On Oliphaunts

The Black Gate is Closed

The Oliphaunts of Harad (Source)

The Oliphaunts of Harad (Source)

The lore on the ancient elephant is as vast as the beast’s size and as long as the animal’s trunk. An elephant never forgets; an elephant never lies: they possess almost human-like virtue and exemplar value. Truisms about the elephant abound: the obvious truth of “an elephant in the room”; the expensive yet useless value of a “white elephant” gift; the hallowed and mysterious distant land of an “elephant’s graveyard.” The elephant – in both its African and Asian delineations – has come to be associated with communal and even religious characteristics. They are images that trample in and out of our cultural memory time and time again.

An oliphaunt, on the other hand, is both and neither this. Certainly the oliphaunt is an elephant, or at least a subsection of a larger (now extinct) species of mammoth or mastodon: the grey trunk and flappy big ears seem to give that much away. The Shire lore has preserved some of the common perspective of oliphaunts from the South, whether it be their ancient existence or the long-held notion that if one should lie upon the ground it could never raise itself back up.

Yet an oliphaunt is also not an elephant, and not solely because of its size. For an elephant is a known entity, while the oliphaunt is an unknown being. “Here be oliphaunts” should be written at the edges of the maps of Middle earth, for a dragon is a more common occurrence in the lands of Elves and Men than an oliphaunt. The oliphaunt embodies that which cannot be fully understood, that which lies beyond the boundaries of our knowledge and perception. Rumored legends and poetic lore travel with the red and gold men of the south. Though we have the capacity to know all things, there exists something always beyond the edges of the map of comprehension.

Even now that oliphaunts have entered into our days and times, still we cannot truly know them. For they have been masked by their submission: instead of terribly majestic beasts, they have become terribly bellicose tools. The “Men of the South” are the pre-industrial Saruman: they have broken something natural and good into a utilitarian mechanism, a grey and monstrous shadow of itself. In their subserviency to the Haradrim, the oliphaunt (mûmak in the Gondorian tongue) becomes a reminder of the nature of evil. As Sam will later muse when gazing upon a dead man from the southern lands:

“He wondered what the man’s name was and where he came from; and if he was really evil of heart, or what lies or threats had led him on the long march from his home; and if he would not really rather have stayed there in peace.”

Underneath the veneer of evil lies something created, and created good. If so for the oliphaunt, how much more so for the people who ride them to war?

So what can the lore of the oliphaunt say to we the Lenten pilgrims? The oliphaunt in the room – that there are things beyond human rationality and wisdom. A white oliphaunt – woe that our faith should become as such! And perhaps the existence of an oliphaunts’ graveyard, a place where we might lay down our evil masks and see the beauty of one another’s beings yet again. An oliphaunt is an elephant, and yet not so: a man is a fallen being, and yet hope remains.

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