During the 1960s the novels of JRR Tolkien reshaped fantasy mythmaking into a decidedly Eurocentric genre. As readers took note of the pronounced cultural dialogue between the inner essences of Middle-earth and northern European Norse sagas and myth, a general consensus soon arose. It seemed plain enough that Tolkien had little interest in America. His medievalish mythological world did not extend to the shores of the New World.
The Norse Vinland sagas subsequently attracted little attention in the growing field of Tolkien scholarship. But in recent years I slowly became aware of an interesting and often overlooked fact. Vinland and America did play a key role in launching Middle-earth. This is plainly evident in a modest set of notes that Tolkien prepared in 1914.
An “isolated page” among his early papers sketched an epic sea adventure for a character named Eärendel. Journeying past Iceland and beyond Greenland, Eärendel arrived at “the wild islands” where a rogue wave carried him farther west. Here Tolkien set down a mysterious description: “Land of strange men, land of magic.”
In this fantasy version of Vinland we encounter Tolkien’s first fantasy monster character. This “land of magic” was the “home of Night. The Spider.” The story continued with Eärendel’s escape “from the meshes of Night with a few comrades.” These are sparse notes, but the association with night evoked the same nocturnal gloom that Tolkien attached to his later spider monster, Ungoliont.
A few clues are available to shed light on what Tolkien meant by “Land of strange men, land of magic.” We find a similar description in an essay he wrote during this period: “On ‘The Kalevala’ or Land of Heroes,” prepared in late 1914. Writing there about the “amazing new excitement” of discovering the Kalevala, Tolkien drew an interesting comparison: “You feel like Columbus on a new Continent or Thorfinn in Vinland the Good.” Just a few sentences later he remarked on an “almost indefinable sense of newness and strangeness” and then he turned to the “natives” who he termed “strange people” with “new gods.”
In this period “strange people” and a land of “strange men” both materialized in Tolkien’s imagination in conjunction with mention of the Kalevala and the New World and Vinland, and in a second instance with mention of a mysterious “land of magic” located beyond Iceland and Greenland. Night the Spider had little substance at this early date. But the 1914 note had Eärendel escaping from Night into further adventures and then departing from earth by sailing “west again to the lip of the world… He sets sail upon the sky…”
Tolkien wrote his first poem about his mythical hero Eärendel in September 1914; it began with Éarendel springing up “From the door of Night…” and speeding “from Westerland.” It is possible that “door of Night” could refer to Night the Spider. But we can see that Tolkien rooted both this poem and his note on Night the Spider in the same mythological setting, a Vinland-like “land of magic.”
Did a Norse source inspire Night the Spider? In a 1966 interview conducted by Charlotte and Denis Plimmer, Tolkien made a mysterious claim that spiders “are the particular terror of northern imaginations.” This points to some kind of northern European source. But spiders have no evident presence in Norse cosmology, mythology, or saga literature. It seems highly unlikely that Tolkien took inspiration from Norse or Germanic sources for the abhorrent arachnids of Middle-earth. It has been argued that he could have found adequate inspiration for his deadly “primeval spirit” spider in extant fantasy literature of his time. But it is difficult to see in any of those tales substantive parallels that establish unique indicators of a well-defined connection.
Glimpsing Vinland in the homeland of Night the Spider, it is less speculative to survey American mythological texts for a possible inspiration. In fact, Spider Woman is a widespread divinity of cosmogonical myth in North American traditions, a character of fantasy storytelling. It is a slight problem that Tolkien envisioned all his fantasy spiders as monstrous and malevolent. Spider Woman is uniformly portrayed as a benevolent deity, never murderous, and only occasionally somewhat dangerous.
The exception to this uniformity can be found in Pawneeland. When Tolkien was a youth, James R. Murie and George Dorsey worked with a number of Pawnees to set down a record of Pawnee oral traditions, and in 1904 they published Traditions of the Skidi Pawnee. The volume was concurrently issued in Britain by a major folklore publisher, and it helped to give rise to a brief flowering of British interest in Pawnee tradition. Between 1904 and 1908 Pawnee traditional literature was reviewed by British scholars and discussed in lectures before major academic organizations.
A copy of Traditions of the Skidi Pawnee made its way onto the shelves of the Taylorian at Oxford University – Tolkien studied there as a student, and as a professor he lectured at the Taylorian. And it is evident that by 1914 he had become aware of the book. In Tolkien in Pawneeland I have explored a variety of instances of shared clustering of narrative details, and I argue that Tolkien picked up the Skidi collection on various occasions, and he borrowed from various Pawnee narratives in the course of inventing Middle-earth.
In Traditions of the Skidi Pawnee Spider Woman holds diverse aspects of character as a celestial divinity, as an earthly figure of mystery and power, and as an evil fantasy sorceress. Studying two stories about Spider Woman told by Red Fox (John Box), I came to the conclusion that Tolkien had seen the stories, and he had drawn from them to invent Night the Spider. It is clear that this creature gave rise to his later spider divinity, Ungoliont – a monster whose progeny would infest the pages of The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion.
In “The Death of Spider-Woman” Red Fox told how Spider Woman appeared as a murderous old Witch Woman with the horrific habit of slipping poison into the food she served to guests. Then she dismembered the bodies, removing the head to “take out the brains” and “cut the ears off…” Spider Woman captured people, and in the end, heroic celestial opponents defeated her and exiled her to the moon.
As I explain in detail in Tolkien in Pawneeland, comparison of this narrative to Tolkien’s 1914 note on Night the Spider reveals obvious parallels to every element of his planned visit to Vinland. And textual alignments can also be readily identified between these Skidi Pawnee traditions and Tolkien’s later invention of Ungoliont. I discovered that notable aspects of all of Tolkien’s spider monsters can be found in Traditions of the Skidi Pawnee. It is difficult to see how these parallels can be reasonably explained as coincidence, as unrelated independent inventions.
In Tolkien’s circa 1930 poem, “The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun,” we glimpse another set of shared elements pertaining to spider imagery. In these verses Aotrou chases a “white doe” into a forest and meets a witch who wields “spider-craft.” The white deer appeared in the original Breton lay, “Aotrou Nann Hag ar Gorrigan,” but the “spider-craft” was Tolkien’s idea – an addition to the story. And it produced an unusual conceptual cluster of deer + witch + spider.
This spectrum of imagery can also be found in another Skidi story, “Scabby-Bull, the Wonderful Medicine-man,” told by Mysterious Sun (Peter Wood). In this story a man follows a deer around a forested island, and we soon learn about “the ability of the Spider-Woman to transform herself into a deer and vice versa” and the deer turns out to be “‘stataciks’ (Deer-Ears-Spider).”
We can identify a few additional minor parallels between the two texts. The poem mentions “listening deer” (the Pawnee story mentions deer ears); laughter ends the white doe episode (Scabby Bull laughs when he transforms from a deer to a man); the witch combs her “long hair” (the deer woman’s “hair was loose”); the cave of the witch hosts bats and cats and owls (the Pawnee cave hosts deer and eagles and other animals). These slight incidental details of coloration add to the weight of the shared matrix of deer + female enchantress + spider. It seems safe to observe that this is a highly unusual cluster of shared images, difficult to attribute to chance coincidence. Tolkien must have valued the creative result of his early 1914 visit to Pawneeland, given his later experiments with Pawnee spider imagery.
He never prepared a complete account of the adventures of Eärendel, and instead became disenchanted with the idea of sending Eärendel to Vinland. Writing sometime around 1920, Tolkien complained of “the unfortunate existence of America on the other side of a strictly limited Atlantic ocean” and “there are no magic islands in our Western sea[.]” During that period he dropped the idea of situating a “new god” – his newly incarnated spider monster – beyond the “wild islands” in a “land of magic[.]” Instead, he proceeded with storytelling about a divine spider monster “whom even the Valar know not whence… she came[.]”
Night the Spider was an explicit founding experiment with Vinland. And several more visits to Vinland materialized in Tolkien’s later projects. During the 1920s he invented the place-name “Dorwinion,” a term that can be read as “Wineland,” and he applied it at one point to a locale in a realm of the western seas: “the Lonely Isle, Tol Eressëa, whither few mariners of Men have ever come, save once or twice in a long age…” Then during the early 1930s he inserted Dorwinion into The Hobbit, together with a spectrum of details that echo aspects of one Norse Vinland saga, Eirik the Red’s Saga. Tolkien next toyed with sending Númenórean aircraft to America. Later drafts of his Númenor narrative revised away the New World – ever after, Tolkien had little to say about America.
It isn’t clear exactly how Tolkien proceeded in his use of Pawnee mythology, but there is no evidence that he engaged in any careful systematic study of Pawneeland. Casually skimming Traditions of the Skidi Pawnee, Tolkien appreciated and felt suspicious of what he conceived of as “primitive” myth. He wrote in one 1967 letter that “‘primitiveness’ is no guarantee of value, and is and was in great part a reflection of ignorance.”
Verlyn Flieger suggests that these conflicting attitudes could coexist in Tolkien’s mind. She asserts that Tolkien’s distaste for French fairy stories did “not preclude influence – indeed, it can sometimes foster it…” Studying “The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun,” Flieger shed no light on Tolkien’s insertion of spider imagery into a French Breton traditional tale. I am aware of no alternate model to explain the origin of this Breton witch’s “spider-craft.”
Comparative textual analysis tells us that in making use of Pawnee and Breton materials, Tolkien followed his usual creative process. He carefully wove multiple texts into new myths. Following this path, the story told by Mysterious Sun made a secret journey into the wide world, and it became a clandestine borrowing, a subtle coloration designed to evoke half-seen antiquity.
Nothing explicitly attributed to America ever made it into JRR Tolkien’s Middle-earth publications – with the exception of random vegetables and vegetation, transplanted without any explanation. Tolkien had the option to create a more encompassing mythological narrative. His storytelling could have encircled more of the world. But in the end, guided by his enthusiasm for a racial construction he termed “a noble northern spirit,” he chose a more circumscribed cultural path. Propounding a comfortably parochial Eurocentric antiquity in the pages of his Middle-earth legendarium, Tolkien powerfully defined the future of fantasy literature.
But there is a curious secret woven into the mythic fabric of Middle-earth: Tolkien did draw inspiration from the mythological heritage of the New World. Given that he rejected the option to construct an inclusive global legendarium, this was a clandestine appropriation project designed to enhance the lost antiquarian aura of his Eurocentric Middle-earth. But traces of Skidi Pawnee tradition can be glimpsed in Middle-earth, murmuring to modern imaginations worldwide, and Pawnee storytellers who lived and died long ago helped to shape 20th century fantasy literature.