The Lord of the Rings

How Tolkien's Gandalf in 'Lord of The Rings,' Parallels the Norse God Odin

By: Domonique Cox-Salberg

Arguably the most beloved Lord of the Rings character, Gandalf, also happens to be inspired by the widely revered god in Germanic mythology, the great Odin. The one-eyed All-father has many names and is the god of both war and death. And a figure that would influence the creation of a more modern and treasured, bearded bad-ass named Gandalf. Referred to as an “angel incarnate” by Tolkien, Gandalf’s name was taken from the Old Norse “Catalogue Dwarves” (Dvergatel) in the Völuspa.

It is the first and best-known poem of the Old Norse, which tells the story of the creation of the world and its coming end, and the primary source for the study of Norse mythology. As we can see, Tolkien was very much inspired by the ancient tales within Iceland. Including aspects of the landscape, the language, and folk tales, which all were influential in shaping the legendary fantasy world of Middle-earth. A world we could not imagine without Gandalf.

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Similarities Between Gandalf and Odin

Therefore, we will dive into Tolkien’s rich knowledge and creativity that spawned Gandalf’s defining characteristics, which connect him to another revered figure deriving from the written word, Odin. The Norse god played a vital role in shaping and developing Gandalf’s character to be broken down here.

Appearance and Gained Power Through Sacrifice

What may be the most obvious way these two are alike is seen in their appearance. Both take the form of an old, grey beggar with a wide-brimmed hat and grey cloak when they wander the mortal world and interact with the inhabitants. Like most gods and wizards, they have otherworldly wisdom, and as for Gandalf and Odin, they mutually have received their wisdom as a result of sacrifice. Gandalf is reincarnated after a fight with the Balrog at Khazad-Dum, where he is put back on the earth to fulfill his purpose. When he returns, he now has supreme wisdom and amplified power.

Here is an image of Odin on the left and Gandalf in an image from Tolkien's early illustrations of the character on the right.

As for Odin, he gains power and wisdom after hanging himself on the tree Yggdrasil for nine days. He does so to discover the secret of eighteen runes and their power. Moreover, even though they both sacrifice themselves in different ways and for different purposes, they are equally waged with new life and increased power. So, within Odin’s quest for more power, it helped lay down Tolkien’s footing to develop Gandalf’s evolution from Grey to White.

Trusty Steeds Shadowfax and Sleipnir, Weapons

Gungnir, the spear of Odin

And who can forget the scene when Gandalf summons his trusty steed, Shadowfax, who had no equal among horses in Middle-earth and could understand the speech of men. Well, Odin has a similar legendary horse, Sleipnir, except its legend, is much more mythical in appearance. It has eight legs and was said to be one of the greatest horses known to the gods and can run on the ground and through the air at incredible speeds. Their gear is also legendary, with Odin’s spear Gungnir—it is said never to miss its mark when thrown, and when he is not using it in combat, he uses it as a staff when he roams the earth as an old man. On the other hand, Gandalf has a fabled sword, Glamdring, although not as recognized as the iconic magic staff, he carries. Additionally, Odin’s ring Draupnir possibly influenced Gandalf’s possession of the ring Narya.

Gandalf and Odin’s Association With Birds

Let’s get this out of the way since The Lord of the Rings films and novels are different, and some may have only seen the movies. Eagles do what they please and are a prideful group of creatures, not servants. And contrary to popular belief, Gandalf cannot summon them in any way. They also live in Middle-earth and were willing to help Gandalf (as when he is saved from Saruman’s imprisonment) since he aided Gwaihir (lord of the great eagles) after being shot with an arrow. Additionally, Gandalf is a Maiar, a lesser angelic spirit who is the servant of one of the greater angelic spirits, a Vala named Manwë. Manwë is Lord of the skies and the father of the race of eagles, so that may give more context to their particular connection.

Moreover, other than their use for quick transport, both Odin and Gandalf use their winged companions as sources of information. In legend, Odin utilizes Huginn and Muninn’s service, two ravens that fly over the world to bring him news. Similarly, Gandalf is brought tidings from the eagle mentioned before, Gwaihir Windlord. By pointing out these similarities in their special gear, appearance, animal companions, and journey to increased wisdom, it is hard not to see how Tolkien’s Gandalf was indeed derived from the mighty “Odinic wanderer.”

Thus, as perhaps the most complex god in all of mythology, the All-father and wandering magical shaman, Odin, is among many of the Norse influences found in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. And as the god similarly imagined in the now-revered Gandalf.

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