendary and real - and it is entirely consistent with Tolkien’s approach to writing that he considered these possibilities and more when making his choice.  There have, however, been few credible suggestions for an origin to Bilbo’s name until now.  David Colbert [The Magical World of the Lord of the Rings, Puffin Books, 2002, page 101] suggests that perhaps the name comes from the bilberries that Tolkien and his brother picked as children.  Shippey frankly states that he doesn't know the origin of the name 'Bilbo'.  [Tom Shippey, The Road to Middle-earth, 2005, page 83].  There is
no mention of the etymology of ‘Bilbo’ in Michael N. Stanton’s contribution to the Tolkien Encyclopedia. [‘Bilbo Baggins’ by Michael N. Stanton, J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia, 2007, pages 64-65].  There are a few words in Beowulf which echo the consonants in Bilbo’s name...  But really they have no bearing on Bilbo or Balto’s character:

Bî means near, at, on, about or by.  Bîd means hesitation, biddan is to beg, to ask or to pray.  Bindan is to bind or to tie.  Bæl means fire or flames, while bealu means evil, ruin or destruction, deadly, dangerous or bad [!].

Biter means biting and also sharp and cutting like a sword, while the closest word in Beowulf to Bilbo’s name, bil, means sword.  While Bilbo does his best at fighting, swordsmanship is hardly his most characteristic attribute.  He has a sharp wit, however.

If the connection between the names of Tolkien's major characters and Beowulf is undeniable, albeit inconsistent, we must turn back to the Nansen link, where the alliterative bond is perfect.  In addition to the faultless alliteration, Balto, Bilbo, Fridtjof and Frodo all have the same final vowel [o].  Three of these names rhyme perfectly - a characteristic often found in poetry.  If we look at the writing of the poets who shared the First World War trenches with Tolkien, we can again find similar alliteration and rhymes. 

Poetry utilising alliteration and unusual rhyming schemes became fashionable in England in the 1930’s, following the radical poetry of the First World War.  Just at the time when Tolkien was writing his first Middle Earth books.  For example, consider the alliteration and rhyming found in the lines ending with the words ‘friend’ & ‘found’, ‘killed’ & ‘cold’ from the First World War poet Wilfred Owen’s ‘Strange Meeting’.  This agrees pretty closely with the consonant alliteration and rhyming in Fridtjof & Frodo, Bilbo & Balto.  With an irony which would not be lost on Tolkien, the Tolkien family had emigrated from Germany to England in the eighteenth century.  Tolkien could easily have found himself fighting on the other side - with the German descendants of the same wandering tribes of Angles and Saxons.  The Germans, however, were bereft of ground-breaking poets in their trenches.

In writing of the links between Nansen and Tolkien, I have mainly used material published by Tolkien during his lifetime.  I contend that Tolkien wanted his readers to perceive the connection between Nansen’s writing and his own writing through the clues he made available in his published works.  Initially I had read only The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and The First Crossing of Greenland when I began to notice similarities between Nansen’s and Tolkien’s writing.  However, since Tolkien's death, more clues have come to light, particularly through the publication of his letters. 

Tolkien wrote of one particular hobbit that Sam Gamgee was a reflection of the ordinary English soldiers and batmen [orderlies] met with during the First World War and whom he considered as better than himself.  [J. R. R. Tolkien, A Biography by Humphrey Carpenter, Unwin Paperback Edition, 1978, page 89].  This was despite the name being almost that of a real person, Joseph Sampson Gamgee.  Gamgee was the inventor of a medical cotton-wool wound dressing which bore his name - a name Tolkien had known since his childhood.  [The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, A Selection, edited by Humphrey Carpenter and Christopher Tolkien, 1981, page 245].  Tolkien also writes of his use of the alliteratively named ‘Gaffer Gamgee’ [an epithet he used for Sam Gamgee’s father].  This was a name he had previously invented for the amusement of his children and used it to describe an odd old neighbour.  In this letter Tolkien specifically remarks on his use of alliteration.  [Humphrey Carpenter, J.R.R. Tolkien, A Biography, Unwin Paperback Edition, 1978, page 163].  Note the alliterative repetition of ‘G’ and ‘M’ in 'Sam' and 'Gamgee' and compare it with the excerpt from Beowulf given above.  ‘Sam’ and ‘Gam’ rhyme.  Tolkien is telling us to look in the trenches for his inspiration, but through the use of the name, he stresses alliteration and rhyming.  However, Frodo’s companion, Sam[wise]’s abbreviated name is, of course, identical to that of Nansen’s companion, Sam[uel] Balto. 

So who are these indisputably real characters, Fridtjof Nansen and Samuel Balto?  Apart from the names, are there any other ways to connect Nansen’s Lapps with Tolkien’s hobbits?  What makes them so exceptional that Tolkien very significantly bases the names of his central characters upon them?  Do their personas, as revealed in Nansen’s books, bear a resemblance to Tolkien’s fictional characters?  Perhaps Nansen’s books, as a whole, were of interest to Tolkien? 

As we see elsewhere on the site, Fridtjof Nansen was a Norwegian explorer.  On his first major expedition, the first crossing of Greenland, he took two Lapps with him.  The important point, as far as Tolkien was concerned, was that both Fridtjof and Balto wrote about their experiences.  Nansen’s book The First Crossing of Greenland shows how his exploit entered the mythology of the native Greenlanders.  Nansen wrote about myth and its relation to reality within In Northern Mists.  It must have been, for Tolkien, as if the Norse of old had suddenly risen up and started to carry out exploits on the grand scale.  Nansen was no ordinary man.  His exploits were as outsize as any Norse chieftain’s, and they were carried out by a man thoroughly steeped in knowledge of the sagas.  He led his small band through unknown regions where they met with terrifying ordeals - and brought them all back again.  He wrote books which were on the same scale as Norse Saga.  He helped obtain independence for his small country.  Later, he was charged with saving hundreds of thousands of lives after the First World War and the Russian Revolution.


Tolkien’s physical description of hobbits and their origin in Nansen:

The prologue to Lord of the Rings contains a detailed description of hobbits.  Citing a fictional book which includes the term ‘west-march’ in its title, Tolkien describes the short stature of hobbits, up to four and a half feet in height, although apparently in the past two famous hobbits were taller.  Their clothes were coloured brightly and their feet were clad in curly hair.  They wore shoes occasionally.  They were good natured, laughed, heartily ate and drank.

While not giving the height of Balto and Ravna in feet and inches, Nansen describes Ravna as “small in stature”, “very small” and even “stunted”.  The illustrations of Ravna show him to reach about chest height compared to the other expedition members, so he must have been less than 5 feet high [1.5 metres].  Balto was of “average height”.  To this day Lapps, or as they are now known, Sa(a)mi, wear brightly coloured clothes. 

Tolkien's description of hobbits tallies with either Nansen’s Balto or Ravna.  Hairy feet?  Well, the description in the prologue of The Lord of the Rings only says that Hobbits did not often wear shoes and that their feet were clad in hair.  With the sedge or sennegraes stuffed in the Lapps’ boots, it must have looked as if their feet were clad in hair.  They did not wear socks and the "finnesko, the ordinary winter shoe of reindeer skin used by the Lapps... are used with the hair outside" remarks Nansen.  On the sledge expedition of Farthest North Nansen himself wore socks of "sheep’s wool and human hair”.  It has to be said, however, that Tolkien's description given above is a later modification of that given in The Hobbit.  Here hobbits are described as growing toughened soles and insulating hair on their feet.  Some hobbits wear no shoes.  In Nansen’s In Northern Mists we see that long ago, in around A.D. 550, the nomadic Lapps [called Skridfinns] were described as not wearing shoes:

“...nor, when they walk, do they fasten anything under their feet...  (i.e. they do not wear shoes)”.

In the prologue to The Lord of the Rings, there are said to be three races of Hobbits, living respectively in the highlands, the riversides and the trees and woods - one tribe being bootless.  Some hobbits are, however, said to wear dwarf-boots in muddy weather.  All of them were at one time nomadic although they have now settled down, perhaps best illustrated by the immovable mill for grinding corn.  Like Nansen’s Lapps, hobbits had misgivings about boats and few had seen or sailed on the sea and not many of them had returned to tell about it.  [Prologue to The Lord of the Rings].  Nansen tells that Ravna was a true nomadic Lapp who owned reindeer, while Balto was said by Nansen to be an “Elvelapper” or “River-Lapp” and he was settled on the banks of the river Tana on the borders of Norway and Finland.  Neither was initially happy with the sea but both lived to tell of their experiences.

Lapps then, and particularly Nansen’s Lapps, share the major physical attributes of Tolkien’s hobbits.

Nansen and his Lapps; character and nature of hobbits

Nansen’s Lapps, just like hobbits, were very fond of eating, smoking and drinking:

"It was this cursed drink, he [Balto] told me, that was the cause of his being here in the ice.  I asked how that was, and he said that he was drunk when he met a certain person who asked him whether he would join the Greenland expedition.  He was then in high spirits, and quite thought he was equal to anything of the kind.

By next morning when he woke up sober, and remembered what he had said, he repented bitterly.  He thought then that it was too late to undo it all, but he would now give any amount of money not to have come with us at all.  Poor fellow!”


Tolkien even echoes the late appearance of the Lapps by goods train through his description of Bilbo’s shrill scream welling up and emerging like a train from a tunnel.

In response to the dwarves doubts about Bilbo’s qualifications as a burglar, Gandalf defended his decision to craftily cajole and coerce Bilbo into joining the expedition by explaining that suitable warriors were fighting each other in far-away lands and that nearby heroes were scarce to the point of non-existence. 

Nansen had comparable difficulty attracting the right sort of volunteers for his expedition, but deliberately chose to take Lapps.  He wanted Lapps with him because on a previous expedition to Greenland two Lapps had got substantially farther onto the icecap using their traditional mode of transport, ski, than the rest of the party.  He thought that they could be better adapted to the environment than 'civilized' Norwegians and show superior survival skills.  In the event it turned out that the Lapps had a great fondness for the luxuries provided by civilized life - good food, drink and tobacco.  And, initially at least, just like Tolkien’s Bilbo, they are portrayed as lacking in competence.

The Lapp’s taste for animal comforts was remarkable.  Adrift on the ice floe, they would rather starve than eat raw uncooked meat.  After crossing Greenland, the first thing Nansen sent to Balto from Godthaab was a large quantity of tobacco and a pipe.  Pipe-smoking is praised in The Hobbit by the tobacco-smoking Tolkien, even though Gandalf shooed Bilbo out of the house without his pipe.  The Lapps certainly smoked, but Nansen although smoking at an early age as a student, and again later on when he was on the Fram, roundly condemns the practice in First Crossing of Greenland.  While Ravna, the older reindeer herding Lapp was a quiet, staid, character, who tended to sit in a corner and observe the general bedlam around him, Balto was much more colourful and articulate - taking risks, ready with his opinions.  He was the life and soul of the party once the expedition had reached civilization on the west coast of Greenland.  Ravna was more like Bilbo in old age at Rivendell, but it was Balto who published his version of the events of the first crossing of Greenland - the equivalent of Bilbo’s contribution to the ‘Red Book’.

The main difficulties which the Lapps encountered lay in coping with the inconveniences of modern life, such as railway timetables etc., and also with the sea, of which they had limited experience.  But many of Nansen's techniques were derived from Lapp custom, his clothing and equipment showed Lapp influence, for example Nansen was presented with a pair of finnesko by Balto which he wore throughout the expedition.  These boots were worn with the hair of the reindeer still in place on the outside of the leather, and were stuffed with sedges for insulation and to keep their feet dry.  The cold and discomfort would have been no new experience for Ravna; Nansen points out that he spent all his nomadic life in a tent or on skis.  The Lapps complained loudly whenever they were unhappy - they did not even understand the point of the expedition.  Tolkien’s Bilbo does not remain in his correspondingly unhappy and bewildered state for long - his skills as a burglar are eventually admitted by the others, but Nansen it must be said, is hard pressed to praise his Lapp's comparable survival skills.  Although not a factor in Nansen's decision to take the Lapps with him, Lapps have historically been associated with magic.  [See In Northern Mists ].

When we compare Frodo’s character in The Lord of the Rings with Fridtjof’s character throughout Nansen’s books, we find a similar development.  Fridtjof gives a view of his own disposition as a young man in his University of St Andrews Lecture:

“...Barrie warned you against M’Connachie, his imaginary other half, who is always flying around on one wing, dragging him with him.  And what shall we other poor mortals say, whose M’Connachies do not write charming plays for us, like Barrie’s [Peter Pan], but merely lead us astray?

How many nasty tricks that unruly fellow has played me!  When we were young, and plodding steadily along a fairly promising road, he would suddenly bolt up some unexpected side track, and I had to follow and make the best of it.  Now, do not mistake that fanciful creature for the spirit of adventure.  Far from it, he is just Master Irresponsible - an emotional, impulsive, and quarrelsome person, who is very easily bored...

Let me try to tell you how it worked in my case...  I was an undergraduate once, even younger than most of you, probably, and a ‘ne’er-do-weel’ except for some little sport, perhaps.  According to Carlyle, ‘the first of all problems for a man to find out is what kind of work he is to do in this universe.’  But even this little problem I had not been able to solve...”

Frodo at first appears almost as a ‘ne’er-do-weel’.  He certainly does not want to take up the burden of the ring.  Fridtjof becomes a courageous, driven, man of his word, he pursues his goals in the face of criticism and survives against all the odds.  Just as Frodo should have been destroyed by the Black Riders before he got to Rivendell, so Fridtjof should have drowned before he even started to cross Greenland.  They were both lucky.  Neither bears ill-will.  Nansen has faith in his own abilities and inspires faith in others.  Similarly, and against several forcefully expressed opinions, Frodo is appointed ‘ring-bearer’ at Rivendell.  There is no incertitude expressed by Nansen in the First Crossing of Greenland, but later Fridtjof reveals his nightmares and doubts in Farthest North.  Having taken a ship full of men into the frozen pack ice, in order to achieve his goal he leaves the boat with a single companion for a march on the Pole - rather like Frodo and Sam’s decision to march to Mount Doom without the rest of their companions.  Fridtjof’s successes become oddly muted and negative.  Where Frodo, rather than gain something, loses it [the ring], Nansen does not achieve his goal of the North Pole, although he goes far enough to show that it will consist of a featureless area of floating ice.  Just like Frodo, Nansen is not directly involved in the battles of the Great War of his time.  He fights for the huge numbers of refugees at the end of the war but he cannot prevent more wars and the displacement of entire populations.  Where he tries to secure a homeland for the diminished numbers of Armenians he can do little but publicly mourn their plight.  Although Frodo returns to the Shire, he does not do so as a conquering king.  Nansen was reportedly offered the premiership of Norway - but refused.


Nansen’s books

In the course of reading Fridtjof Nansen’s own books, particularly The First Crossing of Greenland, and Farthest North, I began to see how influential they were in the field of travel writing - clearly written and direct, illustrated [Farthest North among the first books to use colour] and generally more accessible than many of the weighty tombs which went before.  Much of this had to do with Fridtjof Nansen’s inclusion in First Crossing of excerpts from the journal of one of his Lapp friends.  Samuel Balto’s emotional reaction to the adventure, together with Nansen’s rather lofty account of the same experience, enables the reader to measure his own response to, for example, the horrors of being adrift for days on a fast-melting ice floe in a fast-flowing current - with almost nothing to eat but cold raw horse-meat.  Balto expresses his fears where other starchy Victorian explorers, in previous books, would not.  The same device is now commonplace in travel-writings and travel-films such as those of Michael Palin where the measured, mocking, voice-over contrasts with the antics of the on-screen character.  Tolkien’s books are very much travel writing with his characters moving through a mythical world - Mr. Baggins, just like Balto, confides his fears to Tolkien’s readers often against a background of mockery from the narrator.  It has been said that hobbits represent a particular condition of the human species.  This is an important point, for much has been written on the origins of Tolkien's inspired invention, the race of Hobbits.

Correspondence between Ransome and Tolkien

Arthur Ransome and E. Nesbit borrowed from Nansen - but they quoted Nansen’s name in their books.  Mainly through the use of alliteration, Tolkien tied his books to Nansen’s books.  If the analysis of Tolkien’s character names is accepted, then we have no choice but to believe that Tolkien also used Nansen’s books as a primary source for his work.  It follows that Tolkien wanted his readers to understand the connection and themselves read Nansen’s books.  While I do not claim Fridtjof Nansen's writing as Tolkien's sole source of inspiration, I believe that the evidence presented here suggests that Tolkien, through the clues he left us, regarded Nansen’s writing as by far the single greatest influence on The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.  While I am certain that Tolkien’s writing was influenced by Nansen to a greater extent than any other individual, there is no public admission that this is the case.  The uncertainty adds to the interest!

Arthur Ransome's books were much admired by Tolkien's children.  Winter Holiday was published in 1933 [with its Nansen-based story], and in print four years later was The Hobbit or There and Back Again, although a text was said to be in existence by 1932.

Shortly after publication Ransome wrote to Tolkien, drawing attention to the use of the description of Bilbo as a man.  Tolkien replied at once and at length, and subsequent editions have the description slightly altered to ‘fellow’ [coincidentally a description Nansen uses of Balto - see above].  Ransome replied implying that not only did Bilbo wear a disguise, but also that Ransome had seen through it.  Tolkien never publicly revealed the sources of his inspiration, but I believe that there is sufficient evidence to suggest that Nansen's Lapps provided the role models for the race of Hobbits.  It is possible that Arthur Ransome noticed the similarities, hence his letter to Tolkien.

J. R. R. Tolkien wrote whole books with his leading characters based on the Lapps - although he does not directly acknowledge any influence from Nansen.  E. Nesbit, however, does not specifically mention the Lapps while Arthur Ransome has one of his characters refer disparagingly of them.  In his book, Ransome catches Nansen's ambivalent attitude towards the Lapps when comparing them to the rest of the company of Norwegians.  At one point Nansen describes Ravna as "predominantly lazy" and says the Lapps were "afraid of everything and easily scared."  However, this contrasts with Nansen's description of Balto's "ready tongue and lively wit" which enabled him to be the "enlivening spirit of the expedition."  The Lapps regarded Nansen as a father-figure, and are portrayed in First Crossing as naive and almost childlike characters. 

The Lapps' main reasons for going with Nansen, on what they regarded as a very risky venture, was to do with being drunk when they agreed to go, not wanting to lose face once they had started, and not wanting to forfeit the relatively large sum promised them by Fridtjof Nansen.  If we compare Bilbo's reasons for setting out, they amount to much the same - there was a fair quantity of alcohol flowing at the Bag End party - beer, ale and red wine.  And Bilbo certainly did not want to lose face.  See chapter 1 of The Hobbit.

Homely Houses, Eagles Nests and Barrels

But if these Lapps contribute to J.R.R. Tolkien's vision of Hobbits, what then of the rest of the book?  Looking at the elements of the story, many incidents are common, although modified, to both books.  Perhaps we can quickly go through the two books looking for similarities, like examining the ridges and furrows of fingerprints left by burglars for points of comparison.

Compare the Elves of Rivandell [The Hobbit, page 56] with the Eskimo encampment reached after the nightmare trip on the melting floe.  The eagle's eyrie [The Hobbit, page 119] equates with Nansen's 'Eagles Nest'.  Balto later describes an Eskimo devouring a raw bird as behaving like an eagle.  Beorn the changeling bear [of chapter VII] equates with the polar-bear [although it is just as well that Nansen with his rifle did not meet him].  The trees of Mirkwood are almost certainly to be found in Siberia - the land of the future where Nansen reported seeing fires flickering among the trees of the great ‘taiga’ which drew him to them.  The forest of Mirkwood can also be paired with the ice plateau of Greenland, for to the etymologist [but not the environmentalist] 'forest' can mean a wild place, not necessarily with trees, like a present-day Scots ‘forest’  ‘Mirkwood’ was borrowed from German geography and myth [from the ‘Guide to the Names in the Lord of the Rings’ by J.R.R. Tolkien in A Tolkien Compass edited by Jared Lobdell, 1975, pages 189-190] although the name appears in The House of the Wolfings by William Morris .  The Greenland ice-plateau was the place of Eskimo legends - a “fairyland” according to Nansen's Eskimo Life and In Northern Mists.  Here spiders are met with, and the dwarves are trussed up and drugged - rather like the sleepy state of Nansen's expedition inside their giant sleeping bags.  The repeated confrontations with arachnids may be traced to Tolkien’s experience as a child in South Africa where he had a memorable meeting with a large hairy spider.  Chapter IX ['Barrels out of Bond'] equates nicely with the nightmare journey on the ice floe, and with the expedition's precious barrel... also, it should be noted, with Nesbit's barrels in the cellars of the 'Red House' [with its allusion to Nansen] and her 'Viking' smuggler's barrel filled with water.

I do not claim Fridtjof Nansen's writing as J.R.R. Tolkien's sole source of inspiration.  However, in the light of the evidence presented here, I am certain that Nansen’s books are the main influence on The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.  As we will see, the connection with Nansen can explain much of the overall character of Tolkien’s books - even the absence of women!  There are very few women depicted in Tolkien’s books and various attempts have been made to explain this glaring omission.  As Nansen’s writing was a fundamental influence on The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, so a justification for the lack of female characters becomes clear.  Nansen wrote mainly about exploration - and no women were members of his expeditions.  Victorian or Edwardian expeditions did not include women.  Although there were some very famous women explorers, they travelled quietly and often almost alone, save for guides and a servant or two.  For example Gertrude Bell who climbed mountains in Switzerland and travelled widely in Arabia.

There are, of course, other undeniable influences on Tolkien, for example the books of E. Nesbit, John Buchan and William Morris.  Tom Shippey unravels many of Tolkien’s strands in his books, as do the contributors to the J. R. R. Tolkien Encyclopedia.  Although Tolkien publicly admitted to few of these influences, he did declare that the Shire itself represented the pre-industrial countryside on the outskirts of Birmingham.  The young Tolkien was deprived of his rural life in the countryside, just outside the rapidly encroaching city, when his mother moved just a few miles into poor lodgings within the urban sprawl.  Tolkien, as we know, was a philologist.  Even when a particular word has not survived, a philologist can compare words in related languages and infer the form of the missing word.  The English Midlands, an area which includes both Birmingham and Oxford, covers the same ground as the corresponding Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia.  Tolkien used place-names and dialect in his books which connects the real historic Mercia with the imaginary Rohan.  Shippey recounts that the Rohirrim called their country ‘The Mark’ and while there is no English county of this name, he notes that present-day term for the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia is a later Latin name.  The original name by which the inhabitants called their own country has not been recorded.  However, Shippey says that the West-Saxons are recorded as calling their neighbours the Mierce, and that that this is derived from Mearc which the ‘Mercians’ would pronounce as ‘Mark’.  Mark is a word which is not known to have survived, and having been inferred in this way it is given an asterisk - hence *Mearc.  To confirm his hypothesis, Shippey points out that the Rohirrim emblem, a white horse on a green field is non other than the famous White Horse of Uffington, cut into the white chalk hillside about 3000 years ago and just on the edge of the area.  [Tom Shippey, The Road to Middle Earth, 2005, pages 133 & 139-141]. 

Tolkien also wrote that he regarded Christianity as the greatest influence on his writing.  Although this is undoubtedly the case in philosophical ways, it is difficult, for example, to see specific philological connections between The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and the Bible.

A March to the West?

The Prologue to The Lord of the Rings [The Fellowship of the Ring pages 10-24] states that a book known as the Red Book of Westmarch was the most important source for the history of the Ring wars.  This book seems to have been a compendium of several author’s work as Tolkien writes that it included both Frodo’s account of the war and Bilbo’s diary.  We are told that The Hobbit was derived from the early chapters of the ‘Red Book of Westmarch’. Rather oddly the march of the title is said by Tolkien to refer to Bilbo’s march in The Hobbit but this was actually towards the east!  This inconsistency is rather lamely resolved by Tolkien’s explanation that the march to the west refers to Bilbo’s return journey.  The return takes only eight pages to narrate compared to a total page count of 317!  The unique feature of Nansen’s endeavour to cross Greenland was that, unlike all previous attempts, it was made from the East Coast towards the West Coast - truly a ‘west-march’.  Fridtjof Nansen’s account of the trip includes quotes from Balto’s diary.  Balto's journal was initially published in Lappish and not until 1980 was it published in its entirety in Norwegian.  [Samuel J. Balto, Med Nansen over Grønlandsisen i 1888, Oslo].   There is a case for suggesting that Tolkien’s explanation for the title of the ‘Red Book of Westmarch’ is an inculpated admission that the hobbit world’s ‘Red Book’ is partly the First Crossing of Greenland. The fact that Tolkien quoted from another of Nansen's books suggests that Nansen's book[s] played a purposeful role on Tolkien's bookshelves.  Tolkien quotes Nansen's  In Northern Mists, remarking on Nansen's suggestion that the Irish mythical island of Hy Breasail contributed to the name applied to Brazil.

The quote from volume two, pages 223 to 230, shows that Tolkien was referring to the English translation of Nansen's original Norwegian text.  The quotation appears in the second footnote at the start of 'On Fairy Stories' in the version printed in The Monsters and the Critics, 2006, page 111.  Note the alliterative connection between Brazil and Breasail!

Many editions of Nansen’s book were published - Tolkien may well have had one with a red cover.  However, Randel Helms points out that Tolkien’s phrase accounting for the colour of the book is a playful adaption of William F. Skene’s explanation of the name of the ‘Red Book of Hergest’ [an ancient collection of Welsh bardic poetry which Skene edited].  Skene, a century before Tolkien, had declared: ‘The Red Book of Hergest is said to have been so termed from its having been compiled for the Vaughans of Hergest Court, Herefordshire.’  [See Randel Helms, Tolkien's World, Thames and Hudson, 1974, page 114].  Rather than diminish the possibility for Tolkien’s use of Nansen’s books as a basis for his own tales, this humorous near-replication strengthens the case for believing that Tolkien went in for further large-scale witty borrowing.  It also strengthens the case for Tolkien wanting his readers to discover the link with Nansen’s books.

Surrealism

It is perhaps tempting to believe that Tolkien did indeed use real life; or rather Nansen’s depiction of it as described in his books, as a hidden basis for his tales of fantasy - but that this influence arose from Tolkien’s unconscious.  At the time when Tolkien was beginning to write his fantasies an art movement was forming which explored this juxtaposition between rational thought and the unconscious.  The Surrealist movement was founded in the early 1920's by the French poet André Breton.  He used Sigmund Freud’s ideas on the normally untappable part of the mind known as the ‘unconscious’ and hoped to unite this inner world of dream and fantasy with the everyday thoughts of the conscious rational mind to form a ‘surreal’ reality.  The movement began with a desire to overthrow the ‘rationalism’ which had run through Western politics and culture and was thought to have resulted in the long predicted but apparently logically inescapable conflict which culminated in the First World War.

The most extreme form of surrealist writing was automatic writing.  Here the author would simply write words in the order they appeared in his mind with no censorship or conscious organisation.  While there were several, mainly French, poets who were members of the Surrealist movement, such as Breton or Paul Éluard, it was the painters who have been recognised as having the most obvious impact on art.  There was no single recognisable style across the group, although the exploration of the unconscious sometimes gave rise to the portrayal of monsters, while other artists produced undeniably enchanting work.  At one extreme paintings suggested or hinted at the depiction of real objects but which confronted the viewer with elusive images which could not be completely grasped or ‘made sense of’.  Artists typical of this approach were Ernst, Masson, Arp and Miró.  At the other extreme were artists who used recognisable images of objects, sometimes photo-realistically painted, but who placed them in an ambiguous context which was often shockingly paradoxical.  Here the painter attempts to gain an initially sympathetic response from the viewer.  But while making sense of the individual items, often painted in great detail, the viewer is forced to acknowledge the logical paradox - the irrational juxtaposition which has emerged from the realm of the artist’s unconscious.  Extremely well known artists painted in this way, for example, Dali [the melting watch] and Magritte [respectable bowler-hatted men in odd situations].  There were artists who used ‘automatic drawing’ the equivalent of ‘automatic writing’ to produce spontaneous and often unrecognisable images, and also artists who followed the Dadist movement in utilising ‘found objects’.  Picasso was able to draw on both the surrealist and the contemporary Cubist movements and he wrote surrealist poetry.  [See ‘Surrealism’, Britannica (R) CD99 Multimedia Edition, (c) 1994-99 Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.]

That Tolkien was not conscious of the influence of Nansen on his own writing is not likely.  As we have seen there are several inclusions which deliberately, if obliquely, reference Nansen’s books.  However, it is very tempting to see Tolkien’s writing and drawing in terms of the most influential art movement of the time.  Tolkien’s work encompasses both delightful images and monsters and even such ‘found objects’ as ‘The Red Book of Hergest’ and Nesbit’s or Nansen’s books.  Tolkien remarked in a letter written in 1938 that Beowulf was a valuabe resource but that he did not consciously have it in mind during writing.   [Letters, page 31]  He even stated in a letter to W. H. Auden dated 1955 that he wrote the opening words of The Hobbit on a blank page in an exam paper that he was marking and did not know why. [Humphrey Carpenter and Christopher Tolkien, editors, The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, 1981, page 215].



Other influences on Tolkien

I have suggested that The First Crossing of Greenland and Farthest North specifically influenced Ransome and Nesbit, who both acknowledged the fact, and Tolkien, who didn't.  There can, however, be no doubt that E. Nesbit was an influence on Tolkien, although not, so far as I am aware, that he or indeed his earlier biographers acknowledged this directly.  In Roverandom [J. R. R. Tolkien, edited by Christina Scull and Wayne G. Hammond, 1998, pages 11 and 93] written before The Hobbit in 1925 but not published until 1998, one of the characters is borrowed directly from Nesbit.  In the earliest manuscript the sand-sorcerer, Psamathists, is called a Psammead, which comes straight from Nesbit's Five Children and It and The Story of the Amulet.  The whole character of the book is rather like an extended Nesbit short story, such as 'Whereyouwantogoto' in Nine Unlikely Tales for Children [1901] or perhaps Wet Magic [serialised from 1912 to 1913].  This became Nesbit's last completed book for children.  The intrusion into Roverandom of a little science-fiction in the form of a trip to the moon, where Nesbit would perhaps have had time-travel, adds to the similarity.

In fact there is surprisingly little in the way of magical happenings in Tolkien's writings.  His major magical theme, apart from the more or less mythical creatures such as the Psammead, dragons, hobbits etc., is invisibility.  This property is explored throughout The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, as it was, in all its forms, by E. Nesbit in The Enchanted Castle.  Here, after an opening which sees the reader flounder between ‘reality’ and fantasy, the transformation is brought about by the wearing of a ring.


Samuel Taylor Coleridge, disbelief and subcreation

The poet, Coleridge, coined the phrase ‘willing suspension of disbelief’.  This phrase implies that the author expects the reader to lower his critical faculties in order to resolve any predicament in which the author has placed him.  The phrase is often used in connection with tales of fantasy where a poorly constructed and implausible narrative can cause the reader to disengage from the plot.  Tolkien disagrees - he explains that a successful story is the product of a successful process of ‘subcreation’ by the author.  A subcreation consists of everything that exists everywhere within the story.  [J. R. R. Tolkien, Tree and Leaf, page 36].  It matters not how unusual the story is, so long as the ‘secondary world’ [the product of the act of subcreation] remains completely coherent.  The secondary world, which is entered by the mind of the reader, must conform entirely to the laws of that world so that the reader never comes across an unintentional paradox within the story.  Alice in Wonderland, an extreme example, is consistently and intentionally contradictory.  Once the reader’s mind enters the story, no matter how far-fetched, the story maker must provide a world which is true to itself.  The careful process of subcreation enables the reader to believe all that he or she is told - while he or she is inside the story.  Perhaps the most extensive and recent example of a secondary world lies within the Harry Potter series of books.  However, Tolkien went even farther by supplying his own fictional history as a background for the books, a history which extends outside the story and was for many years accessible only by the author.  Revealed here for the first time, Tolkien also included ‘real’ history in his subcreation, in the form of repeated allusion to Nansen’s exploits.

Both the plan for the first crossing of Greenland and the plan for the Fram’s voyage across the Arctic were met with almost universal scepticism.  Coleridge’s ‘suspension of disbelief’ was required of anyone involved with the genesis of these real-life projects.  Once on board the Fram, Nansen’s crew experienced, or at least Nansen wished them to experience, a mental condition of shifting realities.  With an ice-cold, dark and deadly actuality outside, an alternate reality - almost a ‘fantasy life’, prevailed within the Fram.  This life of steady routine interspersed with various diversions enabled the participants to relax and behave as if they had no major troubles - as if this life were ‘real’.  The point at which the two realities diverged was perhaps marked when Johansen noted that the fire was lit on the first Christmas Day spent on board the Fram.  The beginning of the crew’s acceptance of, and new confidence in, warmth safety and comfort was signalled by the lighting of the fire and the bright light provided by the windmill and generator.  Nansen recorded on October 4th of the second autumn:  “As yet the coals are not being touched, except for the stove in the saloon, where they are to be allowed to burn as much as they like this winter.  The quantity thus consumed will be a trifle in comparison with our store of about 100 tons...”

The crew of the Fram never, or rarely, felt that death was imminent, unlike Nansen’s Greenland Lapps - Balto and Ravna.  Apparently no record exists of the crew taking any of their fears to Nansen.  An intellectual and emotional framework was constructed by Nansen with the help of his officers and maintained by the support of all on board to sustain belief over a period of years.  They managed the physical environment of the ship, the food and warmth, to foster a belief that they were safe.  This was a process very much like Tolkien’s subcreator making his fictional ‘secondary world’.  It required, from the crew, a return to an almost childlike state of mind.  The extended voyage could only succeed by prolonged confidence in the boat, each other, and especially Nansen’s vision.  The picture of life on the ice, had the boat gone to the bottom, was thrust away.  Coleridge’s ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ which was applied to reading a book - was here made at least partially real.

The cold, the snow and howling wind, the crashing waves of movement within the solid ice, the contrasting silent aurora during the long winter night: all became an almost detached entity.  Nevertheless, Nansen recognised that this was all lived on a knife edge - like a kayaker who had only to make one false stroke to cause the craft to overturn.  He remarks:

“It is grand as long as the faith lasts, but God be merciful to him on the day that it fails!”

Nansen also writes of the contradiction between the almost despised comforts on board, of “civilization”, and the immediacy of the wilderness surrounding him.  He hankers after the actuality of setting off on foot for the Pole, apparently with no lack of volunteers willing to follow him.  They desire what Nesbit calls ‘a bit of the real thing.’  Probably the worst psychological pressure arose after Nansen, the leader and architect of the project, had left on his march toward the Pole.  Blessing, the doctor, began to take morphine.  However, at this time, many people were addicted to it having been routinely prescribed the drug to control pain.


Certainly in First Crossing the outbursts from the Lapps are reported, Nansen going so far as to quote these directly from Balto’s journal.  However, Farthest North is notable for the lack of petty disagreements or discord reported therein.  This absence of ‘backbiting’ was probably of great interest to Arthur Ransome for in his books Nansen’s example is followed - there are disagreements, but no petty bickering, no endless arguing.  We could assume, by taking Nansen at face value, that the only fights occurring on the Fram were between the dogs - but that was not so.  Many of the crew kept diaries and they were certainly not discouraged in this.  Nansen remarks that in addition to Blessing’s bookbinding concern “The manufacture of diaries, however, is the most extensive - every man on board works on that...”  From these records we know that grudges were harboured - or perhaps expunged by the act of writing.

Some reaction was to be expected when one considers the unusual psychological pressure undergone on the Fram.  The voyage lasted for about the same time as the projected manned mission to mars.  The isolation was complete - there were no radio links to mission control.  The lack of daylight and close confinement would also take their toll - but then Nansen had picked men who had generally lived, sailed, whaled and sealed in the Arctic.  Thus hardened to this way of life, they had developed their own ways of dealing with their problems.  Nansen himself was noted for his own lack of rancour - ‘From his earliest childhood he had the endearing characteristic that he never sulked or bore ill-will.  What was past was past - blown to the winds...’
  [W. C. Brögger and Nordahl Rolfsen, Fridtiof Nansen, 1861-1893, translated by William Archer, Longmans, Green, and Co., 1896 page 28].  This is perhaps the idealised aspect of a character which Ransome often, but not always, seems to portray in his books.  Here Nesbit differed markedly from Ransome.  Her ‘Treasure Seekers’ books also contain passages which quote Nansen’s name, but contain much quarrelling.  Clearly, she was interested in this destructive aspect of the behaviour of children.  She wrote a short story in 1902 entitled ‘The Revolt of the Toys or What Comes of Quarrelling’.


Mythology

Without, till now, explicitly using the term myth, we have seen here the formation of a mythology based around the books of Nansen.  Mythology can be defined as a body of stories associated with a particular person or subject.  The term myth is often applied to a narrative involving a fictitious character or a real person endowed with supposedly supernatural attributes.  Nansen was, of course, entirely mortal.  However, he defeated not only the reality of the Arctic but also the old mythology relating to the Arctic.  Nansen smashed many beliefs about the Arctic when he took the Fram across the frozen sea.  The experts, almost unanimous in their critical views, were confounded.  A new system of beliefs replaced the old ideas.  Neither Ransome nor Nesbit, while quoting his name and books, attempted to invest Nansen with supernatural abilities, although Ransome describes Nansen as a hero of his.  The Lapps, however, while being portrayed as entirely mortal by Nansen, are historically connected with magic.  It is this combination of magic and myth which may have attracted Tolkien to Nansen’s books.

Myth can be simply defined as a story accepted as history by a group or population.  The myth [or, indeed, history] may or may not be true.  A body of such myths therefore accounts for the ‘world view’ of that people.  For the myth to continue, it has to have relevance to the time when the story is recounted.  Recently the term ‘myth’ has often been used to describe something widely believed to be true but actually false.  This is a modern change and obviously incompatible with the mythology surrounding Nansen:  everything he wrote was true.  For a considered discussion of mythology see:

http://ancienthistory.about.com/cs/grecoromanmyth1/a/whatismyth.htm

If Nansen was launching a mythology drawn from his own life by means of his books, he was joined, during the First World War, by another author who himself had a colourful life and wrote novels which have the attributes of myth.

John Buchan and Myth


John Buchan was, to a very remarkable extent, instrumental in shaping our view of the First World War.  Buchan took part in the commissioning of war artists such as Paul Nash, Roger Fry and others.  He was also involved in the contemporary filming of scenes, often recreations, at the Battles of the Somme and Arras.  In addition he wrote books about the war at the time.  Most books about the First World War were written after the conflict had ended, but the series of Richard Hannay books utilized contemporary events and characters typical of the period.  These words and images form the basis for our concept of the First World War: indeed, the mythology surrounding the First World War.  Buchan’s biographer, David Daniell [The Interpreter’s House; A Critical Assessment of the Work of John Buchan, Nelson, 1975] recognizes this and goes further, pointing out Buchan’s use of symbols in his books which are typical of myths common to many civilizations.  He also remarks that twenty years after Buchan, Tolkien’s group in Oxford were deliberately setting out to create myths in modern fictional fantasy where Buchan had already made myth from reality. 

John Buchan’s Witch Wood, a novel set in eighteenth century Scotland, describes the adventures of a young and inexperienced man who has been appointed minister to his new parish, Woodilee.  The parish borders the remains of the great Scottish forest of Caledon which itself is a remnant of the great forest or taiga which stretched across all of Europe.  Nansen travelled through the remnants of the taiga which still extends over much of Siberia.  Not only was Witch Wood John Buchan’s own favourite, but C. S. Lewis wrote that he would always be grateful for it.

Buchan’s description of the wood, called 'Melanundrigill', is very strange - the author insists that rather than the static and immovable group of trees with which we are all familiar, this wood moves as a single entity.  Having gained our attention, he retreats slightly by using images of water in describing the mobile scene.  Buchan then endows his wood, which is draped across the land like a spider and is plagued by fluttering white moths, with further magical dimensions by references to the auld folk, good folk, wood nymphs, etc.  Later the young minister is disoriented and runs in circles trying to escape from a clearing in the forest only to return to it again.  Here, unholy rituals are to be carried out.  It is very likely that Tolkien absorbed these carefully constructed passages into his own spider-infested forest.  In Tolkien’s Mirkwood unwary travellers are lead from the tortured path, like moths to the flame, by the activities of elves dancing in clearings in the woods.  It is because the dwarves are unable to resist pursuing the elves and their fires that they are captured and imprisoned. 

Several writers have suggested that Tolkien’s mobile trees derive from Shakespeare’s Hamlet where Birnam wood famously moves - albeit only branches carried by men as camouflage.

Buchan also wrote a tale of adventure which involved bare-footed dwarfs and a rotund, middle-aged, middle-class gent with a sense of humour who becomes [to his own surprise] a burglar.  The book is Huntingtower, the overweight grocer’s name is Dickson McCunn and the bare-footed dwarfs are children from the gangs of Glasgow.  Oddly enough several reappear as undergraduates from Cambridge University in a sequel to Huntingtower.  Unfortunately I can discover no alliterative connection with Tolkien - apart from Buchan’s name for his forest - Melanundrigill.  This is alliteratively and rhythmically close to ‘Mr. Underhill’, Frodo’s alias at the start of The Lord of the Rings.  However, for myself, I feel that this single strand does not count as a convincing example of one of Tolkien’s deliberate and often mischievous hints.

I have already suggested that Nansen’s book The First Crossing of Greenland supplied much of the inspiration for the story of The Hobbit.  Nansen’s Greenland expedition, with its central plateau a place which the Eskimo regarded as a forbidden fairyland, provided the ‘bare bones’ for much of The Hobbit.  It seems to me that Tolkien has drawn on Buchan’s Witch Wood and Nansen’s Siberian travels for Mirkwood’s clothing of trees.

There is much written about life in the wilderness and forests of Norway in Nansen’s Sporting Days in Wild Norway.  One passage even presents a possible explanation for the belief in use of flying broomsticks by wizards and witches.  “Halvor suggested that the best plan was to cut a fairly well grown spruce fir and sit astride it in the manner often adopted by dairymaids when they have to ski down these precipitous hills.”  There would not be a deal of difference between the appearance of a broomstick and a cut-down fir-tree, especially if it is seen hurtling down a steep mountainside with a buxom dairymaid astride.  The leaves and branches were left on to slow progress, and the occasional leap into the air as it cleared obstructions on precipitous slopes would add to the vision of a mounted broomstick in flight.

Farthest North and In Northern Mists

Earlier I suggested that Balto was a model for Bilbo in The Hobbit.  In The Lord of the Rings Bilbo in old age is more like Balto’s sleepy friend, Ravna.  If we look for the appearance of a name similar to Frodo within Nansen’s writing, the nearest match is Fridtjof himself - and Frodo’s personality and character is much as Nansen depicts himself in Farthest North.  Here, Nansen is much less sure of himself than in The First Crossing of Greenland.  He has to rely on Johansen for support when he becomes ill on the march for the North Pole.  If Fridtjof Nansen is a precursor for Frodo, then it is tempting to look among the crew of the Fram for traces of Frodo’s companions in Nansen’s Farthest North.  But there are no names which help us here - no Aragorn or Strider, no Legolas or Gimli which with a change of an odd syllable and consonant can be transmuted into the names of the crew.  Even Captain Sverdrup seems to lack a recognisable reflection in Tolkien’s writing.

We can, however, find several passages within Tolkien’s books which may reveal Tolkien’s interest in In Northern Mists.  I have established that Nansen’s Lapps are the most likely precursors for hobbits.  Within In Northern Mists there is much written about the Lapps who are revealed here as historically associated with magic.

The story of the ‘seven sleepers’ is recounted: the finding of a cave containing seven perfectly preserved men apparently stretched out asleep after an indeterminate time.  Only a few lines farther on Nansen quotes the historian Paulus Warnefridi [A.D. 720-790] as recording that the Lapps [he calls them Scritobini] had the ability to perform prodigious leaps.  The Norse legend of subterranean water-filled channels of the ‘world’s well’, ‘Hvergelmer’, is also related.  This is coupled with the story of the mill-stones [known as the
Grótti - see above] at the bottom of the sea which forms whirlpools when the water runs down the hole in the centre.  These few pages may presage the night in the mountains where the dwarves slept in a cave [the seven sleepers] and were captured.  There were fourteen in the party, excluding Gandalf, who escaped.  This is twice the traditional magical number, seven.  Bilbo escapes and finds his way to a subterranean lake [the ‘world’s well’] and wins Gollum’s ring [the millstone - a ring of stone] by answering riddles.  He then leaps over Gollum - a big jump for a hobbit - to escape.  [In Northern Mists, Volume I pages 156-159].

Many references to magic are found, with, for example, Nansen at one point explaining the historical confusion over the use of the term ‘gand’, meaning sorcery, for a north-western bay of the White Sea [the Russian ‘Beloye More’] to the east of Finland.  Wizards are also mentioned - for example, the “wind-selling wizards of the Polychronicon” who may or may not be Lapps.


Nansen’s later life and writing - Siberia and the Caucasus

If we continue to look for any influence of Nansen’s later life and writing on Tolkien, then the detail of the trail becomes much harder to follow - although the broad stokes of narrative appear to be observed.  Siberia - the Land of the Future sees Nansen navigating one of the great rivers flowing into the Arctic Ocean through the depths of Siberia to the centre of Asia.  This may tally with Tolkien’s ‘Great River’.  Tolkien’s river flows south, but Nansen was also travelling south - against the stream.

The approach to ‘Mount Doom’ may reflect Nansen’s travels in Armenia and Georgia as he grapples with the difficulties of resettling the remnants of the dispossessed Armenian people.  The Armenians had been sent on ‘death marches’ perhaps referred to as Frodo and Sam are set on a forced march in Mordor by orcs.  Nansen tells of men in the Caucasus Mountains armed, at the beginning of the twentieth century, with swords and wearing chain mail and metal-plate body-armour.  Just like mediæval knights or Tolkien’s combatants.

“A curious custom is that the men wear on the right thumb a thick iron ring with heavy spikes on it; it is used for giving blows in a fight, and there is hardly any older man without unsightly scars due to this cause, and in this hideous disfigurement of the face they often surpass even the most damaged German student.  The same kind of ring is said to have been used in the Black Forest in Upper Bavaria”.  [German students used to fence without face protection.  The winner was the one who cut his opponent’s cheek]. 

The high stone seat upon which Frodo sat at the end of The Fellowship of the Ring may have its forerunner in a church in Georgia high up above a sheer cliff in the mountains - the church of the Holy Cross, Mtskhetha.  Here there is not one, but a pair of churches, side by side.  One church contains what a monk tells Nansen was an altar of the ancient fire worshippers.  If so, it must have been there before the church was built around it.  The other contains a stone seat which is said to be the throne of ancient kings.  Again, if it was used during the golden age of the Georgians [not likely according to Nansen] it also must have been there before the present church - and would then have had a tremendous view over the dramatic gorge below.  ‘Mount Doom’ itself may constitute part of the Caucasus range as described by Nansen.  He writes of the ancient fire-worshippers of the Caucasus who took advantage of the gas streaming out of the ground in Daghestan to light everlasting flames.  There is even a reference to elephants [to Samwise, ‘oliphants’] not that Sam would have wanted to see the spectacle: “Thousands of Armenians of both sexes were driven together and trampled underfoot by elephants...  Fire altars were set up...”

The Monsters, Rohan, the Hordes and the Lapps

Many fabled peoples and monsters are described within In Northern Mists.  These are often the product of the imagination of adventurers and chroniclers who were writing more than a thousand years before Nansen.  They include Paul Warnefridi’s reports [lived around A.D. 720-790] of the “...Greek fabulous people such as the Dog-heads (Cynocephali) and the Amazons [warlike women who Paul thought had been destroyed long before] in North Germania.  He says that the ‘Langobards’ fought with a people called ‘Assipitti,’ who lived in ‘Mauringa,’ and that they frightened them by saying that they had Cynocephali in their army.  The Cynocephali drank human blood, their own if they could not get that of others.  The Langobards were said to have been stopped by the Amazons at a river in Germany...”

While the beings described above are fantastic creations, some tribes are accurately reported.  It is remarkable how far and how quickly they travelled across Europe.  Nansen quotes the historian Jordanes as relating that the Suehans [Swedes] were well known for having exceptional horses and he believes that Jordanes got this information from King Rodulf who probably travelled, with his tribe, the Eruli, from north Norway all the way across Europe to the River Danube.  They may well have used Swedish horses and it is very likely that this is the origin of Tolkien’s ‘Rohan’ - a contraction of Rodulf and Suehan. 


The historian, Procopius, wrote ‘De bello Gothico’ in about 552 A.D and Nansen quotes him:

“He [Procopius] tells us of the warlike Germanic people, the Eruli, (probably they came from the north) who were said to have lived on the north bank of the Danube, and who, with no better reason than that they had lived in peace for three whole years and were tired of it, attacked their neighbours the Langobards, but suffered a decisive defeat, and their king, Rodulf, fell in the battle (about 493)…”

“‘They then hastily left their dwelling-places, and set out with their women and children to wander through the whole country
(Hungary) which lies north of the Danube.  When they came to the district where the Rogians had formerly dwelt, who had joined the army of the Goths and gone into Italy, they settled there; but as they were oppressed by famine in that district, which had been laid waste, they soon afterwards departed from it, and came near to the country of the Gepidæ (Siebenbürgen).  The Gepidæ allowed them to establish themselves and to become their neighbours, but began thereupon, without the slightest cause, to commit the most revolting acts against them, ravishing their women, robbing them of cattle and other goods, and omitting no kind of injustice, and finally began an unjust war against them.’

The Eruli then crossed the Danube to Illyria and settled somewhere about what is now Servia under the Eastern [Byzantine] Emperor Anastasius (491 - 518).  Some of the Eruli would not ‘cross the Danube, but decided to establish themselves in the uttermost ends of the inhabited world.’  (This means that they had come from thence, and that rather than be subject to the Eastern Empire they would return home to Scandinavia.)  ‘Many chieftains of royal blood now undertaking their leadership, they passed through all the tribes of the Slavs one after another, went thence through a wide, uninhabited country, and came to the so-called Varn.  Beyond them they passed by the tribes of the Danes (in Jutland), without the barbarians there using violence towards them.  When they thence came to the ocean (about the year 512) they took ship, and landed on the island of Thule (i.e. Scandinavia) and remained there...  On this island the land is for the most part uninhabited.  But in the inhabited regions there are thirteen populous tribes, each with a king.  Every year an extraordinary thing takes place; for the sun, about the time of the summer solstice, does not set at all for forty days...

Among the barbarians inhabiting Thule, one people, who are called Skridfinns [probably the Lapps], live after the manner of beasts.  They do not wear clothes (i.e. of cloth) nor, when they walk, do they fasten anything under their feet, (i.e. they do not wear shoes)...  but the men as well as the women occupy themselves solely and continually in hunting; for the extraordinarily great forests and mountains which rise in their country give them vast quantities of game and other beasts.  They always eat the flesh of the animals they hunt and wear their skins, and they have no linen or anything else that they can sew with...  As soon therefore as a woman has given birth, she winds the child in a skin, hangs it up on a tree, puts marrow into its mouth, and goes off hunting; for they follow this occupation in common with the men...

Nearly all of the remaining inhabitants of Thule... worship a number of gods and higher powers in the heavens, the air, the earth and the sea, also certain other higher beings which are thought to dwell in the waters of springs and rivers.  But they always slay all kinds of sacrifice and offer dead sacrifices.  And to them the best of all sacrifices is the man they have taken prisoner by their arms.  Him they sacrifice to the god of war, because they consider him to be the greatest.  But they do not sacrifice him merely by using fire at the sacrifice; they also hang him up in a tree, or throw him among thorns, and slay him by other cruel modes of death.  Such is the life of the inhabitants of Thule...’” 
[Nansen, quoting Procopius from In Northern Mists]


What is curious about the early descriptions of the Lapps is that, despite having some of history’s most quarrelsome and mobile neighbours, they seem not to have been recorded as being drawn into the centuries of repeated tribal conflict - apart from the occasions when their hungry reindeer herds wandered onto farmed land.  The cruel methods of human sacrifice general with the tribes of Scandinavia seem unshared with the Lapps, here called ‘Skridfinns’.  Although in the sixth century life was hard for these people [they did not even wear shoes], but game is said to be abundant.  We can infer that they were living a life well adapted to their environment - and probably wearing skis and hairy reindeer skins on their feet rather than shoes.

The Return of Strider and the eviction of Wormtongue?

Nansen continues to quote Procopius:

“This description by Procopius of Thule (Scandinavia) and its people bears the stamp of a certain trustworthiness.  If we ask whence he has derived his information, our thoughts are led at once to the Eruli, referred to by him in such detail, who in part were still the allies of the Eastern Empire, and of whom the emperor at Byzantium had a bodyguard in the sixth century.  There were many of them in the army under the eunuch Narses, which came to Italy to join General Belisarius [whom Procopius accompanied on his campaigns against the Goths in Italy].  Procopius thus had ample opportunity for obtaining first-hand information from these northern warriors, and his account of them shows that the Eruli south of the Danube kept up communication with their kinsmen in Scandinavia, ‘for when they had killed their king ‘Ochon’ without cause, since they wished to try being without a king, and had repented the experiment, they sent some of their foremost men to Thule to find a new king of the royal blood.  They chose one and returned with him; but he died on the way when they had almost reached home, and they therefore turned again and went once more to Thule.  This time they found another, ‘by name ‘Datios’.  He was accompanied by his brother ‘Aordos’ and two hundred young men of the Eruli in Thule.  Meanwhile, as they were so long absent, the Eruli of Singidunum (the modern Belgrade) had sent an embassy to the emperor Justinianus at Byzantium asking him to give them a chief.  He sent, therefore, the Erulian ‘Svartuas’ (= Svartugle, i.e. black owl?), who had been living with him for a long time.  But when Datios from Thule approached, all the Eruli went over to him by night, and Svartuas had to flee quite alone, and returned to Byzantium.  The emperor now exerted all his power to reinstate him; ‘but the Eruli, who feared the power of the Romans, decided to migrate to the Gepidæ.’  This happened in Procopius’s own time, and may therefore be regarded as trustworthy; it shows how easy communication must have been at that time between Scandinavia and the south, and also with Byzantium...

...in the third to the fifth centuries A.D., the Eruli come on the scene, and after they have disappeared come the Saxons and Danes, and then the Normans.  We may perhaps suppose, to a certain extent at all events, that the races which formed these restless and adventurous bands were in part the same, and it is the names that have changed.  The Eruli... must have been the most migratory people of their time; we find them roaming over the whole of Europe, from Scandinavia in the north to Byzantium in the south, from the Black Sea on the east to Spain on the west; from the third to the fifth century we find Eruli from Scandinavia as pirates on the coasts of western Europe, and even in the Mediterranean itself, where in 455 they reached Lucca in Italy...

The name [Eruli] also appears in its primitive Norse form, ‘erilaR,’ in Northern runic inscriptions.  Since ‘erilaR’ (in Norwegian ‘jarl,’ in English ‘earl’) means leader in war, and is not known in Scandinavia as the original name of a tribe which has given its name to any district in the North, we must suppose that it was more probably an appellative in use in the more southern parts of Europe for bands of northern warriors of one or more Scandinavian tribes...”  [Fridtjof Nansen, In Northern Mists].


The Eruli often show just the sort of behaviour which would be expected of Tolkien’s great hosts - roaming through Europe almost at will, causing death and destruction as they go.  The name of the Eruli makes no appearance in Tolkien but the use of runes is so typical that we may assume that they play a part in his tales.  Elements within this passage point toward The Lord of the Rings.  The detail about the Eruli of Singidunum [now Belgrade], who decide to do without a king and then change their minds, equates with the return of Aragorn [or Strider] to Tolkien’s Gondor.  Aragorn’s reappearance marks a return to monarchy from the interim rule of a ‘Steward’, Denethor.  [The Return of the King, pages 79-141].  The attempted installation of ‘Svartuas’ by the Emperor of Byzantium and his subsequent ejection is reminiscent of the parallel tale of Wormtongue [Gríma]:  Wormtongue is acting as advisor to Théoden but in the process usurping his power.  Wormtongue is forced to return to Saruman.  The variously described ‘Lord of the Mark’ or ‘Théoden King’ is also named as ‘a lord of the house of Eorl’ [The Return of the King, page 124].  This is pretty close to saying, as we have seen above, that he is an ‘earl’ or ‘leader in war’ of the Eruli.  Note, once again, the alliteration.  But if this is so, then Tolkien’s version of the fearsome, mounted, migrant Eruli:  the Riders of Rohan, the Riders of the Mark [mark = rune?] and the Riders of Théoden, are elements of the ‘Fellowship of the Ring’ rather than the opposing forces of darkness.

Nansen’s later life and writing - Siberia and the Caucasus

If we continue to look for any influence of Nansen’s later life and writing on Tolkien, then the detail of the trail becomes much harder to follow - although the broad stokes of narrative appear to be observed.  Siberia - the Land of the Future sees Nansen navigating one of the great rivers flowing into the Arctic Ocean through the depths of Siberia to the centre of Asia.  This may tally with Tolkien’s ‘Great River’.  Tolkien’s river flows south, but Nansen was also travelling south - against the stream.

The approach to ‘Mount Doom’ may reflect Nansen’s travels in Armenia and Georgia as he grapples with the difficulties of resettling the remnants of the dispossessed Armenian people.  The Armenians had been sent on ‘death marches’ perhaps referred to as Frodo and Sam are set on a forced march in Mordor by orcs.  Nansen tells of men in the Caucasus Mountains armed, at the beginning of the twentieth century, with swords and wearing chain mail and metal-plate body-armour.  Just like mediæval knights or Tolkien’s combatants.

“A curious custom is that the men wear on the right thumb a thick iron ring with heavy spikes on it; it is used for giving blows in a fight, and there is hardly any older man without unsightly scars due to this cause, and in this hideous disfigurement of the face they often surpass even the most damaged German student.  The same kind of ring is said to have been used in the Black Forest in Upper Bavaria”.  [German students used to fence without face protection.  The winner was the one who cut his opponent’s cheek]. 

The high stone seat upon which Frodo sat at the end of The Fellowship of the Ring may have its forerunner in a church in Georgia high up above a sheer cliff in the mountains - the church of the Holy Cross, Mtskhetha.  Here there is not one, but a pair of churches, side by side.  One church contains what a monk tells Nansen was an altar of the ancient fire worshippers.  If so, it must have been there before the church was built around it.  The other contains a stone seat which is said to be the throne of ancient kings.  Again, if it was used during the golden age of the Georgians [not likely according to Nansen] it also must have been there before the present church - and would then have had a tremendous view over the dramatic gorge below.  ‘Mount Doom’ itself may constitute part of the Caucasus range as described by Nansen.  He writes of the ancient fire-worshippers of the Caucasus who took advantage of the gas streaming out of the ground in Daghestan to light everlasting flames.  There is even a reference to elephants [to Samwise, ‘oliphants’] not that Sam would have wanted to see the spectacle: “Thousands of Armenians of both sexes were driven together and trampled underfoot by elephants...  Fire altars were set up...”

The Monsters, Rohan, the Hordes and the Lapps

Many fabled peoples and monsters are described within In Northern Mists.  These are often the product of the imagination of adventurers and chroniclers who were writing more than a thousand years before Nansen.  They include Paul Warnefridi’s reports [lived around A.D. 720-790] of the “...Greek fabulous people such as the Dog-heads (Cynocephali) and the Amazons [warlike women who Paul thought had been destroyed long before] in North Germania.  He says that the ‘Langobards’ fought with a people called ‘Assipitti,’ who lived in ‘Mauringa,’ and that they frightened them by saying that they had Cynocephali in their army.  The Cynocephali drank human blood, their own if they could not get that of others.  The Langobards were said to have been stopped by the Amazons at a river in Germany...”

While the beings described above are fantastic creations, some tribes are accurately reported.  It is remarkable how far and how quickly they travelled across Europe.  Nansen quotes the historian Jordanes as relating that the Suehans [Swedes] were well known for having exceptional horses and he believes that Jordanes got this information from King Rodulf who probably travelled, with his tribe, the Eruli, from north Norway all the way across Europe to the River Danube.  They may well have used Swedish horses and it is very likely that this is an origin of Tolkien’s ‘Rohan’ - a contraction of Rodulf and Suehan.  [In Northern Mists, Volume I, pages134-135]


The historian, Procopius, wrote ‘De bello Gothico’ in about 552 A.D and Nansen quotes him:

“He [Procopius] tells us of the warlike Germanic people, the Eruli, (probably they came from the north) who were said to have lived on the north bank of the Danube, and who, with no better reason than that they had lived in peace for three whole years and were tired of it, attacked their neighbours the Langobards, but suffered a decisive defeat, and their king, Rodulf, fell in the battle (about 493)…”

“‘They then hastily left their dwelling-places, and set out with their women and children to wander through the whole country
(Hungary) which lies north of the Danube.  When they came to the district where the Rogians had formerly dwelt, who had joined the army of the Goths and gone into Italy, they settled there; but as they were oppressed by famine in that district, which had been laid waste, they soon afterwards departed from it, and came near to the country of the Gepidæ (Siebenbürgen).  The Gepidæ allowed them to establish themselves and to become their neighbours, but began thereupon, without the slightest cause, to commit the most revolting acts against them, ravishing their women, robbing them of cattle and other goods, and omitting no kind of injustice, and finally began an unjust war against them.’

The Eruli then crossed the Danube to Illyria and settled somewhere about what is now Servia under the Eastern [Byzantine] Emperor Anastasius (491 - 518).  Some of the Eruli would not ‘cross the Danube, but decided to establish themselves in the uttermost ends of the inhabited world.’  (This means that they had come from thence, and that rather than be subject to the Eastern Empire they would return home to Scandinavia.)  ‘Many chieftains of royal blood now undertaking their leadership, they passed through all the tribes of the Slavs one after another, went thence through a wide, uninhabited country, and came to the so-called Varn.  Beyond them they passed by the tribes of the Danes (in Jutland), without the barbarians there using violence towards them.  When they thence came to the ocean (about the year 512) they took ship, and landed on the island of Thule (i.e. Scandinavia) and remained there...  On this island the land is for the most part uninhabited.  But in the inhabited regions there are thirteen populous tribes, each with a king.  Every year an extraordinary thing takes place; for the sun, about the time of the summer solstice, does not set at all for forty days...

Among the barbarians inhabiting Thule, one people, who are called Skridfinns [probably the Lapps], live after the manner of beasts.  They do not wear clothes (i.e. of cloth) nor, when they walk, do they fasten anything under their feet, (i.e. they do not wear shoes)...  but the men as well as the women occupy themselves solely and continually in hunting; for the extraordinarily great forests and mountains which rise in their country give them vast quantities of game and other beasts.  They always eat the flesh of the animals they hunt and wear their skins, and they have no linen or anything else that they can sew with...  As soon therefore as a woman has given birth, she winds the child in a skin, hangs it up on a tree, puts marrow into its mouth, and goes off hunting; for they follow this occupation in common with the men...

Nearly all of the remaining inhabitants of Thule... worship a number of gods and higher powers in the heavens, the air, the earth and the sea, also certain other higher beings which are thought to dwell in the waters of springs and rivers.  But they always slay all kinds of sacrifice and offer dead sacrifices.  And to them the best of all sacrifices is the man they have taken prisoner by their arms.  Him they sacrifice to the god of war, because they consider him to be the greatest.  But they do not sacrifice him merely by using fire at the sacrifice; they also hang him up in a tree, or throw him among thorns, and slay him by other cruel modes of death.  Such is the life of the inhabitants of Thule...’” 
[Nansen, quoting Procopius from In Northern Mists, pages 139-141]


What is curious about the early descriptions of the Lapps is that, despite having some of history’s most quarrelsome and mobile neighbours, they seem not to have been recorded as being drawn into the centuries of repeated tribal conflict - apart from the occasions when their hungry reindeer herds wandered onto farmed land.  The cruel methods of human sacrifice general with the tribes of Scandinavia seem unshared with the Lapps, here called ‘Skridfinns’.  Although in the sixth century life was hard for these people [they did not even wear shoes], but game is said to be abundant.  We can infer that they were living a life well adapted to their environment - and probably wearing skis and hairy reindeer skins on their feet rather than shoes.

The Return of Strider and the eviction of Wormtongue?

Nansen continues to quote Procopius:

“This description by Procopius of Thule (Scandinavia) and its people bears the stamp of a certain trustworthiness.  If we ask whence he has derived his information, our thoughts are led at once to the Eruli, referred to by him in such detail, who in part were still the allies of the Eastern Empire, and of whom the emperor at Byzantium had a bodyguard in the sixth century.  There were many of them in the army under the eunuch Narses, which came to Italy to join General Belisarius [whom Procopius accompanied on his campaigns against the Goths in Italy].  Procopius thus had ample opportunity for obtaining first-hand information from these northern warriors, and his account of them shows that the Eruli south of the Danube kept up communication with their kinsmen in Scandinavia, ‘for when they had killed their king ‘Ochon’ without cause, since they wished to try being without a king, and had repented the experiment, they sent some of their foremost men to Thule to find a new king of the royal blood.  They chose one and returned with him; but he died on the way when they had almost reached home, and they therefore turned again and went once more to Thule.  This time they found another, ‘by name ‘Datios’.  He was accompanied by his brother ‘Aordos’ and two hundred young men of the Eruli in Thule.  Meanwhile, as they were so long absent, the Eruli of Singidunum (the modern Belgrade) had sent an embassy to the emperor Justinianus at Byzantium asking him to give them a chief.  He sent, therefore, the Erulian ‘Svartuas’ (= Svartugle, i.e. black owl?), who had been living with him for a long time.  But when Datios from Thule approached, all the Eruli went over to him by night, and Svartuas had to flee quite alone, and returned to Byzantium.  The emperor now exerted all his power to reinstate him; ‘but the Eruli, who feared the power of the Romans, decided to migrate to the Gepidæ.’  This happened in Procopius’s own time, and may therefore be regarded as trustworthy; it shows how easy communication must have been at that time between Scandinavia and the south, and also with Byzantium...

...in the third to the fifth centuries A.D., the Eruli come on the scene, and after they have disappeared come the Saxons and Danes, and then the Normans.  We may perhaps suppose, to a certain extent at all events, that the races which formed these restless and adventurous bands were in part the same, and it is the names that have changed.  The Eruli... must have been the most migratory people of their time; we find them roaming over the whole of Europe, from Scandinavia on the north to Byzantium on the south, from the Black Sea on the east to Spain on the west; from the third to the fifth century we find Eruli from Scandinavia as pirates on the coasts of western Europe, and even in the Mediterranean itself, where in 455 they reached Lucca in Italy...

The name [Eruli] also appears in its primitive Norse form, ‘erilaR,’ in Northern runic inscriptions.  Since ‘erilaR’ (in Norwegian ‘jarl,’ in English ‘earl’) means leader in war, and is not known in Scandinavia as the original name of a tribe which has given its name to any district in the North, we must suppose that it was more probably an appellative in use in the more southern parts of Europe for bands of northern warriors of one or more Scandinavian tribes...”  [Fridtjof Nansen, In Northern Mists, pages 141 -145].


The Eruli often show just the sort of behaviour which would be expected of Tolkien’s great hosts - roaming through Europe almost at will, causing death and destruction as they go.  The name of the Eruli makes no direct appearance in Tolkien but the use of runes is so typical that we must see if they play a part in his tales.  Elements within this passage point toward The Lord of the Rings.  The detail about the Eruli of Singidunum [now Belgrade], who decide to do without a king and then change their minds, equates with the return of Aragorn [or Strider] to Tolkien’s Gondor.  Aragorn’s reappearance marks a return to monarchy from the interim rule of a ‘Steward’, Denethor.  [The Return of the King, pages 79-141]. 

The attempted installation of ‘Svartuas’ by the Emperor of Byzantium and his subsequent ejection is reminiscent of the parallel tale of Wormtongue [Gríma] in Rohan.  Wormtongue is acting as advisor to Théoden but in the process usurping his power.  Wormtongue is forced to return to Saruman.  The variously described ‘Lord of the Mark’ or ‘Théoden King’ is also named as ‘a lord of the house of Eorl’ [The Return of the King, page 124].  This is pretty close to saying, as we have seen above, that he is an ‘earl’ or ‘leader in war’ of the Eruli.  Note, once again, the alliteration.  But if this is so, then Tolkien’s version of the fearsome, mounted, migrant Eruli, the Riders of Rohan, the Riders of the Mark [mark = rune?] and the Riders of Théoden, are elements of the ‘Fellowship of the Ring’ rather than the opposing forces of darkness. 

Tolkien said that has made the language of Rohan resemble ancient English implying translation from the original.  [The Return of the King, page 414].  On this page he remarks that ‘ent’ was the name of his tree-like creatures in the language of Rohan, and as we have seen here, the language of the Mark was therefore that of the Beowulf author.  As we have also seen, Tom Shippey [The Road to Middle-earth, 139-141] regards the English midlands, the Anglo-saxon Mericia, as the home of the Rohirrim.  In England, however, the Anglo-Saxons did not use horses in battle - they probably lost the battles of the Norman Conquest because of this strategic failure.  While Tolkien’s Rohirrim lived in England, as the people of the Mark, they fought on horseback, as the Riders of Rohan like the Eruli, across the continent of Europe.


Lapps and Orcs again

It will be noticed that, unlike the very real Lapp, Samuel Balto, none of these almost mythical individuals donated their names directly to Tolkien’s characters.  Tolkien’s Orcs seem to be based on goblins from fairy tales, but in 1958 Tolkien reviewed a script which formed the basis for a possible film adaption of The Lord of the Rings.  The script suggested providing Orcs with feathers and beaks.  Tolkien remarked that they were definitely a degenerative version of Mongol types of human.  [Tolkien quoted by David Doughan, The Sunday Times, December 22, 2002].  This description has raised charges against Tolkien that he provides a racist message.  However he himself had been at the receiving end of such prejudice when in 1938 the German publisher of The Hobbit asked him to confirm his Aryan ancestry!  Tolkien loathed Hitler and Nazism, not least because of their usurpation of the Germanic legends.  But it is likely that reading Nansen’s descriptions of large whales being terrorised by the Orca inspired Tolkien to use the name:

“The killer generally hunts in companies, the members of which rush straight in upon the whales and tear great pieces of blubber out of their side, whence their Norwegian name of ‘spækhugger’ or ‘blubber-snapper.’  In pain and despair the big whales lash the water and break away with the speed of lightning, but closely followed by these little monsters, who do not desist until their victims, exhausted by loss of blood and exertion, throw up the game...”  The Orca have another side, however - “The killer of our coasts seems to some extent to lead a more peaceful life.  He is an habitual visitor at our herring fisheries, and then seems to live on nothing but herring and coal-fish among which however he causes a deal of panic and confusion.  He seems to show no tendency to attack the great whales with whom he comes into contact daily...”  [Nansen, Farthest North]

It seems, then, as if some Orca are better behaved than others, given a change of situation.  Nansen quotes Adam of Bremen in his account of about 1070 as giving the inhabitants of the far north of Norway attributes of which Sauron himself would be proud:

‘...all who dwell in Norvegia are very Christian, with the exception of those who live farther north along the coast of the ocean (i.e. in Finmark).  It is said they are still so powerful in their arts of sorcery and incantations, that they claim to know what is done by every single person throughout the world [editor’s italics].  In addition to this they attract whales [orcs?] to the shore by loud mumbling of words, and many other things which are told in books of the sorcerers, and which are all easy for them by practice.  (This description refers, probably, to the Lapps and their magic arts)
. On the wildest alps of that part I heard that there are women with beards (This must be another misunderstanding of tales about Kvæns, whom Adam took for women.)  [‘Women with beards’ is a characteristic often associated with the literary race of dwarves - editor]] but the men who live in the forests (i.e. the waste tracts?) seldom allow themselves to be seen.  The latter use the skins of wild beasts for clothes, and when they speak to one another it is said to be more like the gnashing of teeth than words, so that they can scarcely be understood by their neighbours.’  These skin-clad hunters, who spoke a language unintelligible to the Norwegians, were certainly Lapps.”  [Nansen quoting Adam of Bremen, In Northern Mists, Volume I, page 192].


Often in Tolkien’s work there is a hint that many of his characters are neither inherently good nor completely evil - that they have, or have had, choices to make.  Even the respectable Bilbo Baggins was, after all, employed as a burglar.  The peoples who have contributed to Tolkien’s vision and who were drawn from the pages of Nansen’s books seem not to have been sorted into groups of ‘good’ and ‘evil’.  Even the Lapps, usually described throughout their recorded history as peaceful and even ‘mild’, are characterised by Adam of Bremen as ‘powerful in their arts of sorcery and incantations’ etc.  The two major sinister figures within The Lord of the Rings are Saruman [who becomes evil in the course of the tale] and the similarly named Sauron.  These individuals could be based on many of the evil characters which are described in Nansen’s books on the Caucasus Region.  Perhaps the greatest villain mentioned by Nansen was Timur Lenk [the ‘Tam Lin’ of English folk-song] whose hordes, for example, sacked Georgia six times between 1387 and 1403.  However, the alliterative similarities between the names Saruman and Stalin suggests that Tolkien intended a connection with Stalin to be made.  This Communist leader was responsible for more terror and death [even among his own people] than Hitler.  The name ‘Stalin’ was adopted and meant ‘man of steel’.  Treebeard described Saruman as intending to become a ‘Power’ and said he had a mind made of  metal and wheels.  [The Two Towers, page 76].  A ‘Power’ with a capital ‘P’ had a particular meaning: it can be summed up in as follows:  ‘Forty-three years of peace among the Great Powers of Europe came to an end in 1914, when an act of political terrorism provoked two great alliance systems into mortal combat...’  [‘The Roots of World War One 1871-1914’, Britannica 2002 Standard Edition CD-ROM Copyright (C) 1994-2002 Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc]  _The one great achievement of Stalin, the ‘man of steel’ [or perhaps poetically and alliteratively ‘metal and wheels’] was to build the Russian Empire into a formidable industrial and military Power. 

But the greater and purely evil figure of Tolkien’s Sauron is strange.  Tolkien never details his description in The Lord of the Rings and he is never met with in person.  His most characteristic attribute is his ability to see all that goes on in the world.  If the similarity between his name and Saruman’s was intentional, then he may represent the almost nameless and faceless but all-seeing Communist Party members who were the political fanatics driving post revolutionary Russia.  I have no evidence for this but I like the idea of the all-seeing eye being that of the reader him or her self.  Readers are notorious for wanting the narrative to move on - peaceful goings on bore them and an amount of pain and suffering keeps their attention. Again, alliteration may suggest a connection with Satan, and indeed, Randel Helms sees the name as probably coming from the Greek, sauros, or lizard.  Near enough a serpent - or perhaps a snake with legs.  Tolkien rebutted this argument in a late letter dated 1967 in which he also claimed that it was foolish to compare chance similarities between words in his invented languages with words in real languages.   [Humphrey Carpenter and Christopher Tolkien, editors, The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, 1981, page 380].  The important word here is ‘chance’ for there is ample evidence that Tolkien deliberately chose many of his invented words to reflect real words with real meanings.  There may be more than one deliberately ascribed meaning which can be applied to one of Tolkien’s names, and this deliberate multiple identity he defined as ‘applicability’.  Randel Helms remarks that Appendix A of The Return of the King shows that ‘Sauron’s story aligns, point by point, with Satan’s’.  [Randel Helms, Tolkien’s World, Panther paperback edition, 1974, pages 64-66].  However, Sauron makes his first appearance in The Hobbit as the ‘Necromancer’.  This character is said to have originated in The Black Douglas by Samuel Rutherford Crockett [1899], where he was named as Gilles de Retz, alias ‘Bluebeard’.  Sauron was therefore a man?  He may have started that way but in a letter dated 1957 Tolkien says that Sauron ‘was always de-bodied when vanquished.’  And when The Silmarilion was posthumously published, Morgoth, an extremely peripheral figure in The Lord of the Rings, was revealed as the true ‘Satan’, with Sauron thus demoted to a servant figure.  [‘Sauron’ by Jared Lobdel in the J. R. R. Encyclopedia, Michael D. C. Drout, editor, 2007, pages 591-2].

Elves and Hyperboreans

In Northern Mists shows how early Greek concepts of the north resurfaced and influenced historians of a much later period.  The Greeks believed that beyond the north wind [Boreas] lived the happy Hyperboreans.  In Nansen’s words:

“According to a comparatively late Greek conception there was in the far North a happy people called the Hyperboreans.  They dwelt ‘under the shining way’ (the clear north sky) north of the roaring Boreas [i.e. north of the North Wind], so far that this cold north wind could not reach them, and therefore enjoyed a splendid climate.  They did not live in houses, but in woods and groves.  With them injustice and war were unknown, they were untouched by age or sickness; at joyous sacrificial feasts, with golden laurel-wreaths in their hair, and amid song and the sound of the cithara and the dancing of maidens, they led a careless existence in undisturbed gladness, and reached an immense age.  When they were tired of life they threw themselves, after having eaten and drunk, joyfully and with wreaths in their hair, into the sea from a particular cliff (according to Mela and Pliny, following Hecatæus of Abdera).  Among other qualities they had the power of flying, and one of them, Abaris, flew round the world on an arrow... some geographers, especially the Ionians, placed them in the northern regions, beyond the Rhipæan Mountains...”

“The legend of the happy Hyperboreans in the North has arisen from an error of popular etymology...  The name in its original form was certainly the designation of those who brought offerings to the shrine of Apollo at Delphi.  They were designated as ‘perpheroi’ or ‘hyperpheroi,’ (bringers over), which again in certain northern Greek dialects took the forms of  ‘hyper-phoroi’ or ‘hyperboroi;’ this, by an error, became connected in later times with ‘Boreas,’ [the north wind] and their home was consequently transferred to the North, many customs of the worship of Apollo being transferred with it.  This gives at the same time a natural explanation of their many peculiarities, their sanctity, their power of flight and the arrow (Apollo’s arrow), their ceremonial feasts, and their throwing themselves from a certain cliff, and so on, all of which is derived from worship of Apollo.  This idea can be traced back to Delphi, where anyone who had incurred the god’s displeasure was thrown from a cliff.  Something similar happened at the annual festivals of Apollo at Leucas... all sorts of feathers and birds were fastened to the victims to act as a parachute, and after their fall they were rescued by boats and taken beyond the frontier, as bearers of a curse.”
[Nansen, In Northern Mists, Volume I, pages 16-18].

These Hyperboreans lived in a style which bears a marked similarity to Tolkien’s courtly elves, living in groves within woods and using the bow and arrow as their preferred weapon.  Traditionally elves had widely been said to be tiny human-like creatures which lived underground.  They caused mischief to humans.  Tolkien has them living above ground within the forest, living a long and carefree life - just like the ‘happy Hyperboreans’.  Tolkien would have appreciated Nansen’s comments about the "error of popular etymology" which resulted in the Hyperboreans transferring from Greece to the far north - behind the north wind.  Tolkien explained the name ‘elf’ as deriving from a primitive exclamation: ‘el’ meaning both ‘look’ and ‘star’.  This was uttered as the elves first saw the stars above as they emerged from the earth under the clear night sky.
[J. R. R. Tolkien, edited by Christopher Tolkien, The War of the Jewels, page 360].  Nansen recounts [Eskimo Life, chapter 12] that 'il' or 'el' was the word for God among the Hebrews and many other peoples but actually 'meant only a powerful being and could be applied as well to heroes as to gods.'  Balto was described by Nansen as an ‘Elvelapper’ or ‘River Lapp’, who was settled on the banks of the River Tana.  'Elve' therefore meaning 'river'.

At the end of The Return of the King the elves left Middle Earth from the Grey Havens for the West.  Where were they going?  Out onto the high seas and into the West, where the rain-clouds were rolled back to reveal white shores and a distant green country.  In Northern Mists can supply any number of possible landfalls - mythical or real.  The most likely, however, is the vast strand of white sand which appears in the story of Eric the Red’s discovery of America.  The strand-flats of Eric the Red’s Saga are now widely accepted as being those on the fog-bound coast of Labrador:

“They cruised along the shore, which they kept to starboard
(i.e. to the west).  It was without harbours and there were long strands and stretches of sand...”  [In Northern Mists, Volume II page 323]


It should perhaps also be mentioned that the prologue of The Lord of the Rings [The Fellowship of the Ring, page 17] goes into some detail on the origins of the plant [Nicotiana] used in pipe-smoking.  This is undoubtedly what we would call tobacco.  It was unknown in Europe before the discovery of America - suggesting a two-way contact between the Grey Havens and the land of exile of the Elves.

Apart from the elves, none of these peoples’ names appear in Tolkien’s books - there are no mentions of Hyperboreans or Amazons.  Some of Tolkien’s monsters are clearly entirely of his own creation, e.g. the Balrog [of which Tolkien wrote that only between three and seven ever existed] although even this obscure being has an obvious connection with fire-worshippers.  [J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring, pages 344-345; J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Christopher Tolkien, The War of the Jewels, page 134.]

Certainly Tolkien has not helped us by giving a clue in the names of all his characters, but he does give other clues.

History or Allegory?

Tolkien remarked that he had always disliked allegory since he was old enough to detect it.  Allegory can be defined as the disguised representation of a related subject other than that presented on the surface, e.g. Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress describing life as a journey.  More recently both George Orwell and Philip Pulman have written stories with overtones of allegory.  Allegory implies a conscious effort by the author to influence the reader’s interpretation of the story.  Tolkien, then, is attempting to do something rather more subtle than direct his readers towards a simple metaphor or parable.

Tolkien goes on to say that he prefers true or feigned history which all his readers can identify in ways applicable to their own views and experience.  He published part of his feigned history of Middle Earth in the appendices of The Lord of the Rings.  A great deal more has been published since his death and edited by his son, Christopher Tolkien.  Nansen, it should be noted, correspondingly supported the books detailing his own exploration of the North with his examination of ‘true’ and ‘feigned’ history within In Northern Mists

This preoccupation with history, ‘true or feigned’, is one of Miguel de Cervantes main themes in his novel Don Quixote.  Published in 1604, it is often regarded as the first modern novel.  However, some people, including Nansen, consider that several of the earlier Icelandic Sagas should be viewed as historical novels.  Cervantes believes that the reader may not distinguish fiction from true history, as the understanding of both depend on the reader’s perception.  Cervantes examines events from two viewpoints - that of the deluded Don Quixote, who in his own eyes voyages as a knight on a charger complete with armour and a shiny helmet; while in the perspective of his lowly companion, Sancho Panza, he is, although clearly Sancho’s superior, a wandering old man wearing a shiny metal basin on his head.

In The First Crossing of Greenland Nansen recounts both his own and Samuel Balto’s view of the same immediate events.  He even adds the more distant viewpoint of the Eskimo who record the actual events as myth.  It is debatable whether the reader regards Nansen’s or Balto’s view of the trip on the ever-diminishing ice floe as the more reasonable.  A case can be made for Nansen to take the part of the idealistic but deluded Don Quixote, leading his party toward disaster, while Balto plays the rational Sancho Panza.  Don Quixote wore a shiny metal basin as a helmet - Balto took great interest in the metal basin of Nansen’s cooking equipment.  Farthest North coincidentally adds the motifs of the windmill [Don Quixote tilts at windmills which he sees as knights] and the dogs [which hold conversations in Cervantes later writing].  All these features are considered to figure significantly as literary devices in the writing of Cervantes.  Nansen would be likely to see a similarity between the fictitious Don Quixote and his own real-life adventures and he does mention the Don in passing in Armenia and the Near East.  An English professor at Oxford, interested in varying perceptions of history, would undoubtedly notice these shared motifs.  Within J.R.R. Tolkien’s writing the relationship of Sancho Panza to Don Quixote is perhaps best paralleled by that of Bilbo Baggins with Thorin Oakenshield.

But what of Tolkien’s ‘true history’?  He says that an author’s experience will affect his writing, but this is likely to be a convoluted process.  He admits, then, that however tortuous the allusion, we should expect to find reference to the author’s interests and events which occur during the author’s life.  Tolkien gives us an example in that the scouring of the hobbits' home-land does not reflect the destruction wrought in England at the time Tolkien was finishing his tale.  He claims instead that this was a plot device which had been planned from the start.  He adds however that the scouring still has some basis in his experience as the countryside of his childhood was swallowed by the suburbs of Birmingham.  There was a mill nearby but Tolkien records that the miller had a black beard and was not named Sandyman, like the miller in Hobbiton.

While confirming the importance of naming characters, this passage tells us that there is little to be gained by looking at the contemporary situation which surrounded Tolkien while he wrote his books - and yet he says that true history is important.  But he also notes that while the ‘critic’ and the ‘author’ may have lived through overlapping times, they may not have been influenced equally by the same contemporary ideas or events.  What this does not make clear is whether the author and critic are two separate individuals, or the same person taking on the two roles.  The precise word used by Tolkien, ‘overlapped’, may, of course, have double the significance if the ‘critic’ Tolkien was referring to his interest in Nansen’s writing which dated from a generation or two previously.  This sentence would then amount to a deliberate hint by J. R. R. Tolkien that Lapps linked his and another author’s writing.

J.R.R. Tolkien and the Second World War

Earlier in the Foreword Tolkien details the chronology of his writing The Lord of the Rings.  He tells us that he wrote the book intermittently between 1936 and 1945.  The writing went slowly but by the end of 1939, the year the Second World War began, he had not finished Book One.  He paused again after reaching the mines at Moira and nearly a year later, towards the end of 1941, he was writing of the Great River.

Tolkien tells us this so that we can refer real events to those occurring in his contemporary writing of The Lord of the Rings.  At the time when he started writing the book, some people believed events in Germany foreshadowed another war.  The signs were there.:  the rise of Hitler in a militaristic state, rapid rearmament.  The persecution of the Jews began, they were generally blamed for causing the downfall of Germany in the Great War.  Similar forebodings are seen in the early part of The Lord of the Rings.  Following the fall of France, the British Empire stood alone against Fascist Germany and Italy.  If we look at Tolkien’s chronology, ‘The Flight to the Ford’, the last chapter of Book One, seems to have been written in partial response to the retreat of British forces to Dunkirk and their evacuation to England.  But we must look northward to see further connections with Nansen.

Around this time, but much farther north, a series of dramatic developments occurred.  These events had links with Nansen - even though he had died ten years previously, in 1930.  In 1939, the result of a secret pact between Germany and Russia, Russia had invaded Finland.  The Finns armed themselves and fought hard, at great cost, to keep their independence.  In April 1940 the Germans invaded Norway.  Norway had attempted to remain neutral but, unlike the neighbouring Swedes, she had not armed to defend her neutrality.  Defence had been so neglected that Nansen, Vidkun Quisling and others had repeatedly called for the expansion of Norway’s armed services. 

Boromir and Quisling

Quisling had previously played an important part in Nansen’s relief effort during the terrible Russian famine which followed the Russian Civil War.  As Norway’s leading expert on Russia, he was ‘borrowed’ by Nansen from the Norwegian army and made responsible for distributing famine relief in the Ukraine in 1922.  The Nansen relief effort co-ordinated the efforts of several European charities.  It was directed in the midst of the epidemic-ridden Ukraine by Quisling in person and here the organisation saved an estimated 200,000 people.  Nansen later showed his confidence in Quisling by employing him as his secretary while visiting the Caucasus.  Nansen, then League of Nations Commissioner for Refugees, was endeavouring to settle Armenian refugees in one of the republics making up Soviet Russia.

In 1940 Vidkun Quisling attempted to seize power while the German invasion of Norway and Denmark was in progress.  He intended to usurp the authority of the elected Norwegian government which went into exile.  He then attempted to rival the imposed German administration under Reichskommissar Josef Terboven, a former district Nazi Party leader in the Rhineland.  Quisling’s name became synonymous with the term ‘traitor’ to the point that the two words were used interchangeably in common English speech.  Quisling deflected some of the worst excesses of the German occupation but this did not save him.  At the end of the war he was summarily tried, condemned and shot under the jurisdiction of the formerly exiled Norwegian Government.

It is conceivable that Tolkien drew on Quisling’s astonishing attempts to gain power in Norway with his almost contemporary portrayal of Boromir.  Just as Nansen’s books record Quisling as a close and trusted colleague, so Boromir was a loyal and trusted member of the fellowship of the ring.  In the end, however, he was tempted to obtain for himself the power of the ring.  By the close of The Fellowship of the Ring Boromir is striving to wrest the ring of power from Frodo - he hopes to use it for his own ends, against Sauron.  He does not succeed in obtaining the ring and Boromir soon dies at the hands of Orcs and Men.  If we follow Tolkien’s chronology, Tolkien ‘killed’ Boromir before Quisling actually died - the only war criminal in history who could claim to have almost personally saved around 200,000 lives - at the risk of his own.  There is, however, no alliterative connection.  ‘Mir’ is the Russian name for a rural farming community and also means ‘peace’ and ‘world’.

The Nuclear Ring

It has been suggested that the power of Tolkien’s ‘One Ring’, the ultimate ring, can be interpreted as the might of the nuclear bomb.  Workable bombs were only available to the Allied military forces after the end of the war in Europe.  Tolkien would have had to rewrite much of what he had already written to take account of these devices.  Hitler had teams of scientists labouring on nuclear research but, by the end of the war, the Germans were nowhere near building a bomb.  The Allies were not aware of this and so the production of their own bomb was the more urgent.  It appears that Werner Heisenberg, who was in charge of the main project, may have unintentionally or deliberately misled Albert Speer [German minister for armaments and war production] over the speed with which the Germans could build a bomb.  Speer wrote in his memoirs that he was surprised by the very small amount of money requested by Heisenberg [in 1942] to run the nuclear research program.  Hitler consequently gave the research a lower priority and it was the Allies, not the Germans, who were responsible for unleashing the first bomb - over Japan in 1945. 

Michael Frayn, the playwright, raised the question about Heisenberg’s motives in his fascinating play, Copenhagen.
[Michael Frayn, Copenhagen, Methuen, 1998, see pages 106-7].  Other pieces of circumstantial evidence show that Heisenberg may have misled the German Nazis.  It appears he told Speer that there was only one cyclotron in Europe [required for separating out Uranium 235] when Heisenberg knew perfectly well that Nils Bohr had another cyclotron in Copenhagen.  The team also overestimated [accidentally?] how much U-235 they would require to produce a viable bomb.

The neutron absorption rates of graphite had been miscalculated [not by Heisenberg] and the German production process therefore required the use of ‘heavy water’ as a moderator for the reactor.  This the Germans manufactured using hydro-electricity in occupied Norway.  The production plant was damaged and a consignment of this deuterium-rich water was famously destroyed by the Norwegian Resistance.  They sank a passenger ferry carrying the heavy water at the cost of several innocent Norwegian lives.  Eventually the supply of heavy water ended when Allied air-raids and covert attacks closed the Norwegian factory.

At the end of the war around 400,000 German troops stationed in Norway capitulated without a fight, but German troops retreating from Finland laid waste to much of Finmark and north Troms.  Russian forces also invaded the north in an attempt to ‘liberate’ the country for communism.

Despite all the military activity, the Lapps [or as they are now known, Sami] continued to attract little interest from the Germans, the Allies or even their Norwegian and Swedish countrymen - except possibly in their ability to provide reindeer meat.  The Lapps roamed over the Arctic tundra with their reindeer herds, their enduring way of life continuing little changed - until 1986.  In that year unauthorised experiments at the Chernobyl nuclear reactor in the Ukraine resulted in a release of radioactivity into the atmosphere.  As it spread outside the Soviet Union the cloud was first detected in Sweden as the prevailing wind carried radioactive particles northward. 

Contamination by Caesium 137 was relatively high in reindeer moss, the main fodder for reindeer.  Much of the Lapps’ reindeer meat was therefore contaminated and declared as unfit for human consumption.  Reindeer moss is a lichen and has no root system.  It absorbs all its nutrients from the atmosphere - hence it soaks up contaminants from the air.  It is also very slow growing and takes about 30 years to completely renew itself.  These factors were important in concentrating the radioactive material and keeping it in the human food chain.  The lichen is the main foodstuff of reindeer which the Sami depended upon for their way of life, culture and most of their income.

The Swedish authorities initially decreed that reindeer meat with a radiation count of 300 Becquerels per kilogram or above should be destroyed.  80% of the herds were slaughtered in the first year.  The widespread culling of deer resulted in alarm and despondency among many of the Sami which was exacerbated by sensational press reports writing of the ‘tragic end of Sami culture’.  The loss of the herds changed the nomadic way of life of many Sami.  They had to depend on the Swedish and Norwegian governments to subsidise them and many swapped their nomadic existence for a sedentary life in towns. 

In 2002 the Swedes admitted that the radiation level was initially set too low and it resulted in hundreds of thousands of deer being unnecessarily destroyed.  A paper by Jim T. Smith dated April 3, 2007, looked at the effect of direct exposure to major radiation incidents such as Chernobyl or the Hiroshima or Nagasaki nuclear bombs.  Remarkably, Smith found that the risk of breathing polluted city air was comparable with exposure to high level fallout from an atom bomb!  Those within 1,500 meters [just less than a mile] of the epicentre of the bombs, if they survived the initial affects of blast and radiation, could expect their lives to be shortened by an average of just 2.6 years.

This long-term radiation risk is comparable to being severely obese or moving from the clean air of the countryside to a large city such as London with its high levels of air pollution.  These findings imply that it would be almost impossible to measure any consequences for the Sami as the deleterious affects of their low exposure to radiation would be so small as to be immeasurable.  Any consequences would be masked by other changes to their lifestyle brought about by a move from their pristine environment into polluted towns.  Their new sedentary way of life could result in obesity with its increased risks of circulatory disease and cancer.  On the other hand, improved access to medical facilities brings a longer, healthier life.

.While this experience has had a detrimental affect on the Sami way of life, reindeer herding continues today and so does the inextricably linked Sami culture.  It is debatable whether the radiation itself or the Norwegian and Swedish Government’s reaction to it had the greatest impact on the Sami.  In recent years less than 1% of the reindeer herd is destroyed because of radioactive contamination, and the unique Sami lifestyle and culture is again secure.


See:
Jim T. Smith, ‘Are passive smoking, air pollution and obesity a greater mortality risk than major radiation incidents?’  BioMedCentral, Public Health, 2007, published online 3 April 2007.

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/entrez/query.fcgi?cmd=Retrieve&db=PubMed&list_uids=17407581&dopt=AbstractPlus&holding=f1000,f1000m,isrctn

Melanie Blackwell, ‘Effects of the Chernobyl Disaster on Sámi Life’.  The University of Texas at Austin,  December 2, 2003
.
http://www.utexas.edu/courses/sami/dieda/socio/chernobyl.htm

Carl Linnaeus 'The Father of Taxonomy', 1731, dressed as a Lapp. Note the rather pointy hat.

Recent Saami [Lapp] Costumes

The expedition returns to Norway

Half the expedition in a sleeping bag

'Hairy feet'

Balto and Ravna

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 © Copyright 2005-2009  Simon J Browne    Contact: simonjbrowne@hotmail.co.uk
A note on illustrations The illustrations of Nansen [home page] come from Wikipedia and are in the public domain because copyright has expired.  The first picture dates from around 1882 and is the frontispiece of Hunting and Adventure in the Arctic.  The picture of Nansen, Liv and Eva is from the frontispiece engraving of Farthest North (Fridtjof Nansen, 1897).  The latter four illustrations on this page come from The First Crossing of Greenland  (Fridtjof Nansen, 1895) and are in the public domain because copyright has expired. The portrait of Linaeus comes from Wikipedia and is in the public domain because copyright has expired.   The illustration of modern Lapps is also from Wikipedia and permission has been granted to use this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License.
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