Photos via Warner Bros. / Česká televize

Tolkien Likely Based Gandalf on Czech Mountain Man Krakonoš

How one literary giant's most monumental fictional creation drew inspiration from Czech folklore

Lovers of fantasy fiction and fans of Czech folklore — grab your wizard hats and get ready to geek out.

According to an article posted on the website of German culture center the Goethe Institut, English author J.R.R. Tolkien’s Gandalf character from his Lord of the Rings series of books is likely based on Czech mountain man, Krakonoš.

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In Czech folkore Krakonoš (Rübezahl in German, Liczyrzepa in Polish) is a spirit named for the Giant Mountain range on the Czech-Polish border, a ruler of nature and keeper of forests and mountain pastures who brought luck to the miners, loggers, and shepherds of Silesia, Bohemia, Germany, and Poland.

The mythical figure probably developed from a “savage man” of medieval legends who was more animal than human, but in the 19th century, when spa holidays to the area came into vogue, Krakonoš shed his demonic image, becoming a benevolent bearded poster boy, complete with long cap and pipe, appearing on pension signs and in souvenir shops.

So how did this beloved fixture of Czech fairy tales, inspire the central figure of the Middle-Earth stories?

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According to the article’s author, historian Łukasz Kozak, Tolkien himself purchased one of these kitschy postcards, an impulse buy that would go on to have an incredible impact on contemporary culture.

Tolkien Likely Based Gandalf on Czech Mountain Man Krakonoš

The postcard, a reproduction of German painter Josef Madlener’s Der Berggeist (“the mountain spirit”), depicts a bearded figure perched on a rock beneath a pine tree in a mountainous setting, wearing a wide-brimmed hat and long cloak.

Tolkien biographer Humphrey Carpenter claims that Tolkien kept the postcard — likely purchased while on holiday in Switzerland — in a paper cover on which he wrote “the origin of Gandalf.”

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Kozak goes on to suggest that the monumental woodsman with supernatural powers, likely served as a model for “one of the most impressive protagonists of fantasy literature”.

Read the article in the original German, illustrated by a series of fantastical animations, here.

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