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I was wondering what the different ships of the different peoples look like, specifically Elves, Gondorians/Númenoreans, and Corsairs.

The elvish ships are often described to have swan-shaped prows:

...sailing proudly down the stream toward them, they saw a swan of great size. The water rippled on either side of the white breast beneath its curving neck. Its beak shone like burnished gold, and its eyes glinted like jet set in yellow stones; its huge white wings were half lifted. A music came down the river as it drew nearer; and suddenly they perceived that it was a ship, wrought and carved with elven-skill in the likeness of a bird. Two elves clad in white steered it with black paddles.

But this human ship (from Tolkien's lake-town picture) also has the swan-prow:

enter image description here

And here is another elven ship (from one of Tolkien's pictures):

enter image description here

Both are reminiscent of Viking ships, with elegant curves and decorated prows. The man-boat looks like a Viking long-boat, which fits the idea of northern men being Viking-like.

The problem is the Númenorean ships. It can be assumed that they learnt the art of ship-building from the Elves, but How much did the deviate? Did the Gondorian ships end up looking mediaeval? Alcarondas, Ar-Pharazôn's flagship is described as having 'many masts', and is also called 'Castle of the Sea' (Akallabêth), suggesting that Númenorean ships were heavily fortified.

The Gondorian ships and the ships of the Corsairs will have a similar design -- both originated from the Númenorean model. Sadly, I couldn't even find a good description of either -- the best being:

And looking thither they cried in dismay; for black against the glittering stream they beheld a fleet borne upon the wind: dromunds, and ships of great draught with many oars, and with black sails bellying in the breeze.

(RotK, 'The Battle of the Pelennor Fields)

I looked up 'dromund' and found that dromons are a type of galley, but Middle English dromund can be any very big mediaeval ship. Of course, 'ships of great draught' certainly doesn't describe Viking ships, so there remains the question: had late Númenorean ships evolved to be such? (possible, especially since 'Castle of the Seas' doesn't fit to Viking ships) Or were there Haradrim influences?

Can anyone find more text or pictures in which ships of Numenor, Gondor, or the Corsairs are mentioned?

EDIT: A galley might fit the description of Ar-Pharazôn's ship: Big, many oars, many masts, and fortified

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  • 1
    I can't answer this one, but my own mental image tends more towards an ancient world look (particularly for those of Gondor/Numenor), so I'd think Phoenician, Macdeonian, Roman, etc rather than medieval.
    – user8719
    Jan 19, 2014 at 15:09
  • @JimmyShelter Me too, for some reason. Can't explain why, though :( Also, Pauline Baynes (who worked very closely with Tolkien) depicts them more medieval...
    – MadTux
    Jan 19, 2014 at 15:10
  • Unfortunately I don't think this is going to be possible to answer; I'm not finding any descriptions of ships beyond those you've already noted in Tolkien's works.
    – user8719
    Jan 21, 2014 at 17:13
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    Why are you assuming the swan ship at Laketown is a human ship?
    – ibid
    Jul 16, 2021 at 6:26

3 Answers 3

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Well, first of all I think that ship design was also changing in time among different cultures in Middle-earth. For example it seems that even elves developed a bit their designs, the White Ship build by Círdan for transporting Ring-bearers appears to be more advanced than Viking-like:

Then Círdan led them to the Havens, and there was a white ship lying, and upon the quay beside a great grey horse stood a figure robed all in white awaiting them. As he turned and came towards them Frodo saw that Gandalf now wore openly upon his hand the Third Ring, Narya the Great, and the stone upon it was red as fire. Then those who were to go were glad, for they knew that Gandalf also would take ship with them.

Then Frodo kissed Merry and Pippin, and last of all Sam, and went aboard; and the sails were drawn up, and the wind blew, and slowly the ship slipped away down the long grey firth; and the light of the glass of Galadriel that Frodo bore glimmered and was lost. And the ship went out into the High Sea and passed on into the West, until at last on a night of rain Frodo smelled a sweet fragrance on the air and heard the sound of singing that came over the water.

Return of the King - Book VI, Ch 9, "The Grey Havens"

It seems there are multiple sails (and masts apparently). I myself have always pictured those Númenórean ships and later elven ones (post-Vingilot design which also appears to have more than one sail) as various types of so called "tall ships" (with Númenórean ones it brings in mind colonial empires and their treasure fleets, cause as we are told in writings, great riches were brought from continent and inhabitants of Númenór "build ever greater ships", also later fleets of Gondor also had large ships of great drought that filled the elven havens for war with Angmar). Also it appears that even before First Age, Teleri elves were skilled in making ships, as the unknown number of them (called "fairiest" sailing vessels) transported thousands of Ñoldorin warriors with their families and great store of goods, even horses, later the Fëanorian faction who took the ships was able to gift Fingolfin's host, who lost much horses in crossing of Helcaraxë, with many horses enough to form horsed troops of Hithlum when bred accordingly, most likely elven craftsmen took their tools, other possessions were taken even treasures from Aman, Finrod had many jewels, but those things wouldn't take much place aboard :), possibly elves took hunting hounds too, if example of Celegorm who went with his horse-huge Huan (as Lúthien was able to ride him) is anything to go by.

Also brief description of Alcarondas, Castle of the Sea many masted, brings in mind galleons or something alike (in History of Middle Earth texts in History of the Akallabêth there is mentioned that Ar-Pharazôn envisioned a Great Armament fleet that would surpass the one he brought to subdue Sauron like a "great galleon of Númenór surpasses a fisherman's boat" (The Peoples of Middle-earth - The History of Middle-earth Vol 12, Part 1, Ch 5, "The History of the Akallabêth") though it's difficult to say whether this text can be taken as canon. Corsairs of Umbar had those "fifty great ships" and "smaller vessels beyond count" and I thought that the dromunds were those smaller, and 50 great ones could be those ships of great drought but still no clue how they would look like. It's possible that each nation and culture would have it's own specific type of ship Haradrim would have their own (there are other havens in Harad and not all belong to Umbar), Gondorians would be one of the most advanced in regard to their Númenórean heritage, elves have Círdan stated to be the most skilled and inventive shipbuilder, so elven ships might come in many varieties depending on their purpose (it is speculative but he could have put some elven magic in them, as Tolkien stated in one of the letters ships going to Undying Lands were "specially made and hallowed" for such a journey).

The example of the Lothlórien boat is rather a simple river barge, Galadhrim had their own harbor and possibly sent scouts in boats to spy out the land or to transport troops for military operations (seen mostly in their campaign against Dol Guldur), Wood Elves of northern Mirkwood also used many boats and rafts for both civilian and military uses (and there were specialized raftsmen... err raft elves) like shipping goods up and down the river, they had their harbors and small river ports with villages of elves living by Forest River, Esgaroth and Dale had whole fleets of large boats, small ships and great barges to travel up and down the Celduin/River Running and Long Lake (so vast that standing on one shore you can barely see the other one as a thin line in narrower spot) and depending on size and exact course of waterways ships could be varying in look from simple Viking longboats with single mast (drakkars or knarrs) to more elaborated galleys with multiple masts and sails, two decked, maybe standard design for river traffic could be a cog (or maybe a bit like herring buss only going on river instead of the sea, galleys seems also a good possibility, with small draft galleys could travel up rivers). Overall though it's based mostly on speculation and we can't say much on the topic.

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  • Wow. I think I'll accept that, since there just doesn't seem to be any concrete evidence, and that is wonderful work.
    – MadTux
    Mar 10, 2014 at 18:39
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    Considering that the knarrs "were cargo ships averaging a length of about 54 feet (16 m), a beam of 15 feet (4.6 m), and a hull capable of carrying up to 122 tons", I feel you understate how advanced viking ships were. Otherwise an interesting answer.
    – eirikdaude
    Mar 27, 2015 at 21:12
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Tolkien has six known drawings depicting ships, which together show twelve different ships

Laketown (1936, Bodleian MS. Tolkien Drawings 23r)

Pencil, black ink

Probably the most well known is Laketown, as this appears as an illustration in many editions of The Hobbit, including the original 1937 edition. It is produced as a full two-page spread in Voyage en Terre du Milieu, and a digital copy can be seen on the Bodelian's website. Note that the colored version of this drawing which appears in some editions of The Hobbit, and which you have used in your question, was not created by Tolkien, but by H. E. Riddett, originally for The Hobbit Calendar 1976.

Four boats are visible in this drawing, a raft, two elvish swan ships (one in the background), and a small boat docked at the foot of the Laketown stairs. (I know that in your question you assumed these were all human ships, but I don't see why that need be true. The Mirkwood elves were active in the area.)

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ESGAROTH (1936, MS. Tolkien Drawings 22r)

Pencil, black ink

ESGAROTH, an earlier version of Tolkien's Laketown drawing, depicts three of the ships from the final version, though a faint erased pencil outline of a previous ship can also be seen above the swan ship.

enter image description here enter image description here enter image description here

Halls of Manwe on the Mountains of the World above Faerie (1928, Bodleian MS. Tolkien Drawings 89, fol. 13r)

Black ink, watercolor

Also known as "Taniquetil", this drawing has been used as a cover on several Tolkien books, including Artist and Illustrator, and some editions of The Silmarillion. It is also visible on the Bodelian's website. There are two elvish swan ships visible in this picture, though one of them is very small (about 5mm long) and easy to miss. (The version published in Tolkien Treasures includes a close up on the two ships.)

The swan ships are very similar to the ones in Laketown, and John Rateliff points out in The History of the Hobbit that this is likely because the Mirkwood elves were closely related to the elves of Alqualondë, both being of the Teleri (called "Sea-elves" in The Hobbit).

enter image description here enter image description here

I Vene Kemen (c.1916-20, Bodleian MS. Tolkien S 2/III, fol. 9r)

Pencil

I Vene Kemen, "Vessel of the Earth" is an early map Tolkien drew of his cosmology, depicted in the form of a ship. The original drawing has appeared several places, including as a two page spread in Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth, and a cleaner redrawn version by Christopher Tolkien was included in the first volume of The History of Middle-earth.

enter image description here enter image description here

Buckland Ferry (1938, MS. Tolkien Drawings 90, fol. 13r)

Pencil, colored pencil

While hard to make out, in Tolkien's Buckland Ferry (also known as "Brandywine Ferry") sketch, the ferry itself can be seen as a rectangle that Tolkien left blank on the page. This drawing has been reproduced in Artist and Illustrator, The Art of the Lord of the Rings, and the 2021 Tolkien-illustrated Lord of the Rings.

enter image description here

Trials for the dust jacket designs (1954, MS. Tolkien Drawings 90, fol. 26r)

Black ink

One of Tolkien's trial sketches for The Return of the King's dust-jacket shows a ship, which is presumably, according to Hammond and Scull, "the vessel in which Aragorn sailed up the Anduin to the relief of Minas Tirith". This drawing has only been published in The Art of the Lord of the Rings.

enter image description here

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From Return of the King, Battle of the Pelennor Fields:

For Anduin, from the bend at the Harlond, so flowed that from the City men could look down it lengthwise for some leagues, and the far-sighted could see any ships that approached. And looking thither they cried in dismay; for black against the glittering stream they beheld a fleet borne up on the wind: dromunds, and ships of great draught with many oars, and with black sails bellying in the breeze.

These are ships of the Corsairs, and a dromund (also, and more commonly, spelled "dromon" or "dromond") looks something like this (there are variations so this should be seen as one example only):

enter image description here

From Wikipedia:

A dromon (from Greek δρόμων, dromōn, "runner") was a type of galley and the most important warship of the Byzantine navy from the 5th to 12th centuries AD, when they were succeeded by Italian-style galleys. It was developed from the ancient liburnian, which was the mainstay of the Roman navy during the Empire.

Other ships are rowed ("ships of great draught with many oars") and can also be sailed ("with black sails bellying in the breeze") so they're not what we might consider the stereotypical late-medieval/early-renaissance sailing ship, which is sailed only, but instead probably have more in common with more ancient ships: biremes, triremes and galleys.

This is fully in keeping with Tolkien's descriptions elsewhere (for example in his Letters) of Gondor (remembering that the Corsairs are descended from Gondorian rebels during the Kin-strife) as "Byzantine".

It's notable too that these ships were primarily rowed up the Anduin, with the sails being for assistance rather than a primary means of propulsion; from Return of the King, The Last Debate:

The oars were now wielded by free men, and manfully they laboured; yet slowly we passed up the Great River, for we strove against its stream, and though that is not swift down in the South, we had no help of wind.

The Númenoreans are one of only two major sea-going cultures that we have any kind of description of, and this is primarily confined to those in Gondor and Umbar (the North kingdom was mostly land-locked). The Haradrim appear to have travelled to the War of the Ring over land, and the Easterlings of course also did so.

The other major sea-going culture we know about was the Teleri, and they appear to have primarily used oars as a means of propulsion too. From the Silmarillion (Of the Flight of the Noldor):

Then the Noldor drew away their white ships and manned their oars as best they might, and rowed them north along the coast.

And:

Now what ships and rowers will you spare to return, and whom shall they bear hither first? Fingon the valiant?

We also get a description of Vingilot (Silmarillion, Of the Voyage of Earendil...), and again Tolkien explicitly mentions that it's a rowed ship (which may also be sailed):

With the aid of Cirdan Earendil built Vingilot, the Foam-flower, fairest of the ships of song; golden were its oars and white its timbers, hewn in the birchwoods of Nimbrethil, and its sails were as the argent moon.

All of this conjures a more "ancient world" feel to Middle-earth's sea-going vessels, and it's to the vessels of the ancient world that we should look for real-world analogs.

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