In Praise of Oliphaunts

Artwork: Oliphaunt am I, by Wynahiros

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.

J.R.R. Tolkien, “Oliphaunt”

Oliphaunts, or mumakil as Tolkien also called them, are one of the mythical creatures most identified with the trilogy. It’s clear they are based on the elephant shock troops of India, with howdahs housing bowmen as the animal itself provides brute power for destroying fortifications and crushing impeding fighters; such stories from British Colonial India would have still floating around in Tolkien’s youth. Yet it’s also clear from that mumakil are a species apart and meant, by their name, to remind the reader of mammoths and other prehistoric pachyderms. That they are never described in depth means artists can make their interpretations of the beast.

Mumakil from The Lord of the Rings movie [oliphaunt]

From Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movie trilogy

Jackson’s mumakil is a titanic creature larger than even indricotherium, the largest land mammal known to have existed. Yet the movie mumakil is twice as tall. Its oversized bulk may not be realistically possible, but fits in with the oversized scale of everything else in the movie. The extra tusks lend the creature a sinister prehistoric air and are again derived from ancient proboscideans such as stegotetrabelodon, as well as modern boars. All in all a very good design at capturing the fantastic.

Mumakil design by Curtiss Shaffer [oliphaunt]

Mumakil design by Curtiss Shaffer

But some artists have other ideas. This rendition of a mumakil / oliphaunt has hooves and a triceratops-like bony frill on its head, which is set on high shoulders like a modern giraffe’s. And it looks mean.

Tolkien Art by Sergei Iukhimov

Art by Sergei Iukhimov

This mumakil is scaled more realistically so it’s the style that stands out — Russian Orthodox religious iconography.

Southern Support by psychohazard

Southern Support by psychohazard

This mumakil cribs from the movie version, but there are differences. Its extra tusks curve downward and backward from its lower jaw, like the prehistoric elephant deinotherium, the largest known member of the elephant family. Its doleful, floppy ears lend an interesting touch. How carefully it steps to avoid squishing something!

Elephant Illustration by Rodney Matthews

Illustration by Rodney Matthews

Rodney Matthews, who has other Tolkien illustrations in his portfolio, created this vision of the mumakil in their home country. Well, maybe not, since the riders have four arms. But it’s an interesting, psychedelic take.

Elephant-like creature by Frank Frazetta

Illustration by Frank Frazetta

I don’t know if Frazetta intended this animal to be a mumakil either, but it’s huge, angry, four-tusked (and two-horned) and so could serve.

Mumakil by CG-Warrior on DeviantArt

Mumakil by CG-Warrior on DeviantArt

Mumakils in battle. They are huge, though not excessively so, and attack aggressively going by that poor horse. They combine both mammoth and deinotherium tusks and wear armor to protect their eyes and sensitive upper nostril region.They are not the speedy, marching beasts of Jackson’s version, but bulky, bellowing brawlers who are untroubled by all the arrows they’re collecting. In short, close to definitive for me.

Artwork by Piya Wannachaiwong [ oliphaunt ]

Artwork by Piya Wannachaiwong

Another battling mumakil, this one with six tusks, two of them bloodied, and spiked cuffs on its feet which are put to bloody use as well.  It is also a carnivore, going by their teeth. Is it sentient, serving its dark master willingly? The huge scarlet banner is a nice touch, as well as the details of the armor which is similar to that used by the Indian Mughals.

Illustration by Daniel Ljunggren [ oliphaunt ]

Illustration by Daniel Ljunggren

Now THIS is an oliphaunt! Not sure what happened to its trunk, though.

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