In a comment here, Valorum states "Zero elephants. Several Oliphaunts". Which made me wonder: is there anything in Tolkien's writings to support the notion that Oliphaunts are not elephants?

The description we have is as follows:

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.
Lord of the Rings, Book IV, chapter 3 - The Black Gate is Closed

To me, that says "elephant".

There is also a description of the opliphaunts carrying "towers" on their back. That is reminiscent of depictions of Hannibal's war elephants, for example:

Crews of men pole and row large flat rafts across a river.  Each raft carries one elephant on a reinforced platform at its centre, and each elephant carries a box in which are standing a number of soldiers (War elephants depicted in Hannibal Barca crossing the Rhône (1878), by Henri Motte. Source: Wikipedia. Image in the public domain)

Is there anything to contradict the supposition that "Oliphaunts" is what the hobbits call elephants, plain and simple?

(Note I am emphatically not asking about the movie. Peter Jackson decided to make a bunch of changes because that fitted his artistic vision, that's his prerogative.)

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    (ahum) Hi there.
    – Oliphaunt
    Commented Jul 29, 2019 at 12:12
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    It's a different world. Why expect the animals to be the same? No hobbits on our Terra. or elves, or dwarves, ... Commented Jul 29, 2019 at 15:25
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    @CarlWitthoft Actually, it's supposed to be the same world (LOTR takes place in our past). Hobbits are supposedly still around here and there, but the remaining ones keep themselves hidden.
    – JAB
    Commented Jul 29, 2019 at 16:29
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    @CarlWitthoft It's meant as a mythical history, at least from an out-of-universe perspective, though he did admit that interpretation wasn't exactly planned from the start. scifi.stackexchange.com/questions/22034/…
    – JAB
    Commented Jul 29, 2019 at 20:48
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    @Oliphaunt I just scrolled all the way to the bottom to see if there was an answer from you, just to upvote that.
    – Cullub
    Commented Jul 29, 2019 at 20:59

5 Answers 5


The term "oliphaunt" is not native to Tolkien. It is, in fact, the Middle English version (variations are Old French olifant and olyphaunt) used to describe the animal as well as ivory, and is a direct etymological ancestor of today's "elephant." Tolkien was, ahem, something of an English language nerd, so using archaic terms appealed to him quite a bit.

In other words, whether or not Tolkien enhanced or altered the Middle-earth's Oliphaunt somehow, he most certainly had actual elephants in mind.

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    @Valorum There is a difference between an animal that isn't a normal elephant and an animal that isn't and elephant. An orange elephant would not be normal, yet very much an elephant.
    – Misha R
    Commented Jul 28, 2019 at 21:42
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    @Valorum Sure, in the same way as Numenoreans are greater than today's men - but are very much men. I think some leeway is acceptable in the fantasy / mythology genre. Shadowfax is greater than most horses, yet still a horse. Laurelin and Telperion are not normal trees, yet they are trees.
    – Misha R
    Commented Jul 28, 2019 at 21:45
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    "an English language nerd" - that is pretty much a description of his day job (Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon and then Merton Professor of English Language and Literature). Commented Jul 29, 2019 at 9:41
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    @Xerxes If something is more elephanty than an elephant, it's an elephant.
    – Misha R
    Commented Jul 29, 2019 at 15:33
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    I'm pretty sure half the people here are dead serious, and the other half are messing with everyone else
    – Cullub
    Commented Jul 29, 2019 at 21:02

Tolkien explicitly states (in Chapter 4 - OF HERBS AND STEWED RABBIT) they're much bigger than our latter-day elephants.

Sam saw a vast shape crash out of the trees and come careering down the slope. Big as a house, much bigger than a house, it looked to him, a grey-clad moving hill. Fear and wonder, maybe, enlarged him in the hobbit’s eyes, but the Mûmak of Harad was indeed a beast of vast bulk, and the like of him does not walk now in Middle-earth; his kin that live still in latter days are but memories of his girth and majesty.

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    So, maybe it's just a giant elephant? Ungoliant was much further from a spider than the Oliphaunt is from real elephants, but she still gets called a spider.
    – Adamant
    Commented Jul 28, 2019 at 20:01
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    "Big as a house, much bigger than a house, ~it looked to him~" Remember, hobbits are small... Commented Jul 28, 2019 at 20:54
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    @JohnDvorak - The commentary at the end of the paragraph is Tolkien's, not Sam's
    – Valorum
    Commented Jul 28, 2019 at 20:56
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    @Valorum but the narrative was written by Frodo, in universe.
    – Darren
    Commented Jul 28, 2019 at 21:22
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    @Darren - In-universe, the novel is Tolkien's translation (with additional commentary) of a set of books written by Bilbo and Frodo with help from Sam.
    – Valorum
    Commented Jul 28, 2019 at 21:40

Elephants have historically come in a wide range of types and sizes, from the pygmy European elephants of Sardinia and Cyprus, all the way up to the gargantuan Asian straight tusked. There are other elephant-like animals that, had they not gone extinct, would probably also be called "elephants" (e.g. mammoths).

The Asian straight tusked, perhaps around 15 foot tall at the shoulder, would make for a suitable primary world model for the mumak. And for all that, it's still an oliphaunt.

Scale picture showing a human silhouette alongside an African bush elephant at slightly less than 4m tall compared to a Palaeoloxodo namadicus which reaches 5m

Not big enough for Peter Jackson, but certainly more than large enough for any Hobbit, who probably would just about come up to the creature's ankle! As has been quoted, Tolkien says "his kin that live still in latter days are but memories of his girth and majesty." However, he is not saying that mumakil are not elephants. He is clearly relating elephants to mumakil and noting that later beasts are smaller in size.

He undoubtedly chose the spelling "oliphaunt" very carefully, as he chose every other deliberate archaism he used. I'd argue that his meaning was clear: mumakil are indeed elephants, but a larger kindred than those that live today. On this point, Christopher Tolkien relates that his father made a note re the Mannish languages other than Adûnaic:

"Of the speech of Men of the East and allies of Sauron all that appears is múmak, a name of the great elephant of the Harad."

(The Peoples of Middle-Earth, p79)

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    It's also quite possible that the Easterners (perhaps with the help of Sauron's genetic engineering labs) had bred the mumak for size, in the same way that we have bred draft horses (and indeed, almost all domestic horses, to some degree) to be considerably larger than their wild progenators.
    – jamesqf
    Commented Jul 29, 2019 at 4:34
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    @M.A.Golding -- Scientific nomenclature is a whole nother kettle of fish. What's obvious is that Tolkien himself says the múmak is in fact an elephant.
    – elemtilas
    Commented Jul 29, 2019 at 18:17
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    The Tolkien quote seems almost an afterthought; I think it would be better to emphasize it, perhaps even by citing it at the beginning of the answer. Commented Jul 30, 2019 at 19:35
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    @elemtilas : If only the mumak had stepped on him before he committed his acts of desecration...
    – jamesqf
    Commented Jul 31, 2019 at 4:54
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    I would agree with @KyleStrand - emphasizing the Tolkien quote (where he explicitly calls the Mumak a "great elephant") would make sense. The rest of the answer is great, but it's easy to miss the quote which IMO is the "real" answer.
    – MPF
    Commented Jul 31, 2019 at 6:35

I would answer no, a Mûmak is not an elephant. Instead, a Mûmak should be considered a member of the order Probosicdea, an order that includes elephants and many species of extinct animals similar to elpephants.

The order of Proboscidea has many families and groups.

Note that modern elephants belong to the genus Elephas and genus Loxodonta, and they are very closely related, both part of the Elephantinae, while many other types of Proboscideans, including some that became extinct within the last 13,000 years, were more distantly related.

It is certain that no known species of living or extinct proboscideans has "elephant" as part of its scientific name. The word "elephant" in common usage certainly refers to members of the three modern species with the scientific names of Elephas maximus, Loxondonta africana, and Lodondonta cyclotis. It is not certain whether it refers to members of dozens of extinct species of proboscideans. Since the Mûmak is larger than any present species of proboscideans, it is uncertain whether Mûmakil are included among elephants in common usage.

Describing Mûmakil as proboscideans would definitely be accurate, since they are obviously members of the order Proboscidea, but are not so obviously included in the usual meaning of the word "elephant".

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    I think applying cladistics to a creature from the Tolkien legendarium is misplaced. The works describe a mythical precursor world to Earth in which the usual sciences did not apply. Commented Jul 29, 2019 at 17:44
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    @called2voyage I agree, though I think it adds something to a wholistic understanding of the question to consider that angle.
    – mtraceur
    Commented Jul 29, 2019 at 20:10
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    @user23715 I would argue that "lumping" would tend to say that it is an elephant, which this answer argues is not so obvious. That's beside my point though which is that cladistics doesn't apply. Either we erroneously apply the modern perspective, which would also mean the "Men" in Lord of the Rings are not really men, or we use the Tolkien mythical perspective which is that mumakil are elephants and any differences from modern elephants could be due to the fact that there have been changes in the world as it became less magical. Commented Jul 30, 2019 at 20:22
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    @called2voyage -- The Christopher Tolkien quote at the end of elemtilas' answer rather makes the point; "Of the speech of Men of the East and allies of Sauron all that appears is múmak, a name of the great elephant of the Harad." -- However, that may not be the question the OP is asking. It seems clear to me, from the phrasing and in fact of needing to ask the question at all, that the OP is taking a "modernist" perspective in framing the query. -- Hence this answer by M.A. Golding is entirely adequate.
    – user23715
    Commented Jul 30, 2019 at 20:29
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    I see this sometimes in Tolkien discussions - arguing from genetics. His approach to the development of animals and people, however, is based on mythology, not biology. This plays into the common trait of various cultures' mythologies, in which ancient creatures and people were greater, but not different in kind ("kind," rather than "species," being a biblical / mythological concept). Looking at his world through genetics opens up a great deal of inconsistency; plus, biology was far from Tolkien's field. Through the lens of mythology, however, his world is far more consistent.
    – Misha R
    Commented Jul 31, 2019 at 16:22

To directly answer the titular question, in The Lord of the Rings Tolkien does not say that Oliphaunts aren't Elephants.

Speculatively, any distinction we might draw between the two would have to be a fine one.

No, in The Lord of the Rings Tolkien does not say that.

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