"What Tolkien Really Did with the Sampo"
by Jonathan B. Himes

published in
Mythlore 22.4 (Spring 2000): 69-85
A Journal of J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams, and Mythopoeic Literature
sponsored by the Mythopoeic Society

Himes also presented a version of this article in Turku, Finland, at
the Kalevala Institute's Singer of Epics Symposium, November 3, 2002.

More news of Himes's lectures at the Bomba Festivals in Nurmes, Finland, March 1, 2003



Background on Tolkien and The Kalevala /
The Mythical Nature of the Sampo and the Silmarils /
The Motivations for Forging and Thieving / Notes / Works Cited




Most scholars who study Tolkien have much to say about his debt to Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and Celtic literatures, but surprisingly few have studied his use of The Kalevala in depth. Because Tolkien relied extensively on its central mythic object, the Sampo, for his conception of the Silmarils, a closer analysis1 of the changes to Lönnrot's epic reveals much about the inventive method of Middle-earth's mythologist. I propose that Tolkien refashions the skirmishes between Finnish provinces over the socio-economic supremacy afforded by the Sampo, into the world war among all races of Middle-earth for the moral and terrestrial stability offered by the Silmarils. His methods for reworking the Sampo epic into The Silmarillion were: 1) to present conflicts of stark morality without allegorizing; 2) to use pagan elements without bawdlerizing; 3) to bridge gaps in the source with other traditions or his own imagination; and 4) to expand the playing field of the epic to a global scale. His express purpose was to propagate a secondary world through feigned history.

* * * * * * * * * *

These are but a few examples that reveal Tolkien's method of dealing with his source material. The nature of the changes made while borrowing elements from The Kalevala suggest the sort of aims he had as a Christian philologist in the twentieth century. Both Tolkien and Lönnrot sought to create literature of epic proportions for their native countries; however, their cultural backgrounds gave them different aesthetic and rhetorical choices. Lönnrot wrote during the early nineteenth century, as Finns were forging their national identity. For this purpose, Lönnrot drew upon the oral traditions surrounding the Sampo. He chose southern Kalevala as the site of his heroes' homeland, and he presented their struggle against the neighboring Lapps of northern Pohjola as an inspiring epic for his country. Tolkien also wanted to give his native land a series of indigenous myths and legends, but early twentieth-century England was occupied with the atrocities of world war. Like his fellow Inklings, he was attracted to the medieval literature of northern Europe, and he saw within it the possibilities of expressing his Christian values, despite the pessimism of his own war-torn era. Writing in a tone of noble courage, Tolkien borrowed from sources like The Kalevala to present the epic history of a doomed world, whose Silmarils still offer light in dark times.

back to top




News clippings from Bomba Festivals in Nurmes, Finland, March 1, 2003 (click to enlarge)

John Brown University / English Department
Send comments, suggestions, and problems to jhimes@jbu.edu