With Amazon’s new The Rings of Power television series, JRR Tolkien is back in the news. But in some ways, it was like he never left. Tolkien’s works have fascinated and enthralled millions since they were first released - but there are still a lot that people don’t know about them.
What was the inspiration behind JRR Tolkien’s development of Middle-Earth and his books, The Silmarillion, The Hobbit, and The Lord of the Rings? Was he really inspired by the witches' prophecies in Macbeth? What inspired the development of his tall, noble elves, like Elrond and Galadriel, and his most beloved characters, the hobbits? In this video, we’ll explain Tolkien's universe in 10 minutes and help you become a pro watcher of the Lord of the Rings - even if you haven’t read any of his books, or watched any of the movies. So, if you’re keen on learning more about Tolkien and his universe, keep watching!
JRR Tolkien’s Middle-Earth is a sprawling fantasy that features some of the best literary world-building in modern writing. Tolkien was inspired by a variety of sources, including his experiences as a child in rural, historic Warwickshire, England, which inspired the Shire, and his experiences during World War One.
He originally wrote The Hobbit as a bedtime story for his four children. At the same time, during his time in the trenches, he had written much of the mythology for what would later become Lord of the Rings and Middle-Earth.
Additionally, Tolkien was a lover of languages who was one of the members of the Inklings, a literary discussion group that also included CS Lewis. It was here that he became interested in writing fantasy.
He was also a professor of English language at the University of Oxford. The list of languages he studied includes Welsh, Finnish, Old English, Norse, Gothic, German, and ancient Greek - among others. His love for languages led him to want to invent his own languages – languages that would help populate Middle-Earth and become Sindarin and Quenya, the two major Elvish languages in the books.
Other influences include his belief in Christianity, as well as his own interest in world mythologies – especially Germanic and Norse mythologies, which helped influence his dwarrow. There is also a popular belief that he was inspired by the events of the Second World War, with Sauron being analogous to Hitler - however, Tolkien publicly denied his works were connected to this war, only admitting links to his time fighting in the First World War.
One of his most interesting influences is the Shakespeare play Macbeth, about a Scottish general and the prophecies he receives from a trio of witches.
When Tolkien originally saw the play, he was intrigued by the prophecy of the witches that predicted Macbeth could not be defeated until “Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill shall come against him” and that “none of woman born shall harm Macbeth.” He found himself disappointed by the solutions to these prophecies in the play – Macduff was born by a Caesarian section, and the troops who attack Macbeth use branches of the woods to camouflage themselves and their attack.
This led to him creating his own version of moving trees – Ents – and a prophecy where no man could kill the Witch-King of Angmar, solving it by having him defeated by the hobbit Merry and Eowyn, a woman.
Aside from Tolkien’s myriad influences, one of the things that continue to interest generations of fans and fantasy lovers are the many peoples that he created to populate Middle-Earth - elves, dwarrow, orcs, and more.
The Peoples of Middle-Earth
Tolkien’s elves were based on the light elves (the ‘Ljósálfar’) from Norse mythology - tall, powerful, and elegant - rather than the elves of English folklore, who were short, magical, and similar to fairies, but without the wings.
They are the oldest beings in Middle-Earth that aren’t wizards. They were created before the creation of the Moon and the Sun, and they are known as the Firstborn. They call themselves the Quendi (“Speakers”) and love light and languages – perhaps a reference to Tolkien’s own love for languages.
They speak two primary languages – Sindarin and Quenya – aside from the Common Tongue spoken by all in Middle-Earth. Elves are almost immortal, though they can be killed in battle or die of a broken heart or grief.
Tolkien preferred the term “dwarrow” as the plural for “dwarf.” His dwarrow are short and stocky creatures who live in the mountains and mine precious metals. They have a long history of bad blood with elves, a history that remains until the events of the Lord of the Rings, where the elf Legolas and dwarf Gimli become friends.
They are inspired by the dwarves from Norse mythology, and many of the dwarrow in The Hobbit share names with dwarves mentioned in the Norse sagas. Though Gimli is an important character in the Lord of the Rings, Tolkien truly focuses on the dwarrow in his prequel book, The Hobbit, where most of the characters are dwarrow.
Hobbits are also known as “halflings.” Though they resemble men, they are about half their height. They have curly hair on both their heads and feet and do not wear shoes.
They are keen gardeners and live in the Shire, which was influenced by Tolkien’s memory of his childhood in pre-war England. They tend to avoid the other races of Middle-Earth, though a few of them have gone on adventures outside the Shire and become famous in the rest of Middle-Earth.
Humans in Middle-Earth are known as Men. They are similar to humans from the Middle Ages and are found around Middle Earth. They have relationships with Elves, and some are drawn to the service of Sauron.
Men and their kingdoms were inspired by a variety of different real-world sources. For example, Gondor and Arnor drew inspiration from the Roman Empire (Gondor from the Eastern Roman Empire and Europe), while Rohan was inspired by the Anglo-Saxons. Mount Doom and Mordor are linked to Mount Etna, and the Haradrim (some of the Men allied with Sauron) are inspired by Africa.
There were five wizards in Middle-Earth, all given a color – two blue wizards, one grey (Gandalf), one brown (Radagast) Rada-ga-st (short last a like northern accent), and one white (Saruman). They were, in reality, Maiar, Tolkien’s version of angels, and were sent by the Valar (the “gods” of Middle-Earth) to help the peoples of Middle-Earth fight Sauron.
Orcs are a race of creatures that were bred by Sauron and his master, Morgoth, and were also known as goblins. They were created to be evil, and in one version of Tolkien’s story, they were originally elves who were corrupted and became evil. They hated sunlight and lived in mountain caves. Sauron and Saruman also bred the Uruk-Hai, a breed of unusually large orcs who could tolerate sunlight much better.
Philosophy of Tolkien
Tolkien’s stories are infused with a sense of longing and nostalgia. He was a deep believer in environmentalism, which is part of his influence behind the Ents. His books are a reference to a struggle between technological progress and environmentalism.
Other philosophes present in his work include themes of death and immortality – as a Christian, he was very interested in these themes and said that his books were mainly concerned about them. This is especially true of the story of Arwen, the elf in the Lord of the Ring who gives up immortality for the love of the mortal Aragorn.
Other themes include friendship and forgiveness, both of which play a key role in the destruction of the One Ring. This destruction would not have been possible without the friendship between Frodo and Sam and Frodo’s forgiveness and sparing of Gollum’s life.
Tolkien’s works are also about some intrinsically human themes, which help make the books so compelling. These include the battle between good and evil - the struggle between Frodo and the Ring, and the Free Peoples of Middle-Earth and Sauron - and power, and the desire of some (Sauron, the Witch-King of Angmar, Saruman, and Denethor) to keep it over all else. Other themes include love and loss (the story of Aragorn and Arwen, and the platonic love between the characters, such of Bilbo and Frodo, all of which is tinged with a sense of loss - the loss of childhood, of mortality, and so on), and duty. Duty was something Tolkien thought especially important, and many characters in the books (Frodo with the Ring, Aragorn with the kingship of Gondor) do what they must, rather than what they truly want to.
Finally, the books are also a story about growing up. The main hobbit characters in the books must leave the safety of the Shire and explore the rest of Middle-Earth, learning important lessons about themselves and their own abilities before they can return home – to a Shire that has also changed in the time that they were away.