One of the most common misconceptions of J.R.R. Tolkien’s work I have heard of many times in my life is the source of influence of the writer. A lot of music bands inspired by Middle Earth’s creator often referr to themselves to as “celtic” music, making a reference to the folk that seem to appear in between the lines of that fantastic author. But further analysis shows that this is not precisely the main inspiration of our writer.
Where does this big confusion come from then? Here we have to return a bit historically: celtic people were not the only people who dominated Europe back a few millenia ago. Specially around the year 0, according to christian counting, various tribes known to the Romans as the germani used to share space with them. This meant in peace and in war: many of the chiefs of the clans had wives from the other people. Even some artistic elements were shared among those people- the knots that adorned objects and some mystical symbols.
The usual areas where the celtic tribes resided were France (Gauls), Spain and England and Ireland (Picts being the most famous). This usually would lend is to believe that Tokien’s influence when writing The Lord of the Rings are those mysterious constructors of Stonehenge.
This in some way is understandable; the English are specially proud of their national hero, King Arthur, and they love to show off the legends around Avalon, the Round Table and other legends. Their main influence is celtic… at least in the mere basis of the narrative structure. What we forget are later additions to the myth. First off, the main corpus of the legend was formalized in France, more specifically in Normandy, in the north, by a lesser cleric called Chretien du Troyes. In other words, the great part that we know now is part of a french creation, not an english one.
Second, we use to forget the influence the germanic people had in the territory of the British Isles. Early in the Middle Ages Danish, Anglo and Saxon conquerors entered the territory and formed kingdoms, from which many of the cultural ways of the people and their words came from. Specially strong was the influence if Normands during the Battle of Hastings (1066 a.C.) which reconfigured the whole political map on the islands. Although the celtic element was not forgotten, the legends often got a germanic overhaul. This explains much of the story elements that appear in the legend, alongside its christian tones: the Round Table, the warrior’s code of honor and the need of showing prowess in battle and wisdom, which reflects the main traits of Woden (Odin, Wotan, Oden, etc.).
Also, if we want to understand Tolkien’s grand work, we have to see what he studied: although he knew the Arthurian Legends, he is more known for his essay Beowulf and His Critics and a recent edition his son, Christopher, edited. This last book is a scholarly work on a translation of The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun, which is a legend of a germanic hero. It even starts with mentioning the genesis of the gods, Wotan included.
His biggest strength, after all were the germanic languages. Even the Tolkien Professor in one of his classes mentioned that it is rumored that Tolkien entered into his classrooms reciting a vast piece of one of the sagas, in a supposed attempt to scare off students and thus getting less essays at the end of the semester.
We also see it in many of his elements in his famous trilogy. First we have the riders of Rohan, which behave almost exactly like the Saxon did, even the language is a minor variation of that people’s words. Also we have a strong evidence in the army of the dead that Aragorn and his companions go to confront.
In short, we have a group of ghosts that had in ancient times sworn allegiance to Isildur, but when the time came to confront the dark lord Sauron, they hid in the mountains. The traitors died there and became specters who stole the life essence away from anyone who trespassed their territory. The dishonorable dead remind the reader very much the germanic “vampire”, the draugr, a warrior in dishonor that only lives on in spirit to steal the lives of other warriors and the family of the ghost. If you observe the movie, which was pretty accurate in the representation of the specters, you will see exactly those features on them. Only heeding the dishonored call on the Pellennor Fields under Isildur’s heir releases them of their eternal curse.
As you see these are just some of the elements that make me think that Tolkien, apart from christian, was more influenced by germanic literature and imagery than celtic. Somehow, we see a part of every big saga of the old nordic kings reflected in the novel. No matter what influence though, the epic fantasy trilogy is definitely worth its position as one of the best and most complete novels in the fiction universe.
May they smile upon your way!