Väinämöinen: The Finnish Deity and Hero Who Inspired Tolkien to Create Gandalf and Tom Bombadil
J.R.R. Tolkien created remarkable stories that inspired Peter Jackson to make incredible movies. But it was his knowledge of literature and old legends which inspired the writer to use stories of gods and heroes to create iconic fictional figures such as Gandalf, Tom Bombadil, and many other characters. One of the most fascinating of his inspirations came in the form of Väinämöinen, the Finnish god of magic, who had some amazing legends surrounding him long before Tolkien dreamed up his famous fictional world.
Upon closer inspection, Tolkien’s books seem like a colorful palette of myths and legends combining stories from different cultures and time periods. The influence of ancient deities, mythical creatures, and even motifs from Christianity are all clearly visible. However, the impact of these stories has only been lightly covered by specialists in literature. But it was due to works such as Tolkien’s that the legendary Finnish god Väinämöinen gained new faces and adventures – leading him to become a popular figure outside Scandinavian countries.
The Legend of Väinämöinen
Väinämöinen was a god of magic and a mysterious deity who loved poetry. It seems that he was well known not only in Finland, but also in Estonia and other countries of north-central Europe.
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The oldest stories referring to Väinämöinen come from the early medieval period, but no known copies of these tales survive prior to 1551. His legend was described by Mikael Agricola, who included him in the list of Tavastian gods. Soon after, other writers started to follow the subject of Väinämöinen. He became the main character of the national epic of Finland called Kalevala, which is one of the most important Scandinavian texts. However, Kalevala is distinct from other famous Scandinavian writings because it comes from the 19th century, not medieval times. The book describes a unique creation myth. It includes all the spectrum of motifs and many characteristics of Norse mythology and Finnish folklore.
R.W Ekman: Väinämöinen. (Public Domain)
The story describes Kaleva’s son and Ilmarinen’s brother. It says that there was only Water and Sky at the beginning of the world. Sky had a daughter, Ilmatar, who decided to see what water was like. So, she swam in it for over 700 years. Finally, she saw a beautiful paradise bird which was looking for a place to rest.
Inside front title page of The "Old" Kalevala, Finnish national epos, collection of old Finnish poems, by Elias Lönnrot. (Public Domain)
She allowed the bird to sit on her knee. The feathery friend left six golden eggs and one made of iron. Ilmatar’s leg soon became hot and she moved it, destroying the eggs. The yolks became the sun and the whites became the moon and stars. Later, Ilmatar had a son - Väinämöinen. His father was the sea and he was blessed with all the knowledge he needed. He swam to land, where he started a new life and performed magic.
Ilmatar by Robert Wilhelm Ekman. (Public Domain)
Although Tom Bombadil didn't appear in Peter Jackson’s movie adaptations of Tolkien’s books, he is one of most readers’ favorite characters. According to David Elton Gay in J.R.R. Tolkien and the Kalevala: Some Thoughts on the Finnish Origins of Tom Bombadil and Treebeard:
“As has been often noted, much of what Tom says is, in fact, sung. As with Väinämöinen's singing. Tom's has power, and the power of his singing is clearly similar to Väinämöinen's. When we first meet Tom, he saves Merry and Pippin from Old Man Willow through the threat of his singing's: as he says to Frodo and Sam, ''I'll sing his roots off. I'll sing the wind up and blow leaf and branch away'' (LR 1.6, 117). Goldberry later tells Frodo that Tom is master of his land. And as Tom's conversations with the Hobbits make apparent, his mastery of his land, like Väinämöinen's, is through knowledge and experience rather than ownership. If, as I propose, Tom Bombadil is based in part on Väinämöinen, then Tom's control of his world through knowledge expressed in song [is] to be expected: To have power over something [like] the mythology of the Kalevala one must know its origins and be able to sing it appropriate songs and incantations concerning these origins, and it was his works that helped give shape to the land. The same is clearly true to Tom Bombadil. (…) Tom's choice of the adjectives “old” and “eldest” to describe himself links him to Väinämöinen, for throughout the whole of the Kalevala epos, from Lonnrot's early drafts to the 1849 edition of the epic, Väinämöinen is ''steadfast old Väinämöinen'' (vaka vanha Väinämöinen).”
A drawing of Tom Bombadil. (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)
Mr. Gandalf from Nordic Legends
In the case of Gandalf, the situation is a little bit more complicated. According to specialists in Tolkien's literature, the famous author used more than one inspiration while creating this famous fictional figure’s characteristics.
Gandalf in the 1978 animated film. (Fair Use)
While creating one of the most iconic characters of his books, Gandalf, Tolkien was inspired by the Norse god Odin and Väinämöinen. Although there are also some links to Biblical characters, the influence of the Nordic countries, and the epic poem Kalevala is prominent in the magician.
Some resources have also compared Väinämöinen with Tolkien’s creations of Treebeard and the Ents. Moreover, the idea of the “ring of power” used in the stories of Middle Earth also comes from the Kalevala. These examples provide evidence of just how much Tolkien was fascinated with old legends about gods and magic.
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Odin, the Wanderer (1886) by Georg von Rosen (1843–1923). (Public Domain)
Mythical Influences in Tolkien's Books
Moreover, the names of the famous dwarves from The Hobbit: Thorin, Balin, Dwalin, Bifur, Bofu, Bombur, Ori, Dori, Nori, Gloin, Oin, Kili, Fili, Dain, Nain, Thrain, Thror and Durin all come from the Poetic Edda - a well-known collection of poems written in old Norse.
Tolkien’s books are full of legends and myths from pre-Christian times. Specialists in Christian writings also suggest that there are many Catholic motifs present too, however it is impossible to not notice the analogies among his books and old Norse and Celtic myths.
Top image: Akseli Gallen-Kallela: The Departure of Väinämöinen (Public Domain)
Gay, David Elton, “J.R.R. Tolkien and the Kalevala: Some Thoughts on the Finnish Origins of Tom Bombadil and Treebeard" in Tolkien and the Invention of Myth: A Reader, ed. By Jane Chance, 2004
New Medievalisms edited by Javier Martín-Párraga, Juan de Dios Torralbo-Caballero, 2015.
Väinämöinen, available at:
Väinämöinen, available at: