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Oliphaunts were large animals similar to elephants. In the tongue of the Haradrim, they were known as mûmakil (singular mûmak); this was later used by the Men of Gondor. In Sindarin, the beast was known as the Annabon, or "long-snout".
Oliphaunts lived during the Third Age in the southern land of Harad, and were notably used in the Siege of Gondor and the subsequent Battle of the Pelennor Fields on 15 March, T.A. 3019. They were big enough to carry structures similar to towers on their backs.
Mûmakil came from somewhere in jungles of Far Harad, off any known maps of middle earth. Massive, often ferocious beasts, the Haradrim somehow tamed them to use as beasts of war; and the result was possibly the most brutally effective beast of war the Middle Earth ever saw.
The Haradrim strapped a massive, carriage-like tiered tower the the backs of these beasts, and from here expert Haradrim archers and spearmen hurled these projectiles down upon their enemies. The mumak itself, enraged and goaded by its cruel Haradrim masters, would charge through the enemy, trampling archer, swordsman and horse beneath its massive feet and sweeping aside men in its way with scything strokes of its great tusks.
Killing a mûmak was almost impossible - its rough, leathery hide made arrows realtively harmless, and any archers standing to take a shot would be an easy target for the archers on top of the Haradrim. Horses had a natural fear of the Mumak's so even the most skilled horsemen could not get close enough to strike at its great, trunk-like legs. The only known way to kill an Oliphaunt was to shoot it in the eye, which typically meant standing in front of it as it charged the archer, and thus a very difficult task to perform.
Oliphant/olifant/olifaunt had been archaic words for elephant and the ivory. The most famous use of the oliphant (as in horn) is in The Song of Roland "The oliphant is set to Roland's Lips"; Roland fails to call for help at the Battle of Roncevaux in 778 until it is too late for him and his comrades.
The word "oliphaunt" was only used by Hobbits and the archaism refers to that the legend of the beast reached the Shire long ago.
Portrayals in adaptations
1968: BBC Radio's The Hobbit:
- Gandalf's line "Great elephants!" was replaced by "Great oliphaunts"; this was one of several uses of material from The Lord of the Rings.
- Two oliphaunts appear in the ambush in Ithilien. They are CGI created, and they are much, much bigger than today's elephants; furthermore, they have 2 sets of big tusks and one set of tiny tusks.
- Oliphaunts are used in the scenes from the Battle of Pelennor Fields, mounted with towers and decorated with deadly spikes on their multiple tusks. The Rohirrim charge headlong into battle, and even pass under them. Several oliphaunts were killed.
- Weta made a large slain prop mûmak at almost the last minute, much to Weta staff's consternation, on request by the director Peter Jackson. It appears in the scene where Peregrin Took enters the field and locates the dazed and disoriented Meriadoc Brandybuck after his experience with Éowyn in successfully slaying the Witch-king of Angmar. The prop became a favourite picnic destination for crew members.