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Oliphaunts were animals similar to -- but larger than -- elephants. In Middle-earth they were called mûmakil (singular mûmak) by the Men of Gondor. The word "oliphaunt" was only used by Hobbits.

The animal

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 March 15th, 3018 of the Third Age. They are said to be (according to the Middle-Earth world) an ancestor of today's elephants although many times their size. They were big enough to carry structures similar to towers on their backs. These beasts had skin so thick it was almost impenetrable making them almost invulnerable to arrow shots. 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. In the film version they are much, much bigger than today's elephants with 2 sets of big tusks and one set of tiny tusks.

They supposedly could be found in a great forest south of Far Harad.

Mumakil 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. How this was done is never explained; it seems a feat tantamount to impossible. Yet it was done--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 exper Haradrim archers and spearman hurled these deadly projectiles down upon their enemies. The mumak itslef, 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 Mumak 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.

There are no known records of Mumakil in the Fourth Age.

The most famous use of the oliphant 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 oliphant is echoed in The Lord of the Rings by Boromir's horn and conterposed by Helm's horn and the horns of Buckland.

The poem

Oliphaunt is also the title of a short comic poem about the beast quoted by the hobbit Samwise Gamgee, based on traditional bestiary lore.

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.