One of the great pleasures of reading (and re-reading) Tolkien is spotting the influences. Many of these are well known: the dwarf-names from Voluspa (The Seeress's Prophecy) in the Poetic Edda, for example, or the Orcs and Ents from the orcneas and eotenas of Beowulf.
Then there's Tolkien's own acknowledgement of the Orcs' debt to George MacDonald's goblins. And there's their Misty Mountain lair's original in Skirnismal (identified by Tom Shippey in The Road to Middle Earth).
But one of the most satisfying spots comes in Hrolf Kraki's Saga. Many Tolkien enthusiasts know that Beorn owes a debt to Bodvar Bjarki ("Warlike Little-Bear"), Hrolf's shapeshifting comrade-in-arms. But rereading part of the saga the other day, I was struck by just how strong the influence is.
Here's Beorn's decisive appearance at the Battle of the Five Armies:
In that last hour Beorn himself had appeared—no one knew how or from where. He came alone, and in bear’s shape; and he seemed to have grown almost to giant-size in his wrath.
The roar of his voice was like drums and guns; and he tossed wolves and goblins from his path like straws and feathers. He fell upon their rear, and broke like a clap of thunder through the ring. The dwarves were making a stand still about their lords upon a low rounded hill. Then Beorn stooped and lifted Thorin, who had fallen pierced with spears, and bore him out of the fray.
Swiftly he returned and his wrath was redoubled, so that nothing could withstand him, and no weapon seemed to bite upon him. He scattered the bodyguard, and pulled down Bolg himself and crushed him. Then dismay fell on the Goblins and they fled in all directions.But weariness left their enemies with the coming of new hope, and they pursued them closely, and prevented most of them from escaping where they could.
And here's Bodvar's spirit-bear in the saga's great battle:
Hjorvard and his men saw a great bear advancing in front of King Hrolf's troop. The bear was always beside the king, and it killed more men with its paws than any five of the king's champions did. Blows and missiles glanced off the animal, as it used its weight to crush King Hjorvard's men and their horses. Between its teeth, it tore everything within reach, causing a palpable fear to spread through the ranks of King Hjorvard's army.All the elements are there: the surprise appearance, the massive carnage, the apparent invulnerability and the shattering of enemy morale. Tolkien's conclusion is rather more consolatory, though (I won't spoil the saga's here).
If you haven't read Hrolf Kraki's Saga, please do. It's short and great and brimming with ideas for games, including sundry trolls, literature's best half-elven sorceress and a terrific strategic use of undead soldiers. Poul Anderson did a pretty serviceable novelisation, but the Penguin Classics translation is marvellous, as well as being much shorter.