Michael Dirda has a piece on books that might have inspired J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.
“Beowulf,” now available in a fine translation by poet Seamus Heaney. Tolkien himself wrote the best general essay on the poem “The Monsters and the Critics.”
Other Old English poems, such as “The Battle of Maldon,” “The Wanderer” and “The Seafarer.” The first, in particular, presents as bloody, realistic and hard-fought an Iron Age skirmish as any in Jackson’s movies.
“The Song of Roland” — the classic French epic of war between Charlemagne’s entourage and Moorish invaders. The death of Boromir in “The Lord of the Rings” clearly mirrors the death of Roland, right down to the sounding of the horn.
The tales of the Norse gods and demigods. Scandinavian mythology is closer than any other to the history of Middle-earth, with a Gandalf-like Odin, double-crossing Loki, trolls and giants, and the cast-of-thousands final conflict of Ragnarok, the twilight of the gods.
The Icelandic sagas. Think spaghetti westerns on ice, with swords. Adventurous tales of lone fighters, outlaws, witch-like beauties, demon-ghosts, curses and revenge from generation to generation. In “Grettir Saga” the mightiest warrior in Iceland is haunted with fear of the dark; in “Njal Saga” one relentless man, over many years, hunts down the 40 killers who massacred his adopted family.