Oliphaunts lived in Near Harad, south of Mordor, where the Haradrim called them Mûmakil. Massive, often ferocious beasts, their legs were like trees, their bodies were larger than a house, they had enormous sail-like ears, and they had a long snout like a huge serpent. Somehow the Haradrim tamed them and the result was possibly the most brutally effective beast of war that Middle-earth ever saw.
The Haradrim strapped towers on the backs of these beasts and rode on them into battle. The mûmak itself, enraged and goaded by its cruel Haradrim masters, would charge through the enemy, trampling archer, swordsman and horse beneath its massive feet.
Killing a mûmak was almost impossible - its rough, leathery hide made arrows relatively harmless. Horses had a natural fear of the mûmakil so even the most skilled horsemen could not get close enough to strike at its great, trunk-like legs. The only known way to defeat 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.
Due to their habitation in the far south, oliphaunts were creatures of legend to the inhabitants of the Westlands. The Hobbits had an old poem about oliphaunts, which Samwise Gamgee recited to Gollum in Ithilien.
On 7 March T.A. 3019 Faramir led the Rangers of Ithilien on an ambush against a contingent of Haradrim marching north. This battle was witnessed by Frodo Baggins and Sam, and they saw an oliphaunt in full charge. The maddened animal had smashed its war-tower in its rush through the woods; unguided it trampled soldiers of both sides until it disappeared from view.
During the Siege of Gondor, beginning on 14 March, oliphaunts were used to drag war towers and engines to be used against the walls of Minas Tirith. On 15 March, in the subsequent Battle of the Pelennor Fields, oliphaunts were used as rallying points for the Haradrim after the Rohirrim had charged into the fray. Eventually the great beasts were defeated as the forces of the West won the battle, but both Derufin and Duilin, the sons of Duinhir of Morthond were trampled when they led their archers to shoot at the eyes of the oliphaunts.
After the defeat of Sauron when Frodo and Sam had been rescued and brought to the Field of Cormallen, Sam wandered in the glades near Henneth Annûn, hoping to see the oliphaunt he had seen before, but to no avail.
Etymology and names
Oliphant/olifant/olifaunt had been archaic words for elephant and their 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.
Other versions of the legendarium
A draft version of what would later become appendix F mentions that the name mûmak of the great elephant of the Harad is a name from the speech of Men of the East and allies of Sauron.
Portrayals in adaptations
- Gandalf's line "Great elephants!" was replaced by "Great oliphaunts"; this was one of several uses of material from The Lord of the Rings.
- The oliphaunts are depicted as large wooly mammoth-like creatures and are the beasts that pull Grond into position.
- 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. Later in the battle, Legolas shoots down an oliphaunt. Several oliphaunts were killed during the battle.
- 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.
- "Tolkien’s annotated map of Middle-earth transcribed" dated 10 November 2015, The Tolkien Society (accessed 26 September 2022)
- J.R.R. Tolkien, "Words, Phrases and Passages in Various Tongues in The Lord of the Rings", in Parma Eldalamberon XVII (edited by Christopher Gilson), entry mûmak, p. 88
- J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, The Two Towers, "Of Herbs and Stewed Rabbit", pp. 661-662
- J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, The Return of the King, "The Battle of the Pelennor Fields", pp. 843, 846 and 849
- J.R.R. Tolkien, The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, "Preface"
- J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, The Two Towers, "The Black Gate is Closed", p. 646
- J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, Appendix B, "The Great Years", entry for the year 3019, March 7, p. 1093
- J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, Appendix B, "The Great Years", entry for the year 3019, March 14, p. 1093
- J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, The Return of the King, "The Siege of Gondor", p. 828
- J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, Appendix B, "The Great Years", entry for the year 3019, March 15, p. 1093
- J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, The Return of the King, "The Field of Cormallen", p. 957
- J.R.R. Tolkien, "Nomenclature of The Lord of the Rings" in Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull (eds), The Lord of the Rings: A Reader's Companion, p. 761 and p. 460
- J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, The Return of the King, "Many Partings", p. 987
- J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit, "Roast Mutton"
- J.R.R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien (ed.), The Lost Road and Other Writings, Part Three: "The Etymologies", entry "MBUD'"
- J.R.R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien (ed.), The Peoples of Middle-earth, "II. The Appendix on Languages", typescript F4, p. 79.