This is the first part of an essay I wrote for a class. (For Parts 2 and 3, click here and here.) It involved a lot of original research, I think. Meaning that while there may be scholars out there who have commented on this sort of, after long and diligent searching, I could find none. So I had to make my own conclusions, which I hope you (the reader) find compelling.
(Notes on reading this: Start at the top and work your way to the bottom.)
Almost everyone who reads Tolkien picks up on the fact that Tolkien has borrowed elements of Norse tradition. It is easy to recognize the Vikings in the Rohirrim, and the names of Gandalf, and all the dwarves from The Hobbit are easily northern. But the true depth of Tolkien’s indebtedness to Norse mythology is often left unsounded. To illustrate this priciple, I will take the case of trees in Tolkien’s literature. Tolkien’s use of trees and tree imagery was heavily influenced by the Norse legend of the tree of Ygdrasil.
In Tolkien’s literature, trees form an important part of the narrative. In the Lord of the Rings, we start almost immediately with a description of Bilbo and Frodo’s birthday party, which of course is set up under the marvelous Party tree, a center for the hobbits’ festivities. It is this tree that forms a center for the hobbits, and as such, is a metaphor for their community bond. Sam does not cry at the destruction Saruman has wrought in the Shire until he comes over the last hill and sees that the Party Tree is gone. It is this tree that symbolizes the hobbits’ community. This is why it is so important that the tree gets replanted, just like another tree that we see in the Lord of Rings. In the white city, the high and noble fortress of Minas Tirith, we see a withered tree, dead and barren amid the stony and silent city. It is this tree that Pippin has a vision of, seeing it burn under the anticipated attack on Minas Tirith by the armies of Sauron. This tree also is a symbol of community – and it is dead. When the king’s line failed, the dry leadership of the stewards took over, and the tree which had been fruitful became barren. It is only when a lone man comes out of the wilds where he had been hidden that a new tree begins to bud, hidden away on a shielded mountain slope above Minas Tirith. The tree mirrors the community’s state. The tree called Old Man Willow, in Tom Bombadil’s neck of the woods, is the face of the evil that permeates the uneasy wood on the Shire’s borders, a rebellious evil that must be put down by an Ainur. All these tree images use the same pattern of identification that the Norse used with their tree Ygdrasil. Ygdrasil represented the existence of all things, the community of the world. Ygdrasil was the ultimate bond between all things: a world-tree. Because of this, each of these trees owes something to the world-tree of the Teutons.