Tolkien and Norse Mythology

With the new Lord of the Rings: Rings of Power series coming up, I thought I’d explore the connections between Tolkien’s world and the world of Norse mythology. Let’s start with Gandalf! 


The most obvious, and most mentioned, connection between The Lord of the Rings and Norse mythology is the character of Gandalf. Gandalf is very similar to the Norse god, Odin, in the way they look and also in some of their attributes. For a start, Gandalf’s name was taken straight from the Norse world.

Gandalf’s Name

Gandalf’s name appears in the Poetic Edda, a collection of poems about the world of Norse mythology. In one poem, Voluspa, the god Odin summons a seeress to tell him about the “oldest deeds of gods and men.” She does, first telling about how the world was created, and then she goes on to discuss the other races of beings in the Nine Worlds, including the dwarfs.

She lists the names of the dwarfs. Tolkien borrowed heavily from this list to use for his own dwarves: he used Bombur, Thrain, Thorin, Fili, Kili, and Oakenshield to name a few. 

Gandalf was among the names of dwarfs mentioned in Voluspa. The name comes from the word gandr, which means “staff” or “wand” and alfr which means “elf” so he’s a “wand-elf” or an elf who carries a staff. It fits perfectly for Tolkien’s version of Gandalf the Grey/White.

*Notice the spelling of dwarfs/dwarves. The traditional plural spelling is dwarfs. Tolkien used the word dwarves when writing about his race of beings, even though he admitted in a letter that it was a misspelling (from a linguist, no less!). No one paid it any attention so the spelling stuck and now whenever we speak or write of those mythical beings in fantasy, we call them dwarves. After all, there are many other English words ending in ‘f’ that when we make them plural, we use, ‘ves’–leaves, calves, wives, etc. It was an honest mistake made by Tolkien that made sense to leave alone. 

Gandalf and Odin

Gandalf and Odin had many similarities. Both were associated by name as someone who carries a staff or wand. The god Odin had a large number of names–one name was Wand-Bearer, which draws up images of Gandalf with his staff. I wrote a blog about Odin’s many names! Click HERE to read it.

Odin is also called “Long-Beard”, because he is usually depicted with a long beard, another similarity between the two.

Odin the Wanderer

One of the most notable connections between Tolkien’s world and Norse mythology is how much Gandalf resembles Odin in the way he appears. 

In the mythology, Odin is known to travel the world, often in disguise. His favorite is to wear a grey cloak, floppy hat, and carry a staff. The one thing that distinguishes him from any other traveler is that Odin only has one eye. He sacrificed his eye at the Well of Mimir to gain wisdom. 

Odin traveled to the Well of Mimir to take a drink but the god, Mimir, who attended the well and drank from it every day, asked for a pledge. After all, gaining wisdom requires sacrifice, so Odin sacrificed something very valuable–his EYE. Mimir gave him the drink. It is fitting to exchange an eye for knowledge; even today we think of wisdom as being ‘far-seeing.’ To read about Odin’s sacrifice, click HERE.

Looks like Gandalf, doesn’t he? Odin the Wanderer (1896) by Georg von Rosen

In The Lord of the Rings, the elves call Gandalf or Mithrandir (the Grey Pilgrim), and he wears grey robes, a floppy hat, and carries a staff–just like Odin! Plus, Odin’s desire to gain knowledge would most certainly have appealed to a wizard like Gandalf. It was Gandalf who traveled to Gondor to search the ancient books for information about the One Ring. He was the one who traveled all through Middle Earth to discover what was going on, particularly after he suspected the One Ring was on the loose. 

Odin the Mentor

In the Norse tale of Sigurd the Dragon Slayer, Odin shows up to aid the hero on three occasions: 

  • When Sigurd wanted to prove himself as a worthy young man, he asked his foster father for a horse. The foster father told him to take any horse he wanted, so Sigurd went to the field to catch the best one. Along the way, he met a stranger dressed in a cloak, a floppy hat, and who only had one eye–Odin in disguise. After the encounter, Sigurd was able to capture the horse Grani, a descendant of Odin’s eight-legged horse, Sleipnir (SLAYP-neer). 
  • Once he came of age, Sigurd sailed off to avenge his father’s death. At sea, he and his crew encountered a man standing on a mountain who said his name was Fjolnir (which in this context most likely means “all-knowing). Fjolnir then sang a song that included information about what Sigurd needed to do to avenge his father and fulfill his destiny. 
  • After avenging his father, Sigurd then set out to kill the dragon Fafnir. He dug a hole to lie in wait so he could stab the dragon from underneath when he slithered to get water. While Sigurd was digging the hole, a man with a long beard made an appearance and told Sigurd he needed to dig trenches for the dragon’s blood, although he did not explain why. The long-bearded stranger was none other than Odin.  

In the The Lord of the Rings, it is made clear that Gandalf comes and goes at will, sometimes disappearing for years at a time. At the beginning of Lord of the Rings, after Bilbo’s birthday party when he suspected that Bilbo’s ring was the One Ring, Gandalf gave it to Frodo and then disappeared for years. 

Later in the story, when Gandalf arrived in Edoras and again when he arrived in Gondor and presented himself to the two different kings, there was mention that Gandalf only shows up when there is trouble, implying that Gandalf the Grey Pilgrim comes and goes as he pleases, only making appearances when he is needed. In the story of Sigurd, Odin only showed up when he was needed. Just like Gandalf.

Clearly, Tolkien was inspired by Odin’s “wanderings” and mentoring when he created the character of Gandalf the Grey Pilgrim. 

Odin and Gandalf Sacrifice Themselves

Another thing Gandalf and Odin have in common is how they sacrificed themselves. I already mentioned how Odin sacrificed his eye at the Well of Mimir to gain knowledge. He also hanged himself on a tree for nine nights, pierced himself with a spear, and gave “myself to myself.” When it was all over, 

“I took the runes–

Screaming, I took them–

And then I fell.” (Poetic Edda, 43) 

After that, Odin had knowledge of the runes, spells, and he became wise.

“My imagination expanded,

I became wise,

I grew, and I thrived.” (Poetic Edda, 43)

In The Lord of the Rings, Gandalf sacrificed himself to save the Company from the ancient Balrog. Gandalf knew the Balrog was a creature that only he was powerful enough to withstand so he sent the others ahead, “Fly! This is a foe beyond any of you. I must hold the narrow way. Fly!” (FOTR, 391) 

For a while, Gandalf held off the monster and even destroyed the bridge so it could not cross, but at the last moment, the Balrog’s whip caught Gandalf’s leg and he was pulled down into the abyss. 

When Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas met him again, Gandalf was no longer the Grey–he was Gandalf the White. He told them he fell for a long time but that the abyss had a bottom “beyond light and knowledge.” (TT, 124)

At one point, Gandalf the White told Gimli that, “Far, far below the deepest delvings of the dwarves, the world is gnawed by nameless things.” In Norse mythology, the World Tree, Yggdrasil (IG-drah-seel) is gnawed on “from below”; in the Prose Edda, the dragon Nidhogg (Malice Striker) gnaws at the roots. In another source, the poem Grimnismal in the Poetic Edda, the roots of Yggdrasil are beset by a host of serpents: Goin, Moin, Grabak, Grafvolluth, Ofnir, and Svafnir. 

In the end, Gandalf defeated the Balrog and was “sent back”, carried by the giant eagle Gwaihir the Windlord to Lothlorien. There he was clothed in white to denote his struggle and rebirth. 

Both Odin and Gandalf sacrificed for knowledge, although Gandalf did it while protecting his friends so the One Ring did not fall into the hands of Sauron, while Odin carved runes for the elves and dwarves and told spells that were for the benefit of humans.

Knowledge, learning, and wisdom are important to both of them. 

They Both Had Extraordinary Horses

In Norse mythology, Odin’s has an eight-legged horse named Sleipnir that he rides often on his journeys into Midgard, the world of humans. Because of its eight-legs, Sleipnir is a swift horse. 

In The Lord of the Rings, Gandalf rode Shadowfax, who was one of the greatest horses on Middle Earth and could ride faster than the wind. Furthermore, Shadowfax was the only horse that could withstand the terror of the Witch King and stood still when Gandalf faced off against the Nazgul. All other horses ran away terrified. Shadowfax is a magical horse, indeed.

Tolkien borrowed part of Shadowfax’s name from Old Norse. In that language, fax means “mane.” He’d be Shadow Mane, which I think it quite evocative!

And Birds of Prey

Horses are not the only animals with whom Gandalf and Odin have a connection. They both use birds to help them in their quests or to provide them with information. 

In The Lord of the Rings, when Gandalf was imprisoned by Saruman, he was rescued from the tower by Gwaihir, the Lord of the Eagles after the Great Eagle had been summoned by another wizard, Radagast. 

The Great Eagles flew over Middle Earth and gathered information, which they provided to the elves in Rivendell and to the wizard, Radagast. 

The eagles also rescued Frodo and Sam after the One Ring had been destroyed. They flew into Mordor and carried the two to Gondor where they could recover. 

In Norse mythology, Odin has two ravens who, like the eagles in LOTR, fly through the Nine Worlds to gather information, which they then bring back to him. Their names are Hugin and Munnin, and their names mean Thought and Memory. They are often depicted seated on either side of Odin’s throne. 

Ravens were also mentioned in Tolkien’s world: the ravens of Ravenhill, and two at least were named, Carc and Roac. These ravens lived near the Lonely Mountain and would give information to the dwarf king, Thror. Another nod to Hugin and Munnin! Not to mention, the name Thror is very similar to the Norse god, Thor. Many people in the Viking age were named after Thor. If you want to know more about Thor, click HERE.

One thing I love about stories is how they change and evolve. Tolkien was inspired by Norse mythology and the god Odin when he created the character of Gandalf. That character has inspired many other great characters as well! 

There are more connections between Norse mythology and Tolkien’s world, but I’ll save those for another blog.