Lord of the Rings Inspired by an Ancient Epic

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
Updated March 1, 2004
Generations of readers have cherished Middle-earth, the fantasy
universe sprung from the mind of storyteller J.R.R. Tolkien. His
magical world has been brought to life in the Lord of the Rings
movie trilogy, the third of which, The Return of the King, swept
every category it was nominated for at the Academy Awards ceremony last
night. The movie most notably won Oscars for Best Picture and
Directing, among 9 others.

While the author's imagination was vast, Tolkien's world and its cast of characters do have roots in real-world history and geography, from the world wars that dominated Tolkien's lifetime to the ancient language and legends of Finland.

Anthropologist and ethnobotanist Wade Davis traveled to a remote corner of Finland to uncover Tolkien influences that stretch back into the misty past of northern Europe.

Ancient Saga

Davis, a National Geographic Society explorer-in-residence, journeyed to what was once Finland's Viena Karelia region, along the Russian border, to study Finnish. By the 19th century this area was a last refuge for a unique dialect of the Finnish language.

Nearly all Finns at that time were speaking Finnish, Swedish, or even Russian, the region's established written languages. But a dialect still existed in this isolated region as it always had—in oral form, passed down through the ages from one generation to the next in songs and verses, or runes.

A collection of these runes, comparable to India's Ramayana, or the Greek Odyssey, is known in Finland as the Kalevala, and those who sing its lyrical verses from memory are known as rune singers. These elders long carried in their minds the entire record of the Finnish language.

"In an oral tradition, the total richness of the language is no more than the vocabulary of the best storyteller," Davis explains. "In other words, at any one point in time the boundaries of the language are being stretched according to the memory of the best storyteller."

In what was the Viena Karelia region, the oral tradition of the Finnish language is still alive, but now contained in the memory of just a single storyteller. His name is Jussi Houvinen, and he is Finland's last great rune singer. This elderly man is a living link to myths and languages that have passed mouth-to-ear over the ages in an unbroken chain.

"It's an amazing thing to be in the presence of a man singing even a snippet of the poem," says Davis of his meeting with Houvinen, "because it's so powerful that even if you don't speak Finnish it's profoundly moving just to listen to it, just the cadence of the sounds.

"Being in his presence, and knowing how few people can today recite the poem, you felt you were in the presence of history that was about to be snuffed out." When Houvinen dies the ancient succession of rune singers will end. No one from a younger generation has been able to learn the vast breadth of the saga.

However, the Kalevala itself will not die with Jussi, due to the efforts of a country doctor named Elias Lönnrot.

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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