Many years ago I lived in Iceland. I went to the university my junior year of college, and then worked on a sheep farm for the summer. I have pictures and should scan them before they fade away (cheap 110 camera film doesn’t last that long, although I updated to a 35mm later on).

But while waiting for that to happen, here’s this:

Iceland erupts

Notice the resemblance to Mount Doom in Mordor. This isn’t too far-fetched, since Tolkien visited Iceland before writing The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and the country has been volcanically active for its entire history.

(There’s a pretty funny Japanese movie, called Cold Fever, about Iceland. Lili Taylor plays a psycho with an even worse boyfriend with whom she always argues.

“You said you wanted to go to an island! See volcanoes!”

“I meant Hawaii!”)

Anyway, the dwarves are out of the Icelandic sagas, pretty much name for name. Mirkwood is based on Thorsmork, or Thor’s Forest. The name Smaug comes from the Icelandic for smaugur, which means to wind or twist. (In the Icelandic translation of The Hobbit, it’s disappointing that Smaug is renamed Smakir — not sure what the decision was on that one.)

It goes on. The name Shadowfax? Faxi means mane in Icelandic. If Tolkien had gone with Icelandic for the entire name, it would have been something like Skuggafax, which, sorry, just doesn’t trip off the tongue.

So if there’s any place that could be Middle Earth, other than New Zealand, it would be Iceland.


Andrew Wells · March 26, 2010 at 5:43 am

Unfortunately, Tolkien never actually visited Iceland!

geordie · March 26, 2010 at 2:55 pm

Although fluent in Old Norse (a.k.a. Old Icelandic, Tolkien actually never visited Iceland.

“7 January 1966: …Tolkien replies to a letter from a Roger Shaw, who had suggested that the landscape of _The Lord of the Rings_ was inspired by that of Iceland. Tolkien has never been to Iceland, but knows its landscapes from photographs. The name Midgewater Marshes, however, was taken from Icelandic ‘Myvatn’ (a name which appears in Hrafnkels Saga).”
(Christina Scull and Wayne Hammond; ‘The jRR Tolkien Companion and Guide, Volume I, Harper Collins 2006; p.652)

Patrice Sarath · March 26, 2010 at 3:33 pm

Damn I hate being wrong. Could have sworn that I read somewhere he’d been to Iceland. There is a Myvatn in Iceland — it’s not just in the saga.

Thanks for weighing in!

squishy · March 27, 2010 at 1:32 pm

Scary that people know exactly where Tolkien’s been. Also a bit saddening that people know the exact derivation of the Middle Earth place names. I was hoping it was a little more … peripatetic?

Love the video, BTW!

Patrice Sarath · March 27, 2010 at 2:21 pm

Oh I don’t know — I find it comforting that there are bits of Middle Earth all around us, in language and in landscape. It makes it all a bit more real.

geordie · March 28, 2010 at 2:33 am

Well, a lot of Middle-earth names are pure invention, of course. But Tolkien was so well-read, and enjoyed words so much (enjoyed them for themselves, and the sound they made) that he’d ‘borrow’ words and names for his story. (Incidentally, I’d always understood that he’d taken ‘Mirkwood’ from the forest of that name in Central Europe – it’s mentioned in Heidrek’s Saga)

Tom Shippey’s book ‘The road to Middle-earth’ is great for explaining and illuminating these things (Shippey is a philologist, like Tolkien, and takes great delight with the way Tolkien uses words and names in his stories)

As for ‘knowing where Tolkien was every day’ – well, we don’t quite! But I find biography fascinating, and for nuts like us, there’s Scull and Hammond’s two-volume The JRR Tolkien Companion and Guide’.

Both of these works are among the indispensables when it comes to studying Tolkien (which isn’t as stuffy as it may sound; I read books about Tolkien with as much pleasure as books written by him).


Patrice Sarath · March 28, 2010 at 4:08 pm

It’s been ages since I’ve researched Tolkien, and the only sources then were few. Now people who are as in to the writer as much as the work are lucky. There’s really good stuff out there.

I feel ashamed that I passed along misinformation about Tolkien in Iceland, but I’m pretty sure I heard it from an Icelander. Maybe some national pride?

As I said, I love the real bits because they just make Middle Earth that much more real. As a kid I spent years trying to find Middle Earth, so much so that even my books have a bit of Middle Earth in them. But just a bit.

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