Holle is a retired English and creative writing teacher. She is a professional freelance writer and contributes to Horseman Magazine.
I really enjoy the works of J. R. R. Tolkien. I’ve read The Hobbit, Lord of the Rings, and some of Tolkien’s poetry. I suppose I feel some small kinship with the great author. He was a professor of Anglo-Saxon, and I taught British Literature to high school seniors. Tolkien was an expert on the Anglo-Saxon epic poem, Beowulf. Of course, Beowulf and the Anglo-Saxons were both included in the course I taught. I’ve written, read, graded, and judged my share of Beowulf essays and research reports. I’m certainly not comparing my knowledge of Beowulf with that of Tolkien’s, but I’d venture to say that I know a little more about the epic poem and about Celtic and Anglo-Saxon cultures than the average person knows–especially the average American. After more than four decades, I’m reading The Hobbit book again, and I’ve seen several similarities shared by Tolkien’s works, the culture of the Celts, the Anglo-Saxons, and Beowulf. Some of you have probably picked up on a few of the most obvious similarities, but there might be a couple that you overlooked. If this sort of thing interests you, you might enjoy the information and suppositions I present here. Feel free to leave some of your own ideas in the comment section at the end of this article.
Who were the Celts? The people we now refer to as Celtic were warrior tribes who settled in Britain beginning around 500 BC. It’s not like there was some planned invasion they sort of drifted in gradually. In fact, it’s somewhat difficult to view the Celts as a single people. They certainly weren’t unified, and Celtic tribes often fought among themselves. They did, however, share a religion and a language. Their cultures were much the same, too.
The Celts brought iron working to Britain, and they worked in other metals, too. They left behind evidence of their creations. These include shields, helmets, swords, spears, bowls, ornate jewelry, and farming implements. Yes – the Celts were farmers when they weren’t serving as warriors. They used iron plows pulled by teams of oxen to till the land.
As I’ve already mentioned, the Celts weren’t a unified group, so when the Romans came calling, the Celts were ill prepared to oppose them. Julius Caesar led an invasion into Britain in 55 BC and subdued the Celts under Roman rule. This lasted for some four centuries, until the Romans pulled up stakes in 409 AD. You might see this as a blessing for the Celts, but if it was, it was a mixed blessing. While the Romans were in Britain, the land was pretty much safe from other invaders, but in the absence of Roman protection, Britain was once more vulnerable.
The Anglo-Saxons and Beowulf
The Angles and the Saxons were Germanic tribes from northern Europe. Along with another tribe, the Jutes, they invaded Britain in 449 AD. With the powerful Roman army gone, the Celts were no match for the invading tribes. It wasn’t that the Celts lacked battle skills; the problem was that they had little unity. Had they met the Angles and Saxons with a unified force, the outcome might have been different. As it was, the Celtic people were driven to the western parts of Britain. The Anglo-Saxons remained in power until 1066, with the Norman Conquest.
The Anglo-Saxons were skilled craftsmen, working in metals as well as in stone, tapestries, and ivory. Much of what we know about Anglo-Saxon craftsmanship came from the Sutton Hoo burial sites. Sutton Hoo includes two sites, one of which includes a ship. The sites have provided a wealth of artifacts, including helmets, drinking horns, bowls, plates, a lyre, buckles, clasps, jewelry, swords, spearheads, scepter ornaments, lamps, bottles, and spoons.
The Anglo-Saxons wrote and spoke a language that we refer to as Old English. They wrote poems, songs, and historical accounts. These include the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which relates the history of the tribes. And, of course, we have the epic poem, Beowulf. Beowulf was written down in the eighth or ninth century, but long before that, it was handed down orally. The events in the poem take place before or during the time the Anglo-Saxons first settled in Britain.
The Anglo-Saxons were also fond of riddles, and some of them have existed over the years. Riddles play an important role in The Hobbit. Bilbo’s conversation with Gollum is comprised mostly of riddles, as each character tries to outdo the other. Riddles also appear in The Lord of the Rings book. One appears in poem form in chapter ten, hinting that Aragorn will become king.
Beowulf in Anglo-Saxon (Old English):
In some ways, The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings are more similar to the Celtic culture than they are to Anglo-Saxon culture. The Celts practiced animism, believing that everything, including animals, plants, and objects possessed a spirit. The world of the Celts was filled with magic, much the same as Tolkien’s Middle Earth. With Celtic animism, the Druids served as high priests and were often seen as having mystical powers, and they did wield a lot of power. They often acted as advisors to the king, and they also served as healers. Druids lived closely with nature and often held ceremonies under ancient oak trees. We might draw a parallel here to the high elves.
The religion of the Anglo-Saxons, however, was much different. It was fatalistic in nature, with no hope of an afterlife. For the most part, they worshipped the gods and goddesses of Norse mythology, although the names of the deities were slightly changed. They believed the only way to “live on” after the physical death of the body was to do something so heroic that people would remember the adventures through songs, poems, and storytelling. Whether or not this is echoed in The Hobbit book and The Lord of the Rings book is debatable, but a correlation of the use of charms can be drawn. The Anglo-Saxons believed that wearing charms would protect them, in much the same way that Arwen’s amulet helped Frodo. Of course, the “one ring” can also be seen as a powerful magic charm.
The dragon motif was popular with the Anglo-Saxons. Dragon heads were carved into the prows of their ships, and the design was used in jewelry and weaponry. In Anglo-Saxon mythology, the dragon was often used as a symbol. Actually, the figure was used as two different symbols. The dragon could be viewed as Death itself, and it could also be seen as the guardian of graves. The Anglo-Saxons often buried their dead or ashes of the deceased with riches, so the guardian dragon watched over the buried treasure. In this respect, Smaug is certainly very similar to the dragon in Beowulf. Both guard a horde of riches, and from each, a jeweled cup was stolen. Both dragons also set fire to the countryside in ire after their respective treasures are looted.
Runes were commonly used by the Anglo-Saxons, as well as by the inhabitants of Middle Earth. Runes were a collection of symbols that stood for phonetic sounds, much like our alphabet. The runic alphabet, or futhorc, contained 28 Anglo Saxon runes. It was later expanded to include 33 symbols. The symbols were made of straight lines that could be carved into wood, bone, metal, or stone. In The Hobbit, the dwarves use Anglo Saxon runes. They appear on the map of Lonely Mountain, and they’re used for secret messages. They were also inscribed on some of the weapons.
Years ago, one of my students brought me an old copy of The Hobbit book. The cover was leather, and around the edge was a message written in runes. We translated the inscription as a class, but we didn’t reveal some big secret message. The inscription read “There and back again.”
What traits did the Anglo-Saxons value? Perhaps the most important for their survival was loyalty to the leader. They had to have a strong leader who could unify his followers into an unquestioning group. For the Germanic tribes, the “king” was more of a war chief. The importance of loyalty to such a leader or king is stressed in Tolkien’s works and in Beowulf. The people want and need a powerful leader.
The Anglo-Saxons also valued bravery, which is evident in Beowulf and can also be seen in The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. Bilbo is an unlikely and unwilling “hero” at first, but it did take a certain amount of bravery for him to complete his mission, as it did for Frodo to complete his. Aside from the hobbits, the other peoples and races presented in Tolkien’s works were very much like the Anglo-Saxons in regard to bravery. Most hobbits, on the other hand, preferred a quiet, simple, easy life.
The political divisions of the Anglo-Saxons and Middle Earth were similar, too. For example, Middle Earth is divided into different “kingdoms,” just as Anglo-Saxon Britain had been. Territorial lands were divided into shires, and of course, The Shire was one of Tolkien’s settings. The different Anglo-Saxon kingdoms weren’t unified until Alfred the Great took the throne. One way Alfred accomplished this was through necessity of survival. The different tribes and kingdoms joined together to fight the Vikings. In Lord of the Rings, the different kingdoms unite to defeat Sauron. Once this is accomplished, a new king, Aragorn, is crowned, and the different groups come together. I’m drawing a comparison here between Aragorn and King Alfred.
Another thing the Anglo-Saxons held in high esteem was the concept of friendship and hospitality. A host was expected to “wine and dine” his guests, and this is echoed in Tolkien’s works – especially in The Hobbit. When the group of dwarves and Gandalf show up on Bilbo’s doorstep as uninvited guests, the little host goes out of his way to make sure his guests are well taken care of, even if it meant that Bilbo had to do without. This also touches on generosity, another important part of Anglo-Saxon culture. Generosity and the role of host can be seen in other examples from The Hobbit, too, like when Elrond feasted and entertained Bilbo’s group for two weeks.
The Anglo-Saxons and Sutton Hoo:
Beowulf and Beorn
The similarities between Beowulf and Beorn might not be recognized by the average reader–unless the reader is familiar with the Old Norse language. The word beorn (bjorn) means “bear.” Of course, that’s the perfect name for the character since he has the ability to change into a bear. Interestingly, some linguist experts explain that Beowulf is a form of “bee-wolf,” and in Anglo-Saxon, “bee-wolf” is an expression that means “bear.”
The similarities don’t stop there. The character Beorn acts much like an Anglo-Saxon in the hospitality he offers Bilbo, Gandalf, and the troop of dwarves. Beorn and Beowulf are both physically strong and powerful and also fight in much the same way, especially when compared to Beowulf’s battle with Grendel. There, Beowulf uses his bare hands to rip away Grendel’s arm. When Beorn takes his bear shape, he uses his hands (paws) to rip and shred his enemies.
Grendel and Gollum
I think an argument could be made that the character of Gollum is loosely based on the character of Grendel. Both creatures are described as having some physical human-like traits, and both live in the dark, shadowy places deep in the earth. Both creatures are also outcasts who loathe humanity. Although Gollum is not as fierce as Grendel, the small creature does crave human flesh, as he shows when he threatens to eat Bilbo.
Although Grendel and Gollum are odious creatures, many readers might also feel some pity for them. Each has been shunned by society and is an outcast. Both have also undergone monstrous transformations from their hobbit or human backgrounds. Gollum came from a line of peaceful hobbits, and Grendel came from a line of humans–he’s a descendant of the Biblical Cain.
Herot and Meduseld
Most Anglo-Saxon villages included a central building that was used for feasting, meetings, and revelry. This structure was often described as a “mead hall,” and it was perhaps the most important part of every village. It was the place where the warriors gathered their courage before battle, where celebrations were held, where important decisions were made, and where scops entertained the people and shared history through songs and poems. Hrothgar and the Danes had Herot, a golden mead hall. The people of Rohan had Meduseld, which is described as having a golden roof.
Hrothgar and Theoden
I can see Hrothgar and Theoden as almost the same man. The similarities are impossible to ignore. Both are old, and both kings’ lands and people are at the mercy of an evil force. Hrothgar is plagued by Grendel, and Theoden is under attack from Saruman and Sauron’s armies. Hrothgar and Theoden each has an advisor they use in making decisions. Hrothgar has Aeschere, and Theoden has Grima Wormtongue. Each man loses his advisor, although in Theoden’s case, that’s not such a bad thing. Both kings are ultimately forced to enlist the aid of a stranger in order to save their kingdoms.
Armor and Enchanted Weapons
The armor and weapons described in Tolkien’s works are very similar to those described in Beowulf. Take Sting, for example. Sting is Bilbo’s sword and was later passed down to Frodo. Sting was an enchanted weapon that glowed a blue light whenever Orcs were close by. In the battle with Grendel’s mother, Beowulf used a magic sword in order to defeat the she-monster. Also, upon his death, Beowulf passed down his armor to Wiglaf, as Bilbo passed down Sting to Frodo. In both cases, the gesture can be seen as symbolic, passing down responsibility. Frodo took Bilbo’s place as adventurer and hero, and Wiglaf took Beowulf’s place as leader of the Geats. You might also have noticed that very special weapons in Beowulf, The Hobbit, and The Lord of the Rings have specific names.
Tolkien’s characters used swords, knives, helmets, daggers, and shields, just like the warriors in Beowulf used. The Anglo-Saxons were known for making excellent weaponry, as were Tolkien’s elves and dwarves. Beowulf also mentions the use of archers, and we know that Tolkien’s elves were expert archers. The armor worn by Beowulf and the Geats was practically the same as the armor worn by the warriors of Middle Earth. We know that Beowulf wore a chain mail shirt, a helmet, and a shield. Bilbo and Frodo both wore a chain mail shirt made of mithril. There are also examples of plate armor being used in Tolkien’s works, especially those used to protect specific body parts like the legs and the forearms. If you’ve seen the Lord of the Ring movies, much of the armor and weapons used looked as if they could have come straight from the Sutton Hoo burial sites.
Interview with J.R.R. Tolkien:
J. R. R. Tolkien
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born in South Africa in 1892. It’s interesting to note that the Tolkiens had deep roots in Saxony. Perhaps that was one of the reasons the author was so interested in the Anglo-Saxons and Anglo-Saxon literature. Tolkien’s father died when young Ronald was only four years old, and the family returned to England. As a child, Tolkien became fascinated with languages and was proficient in both Greek and Latin. He also enjoyed creating his own languages, as he did in his future literary works. Tolkien’s mother was instrumental in his early learning, but he also attended King Edward’s School in Birmingham. In 1911, he entered Exeter College to pursue a degree in the classics, but in 1913, he changed his major to English Literature and English Language. He graduated with honors in 1915. After graduation, Tolkien joined an infantry unit as a second lieutenant and was sent to France in June of 1916. While serving during World War I, he contracted trench fever and was sent home in November.
After recuperating, Tolkien worked on words with Germanic roots for the Oxford English Dictionary. He also turned to his interest in medieval literature and wrote translations of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, along with other works. He became a professor of Anglo-Saxon at Pembroke College in 1925, which is where he began writing The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings.
Tolkien had a keen interest in Anglo-Saxon literature, especially the epic poem, Beowulf. He was viewed as an expert on the subject, giving lectures, researching, and writing articles. It’s understandable that his fascination and study of the epic would have a profound impact on his own literary works. Tolkien was able to take his interest in old works of literature, his creativity with languages, his superb imagination, and his understanding of Anglo-Saxon culture and combine them into enduring fantasies like The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings.
Sabri BenChaabane on October 24, 2013:
Such an epic hub. I enjoyed reading everysingle part, and i gained so much knowledge. Thank you for this, and you gained a follower
Dianna Mendez on December 04, 2012:
This gets a five star rating from me - very well done and so interesting to read. I cannot wait to see new The Hobbit this month. Thanks for the historical view and comparison.
nickhiker on December 02, 2012:
Great hub, as always! So interesting
Pavlo Badovskyi from Kyiv, Ukraine on December 02, 2012:
How interesting. As I was a student we learned a big piece of Beowulf by heart in ancient Enlish. I believe it was like this:
Fyrst forth gewat.
Flota waes on ythum
bat under beorge
That is is. Do not remember anymore :))) By the way I even asked a question here on HP to find out if native speakers understand ancient English. I was surprised to learn that some words still recognized.
Sorry I went a little bit off topic of your hub :) Great Hub! I read these books and my son is a fan of them!