Snorri Sturluson's Prose Edda & Tolkien's work

© 2005, Peter Wilkin

What ails the Æsir    
and what the Elves?
In uproar all etins -
are the Æsir met.
At the gates of their grots       
the wise dwarves groan
In their fell fastnesses:
wit ye further, or how?

Garm bays loudly
before Gnipa cave,
Breaks his fetters
and freely runs.
The fates I fathom,
yet farther I see:
Of the mighty gods
the engulfing doom.

Thus the Seeress informs Odin of the doom of the world in Voluspa, a poem quoted extensively in The Prose Edda written in 13th Century Iceland by Snorri Sturluson.  The description of Ragnarok, found in the Gylfaginning of the Prose Edda is distinctive in that, unlike other mythologies; the Norse mythic conception ends with a final and resounding defeat of the existing cosmic order. It seems that the Seeress' words 'engulfing doom' indeed encapsulate the mood of Norse Cosmology. Defeat is inevitable: and what is more the Gods are completely aware of this.

    Tolkien's indebtedness to the Prose Edda is, of course, well known. One need only take a handful of names, not just of characters, but of geographical locations and magical items, to realize that the influence of Snorri's Prose Edda, on Tolkien's work is very significant indeed. Yet I argue that the Prose Edda effected Tolkien's own literary conception on a much more fundamental scale; that in fact, this Northern conception of "engulfing doom" struck right to the core of Tolkien's work as a whole.

    In order to see this fully, we must understand what Tolkien called "the highest function of the Faery Story", that is, the "eucatastrophe". In his famous essay On Faery Stories, he described "eucatastrophe" as:

The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous 'turn' (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale): this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially 'escaptist', nor fugitive'. In its fairy-tale or otherworld - setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief. p.69

The Lord of the Rings itself may be considered as a kind of 'meta-eucatastrophe' or what Brian Rosebury calls in his book Tolkien: A Cultural Phenomenon, a "eucatastrophic vision". And comprising this "eucatastrophic vision" is a countless number of smaller "eucatastrophes", each of varying magnitude and significance. Thus to illustrate the point on a less theoretical level, we have situations where characters are in hopeless circumstances but are delivered or recall at the last minute some kind of hope. In The Return of the King, at the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, Eomer:

Let blow the horns to rally all men to his banner that could come thither; for he thought to make a great shield-wall at the last, and stand, and fight there on foot till all fell, and do deeds of song on the fields of Pelennor, though no man should be left in the West to remember the last King of the Mark.

One of the reasons why Tolkien's eucatastrophes work so effectively is because the opposing dyscatastrophes are often so profound. Thus for us to feel such a strong emotional 'turn' when we finally realize, with Eomer, that the black sails bear the White Tree of the king; we previously had to believe, at least on one level, that the ships of the Corsairs, implied for Eomer and his men, almost certain destruction.

    In fact this sense of defeat (sometimes averted as in this case, at the last minute, but not always), is one of the most embedded themes of Tolkien's mythology. Galadriel acknowledges this in her statement to Frodo that:

"Through ages of the world we have fought the long defeat."

Here she recalls particularly the first age of the world; recounted in the Silmarillion, which was characterized by the ancient wars between the Elves and Morgoth, where the Elves suffer one crushing defeat after another. In this respect the Third Age is little different in terms of mood, and in the background there is an inescapable sense of doom:

"I don't want to give up yet' (said Sam). 'It's not like me, somehow, if you understand.'  'Maybe not, Sam,' said Frodo, 'but it's like things are in the world. Hopes fail. An end comes. We have only a little time to wait now. We are lost in ruin and downfall, and there is no escape.' (p.929)

The powers of Mordor, in spite of the majesty of Minas Tirith and the bravery of the Rohirrim, are consistently portrayed as overwhelming, and indomitable. Even after the victory of the Pelennor Fields, the threat from the South is no less menacing; it is simply a setback, a lucky delay rather than an actual victory. As Shippey puts it,

"The collective opinion of Middle Earth is summed up in Gandalf's aphoristic statement: 'I am Gandalf, Gandalf the White, but Black is mightier still.' (p.156)

    It is precisely in regard to this sense of overriding defeat which provides us with the under lying dyscatastrophe, and it is where Snorri Sturluson's influence is at its most significant. Snorri's own account of Ragnarok similarly lists one defeat after another. Freyr, is killed by Surtr, Heimdall is destroyed by Loki, Thor succumbs to the poison of the Midgard Serpent, while Odin, the chief of the Gods, is swallowed by Fenrir. This "engulfing doom" aspect, so manifest in The Prose Edda, profoundly effected Tolkien who saw its resonance with Christian belief surrounding the downfall of our current fallen world and its ultimate restoration at the end of time. In his definitive essay, Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics, Tolkien characterized this theme as:

"Man in a hostile world, engaged in a struggle which he cannot win while the world lasts".  p.26

    Thus we have seen that the Prose Edda's influence on Tolkien's work extended far beyond the mere borrowing of names, to a much more profound and pervasive level. This influence stems from Snorri's description of Ragnarok, and the ultimate defeat of the Gods at the hands of the Monsters that had a momentous effect on Tolkien's thought. It's most significant function may in fact be seen in providing the basis for dyscatastrophe, or the overriding sense of "engulfing doom" in a fallen world which pervades Lord of the Rings and the wider mythology. The more intense this feeling gets, the more successful is the 'eucatastrophe' which must rely on it, and when it rises to its highest and most successful form, as I think it does on occasion, we are offered an eschatological glimpse of joy that extends "beyond the walls of the world".


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