Thijs Porck

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The Medieval in Middle-earth: Anglo-Saxon Elephants and Tolkien’s Oliphaunts

As a professor of Anglo-Saxon at the University of Oxford, J. R. R. Tolkien could not help but be inspired by the language and literature he studied and taught. As a result, his fictional world is infused with cultural material of the Middle Ages, particularly Old English language and literature. In this post, I focus on the parallels between Tolkien’s oliphaunts and their counterparts from early medieval England.

Of oliphaunts and elephants

As the hobbits Sam and Frodo, guided by the creature Gollum, make their way to Mordor in The Two Towers, they chance upon a number of Southron forces marching to the Black Gate of Mordor. Sam wonders whether they might have brought oliphaunts. When Gollum expresses his ignorance concerning these animals, Sam stands up and recites a little poem:

Grey as a mouse,
Big as a house,
Nose like a snake,
I make the earth shake,
As I tramp through the grass;
Trees crack as I pass.
With horns in my mouth
I walk in the South,
Flapping big ears.
Beyond count of years
I stump round and round,
Never lie on the ground,
Not even to die.
Oliphaunt am I,
Biggest of all,
Huge, old, and tall.
If ever you’d met me
You wouldn’t forget me.
If you never do,
You won’t think I’m true;
But old Oliphaunt am I,
And I never lie. (J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, bk. 4, ch. 3)

Sam’s poem (which is also reproduced as part of The Adventures of Tom Bombadil) has an interesting analogue in a homily written by Ælfric of Eynsham (c. 955 – c. 1010). Ælfric wrote about the Maccabees, a group of Jewish warriors (revered as saints in the early Christian church), who had several interactions with elephants. He described this exotic animal as follows:

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Cambridge, University Library, MS Ii.1.33, fol. 189r.

Sumum menn wile þincan sellic þis to gehyrenne, forðan þe ylpas ne comon næfre on Engla lande. Ylp is ormæte nyten mare þonne sum hus, eall mid banum befangen binnan þam felle butan æt þam nafelan, 7 he næfre ne lið. Feower 7 twentig monða gæð seo modor mid folan, 7 þreo hund geara hi libbað, gif hi alefede ne beoð. 7 hi man mæg wenian wundorlice to gefeohte. Hwæl is ealra fixa mæst, 7 ylp is ealra nytena mæst, ac swa þeah mannes gescead hi mæg gewyldan.

Some men will think this is strange to hear, because elephants never came to England. An elephant is an immense creature, bigger than a house, completely surrounded with bones within the skin except at the navel, and he never lies. The mother is with foal for twenty-four months and they live for three hundred years if they are not crippled. And one can wonderfully train them for a battle. The whale is the largest of all fishes, and the elephant is the largest of all animals, but a man’s power of reason can nevertheless tame them.

Note how both Ælfric and Sam’s poem compare the size of these beasts to a house; they both mention their remarkable old age and the fact they never lie down. According to Ælfric, most people in early medieval England were as unfamiliar with elephants as Gollum was with oliphaunts – something that is confirmed by the following artistic impressions of elephants in two Anglo-Saxon manuscripts:

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‘Elephants’ in Anglo-Saxon manuscripts. London, British Library, Cotton Tiberius B.v, fol. 81r; London, British Library, Cotton Vitellius C.iii, fol. 82r

The ‘elephant’ on the left illustrates the passage “On þyssum stowum beoð akende þa miclan menigeo ylpenda” [In these places, the great multitudes of elephants are born] in the Old English Marvels of the East (for which, see The Marvels of the East: An early medieval Pokédex); the ‘elephant’ on the right accompanies a medical recipe that prescribes “ylpenban” [elephant bone]. Judging by the texture of the skin, lack of tusks and floppy ears, these Anglo-Saxon artists had clearly never seen an elephant.

How to kill an elephant or an oliphaunt

In his Hexameron (a work on the six days of Creation), Ælfric again wrote about the elephant, this time giving more context to how one might use it in battle:

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Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 302, pp. 16-17

Ða ylpas beoð swa micele swylce oðre muntas 7 hi magon libban ðreo hund geara 7 man mæg hi wenian to wige mid cræfte swa ðæt men wyrcað wighus him uppan 7 of ðam feohtað on heora fyrdinge. Þonne flyheð ælc hors afæred þurh þa ylpas, 7 gif hwa him wiðstent he bið sona oftreden.

[The elephants are as big as mountains and they can live for three hundred years and one can train them for war with skill in such a way that men build a battle-house upon them and from that they fight in their army. Then every horse will flee, afraid because of the elephants, and if anyone withstands them he will immediately be trampled.]

The notion that men will build houses on the backs of elephants is another aspect that Ælfric’s elephants share with what Sam tells Gollum about oliphaunts:

But I’ve heard tales of the big folk down away in the Sunlands. Swertings we call ’em in our tales; and they ride on oliphaunts, ’tis said, when they fight. They put houses and towers on the oliphauntses backs and all, and the oliphaunts throw rocks and trees at one another. (J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, bk. 4, ch. 3)

When Oliphaunts (who are named Mûmakil in the language of Harad) show up at the Battle of Pellennor Fields in The Return of the King, they indeed have war-towers on their backs and, like Ælfric’s elephants, they scare away horses:

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Oliphaunts with war-towers on their backs in The Lord of the Rings films

… from the southward fields came footmen of Harad with horsemen before them, and behind them rose the huge backs of the mûmakil with war-towers upon them. … Horns were blown and trumpets were braying, and the mûmakil were bellowing as they were goaded to war. … But wherever the mûmakil came there the horses would not go, but blenched and swerved away; and the great monsters were unfought, and stood like towers of defence, and the Haradrim rallied about them. (J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, bk. 5, ch. 6)

In Tolkien’s chapter, we also learn about Derufin and Duilin of Morthond who “were trampled to death when they assailed the mûmakil, leading their bowmen close to shoot at the eyes of the monsters”. The risk of getting trampled by elephants is also touched upon by Ælfric in his homily on the Maccabees, when he narrates the heroic death of Eleazar, who struck at the navel of the elephant (its weak spot) and then found himself underneath the beast.

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Two late medieval depictions of Eleazar’s death. London, British Library, Harley 4996, fol. 25v; London, British Library, Sloane 361, fol. 27r

And an his geferena, Eleazarus hatte, arn to anum ylpe þe ðær enlicost wæs, wende þæt se cyning wære on ðam wighuse ðe he bær. He arn mid atogenum swurde betwux þam eorode middan, and sloh æfre on twa healfa þæt hi sweltende feollon oð þæt he to þam ylpe com, and eode him on under, stang ða hine æt ðam nauelan þæt hi lagon ðær begen, heora egðer oðres slaga.]

[And one of his companions, called Eleazar, ran to the one elephant who was the most noble; he thought that the king would be in the tower that it bore. He ran with drawn sword through the middle of the mounted troop, and hacked continuously on both sides, so that they fell dying and he came to the elephant, and he went under it, struck it then at the navel so that they both lay there, each the slayer of the other.]

Perhaps Eleazar should have taken his cue from Legolas the elf, who, in Peter Jackson’s movie adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, manages to kill an oliphaunt and walk away unscathed:

Note: An elephant is not a camel!

In the Stapledon Magazine of June 1927, Tolkien published an earlier version of the Oliphaunt poem recited by the hobbit Sam in The Lord of the Rings, entitled “Iumbo, or ye Kinde of ye Oliphaunt”. This significantly larger piece is part of Tolkien’s attempt to make a parody of the medieval bestiary genre [I am writing an article about this , which will hopefully be out later this year]. The poem about the Oliphaunt starts as follows:

The Indic oliphaunt’s a burly lump,
A moving mountain, a majestic mammal
(But those that fancy that he wears a hump
Confuse him incorrectly with the camel). (J.R. R. Tolkien, “”Iumbo, or ye Kinde of ye Oliphaunt”, ll. 1-4)

The confusion between an elephant and a camel relies on a linguistic joke: the Old English word for ‘camel’ is olfend and bears a great similarity to present-day elephant. In his “Guide to the Names in The Lord of the Rings“, Tolkien explains:

Elephant in English is derived from Old French olifant, but the o is probably derived from old forms of English or German: Old English olfend, Old High German olbenta ‘camel’. The names of foreign animals, seldom or never seen, are often misapplied in the borrowing language. (J. R. R. Tolkien, “Guide to the Names in The Lord of the Rings“)

An interesting example of the names of foreign animals being misapplied is found in the early medieval manuscript of Beowulf, which also contains an illustrated copy of The Marvels of the East. In the passage of this text where the Latin source (and at least one other Old English translation, see above) mention elephants, the scribe of this version accidentally replaced the Old English word “ylpenda” [of elephants] with “olfenda” [of camels] and the illuminator followed suit:

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“On þyssum beoð acende þa miclan mænego olfenda” [in these (places) the great multitudes of camels are born]. London, British Library, Cotton Vitellius A.xv, fol. 101v.

Was Tolkien thinking of the scribe and artist of the Beowulf manuscript when he wrote his little elephant-camel joke in “Iumbo, or ye Kinde of ye Oliphaunt”? Who knows? What is clear is that Tolkien’s oliphaunts clearly fit an early medieval mindset!

If you liked this post, you may also be interested in:

You can find my academic publications (some of which are Open Access) on Tolkien here.

For more information on medieval elephants, see: