Don't get me wrong; JRRT's Middle Earth books are awesome. I was just wondering if anything in them was entirely original, or if he borrowed everything from various mythologies (mostly Northern European).

[I'm asking this question because many fantasy novels are criticized as being "Tolkien knock-offs." That seems quite unfair if Tolkien himself borrowed everything (and then rearranged it wonderfully).]

  • p.s. Please don't downvote people's suggestions if they turn out to be wrong, unless they suggest something obviously stupid like "dragons" or "magic rings."
    – dmm
    Oct 10, 2013 at 19:28
  • p.s. Does not have to be living/undead creatures. Could be an inanimate object, or even an idea/concept/theme.
    – dmm
    Oct 11, 2013 at 14:24

4 Answers 4


Copy and pasted from How Many Creatures did J.R.R. Tolkien Invent for Middle-earth?:

It’s hard to say how many of the creatures in the various Tolkien books were actual creatures of his own invention. Even Hobbits bear some strong resemblances to certain types of fairy-creatures: they live in hills, they are diminutive in size, they can disappear quickly, they mostly live apart from Men, they have pointed ears, they have mysterious origins, etc.

Nonetheless, I think it is generally agreed that the following creatures were given a very clear profile by Tolkien through his fiction that differentiated them from earlier creatures that may have appeared in mythology, folklore, and fiction.

Giant Eagles – Giant eagles have appeared in various sources, including Norse and Icelandic mythology and also in the writings of Marco Polo. Zeus, one of the prototypes for Manwë, is also associated with giant eagles (including the one that torments Prometheus, who is tied to a rock until Heracles frees him).

Elves – Tolkien’s Elves are, according to him, “biologically human” but they have been given a fate that is separate from the fate of (other) humans (Men and Hobbits). Whereas Men’s spirits “leave the circles of the world” after inhabiting the world for a relatively short span of years, the Elves’ spirits are meant to remain within the circles of the world for as long as the world endures, and hence their bodies sustain those spirits for much longer than the bodies of Men sustain their own spirits. Tolkien’s Elves, unlike many fairy creatures of myth and folklore, seem to be intrinsically drawn toward their mortal cousins in an eery dance of envy: Men long to be “immortal” like the Elves and Elves long to be reassured that there is a future for them (as for Men) after the world ends. Each race wants something the other possesses but they cannot exchange these “gifts”.

Ents – Tolkien’s walking, talking trees seem to be unique, but they are not entirely so. For example, the Greek philosopher/sophist (who lived in the 2nd Century CE) Philostratus told a story about two philosophers (Apollonius and Thespesion) who paused to argue near an Elm tree. When Thespesion commanded the Elm to salute (speak to) Apollonius, it did so “in accents which were articulate and like those of a woman” (Cf. The Life of Apollonius of Tyana by Philastratus). L. Frank Baum also imagined a forest of “fighting trees” who resisted the passage of Dorothy and her companions om The Wizard of Oz. These trees were transformed into the talking apple trees in the 1939 Victor Fleming film adaptation of the story.

Hobbits – An offshoot of the Human Race, Hobbits seem to have been made “of sterner stuff” than Men, perhaps even Numenoreans, in many ways. They apparently reached their maturity later than most Men and they retained their vitality until late in life, and they actually seem to have lived slightly longer than Men (except for Numenoreans). Of course, the long-lived Hobbits may only have been notable exceptions.

Orcs – Tolkien himself hinted at the influence on his goblins/orcs from the goblins in George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin but his goblins/orcs also resemble various monsters of legend and folklore. It is generally accepted that Tolkien adapted the word orc from an Old English word, orcnéas (or orcþyrs), for “monster, monster from Hell” — said to be derived from Latin Orcus (although some people question this etymology). Tolkien also admitted in Letter No. 210 that his Orcs are “degraded and repulsive versions of the (to Europeans) least lovely Mongol-types”.

Giant Spiders – There are myths and legends of giant spiders around the world but I cannot identify any that Tolkien might have been aware of. He was widely read and might have heard of some Asian or African legends of giant spiders, but we have no evidence that he was aware of such tales. The only significant spider story from European mythology of which I am aware is the tale of Arachne, a poor Greek maiden whom Athena took pity on. Athena taught Arachne how to be a master-weaver, but Arachne became so arrogant that she refused to honor the gods for her talent. Athena in a final attempt to teach Arachne humility challenged her to a weaving contest. Arachne’s work was perfect, but it was so irreverent (depicting Zeus’ many conquests of mortal women) that Athena grew angry and slew Arachne. But Athena immediately took pity on Arachne and turned her into a spider so that she could continue weaving her beautiful patterns.

  • 4
    +1 but worth noting that Tolkien's Elves were influenced by the Tuatha Dé Danann - en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tuatha_D%C3%A9_Danann#Legendary_history - even to the extent of specifics such as burning ships and a one-handed king. There are other parallels with the Sidhe, such as time passing at different rates in their abodes, and the mortal/immortal thing (see libraryireland.com/AncientLegendsSuperstitions/Sidhe-Race.php - "they must die without hope of regaining heaven").
    – user8719
    Oct 10, 2013 at 19:55
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    Not to mention, also - the elven languages were completely invented by Tolkein which is something other fantasy novels don't recreate, obviously, however it shows Tolkein's true creativity.
    – Jaken
    Oct 10, 2013 at 20:11
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    I should add that despite Tolkien expressing a distaste for Celtic stuff, there are (at least) 2 reasonable hypotheses for why he used it (which he definitely did). First is that it was alien to him, so he used it to evoke a feeling of his Elves being alien for his readers. Second is that it's consistent with his stated "mythology for England" objective, in this case the Celtic myths would be the "debased" versions but the Lost Tales the "true" ones (it would be more "Britain" - by the original definition, which he would have been aware of - than "England" though).
    – user8719
    Oct 10, 2013 at 22:00
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    A very good answer, thanks. But I haven't picked it as THE answer because all the examples in it are examples of how Tolkien took a pre-existing idea and gave it his own unique spin. That is something every good writer should do, and Tolkien does it VERY well, but it's not what I was asking for.
    – dmm
    Oct 11, 2013 at 14:22
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    I read somewhere that Tolkien got the idea for the ents from Macbeth, when the prophecy said the forest would march against Macbeth. Tolkien envisioned the trees themselves going to war
    – childcat15
    Oct 14, 2013 at 0:27

Two come to mind quickly.

Uruk Hai and others that are half-breeds or derivations. Uruks are advanced orcs (who in turn were loosely based on goblins).

Hobbits and whatever it is that Smeagol became in his transformation into Gollum. He's certainly no clay Jewish monster like the similarly named gollem, and he doesn't look like a hobbit anymore after living about 500 years longer than normal hobbits.

While this is an especially short answer, it only takes one example to show he didn't just dig through mythology. He indeed brought new creatures to the table.

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    he is a hobbit too! Oct 10, 2013 at 21:35
  • I wasn't 100% on the Smeagol deal that's why I said "Two come to mind". I Oct 10, 2013 at 23:26
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    Smeagol's still a hobbit in the same way Palpatine is still human -- even though in both cases the dark power they've drunk so deeply from has warped their bodies to the point where you wouldn't easily recognize them as such. Hobbits tend to be plump because they value good dinners (and breakfast, and second breakfast, and tea, and supper, and elevenses...); smeagol has been subsisting on an all-the-fish-you-can-catch-in-an-underground-pond diet for a very long time... Oct 11, 2013 at 9:36
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    As for Gollum I have no idea why you think of Golem of Jewish myth, here's his name's story: "After this event, he started to make a gurgling sound from his throat; for this his family called him "Gollum"." Oct 14, 2013 at 6:33
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    "As for Gollum I have no idea why you think of Golem of Jewish myth..." What are you talking about? I specifically said he "certainly" wasn't. I couldn't have been more clear. You can try to argue they aren't similarly named, but face it. They are. And I know his name's origin but if you think the names do not sound similar, check your ears, I guess. Oct 14, 2013 at 7:40

What about the palantiri? They're somewhat similar to the crystal balls of divinators; however, they don't show the future but things that happen far away. It's a kind of "videoconference" long before that was invented in the real world.

Also I don't recall anything similar to the Unlight in any mythology. The only thing that comes to my mind is the "Nothing" of M. Ende's "Neverending Story", but that came much later.

Orcs seem to me quite different from traditional goblins, as well, even if the name already existed.

  • "Mirror, mirror on the wall..." (Also, Tolkien explicitly acknowledged taking Orcs/Goblins from MacDonald.)
    – Lexible
    Jun 27, 2020 at 19:53

Tolkien's usage of "Shadow" and "Darkness" appears to be entirely original.

We all know that "darkness" is an absence of light, and that "shadow" is what happens when something blocks light, but in Tolkien both are instead something more tangible, something that have a reality of their own outside of the presence (or absence) of light.

Perhaps the best expression of this is given in the Silmarillion chapter 8, "Of the Darkening of Valinor":

The Light failed; but the Darkness that followed was more than loss of light. In that hour was made a Darkness that seemed not lack but a thing with being of its own: for it was indeed made by malice out of Light, and it had power to pierce the eye, and to enter heart and mind, and strangle the very will.

Varda looked down from Taniquetil, and beheld the Shadow soaring up in sudden towers of gloom; Valmar had foundered in a deep sea of night.

Aside from this scene, this usage can be consistently seen throughout Tolkien's work (including such (in)famous lines as "the shadow about it reached out like two vast wings"), and I'm not aware of any pre-Tolkien sources with a similar usage.

  • 2
    a few years back i saw a book called "what inspired jrr tolkin?" (or something similar) which has a few pre-tolkin short stories, one of them was about a girl who waited for a guy for 7 years. at any rate in that story there are fish-like beings which (after cooked) turn into living shadows, and these creatures live in a place of darkness/shadow which seems to be tangible (although not evil). Dec 9, 2013 at 21:36

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