Mythological creatures in Tolkien's universe

Discussion in 'Annals of the Eldanyárë' started by Ithrynluin, Dec 11, 2004.

  1. Ithrynluin

    Ithrynluin seeker of solace Staff Member

    Tolkien's world certainly contains many creatures that may be called 'unreal', but there are zounds more of these to be found in the mythologies of different cultures.

    What of the griffin, the unicorn, the centaur, the pegasus, the sprite and loads more?

    Do we get any insight into the professor's thought process regarding this?

    Did he even give especial thought to which of these fantasy creatures would grace his stories and which not?

    Perhaps many of these, like the griffin, boast too extravagant and flamboyant characteristics and features, and are not very fitting for Tolkien's creation, where most things and concepts seem subtle and wonderfully worked out.

    On the other hand, a creature like the unicorn does not seem over-done at all, and is graceful enough for us to be able to imagine it as part of Middle-earth. Basically, it is just a horse with a horn, much like an elf is just a human with funky ears. ;)

    Thoughts and opinions?
  2. Why should such creatures have had a place in Middle-earth? Tolkien built his mythology from an etymological perspective. That is, if there was a name for a creature in Middle-earth, that name had to have a history. But what would the history have represented?

    The "mythology", as all mythologies do, supposes that everything is real. Hence, to have a unicorn in Middle-earth, you have to have a place for it. How should it have fit into the scheme of things?

    The Ents and the Eagles had roles to play. Even Tom Bombadil served some sort of purpose, although no one knows what it is. Thematically, he provided Frodo with a place of temporary refuge and a means of avoiding pursuit on the road. He also provided the reader some foreknowledge of things to come.

    What could Tolkien have had a unicorn do that would have advanced a story?
  3. Ithrynluin

    Ithrynluin seeker of solace Staff Member

    A plausible explanation would be to have the unicorn be the protector of the kelvar (at least the 'weaker' ones), much as the Ents are the shepherds of the trees. That does not seem at all far fetched to me, especially since in some stories unicorns are the protectors of forests.

    Much the same thing as any other creature in Tolkien's subcreation.

    I'm not saying they should have, I am wondering why some did not while others did?

    Did Tolkien use a certain set of criteria or not?

    Did he model his creation after something specific or not?
  4. Walter

    Walter Flamekeeper

    If we put aside the brownies, fays, pixies, leprawns (BoLT1) or the enchanted leprechauns ("Goblin Feet") or the dragon-moths, sea-worms, -cats and -cows (Roverandom) and creatures of the like, which seem more or less casually mentioned, what remains has in most cases either mythological or philological roots, or both.

    Dragons seem to have fascinated Tolkien from his youth and it appears he dedicated much thought to them and their mythological roots (cf. Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics).

    Balrogs, the 'fire-demons' resemble not only the fiery sons of Muspell of Germanic/Northern myths, but probably also stem from Tolkien's philological interest in the roots of the Old English word Sigelhearwan (cf. his essay Sigelwara-Land).

    Ents are in Northern and Anglo-Saxon tradition portrayed as giants, what Tolkien added to make them walking and talking trees has probably roots in Macbeth (Birnam Wood) and the Câd Goddeu, the 'Battle of the Trees', a Celtic myth.

    Fastitocalon is another example where mythological and philological roots meet.

    The giant spiders may have come in for a different reason, though.

    Thus, I do not think that Tolkien ever pondered about which creatures to "add" to his subcreation and which not, rather, I think he added what he saw fit and whatever had caught his interest one way or another...

    But what I find fascinating, is the mix of knowledge and fantasy, which makes Tolkien's creatures so unique, IMO
  5. Eledhwen

    Eledhwen Cumbrian

    Shadowfax is a unicorn in all but horned head.

    Perhaps we could have the same purpose for a Unicorn :D :p
  6. Inderjit S

    Inderjit S Bootylicious

    What I find interesting Walter, is that he eventually dropped a lot of those creatures from the legendarium, or, in the case of others, they did not play a great or even minor part in the history of Middle-Earth. But then again, we know so little about Midlde Earth, some of those characters may not have been wholly dropped-just ignored. ;)
  7. Eledhwen

    Eledhwen Cumbrian

    Tolkien's criticism of Zimmerman's storyline in his Letters gives a clue; for instance, Tolkien accuses Zimmerman of over-using the Eagles, which he believed should be used sparingly to keep the story believable. Imagine a Middle-earth stuffed with mythological creatures popping up here and there in the story, and you see what he means by over-use; a principle which would also apply to variety as well as quantity.
  8. Walter

    Walter Flamekeeper

    True, Inderjit, I think that - as time went by - Tolkien successively freed himself from his sources, Middle-earth and its "creatures" became more unique and references, or even mentionings of creatures "borrowed" from other mythologies became sparse.

    Tolkien's Elves are probably the best example of how unique the creatures of Middle-earth could become, they reached a state of refinement and sophistication, which is absolutely without parallels in extant mythologies.


    The eagles are IMO a somewhat different case, because Tolkien used them as sort of "dei ex machina" *), using them too often would have meant to overstress their credibility and that is IMO the reason why Tolkien calls them "...a dangerous 'machine'" in his letter. Had he not used them in this 'function', he probably could have had them involved in the plot more often.


    *) deus ex machina, the 'god from the machinery' has its origin in the Greek drama where it meant the timely appearance of a god to unravel and resolve the plot. The name deus ex machina was probably chosen, because the god's appearing in the sky (or from above), was an effect which was achieved by means of some sort of a crane (the "machine").
    Last edited: Dec 14, 2004
  9. Ciryaher

    Ciryaher Witch of Resurrection

    Tolkien's works, while they did not include such creatures as listed above, did contain some interesting creatures, though these were mainly in the alternate versions (in my opinion, better versions) of certain stories from the Silmarillion that were written out more fully in the BoLTs and the other HoME books.

    Let us not forget Tevildo, the Prince of Cats; or one of Sauron's incarnations, Thû, who could take the form of a wolf-man, or werewolf; nor the Vampire Thuringwethil who could become a bat.

    Tolkien referred to other creatures "in the dark places of the Earth" and I've always been curious about what he had in mind.

    PS: it's been a while since I read the stories, so if I was incorrect with those names, please correct me ;)
  10. Inderjit S

    Inderjit S Bootylicious

    Let us not the forget the nameless things which Gandalf only saw, and the mysterious evil creatures which have no name that are mentioned in the early chapters of LoTR.
  11. Walter

    Walter Flamekeeper

    This is a curious statement, considering that Sauron is a Maia and Ainu, an "offspring of Ilúvatar's thought", one of those who were "with him before Time".

    In fact I think, that this is one of the few remaining allusions to other mythologies. In Germanic and Northern mythology we have Yggdrasill, the ash-tree, representing the world (of which Midgard, Middangeard or 'Middle-earth' is a part). And there it is said that Nidhogg, a serpent/dragon, is gnawing the bottom of its deepest root.
  12. Eledhwen

    Eledhwen Cumbrian

    There have been debates on this paradox; partly resolved by starting the clock on Sauron's age from the day he entered Middle-earth, with him possibly living outside of time (and therefore ageless) before then.
  13. Walter

    Walter Flamekeeper

    But then - following this line of reasoning - the "nameless things" could hardly be older either, could they?
  14. Eledhwen

    Eledhwen Cumbrian

    No, but those beings who step into time (Middle-earth) at a certain juncture cannot claim to be older than what was already there. That which exists outside of time cannot be measured by it. If Sauron had been in Middle-earth when these nameless, gnawing creatures of the discord were created, he may well have been aware of them; but he was not there and so was not aware. I think that is the gist of Gandalf's words.
  15. Walter

    Walter Flamekeeper

    Not so, I would say... ;)

    Since they entered the world not at a certain juncture, but at the very beginning of Time, there is hardly a chance for anyone/anything being "older" than one of those Ainur who chose to enter the world, IMO.

    The statement of Gandalf is IMO simply not congruent with other information about Tolkien's subcreation at the time.

    Thus - to me - it only makes sense when I consider it an allusion to the myth of Yggdrasil and Nidhogg, especially since Tolkien uses a similar wording as is found in the translations of Snorri's Prose Edda...
  16. Barliman Butterbur

    Barliman Butterbur Worthy Keeper/Bree Roué

    I doubt if T sat down and decided which fantastic creatures he would (and would not) put into his tales. Methinks that they simply "arose" at the propitious time. Therefore he created what needed to be created at the time of need. It is one man's creation, after all. It is a far different kind of creation, written with a far different purpose than, say, Jo Rowling's Harry Potter tales, which consciously call upon all the "traditional iconography of magick" with such entertaining and telling effect.

  17. Eledhwen

    Eledhwen Cumbrian


    Then we must assume that Gandalf was wrong, or (admittedly unlikely) using the word 'older' in some other sense (both Treebeard and Iarwain have been called eldest).

    I'll have to bow to your greater knowledge on this one, as I can't even pronounce Yggdrasil.
  18. Ithrynluin

    Ithrynluin seeker of solace Staff Member

    I put forth a similar (nutty?) theory on this very subject here

    We may claim that Gandalf, being clad in the flash of the earth, lost some of his knowledge, or it had become somewhat hazy.

    Regarding Walter's quotes which allegedly reject this theory:

    If the Great music was only a 'foreshowing' and nothing substantial had actually been created, what exactly did the Ainur enter into?

    It was not the Ainur's part to create each and every detail of Arda, and it may be that Eru created a rough 'outline' of Arda with a few details (i.e. Tom Bombadil, the Nameless things, which might only have become 'nameless' after Melko tinkered with them) extant already, but not much, leaving the brunt of the work to the Ainur.

    So, unless I am gravely mistaken, I'd say those quotes don't really do any substantial harm to the theory, as it is purely a matter of interpretation of those passages, which are not exactly devoid of ambiguity (and don't we love that?).

    Anyhow, thanks all, for delving into this topic.

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