Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Bilbo’s Ride through Iceland

The first time I flew to Iceland, in 1986, I felt immediately at home. It was a strange feeling. I’d grown up in deep oak woods—Iceland had few trees taller than my head. There was no ocean near my home in Pennsylvania, no black beach, no wailing wind or horizontal rain, no tumbling waterfalls, no lava fields, no gleaming glaciers, no jewel-green fields alive with herds of horses. But in Iceland that first time, I felt I’d been there before. The landscape seemed insistently familiar.

Friends told me of having had the same feeling. Had we lived there in a previous life, I wondered? Did we have Viking blood?

It puzzled me for years, until I read a brilliant scholarly book by Marjorie Burns called Perilous Realms: Celtic and Norse in Tolkien’s Middle-earth, published by the University of Toronto Press in 2005. In it Burns argues that the landscape of JRR Tolkien’s Middle-earth (except for the very-English Shire) was essentially Icelandic.

I had “traveled” to Iceland numerous times before 1986, unknowingly, while reading and rereading Tolkien’s books. Through college Tolkien had been my favorite author (in spite of the scorn such a confession brought down on an English major at an American university in the late 1970s, where fantasy was derided as “escapist” and unworthy of study). From his biography, I knew Tolkien had begun reading Old Icelandic in his teens. He loved the cold, crisp, unsentimental language of the Icelandic sagas, their bare, straightforward tone like wind keening over ice. He was drawn to the “Northernness” of the Eddas: To their depictions of dragons and dwarves, fair elves and werewolves, wandering wizards, and trolls that turned into stone. To their portrayal of men with a bitter courage who stood fast on the side of right and good even when there was no hope at all.

Reading the sagas and Eddas was more important than reading Shakespeare, Tolkien argued, because the Icelandic books were more central to our language and our modern world. Egg, ugly, ill, smile, knife, fluke, fellow, husband, birth, death, take, mistake, lost, skulk, ransack, brag, and law, among many other common English words, all derived from Old Norse. In Tolkien’s lifetime (though not by him), Snorri Sturluson’s Edda was described as “the deep and ancient wellspring of Western culture.”

But I also knew that Tolkien had never visited Iceland.

Marjorie Burns solved the riddle by showing how deeply Tolkien had been influenced by his reading of William Morris’s Journals of Travel in Iceland, 1871-73.

The hobbit Bilbo Baggins’s ride to “the last homely house” of Rivendell, for example, matches one of William Morris’s excursions from the 1870s point-for-point. Both riders are fat, timid, tired, and missing the small comforts of home. Each sets out on a charming pony ride that turns dreary, wet, and miserable. The wind is cold and biting. The landscape is “doleful,” black, rocky, with “slashes of grass-green and moss-green,” Tolkien writes. Chasms open beneath their feet. Bogs and waterfalls abound. The pony stumbles, the baggage (mostly food) is lost, the fire refuses to light. The rider nods off on the last leg and is astonished: There was “no indication of this terrible gorge till one was quite on the edge of it,” Morris writes. Narrow, it lay between steep cliffs cut by a deep green river. “We rode down at right angles into the main gorge, with a stream thundering down it; we rode round the very verge of it amidst a cloud of spray from the waterfall.” Finally the gorge debouched into a green valley with—not the elves’ Rivendell—but a handsome Icelandic farmstead. “A sweet sight it was to us: we rode swiftly down,” Morris writes, and soon were happily “out of the wind and rain in the clean parlor, drinking coffee and brandy, and began to feel that we had feet and hands again.”

I’ve ridden that ride (though not the exact route: that’s a plan for the future). But the rain, the cold, the biting wind, the peckishness, the fatigue, the astonishment at the landscape, the deep gratitude for the Icelanders’ warm hospitality, the thrill of feeling at the end of the ride “that we had feet and hands again”—all these are very familiar. All these make Iceland feel like home.

This essay was adapted from my book-in-progress, Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths, due out in October from Palgrave Macmillan.


  1. I have also heard that when Tolkien was a professor at Oxford, he had an informal "club" including his Nordic, even Icelandic students. They would get together, drink beer, and talk. It is also thought that through them, Tolkien was also influenced in his writing of The Lord of the Rings - throwing the ring in the volcano, etc. is very like one of the sagas, thought to exist, but never published.

  2. You're right, Judy. The club was called the Coalbiters, and the Icelandic sagas and Eddas definitely influenced The Lord of the Rings in more than landscape. I've never heard of the "ring in the volcano" saga, however. Intriguing!

  3. " I've never heard of the "ring in the volcano" saga, however."

    --with good reason: no such saga. It's a fictional device made up by the author of WHERE THE SHADOWS LIE, a modern-day mystery novel set in Iceland, published about two years ago.

    Really nice piece, by the way. In addition to the sagas and the Morris, I believe Tolkien's friend E. V. Gordon may have travelled to Iceland; if so, JRRT cd have had access to first-hand accounts. Not that he needed them: the literary sources were probably enough to spark his imagination.

    --John R.

  4. Thanks for solving that mystery, John. I was hoping it was one of those forgotten Fornaldarsogur that the Arnamagnaean Institute in Copenhagen was working on editing. See "Stories for all time":

  5. I wonder if Tolkien read William Morris's superb Icelandic Journals.

    1. In "Perilous Realms," Marjorie Burns gives convincing evidence that he did. William Morris was one of the only "modern" authors Tolkien enjoyed reading, though he never specifically mentions the Journals in anything I've seen.

    2. Þóra MagnúsdóttirJuly 31, 2012 at 1:13 PM

      Don´t see the reply I sent yesterday so I do it again.
      the link shows a picture of the article but you can also have it in text format.
      I was asked to send you a greating from Sigrún í Hallkelsstaðahlíð when she knew I was commenting on your blog.

  6. Þóra MagnúsdóttirJuly 30, 2012 at 11:37 AM

    Tolkien also had young icelandic woman in his home for a time, as a nanny I think. I read an interview some time ago were she talked about that time, could try to find it, although it is in icelandic.
    The likeness with Iceland and the sagas has always striked me when reading Tolkiens work. And I am not surpriced to see the connection with William Morris.

    1. I would love to read that interview, Þóra (I can read Icelandic)! I had read about the Icelandic nanny in Tolkien's biography and wondered if any interviews had been done--or if she was still alive! Thanks.

  7. Thanks, Þóra, for the link to the Morgunblað interview with the Tolkien children´s nanny. Very cool! Too bad I didn´t get to meet her (she would be 102 this year). I like the part where she says she told the children Icelandic stories of trolls and monsters, and Tolkien was listening in. Might need to do another blog post on this topic!

  8. I have a link to that interview, in English -

  9. There was a discussion of this some years ago on the lotR plaza site, inc. a post by Findegil (aka Wayne Hammond & Christina Scull)