The Lord of the Rings and Narnia (original version)

October 25, 2021
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A STRANGE and goggle-eyed dwarf named Andvari, which means the wary (vari) or watchful one, lived under a waterfall, where he guarded a soggy hoard of gold. Andvari had the power to turn himself into a pike, a fast, predatory fish, at will, and this is how he subsisted for food. He was always eating fish, while watching out with exaggerated wariness for anyone who might rob him of his hoard, one precious part of it in particular.

For the Vikings (for whom fish was the food of thralls) the fearfulness and fishiness of Andvari probably made him seem like a fallen and wretched creature; and probably also rather comical as well.

Andvari is, of course, the inspiration for J. R. R. Tolkien’s Gollum. In fact, for all practical purposes he is Gollum.

In the original Viking tale, Andvari’s hoard attracted the attention of the foolish god Loki, who made Andvari hand over his gold. Loki noticed that Andvari was reluctant to hand over one last treasure, a ring called Andvaranaut — which I will call the Ring, since we know that that’s what it’s all about — and so Loki insisted that Andvari give him the Ring as well. Andvari said that the Ring was a special ring that could be used to produce more gold. The dwarf urged Loki to let him keep the Ring and make more gold for himself so that both would be satisfied.

Loki, of course, didn’t listen (he never did) and made off with the Ring, leaving Andvari to curse it so that it would bring misfortune to everyone who possessed it.

The Ring passes through a succession of hands, bringing doom and disaster to all. Along the way, one of its possessors turns into a dragon, guarding the ring and the treasure generated from it, until the dragon is slain by a hero called Sigurd (to the Norse) or Siegfried (to the Germans).

Like Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings, Sigurd/Siegfried kills the dragon with a sword re-forged from the shards of his father’s sword.

For the tale of Andvari’s Ring is indeed the forerunner of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. It is also the inspiration for the German composer Richard Wagner’s famous Ring cycle of operas: Das Rheingold (in which the golden hoard is fished out of the Rhine); Die Walküre (the Valkyries); Siegfried (about the hero); and Götterdämmerung, the Twilight of the Gods, in which it seems that everyone who has tried on the Ring gets their comeuppance. One Ring, in other words, to rule them all, in Tolkien and Wagner alike.

It is the Ring that brings on Ragnarök, as well.

In the pre-Tolkien versions of the tale, the downfall of the Ring-bearers also includes Sigurd / Siegfried. For, it turns out that Siegfried is not as good at resisting the temptations of power-madness as Tolkien’s unassuming Hobbits, who basically resist power from the outset. There were no Hobbits in the tale before Tolkien came along. And so, before Tolkien, even the hero goes over to the dark side of the force in ways that hasten the world to its destruction.

Out of the ashes of a fallen world in which nobody could resist the lure of the Ring, a better world might be born. But that’s the nearest the story gets to a happy ending.

Notoriously, the Nazis loved the Wagner version (he was Hitler’s favourite composer, after all). But with the obtuseness of the character played by Kevin Kline in A Fish Called Wanda, the Nazis failed to grasp that the tale was being told of them too. Either that, or they had a bit of a death-wish. Probably, both.

For the Ring is all about power-madness and a cataclysm in which the power-mad will go down like James Cagney in White Heat (“Made it ma! Top of the world.”). Or Hitler as played by Bruno Ganz in Der Untergang (Downfall), the film that spawned a million spoofs.

These days, we might wonder whether the Ring we can no longer take off signifies addiction to fossil fuels followed by another form of doom in fire and ice. Or, nuclear weapons, which nobody in possession of them wants to give up but which will inevitably be (re-)used sooner or later if they don’t give them up. Perhaps the Ring that must either be destroyed or used wisely is not made of gold, but uranium.

Or, then again, the Ring might also warn us about abstract financial greed of the kind that today jacks up house prices till the city becomes uninhabitable for the workers, thus killing the goose that lays the economy’s golden eggs.

It’s interesting how many tales there are of this sort, including stories of grindstones that produce too much and cause havoc, flooding the world with their product. I’m going to mention one of those tales a bit later on. Likewise, many have heard of the mythically accursed King Midas of Ancient Greece whose touch turned everything into gold, including his food and his daughter. All these tales seem to preach that if people can somehow learn to live in a more moderate and less greedy sort of a way, there will be fewer problems in the world.

For otherwise, as a powerful 1960s protest song has it, we will be condemned to live on the Eve of Destruction. An eve, which the Viking and Wagner versions of the story treat as the eve of inevitable destruction.

Tolkien would have regarded the original Viking version, and the Wagnerian one too, as overly fatalistic. Fatalism was a common criticism of ‘pagans’ from the Christian point of view, which was certainly also Tolkien’s point of view, similar to that of his friend C. S. Lewis though less tub-thumping. Both Tolkien and Lewis were experts on Norse mythology, which they sought to weave into their own tales, of hobbits in Tolkien’s case and Narnia in that of Lewis.

Like the sharp-faced commissar in front Bob Hoskins’s Nikita Khrushchev in Enemy at the Gates, Jesus’s message was interpreted by people such as Lewis and Tolkien as one of ‘give them hope’; the hope being partly to do with the idea of a world in which evil and stupidity don’t always have to triumph, or to wreck everything, in the end.

Christian hope was probably quite down-to-earth to begin with, though after the fall of the Western Roman Empire Christianity also became pessimistic about the everyday world, which the Vikings called Middle-Earth, between Heaven and Hell which they also believed in in their own way. However, the defeat of the Nazis would have lent credence to a more redemptive view of the everyday world — Middle-Earth — when Tolkien was penning his works, The Lord of the Rings in particular.

And so, Tolkien delivers a happy ending that wasn’t noticeable before. And he achieves this by injecting a saviour who is a voice of reason and moderation, someone wise enough to break the cycle of madness leading to the world’s otherwise inevitable destruction. The saviour is a collective one, centring on the hobbits and the wise wizard Gandalf.

Viking culture is not quite dead, even now. For instance — what do I really mean when I say, “I was unscathed”? One answer is that a spear of misfortune flung by the goddess Skaði missed me. Skaði goes about on skis in a land that is always winter, tossing her spears of misfortune from this realm into the mortals of Middle-Earth.

Skaði’s gig is Schadenfreude, a German word that is cognate with her name, as are the Scandinavian and German words for damage and, of course, our own word ‘scathe’

Only Loki, the foolish god, ever succeeded in making Skaði laugh, and only once.

Skaði seems to be a relative of the Greek goddess Diana the Hunter, perhaps even of the fearsome Indian goddess Kali. Of course, in neither of those sunny climes does a land of perpetual winter feature prominently in local myth. For the Norse, Skaði is not only a Diana or Kali-like figure but also the goddess of winter and mountains, and of everything cold and sharp in general.

If the Ring of Andvari is the original version of The Lord the Rings, Skaði’s frozen realm is — you guessed it — Narnia.

This post comes from my new book Incredible Iceland, available on this website


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