Lord of the Rings Inspired by an Ancient Epic

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In the early 19th century, Lönnrot became enamored of the Finnish songs and runes he found in Viena Karelia. He devoted himself to traveling the district, listening to the rune singers and committing the oral poetry to the written word. This was the genesis not only of the modern Finnish language but of the Finnish nation as an entity, creating what Davis calls "this wonderful idea of a … bardic poem inspiring a modern nation."

Inspiration for Middle-Earth

The Kalevala inspired not only Finnish nationalism but also a young English scholar and writer named J.R.R. Tolkien, in whose mind was already taking shape a magical universe that was about to be transformed by Finnish language and legend.

In a letter to W.H. Auden, on June 7, 1955, he remembered his excitement upon discovering a Finnish grammar in Exeter College Library. "It was like discovering a complete wine-cellar filled with bottles of an amazing wine of a kind and flavour never tasted before. It quite intoxicated me; and I gave up the attempt to invent an 'unrecorded' Germanic language, and my 'own language'—or series of invented languages—became heavily Finnicized [sic] in phonetic pattern and structure."

The Finnish language that so delighted the young student became the inspiration for the lyrical tongue of Middle-earth's elves. Tolkien taught himself the ancient and newly codified Finnish to develop his elfin language, and so that he could read the Kalevala in its original Finnish. This achievement opened the door to many further influences from Finnish mythology. Parallels abound between the Kalevala and Tolkien's own saga, in terms of both the characters themselves and the idea of the hero's journey.

The Kalevala features "all the themes of pre-Christian traditions, shape-shifting, mythical demons, magical plants, animals becoming human beings," says Davis, while the story itself "is fundamentally a story of a sacred object which has power, and the pursuit of the mythic heroes who seek that power, to seek a way of understanding what that power means." Davis describes the Kalevala as "a journey of the soul and a journey of the spirit—and that's obviously what drew Tolkien to it."

Tolkien readers have long seen Tolkien's bucolic vision of rural England represented in Middle-earth's Shire, and recognized English farmers in characters such as the hobbit Sam. But those who explore the Kalevala may discover much of the land of the elves, and their language, in the vast snowy spruce forests of Finnish legend.

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Related story: The Lord of the Rings Honors Humble Heroism, Historian Says

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