“Influence”:  Tolkien’s Guide to Non-Plagiarism

In glancing over the posts I have published over the last five months, it appears I have accidentally written a series on specific elements of mythology that Tolkien incorporated into his work.  No doubt there will be more of these in future (the material is vast), but I have paused to articulate how he manages to do this and remain unstained from that “poisonous multisyllabic Latinate word plagiarism.”1

It is true that there are several elements of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings that are taken, with few edits, from real-world mythology, but I maintain that these examples are different from plagiarism.  Plagiarism is the deliberate act of taking another’s work and styling it as one’s own.  A closer look at the examples I have previously discussed reveals that they are not in fact plagiarism, but rather something else.  The similarities between Tolkien’s work and mythology are more akin to the work of influence.

The potential use of the word influence as being more accurate in Tolkien’s case occurred to me while I was watching the recent biopic Tolkien.  In one scene Tolkien converses with Anglo-Saxon Professor Wright about his invented languages.  He confessed that he “stole a good deal from Finnish.”  Professor Wright looked at young Tolkien with a corrective glint in his eye and replied keenly, “Stole?  No, languages never steal—influence.”2  Plagiarism takes someone else’s work.  Influence receives from those who came before.  It leaves its fingerprints and its echoes throughout, but its soul is the work of the author.

It is clear that Tolkien was heavily influenced by Northern mythology and languages.  He was, in fact, a professor of Anglo-Saxon and taught philology and English literature.  He was deeply familiar with Old English texts and Old Norse myth as well.  It is therefore no surprise, being professionally soaked in such material, that some of it should seep through into his writing.

The use of ravens, wolves, and eagles to represent battle was a recurring motif in Old Norse and Anglo-Saxon poetry.  Such motifs were common property among poets.  For Tolkien to weave such a motif into the Battle of Five Armies was a natural decision for an Anglo-Saxon professor and using it was no closer to plagiarism than using a cliché is in our time.

The words Tolkien took from Old English sound new and strange to us because they have not been in use for well-nigh 800 years.  But common words cannot be plagiarized and common words these were.  Tolkien did not steal ent, Mordor, and Deagol from Old English: they were common vocabulary.  He merely dusted them off, and with a few minor tweaks they were up and running again.

The story of Eärendil was inspired by the word earendel in the context of the Old English poem Crist and the tradition of star-myth.  The story is completely Tolkien’s invention.  I have no further comments on this point.

The extreme similarities between The Wanderer and the “Lament of the Rohirrim” are somewhat trickier to defend.  However, I have yet to find an article that includes both the titles of the poems and the word plagiarism.  It seems writers are content to refer to The Wanderer as “the source” for the “Lament.”  There appears to be a general consensus that Tolkien’s near-copy of The Wanderer in The Lord of the Rings is a homage or “tip of the hat” to the anonymous poet, rather than plagiarism.

These are the arguments I place in defense of the specific examples I have described in the last five months.  None of these are plagiarism, but rather the impact of years of marinating in Norse and Anglo-Saxon literature and language.  Tolkien was, and is, a respected scholar and now a highly respected author, both in the academic and literary realms, and those who venture to accuse him of plagiarism are few and far between.

There is one final point I wish to make, though I save it for last because it offers little validity to my argument.  I am of the opinion that those Anglo-Saxon and Norse poets from whose work Tolkien took words, lines, and motifs, probably wouldn’t care two dips of the pen if they knew.  After all, that was what their perspective of storytelling was all about:  No story or poetic element belonged to any one person, it was all part of “the Soup”3—a tradition which Tolkien intentionally carried into his work.

If you would like to read more about elements of mythology that J.R.R. Tolkien wove into Middle-earth, visit these posts:


1Refer to my article “Reusing”: An Anglo-Saxon Guide to Plagiarism to learn about the Anglo-Saxon view on the subject.

2I confess this is “quoted as remembered.”  It has been some time since I watched the film and I have no access to it at the moment.  Even if not exact, it is, at least, the spirit of what was spoken.

3Tolkien wrote at length about the Soup, or the Cauldron of Story, in his essay “On Fairy-Stories.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s