No consideration of The Lord of the Rings would be complete, of
course, without Gandalf.
Óðinn is a complex, generally nasty, figure. As an Ás ('(pagan) god', the singular of Æsir; the word survives in its English form only in old names like Oswald, 'Ós-might, god-might'), he patronises wisdom, war and poetry. But it would be equally fair to say that he patronises magic, strife and incitement. He had a long life in literature both before and after the conversion of Scandinavia, earlier as a god and later either Christianised as a human king, hero or wizard, mistakenly worshipped; or an evil spirit or demon taking human form. Whatever the case, he usually appears in disguise, as a poor wanderer among men, seeking wisdom or profit, or making trouble as a guest; or, unexpectedly encountered by one of his favourites, giving help or advice. Óðinn is full of paradoxes: he is the greatest god, the Alföðr; but to move among men (to test his followers) and among the giants (to gain wisdom), he must continually take the part of the indigent. He needs the greatest warriors in Valhöll ('the hall of the slain') ready to fight for the Æsir at the Ragnarök, against the jötnar ('giants', cognate with Old English eoten, Middle English etayn which we have encountered above). Having raised these warriors to glory, he must kill them in their prime so as to bring them to Valhöll. He is a dangerous god to gain from.
Gandalf too is a wanderer among men, with many identities, as we hear in Book IV Chapter 5:
Óðinn's names here recall the Old Norse convention of characterising mythological figures by giving them meaningful names. Likewise, other characteristics of Gandalf were suggested to Tolkien by the name Gandalf itself, enountered above as Old Norse Gandálfr. This provides an excellent example of how Tolkien used his linguistic skills to develop and explore the possibilities of a character (or place, or race) through the associations of its name. Old Norse gandr meant 'magic'; in Modern Icelandic it means 'staff, wand'. Both are, of course, characteristic of Gandalf. Álfr is the Norse cousin of Modern English elf. It is cognate with such words as Latin albus ('white'), and as such may have suggested Gandalf the White, the counterpart of Gandalf the Grey sent to Middle Earth after Gandalf the Grey's battle with the Balrog in the Mines of Moria. In Old Norse itself, the Álfar seem to have been a fairly straightforward counterpart to Tolkien's Elves: a magical, human-like people living beyond the lands of humans (or in later folklore invisibly in the same lands). In such cases, Álfar and their English counterparts Elves (Old English Ælfe) are usually viewed much as the Rohirrim view the Elves of Lothlórien--an otherworldly threat, liable to wield magic and enchantment. This tells us much about why Tolkien chose Elves as a translation of Quendi, but it is not obviously relevant to Gandalf. However there is also a convention in which the Álfar are the companions of the Æsir. In this context, they are probably to be identified with the Vanir, who were a divine race alongside the Æsir. These philological associations of Gandalf with divinity suggest something about Gandalf too--'Not a name for a child of Men!', as Tolkien once wrote (Carpenter 1981, 182). (Much of this analysis relates to Alaric's own research on the medieval evidence about elves, but it seems that Tolkien came to similar conclusions on the basis of the same evidence, without publishing them.)
The fullest portrayal of
Óðinn occurs in the Eddaic poem Hávamál ('The sayings of
High')--Hár ('High') being one of Óðinn's many names. It is an obviously layered,
rambling text with disparate origins, but for all that, and partly because
of it, it is unsettlingly compelling. Óðinn begins with wry proverbs on the
life of the poet and the beggar, the duties of the host and the risks of
spoiling one's welcome, as in stanza 30,
In much of this, of course, Óðinn is as much the model for Aragorn--or perhaps more fittingly, Strider--as for Gandalf. ' "Strider" I am to one fat man who lives within a day's march of foes that would freeze his heart, or lay his little town to ruin, if he were not guarded ceaselessly', says Aragorn in Book II Chapter 2. Though both Aragorn and Gandalf are inordinately cleaned-up, they share may of Óðinn's core features. And it is perhaps significant that, as with the Elves, when we get outsiders' views of the characters--like Barliman Butterbur's of Aragorn--they are much closer to our representations of Óðinn than the characters deserve.
This reading helps to close the gap between Gandalf and Óðinn. Underlying The Lord of the Rings, partly in the Silmarillion, partly in Tolkien's many other writings and letters, is the intriguing mythology of the Ainur, originally aspects of the being of the All-Father, Ilúvatar. Among the Ainur are the Valar and Maiar, who went to Eä to help to fulfil the vision of Ilúvatar. It has long been noted how skilfully Tolkien was able to create a mythology while maintaining (or even developing) an orthodox--and beautiful--Roman Catholic theology. However, the Valar and Maiar owe something to Norse mythology too--much as we would expect, given that the Odinic Gandalf seems likely to have been one of their number. Amongst other things, they did not, for much of the period described by the Silmarillion, dwell in a world on a different physical plane from our own, but on the same plane as Middle Earth. This cosmography is the same as seems to have existed in pre-Christian Germanic culture: the Old Norse Miðgarðr ('Middle-enclosure'), the world of humans and linguistically (beside its Old English cognate Middangeard) the basis for Tolkien's Middle-earth was not sandwiched between Ásgarðr ('Ás-enclosure') above and Hel ('Hell') below, but bordered by them as Tolkien's Middle-earth was at one time bordered by Valinor. As in the history of Middle-earth, men might try to travel from Miðgarðr into the land of the Gods.
These comparisons show the rather deep-seated similarities between Tolkien's subcreated mythology and cosmography, and those of pre-Conversion Norse society. Moreover, they suggest that we may view Tolkien's mythology not only as working never to overstep the bounds set by orthodox Roman Catholic theology, but also to incorporate to a significant degree the bounds set by the earliest Christianisers of Norse pagan traditions. The deliberately ambiguous place of Gandalf and the other Istari ('wizards') both within Tolkien's subcreation and vis à vis Catholic theology--Men or Valar? saints or angels? or neither?--would reflect the ambiguity inevitable in any attempt to reconcile the Æsir with Christian theology without stripping them of divinity. In their ignorance, Men in the history of Middle-Earth worshipped the Valar where they should have worshipped Ilúvatar alone, just as men, according to some Christian Norse texts, wrongly worshipped Óðinn. On the other hand, there was at least one among the Istari who was both like Gandalf, and, in the end, like the Óðinn whom we know both from Hávamál and other Norse sources; and Tolkien never make it entirely clear what came of Saruman.
These are musings of which Tolkien, I fear, would not entirely have approved. But they at least show some of the ways in which looking at the languages and texts which inspired Tolkien not only shows his literary models, techniques and some of his aspirations, but suggests doorways through his extraordinary sub-creation can be explored.
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