Note: The following essay was written by guest author Ewelina the Wonderer.
The Unexpected Origins
– J. R. R. Tolkien’s inspirations for Gandalf and the Dwarves –
by Ewelina the Wonderer
Ian McKellen as Gandalf in “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.”
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Well, it began as you might expect – with long-forgotten languages J. R. R. Tolkien was so deeply fond of. Among the numerous sources of his linguistic inspirations, which attentive travelers are likely to encounter throughout the familiar Middle-Earth landscape, one language in particular had its share in creating one of the most recognizable wizards in the history of contemporary literature – Gandalf the Grey.
“Many are my names in many countries, he said. Mithrandir among the Elves, Tharkûn to the Dwarves; Olórin I was in my youth in the West that is forgotten, in the South Incánus, in the North Gandalf; to the East I go not.” – Gandalf, “The Lord of the Rings. The Two Towers”
According to Middle-Earth’s linguistic legendarium, Gandalf translates as Elf-of-the-wand (or cane, or staff) – a name which was given to him by the Men of the North who, intimidated by his mysterious appearance, extraordinary skills and unnaturally long life, assumed he belonged to Elf-kind rather than the world of Men.
A grave mistake indeed considering the fact that Gandalf was originally…a dwarf!
Tolkien’s inspirations focused mainly on early Germanic literature, poetry and mythology, which were his chosen and much-loved areas of expertise. A collection of poems in one of these languages known as Old Norse, a North Germanic language spoken by inhabitants of Scandinavia and their overseas settlements during the Viking Age (VIIIth – XIIIth century), became an undeniable background not only for the character of Gandalf the Grey but also for other familiar Middle-Earth heroes like Durin, Dwalin or Dain. This collection of poems was known as “The Poetic Edda“.
One of the Old Norse poems, titled “Völuspá” (“Prophecy of the Seeress“), presents the creation of the world and its coming end in the words of a völva, a shamanic seeress, addressing Odin – member of the Æsir (a pagan pantheon of Norse gods) – who was a symbol of war, victory and death, but also of wisdom, shamanism, magic, poetry, prophecy and the hunt. His most famous son, Thor, a hammer-wielding god known as the protector of mankind, master of thunder, lightning and storms, was also associated with oak trees – a likely inspiration of Thrór, Thorin’s grandfather, and the famous oaken shield as well.
Thor’s Oak was a sacred tree of the Germanic pagans, located somewhere in Hessia, in Germany. Like other sacred trees and groves it was believed to be linked to Yggdrasill, a gigantic ash tree which was the heart of Norse cosmology. Its branches extended far into the heavens and its three enormous roots originated from the wells Urðarbrunnr and Mímisbrunnr, and from the spring Hvergelmir.
Wondrous creatures lived within Yggdrasil, including a dragon – Níðhöggr, which gnawed at its roots trapping it away from the world; and four magnificent stags: Dáinn, Dvalinn, Duneyrr and Duraþrór, chomping at its branches. Dáinn and Dvalinn also reappear in Norse mythology as dwarfish heroes, but here, in the context of the holy tree, it is believed that the four stags were either a symbol of seasons, moon phases or winds – with Dáinn and Dvalinn being the calm ones and Duneyrr and Duraþrór – the heavy ones. Yggdrasil was also home to an unnamed eagle, perched on top of the ash tree, with Veðrfölnir – a hawk sitting between his eyes; and Ratatoskr – a squirrel running up and down its trunk, passing news and gossip from the eagle to the dragon.
Ratatoskr passing news from Níðhöggr to the nameless eagle living within Yggdrasil. Artwork by Daniel Lieske.
Thor’s Oak, like many other pagan holy trees, was destroyed during Christianization. According to the legend, it was cut down in the VIIth century by an Anglo-Saxon missionary, Saint Boniface (Winfred), with a little help from some strong, mysterious wind. The timber from the tree was used to create a wooden oratory.
Saint Boniface chopping down Thor’s Oak.
Dwarves, or Dvergar as they were called in Old Norse, were one of Æsir’s many creations – entities deriving from rocks and earth, acknowledged for their craft, metalwork, wisdom but also greed. According to “Völuspá”, dwarves originated from three primary tribes, led by Mótsognir – their first ruler, secondly by Durinn and finally by Dvalinn – the discoverer of rune writing. And while the character of Dwalin plays a minor role in “The Hobbit”, Durin the Deathless remains one of the most important dwarven heroes in Tolkien’s mythology, being the eldest of the Seven Fathers of the Dwarves and the founder of the legendary kingdom of Khazad-dûm.
Even though the word Dvergar is etymologically related to Dwarves, the early Norse concept of Dvergar was far different from the concept of dwarves in other cultures. According to some scholars the ancient Norse originally described the Dvergar as human-sized, but the spread of Christianity led to diminishing both their mythic and religious role as well as their stature. Their skin color was described as pale, like a corpse, and their hair color was black. The Dvergar were often called black – a term relating to their hair, beard and eyes, granting them another name – Svartálfar – meaning Black Elves.
In contrast, to describe black skin, Old Norse used another term – blue(blár). One of the Dvergr bore the nickname of Bláinn – The Blue One, who may have been an inspiration for Balin, Thorin Oakenshield’s companion in “The Hobbit” and the Lord of Moria from “The Lord of the Rings”. [Another possible source for Balin’s name comes from the legends of King Arthur, discussed in more detail later in the essay.] In addition, Dáin and Náin, dwarven rulers closely related to Thorin, derived their names from Dvergar famous for their pale skin and corpse-like appearances – Dáinn (The Dead One) and Náinn (The Corpse). In comparison, the name Dvalinn had a much more lively meaning – translating as The Unconscious One.
Many Norse texts imply that Dvalinn is the ancestor of all Dvergar and his name stands for any or every Dvergr – calling female Dvergar “the daughters of Dvalinn” and the sun – “the game of Dvalinn” (since it was deadly to any Dvergr who had to dodge it every dawn). Norse mythology also mentions “the drink of Dvalinn”, also known as “The Mead of Poetry”, a beverage which granted its drinker the skills of a scald or a scholar.
Dvergar depicted in a 19th century edition of “Völuspá” (1895) by Lorenz Frølich.
Considering all of these facts it is more than apparent that “Dvergatal” (“Catalogue of Dwarves”), an integral part of the “Völuspá” poem, became a perfect catalogue of dwarfish names for Tolkien’s Durin-folk, granting them to heroes such as Fili, Kili, Bifur (Old Norse: Bífurr), Bofur (Báfurr), Bombur (Bömburr), Nori (Nóri), Dori (Dóri), Ori (Óri), Gloin (Glóinn), Fundin, Thrór (Þrór), Thráin (Þráinn) and of course Thorin (Þorinn) Oakenshield (Eikinskjaldi). Tolkien came to regret his use of Old Norse names, referring to it as a “rabble of eddaic-named dwarves invented in an idle hour” but decided to use Old Norse in “The Lord of the Rings” nonetheless, as an explanation for the origin of the language of Dale.
“A rabble of eddaic-named dwarves invented in an idle hour” – J. R. R. Tolkien. Artwork by Dwalinroxxx.
Numerous Dvergar names contain the syllable álf, from Álfar (Elves). Thankfully, Norse texts do provide us with a distinction between these two races and the presence of álf among dwarven names seems to serve as a form of title – stating that its bearer was a source of good luck but also meaning a guardian or a deity. The best example for the aforesaid is a familiar Dvergar name – Gandálfr, the Old Norse forefather of Gandalf the Grey, Middle-Earth’s tireless guardian and Thorin Oakenshield’s source of good luck indeed. Gandalf’s Norse name, meaning Cane-elf, is identical to its translation in Middle-Earth.
Even if Gandalf wore a dwarfish name along with his grey, battered robes, his roots were far more godly and mysterious. Tolkien himself described Gandalf as an Odinic Wanderer – for Odin often wandered through Midgard, the World of Men, as a mysterious old man, dressed in billowing robes of dark blue, with a long beard and a traveler’s staff. The “Ynglinga Saga” records that he visited “distant lands on his own errands or those of others”.
“For aid? It has seldom been heard of that Gandalf the Grey sought for aid, one so cunning and so wise, wandering about the lands, and concerning himself in every business, whether it belongs to him or not.” – Saruman about Gandalf, “The Lord of the Rings. The Two Towers”.
Odin, the Wisdom-Seeking Wanderer by Arthur Rackham (1911).
The Wanderer was a relentless seeker and giver of wisdom, but he had little regard for communal values such as justice, fairness, respect for law and convention. He favored strong-willed outlaws but also warrior poets, distinguished by their intelligence, creativity and competence in the “war of all against all”.
Most shamans, to whom Odin was a divine patron, had to undergo a ritual of death and rebirth in order to acquire their powers. Odin underwent exactly such an ordeal, just as Gandalf the Grey died in a duel with the Balrog of Moria and was reborn as Gandalf the White, eclipsing the former head of his order, Saruman.
Odin was accompanied by many symbolic animals. Sometimes he would ride an eight-legged horse named Sleipnir, described as the best of all mounts – just as Shadowfax, Gandalf’s steed, lord of the Mearas, was the best mount of king Théoden’s stables.
Odin riding Sleipnir. Concept art by Michael Kutsche.
Odin was also aided by a pair of ravens, Huginn (“Thought“) and Muninn (“Memory“), which flew over the universe and brought him valuable information from the World of Men – a possible inspiration for Carc, Roäc and their kin of ravens from the Ravenhill near Erebor, serving king Thrór and, later on, his grandson.
Odin/Wotan with Huginn and Muninn, by John Howe.
This depiction of Odin – as the mysterious Wanderer – was one of the main themes of Richard Wagner’s “Der Ring des Nibelungen” (“The Ring of the Nibelung”) – a cycle of four epic operas, loosely based on the Norse sagas, involving a magical ring, a shattered sword, a powerful dragon and some greedy dwarves. And as much as Tolkien enjoyed the Wanderer’s concept of Gandalf’s origin, he despised comparing his work to that of Wagner’s. Gandalf, unlike Odin, is not the chief of all gods or a shape-sifter, he’s not brutal and cares not for treasures.
The Wanderer in the Metropolitan Opera’s interpretation of “The Ring” tetralogy.
The Wanderer and Siegfried.
It’s also worth mentioning that one of the dwarves from “The Ring” cycle, bearing the name Mime, from Old Norse Mímir or Mim (“The Rememberer“), may have been an inspiration for Mîm, one of the Petty-dwarves of the First Age whose fate was entangled with that of Túrin Turambar’s from “The Children of Húrin”, just like Wagner’s Mime, equally untrustworthy and bitter, finds himself dependent on Siegfried, a young and fearless human hero.
Siegfried and Mime.
Mîm captured by Turin Turambar and his men. Artwork by Steamey.
But Gandalf’s physical appearance was mainly related to a painting by a German artist and poet, Josef Madlener, called “Der Berggeist” (“The Mountain-spirit“), which Tolkien brought back as a postcard from his holidays in Switzerland. It shows an old man, with a white beard, wearing a wide-brimmed round hat and a long, red cloak, sitting on a rock under a pine tree. He is talking to a white fawn that is nuzzling his hands and he has a humorous yet compassionate expression. Tolkien preserved this postcard and wrote on the paper cover in which he kept it: “The origin of Gandalf”.
“Der Berggeist” by Josef Madlener (1881-1967).
It is more than likely that “Der Berggeist” was in fact a portrait of Rübezahl, a mountain spirit of the Krkonoše Mountains, a mountain range located in the north of the Czech Republic (where he is known as Krakonoš) and the south-west of Poland (with Liczyrzepa or Waligóra being his Polish names). He was a subject of many legends and fairy tales in German, Polish and Czech folklore, in which he was depicted as a capricious giant, gnome or spirit, the lord of the weather and master of the wild hunt, acting unexpectedly or playfully, sending lightning and thunder, fog, rain and snow from the mountain below, even while the sun was shining. Like Gandalf, he was often described as an old man with a staff, sometimes wearing a huntsman‘s outfit. According to Polish folklore he was killed many times and his symbolic grave can be visited in the village of Szklarska Poręba.
Rübezahl’s statue in Krkonoše Mountains.
The list of inspirations for Gandalf seems an endless one. Some scholars claim that Gandalf derived from Väinämöinen, a wise old man and a central hero of a Finnish epic poem “Kalevala”; who – like Gandalf – had immortal origins and departed on a ship to the lands beyond the mortal world. Gandolf, an evil overlord, and Silverfax, a fast, white horse, were also one of the characters of a XIXth century fantasy novel, “The Well at the World’s End” written by William Morris, well known to both Tolkien and his very good friend, C. S. Lewis.
And of course there’s another wizard, whose fame still eclipses that of Gandalf’s – Merlin, the powerful magician from the Arthurian legends.
Merlin’s origins, unlike Gandalf’s, were far from being angelic since he was said to be a cambion – an offspring of a mortal woman and a demon father from whom he inherited his magical powers like shape-shifting and unnaturally long life. Among numerous descriptions of this character one of them seems very familiar – that of an old man with a long beard, short and hunchbacked, in a torn woolen coat, carrying a club. And yet this shabby sage, unlikely as it seems, was the chief advisor of king Arthur, just like Gandalf offered his council to Thorin, Aragorn, Théoden and other important rulers of Middle-Earth.
“Gandalf was shorter in stature than the other two; but his long white hair, his sweeping silver beard, and his broad shoulders, made him look like some wise king of ancient legend. In his aged face under great snowy brows his eyes were set like coals that could suddenly burst into fire.” – “The Fellowship of the Ring”
“Merlin” by Alan Lee.
Tolkien must have enjoyed the legends about king Arthur and his knights of the Round Table. In 1925 he published a scholarly edition of XIVth century romance “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” and – though only published this year – he had begun a poem titled “The Fall of Arthur” in the 1930’s, but probably abandoned it around the same time he was writing “The Hobbit“. King Arthur, like Thorin, relied mainly on twelve of his best and most loyal knights: Lancelot, Gawain, Geraint, Gareth, Gaheris, Bedivere, Galahad, Key, Bors de Ganis, Lamorak, Tristan and Percivale, although some texts also include Agravaine, Sagramore and other less known warriors.
Gawain, Gaheris, Gareth and Agravaine were Arthur’s nephews, just like Fili and Kili were the sons of Dis, Thorin’s sister. Sadly, Tolkien’s descriptions of the individual members of Thorin’s Company were short, robbed of memorable details, so establishing further connections between the knights of the Round Table and any particular dwarves from “The Hobbit” would seem a far-fetched supposition. Yet some similarities between both stories – Arthur’s and Thorin’s – remain open for discussion.
Arthur was the first born son of Uther Pendragon and the heir to the throne of Britain, just as Thorin was the first born son of Thráin II, inheriting his rights to the throne of Erebor. Arthur claimed the crown by pulling out the Sword in the Stone in which it was buried by Merlin; a deed which could only be performed by the rightful king of England. Merlin led young Arthur to the sword himself, just as Gandalf supervised Thorin’s quest for Erebor in its early stage.
Merlin advising Arthur – as portrayed in “Idylls of the King” by Gustave Doré (XIXth century).
And while Arthur never fought a dragon in his time, he did dream of one:
“And as the king lay in his cabin in the ship, he fell in a slumbering and dreamed a marvellous dream: him seemed that a dreadful dragon did drown much of his people, and he came flying out of the west, and his head was enamelled with azure, and his shoulders shone as gold, his belly like mails of a marvelous hue, his tail full of tatters, his feet full of fine sable, and his claws like fine gold; and an hideous flame of fire flew out of his mouth, like as the land and water had flamed all of fire.”
– “Le Morte d’Arthur” by sir Thomas Malory (XVth century)
In the end, Arthur was betrayed by one of his most faithful knights, Lancelot, who robbed him of the treasure dearest to the king’s noble heart – his wife, Guinevere. Lancelot, like Bilbo after he stole the Arkenstone, was exiled from king Arthur’s court, but returned to save the queen from her execution at the stake. And as Arthur pursued him in order to have his revenge, Mordred, his illegitimate son, took this occasion to take over the rule of his kingdom.
Arthur and Thorin are therefore forced to face their final battles shortly after the betrayal of their valued follower, defending their rights to their own realms, surrounded by enemies who were cunning enough to strike when the kings were most vulnerable.
Mordred and Arthur met on the battlefield of Camlann, Mordred was killed, and Arthur mortally wounded. According to Malory’s “Le Morte d’Arthur” Guinevere is later on buried in the same tomb as Arthur, just as Thorin was buried with the Arkenstone after the Battle of Five Armies. Arthur’s nephew, Gawain, is one of the many casualties of the battle of Camlann, just as Thorin’s nephews, Fili and Kili, die by their uncle’s side in the shadow of the Lonely Mountain.
And if Gandalf was Middle-Earth’s Merlin, and Thorin Oakenshield – its king Arthur, then we must mention one more figure – sir Balin le Savage, also known as the Knight with the Two Swords, who – according to Merlin’s council – would become Arthur’s best and bravest knight. He’s described as “a good man of his hands and of his deeds, and without villainy or treachery and without treason”, like his Tolkien alter ego, yet he meets a much more tragic end than Balin from “The Lord of the Rings”, since he is mortally wounded by his brother in a dramatic duel, which results in their deaths.
There is also one more extraordinary theory about Gandalf’s origin – the secret of king Bladorthin.
“From that the talk turned to the great hoard itself and to the things that Thorin and Balin remembered. They wondered if they were still lying there unharmed in the hall below; the spears that were made for the armies of the great King Bladorthin (long since dead), each had a thrice-forged head and their shafts were inlaid with cunning gold, but they were never delivered or paid for; shields made for warriors long dead; the great golden cup of Thrór, two-handed, hammered and carven with birds and flowers whose eyes and petals were of jewels.” – “The Hobbit” by J. R. R. Tolkien
In the early draft of “The Hobbit”, the wizard, who would later become the legendary Gandalf, bore the name of the aforesaid Bladorthin, whereas the name of Gandalf was originally given to the dwarven King Under The Mountain, the final hero known as Thorin Oakenshield.
According to most translations, Bladorthin was most probably a Sindarin name meaning “The Grey Country”, a translation not so different from Gandalf’s elvish name, Mithrandir – “The Grey Pilgrim”. Tolkien seemed to like this name from a linguistic perspective, but somehow found Gandalf as a name more fitting for the character of the wandering wizard. The “Chief Dwarf” became known as Thorin, a name meaning “Bold One”, or “Darer”, and ultimately a more fitting designation for the King Under the Mountain than “Staff Elf” had been, while the wizard was able to utilize the appellation to better effect.
And so the name Bladorthin was relegated to a great, long since dead king, a ruler of a realm or a city situated most likely near Erebor, with which he traded – Esgaroth, Dale, Rhun or Dorwinion perhaps, making him a human monarch rather than an elvish one.
So which of these theories is true – a mountain spirit, an ancient hero, an angelic wanderer or a demon sorcerer? Perhaps we shall never know. But we must remember that Gandalf, like no other Middle-Earth character, is entitled to some secrecy and, elf or dwarf, a king or a wandering pilgrim, with or without a staff, kind or fearsome, shall always remain the Disturber of Peace, for “tales and adventures sprouted up and down all over the place wherever he went, in the most extraordinary fashion…”
Gandalf the Grey, by John Howe.
For more on Tolkien’s inspirations:
 J. R. R. Tolkien, Douglas A. Anderson, “The Annotated Hobbit: The Hobbit, or There and Back Again”.
 Humphrey Carpenter, Christopher Tolkien, “The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien”.
 Marjorie Burns “Perilous Realms: Celtic and Norse in Tolkien’s Middle-Earth”.