Tolkien's Hobbit shares many commonalities with Scandinavian myth. There are significant parallels between folklore and the writings of Tolkien. Echoes of the elves, Beörn, the Ring and Gandalf can all be found in the folklore of the Varangians, the Finns and the Sami.
Gandalf enters the story as a mysterious figure who draws a rune on the door of a hobbit who really wanted left alone. Odin was often represented as a mysterious wanderer who was the master of runes. It was said that he exchanged his left eye for the knowledge of 18 runes, 9 incantations, and as much wisdom as any man could know.i Gandalf and Odin are similar in appearance. Gandalf is described as an “old man with a staff” he possesses “a tall pointed blue hat, a long grey cloak, a silver scarf, a long white beard....., and tall black boots.”ii Odin is reported to appear as “an old, one-eyed man leaning on his staff” he has “a wide-brimmed hat covering half of his face. He has a long gray beard and wears a long dark blue cloak”.iii Both possess colorless beards and large hats with long cloaks.
Gandalf is able to speak with the eagles and they do his bidding.iv Odin is able to communicate with two ravens who are called Hugin and Munin who observe and tell Odin all that had happened in the world. Both Eagles and Ravens are traditionally noted to be noble animals. Both being carrion birds are considered mediators between life and afterlife, land and sky, or several other combinations of binary worlds.v
It is mentioned in the Poetic Eddas that one name Odin is known as is Siðhottr or Broad Hat; this is very much akin to Gandalf's name meaning Elf Staff.vi It is also possible that one may even see a reflection of the name Odin in Gandalf's true name Olorin.
The Völsunga tells us that while Sigmund and his father in law are preparing to prevent Sigmund's wife Hjordis from being captured by vikings Odin runs into the scene and smashes the sword that Sigmund is holding.vii Odin has this habit of making surprise appearances and changing the tides of battles in Norse and Teutonic myth. Gandalf also has a tendency to appear just as suddenly and in fortunate moments. He shows up just in time to save the party from the trolls and later the goblins. In the end he arrives at the battle of five armies. It is the arrival of Gandalf and the eagles that turns the battle against the orcish hordes.viii
Gandalf and Odin do differ significantly, Gandalf is not generally vengeful or underhanded in his dealings with mortals. Gandalf is immensely benevolent and never cruel; Odin is often cruel or deceptive and sometimes benevolent though it is often to the “wrong” party. Odin creates drama; Gandalf resolves dramatic situations.
Gandalf is also comparable to Väinämöinen the first man according to the Kalevala.ix Väinämöinen is the central figure of the epic referred to by the Finns as “the runes”. It is conventional to refer to the recitation of this story as “singing the runes”.x There are 49 runes that signify the different sections. Väinämöinen is a powerful shaman who has a magical voice and plays a zither like instrument. He has the ability to communicate with the Great Bear and ask it favors similar to how Gandalf can communicate with the eagles.
Väinämöinen is a nomadic bard and magician who steals the Sampo, an object that actually changes form several times throughout the story. It is said at one point to be the pillar of the world. It is also said to be a mill or cornucopia which can magically produce food and other things. It may be compared to the Ring in Tolkien's world. It is found in a cave and destroyed as part of a great battle. Gandalf's part in finding a burglar to find the Ring and helping to destroy the Ring is akin to Väinämöinen traveling to the depths of the earth to steal the Sampo and his role in its destruction.
Both figures share some similarities though it is difficult to directly compare them. There are things that Gandalf shares with Väinämöinen that he does not with Odin. There are also several ways that Gandalf is quite unlike Väinämöinen. Gandalf is not a thief (though he does happen to know a good one), Gandalf is not capable of carrying the Ring on his person, and Gandalf was not born in the sense that Väinämöinen was born. I think Tolkien had a little of each figure in mind when he created the figure of Gandalf. Tolkien did once describe Gandalf as an “Odinic wanderer” in a letter, and he was rather fond of the Kalevala.xi Tolkien was able to draw from his various influences in the figure of Gandalf.
The elves have an interesting relationship to the Finns and Sami. It would be a simple matter to compare the elves of Middle Earth to the elves of Norse folklore, yet Tolkien made a point that his elves differ from those “of better known lore”.xii The fact that the “higher” language of the elves is derived in some ways from Finnish leads to a different comparison.xiii Tolkien had a relationship with the literature of Finland. It is likely that he recognized the cultural divergence of the Finns and the Sami in relation to the rest of Europe. Both groups have recently been shown to have a different genetic heritage than most of Europe; the DNA studies seem to show them to be Uralic people groups.xiv Tolkien was noted to have said that he felt the human sized elves were representative of un-fallen men.xv The elves were immortal and far wiser than any other being in middle earth. It is presumable that the Elves may represent the idea of the Finns and Sami; cultures separate and apart from the Varangian and Teutonic cultures. As both Finnish and Sami are closely related languages with Sami being an older form it is likely Tolkien may have exposed himself to the folk traditions of both cultures. In the very least, the Kalevala was a work he “drank like an exotic wine”.xvi
Tolkien in both of his elf origin stories starts with three elves (or three pairs) born to be the fathers of the kings of the elves; Imin, Tata and Enel or Ingwë, Finwë, and Elwë are the eldest of the elves. In Sami myth the daughter of the king of giants gives birth to three men who are the fathers of the Sami.xvii The father of these three men is the sun's son. A significant difference is that though both races begin with three men in the story of the elves the sun did not yet exist. The elves were directly created by Eru unlike the dwarves or men; they were born into a world lit only by stars. Yavanna later commissioned the two trees of light in order to delight the elves.
In the Epiloge to the Kalevala Väinämöinen sings a bronze ship into reality and sails to the undying lands like the elves and Ainur. This separates age of pagan Finland from the age of Christian Finland much like the separation of the third and fourth ages of Middle-Earth.
Beörn like Gandalf is a reflection of several traditions. He is in some ways a type of the bear in the mythology of the Finns. There are two named bears in Finnish mythology. One bear is Otava the bear of the heavens (what we would call Ursa Major or the big dipper), the other bear is Otso who has many stories surrounding him. In some stories both bears are one in the same.xviii The bear in Finnic myth (Sami, Finn, Estonian) is considered to both embody the spirit of ancestors and to be a friend or companion. The bear was revered to the point that the old word for bear is now lost. The modern Finn word for bear, Karhu, actually means ragged one.xix The bear was said to protect men the way Beörn protected the party. The belief that the bear embodied the most powerful ancestors gives the bear an anthropomorphic tone; man resides within the bear. In the Kalevala the wizard-bard Väinämöinen and the sorceress Louhi have the ability to shape-shift similar to Beörn.
In the tradition of the Varangians who were neighbors of the Finnic tribes a man in some cases was said to become a creature in battle. In the Ynglinga Saga Odin led men into battle who transformed into wolves and bears.xx During the dark ages and before Viking warriors ate hallucinogenic mushrooms and ran into battle wearing nothing more than a skin of a wolf or bear; they became Ulfheðnar and Bezerkers or Wolf-men and Bear-shirts. Both of these traditions reflect the figure of Beörn although the Bezerker is just as likely to be a villain as an ally in the sagas.
In summary, there are significant parallels between The Hobbit and Scandinavian myth. Gandalf is comparable to both Väinämöinen and Odin, Beörn echoes themes from both Norse and Finnic sources, The Ring echoes the Sambo, and the elves of Middle-Earth are rooted in Finnic culture. Tolkien was inspired by Norse and Finnic myth. Aspects of both are imbedded in his world. Gandalf, Beörn, The Necromancer, and Elrond all carry on the tradition of the sagas. His admiration for them is displayed throughout The Hobbit.
iElder Edda, Stanza 138
vhttp://www.ravenfamily.org/nascakiyetl/obs/rav1.html, also http://www.catholic-saints.info/catholic-symbols/eagle-christian-symbol.htm
viPoetic Eddas, Stanza 48
viiVolsungas, Chapter XI
viiiPgs 41, 65, 281
ixA Dictionary of Creation Myths, http://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/acref/9780195102758.001.0001/acref-9780195102758-e-108?rskey=toT3f9&result=107&q=
xiLetters #107, and also Letters #1
xii Carpenter, Humphrey, ed. (1981), The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, #25, ISBN 0-395-31555-7
xiii“Are Elves Finno-Ugric?”, http://www.sci.fi/~alboin/finn_que.htm
xiv“Where do Finns Come From?” http://sydaby.eget.net/swe/jp_finns.htm
xv Carpenter, Humphrey (1977), Tolkien: A Biography, New York: Ballantine Books, ISBN 0-04-928037-6