In the twentieth century, some authors rose to greatness, and a handful became household names.
But few writers’ words haunted the hearts and minds of successive generations. Few found their works being reinterpreted from one age to the next, like the mythic traditions that form the mental framework of humanity. Few achieve such accolades in their lifetimes.
When a divine spark catches in the imagination of one man, it catches fire in the multiplied minds of millions. One such author was John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (1892-1973).
More common are post-humorous ascents to the Olympian heights. Authors become literary gods, as out of the ashes of their deaths, Phoenix-like, they arise to shining new lives and immortality. Such was the belated elevation of Howard Phillips Lovecraft (1890-1937) and his works to the Literary Pantheon. Lovecraft, a pauper in life, became the prophet of the Old Ones in death. His dreams shaped mankind’s nightmares, for his generation and beyond.
And Lovecraft’s cosmicism defined the landscapes of our imaginations. Humanity longs for, but finds no comfort, hopes for, but finds no purpose in Lovecraft’s Universe. To HPL, nostalgia for bygone illusions clouds our ability to perceive reality as it is. A derivative definition of “Lovecraftian” is “abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”
In this essay, I would first like briefly to touch on how Lovecraft and Tolkien’s rigorous adherence to their literary sensibilities shaped later cultural expressions of myth and the macabre. Second, I would like to sample evidence of whether Lovecraft influenced elements of Tolkien’s grand tales.
My Literary Heritage:
My own journey into the worlds of fantasy and speculative fiction paralleled my journey into all things Lovecraft. I read Clifford D. Simak intensively: Way Station (1963), The Goblin Reservation (1968), Enchanted Pilgrimage (1975), Shakespeare’s Planet (1976), Where the Evil Dwells (1982), and Special Deliverance (1982) to name a few. I also read books with bleak, apocalyptic futures such as Alas Babylon (Pat Frank) and The Earth Abides (George R. Stewart). I sampled Edgar Rice Burroughs (John Carter of Mars) and devoured Robert E. Howard (Conan, Solomon Kane, King Kull, Bran Mak Morn, and Turlogh Dubh O’Brien). Finally, I could not stop reading both trilogies of The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, The Unbeliever (Stephen R. Donaldson).
From Their Personal Aesthetics grew an Aesthetical Movement:
Inevitably, my reading led to J.R.R Tolkien.
Tolkien was a High God of Fantasy literature (alongside greats like Robert E. Howard). Tolkien’s tales are enjoyed by lowbrows and respected by highbrows alike. He wrote of that experience:
“…Being a cult figure in one’s own lifetime I afraid is not at all pleasant. However I do not find that it tends to puff one up; in my case at any rate it makes me feel extremely small and inadequate. But even the nose of a very modest idol…cannot remain entirely untickled by the sweet smell of incense…” (1).
In the 1960s, Hippies identified with Hobbits. Opponents of the Vietnam War united around the antiwar themes and counterculture they saw in Tolkien’s tales. In the 1970s, before electronics, The Lord of the Rings inspired countless Dungeons and Dragons scenarios, with Tolkien’s orcs, dwarves, elves and wizards heavily influencing the cadre of characters one could role-play or oppose.
Yet, Tolkien did not set out to please a fickle public when he authored The Lord of the Rings and related works. Instead, he sought to give expression and achieve satisfaction of his own personal Aesthetic:
“Nobody believes me when I say that my long book [The Lord of the Rings] is an attempt to create a world in which a form of language agreeable to my personal aesthetic might seem real. But it is true” (2).
At the same time, Lovecraft began to come into his own. In the late 60s, H. P. Lovecraft was the name taken by an American psychedelic rock band from Chicago, inspired by HPL’s macabre writings. Later, like Tolkien’s Sauron, HPL’s Cthulhu and other gods became the evil Dungeons and Dragons aficionados tried to overcome. And in the 1980s, Lovecraftians like Dr. Robert M. Price began to explore HPLs writings both as scholars and as fans in zines such as Crypt of Cthulhu.
As Tolkien, Lovecraft wrote to satisfy his own aesthetic standards. In his estimation, few people possessed the intellectual and imaginative facilities to appreciate what he tried to achieve in his writing:
“The opinions of the masses are of no interest to me, for praise can truly gratify only when it comes from a mind sharing the author’s perspective. There are probably seven persons, in all, who really like my work; and they are enough. I should write even if I were the only patient reader, for my aim is merely self-expression. I could not write about ‘ordinary people’ because I am not in the least interested in them. Without interest there can be no art. Man’s relations to man do not captivate my fancy. It is man’s relation to the cosmos—to the unknown—which alone arouses in me the spark of creative imagination. The humanocentric pose is impossible to me, for I cannot acquire the primitive myopia which magnifies the earth and ignores the background. Pleasure to me is wonder—the unexplored, the unexpected, the thing that is hidden and the changeless thing that lurks behind superficial mutability. To trace the remote in the immediate; the eternal in the ephemeral; the past in the present; the infinite in the finite; these are to me the springs of delight and beauty. Like the late Mr. [Oscar] Wilde, ‘I live in terror of not being misunderstood’” (3).
How pervasive have Lovecraft and Tolkien invaded culture?
In certain sectors of society, words have been coined to signify when a piece of art, literature, film, etc. contains features that appear to be influenced by Tolkien or Lovecraft. For example, if themes inspired by Tolkien appear in a Fantasy novel, the book might be termed Tolkienesque:
“Tolkienesque – of or reminiscent of the novels of J. R. R. Tolkien, especially with reference to the fantastical characters and dramatic landscapes that they portray” (4).
In the same vein, if a work touches on themes espoused by HPL, it may be called Lovecraftian. There is a lack of agreement on a general definition of Lovecraftian. The best I found states that to be Lovecraftian involves:
“- Terrible beings so grotesque and alien they can hardly be described
– A protagonist who finds himself gripped by madness by the story’s end
– Talk of other worlds or dimensions, generally replete with monstrosities that could break through and annihilate humanity at any given time
– A strong emphasis on the fact that humanity, in general, is fleeting and pointless” (5).
To sum up the impact of Tolkien and Lovecraft on society, Matt Cardin observed:
“The works of J. R. R. Tolkien and H. P. Lovecraft…represented a new landmark in the formation of the Gothic Aesthetic. Their works laid the foundations of the contemporary culture of nightmare consumption and facilitated the nightmare’s penetration into everyday life, allowing it to exert a huge influence over the minds of millions. . . The rise of the Gothic Aesthetic in the 1990s occurred through a coincidence of several trends …that had started to emerge in the late 1970s. The birth of Gothic rock coincided with the peak of Tolkien’s popularity due to the translation of The Lord of the Rings into most European languages. These events had clear social consequences: Gothic rock produced the Goth youth subculture…Howard Phillips Lovecraft, whose prose was instrumental in promoting a fascination with nightmares, were also used…for role-playing games in the early 1980s…His works gained true popularity in the late 1980s-early 1990s, when computer games were developed. Works by Tolkien and Lovecraft made a unique contribution to the rise of the Gothic Aesthetic, influencing the minds of millions of readers, users and viewers.
In the 1980s, the nightmare gradually began to transform into a necessary drug for the mass consciousness; the public was not aware of its addictive effect until it began to require equine doses of direct and vulgar nightmares in order to achieve the desired effect. Over the last 20 years the nightmare has become the most desirable psychological state, and indeed any product on the pleasure market that does not imitate it seems to the contemporary consumer to be insipid and unreal…” (6).
Towards a Common Creative Heritage:
“‘We fought far under the living earth, where time is not counted. Ever he clutched me, and ever I hewed him, till at last he fled into dark tunnels. They were not made by Durin’s folk, Gimli son of Glóin. Far, far below the deepest delving of the Dwarves, the world is gnawed by nameless things. Even Sauron knows them not. They are older than he. Now I have walked there, but I will bring no report to darken the light of day. In that despair my enemy was my only hope, and I pursued him, clutching at his heel. Thus he brought me back at last to the secret ways of Khazad-dûm: too well he knew them all. Ever up now we went, until we came to the Endless Stair’” (7).
Among the words of J.R.R Tolkien in The Lord of the Rings, the preceding passage has caught many with an eye for Lovecraftian details. Why? For one, Tolkien was a man enamored with naming things, individuals, and phenomenon in his Middle-earth. A man devoted to details, Tolkien seldom left a denizen of his world undefined. So, when Tolkien wrote, “…the world is gnawed by nameless things…Even Sauron knows them not…” his use of Nameless Things is highly reminiscent of Lovecraft.
The implication is that the Nameless Things existed before Sauron since even the Dark Lord knows them not. That also implies that they lay outside his control and his dominion – they have a uniformity of being all their own. Sauron was originally a being of the second-highest order of Tolkien’s universe – the Dark Lord was of the Maiar, eternal spirit beings one tier below and helpers of the angelic Ainur, who shaped the formless world and its environs after Iluvatar created it. That there may have an order of existence and entities older than Sauron – perhaps the original inhabitants of the planet – may be reading too much into a small detail in Tolkien’s grand myth. However, notice the similarity in how Lovecraft used Nameless Things in two passages:
“…I cannot think of the deep sea without shuddering at the nameless things that may at this very moment be crawling and floundering on its slimy bed, worshipping their ancient stone idols and carving their own detestable likenesses on submarine obelisks of water-soaked granite. I dream of a day when they may rise above the billows to drag down in their reeking talons the remnants of puny, war-exhausted mankind—of a day when the land shall sink, and the dark ocean floor shall ascend amidst universal pandemonium….” (8).
“By the time I had listened a few seconds I was broad awake, for the nature of the voices was such as to make all thought of sleep ridiculous. The tones were curiously varied, and no one who had listened to that accursed phonograph record could harbour any doubts about the nature of at least two of them. Hideous though the idea was, I knew that I was under the same roof with nameless things from abysmal space; for those two voices were unmistakably the blasphemous buzzings which the Outside Beings used in their communication with men…” (9).
The inference arises, “Did Lovecraft influence Tolkien?”
Let us review one other similarity in the two giants’ works before we more fully examine the Nameless Things.
The Watcher in the Water:
Another piece of the puzzle appears in the similarities between Tolkien’s Watcher in the Water and Lovecraft’s Cthulhu.
The Watcher in the Water (or simply the Watcher) appears in the Fellowship of the Ring. Quickly, on the Fellowship’s journey to Mount Doom to destroy the One Ring, they must pass through the Mines of Moria. To do so, they must first gain admittance through the Doors of Durin that resides next to an unnamed lake. As they attempt to open the gates, a denizen in the lake – The Watcher – attacks them, seizing Frodo with a long, pale-green, luminous, fingered tentacle, succeeded by twenty more. After they escape the Watcher, Gandalf states, “Something has crept or been driven out of the dark water under the mountains. There are older and fouler things than orcs in the deep places of the world.”
By implication, the Watcher belongs to a stratum of monsters, either epitomized by the Balrogs. Or since the Watcher is older than orcs – who themselves were Elves ruined by Melkor, the first Dark Lord of Middle-earth (10) – the Watcher may represent one of Tolkien’s nameless things, described in the prior example. Tolkien himself never defined what the Watcher was. It’s identification as a Kraken represents the artistic interpretation of others.
Lovecraft’s Own Cephalopod:
Lovecraft’s Cthulhu bears some resemblance to Tolkien’s Watcher. Both are tentacles, as HPL’s description of Cthulhu reveals:
“…If I say that my somewhat extravagant imagination yielded simultaneous pictures of an octopus, a dragon, and a human caricature, I shall not be unfaithful to the spirit of the thing. A pulpy, tentacled head surmounted a grotesque and scaly body with rudimentary wings; but it was the general outline of the whole which made it most shockingly frightful…” (11).
Also, both entities are quite ancient, as Lovecraft’s timeline of Cthulhu’s appearance on Earth is traced to its distant past:
“…They worshipped…the Great Old Ones who lived ages before there were any men, and who came to the young world out of the sky. Those Old Ones were gone now, inside the earth and under the sea; but their dead bodies had told their secrets in dreams to the first men, who formed a cult which had never died. This…cult…had always existed and always would exist…until the time when the great priest Cthulhu, from his dark house in the mighty city of R’lyeh under the waters, should rise and bring the earth again beneath his sway. Some day he would call, when the stars were ready, and the secret cult would always be waiting to liberate him…Mankind was not absolutely alone among the conscious things of earth…” (12).
But does a similarity in appearance and age mean the One – Lovecraft’s Cthulhu – inspired the Other – Tolkien’s Watcher in the Water? Beyond those two points, does the semblance between Lovecraft and Tolkien’s entities continue or end?
One, The Watcher in the Water displays all the traits of creaturehood – it appears to be driven by instinct, not intelligence. Conversely, while Cthulhu and the Other Old Ones entombed in R’lyeh are creatures, they are eminently intelligent, have been so for a thousand human eternities, and possess omniscience:
“… They knew all that was occurring in the universe, but Their mode of speech was transmitted thought. Even now They talked in Their tombs. When, after infinities of chaos, the first men came, the Great Old Ones spoke to the sensitive among them by moulding their dreams; for only thus could Their language reach the fleshly minds of mammals…” (13).
Two, the Watcher in the Water is an earth-bound entity. It is a creature who origins, though incredibly ancient, are relegated to this sphere. Its existence is governed by terrestrial laws. On the other hand, Cthulhu and his spawn came from Outer Space and had bodies not entirely subject to the laws of this dimension:
“…Another race—a land race of beings shaped like octopi and probably corresponding to the fabulous pre-human spawn of Cthulhu—soon began filtering down from cosmic infinity and precipitated a monstrous war which for a time drove the Old Ones wholly back to the sea…Later peace was made, and the new lands were given to the Cthulhu spawn whilst the Old Ones held the sea and the older lands…From then on…the Antarctic remained the centre of the Old Ones’ civilisation, and all the…cities built there by the Cthulhu spawn were blotted out…the Cthulhu spawn…seem to have been composed of matter more widely different from…the substance of the Old Ones. They were able to undergo transformations and reintegrations impossible for their adversaries, and seem therefore to have originally come from even remoter gulfs of cosmic space. The Old Ones, but for their abnormal toughness…were strictly material, and must have had their absolute origin within the known space-time continuum…” (14).
Distances meant nothing to multi-dimensional beings like Cthulhu. Unlike Randolph Carter, whose many facets each possessed a separate personality, Cthulhu knew no such limitations. As an entity of a higher order, he was aware of all things everywhere, in one sense observed through the multiplied eyes and ears of his countless facets. There was no question of supremacy in the Old One’s myriad facets. He ruled them all, with no loss of potency, presence of mind, or unswerving purpose.
Third, perhaps the similarities between the Watcher in the Water and Cthulhu occur because they were inspired by a common myth, known to both Tolkien and Lovecraft.
The lore of Tolkien’s world is replete with references that he borrowed from Norse Mythology. For example, while the names Thorin Oakenshield, Dvalin, Bifur, Bofur, Bömbur, Nóri, Óinn, Thrór and Thrain, Fíli, Kíli, and Durin’s folk are first encountered by the general public in The Hobbit, they originated in Norse Mythology, namely:
“…the ancient poem Voluspá. The poem is so old that no-one knows precisely how old it is. It belongs to the 13th century ‘Poetic Edda’ collection from Iceland, but the poems in this collection are likely to have lived in the oral tradition for many centuries before they were written down. The name Voluspá means ‘the prophecy of the sibyl’, and in the poem a ‘Volva’ – the Norse counterpart to a sibyl – describes her visions of the beginning and end of the world…” (15).
Now, let’s extend this line of reasoning to the Watcher. One of the many Norse myths involves the Kraken, an octopus or squid so large that its body could be mistaken for an island. The Kraken first appears:
“…in the Örvar-Oddr. This is a 13th century Icelandic saga involving two sea monsters, the Hafgufa (sea mist) and the Lyngbakr (heather-back). The Hafgufa is supposed to be a reference to the Kraken…” (16).
Again, Tolkien never explicitly named the Kraken in Norse Mythology as his source for the Watcher in the Water’s inspiration. And Tolkien was not entirely comfortable with the term Nordic in association with his beloved Middle-earth:
“[Does] Middle-earth…corresponds spiritually to Nordic Europe? Not Nordic please! A word I personally dislike; it is associated, though of French origin, with racialist theories. Geographically, Northern is usually better. But examination will show that even this is inapplicable (geographically or spiritually) to ‘Middle-earth’. This is an old word, not invented by me…It meant the habitable lands of our world, set amid the surrounding Ocean. The action of the story takes place in the North-west of ‘Middle-earth’, equivalent in latitude to the coastlands of Europe and the north shores of the Mediterranean. But this is not a purely ‘Nordic’ area in any sense…” (17).
However, since he felt no compulsion in adding Norse Dwarves to his Middle-earth tapestry, why not their Kraken too? After all, the Watcher is a relatively minor creature added to dramatize the Fellowship’s entrance into the Mines of Moria.
And what of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu? Where did Lovecraft draw his inspirations for the High Priest of the Old Ones?
Eminent Lovecraft Researcher – Dr. Robert M. Price – believes one source HPL used among the many can be found in a poem entitled “The Kraken” by Alfred Lord Tennyson (18).
I have reproduced the poem here so you can draw your own conclusions.
By Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1830).
Below the thunders of the upper deep;
Far far beneath in the abysmal sea,
His ancient, dreamless, uninvaded sleep
The Kraken sleepeth: faintest sunlights flee
About his shadowy sides; above him swell
Huge sponges of millennial growth and height;
And far away into the sickly light,
From many a wondrous grot and secret cell
Unnumber’d and enormous polypi
Winnow with giant arms the slumbering green.
There hath he lain for ages, and will lie
Battening upon huge seaworms in his sleep,
Until the latter fire shall heat the deep;
Then once by man and angels to be seen,
In roaring he shall rise and on the surface die.
Wherein lies the common thread that may have inspired both Lovecraft’s Cthulhu and Tolkien’s the Watcher?
Alfred Lord Tennyson scholars state that his 1830 poem was influenced by the same myths that inspired Tolkien’s Watcher:
“The poem draws its images from the Norse legend of a gigantic sea-monster that supposedly preyed upon shipping off the coast of Norway (and was probably founded on the observation of an enormous cuttle-fish or squid), first described by Bishop Pontoppidan in A History of Norway (1752)” (19).
Interestingly, Lovecraft paints a Nordic figure – Gustaf Johansen, a Norwegian of some intelligence – as the only survivor to confront Lovecraft’s cosmic “Kraken,” Lord Cthulhu.
Again, Cthulhu is a multi-layered character referenced in more than one of Lovecraft’s tales. That why I cite that the Lord Tennyson poem, as only one source of many that inspired Lovecraft’s High Priest of the Great Old Ones.
Our Sources Shall Remain Nameless:
Beyond the common source – Norse mythology surrounding the Kraken – we just surveyed, let us return to our discussion of the Nameless Things.
Did Tolkien read Lovecraft? And did that subsequently influence the Cosmicistic themes that occasionally crop up in The Lord of the Rings and related works?
First, was Weird Tales, the magazine where the majority of Lovecraft Tales found publication, available in England during the period (between 1937 and 1949) when Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings?
In general, I would say largely not. To begin, only a small run of Weird Tales was available during the years that Tolkien wrote his Magnus Opus of Middle-earth:
“…[Weird Tales] Reprints…[were available]…in the UK [United Kingdom], where there were four different series. The first consisted of only three unnumbered and undated issues published in early 1942 by the infamous Gerald G. Swan, corresponding to abridged versions of the US issues September and November 1940, and January 1941. The second series was even briefer, with only a single issue (still unnumbered and undated) in late 1946 containing a mere three stories from the US October 1937 issue…” (20).
Next, based on the foregoing information, only one Lovecraft story may have been available to UK readers in those offerings:
“…No Lovecraft published in Weird Tales – October 1937.
No Lovecraft published in Weird Tales – September 1940.
The Mound [heavily abridged by Derleth] in Weird Tales – November 1940.
No Lovecraft published in Weird Tales – January 1941…” (21).
Notice that I say, “May have been available.”
For one, the UK November 1940 edition of Weird Tales itself was abridged. And two, the tale that was available – ghostwritten with Zealia Bishop entitled “The Mound,” – had been radically abridged by August Derleth (22). The full, original text of that story was not available to the public until 1989, well after Tolkien’s death in 1973.
So, while some Lovecraft tales – a lessor, abridged product at best – may have been in circulation in the UK during the time Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings, it is highly unlikely that Tolkien read it, nor found inspiration therein.
Second, Tolkien made no mention of Lovecraft’s body of work among the writers that he read. For example, Tolkien did browse Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875-1950) and responded to literary gossip that he borrowed from Burroughs in assembling his Middle-earth Sagas – particularly surrounding the monstrous spider Shelob:
“…Source hunting is a great entertainment but I do not myself think it is particularly useful. I did read many of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ earlier works, but I developed a dislike for his Tarzan even greater than my distaste for spiders. Spiders I had met long before Burroughs began to write, and I do not think he is in any way responsible for Shelob. At any rate I retain no memory of the Siths or the Apts…” (23).
But nowhere does Tolkien mention Lovecraft, in the same way he referenced Burroughs. Were Lovecraft’s fiction more popular during the later years of Tolkien’s life, he may have forwarded a similar refutation of source hunting in regards to HPL’s influence on Middle-earth.
There is evidence that Tolkien may have read an anthology that contained a Lovecraftian tale after he wrote The Lord of the Rings. In July 1964, L. Sprague De Camp sent Tolkien a copy of his anthology Swords & Sorcery (24), which includes Lovecraft’s “The Doom that Came to Sarnath.” However, while Tolkien commented on several contributions to the anthology, he left Lovecraft’s piece without comment (25).
Perhaps Lovecraft and Tolkien’s Nameless Things theme was derived from a common literary thread.
Lovecraft thought well of Lord Dunsany (1878 to 1957). For instance, HPL characterized several of his early stories – including The White Ship – as his “Dunsanian pieces.” And Tolkien read Dunsany’s works extensively. He did so to judge the efficacy of his efforts to generate the effect/illusion of “reality” behind his Middle-earth Mythologies (26).
Now consider a passage of Dunsany’s that both Lovecraft and Tolkien may have read. In one of Dunsany’s works – The Latest Thing – published as part of the Fifty-one Tales (1915), there appears a remarkable selection:
“I saw an unclean-feeder by the banks of the river of Time. He crouched by orchards numerous with apples in a happy land of flowers; colossal barns stood near which the ancients had stored with grain, and the sun was golden on serene far hills behind the level lands. But his back was to all these things. He crouched and watched the river. And whatever the river chanced to send him down the unclean-feeder clutched at greedily with his arms, wading out into the water. Now there came in those days, and indeed still are, certain uncleanly cities on the river of Time; and from them fearfully nameless things came floating shapelessly by. And whenever the odor of these came down the river before them the unclean-feeder plunged into the dirty water and stood far out, expectant. And if he opened his mouth one saw these things on his lips…” (27).
Was this the tale that influenced Lovecraft and Tolkien’s Nameless Things? The timeframe is correct – it was written in 1915, well before Lovecraft and Tolkien’s use of the term. Dunsany’s Nameless Things are water-borne, timeless, and unwholesome in cast.
Ultimately, its influence on Lovecraft and Tolkien is at best circumstantial. Only the imaginations of Lovecraft and Tolkien could weave a small idea – whatever its source – into such a grand cosmic, menacing theme, either at the bottom of the sea, in the bowels of an early earth, or from the timeless expanse of outer space.
Lovecraft and Tolkien have immeasurably impacted the literary, cinematic, and entertainment landscapes. Beyond those segments of culture, the figments of their imaginations have become our own. And their nightmares, ours.
Characters from their mythologies, such as Cthulhu and Sauron, have become cultural icons across the globe.
Inevitably, questions and comparisons arise when the creative efforts of such giants parallel one another. Among the many seeming conjunctures in Lovecraft and Tolkien’s literary constellations, we briefly examined two: 1) their like use of the term Nameless Things and 2) similarities in Cthulhu and the Watcherin the Water.
Rather than there being an issue of cross-pollination, where Tolkien took his horror inspirations from Lovecraft, it appears that both men drew their creative insights in the instances we surveyed from common literary and mythic sources.
As with other virtuosos, even if we could deduce each ingredient added to the literary cauldron that became The Lord of the Rings, or The Call of Cthulhu, there is a synergy to Lovecraft and Tolkien’s creative efforts – the sum of the parts is greater than its individual elements. And therein lies the mystery that surrounds each man’s larger than life genius.
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