I come here today to spread some of my utter nerdiness and knowledge acquired through my fun but painful PhD. Part of my research of course involves looking into Tolkien and his effect in medievalism; the vast majority of the time from the perspective of the Vikings. And as Alex has gone all high brow lately with his etymology, I decided; “hell, isn’t that what I do anyway?!”.
So, you probably would be thinking: “what is she going on about? How can Gandalf be a Dwarf?!”. Well, I mean he isn’t exactly a dwarf, but then, the terminology is confusing. As you may know, Tolkien took a lot of inspiration from Norse mythology whilst creating Middle-earth…In fact, the very name Middle-earth is what Midgard means in English: the land in the middle which isn’t Asgard, Nilfheim, or any of the others. Norse cosmology includes nine realms, and Midgard is just where the humans live. It gets its name from the fact that it is somewhere in the middle of Yggdrasil – The tree of life. Okay, so that was some easy trivia which you probably knew already. Same if I ask you the name of the dwarves from the Hobbit right? Okay let’s see if this list rings a bell:
Vig and Gandalf,
Thekk, Lit, Vitr,
Yeah, if you cannot recall all the names, do not panic, because what you have just read is the list provided by Snorri Sutrluson in the Prose Edda, regarding the names of the dwarves as listed by the Volva. Sure enough though, you may notice that a few of those are such popular little characters, they even appear in movies these days. You can also see where the spelling has been tweaked and anglicised – Dvalin, Bombor. These are only the dwarves that live underground though, unlike others who live in the rocks (Gloin and Dori perhaps would be ones you recognise). So what does Gandalf have to do with all this? Well, we get another little clue from the Poetic Edda – or the Elder Edda, depending which way you rock n roll, as to what is his beef. If you have your hands on a copy in English of the Elder, you may be cluelessly trying to look for dwarven names in Voluspa and just getting lists of words or adjectives. Well, that is because in essence, that is their name: they are refered to by their name meaning or function. And our dear Gandalf seems to be, in fact, a Mr “Wand Elf”. Which essentially sums up what our beloved Mithrandir is: a mystical spirit with a magical wand.
Now, I am sure you have picked up on the fact I have used the words dwarf and elf in the same context here. Wweeeelll, the thing is that, in Old Norse mythology the difference between the two is blurry and often you find that elves and dwarves are in essence the same: otherworldly creatures that can be both good and dangerous. Which, if we think about it, makes even more sense, right? Because, okay good, you all know who the Grey Pilgrim is, but do you know what he is? Are you familiar with the Maiar known as Olorin? I hope so, cause that was Gandalf’s original name whilst in Valinor at the service of Manwe. I could quite happily ask you, what is a Maiar, but I know already you’d have a hell of a lot of trouble trying to pin point exactly what Maiar are. So, you know, a bit like the dwarves and the elves…Divine like beings that are not human…with some cool special abilities…
So, are you flipping out a bit less now that you understand what I mean when I say Gandalf is actually a dwarf? I hope so, but in case you were struggling with this, let me make it worse for you. He is also a God. In fact: The God, the one and only: Odin. Yeah, I know, but the thing is, you know what Mithrandir means, right? The Grey Pilgrim or Wanderer? Well, funny story this, that the All-father often came down from Asgard (a place kinda similar to Valinor now if I think about it…), to visit humans and help them in their time of need…Granted, he does not do this on a boat or receives a power ring of doom from the badass Cirdan. However, Odin’s name whilst travelling through Midgard often was Vegtam, which means ‘the wanderer’. If you need more evidence as to how Tolkien used Odin as an influence for our dwarven-not-dwarven-Istari, let’s check the facts. Olorin is a servant of Manwe: highest member of the Valar, lord of the skies…Sounds a bit allfathery like, you know, knowing how important the connection between Odin and his 2 ravens, and eagles is…What else? Well, you all know the episode with the Balrog and how we make the transition from “the grey” to “the white”? Interesting this supreme act of self-sacrifice through which Gandalf acquires new power and wisdom, much like when Odin hangs for 7 days from a tree to learn the runes, and magic…
Interestingly enough, one of the graphic novels I use for my thesis even depicts Odin looking a bit like Gandalf. If you care to know, just look up Gods of Asgard by the wonderful Erik Evensen, and this way you can find out for yourselves. And, if for whatever reason reading bits from the Eddas have woken up your curiosity, I’d recommend the comic a read anyway because it is written as an adaptation of the Norse myths into sequential art.
So, you know, next time you are thinking of dwarves and wizards, take a moment to think about the somewhat unlikely yet plausible connection between the two :p