The Poetic Edda
Somewhere within the 8th century, in what is now modern-day Denmark, there emerged a culture of Germanic people whose culture was one of heavy militarisation. Their culture was one that praised and admired the qualities of a warrior, and they developed a pantheon of gods based around these traits. Over the next two-hundred years, their rape-and-pillage raiding tactics brought them a great deal of infamy throughout western Europe in modern-day countries such as France, England, Ireland, Finland and Latvia; they would often target monasteries, seeing as they were generally undefended and contained a God's honest shit-ton of loot inside. It was this focus on Christian monks that gained them something of a reputation for being godless, pagan savages in the Latin-influenced realm.
But this couldn't be further from the truth. The fact is that these people, who became known as the Vikings, actually had a rich culture of oral-tradition story telling. Throughout their homeland, and the lands that they raided, was spread many tales about their gods, mighty battles and godly kings and their dynasties.
Unfortunately, during the Viking age, the actual Vikings themselves didn't write any of these tales down, as they had no real way of doing it. It wasn't until the Christian age of Scandinavia, when people needed to read from books like the Bible, that people actually bothered writing these stories down and recording them.
And as a result, The Poetic Edda was written.
So what actually IS this book?
Basically, it's the Bible of Norse mythology. Most of what we know about their religious culture is found here, from the way the nine realms are laid out, to what will happen during Ragnarök, to WHO the actual gods are and just what some of the names Odin (Icelandic name: Óðínn) actually are. Spoiler alert, there's a shit ton of them.
And how is this /tg/relevant?
Well, many reasons.
The first one is just that, oh, I don't know, IT'S FUCKING VIKING MYTH-POETRY!!!
The second one, in terms of language, is that it's a pretty good measuring stick for if and when you want your DnD campaign to take on a more old-timey feel. The language here can get pretty archaic, even in translation, both in terms of grammar and vocabulary. This is mainly due to the fact that it was written over a thousand years ago, in ancient Icelandic.
Oscar Wilde has been attributed to the quote "Talent borrows. Genius Steals."
In that case don't think of it as Tolkien being unoriginal, just that he was clever enough to re-use and re-purpose old Scandinavian texts and turn them into one of the most well-lauded and influential series in literary history.
But seriously, though, there are a lot of things in both the Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit, especially the Hobbit, that are very reminiscent, if not straight up taken, from the Edda. Tolkien himself even admitted to the fact that this book was a massive influence on his writing of the main series, but particularly the Hobbit, and it does show.
Now, as I'm sure some fa/tg/uys might not be all that fussed with reading about 320 pages of archaic Icelandic poetry, what we're going to do with the rest of this section is list a few of the comparative similarities here;
- Gandalf: The depiction of Gandalf in the books and the films seems to have been heavily influenced from the many depictions of Odin throughout the stories in this book. Odin is depicted as a bearded, older man wearing a cloak with either a hood or a very large-brimmed hat and a spear, but in Gandalf's case it is a staff. They are both depicted as wandering figures, both of which walk the earth gathering knowledge and sharing wisdom as they do. They are also both depicted as vanquishing their foes by outwitting them, such as when Gandalf tricks the Trolls into staying up until sunrise, turning them into stone. Speaking of which;
- The Trolls in the Hobbit: This section of the book is very similar to the Alvíssmál, a story in which the god Thor returns to Valhalla to find that a Dwarf has married his daughter without Thor's permission. As this Dwarf claims to be a wise Dwarf, Thor asks him to prove it by answering the questions he gives him. He does this for as long as it takes for the sun to rise, turning the Dwarf to stone and allowing him to free his daughter. Change the Dwarf to three trolls, Thor to Gandalf and Thor's daughter to the party of Bilbo and the dwarves, and there you have it. Almost a stone copy.
- The Names of the Dwarves in "The Hobbit": In the Völuspá, several there is a catalogue of Dwarven names, many of which can be found as names for the main dwarves in the Hobbit. These names include; Thorin, Dwalin, Fili, Kili, Bifur, Bofur and Nori leaving only six Dwarves left. Other names to appear from this section of the poem include Durin, one of the original dwarves in the Edda, and most likely where we get the name "Durin's Folk" from in LotR, and, funnily enough, Gandalf's name, too.
- The Riddle Competition between Bilbo and Gollum: While not directly lifted from the Edda itself, it bears many similarities to "Vafþrúðnismál", which is a story about Odin (in disguise) engaging in a question and answer competition with a Giant who claims to be smarter than even the mighty Allfather himself. Odin wins by asking the Giant a question that only he knows the answer to, leading to the giant realising who his opponent actually is and accepting defeat. Contrast to a deadly riddle battle between a creature corrupted by evil and a hobbit in competition for Bilbo's life. In the end, Bilbo wins by asking Gollum a question that only he could possibly know the answer to, which allows for Bilbo to go free.
- The title of "Middle-Earth": Fun fact; Midgard, or Miðgarðr as the Norse spelled it, literally translates to "Middle Country", "Middle Realm" and, drum roll, please *brrr* Middle Earth.
So...Tolkien's a hack then?
The point of this page was not to decry Tolkien as an unoriginal hack who just straight up stole all of his content from other people's work.
This page's point was mainly to show GMs and fa/tg/uys alike that everything comes from something. Tolkien may have borrowed many elements from this book, but he was still a talented writer. His world-building, word-smithing and characterisation are practically unbeatable in their quality and very few writers, even 80 years later, have been able to match or even compete with what he created.
On top of all of this, literally every fantasy book written after LotR in the western world owes, at the very least, SOME credit to Tolkien, who in himself owes at least SOME credit to this book, and this book owes at least SOME credit to the folk tales it was itself derived from, and that probably owes itself to the mythology of germanic paganism which, assuming the anthropological theory of the Proto-indo-eurpeans is true, owes credit to the larger pantheon of Proto-Indo-European gods which is theorised to have spread as far as India, Ancient Greece and the Slavic countries, and then those gods were probably derived from some other gods before them, too.
TL;DR: Moral of the story is, don't get too caught up in thinking your ideas aren't original, just don't be a plagiarist.
So should I read this book?
As mentioned before, it's a great way to see where Tolkien's world and ideas came from.
On top of that, if you're playing a Viking/Icelandic/Scandinavian setting, this should be your point of first reference. All you need to know about the gods, the nine realms, Dwarves, Elves, Giants and trolls are all here. Also, for the Space Wolves players, this is where you'll find a shit-ton of the sources for them (Fenris being one example).
For a light read, though, unless you're interested in Viking mythology, probably not. The language in this book is fucking tough, and the writer of this passage used to be in a Shakespearean theatre company. On top of that, many of the stories are kinda...well bad. There are a lot of strange interjections and tangents, likely from the composer of this book compiling random sources, or the stories themselves getting mixed up with others over time (like was said in the first paragraph, this book was written a couple hundred years after the Viking age and is taken from oral stories).
On the whole though, yes, especially for those of you into fantasy and Tolkien, but don't literally expect the Lord of the Rings.