“A day will come at last when I
Shall take the hidden paths that run
West of the Moon, East of the Sun.”
– Tolkien, “The Road Goes Ever On”
J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion delves into the history of Middle Earth, and the world of Arda as a whole. It contains a lot of background for the people and places in The Lord of the Rings.
Tolkien deliberately created a history that works plausibly as a real-life myth for England. With the many conquests and invaders of the British Isles, much of the folkloric culture was destroyed. Tolkien wished to rectify this, and he built his pseudo-history with myriad aspects of real legends and lore – even fairy tales!! I want to note that none of these are intended to be perfect matches, and some may not even have been deliberate on Tolkien’s part, but we can still find connections by highlighting potential similarities.
Tolkien drew on numerous historical ideas for his legendarium, such as “Beowulf,” and he painstakingly crafted words reminiscent of Old Norse, Gaelic, and even Finnish. Luckily for us, many fairytale references in The Silmarillion are easy to spot, and don’t require extensive study of dead languages or ancient poetry – as interesting as those may be!
The tale of “Beren and Lúthien” is one of the most fleshed-out and personal of Tolkien’s tales in The Silmarillion. The names “Beren” and “Lúthien” are actually inscribed on Tolkien and his wife’s gravestone.
In this story, we find “Rapunzel” and “Little Red Riding Hood.”
Lúthien’s father, the king, is concerned for her safety and confines her to a house high in a tree, taking way the ladders. But she escapes. In Rapunzel-style, Lúthien “caused her hair to grow to great length… she twined a rope, and she let it down from her window.”
That’s not all her hair can do: “Of it she wove a dark robe that wrapped her beauty like a shadow, and it was laden with a spell of sleep.” After a second escape from another person, Lúthien, “shrouded in her shadowy cloak,” is finally on her way to Grandmother’s Sauron’s isle. Eventually, she and Beren reach Angband, which is guarded by a giant wolf, Carcharoth or the Red Maw. Lúthien has displayed a range of great powers, but with her cloak and the wolf, she could be akin to Little Red Riding Hood.
Beren’s hand will be swallowed by the wolf and then found intact when the wolf is ripped open, as it always is in “Little Red Riding Hood.”
Eluréd and Elurín are actually the grandsons of Beren and Lúthien. When their home was attacked, they were taken and left in the woods. Maedhros, of the opposing force, had a change of heart and combed the forest for the two small princes. He found no trace of them. When I read of these boys, I instantly thought of “Hansel and Gretel”, another pair of siblings left to starve in the forest.
Some years before the above events, Míriel, an elf who gave all her strength in the birth of her son, was something of a sleeping beauty. Too weary to continue, she “lay down to sleep; but though she seemed to sleep her spirit indeed departed from her body, … [which] remained unwithered.” In some ways, she had to wait for her husband, specifically his death, before any return was possible.
Lastly, who can read “Seven rings for the Dwarf lords” without thinking about Snow White and her seven dwarfs?
*All quotes are from The Silmarillion.
3 thoughts on “Fairy Tales in The Silmarillion”
What a wonderful post. I never would have known all these great connections to fairy tales can be found in Tolkien’s work. I wonder how many similarities his troll scenes have to those in Scandinavian fairy tales. Interesting stuff!
That’s very possible! Tolkien certainly paid homage to other myths and legends besides fairy tales.