Saturday, 27 September 2014

Traces of Kalevala in Middle-Earth

A small, remote and young country like Finland doesn't have many things to boast about on an international level, but there is one accomplishment in particular that makes me a little proud (just a little, because I'm not big on patriotic or nationalistic values) of being a Finn: it is an indisputable fact that our mythology was a source of inspiration for J.R.R. Tolkien, one of the most globally renowned and beloved writers of all time. Now, in celebration of the Tolkien Blog Party hosted by Hamlette at The Edge of the Precipice, I'm going to have a little fun speculating which specific characters and elements of Finnish legends contributed to Tolkien's creations.

By having fun, I mean that none of my speculations here are facts set in stone. As far as I know, Tolkien rarely made explicit statements like "this character of Middle-Earth was based on that one of Finnish mythology". Also, I would like to make very clear that I'm in no way implying that Tolkien ripped off of our legends – being inspired by something and blatantly copying are two very different things. And as you read this post further, you'll notice that even when there are parallels to be seen, they usually don't run directly from one character to another.

Finally, before I start speculating, I should mention that all the elements of Finnish legends that I will be talking about come from a collection of Karelian oral folklore called Kalevala, which is our national epic. Because of its considerable length, archaic language and the fact that it's structured completely in trochaic tetrameters, very few Finns actually undertake the task of reading the entire, original Kalevala – and I'm not one of them, not yet at least. Tolkien, however, did read it. In Finnish. That deed alone shows quite an admirable dedication to foreign folklore!

I hope that served as enough of an introduction – let's start looking for parallels!

Tom Bombadil, Gandalf, Väinämöinen and Tapio

Tom Bombadil is possibly the oddest character in Middle-Earth, but for someone with basic Kalevala knowledge his portrayal seems eerily familiar. In Kalevala, one of the central characters is an old shaman with superhuman powers called Väinämöinen. He is the son of a goddess who came into the world before everyone else and could wield a great power through song. A certain quote by Tom Bombadil comes to mind:

"Eldest, that's what I am... Tom remembers the first raindrop and the first acorn... He knew the dark under the stars when it was fearless – before the Dark Lord came from Outside."

Then again, most Tolkien scholars who bring up the connection to Kalevala see Väinämöinen as a model for Gandalf, which is also entirely plausible as both of them are very powerful and are central figures in a resistance against a "dark" power – in Kalevala, the bad guys live up North and their leader is Louhi, who is basically an evil witch with an unspecified number of stunningly beautiful daughters and every man in the "good guys'" land of Kalevala (including Väinämöinen) wants one for his wife.

Personally, I also like to draw parallels between Tom and the Finnish god of the forests, Tapio. There is one particularly striking scene in The Lord of the Rings where the four hobbits are staying at Tom Bombadil's house and Tom wears a crown made of autumn leaves – Tapio also wears a crown that changes according to the seasons. He has a beautiful, fair-haired wife as well, called Mielikki.

The smiths and their creations

While characters like Saruman and Gandalf can make things happen with just the force of their words, the manual work of smiths is of great importance in Middle-Earth. One of the defining characteristics of the entire race of dwarves is their love of metals, but other races have their own share of legendary smiths as well. Not only do they make swords, helms and armour that become legends themselves in the course of time, but some of their creations are so powerful that they change the fate of the entire world. Fëanor made the Silmarils which caused a raging war between Morgoth and the Noldor; his descendant Celebrimbor forged the Three Rings that made it possible for the elves to resist Sauron's power when many others were defeated; and, of course, Sauron himself created the One Ring.

I believe that the concept of smiths making things of great power might have gotten its inspiration from Kalevala – one of its most central heroes is llmarinen, a smith who, according to folklore, forged the dome of the sky and invented iron. His most famous accomplishment, however, was the Sampo. The legends are a bit vague and varied about precisely what sort of an object the Sampo was, but in any case it brought endless riches and prosperity out of thin air to whoever owned it. Similarly to the One Ring, it caused quite a massive squabble over who had the right to use it. Even though it was made by Ilmarinen, who was on the side of the "good guys", he was taking orders from the witch Louhi. Can you guess why? Oh yes, he just wanted to impress her so he could marry one of those desirable daughters of hers.

"The Defence of the Sampo" by Akseli Gallen-Kallela, depicting Väinämöinen and an eagle-shaped Louhi as they fight over the Sampo (which doesn't make an appearance here).


Alright, many mythologies all across the world place eagles as the noblest of all birds. Still, I just have to point out that Kalevala features a gigantic eagle who saves Väinämöinen (the possible inspiration for Gandalf as I mentioned earlier) from drowning. Louhi also transforms herself into an eagle when Väinämöinen leads a force of Kalevalan men in an attempt to steal the Sampo.

Túrin and Kullervo

Spoiler warning for The Children of Húrin! Tolkien himself confirmed that the tragic story of his unluckiest hero, Túrin, was inspired by the similarly unlucky though less heroic Kullervo. Both of them are sent away from home at a young age, though Kullervo's story is much darker already in the beginning – Kullervo's uncle destroys his home, and he is sent off as a slave to Ilmarinen. His journey takes many turns, always to the worse, until he unknowingly commits incest with his sister, just like Túrin. Both of them have a little talk with their swords before killing themselves. I'll be writing more about Túrin in my upcoming review of The Children of Húrin.

So, what do you think about these comparisons? Eagles, smiths, tragic heroes and wise old men of course exist in folklore all around the world, but knowing Tolkien's interest in Kalevala, it's quite tempting to compare these two mythologies especially. I'm hoping that this little analysis might be of interest to non-Finnish Tolkien enthusiasts who may have heard how Finnish mythology inspired Tolkien but never knew what it was all about.


  1. Wow! I find all of that very fascinating. Especially the part about Tom Bombadil's possible inspirations. He's always kind of puzzled me, but what you say here makes a lot of sense to me.

    1. How nice that this was of interest to you! This has been one of those times that being a Finn has proved very useful indeed :)